Last night I dreamt I went to Melbourne again. I stepped out of the taxi from Tullamarine airport, and was ushered into the Hotel Windsor by the welcoming doorman. I entered the familiar room done up in soothing cream and blue, and sank into the comfortable armchair, putting my feet up next to a vase of fresh roses. I logged on to the Wi-fi and sent out my emails and social media updates, letting friends and family know I had arrived safely. After indulging in a lavender scented hot bath, I was ready for afternoon tea. The hotel staff had prepared a special vegetarian treat for me, sans smoked salmon and mayo. Hot scones with double cream, Windsor jam and a hot cup of Earl Grey soon set me right.
Summoning my inner ‘Scarlett’ or Vivien Leigh – she had after all been there before me – I stepped out of the doors and stood at the corner of Collins and Spring streets, pondering where to head to first, the Treasury or Fitzroy Gardens, Federation Square or the Royal Botanic Gardens. I remembered I wanted to check out a painting at the Ian Potter Center and decided to walk the three odd kilometers to the National Gallery of Victoria. I needed to stretch my legs after that long flight, after all. And ward off some drowsiness from the jetlag.
Read on for an exciting surprise at the end
After gazing at The Pioneer, one of my favorite Australian paintings, I firmly established I was in Melbourne. I didn’t stay long enough to appreciate its famous Impressionist collection, the Heidelberg School, they called it. The events of the last few days had been disconcerting to say the least. And I needed a reason to live, a reason to love again. Stifling a yawn, I settled onto the terrace at the Time Out Café in Federation Square, sipping on a steaming hot Café Latte generously spiked with cinnamon. The tall Gothic spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral loomed in the distance and I nudged myself to have more fortitude.
I strolled along Flinders Walk across the Yarra River and found myself at the Eureka Skydeck 88, the southern hemisphere’s highest viewing platform. I had taken the super fast elevator to the top, just like I did at the Empire State Building in New York and the Stratosphere in Las Vegas, but I had never dared to experience The Edge. Sitting in an enclosed glass cube suspended 300 feet above the ground had never been my idea of fun. But maybe it would jerk me awake, if only with a bout of vertigo or sudden palpitations from my fear of heights.
My stint of traipsing around inner city Melbourne had tired me out and my high tea had been worked off long ago. I pondered over where to have my dinner. Maha with its Middle Eastern menu, Mamasita with its fabulous tequilas and modern Mexican food, Flower Drum with its Cantonese food, all made my mouth water. The high quality beef, lamb, even kangaroo dishes Australia was famous for were no good for a vegetarian like me. And I wanted some place with heart and soul, some place I could connect to. The choice was clear! Tired of walking, I took a taxi to Gazi, George Colambaris’s famed new restaurant. Here was a man who was proud of his roots, and the place simply oozed his personality.
As I bit into a veggie souvlaki loaded with fresh greens, Feta cheese, Greek spices, and grilled marinated Haloumi enveloped in a soft pillowy pita bread dressed with creamy tahini, my eyes fell on an ancient suitcase propped up on the wall. I learned it had belonged to George’s grandmother way back when she first came to Australia. I felt a prick of fresh tears that threatened to roll down. As I stumbled out, I roamed the street blindly, one with the raw emotions portrayed in the vivid street art in Fitzroy. Calling it a night, I tossed and turned in my comfortable bed at the Windsor, with my favorite pillows from their pillow menu.
I slept fitfully and was up much before dawn. A hot air balloon ride over the Yarra valley sounded appealing and I found myself in a tranquil paradise, suspended over vineyards, watching the rising sun. Filled with a new hope and feeling optimistic, I decided to forego the champagne breakfast at Rochford Wines and head back to the hotel. Porridge with fruit and madeleines filled with lemon curd at Cumulus Inc filled me up and fresh hot coffee got my blood flowing. I tightened my resolve. I had already decided to fulfill the ridiculous quest, the scavenger hunt I had been entrusted with. I had already been visiting places on the list subconsciously.
I hopped on to the tram at Flinders St and got off at Jolimont Rd. It was just enough time to take a selfie on the tram with the car driver. Then I walked over to the Mecca of cricket lovers, otherwise known as the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Standing on the well maintained grass of the ‘G”, I closed my eyes and relived all the memories, bittersweet though they were. I picked up a small souvenir from the MCG Superstore and checked one item off that dratted list.
