One morning in June last year I woke up and found out that the side table outside our house along Elgin Street was gone. Being outside our house, it was most probably mistaken as a giveaway by a passerby. In Melbourne, when you want to give out stuff – hand-me-downs, half-broken appliances or things that take up space, you leave them outside the house for anyone to take. There was nothing particular about how the side table looked – it had four varnished legs, a cushion to sit on and a drawer filled with Christmas balls and lighters. And yet finding out that it was gone upset me.
I messaged my housemate-turned-best friend Andrea, who was at that time doing his trip around Australia before leaving for good. It was our chair, he told me. There we sat for more than a hundred nights during our ritual pre-bedtime cigarette sessions, when we would talk about how our day went – mine at school and his at work, which party to go to on the weekend, or what we think about our housemates and people we know. It knew about what we thought of our small world – it was the spot of our smoke-filled Australian meditations. I take pride in telling my friends that I never get attached to things, so when it went missing I asked myself why I was grieving for a piece of furniture. When Andrea left for Switzerland in August, there were nights when I would still go outside and smoke on the spot where it used to be, until one day I decided to smoke in the backyard instead.
I left Australia last December, and I’ve shifted from furniture grief to missing the entire brick house on Elgin Street. I think about the people I cooked food for, the boring nights spent watching forgettable movies, the songs sung in a spell of drunken confidence and the quick friendships forged in the shortest of infinities. I wonder when I’ll be able to move on from this, but then I remind myself that the house and all the things it stood for are still where they’re supposed to be. No reason to grieve for things that stay.
It’s been just a little over two weeks since I’ve arrived in Melbourne, but I’ve already made some conclusions about the city because I am a presumptuous boy with a knack for drawing up sweeping generalizations. Here is a five-point list.
- Honesty is a huge part of Melburnian culture. Either the people here are just too lazy to police unscrupulous freeloaders or they are raised properly by their parents that decency isn’t such a shocking concept. In our hip neighborhood laundromat, for example, you’re asked to drop a dollar in the coin box if you want to get a scoop of detergent. No one’s out to check if you’re getting way too much laundry soap or if you’re really paying, except maybe Jesus because Jesus is always watching you. You can hop on or hop off a tram without tapping your ticket (myki card) on a reader, provided that inspectors won’t catch you. Groceries also have self-service payment counters where you can theoretically get tons of stuff and underdeclare them, only paying for items you wish to pay for. This honesty system is a wonderful thing – Melburnians assume the best in everybody and the people are aware of the importance of keeping it that way. Theirs is a culture of social engineering that appeals to the decency of people, instead of intimidating potential crooks. Maybe it’s a luxury only the first world can afford – these people don’t need to cheat and steal anyway. The people of Melbourne have been hypnotized to be fully cooperative and responsible members of society that it’s almost like North Korea but in a good way.
- A single meal’s portions can feed you for an entire day. In my first week, I’ve made the mortal sin of not finishing my souvlaki and my KFC Twister. It’s not because they tasted bad – food here goes above and beyond expectations – but the portions were just too much for a single person. When they cook their food, they have sumo wrestlers in mind as customers, no wonder most of them look always full. I’ve also observed that the food staff here serve you your money’s worth. You know those guys in food stalls who make sure they account for the tiniest milligram to ensure they don’t give you extra food? Those guys who serve you the inedible parts of the meat leaving you feeling cheated? They don’t exist here.
- White boys love their short shorts. This is still a mystery to me. It’s currently winter, people are smothered in thick layers of clothes of varying thickness, and suddenly you come across a white guy wearing a jacket and really short shorts. Doesn’t matter if it’s the cold temperature, the wind, the rain or the triple killer combo: you will most probably encounter white guys – not Asian, not African – walking around like they’re the masculine Australian version of Queen Elsa. Is there a mutant masculine Caucasian gene that renders a white guy’s crotch impervious to frostbite? Are they members of a secret society? Why are they like this?
- Australians are friendly, chirpy people. I’m not a morning person and I usually have this talking and perkiness embargo until I have eaten lunch. But since I go to school in the morning I’m forced to interact with Aussies who love small talk even in the early hours of the day. In Melbourne, it’s not unusual for a complete stranger to strike a conversation or smile at you when you’ve accidentally made eye contact. If this happened to you in the Philippines you would’ve probably squinted and scowled, whipped up your phone and sought the help of social media in cyber-assaulting an otherwise friendly person. Aussies also love greeting each other. Here’s an actual conversation between Aussies in a bank:
Customer: G’day how ya doin?
Teller: Good, thanks, how ya doin?
Customer: Yeah not so bad. I’d like to blah blah blah…
- This is me:
Teller: G’day how ya do-
Me: I don’t have my ATM PIN yet.
- The Australian national treasure Vegemite tastes like goddamn salty ballpoint pen ink. Vegemite is that dark, vitamin-rich paste made from leftover brewer’s yeast. It’s the subject of too many YouTube videos and Buzzfeed articles. It’s also one of those quintessentially Australian things Aussies are very much proud of and I have yet to fully understand why. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Vegemite jars are made in Melbourne, and the Aussies show no signs of ditching the product. There’s a small jar of Vegemite at home and one day I tried it just to see for myself what it actually tastes like. It’s definitely an acquired taste, somewhere between sadness and despair with a hint of violence, but I’m told it sure is healthy!