Friday, May 22, 2015: We left the hotel at 8am – quite sad to leave its rich environs and feelings of sleek superiority – and took a cab to the airport, getting stuck in a bit of traffic on the way. Overall the flight was on time, short and uneventful, and I read a bit of A Memory of Light, the last book in the Wheel of Time, having finished Towers of Midnight in Sydney. We landed around 11am and were met by my cousin K. in the luggage area! It’s been, what, almost 20 years since I saw him last? We chatted a bit but mostly we were focused on getting our luggage. When we finally got it he took us outside to the car where D. was waiting. D.! My grandma’s sister’s daughter! Note that they both highly value their privacy so at their request I will not post photos of them or use their full names. Now that I’m not a child anymore I got to understand more of who D. and K. are over the following two days. Both in their 70s, they live a comfortable upper middle class life in a century-old house in Burwood, a suburb of Melbourne. D. has two children – the father is not K. – and she has been with K. for around 30 years now (I’m not sure if they’re married though). She is outgoing and opinionated, gives off an air of not being able to read a room but actually can, catches onto our jokes fast, a bad driver, helpful to everyone she meets (the next day she struck up a conversation with an old woman from Sydney who had trouble walking and gave her the number of people she knew there who could help her with a landlord situation), and unabashedly vegetarian, liberal and feminist. K. – born in Malaysia, left to avoid government persecution of his outspoken views, went to college in India but was expelled for protesting plagiarism, then came to Australia – is something of an old-guard radical. We discussed Australian, American and world politics every place we went, he gave money to every homeless person he saw, and we once passed a group of seemingly low-income men sitting outside and he pointed to them and said “Put these men in Parliament and all our problems will be solved.” He would make small, subtle jabs disguised as jokes, or perhaps vice versa, and would lie about things constantly in order to gauge our reaction (perhaps those were also jokes). For example, his right hand is missing most of his fingers; he wouldn’t give us a straight answer on what happened, smiling the whole time, until D. told us it was a lawn accident (some sort of wood chipper or something) 20 years ago. They were strange, almost difficult people to be around, and yet they were warm, funny, fascinating – and family. It was a fun two days. So when they picked us up they brought us to a Middle Eastern area in the northern suburb of Brunswick where we had lunch at a place called Alasya Turkish Restaurant and we caught up on our lives before quickly moving to politics and economics. Tasty doner kebab! After that they drove us to St. Kilda where we got cake & coffee at one of the many Jewish bakeries in the area, and then we walked along the beach there for an hour or so as it grew dark. When we returned to the car they drove us to their home in Burwood where we finally got to meet their attention-hungry, sad-eyed dog Benn (originally named Ben when they adopted him, then changed to Benn after British Prime Minister Tony Benn). We sat around the beautiful dinner table – custom-made with 2000 year old trees from Tasmania – talking about this, that and everything before having a delicious dinner around 9pm of homemade curry and paratha. K. then retired to work on a talk about co-ops he was giving the next day at a university, so D., Amanda and I hung out in the living room talking and watching Eurovision – it’s the first time Australia’s been in the contest! Although they didn’t play that night. We went to bed in their guest room around 10:30 or 11pm and had a very cold, but restful, night.
Jewish cake shop
Walking the beach
Saturday, May 23, 2015: K. was gone this day to give his talk so we said our goodbyes the night before. We woke up on Saturday around 8am and had a leisurely morning of showers and pancakes and eggs for breakfast before loading up the car with our luggage and heading out with D. into the beautiful, 65 degree sunny day. She drove us east to Mt. Dandenong and took us first to the mysterious, ethereal William Ricketts Sanctuary, a small park of sorts near the top of the mountain where in the 1940s and 1950s a man – one William Ricketts – carved all sorts of sculptures and fitted them into the stones to make them look part of the mountain. These were everywhere and were hauntingly beautiful, many of them of aboriginal people and a very distinct Mother Earth feel. We wandered through the forested mountainside park together at first, and then we all ended up separating, taking our time in the maze of paths as sunlight fell through the trees onto the sculptures. It was stunning.