Although it was mid morning, I decided to travel to Port Campbell to check out the 12 Apostles. There were many places on the way that would satisfy items on my list, as silly as it was. I crossed the West Gate Bridge, and soon found myself passing Bells Beach. A short stop and a quick selfie of sand between my toes later, I drove on, finally letting the cool ocean breezes lull the raging thoughts in my head. Kangaroos roaming the Anglesea Golf Course touched my heart, and I marveled at the mamas prancing around, hugging their babies close in their pockets. I grabbed a quick lunch at Apollo Bay, and roamed the sea side village looking for a certain blue cottage with yellow primroses in the yard. I cut a small stem off and wrapped it carefully in plastic. Trying to forget what I had just done, not to mention that I had trespassed on private property, I drove on to the 12 Apostles.
I strolled along the top of the cliffs, letting the gusty wind ruffle my hair. I gazed at the scraggly limestone pillars, as waves coming from far off Tasmania crashed on the shores. Magic 37.5, he used to say. ‘You at 37.5 N latitude, me at 37.5 S. And together we create magic!’ I guess it was nothing more than magic which had fueled our explosive whirlwind romance. How else could someone living in Richmond, Virginia on the east coast of the US have fallen for a native Australian as far south as Melbourne? It seemed so apt that we had met in Paris, him trying to grab some shut eye during a long layover, and me grabbing a quick coffee before catching my connecting flight to Washington, DC. The rest, as they say in the movies, was history.
We argued about where to live and whose city was better. ‘You can’t beat the Fall colors, and you experience all four seasons in the year in Richmond’, I used to say. ‘Well, live in Melbourne and you’ll get to see all four seasons every day!’ he quipped back. ‘There is so much to see and do here, one lifetime isn’t enough. It’s the most livable city in the world, and its gold, pure gold! And you know they literally found gold here in the 1850s, right?’ ‘I am not sure I want to live in a whole new country yet again. I am barely getting used to living here’, I had said. I almost slipped on some rubble as memories of familiar conversations made me miss him even more. I concentrated on my task, and picked 12 pebbles from the beach. Then I got into a boat and tossed the pebbles into the water one by one, as the boat circled each of the Apostles, as directed by the list. Now what was that about, I asked silently, looking up at the clear blue sky.
After some pleasant diversion listening to the tale of the Loch Ard, hearing stories of ship wrecks, I drove along the Great Ocean Road to Port Campbell, soothed by pine scented salty breezes. After some fish and chips minus the fish at the Port Campbell Hotel, I was ready for the long drive back to inner city Melbourne. The Grampians National Park with its rugged landscape, carpets of wildflowers and Aboriginal paintings would have to wait for another day, just like Sovereign Hill where I could try panning for gold like the pioneers.
After a day along the ocean, mountains came next. The Dandenong Mountains beckoned with their giant ash gum trees and gigantic ferns. Stopping over in Kallista, I recorded the call of some cockatoos, moving on to my next assignment. But not before I wolfed down a Vegemite sandwich and a cup of strong billy tea.Wearing a light jacket with a nod to the colder mountain air, I was soon standing in line at Belgrave to hop onto the 100 year old Puffing Billy steam train. My heart thudded as I looked down on the old wooden trestle bridge, and I carefully placed my ticket in an envelope, checking off yet another item. The kangaroos and koalas in the Healesville Sanctuary at the foothills of the Yarra mountains brought a reluctant smile to my face. But my heart was heavy as I turned back for the city.
‘How much more am I to endure, how much longer before I am allowed to vent my feelings’, I moaned to myself. On second thought, I decided to visit a winery in the Yarra valley. Time was short and I had many things to do. Having come this far, I wanted to make the most of the region. We had talked endlessly about the cool climate here, as we strolled down the aisle of Total Wine and More, and argued over the best Chardonnays and Reislings. And the Shiraz! Always the Australian Shiraz as the best red! I strolled among the vines desultorily, not really feeling in the moment. Tasting some great pinot noir, woodsy chardonnay, and a fruity Reisling, I had reached the end of my tether. A couple of hours later, I was punching pillows in my room, trying to vent my frustration.
