21 April 2010

Graffiti = The New Black

It's official: I've been tagged. I'm now a lover of street art. I've discovered that the artists-armed-with-spray-paint around these parts are not only talented but mighty prolific. When I moved here in November, I started noticing huge, colorful (and basically indecipherable) tags on the sides of random buildings as I zoomed past in various metro trains. At first I didn't really think anything of it - I just lumped it in with the stuff I'm used to seeing in the States (mostly just ugly crap defacing rocks or buildings in shady parts of town - no real genius there).

But... as I slowly (ever slowly!) work at peeling back the layers of this city (starting with the hard, shiny touristy exterior and working inward towards the unattainable-but-fun-to-aspire-to Chewy Tootsie Roll Center of "local knowledge"), I'm discovering ever more interesting spectacles. Case in point: graffiti as art.

There's a not-so-underground culture of street art here. Aside from the outlying suburbs, which boast an impressive and ever-evolving number of amazing, oft-hidden graffiti zones (basically any semi-flat building surface not facing a main street), the Melbourne CBD has designated some "legal" spots for graffiti-ing. I visited two of them today. Let me say right off the bat that I know the CBD's spots fall under more of the touristy side of things than on the cool local side, but I was lazy and didn't feel like tramming it all the way to Carlton or Collingwood. Maybe next time.

Long story short, after enduring the super-fun smells of piss and garbage, and getting heckled in Hosier Lane by a crazy woman who wanted me to help her dumpster-dive under the green snaggle-toothed monster (I wish I was kidding), I emerged with what may actually be some pretty decent shots. And anyway, I love the smell of spray paint in the morning.

20 April 2010

How to Grieve (Australian edition)

Yesterday, a shady “gangland serial killer” (their words, not mine) was murdered in a maximum-security prison near Melbourne.   

The murder is big news around here.  There seems to be an almost hysterical interest here in “underworld” (drugs, prostitution, organized crime, general assholery) activity.  They make TV movies about it.  Only problem is, because they’ve got such a small pool of actors to work with, they apparently have to poach actors from the primetime soaps.  It’s got to be a little surreal to watch a guy – who, five days a week, can be seen sensitively mooning over some girl with perfect hair – knife someone in the back in a gritty crime drama.  

Anyway, as Snoop would say, back to the lecture at hand.  Newscasters camped out at the dead man’s father’s house, desperate for a sound bite.  While a somber voiceover explained that the family was in mourning, news footage showed family members and friends entering the house bearing SEVERAL CASES OF BEER (Victoria Bitter, from the looks of it).  Naturally.   

The newscaster reporting the story then announced that the prison was taking extra measures with its maximum-security inmates, including giving them individual exercise sessions with their own personal guards.  Although these measures seemed a bit extreme, the reporter remarked (with an admirably straight face), “there have been no murders today, so that’s something.”

16 April 2010

How Bazaar

It may come as little surprise to you that I’m a big fan of junk shops. Huge, in fact. Fortunately, Melbourne does not disappoint. There is some serious awesomeness going on in this city, not least of which comes in the form of Old Shit That’s Already Been Used. The Chapel Street Bazaar has to be my all-time favorite such place. It’s an enormous warehouse-space tucked smack in the middle of one of the trendiest streets in the city. When you walk in, your nose is assaulted by the smell of Vintage Stuff. You know the smell. And if you don’t, well, just picture walking into your grandparents’ attic (minus the odor of mouse droppings). Multiply that by a hundred and you have some idea.

We are legion

And we’re talking a vast selection. It’s divided into sections, but not helpfully so. Instead of, say, an area for crazy old lady jewelry, another for records, another for vintage toys, the entire shop is divided into individual “stalls”, each of which is rented out by someone with his or her own private collection of random stuff to sell. So you might have a selection of bottle openers and jackknives perched next to a stack of rainbow-colored melamine teacups, or a pair of kangaroo salt-and-pepper shakers jockeying for position beside an army of Smurfs. Plus a few vintage cameras on the side. And if you want a cigarette lighter from the Nixon administration, you can find it here. Basically, it’s a whole neighborhood of Grandma’s attics all housed in a huge maze under one roof.

Typewriter love

Going somewhere?

