As you can see, I’ve not posted much recently. I’m still in Melbourne, keeping myself reasonably busy. I’ve taken a basic sailing course, which means I am qualified to look at a yacht and opine on whether the hull is the bit on the bottom or not. This was a lot of fun, as it meant spending several hours out on the water of Port Phillip Bay. First time I went, I didn’t bring the right gear with me and vastly underestimated how damned cold the wind would be. The second time, following a visit to a chandler’s, I was togged up in waterproof dungarees and a jacket which looked like something off Deadliest Catch. It was much more enjoyable.
I’ve also embarked on a Russian course, mainly to give me something to do, but also to make sure I don’t start forgetting stuff and in the hope that I might improve. I’m about 8 years ahead of the rest of the class, but the teacher is giving me some pretty difficult stuff to do and for now it’s worthwhile.
But other than that, I’ve not got a lot to say about Melbourne. The problem I have is that Melbourne is a dumbed-down version of the UK with better weather and worse accents. Don’t get me wrong, I like being here. Given that 8 years of the past decade have seen me in Kuwait, Sakhalin Island, and Lagos, being somewhere normal again is great. I am enjoying decent internet, proper shops, and having a variety of places to eat and drink. Also, it’s nice to know that when your shoes fall apart you can go and buy a new pair that afternoon, instead of planning it into your next holiday or business trip. And being able to do proper grocery shopping in a well-stocked, functioning supermarket is a new-found pleasure. I came across a new, exotic fruit the other day, called tangerines.
Now I’m sure there are some great places to visit around Melbourne, and elsewhere in Australia. The Great Ocean Road for one, something we intended to do last weekend but my colleague got sick. But as a city in itself, Melbourne is okay but no more than that. I can see why Australians go all giddy over it – their scope of experience is generally so narrow that anything merely above average is “sensational”. (Apparently Japan is the best place in the world to go skiing. I’ve been to Niseko, and I’ve been to Les Trois Vallées in the French Alps, and the two just don’t compare). And I can see why immigrants fleeing wars in Africa, poverty in the Indian sub-continent, or democracy in South Africa love it, because on a global scale it does rank pretty high. Only for me, it doesn’t have anything particularly unique or interesting about it. I spent 7 years in a city where everyone speaks English, drinks a lot, has a multitude of well-attended sports fixtures, a redeveloped docklands area and a tram network, hosted a Commonwealth Games, and prides itself on its music venues. It was called Manchester. True, the weather in Melbourne is better and they have a beach (then again, as my colleague from Queensland said: “You call that a beach?”). But you can escape from Manchester and be in Paris or Barcelona in 2 hours, whereas Melbourne is in the arse-end of nowhere and 2 hours will see you in Sydney or Hobart. And Melbourne is f*cking expensive. Had I not been coming off a string of hardship locations, on a temporary assignment, and excited about exploring this corner of the globe for the first time, I’m not sure I’d be too happy here. In itself, I don’t see Melbourne as being a place I’d want to live full time (then again, I’m yet to find anywhere like that, so perhaps it’s just me?) If given a straight choice, I think I’d rather live in the UK and travel occasionally to find better weather.
But clearly a lot of people like it. The Aussies do, for reasons of simply liking their home (nothing wrong with that) or those I mentioned earlier. Some Kiwis like it, but from what I hear about New Zealand, subtract the natural beauty and the rugby and you’re left with very little. No wonder they invented bungee jumping and other mental sports. One group who like it are Brits, and the place is full of them. But I’ve noticed something about a lot of them (not all of them mind, so don’t jump down my throat, any Melbourne-based Brits who are reading this). A lot of them are pretty second-rate. I get the impression Australia is a place which attracts Brits who aren’t exactly setting the world on fire back home so want to chance their arm in a country where the standards are perceived to be a bit lower, without having to bother learning a new culture. I’ve not met a single person who came to Australia for a challenge, all of them came for “the lifestyle”, by which I take to mean a life which is more laid-back and easy than the one they left behind. Which is fine, but some of them laughably try to pass this off as “international experience” in the professional sense, which is bollocks even if strictly true. Moving from the UK to Australia is probably the most effortless transition to make: the culture is almost identical, relative to any other country. There is no need to trouble yourself with a new language, or cuisine, or music, or customs, or indeed anything else other than climate, and in the case of Melbourne that’s pretty much the same for half the year. Anyone who thinks he’s gaining vital international experience by moving from the UK to Melbourne is kidding themselves, but it doesn’t stop them trying it on.
For these reasons I’m a bit suspicious of Brits who say how amazing Melbourne is. What, exactly, is amazing? The fact you don’t need to wear ironed clothes to work? That you get to call your customers “mate”? It reminds me of the Brits I met in Baku and Abu Dhabi who thought those places were great, by virtue of there being no professional standards and a ready supply of cheap hookers. Okay, I’m slapping everyone with a pretty wide brush here (and if this comes as a surprise, you must be new to this blog).
A lot of them might like the laid-back, matey culture. I think it has its good points, mainly the way that Australians are as friendly as hell. I’ve got chatting to guys asking for directions, people sat on trams, in the gym, in bars. You can launch into a friendly conversation with anyone nearby, regardless of the venue, and that’s pretty good. Nobody is stand-offish or uncomfortable talking with a complete stranger. Which is great on a personal level, but not so good when adopted by companies and officialdom. Insurance companies advertise products as if they were your mate trying to shift a second-hand lawnmower. Advertisements for retail outlets have managed to be even dumber than those of the UK, sinking to something resembling teenage slang or text message English. Even the Federal Government puts out adverts about “Giving the Aussie Tradie a Fair Go”, whilst at the same time managing to ignore economic reality. It might work, I don’t know, but the impression it gives – to me anyway – is somebody who up until last week was smoking weed and watching big-wave surfing documentaries has now been put in charge of a bank’s public relations department. It doesn’t instill confidence, and I contrast it with the French who unfailingly begin every encounter with “Bonjour, m’sieur…” and address you as vous until such time you actually are pals. If somebody in an Australian shop wanders up to you and says “G’day mate” he could be anyone, because there’s no way he’ll have a uniform on, and his name tag is hidden lest he looks uncool.
That said. I badly misjudged one chap in an acoustic guitar shop who kept me waiting for half an hour while he chatted up some blonde piece with stories of his own musical prowess. She was buying a guitar, so he did need to attend to her, but I took the laid back look, unkempt hair, and matey manners to mean he didn’t know his stuff. Then he turned to me and spent the next hour giving me an impressive education on the development of the acoustic guitar from the 1920s through the depression up to WWII, which woods they used and why, the bracing configurations, and the characteristics of each model. His efforts were rewarded by my walking out the door with a ludicrously expensive (but incredibly nice) guitar which I’d never have bought had he not been so knowledgeable and good at his job.
So I can understand why people like Melbourne, I’m just not sure that I do particularly. I don’t dislike it by any means, I’m just neutral. Interestingly, my French colleagues are a bit “meh” about it, too. True, they’re tougher to please than the Brits, but are probably a better yardstick of how nice your city is. No doubt there’s a Brit living under a pile of rubble in Mogadishu enthusiastically telling everyone how great the place is.