Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Four reasons why I prefer Melbourne to Sydney

The average tourist doesn't know what he/she is missing. When visitors come from the U.S.A. to Australia, they generally pounce on Sydney, spreading so much hype about Oz's unofficial epicenter. When I told people I was planning a month-long adventure down under, with an emphasis on Sydney, those who'd been to the city told me I'd fall fast and furiously in love so overpowering that I'd want to stay for longer than a month, if not forever.

But what do they know? I've never been quite in sync with popular opinion when it comes to cities. Paris, arguably the most overrated city on the planet, bores me. I prefer Madrid to Barcelona, Sao Paulo to Rio, Munich to Berlin. And how I despise Florence! Once again, I'm challenging popular opinion by declaring Melbourne the far superior Australian metropolis, so much so that four days in it was not enough. Neither were two weeks. When I depart on October 13, I will have spent a total of five weeks falling deeper and deeper for its charms.

The weather can be capricious, and it's been more often cloudy and/or rainy than sunny, but London is my favorite city in the world, so clearly sunshine is not my priority.

My friend Lori, via her colorist, just made the perfect comparison of the two not-so-twin cities: "I talked to Bryan my colorist about it on Saturday, and he says Sydney is the lifestyle (i.e. beach, chill-out) city; think Orange County, Calif. Explains why you don't love it. Meanwhile, he says Melbourne is very European -- which explains why you love it."

Here are four more reasons.

Melbourne's got soul.
Consider "Ain't That a Shame," a 1955 hit co-written by Fats Domino and later turned into a No. 1 pop single by Pat Boone, who, laughably, wanted to retitle it "Isn't That a Shame" in order to appeal to a larger (i.e. Caucasian) audience. Wouldn't that have been the shame? Boone's version is white, clean and neat, so perfect for mainstream consumption that at the time of its release, it overshadowed Domino's version on the charts. It's Sydney. Domino's rendition is darker and grittier. It may not be as pretty on the outside, but there are far more layers underneath. It's the version people with good taste in music think of when they think of the song today. That's Melbourne. It may not grab you as immediately as Sydney (though it did me), but it leaves more of a trace.

Melbourne boys are hotter.
When Marcus compared Sydney's Los Angeles to Melbourne's New York City, he was talking about the overall feel of the two cities, and he nailed it. But that comparison would also apply to the guys in both cities. The boys of summer in Sydney are bronzed, polished, styled to within an inch of their work- and image-obsessed lives. They're a dime a dozen, and with one tall, blond exception, I honestly can't recall a single one I saw the entire seven days I was there. That's so L.A. There's definitely the overly bronzed, overly polished, overly styled element to the Melbourne boy scene, but for someone like me, who likes his lovers artsier, messier, with a bit more rock & roll, Melbourne delivers. Just like NewYork City.

Melbourne looks cooler.
Take away the Opera House, which is far more spectacular in photos than in reality, and the harbours, and Sydney is like any other city. Well, actually, like five or six other cities. It becomes wholly generic. Melbourne doesn't have that one landmark to reel visitors in, but look around. There's beauty everywhere -- in all the glass facades and glass balconies, in the various light displays that break the night with color, in the undulating terrain, which makes it challenging for runners but won't leave pedestrians as breathless as Sydney's frustratingly steep inclines. Melbourne is that stunningly beautiful girl who's still stunningly beautiful without a stitch of make up and nary a nip nor a tuck.

Kylie Minogue
Yes, the lady is from Melbourne. Could it get any better than that? And to quote la Kylie on Aphrodite's closing track, can't beat the feeling of strolling through St. Kilda (my adopted neighborhood), or Fitzroy, or down Chapel Street, or Hardware Lane. At least not with anything in Sydney. So why bother trying?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Five things I love about Australians

When people ask me why I moved to Buenos Aires, I always tell them, "Not because of the people." I adore my Argentine friends, but I have a classic love/hate relationship with most of Argentina's native population. For the most part (get ready for a swooping generalization!), I find them beautiful, fascinating and endlessly frustrating. No, I didn't move to BA because of them. I moved there in spite of them.

In contrast, my love of Melbourne has everything to do with the people. I love the city's quirky architecture, the way the street lamps hit the buildings at night, creating city-wide masterworks of shadows and light. I love all of the wonderful Asian food, riding the tram, watching the possums come out of their hiding places when night falls in Flagstaff Garden. But most of all, I love the people.

Let me count the ways.

1. They're friendly. In my three weeks in Australia, I have yet to meet a single asshole. Yes, some Aussies are nicer than others, but for the most part, they've made me feel quite welcome in their country. In Melbourne, in particular, I love that when you wander out alone, you're never alone for long. Going to a bar is like going to a house party. When you walk in, you might not know a single person there. By the end of the night, everyone knows your name, and if you've had one too many Pure Blondes, you've forgotten all of theirs.