Crazy old lady jewelry

The only downside that I can see to this arrangement is that finding something that you want to actually buy (as opposed to just trying on, which can result in excessive squealing and picture-taking, which has only gotten me kicked out once) requires an almost photographic memory: it’s virtually impossible to re-find something once you’ve moved on to stare at another crazy random thing. I once discovered a fabulous cocktail ring that I was apparently desperate to own (it had a giant picture of Elvis on it, c’mon), only to realize mere seconds later, after I’d absently wandered across the aisle to examine a collection of dog-shaped teapots, that the ring was gone. Not bought by someone else, just gone. It had disappeared into the Black Hole of Lost Things, swallowed up by the Bazaar.  It was clearly punishing me for not purchasing it immediately. I searched for it for about half an hour before I gave up. So I adopted the philosophy that I often adopt when shopping (and which usually ends up saving me money): I decided that if the universe wanted me to have Elvis on my finger, it would let me find it again on another trip.

Doggy sugar bowl... I think

Still haven’t found that damn ring again, yet.

12 April 2010

Love Your Trams

This weekend I dragged Chris to the tram museum. I know that sounds about as much fun as a trip to the dentist, but wait. It was, in fact, awesome. Picture this: it's in the middle of nowhere by Melbourne standards (aka Hawthorn); it's (ironically) difficult to get to by tram; it's only open once a month for a few hours; it's in a big, drafty warehouse; and it contains nothing but discarded relics of a much-maligned public transportation system. What's not to love?

The reason for this trip was ostensibly so that I could take some photos of these dinosaurs (I'm on kind of a photography kick these days), but really, I just wanted to ring the bells and sit in the drivers' seats and play with the hand brake. No, that's not dirty. And because Chris is such a devoted husband he came along to ensure my safety in the wilds of suburban Melbourne. Also, I think he secretly wanted to ring the bells and play with the hand brake (possibly in a dirty way).

My devoted husband waiting for the tram to take us to the trams.

(Our friend Kristina wisely escaped this madness, only to find herself staring at paintings in a nearby museum and then, overcome with fright at the NGV's scary glass ramp/staircase of doom, promptly (and sensibly) returned to her hotel to pass out in what can only be described as an art coma. So although she missed out on the tram-a-palooza, at least I was able to get a good paragraph out of her anyway. Thanks, K-WOW.)

When we got to the tram museum, we made an absolutely (non-)shocking discovery: all of the museum volunteers were octogenarians!  I know, right?  (Non-)shocker!  I asked the gentleman at the front desk where I should pay (a gold coin was the suggested price of admission).  He replied with a stern scowl, "Young lady, I'm not too sure if we're planning on opening for any additional days this month.  We're usually open only one day a month in the winter."  Huh.  Well, we left a couple of dollars on his desk (which he accepted with a rather surprised expression) and headed into the tram hall, where no fewer than three additional old men were eagerly (desperately?) waiting to ask if we had any questions about trams.*

What an amazing place!  A huge, echo-y chamber, kind of like an airplane hangar, full of trams sitting perched on temporary tracks, one behind the other.  Arranged in rows like dominoes.  It was kind of like going to the Children's Museum in Boston: everything's your size; there are lots of bright colors; you can play with all the moving parts; and nobody cares if you run around screaming your fool head off.  Chris immediately disappeared.  A few minutes later I heard a tram bell ringing merrily near the back of the building and knew he would be pleasantly occupied for quite some time.

I was sitting in the driver's seat of a jolly green and yellow beast from the 1920s, fiddling with the hand brake (it looks like a steering wheel but makes an awesomely annoying loud clicking noise) when I heard a dour voice behind me: "Did you know that Melbourne's first female tram operator died a few weeks ago?"

I turned slowly and realized that the Dreaded Thing had happened: one of the ancient volunteers had sidled up and was eagerly waiting to Dispense Tram Knowledge to me.  He was practically bursting with excitement.  I realized then that there was probably a good reason that the museum was only open one day a month.

About 20 minutes later, after learning about how Australian women had protested their lack of equality in the tram-operating arena by gathering in the streets of Melbourne and complaining loudly, and how they had finally won the right to drive trams ("until one of them has an accident - then it's back to the kitchen where they belong!"), I politely escaped by jumping from one tram to another, Indiana-Jones-style, scurrying down a side row, and looking busy by taking what ended up being about 500 photos.

The aisle-maze, my savior.

