When I told my friends in Melbourne that I’d be arriving there in late February, a common reaction was that it’s a shame that I’d be missing most of the summer. Summer is when stuff happens, I was told, when the weather’s good and there’s a lot going on. I joked that I probably couldn’t handle Australian summer, and that the temperature of winter down under would probably about the same as the average English summer. And I wasn’t much wrong.
Autumn in Melbourne is like a movie version of autumn; autumn as it should be, without the sludgy leaf mulch and wind of autumn at home. When they were building cities like Melbourne, the British transplanted hundreds of oak, ash and other European trees, so the foliage is familiar, but it’s drier and warmer so the leaves turn a more intense colour and the leaves stay crunchy when they fall. It rains sometimes, and it is a bit breezy, but the norm at this time of year is crisp, fresh air, bright, clear skies, and temperatures staying in double digits.
Melbourne in general is a bit like being in a film. London lite; less frenetic, less sprawling. My walk to work takes me through city gardens modeled on Hyde Park, along the Yarra River and across Sandridge Bridge, and I barely ever get stuck in crowds or behind slow people dragging their feet. Trying to walk somewhere briskly at rush hour in London makes me want to elbow people out of the way, and makes me feel stressed even if I’m not running late; in Melbourne it’s quite relaxing. I’m not saying it’s a utopia – public transport is usually delayed, some parts are spectacularly ugly, property prices are high and rising – but it does have the feel of a city that knows how to enjoy life.
There’s a bewildering amount going on in Melbourne, even in the cooler months; food festivals, music and theatre, museums and culture, film festivals, nightlife. And sport, in a big way. Think about this statistic for a second; the Australian Football League – that’s Aussie rules rather than soccer – attracts the fourth biggest spectatorship of any league in the world. Of all the internationally popular sports, all the major games in the world, a sport which is only played in, and barely known outside of, a country of 23 million people, is only beaten in in-person viewing numbers by three other sports. Consider also that game is only really popular in the southern part of the country (Queensland and New South Wales are all about rugby), and that half of the eighteen teams in the AFL are based in Melbourne. Conclusion: people in Melbourne are really into their footy. I experienced this in May when I went to the Melbourne Cricket Ground to see the Sydney Swans play the Hawthorn Hawks, after some enthusiastic tutoring from my work colleagues. It’s essentially like an anarchic version of rugby without the scrums, and you can more or less do whatever you want. As if to highlight a chaotic feel of it, when the ball goes out of bounds, instead of being given to the opposing team the linesman chucks it back into play backwards over his head. It all makes for a fast paced game without much stop-starting and lots and lots of running, which makes it easy to get into. Added to the fact that the crowd was much more diverse in all senses (age, gender, ethnicity) than a football game in the UK, it all made for a very enjoyable time.
What I like so much about all of this, is that Melbourne is essentially an inward-looking city. It doesn’t get the international attention that Sydney does, and so you get the feeling that, rather than being designed to bring visitors into the city, all of these events and festivals are there for the benefit of Melbournians themselves. If other people want to come and enjoy it then great, they’re very welcome, but there is enough of an audience in the city and its suburbs to sustain an endless array of culture and entertainment regardless. It’s a kind of quiet self-confidence, a humble satisfaction, and a real willingness to enjoy life, that makes Melbourne an excellent city to live in.
But, my work contract is ending, the temperatures are dropping and it’s all beginning to feel a bit much like real life for my liking. Melbourne has become home, to a certain degree, and I’ve become lazy; I’ve stopped exploring and trying new things.
Perfect timing then for a new trip, to see what else Australia has to offer. Time for some trains.