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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Days 36-38: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

For those who have been paying attention, yes, bathetic is a word ("characterized by bathos") and yes it really is a brush turkey, although sometimes called a bush turkey. I am not a proofreader for nothing! Now, to the bathrooms. I wish to praise the Australians for recognizing that human beings need the bathroom occasionally, and providing for that cleanly, conveniently, and free to the public. Imagine this. We walk to Melbourne Park and before even arriving at the tennis, we’ve passed multiple public bathrooms. In a little town on the coast, you’re on your way to the beach after lunch and your needs are provided for. And they are clean! This is not to be taken for granted by a traveler, as anyone who has spent time in Europe can tell you. Whether Australians spend more time cleaning bathrooms or just aren’t as dirty in the first place, I do not know.

We really lucked out because the terrible heat wave seemed to be leaving Victoria (and South Australia, for that matter) just as we arrived. It had been so hot in Melbourne the week before that play was canceled on the outside courts at the Australian Open, to which we had tickets. There were all kinds of bushfires. Australians seem to have plenty to fear from spiders, snakes, wildfires, or cyclones, but by and large don’t seem to be afraid of each other. I could be wrong, but that’s how I remember growing up as an American.

What I mean is this. In the 1980s my great-uncle and –aunt couldn’t stop talking about their trip to Australia and how much it reminded them of the U.S.A. in the ‘50s. They meant this positively. Australia now reminds me of the U.S. then (in the ‘80s). Not entirely, but in some ways it is like the America I grew up in. Remember how 25 years ago, if you took a flight, the staff would just ask you if you had anything dangerous in your bag, and anyone could go to the gate as long as they passed through security? It’s still like that here. And areas of the commercial landscape still look like the America I remember, as opposed to the country I visit now. Blockbuster, Woolworth’s, and frozen Cokes may have bitten the dust over there, but no one has told Australia, where they are still ubiquitous!

Arriving in Melbourne we looked in vain for the right minibus—they are all called Sun, Sky, or Star—before finally getting our ride into the city. I liked it right away. I liked the feel of Melbourne, the multiculturalism, the look of the streets. There are bookstores everywhere (along with Subways and 7-11s). Our hotel room was shoebox-sized, but somehow the building felt comfortable to me, in a dated way (see above). It reminded me of a hotel in Washington, D.C. that has a cameo in my novel The Trees in the Field. (It also had some kind of ‘70s ambience that reminded me of the college everyone in my family went to—it was a lot like a dorm room…)

Midsumma was going on while we were there. Midsumma is a festival “Celebrating Queer Culture.” There certainly seemed to be a lot of my people around in Melbourne; whether they were there for Midsumma, the tennis, or they just live there all the time, I’m not sure. I didn’t have the chance to find out if it’s really a queer city. We walked around the lanes of the Central Business District, along the Yarra River, then took a tram out to St. Kilda. Can I just mention here how much I love trams (or streetcars, as they’re called in Toronto). Few North American cities have them anymore, but they’re lovely. You’re in the middle of a busy city, hop on a streetcar and if you stay on long enough, there’s a beach. Isn’t that civilized?

We had a look around the century-old Luna Park, which has an original heritage “Scenic Railway” roller coaster—and then the site of the iconic Stokehouse restaurant which had just been razed after a fire a day or two earlier. It was, bizarrely, not hot enough to go swimming, though there were kite surfers to watch and the Esplanade Market to waste money in. Monday began the second week of the Australian Open and there we were, in Margaret Court Arena, watching women’s doubles. If you are not interested in tennis you might want to skip to the penultimate paragraph—here’s a sport I actually do follow!

I love doubles, and can never understand why it doesn’t get attention because 1) it’s a faster game and 2) most people who play tennis as a hobby are more likely to play doubles, so should be familiar with it. Anyway, since we had ground tickets doubles was mostly what we could see. First Madison Keys and Alison Riske of the U.S.A. lost to the seventh-seeded Czechs, A. Hlavackova and L. Safarova. I am not crazy about Riske, she’s one of those yelling women, but Keys has a great smile and seemed to be enjoying herself at first. Then we found ourselves in a “legends” match, Joakim Noah’s dad Yannick and F. Santoro of France vs. Mats Wilander and the Australian Pat Cash. I once saw Martina Navratilova and Serena Williams play doubles in an exhibition match, and that was some tennis pairing, but at the Australian Open “legends” seems to mean joke.

