Penman No. 23: Some Enchanted Melbourne

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Penman for Monday, Dec. 3, 2012

PENMAN READERS have been getting earfuls from me about writing and literature these past few weeks, so I’m going to hold off for another week or so about what we discussed at the recent Bedell Nonfictionow conference in Melbourne, Australia, and instead talk about Melbourne itself—a place I fell in love with on my last couple of days there, for reasons you’ll find below.

Except for a brief stopover once on my way home from Sydney, I’d never been to Melbourne, and I was both honored and excited to have been invited to come over for the conference, which was being hosted by RMIT University, right in the heart of the city. I was billeted at the Rydges Hotel, a few blocks away from RMIT, and the location proved to be a godsend, as everything I needed and wanted to see seemed to lie within a half-hour’s walk from the hotel.

I had a choice of airlines to take from Manila to Melbourne, but only Philippine Airlines had a straight, overnight flight that was also ideal for busy people—I left Manila at 8:40 pm and flew into Melbourne (which is three hours ahead) shortly past 7 am, less than eight hours total, with the whole new day ahead. (And let me note my satisfaction with PAL’s new Boeing 777-300 planes, which give you a lot of legroom even in economy, and offer individual entertainment screens.)

A cab ride from the Tullamarine airport to the city center took some 25 minutes and cost AUD$55 (right now, the Australian dollar, which used to trade below the US dollar, is stronger than its American counterpart). Tipping isn’t required or expected in Australia—where good minimum wage legislation has made sure that workers don’t depend on gratuities for their basic income—but anyway I handed back my $4-plus in change to my Indian-Australian cab driver, who must’ve been happy he’d picked up a Filipino. (“I knew a girl from the Philippines once,” he told me, pronouncing “Philippines” with a long I, “and she called me Pogi.” He also introduced me to the “hook turn”—an unusual and apparently uniquely Melburnian traffic practice that involves driving up to the middle of the road if you’re about to make a right turn and just hanging there until you get the green light.)

I’d arrived too early for my hotel room to be ready, so I left my suitcase with the desk and promptly began exploring my environs—initiating, in the process, the Melbourne leg of my daily one-hour constitutional. (Since I depend on GPS and an Internet connection—using a free Nike app for the iPhone—to track my walks and count my calories, I had to go on data roaming, which reminds me to share this tip with my fellow footloose Filipinos: try Globe’s Bridge Data Unlimited or BDU program, which gives you what its title says for a flat fee of $40 for five days or $27 for three days, all around the region, including Hong Kong and Australia. It saves you from having to look for the nearest Starbucks for the free wi-fi, and from paying exorbitant wi-fi rates at hotels. Look it up on the Globe website or dial *143#.)

As it turned out, the very street next to the hotel was Bourke Street, one of Melbourne’s main shopping arteries. I had no intention of spending a single dollar on frivolous goods even before I’d uttered a word at the conference to earn my keep—but three hours to kill on Shopping Boulevard proved to be a prescription for disaster, and I happily walked out of the David Jones store with a new raffia plantation hat, for the price I would’ve paid for a new Parker Duofold. There, I told myself, goes the Penfolds shiraz I’d been planning to splurge on; it was going to be the cheap, old Hardys or tap water from this day forward. But instead of wallowing in buyer’s remorse, I took finding that souvenir within my first hour in the city as sheer serendipity. While summer in Australia was still a few days down the road, nothing seemed more perfect for me in Melbourne than that straw hat, putting me in a good mood for the rest of my stay and keeping my balding head warm through the chilly evenings.

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Founded in 1887, RMIT University (the old Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) is one of the world’s top 100 universities, with strengths in engineering and communications. It occupies a sprawling campus in Melbourne’s city center, in buildings that range from Victorian yellowstone to quirky postmodern. And that, I would come to realize, pretty much described Melbourne itself—a crazy-cut mix of old and new, of tradition and innovation, of the safe and predictable and of the risky and risqué. Across our RMIT building—topped by a green blob that threatened to devour the building like a sci-fi nightmare—was the venerable State Library of Victoria, on whose front lawn people sunbathed and pleaded various causes ranging from the plight of Palestine to same-sex marriage.

I fell for Melbourne on my fourth and last day, when I took a more circuitous walking route across the Yarra River, which was filled with rowers practicing their strokes. Viewing the city from its South Bank, I could appreciate the quaintness of the 102-year-old Flinders Street Station, still holding its own against the onrush of the new century. The banks of the Yarra were litter-free, the water looked clean enough to swim in, and the air was clear and cool and kind to my walker’s lungs; how long would it be, I thought, until I could see a Pasig like this?

But my biggest surprise still lay ahead: just a few hundred steps short of completing eight kilometers, I decided to hit that mark by exploring the blocks behind my hotel—which happened to be in the Chinatown/theater district—and stumbled on the lovely Princess Theater. Playing, for the last two days, was a touring production of South Pacific (featuring, as Bloody Mary, the Filipino-Australian singing sensation Kate Ceberano).

I’m a sucker for Broadway—especially the old, romantic, sunlit Broadway of the ‘50s and ‘60s—and I can sing nearly every word of the South Pacific soundtrack, but had never seen it onstage. When I first learned that I was going to Melbourne, I’d Googled the city, and had seen this production mentioned and wished fervently that I’d get to see it; but I’d simply assumed that the Princess was too far out of my way and that I’d have no time for theater. But now it was right there in front of me—the stuff of my boyhood dreams, beckoning me like Bali Ha’i.

It was my last evening in Melbourne, and I’d accepted an invitation to an early dinner at my hotel with a bright, young Filipino-Australian couple, Fatima and her husband Rick Measham. But they’d said that they also had a show to catch at 7:30, so I figured I was safe if I booked a ticket for the evening performance. “What’s the cheapest seat in the house?” I croaked to the lady at the box office. She handed me a seat plan and X’d the topmost row: “$89.99.” I gulped—I’d never paid $90 for any show, not even on Broadway; but this was South Pacific, and I was in the South Pacific, and I would probably never see it again for the remainder of my sorry life, so I forked the money over.

I later told the Meashams that I was also going to the theater after dinner. “What show?” South Pacific. “That’s hilarious,” said Fatima. “We’re going there, too!” So we all walked the two or three blocks to the Princess, and I went on up to my eyrie in the bleachers. I was all by my lonesome in my row, and, taking pity on me, the usher invited me to move down, but I told him I was happy where I was—for there I could and did sing along, my straw hat on my lap, as the wondrous play unfolded far beneath me, and I felt my juvenile crush on Mitzi Gaynor surging back, even as I remembered my girl back home and wished she had been next to me in Melbourne.

The soundtrack was still playing in my earphones as I boarded my flight home the next morning, and I felt younger than springtime for having taken those few extra steps around the block.

One thought on “Penman No. 23: Some Enchanted Melbourne

  1. Ah, your blog post makes me miss Melbourne even more — I moved back to Manila two weeks ago after a two year stay. Happy to hear you enjoyed my adopted hometown. The Yarra river is in pretty bad shape compared to most rivers in Australian capital cities though. Also, I take that you are not a coffee drinker, because it would be mortal sin not to have tried Melbourne coffee, touted as the best in the world. Melbourne has turned me into a coffee snob! I will forever miss numerous rendezvous in Flinders Street Station. Did you notice the little flower shop just by the entrance, just in case one forgets to buy a bouquet for the lady/man you are meeting “under the clocks”? I’ve always found that cute. Thank you for this bit of nostalgia, you made my day.

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