Thursday, July 23, 2009

Still thinking about Tassie

The problem with having a busy routine and trying to maintain a blog is that you inevitably end up having to choose between doing stuff and writing about it. We’ve been keeping pretty active since returning from Tasmania, so I haven’t had a chance to write about all the fun stuff we did there. I’ll try to get at least some of it down in pixels and bytes before we go off on our next adventure.

On the way to Tasmania, we stopped in Melbourne. We had visited Melbourne back in January... well, sort of. We arrived there after spending more than a week in Sydney, and were feeling pretty citied-out, so even though we’d heard Melbourne was a lovely, vibrant, exciting city, we decided to spend all our time there explring the countryside. We drove the Great Ocean Road, and went to see penguins at Phillip Island, and toured the lovely Dandenong forest and hills. Of Melbourne itself, though, we saw nothing. Needless to say our good friend Jackie, who is from Melbourne, has given us no end of grief about that.

This time, we had a day’s stop-over there on our way to Tasmania (due to the oddities of the airlines, it worked out to be cheaper to fly to Melbourne and stay overnight than it would have been to fly direct to Hobart. Go figure.) Since we hadn’t seen much of the CBD (Central Business District, or downtown), we decided to stay right in the heart of it, booking a room at a “backpackers” hotel near the train station. (Backpackers seem to be a uniquely Australian institution. It’s a term that covers everything from cheap and funky through grotty all the way to downright scary. This one was on the grottier end of the scale, but it was only for one night.) We planned to spend our day and evening in Melbourne just walking and exploring.

It turns out that, as advertised, Melbourne is a lovely, vibrant, exciting city. It’s got some fabulous architecture, tons of great restaurants, and some really cool markets, as well as one of the world’s best public transit systems (which includes free trams in the CBD). We stopped in Federation Square, a former industrial area which is now home to art galleries and museums. In celebration of winter, there was an outdoor art show with the theme of light. The most interesting exhibit was a platform about 20 m square, dotted with dozens of pillars about 2 m tall. Each pillar contained speakers and light panels, which lit and played in response to the movement of people on the platform. In effect it was a giant sculpture and musical instrument which we were all playing. Very neat.

After a bit of walking around, though, we started to get chilled (it was around 6 degrees in the evening). Isaiah and Charlotte’s ears were getting cold, so we stopped into a tourist shop to see if we could get them some cheap “beanies” (or touques, as we know them). And that’s where I suddenly understood how crazy Melburnians are for AFL.

This is footy season, so every Friday and Saturday night I get to choose between watching rugby league or Australian rules football on t.v. One of the things that’s intrigued me about Aussie rules (AFL) is that I have no idea where the teams are from. I certainly don’t know all the places in Australia, but I’ve got a pretty good idea of where the big ones are. But when I watch AFL, I see 60,000 people cheering as teams from St. Kilda, Essendon, or Collingwood hammer each other. And I think “surely these must be fairly big places to have this many fans come out to their games week after week. Why have I not heard of them?” In Melbourne, I suddenly realized what was going on. St. Kilda, Essendon, and Collingwood aren’t cities. They’re all parts of Melbourne.

And they’re not suburbs from distant parts of the city – they’re neighbourhoods, butting up against each other. In our walks around Melbourne, we passed through several of these neighbourhoods without even realizing it. You can see how close they are on this map.

In all, Melbourne – a city of 3.8 million people – has nine professional AFL teams. Ten if you count Geelong, which is a small city about 70 kms from downtown Melbourne. Imagine if Toronto had nine professional hockey teams – not just teams from Etobicoke and Scaroborough, but teams based in The Beaches, the Danforth, the distillery district, and so on, with another pro team in Milton. On top of that, I’m told there are another nine semi-pro teams scattered around Melbourne. The pro teams share the city’s stadiums, each of which has four games on a typical weekend. The desk clerk at our hotel said there are about 300,000 Melburnians at a footy match each weekend!

I’ve been told that going to the footy in Melbourne is one of the city’s quintessential experiences. Unfortunately we hadn’t timed our trip to catch a game. But this weekend we’re going to do the next best thing by going to Brisbane to watch the Brisbane Lions take on the North Melbourne Kangaroos. Charlotte bought a Kangaroos hat in Melbourne, mainly because she liked the name. She’s not sure whether she’ll wear it to the game on Saturday, though, as it only seems right that we cheer for the Brisbane team. (Isaiah bought a Geelong Cats hat, because they won the first game he saw on t.v., and because we stayed in Geelong while exploring the Great Ocean Road. But he thinks he’ll cheer for the Lions as well.)

Most Queenslanders seem to view AFL as a bit of an intruder, here in the rugby league heartland. That would explain why tickets are being sold on a two-for-one promotion this weekend. But it should still be fun to pile into The Gabba and see what all the fuss is about.

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