The Little Things
I’ve been in Melbourne about five weeks now. Here are some random observations. Keep in mind that this is a narrow perspective. I’m judging the whole of Australia based on my Aussie boyfriend (sorry, dear Australian citizens) and comparisons are against my tiny world in Miami, which is not representative of the United States. No one place in America is.
On the Road
The state of Victoria has an extensive process for a young adult obtaining a driver’s license. After passing a knowledge test and an eyesight test, an applicant can get a learner permit at 16, which allows him/her to drive with an experienced driver holding a full driver’s license. When driving, they have to display a yellow L plate on the front and back of the car to alert others on the road. Learners must log 120 hours of practice hours. At the age of 18, after completing the driving practice hours, and passing the required exams, the learner earns a probationary license. You can now turn in your L plates for P plates. The probationary period lasts three or fours years. The minimum age at which a driver can obtain a full license is 22. However, a tourist like me, with an English-language license, accustomed to driving on the right side of the road from the left side of the car with little knowledge of local traffic laws, is allowed to drive freely. In fact, I drove for the first time on Sunday. Melbourne, you’ve been warned.
Gas, which Aussies refer to as petrol, costs about twice as much here as it does in Miami, and doesn’t get you as far considering the massive size of this city. You’ll see familiar companies such as BP and Shell as well as local ones. You can pump first and then pay, but most stations require you to go inside as they don’t generally have pay options at the pump.
I thought I was going to see tiny Euro-style cars everywhere. Although you don’t see as many big SUVs, Melburnians drive a variety of automobiles, and Toyotas, Hondas, and Fords are just as popular here as they are in Miami. Sometimes the car models have different names. For example, the Honda Fit is known here as the Jazz.
Melbourne has a complex public transportation system that includes trains, trams, and buses. Apparently it covers enough of the city and is efficient enough that many people don’t own cars. I find it all confusing and, since Miami is seriously lacking in decent public transportation, I’m not accustomed to using it. Even more confusing are the streets in general. They all have names and not necessarily unique ones.
Food in Melbourne is all very good. At the markets, you’ll find a lot of fresh, local produce, and organic and free range meats and eggs. Food here does not appear to be highly processed or full of additives, MSG, and corn syrup. It is all more expensive. In fact, just about everything in Melbourne is more expensive than in Miami.
Melbourne is full of great restaurants and I don’t just mean fine dining. There is a plethora of really good cafes, pizza shops, and casual Mediterranean and Asian eateries. There’s great ethnic diversity resulting in many choices when it comes to food. If there’s a downside to all this it’s that everything feels gourmet. A plain ole pepperoni pizza or soul food is difficult, if not impossible, to find.
Where Melbourne falls flat is in the service department. Unlike in the States, restaurant servers in Australia earn a normal wage and do not work on tips. At most restaurants and cafes I’ve been to, servers don’t bring water to the table unless you ask for it and they don’t return to your table after they’ve brought out of your food. They don’t check to see how you’re doing or to refill your water. You’re pretty much on your own. If you need your server, you’ll have to flag him/her down.
While I’m on the subject of food, I have to admit that I thought I’d see few or no fat people in Melbourne. The media works very hard to sell the idea of obesity as an American problem. Melburnians seems to take pleasure and pride in their fresh food and generally healthy lifestyle. People walk a lot, they jog, hike, bicycle, and enjoy the outdoors. But I got news: Melbourne has fat people. A lot of them. America has not cornered the market on this.
Damn hipsters aside, Melburnians look good. This is not to imply that people in Miami don’t; many do, but Miami is hot and it’s a party town. People work very hard to look good and it shows. Cosmetic surgery runs amok in Miami and people don’t always have a good sense of propriety. For example, wearing a short, low-cut, shimmery dress and high heels to your 7 a.m. biology class or shorts and flip-flops to Sunday church. Melburnians, women in particular, have a casual elegance about them. There’s a lot of great shopping from department stores to vintage and local designers. I think there’s more variety here than in Miami when it comes to shopping and style though it all costs about twice as much, like everything else.