Canada had better luck, with Daniel Nestor and Serbian N. Zimonjic, the eighth seeds, eventually winning over the ninth-seeded Poles M. Fyrstenberg and M. Matkowski—much more competitive. That match was followed by more women’s doubles, Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard and V. Dushevina of Russia vs. the sixth seeds, Cara Black (Zimbabwe) and S. Mirza of India. Bouchard had done well the previous evening to beat the Australian Casey Dellacqua in singles, and as I write, she’s going into her first Grand Slam semifinal. These singles victories are something because what television viewers might not realize is that on her “day off” between matches, Eugenie Bouchard played not one, but two doubles matches at the Australian Open—women’s and mixed. In this case, it was not surprising that Black and Mirza won. I have a soft spot for Cara Black, as she’s quite a legend herself in doubles—I saw her play a doubles match at the first professional tennis tournament I ever saw, and if you remember Jennifer Capriati, you know how long ago that was.

Having been at those show courts, we went back to Margaret Court for a while to watch the heavily outmatched fifteenth seeds, Lisa Raymond (USA)  and D. Hantuchova of Slovakia playing the third seeds, Russians E. Makarova and E. Vesnina. Something made us leave that match in the second set (which Raymond and Hantuchova did go on to take) and it must have been luck, because outside the arena, two ladies who were leaving offered us their seats in two different sections in Rod Laver Arena! So off we went in the middle of the second set of the men’s singles, Rafael Nadal vs. Kei Nishikori. I don’t know how it looked on TV but it was anything but your typical straight-sets victory. It took a tiebreak for Nadal to win the first set, then the second set went to 7-5. In the third set Nishikori looked to break Nadal in the third game, then in the fifth, finally did so in the seventh, had a chance to serve for the set, then a few moments later served to stay in the match instead! It then got even more interesting, with each player challenging a crucial line call, and in both cases getting it right. Nadal eventually came up with the third-set tiebreak but let me tell you it was thrilling to watch in person.

I couldn’t leave my first ever Grand Slam without seeing something I’d never before seen in person—mixed doubles. I think mixed doubles are one of the neatest things in sports, but Toronto and Montreal alternate between men and women at the Canadian open, and so they don’t have mixed doubles. The dessert of our day at the Australian Open was Nestor again (paired with Mladenovic of France) vs. Fyrstenberg again, paired with Raymond again! Lisa Raymond is a longtime competitor and really works for her money on the tour, but it was not her day. The Canadian and French prevailed but that was okay, as we were only up for two sets at this point.

And only then did I find that the convenience of bathrooms is completely canceled out in Melbourne by the inability to find a kitchen open after 8:00 p.m. I’d heard Australians eat their evening meal early, but in six weeks this was my first evidence. Even the Chinese restaurant in New South Wales was open at 9:00. But here there’s a Grand Slam tennis tournament going on, watched by millions around the globe, and although the night session had only just started, there were no restaurants serving food. Not in Melbourne Park, nor in the city. I don’t know, does New York shut its kitchens during the U. S. Open? Seems there’s some money to be made here. Maybe what would in other places be restaurant jobs go here to bathroom cleaners, so there’s no one left to serve food. But yeah, a major city needs some more opening hours, Melbourne. In the end we found a (relatively) cheap cafĂ© serving what turned out to be delicious—even the house red was nice.

It’s too bad because up to that point, I was liking Melbourne better than Sydney (for the same reason I’m a Chicago person). It looked like the most multicultural city in Australia. And the pedestrian layout is so accommodating to people with disabilities that I felt at risk myself; “Walk” signs beep with frantic noises for visually impaired people, sending me panicking into the road, while the regular slopes in sidewalks for wheelchair use presented a tripping hazard to the unsuspecting sightseer. I was reminded of the Kurt Vonnegut short story “Harrison Bergeron.” If you haven’t read it, do.

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