Sunday, February 17, 2008

Memories of Melbourne

(PICTURE: Kristy, my phenomenal host, and me)

I've done my fair share of traveling. I've been to Israel, New Zealand, England (twice), Ireland, Scotland, Spain (three times), Germany, France, Alabama, Italy (twice), Greece, Croatia, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Mexico (too many times to count), Canada (also too many times to count including some trips to places like Nova Scotia I've made a  concerted effort to forget), 44ish out of 50 states and a few other counties I'm sure that I'm leaving out. The point is, up until Melbourne I was starting to feel that Australia was my least favorite place that I've ever been to. Don't get me wrong, the people are nice, the food is good, the scenery is gorgeous but overall it feels just like home...but without the friends and family. 

When I travel I want to feel like everything is new, one big unique experience. Australia, well, it just wasn't doing it for me.  Flying into Melbourne I was starting to question whether I should have planned a full month in the land down under. Frankly, as my Virgin Blue plane descended --strangely over a graveyard right before the runway-- I felt a little down and out. Well, that was all about to change. Greeting me at baggage claim was Miss Australia herself, Kristy Cook, a friend who I met two years ago in Germany during the World Cup. Kristy greeted me not only with a big hug but with a six pack of beer in the car. After assuring me that road sodas were legal in Australia (don't worry Mom and Dad only I was drinking) I cracked open a brew and had the overwhelming sensation that things were about to change for the better...even though she bought me some crap beer. 

Besides the beer, Kristy had another gift for me: two tickets to the Australian Football League game that night (see picture in previous post). We went to the game and within minutes two things became pretty obvious. First, the fans here are just like in America--they're quick to cheer for a good play and even quicker to boo and curse a bad one. Secondly, after assessing the skills that it takes to be an Aussie Footballer, I realized that had I grown up here I would have been a pro-athlete. The game is tailor made for me: running, kicking, hitting and just a lot of hustle. I really could have been a contender so thanks a lot for not moving to Melbourne Mom and Dad. I could have been the spokesperson for Victoria Bitter Beer right now and dating some blonde Aussie pop star. 

On Saturday I forced Kristy to take me to a wildlife sanctuary so I could finally pet some freaking animals. Two weeks in Australia without petting a non-domesticated animal should be considered a crime. Kristy was a sport for agreeing to drive the hour and a half to the best wildlife sanctuary in the area. By sport I mean she drove and mocked me on the phone to all of her friends who called to invite us to the beach: "Yeah, the stupid American wants to pet a koala. We'll meet you at the beach later." Well, we got to the sanctuary and guess what...we couldn't pet any animals! What the hell! Apparently you're only legally allowed to pet koalas in Queensland, Australia. But I was just in Queensland and they wouldn't let me pet them there either. It's a conspiracy. 

After being shut-out by the Koalas we went to the Kangaroo area. Within the fenced area you could pet any 'roos that approached you. However, they were all resting in the shade, behind the "out of bounds" rope, out of petting reach. Finally one came over, looked us in the eye from about four feet away and then laid down to take a nap. A total tease. Kristy yelled at me to jump the rope and pet the "damn thing we drove an hour and a half for" but I said, "No. I'm an American and I respect the rules." We walked around the rest of the wildlife sanctuary and found that all too often there were signs up for what animals we SHOULD be seeing but weren't. I came to the conclusion that it is quite easy to open a sanctuary if you don't have any animals. 

After a long, hot, disappointing afternoon, good news finally came. As we were leaving, a koala, perched on a tree limb, was in eskimo kissing range. I snuck up on the little guy who must have just woken up from a nap (koalas sleep 20+ hours a day). I whispered a few sweet nothings into his ear (you know the standard lines, "you look really pretty tonight," "I can see myself in your eyes", etc.) and went in for the eskimo kiss. His nose was extremely soft like a Jane August python purse (Jane, you might want to start a Koala nose bag line!). His breath and my breath came together and I believe we thought the same thing: we may have our differences -- he's a koala, I'm a human. He's Australian, I'm American -- but in that moment we were one. Then the zookeeper came over and told me to stop playing with the taxidermy koala.
The rest of the weekend Kristy and I vegged out at the beach and ate ridiculously good meals. Kristy told me that she's glad I was only here for a few days because her "muffin top was growing at an alarming rate." In Australia, muffin top = belly. 

Someone had told me that "Melbourne is skippable." I disagree. The city isn't architecturally spectacular but it has the things I love: fantastic food and endless shark-free beaches.  Furthermore, the weather is perfect. One could say it's just like Santa Monica, CA.  However, the most important factor that won me over here was my incredible host. Kristy has been fantastic from the moment she picked me up till now. I literally couldn't imagine a better host: my own queen size bed, fresh towels, her doing my laundry, delicious home cooked food (will tell you all about this special meal in an upcoming blog), etc. She even insisted the whole time to pay for everything (except when I literally fought her for the bill) saying, "you can take care of me when I visit you in Vietnam." What a sucker, a meal in 'Nam cost like three dollars! Anyway, thank you for being so great, Kristy! 

So I'm back on board with Australia. I'm having a great time again and know that the last ten days of my trip will be wonderful. I'm headed tonight to Perth in Western Australia to spend time with my friend Lily and her family. Lily has promised me that her mother is one of the premiere cooks in Australia and I will leave no meal hungry. I told her that she's got a lot to compete with after staying with Kristy for three days....