Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Shock of the Old

Leaving my hotel this morning, I noticed a grey haze over everything and the smell of smoke in the air; the bushfires are getting closer. They're the worst they've had in years and today could be a make or break day in terms of containing them. There are concerns about the state's water resources, but tomorrow hotter weather forecast could really scupper efforts to fight the blaze. They believe it was all caused by lightning strikes last Friday. Certainly on the coach down on Sunday, I saw a number of lightning strikes. Weather is the crucial factor in all of this.

One thing I have noticed about Melbourne is the wind. Despite glorious sunshine all yesterday, the strong gusts flowing down the streets brought the temperature right down. I was almost freezing at times (today I have brought a jacket). Needless to say it is wind like this that is fanning the flames.

My first day here, I visited the Museum of the Moving Image for an exhibition on 'Eyes, Lies and Illusions', detailing optical illusions and devices before the birth of cinema. Mixed in with the antique exhibits were some modern works by contemporary artists, largely unimpressive. One new work involved a swarm of make-believe bees and throughout the space one heard their drone repetitively rising up and down. It grew to be extremely annoying. The showpieces themselves were quaint without being mind-blowing, mostly peepshows and magic lanterns. Even the Ames Room required you to be on the outside with someone inside to fully appreciate the effect. What could have been awe-inspiring then was ultimately pedestrian.

I went to St Kilda, by the sea, for dinner. I tried a Rough Guide recommendation, The Stokeroom. Having been seated, I was then asked to get up and wait as there was a queue. 15 minutes later they put me down at the same table I had originally been at. Another 15 minutes later someone took my order. What arrived, spaghetti with seafood, was good but a very small portion. I almost took it for what it was until, as I was about to leave, I noticed someone at a nearby table eating the same dish, though a good deal larger. I was not amused.

I have noticed that left to its own devices, my body will eat seafood (and shellfish usually) ad nauseum. I need to make a conscious effort to choose anything other than fish.

Needless to say entering the Great Victorian Market was a mouth drooling experience. The fish on sale was incredible. A dozen oysters for less than 10 bucks, all varieties of prawn, tavelly, barramundi, octopus, squid, scallops, flatheads, snapper; you name it it was there. On a parallel aisle was the meat. Then there was a deli area where I picked up a lamb borek. Next door the fruit and vegetable market offered everything. Not since Barcelona have a seen a food market so delightful. Of course, the food is only part of it. At least tripling the size of the market are the shoe, leather, knickknack, sock, toy, pet, bag, soap, opal and t-shirt stalls. It is very easy to spend a morning there.

In the deli area, I had seen some chilli mussels on sale. Asking for a small tub, I underestimated the amount and the price and ended up having an early lunch. I suspected I would pay for such a diet later on the toilet bowl and I was quite correct. Nevertheless right then I was fine and followed up with a chocolate eclair and a Roma coffee (caramel and vanilla supposedly).

Next stop the Melbourne Museum. Getting there close to 3, I stupidly supposed the two hours I had until closing time would be enough. Silly me. With Blue Whale bones, a stuffed Tasmanian Wolf (Thylacine) and a multitude of other exhibits I barely scratched the surface. The extinct specimens (sadly not just Thylacines) were contained in their own glass boxes. How we let them go is beyond me.

Quite apart from stuffed and dead creatures, there is an excellent collection of live insects and arachnids, including a White-tail spider, a few Huntsman spiders, tarantulas, etc.. I think I may have identified the mystery drilling beetle from Sydney. According to the museum, the world's loudest insect, found in Australia, is the Double Drummer Beetle, and it looks pretty much like the things I saw in the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Next I had to see the world's largest cinema screen, the Melbourne Imax. I had a few worries that the 'Deep Sea 3-D' show was the same as the (bad) one I had seen in Genoa (thankfully it wasn't). I have already been at some pretty large screens (including the Dublin Imax when it existed), so I was not overly awed by the size of this one. Nevertheless the 3-D effect of the movie was the best I have yet encountered. It worked, even if the three Russians sitting nearby never stopped talking once (I suspect one may have been translating for the other two).

Overall Melbourne is a beautiful, if not stunning, city. Some of the tenets of conventional wisdom on Melbourne include:

1. It is the most European Australian city.
2. It is the most liveable Australian city.
3. It is a more cultural city than Sydney.

With qualifications, these view are generally true. It is somewhat European - principally English and French (New Orleans-style balconies) - but then you look down along one of the wide avenues stretching to nothing and you think Australia. It is probably more cultural than Sydney, but it's more subdued about its accomplishments. More liveable? Melbourne has the feel of a city winding down. It has reached its peak and now, rather than take more risks, it has settled down to raise the children. It is safe, laid-back, slightly (very slightly) melancholic and never going to break a sweat. Sydney still feels like it's in its twenties, ready to party, still growing. Melbourne, with its four million people, no doubt has everything Sydney has, or indeed any major city, but with this background of ease is more liveable. Having said that, I tend to live, vampire-wise, off the blood of a fast-pulsed town, and I'm not sure that I could settle here.

In all fairness, I think I should point out that the population of Melbourne seems on the whole very young, and I have not been out partying (unlike Sydney). These are the factors that colour the mind of a traveller. These views probably reflect my mindset more than the city's.


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