The best way to distract the mind is to work the body, or tire it out. I freshened up and started walking briskly toward the Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium. Gazing at people enjoy themselves brought on a fresh wave of nostalgia, remembering how we had planned to swim with the sharks. For now, I just stood gazing above and around at the sharks. After finding Nemo, the clownfish, and the moon jellies, I headed out. Chinatown beckoned and I craved the famous Melbourne hot sauce with some steamed dumplings at Shanghai Street Dumpling, known for its vegetarian options. The sauce burnt my tongue and smoke came out of my ears, numbing me to any other sensation for the moment. It was pure bliss! I didn’t have the heart to try Trippy’s Tacos, where we had planned to gorge on Tofu Asada Tacos and enormous quesadillas.
I walked back through the Block Arcade and Melbourne’s Golden Mile Heritage Walk to the Charles Dickens Tavern. Why? It was on the list, of course. Sipping a cold ale, I realized I was exhausted. Clutching a souvenir sized beer mug to my chest, I hailed a taxi back to the hotel. The next day was reserved for Phillip Island to watch the penguins. Early in the morning, I grabbed a quick brekkie at the Queen Victoria Market, feasting on fresh juicy fruit and freshly ground and brewed coffee. The colorful bathing boxes on Mornington Peninsula beaches, the yachts lolling in the water at Portsea were full of happy people that seemed to mock me. The penguins were a sight to behold, the last item on my list, and I rushed back to my room, realizing time was running out.
Ensconced in the arm chair, I stared at the chintz curtains, summoning enough courage to tear open the envelope tucked away in the jewel compartment of my suitcase. I had been patient and firm, and had stuck to the promise I had reluctantly given. But the time had come to finally learn the last words of my beloved. They had come with a price, of course. Every task had been gut wrenching in some way, making me relive some aspect of the time we spent together. But I realized that I had been able to distance myself from the harsh truth, if only for a few moments.
I tore open the envelope and stared at the familiar handwriting, calligwriting, I had teasingly called the neat Edwardian script. ‘My sweetest Darling’, it said. ‘I know you must have hated me for sending you on this scavenger hunt. I know you must have found it stupid at times. But I also hope you kept the faith’. ‘Always’, I murmured. ‘Always!’ ‘I am gone forever, but I will always be with you in spirit. I designed this trip so you could say farewell, say goodbye, and move on. Find a reason to love again. Embrace life, and be happy. And there is no place like Melbourne to invigorate you and prepare you for any rainy day. There is no place like Melbourne to make you come alive. And that’s what you are. Alive! Whether you like it or not.’ As the tears finally flowed freely, I realized that this seemingly impossible quest had redeemed me, had given me a new lease. I had truly come alive, in this southern Australian city.
Bit by bit, Melbourne had rekindled a dying spark in me. The hot air balloon ride at sunrise, the silently vocal street art, the drive along the Great Ocean Road, the 12 Apostles, the cliffs and beaches, the vineyards in the Yarra valley, a 100 year old steam train, giant gums and ferns, cockatoos and kangaroos and koala bears, Phillip Island, the quaint tram rides, and so on had been my allies in the battle for my life. This city, founded in the year Mark Twain was born in America, two years before a young Victoria was crowned Queen of England, and years before the Indian Sepoy Mutiny, had seen and borne a lot. From the hey days of the Gold Rush of the 1850s to a tragic fire that was still talked about, Melbourne was highly cosmopolitan having welcomed immigrants from the world over into its heart. No wonder it continued to be the most livable city in the world!
I snuggled closer to my sweetheart as the jetliner took off smoothly. ‘You had that dream again, didn’t you?’ he said. I nodded, and a lone tear appeared in the corner of my eye. ‘Have you learned nothing from it?’ he said. ‘I have, my darling, I have’, I sniffed. ‘It’s just hard when you love someone so much’. ‘But you love me more, right?’ ‘Always’, I said, as I smothered my son in a tight hug and showered him with wet, sloppy kisses.
I have written this post for the Tourism Victoria sponsored contest on Indiblogger – ‘What’s your reason for falling in love with Melbourne, the most livable city in the world?’ This is a fictional story but all the fabulous places mentioned here are real, yes, especially the eating joints. I may have written this in a story form, but I have really fallen in love with Melbourne!
… And to make it fun, leave a comment below and answer the following question. The best answer wins a gift voucher worth INR500 sponsored by Tourism Victoria. Contest ends on Jan 4, 2015.
Which of these places would you want to visit in Melbourne and why?
Check out the videos at this link where Rohan and Tanmay live it up in Melbourne.
Please help me win by commenting here and sharing this post! Many Thanks!!
Update — Hema’s the winner! 🙂