Speaker by Various Artists


You are what you eat

by Che Tibby

So, Russell has asked me to tell you about my latest trip to multicultural Melbourne. And I figured, what the hey, surely there must be something left to say about the place? Surely everything that can and could be said about Melbourne hasn't already been hammered out in slightly drunken keystrokes? Surely every rant and rail hasn't been spoken? Well... almost.

I think we need to start with Air New Zealand. If I get grimaced at by one more frumpy mole in a teal-coloured potato sack I'm writing a damn letter. The food is completely ordinary, and the flights all too often late (almost an hour in this instance). As a consumer and as a taxpayer I say let that dog go to the wall next time it gets the wobbles, and do the world of quality air travel a service.

Ahhhhhhhhh.... better.

But Melbourne? In a recent comment thread on System I mentioned that I was heading over, and kind of had a bit of a gush about what I wanted to do when I got there. It's a great place after all, and has that truly multicultural feel that both Wellington and Auckland desire, but lack. It's true that both cities have a cosmopolitan underlay, but the cynic in me says that the desire is mostly a want to appear to be something bigger and more than they are?

The way I see it is that New Zealand has a bunch of stores that sell international varieties of food, gadgets or housewares. We happily buy them, we display them, we talk about them, and we use them to demonstrate how global and hip we are, but underneath the veneer is the same old monoculture.

Now before I go getting any hackles up, how many of you reading this speak a language other than English? How many of you have lived in a non-English-speaking country for more than a trip to 'see the sights'. I don't, and I haven't, and I'm a highly educated, handsome and thoroughly charming individual.

I mention all this because what I know of Melbourne is a city full of the monocultural Australian. But this is underlaid with this highly diverse and fascinating multiculture. One that has existed and flourished under the benign policies of successive Australian governments since the early 1970s. Without migrant groups bringing their ways to Australia we'd still have the boring meat-and-three-veg swill still served in dull pubs and Air New Zealand. And why, because plenty of people still eat it. Including me, on occasion, and especially since the pesky heart trouble.

In fact, the heart trouble kicked in on the first day there, which was, to use the vernacular, a total bitch. Here I am tucking into a plethora of great food and coffee, and the old ticker freaks. It had kind of reacted badly to too little sleep and too much sugar, and possibly the shit we were served on the flight, and wouldn't settle down. By the time we were at dinner eating stuffed grilled figs it was really getting tetchy. Lifting my hands to drink a good Aussie red would result in the blood draining from my face and light-headedness. But I was half-way through a 8-week aged Black Angus rump steak and there was no damn way I was leaving before it was done. Which I did, and then promptly took myself to the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

They told us I wasn't allowed coffee, no more booze, and try to keep the sugar down. I attempted to ignore all these things.

As I say, Melbourne is a place where you can see 'Australians', or you can see the diversity of a wave of successive migrants blending into a great city with a great urban-yet-urbane feel. Let's run through all the food we ate to give you an idea of what I'm talking about. Why food? Because in each case the people serving it were connected to what they sold us. There food is part of their culture, and in partaking of it I'm enjoying of a little of a place they left behind.

So here we go:

Thursday. Onion quiche with onion relish on Air NZ. This was followed by a hole in the wall on Russell street where we ate duck and soy chicken, drank jasmine tea, and followed it with a walk around the corner to a Greek patisserie, for coffee and baklava. We shopped in Melbourne Central, and found clothing place called Anthony's. No website, but they're coming to Auckland for fashion week. I couldn't afford anything, but doesn't mean you can't. We went out that night in the balmy weather (20 degrees at 8pm, warmer than Wellington during most daytimes), and ate figs, steak, garlic bread, and fish at La Luna. Then, trip to hospital.

Friday. Wandered to Queen Victoria Markets, bought prosciutto, fresh ciabatta rolls, genuine unpasteurised Roquefort blue and ligurian olives (note: no coffee, sugar or booze). We wandered over to Richmond and got upstairs to Thy Thy 1 (an institution) and ate rice paper rolls, Vietnamese salads, more tea, then stopped in Minh Tan for egg tarts. We sheltered from the heat on Bridge Road with (a very small) beer in a classic Melbourne pub, then that evening went to the Empress in North Carlton. This is a pub where you walk in and the carpet stinks of beer, there's an old soak over in one corner, but they served us smoked trout and feta bruschetta, accompanied by fried whitebait. We then walked over to Gelobar for gelati, but people were literally lined up out the door and down the street. So instead we jumped a tram to Lygon St and had hot chocolate and small sweets at the original Brunetti.