When we left around noon D. drove us around the mountain a bit, taking us to a national park down the road that had a lot of parrots near the entrance. We picked some popcorn off the ground that they were eating and held it up and they would jump on your hand to eat it. Parrots! Green, red, brightly colored parrots. Not to mention being surrounded by the ridiculously tall ash trees, it was quite a sight. From there we left Mt. Dandenong and drove south to Rickett’s Point Beachside Café in Beaumaris, but our hour journey turned into a two hour journey because D. kept getting lost. Regardless, we made it with some time left over to spend with D.’s 49 year old daughter C. and her two children L. and (I can’t remember his name! The other son, H., wasn’t there, but the quirky blonde kid that was I can’t remember! I think his name was T.) let’s say T. We talked with C. about travel, work, personal lives, Chicago, Melbourne and Europe, and watched her kids collect seashells and do somersaults on the beach. It’s really quite interesting to meet distant family, and as D. put it now that we’ve met we’ve forged a new connection that will last the rest of our lives, since we’re family.
When we left C. and the café D. drove us to our hotel in Melbourne where we’d spent that night and the next one, the Radisson on Flagstaff Gardens. She got a bit lost and I had to use my GPS to help her get there, but we made it around 5:30pm and said our final goodbyes to D. I do really miss her and K. and Amanda and I plan to write a letter to send them soon, which we’ll mail with some photos of our time there (she didn’t want any posted on Facebook or anything). We checked in and refreshed ourselves for 30 minutes or so but eventually had to make our way through the Korean area of the city to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building where The Great Australasian Beer SpecTapular (GABS) was occurring! It’s Australia’s largest craft beer festival and just happened to be going on the same weekend we were in Melbourne so of course I bought tickets. As Amanda and I mused 4 hours later, it ended up being the best craft beer festival we had ever been to. The building was gorgeous, it was decorated classily (lots of Christmas lights and red Chinese lanterns), there was a lot of room, the beer was plentiful, well-organized and tasty (they had around 60 beers brewed by Australian & NZ breweries just for the event as well, another perk of attending) and the people, while getting progressively drunker, remained a lot nicer and a lot less bro-ish than their American counterparts. I made sure to continually drink water as well, so I didn’t get too drunk (not even regular drunk until near the end) and remained lucid the whole night. Importantly, I got to dive into the Australian and New Zealand craft beer scene in a way I hadn’t been able to before this and try a variety of styles, breweries and rare beers. They have an enormous craft beer scene down there that only makes its way to the U.S. in a gasping trickle (Japanese craft beers are better represented in America than Australian or New Zealand!). With too many to try I focused my time on sour beers, and I have to admit that four hours of acidic sour beers did a number on my stomach. Secondarily I focused on high ABV styles – a couple barleywines, a couple barrel-aged stouts and some unique style blends. Those were near the end of the night and that’s when I started to get drunk. As the festival wound down we finished our last ticket and began our walk back to the hotel, stopping at a Korean liquor store along the way to pick up soju for Amanda and chatting in Spanish with some rowdy Columbian kids. When we returned to the hotel we put on some FOTC and I fell asleep pretty quickly while Amanda stayed up a bit longer.
The beautiful building
Sunday, May 24, 2015: This was our last day in Melbourne and our last full day in Australia. We woke up around 9am and I was, honestly, somewhat hung over the entire day, with the feeling only dulling near the end of the day. To rejuvenate ourselves from the night before we walked a couple blocks north to the enormous Queen Victoria market where I got some “American-style” donuts and a Cypriot sausage called sheftalia for breakfast (Amanda got a chorizo omelet from the Spanish food stand). I could’ve spent all day at the market though – they had a farmers market-style vegetable area, a huge indoor meat market, plenty more food stands from around the world (I saw two more donut places!), and an almost Chinese-style vendor market filled with normal items (shoes, bags, pet food, antiques, everything) and souvenirs. I had no real plan for the day except to make our way down to Flinders Street Station, the symbol of Melbourne, so we leisurely strolled through the stalls before leaving. We walked south to the downtown area and eventually ended up on Elizabeth Street, the main pedestrian corridor filled with shops, restaurants, buskers and people, people everywhere. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect of Melbourne, but by the end of our three days there (and particularly our last day in the city proper) I could tell it was a vibrant, cosmopolitan, laidback and truly comfortable city, a pleasure to be in. I know a lot of people prefer Melbourne to Sydney and I could see why.