2. I don't have to kiss them on the cheek. Most of my fellow expatriates love the Argentine custom of kissing everyone on the cheek when meeting or greeting them. Personally, I'd rather not. I've never been much of a kiss-kiss kind of guy. Why get up in someone's personal space when I can keep a respectable distance? At least in Australia, I don't have to worry about offending anyone when I greet them my old-fashioned way: with a firm handshake. And when I'm ready to take my leave, I can do so with "bye" and a wave and not have to kiss everyone in sight (unless I want to).

3. They've got interesting, unpredictable taste in music. The other night, I spent one hour in a club before the 18 year old hitting on me made me too uncomfortable to stay a moment longer. The DJ played three Katy Perry songs, one Kylie Minogue oldie, and Enrique Iglesias's latest hit. So far so predictable. Then he followed Justin Bieber's "Baby" with something by M.I.A. I nearly fell out of my seat. The crowd kept dancing as if the song hadn't even changed.

4. They're sexy -- and they think I am, too. Okay, I'll admit that I'm not 100 per cent sure what exactly makes a person sexy. It's not a word I'd ever use to describe myself, but it keeps getting tossed in my direction. And the guys who've been tagging me as sexy all get bonus points for being over 30. It's a long long way from the early twentysomethings who normally flock to me in BA, offering me nothing but a good time but rarely delivering on the promise. Aussie boys, in contrast, may not be as overwhelmingly pretty, but they've got skillz with a Z.

5. They speak English After four years of living in a Spanish-speaking country, this has taken a little getting used to. One night in Sydney, after having dinner with my friend Andy and his friend Sophie, she and I shared a cab home. As we got in, I was just about to comment on the foul odor, when the conversation unexpectedly turned to politics. Eventually, the cab driver chimed in. That's when it dawned on me: Of course, he speaks English. This is Australia. Thank God, I'd kept my complaint about his smelly taxi to myself!

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.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Travelling without a plan: How I came to like, if not quite love, Sydney

I've never found a thrill that I was looking for. They always seem to pop up by accident, unexpectedly. That goes double for the past week, which I spent in Sydney, Australia. For most of my life, ever since the first time I heard Men at Work's "Down Under" in 1984 -- I've been dying to go. Maybe I was expecting too much. Love at first sight is rare indeed, with people and with cities. Although my greatest love of all (I'll always heart you, London!) hit me like a thunderbolt, it took me a full week to fall for Buenos Aires's charms.

I rarely travel with an agenda, any set game plan. I prefer to experience a city the way the locals do and leave all those unforgettable travel experiences, the stories still worth telling 10 years later, entirely up to chance. As I write, I'm newly arrived in Melbourne and torn between what I should be doing (seeing the sights) and what I want to be doing (writing this post). "So what do you have planned in Melbourne?" my friend Andy asked me several times before I left Sydney. It's a reasonable question, but one I didn't have, or want, an answer for. Isn't planning a trip to the other side of the world difficult enough without having to account for the hour-by-hour particulars?

For me, yes. "I need a vacation from my vacation," I've heard people say countless times. No wonder. They try to pack so much activity into what's supposed to be quality rest-and-relaxation time that holidays become more stressful than a 9-to-5 job. My vacation motto: I'll know what I'm going to do when I'm doing it.

For Sydney, however, I went against my own golden rule and opted for several introductory days of sightseeing. The first thing that struck me about the city was how much it reminded me of so many others: Boston here. Washington D.C. there. A little bit of Chicago. A touch of Toronto. A dab of New York City. Even a taste of Istanbul (thanks to the hills-and-water combo).

Oh, yes, the hills. I wasn't expecting such a curvy walking experience. The views were lovely, if not quite breath-taking, and the people were ridiculously friendly. The only thing missing was something that was uniquely Sydney, something (aside from the Opera House) that wouldn't make me think of any other place. I was glad to be there, but it wasn't exactly the ultimate fulfillment of a life-long dream.

Andy told me that Sydney is a city best experienced in summer. That's when the outdoors scene -- the sun, the heat, bbq's, swimming pools -- takes over. It struck me as a ringing endorsement that could apply to any number of cities, including the one I live in! But I understood where he was coming from. Every time I've ever fallen for a city, I've been doing something that I could be doing anywhere when suddenly, I realize, Wow, I love this place!

For me, this serendipitous moment arrived on the morning of my sixth day in Sydney, during a grueling eighth-floor workout at Fitness First gym in King's Cross. I looked out the window, surveyed the scenery, and there it was: The Sydney Opera House. I'd gone there twice before and had been disappointed both times. Not only is it not as white as it appears in photos (see the photo above, from my second trip), but it looks like it could use a good scrubbing. This morning, though, standing majestically in the distance below, it was everything I'd always wanted and expected it to be. I sighed and took it all in. Finally, Sydney had given me something special, something specifically Sydney, to remember. And I wasn't even looking for it.