Here's a great conversation.
Me: Two hot chocolates please.
Barista: Italian?
Me: ahhhh... dunno.
Barista: Yes [begins fixing drinks]. Cream?
Me: Nah.
Barista: Yes [begins filling drinks with cream]
Me: ..... [dumbfounded look].
Barista: This is Italian, it is delicious. You pay $6.
Me: Okey-dokey then.

All this is in a place chocka with people after 10pm, just off a street that is literally heaving with people dining al fresco, drinking wine, watching each other, and just being generally great. No pissed yobs, no strutting wankers looking to 'pull chicks' (they're in St. Kilda, and some on Brunswick Street).

Saturday: I wanted to go to Episode, perhaps the only place in the world that sells trousers that fit me, so we jumped a tram early to go to Sydney Road, a Turkish part of town. We stopped in a place and had coffee (bad move), Danish pastries and bircher muesli. After shopping we walked through a boring suburban mall and ate fried chicken, then picked fresh figs and apples off trees while we cut back over to Lygon Street. There we tucked into gelato from Gelobar (another bad move), before walking over to another tram route to head to Smith Street, Fitzroy. More shopping (I bought a $15 work shirt!!), and off to Brunswick Street where we ate a rocket and chorizo tapas, had cup of tea to calm heart. Evening rolled round and we headed out from our South Bank hotel to see things. We ended up at the Hairy Canary on Flinders Lane, watched the waiters flirt with each other and the customers, while we ate oysters, sticky quail, skewered pork, bread and olive oil. Wine was drank by the glass, and heart was most well behaved.

Sunday: Last day, so we walked back to Flinders Lane for a simple breakfast. Faux-Vietnamese food in a laneway bombed in huge street art. We wandered up to the State Library to see the Australian art, and left to eat sushi and drink iced tea on Swanston St. Watching 500 line-dancing Ockers do the 'boot-scoot boogie' in Federation Square put me off lunch. I swear Oz gets more like the USA every year. And to end it all? Hungry Jacks in the Airport.

And I think that's pretty much what the place is all about. All those things are overlaid with people like the Greek woman who took one look at me when I walked into her store and goes, "nah, nothing for you, go somewhere else." Once I brought her round she was telling me her favourite place to eat is Stalactites (another institution) and she can't eat all that Turkish crap on Sydney Rd, or any 'asian food' from Little Burke Street (Chinatown). So, so Melbournian Greek.

The other character was an actor working in Anthony's (the clothing store in Melbourne Central). We had gotten to talking about Aussie cinema, and he recommended a film called Ten Canoes. Apparently the Aboriginal actors were fantastic, and because, "they're just like that, they're natural actors". Now, as soon as that conversation started I got pretty interested, because of the whole Aussies-are-natural-racists meme. But I can't really fault the guy. We was trying to say something complimentary about Aboriginal people, and it was the filter that was the problem.

By way of example, Episode had an Aboriginal woman working behind the counter. She was articulate, smart, funny. But what most Aussies see is the drunks on Smith Street or Swanston Walk, and they think the smart woman is the exception. The same seems to apply to all the 'ethnics' we interacted with during the four days. The unobtrusive Vietnamese on Victoria Street. The Greek girl I conned into letting me tell her she had beautiful eyes in Hairy Canary. The bolshie Italian waiter in Brunetti. The Muslim women walking about in veils in a boring suburban mall.

These are the normal 'ethnics' and this is what multiculturalism means. It's not about offending the hyper-nationalism of a bunch of flag-waving arseholes and their midget cheerleader. The best graffiti I saw the entire time? It was on the side of a classic Melbourne terrace house and it read, "no pride in a blood-stained rag: 26.01.2007".

Multiculturalism is just a bunch of people doing their own thing and expressing the things they brought with them from a foreign shore. They enrich and enliven our dull monocultures and give greater meaning to what being an Australian or a New Zealander is. Sometimes there's ructions and trouble, but when it comes down to it all, we put up with the ruffled feathers and differences because the greater good dictates that benefit will accrue.

And so it is, like me and my dicky-ticker, we want everything to be calm and collected, but sometimes the desire to enjoy something truly great and diverse gets the better of us. But then, despite it all, we'd rather live in interest than grind through a boring, staid, meat and three veg life.

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