After walking down the street a bit Amanda wanted to check out clothes at Uniqlo and H&M, so I left her for an hour promising to meet up in front of Uniqlo at 1:00. I walked around the area, checking out other pedestrian areas, a couple malls, and Chinatown, before meeting back up with Amanda. We continued south along Elizabeth Street until we arrived at Flinders Street Station and quirky Federation Square. We didn’t go in the station, just taking photos of the famous outside, but did wander around the square, seeing some performances and political protests, watching kids chase birds and eventually going into the ACMI (Australian Center for the Moving Image), a large, free and fascinating museum. We spent around 2 hours there in their large, interactive exhibit that traced the history of the moving image (you could watch old movies in Edison-style viewers, you could choose old Australian TV shows and commercials to watch [“Skippy the Bush Kangaroo”!], you could even play video games) and then had individual exhibits on things as diverse as Australian accents, the future of cinema, digital shadow puppets, “Mad Max” and Australian actors, filmmakers, writers and documentarians. It was one of the best museums I’ve been to, honestly – they should all be so interactive. We walked back to our hotel after that, stopping for hot dogs and fries along the way (a “Melbourne-style” hot dog has shredded mozzarella cheese, onions, ketchup and mustard – when I asked the girl at the counter if a Melbourne-style hot dog was an actual thing she said it wasn’t but that Melburnians did like to eat sausages with onions and shredded cheese) and getting back to our hotel around 4:30pm.
Flinders Street Station
Macca’s, not Mackies
Amanda made plans to talk with her sister Nichole on Skype for an hour since they’re finally around the same time zone (she lives in Japan), so from 5-6 she did that while I made plans for dinner and the rest of the night. When she hung up we left to get dinner at, perhaps ironically, an American restaurant called Nieuw Amsterdam. I say American in the sense that it is an ethnic food in Australia much like Chinese, Indian or Mexican would be, not in the sense that it’s owned by Americans or an American company. Particularly in Melbourne, from what I’ve read, contemporary American restaurants have become popular recently. They had a lot of takes on classic cocktails, particularly the Negroni, and Amanda ordered a sour gin cocktail while I got a pear cider. For dinner I got lamb ribs with a spicy BBQ sauce and roasted “capsicum” (what they call red bell peppers) while Amanda got yam gnocchi with goat cheese – all of it fantastic. The waiters were very friendly as well, and we chatted a bit about Chicago and our time in Melbourne. When we left we were happy but also tired, sore, hung over and just done – not from the restaurant, but from the day, the weekend, and the trip in general. So we returned to the hotel, packed, watched an hour of the “Return of the King” Rifftrax, and then went to bed.
Last meal – donuts, of course
Monday, May 25, 2015: Memorial Day! After the singularly dreadful set of flights that was our trip to Australia & New Zealand from the U.S. I was certainly anxious for our three flights, 30+ hour day to get home, and I wasn’t let down. Our first flight, 14 hours from Melbourne to L.A., left at 9:50am, and of course we took advantage of our lounge pass for the umpteenth time to get breakfast at the Melbourne Airport lounge first. This flight was much more packed than the one from L.A. to Sydney and we had to sit in a full row of three, with me in the middle about 2/3 of the time and in the window seat the other 1/3, Amanda the opposite of course. I read quite a bit of A Memory of Light and ended up watching four movies: Unforgiven, Brave, The Departed and Big Hero 6. When we finally arrived in L.A. that old familiar combination of thickheadedness, mild nausea, gassiness and fatigue kicked in, but of course it was 7am there (nearly midnight for our bodies) and we had a 4 hour layover. Our next flight was to Indianapolis, then from there to Chicago, which was stupid, so we made several attempts to get a straight L.A.-Chicago flight with no luck. Finally we touched down in Chicago at 8:45pm Central Time. Home! A very sick (from allergies) Dad picked us up and took us to Grandma’s house so we could grab our dog and car. I almost forgot what Archer looked like! We finally made it home around 10:15pm or so. And my last worry, the same as every trip – that we were robbed while we were out – didn’t come true, the same as every trip. We spent that night, then, unpacking and resting in front of the TV before having a long-but-not-long-enough night of sleep. Finally home.