Wednesday, September 15, 2010

This city's on fire!

Speaking of love at first sight, it struck me for the first time in eons as my coach -- which, apparently, is what Aussies prefer to call their buses -- pulled up into Melbourne's Southern Cross station. I had been told that Melbourne is flatter and more European than Sydney, but I wasn't expecting it to remind me so much of the area around Port Authority Bus Terminal or Grand Central Station in New York City, which is sort of what central Melbourne looks like, only on a smaller scale, with shorter buildings, and with far fewer people over-crowding the sidewalks. It even has its own Chinatown, a Prince Street, and a big, Broadway-style theater where the musical Mary Poppins is being staged. (I had no idea, by the way, that there would be so many Asians and so few black people living in Australia's major coastal cities.)

I wasn't expecting Melbourne to be so distinct from Sydney, which was plummeting a bit farther in my estimation with each passing minute. Marcus, the friend of a Buenos Aires-based Australian friend whom I met in BA a couple of months ago when he was on vacation there, made the perfect analogy when I met up with him the following day. He said Sydney is Los Angeles to Melbourne's New York City. Four days into my time in Melbourne, I would have said it's more like a mix of NYC and San Francisco (thanks to the strong artsy/bohemian factor), but Marcus was close enough. No wonder I kept thinking that my week in Sydney would have been perfect had it been four days shorter. As much as I like L.A., I never could bear more than a few days at a time there.

In a nutshell, Sydney is pop -- a beautiful package with not a whole lot going on under the sunny, spotless surface. Melbourne is rock & roll -- a city for artists and the people who love them.

My first night, on the recommendation of Ricky, the Australian friend who had introduced me to Marcus, I went to a bar called the Peel Hotel, which Ricky described as being sort of like Ambar in BA. That was good enough for me. In the end, it wasn't exactly Ambar -- where'd you'd probably never hear a dance remix of Barry Manilow's "Copacabana" -- but I wasn't disappointed. The guys were cuter than they'd been on Oxford Street in Sydney, and there was a contagious energy that had been lacking in all the other drinking holes I'd checked out up to then.

The most Ambar-like thing about the joint were the girls. I felt a pang of nostalgia for Ambar's foyer every time one of them asked, "Do you like boys?" "I predict that you will meet a really hot guy tonight," one of the girls, who lingered long after I let her down easy by telling her that I'm not into women, said to me. Why? "Because all gay guys are hot. So how can you not meet a hot guy? Can I ask you something? Why are all gay guys hot? All. Gay. Guys. Are. Hot." I'm not sure what planet she was on where all gay guys are eye candy, but who was I to ruin her fun? After a few minutes on this tangent, she was gone. Later on, I saw her again with the "hot" friend she had wanted me to meet. Thankfully, I had declined her invitation to an introduction, figuring that her taste in men might be kind of shot. Miss T, another female suitor, was far better at playing matchmaker. She introduced me to Josh, who wasn't exactly hot, but cute enough to grab my semi-undivided attention for the rest of the night.

Over the next day and a half, Marcus took me on what must have been the best tour of Melbourne ever. It was a sightseeing excursion that was decidedly non-touristy because we made it to spots that most tourists -- and likely most locals -- probably never discover. Marcus lives in the countryside, minutes outside of town, so we took in quite a bit of nature around his home turf. We even fed possums after midnight and had breakfast at a working farm on Sunday. When he offered to put me up should I decide to spend more time in Melbourne, I gasped inside. Could all Australians possibly be so nice and welcoming? Or are they just really into selling their city, which is unfairly overshadowed by Sydney? I'm still not sure. Marcus is definitely the real deal, but today while having lunch in a restaurant on Hardware Lane with several waiters fawning over me, I was certain that it must have been some kind of inside joke.

None of my weekend activity, however, prepared me for Monday night with Annie, whom I was introduced to by Paula, a woman in the U.S. for whom I'd written an online article on celebrities an Twitter right after my arrival in Melbourne as a favor to a former colleague. I'm glad I took the assignment. "By the way, I don't know him," Annie told me Paula had told her before she and her friends Devarni and Leila met up with me. I've got to hand it to Annie, because that would have stopped me dead in my tracks. Only a few days ago, I'd told my friend Andy back in Sydney that I probably wouldn't be contacting any of the friends of friends who live in Australia. Though most people, Andy included, don't really buy it, I'm incredibly shy. I put on a good act because as a journalist part of the job is having extended conversations with strangers. But in truth, I'm terrified every time I have to talk to someone I don't know.

I wasn't planning on going there in Melbourne, but I'm glad I stood up to my fears. (It helps when your friends copy their local friends on the emails in which they suggest that you hook up.) Doing so has improved my Melbourne experience exponentially.

Even if Annie, Devarni, Leila and I hadn't gone to the Prince of Wales (see top photo above) after downing three bottles of red wine at Barney & Allen, and had what must have been the best Monday night in a gay bar ever, Devarni's revelation about an object of her attraction midway through the second bottle of wine would have been worth the price of admission: "I loved him so much I fucked his brother!"

The day and a half since has been filled with thrill after thrill -- a guy called Matt! A new hotel room overlooking Flagstaff Garden! Cookie! The cutest waiter ever (see bottom photo above)! -- but that line will go down in history as the moment I knew that what I'd found with Melbourne was true blue love.

May it last until the end of time.
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