I spent a significant amount of time lying on my back, staring up at one particular tram's smiling face, and playing with the different features on the camera.  Is this how it feels to be Herb Ritts?

The green beasties.

Alas, all good things must come to an end.  We wound up our visit with a friendly hello to yet another elderly gentleman who was lovingly polishing the handrails of No. 431, St. Kilda Beach.  All in all, a very satisfying day.

*NB: all of the volunteers at the tram museum were very friendly and knowledgeable; any negativity implied by the author is for humorous purposes only.  The author sincerely appreciates their graciousness, hard work, and dedication to the preservation of history.

09 April 2010


There's very little decent Mexican food in Australia. Now, you may think this is a strong statement, but consider this: only about 3,000 Mexicans even live here. In my opinion, this is nothing short of a tragedy. I never realized how much I love Mexican food until it was rudely snatched away from me over the course of one 14-hour plane ride from Los Angeles to Melbourne.

Well. After months of searching, lots of making-stuff-from-scratch-with-questionable-results, some fruitless searches for basic things like cornmeal and black beans, and throwing up my hands in disgust over sweet spaghetti sauce masquerading as salsa, I found THE PLACE. Mamacita, a tiny upstairs restaurant on Collins Street in the CBD. You walk in an unassuming doorway, up a narrow flight of stairs, and into pure sweet deliciousness. My friend Erin and I went there today for lunch. We were so excited to find amazing Mexican food that we promptly got wasted on micheladas and inhaled some amazing tacos. We also destroyed a huge basket of homemade chips and salsa (why do Australians and New Zealanders like sugar in their salsa? I will never understand this). They have soft tacos. They have quesadillas with "Mexican truffles." They have ceviche. They have tamales. They have Don Julio. Y.U.M. So giddy with delight were we that we bared our souls to the bartenders. Well, not really. But we had a really interesting conversation about state capitals and how lame they are. Seriously. It wasn't the booze.

I will now be eating there at least once a day. Possibly more, if we can keep entertaining the bartenders, thereby earning free food and/or tequila.

The Telltale Heart

Here it is, in all its 6.35 kg glory. For the record, the average horse heart weights about 4 kilos. In case you were wondering.

Another fun fact: there's currently a debate raging in the Australian racing community about whether to transport the heart and skeleton of Phar Lap from their respective locations to reunite them with the hide in Melbourne in time for the 150th running of the Melbourne Cup. However, the heart is apparently too fragile to travel. So, sadly, it looks like PL's heart will miss out on the whole anniversary hullabaloo. Which means that eager Melburnians will only get to gaze upon two bizarrely separated parts of the horse, rather than three. And they'll just have to make do with looking at a photo of a heart floating in formaldehyde. I heart Australia.

Why "Phar Lap's Heart"?

"The racehorse Phar Lap is one of the legends of Australian sporting history. His unusually large heart, weighing 6.35 kilograms, is one of the icons of the National Museum of Australia's collection, a testament to the great affection with which Phar Lap is held by the Australian people.

Phar Lap's victory in the 1930 Melbourne Cup, in the midst of the Great Depression, elevated him to the status of national hero. Two years later, Australia was stunned at the news of the horse's death under suspicious circumstances in the United States.

Phar Lap's remains were dispersed across the globe. His mounted hide went to the National Museum of Victoria in Melbourne, the skeleton to the National Museum of New Zealand in Wellington and the heart to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra."

- Quoted from the National Museum of Australia's website.

I chose this as the title/theme of my blog for a couple of reasons. First, I'm living in Melbourne right now and, as a racing fan, I clearly had no choice but to make the trek over to the museum (by way of Lygon Street, naturally) to see Phar Lap's hide. Great preservation work, guys. Second, I was really fascinated by Australians' fierce devotion to this horse. They were so devoted, in fact, that they cut him open and displayed parts of him in different museums. This is awesome. Mostly, though, I thought it was a good way of showing what I'm looking for in all of my traveling. As you may know, I'm kind of a new expat wife (yep, with all of the anti-feminist stuff that implies). It's been about five months since I left the States, and I haven't written much of anything about my experiences abroad. But I've seen and thought about a hell of a lot since I've been away. So I figured it was high time to start writing. Those who know me will probably understand that I like to seek out the strange and bizarre (and the hilarious). Well. I think this fits the bill.