Of Faded Charm and Chopsticks – Some Melbourne Vignettes

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Looking back over this life of sixty plus years, it certainly hasn’t been one frequently punctured by the pleasures of overseas travel. This is not a matter of regret and I am not about to use the time that She up there has deigned left to me in a frenzied bout of making up for lost time, even if I possessed the funds. I am resigned to the fact that I will probably not make it back to Europe. Some folk do not get to go in a lifetime – let alone twice! It was a great ambition once upon a time to see India. Now I’ll just follow Rick Stein and his ilk around. I had an urge to see those misty, remarkable mountains of Guilin. It is not likely now, but who knows? These were once resident on my vague bucket list – but I am too content with life in general, living a blissful existence with my beautiful DLP (Darling Loving Partner) by the river, to be unduly concerned with ticking off life ambitions. I have hopes for the more moderate goal of returning to Bali, the most recent of my out-of-Oz experiences. I loved that place. New Zealand is a maybe, as is Thailand – but they’re not absolutely non-negotiable musts. These days, essentially, my horizons are smaller and largely revolve around my own wide brown land – with a cruise or two still a possibility. My son and his partner are heading off to Europe in the new year and I am content to live vicariously through them, as I did when my daughter/son-in-law did the same not so long ago. My recall of the details of my own double feature there are very vague – it was so long ago now. The same could be said for the short time I had in Hong Kong way back before the handover, my only other external sojourn. From that adventure I remember an aborted landing – our descent into the old airport, on the Cathy Pacific jumbo, between the residential towers, was too fast according to our captain whom, as soon as wheels touched tarmac, banked us sharply back up into the stratosphere again. It was second time lucky. I remember a trip into the New Territories to stare at China – as you did back then; the crowds of humanity on the island and the pleasures of the Star Ferries. I wended my way somehow up to the top of Victoria Peak and there were a couple of very fine partakings of tucker I recall with some fondness. The memory that is strongest though, still featuring in my Bruegelesque nightmares, is of another dining experience, far from very fine, in which I was, inadvertently, the main attraction. The incident came back to haunt me one night in China Town, on our recent trip across the briny to Yarra City.

Trips to Melbourne are always such a joy. The pleasure is doubled when I am accompanied by my treasured DLP. For me there are a few constants in every trip – a wander in the environs of Brunswick and/or Smith Streets, the friendliness of Melburnians – possibly relishing the fact they reside in the world’s most liveable metropolis – and the smiles, together with the readiness to chat, of a plethora of beautiful women behind the tills of numerous frequented retail outlets.

Our home for the duration of the stay was DLP’s recommendation, the Crossley, on Little Bourke (No51). It could be described as a mid-range hostelry, perfectly adequate with a courteous reception staff. It did have the slightly faded feel that I am quite drawn to. There were two features I loved – firstly the framed vintage photography on its walls. And then there was the deep, substantial bath in our room, enabling me to get a ‘proper’ start to the day. This is not always possible staying away from home. I’d certainly consider the Crossley for future trips. It took a little while to get my bearings that side of the CBD, so used am I to staying the Spencer Street end, but that initial afternoon we were soon making our way to our first objective – the Exhibition Building. We stopped for more than satisfactory libations at Trunk Diner (No151 Exhibition) en route. Our aim was the annual Design Show and, although the exhibits didn’t disappoint, it was extremely crowded and overly warm – a hothouse. DLP beat a reasonably quick retreat but I persevered a while longer and picked up a few bibs and bobs. It did showcase that the local mob are a talented bunch. It was later, on our first evening that my Honkers bad dream came flooding back to haunt me.

DLP had another suggestion to enhance our trip, this time for our dining that night. As a result of her own visits, not accompanied by her biggest fan, she knew that just across the road from the hotel was the Shark Fin Inn City Restaurant (No50). We stepped out and hand in hand we entered a dining area that, in décor, had seen better days. As the night proceeded it proved it was still a popular venue. One wall was festooned with certificates, all from the eighties, mainly consisting of Age Good Dining Awards for an Asian restaurant. This, for some reason, made me feel somewhat uneasy, as did the number of hovering waiters, all of male persuasion. Without giving it perhaps the thought I should have, considering my vague feelings of discomfit, I ordered duck accompanied by, as there were only chopsticks to be seen, cutlery. Let me say from the get go that I adore duck and the one offered by this culinary establishment was succulently moist, sublimely delicious. That wasn’t the problem. I was having an attack of deja vu. I felt every eye in the room on me. Now I am useless with chopsticks and when in the past (coming to that) I’ve wielded them, there’s been embarrassingly far more spillage on tablecloths than actual food entering the appropriate orifice. And of late I have been lulled into a false sense of security by my Chinese noshing experiences in Devonport. No, I hadn’t thought it all through so eager was I to have a bird in Melbourne.

It has become somewhat of a tradition to celebrate DLP’s mother’s birthday at the China Garden, King Street, just before Christmas. It is a low-key type of place that offers a duck only slightly less well produced than the Shark Fin variety I experienced that first Melbourne eve. By the Mersey there are no tuxedoed maitre d’s hovering and I am comfortable handling my menu choice with greasy fingers. No-one bats an eye. I should have recalled that the bony nature of duck does not lend itself to manipulation by western implements. At the Shark Fin I was soon in trouble. Sure enough, an eagle-eyed waiter, noticing my futile attempts to get meat to part from bone, was soon rushing over to ask if all was to my satisfaction. I hurriedly gave him positive assurances, but by now sweat was starting to appear on my brow. I know this China Town venue was a world away, in time and location, from what occurred to me back in the day when the Shark Fin was in its pomp, but that didn’t help.

The brochure extolled this off shore island’s charm, describing it as a throwback to traditional Chinese life – and just a short ferry trip away from the glamour and glitz of Kowloon. I was tempted and signed up. Into the South China Sea the little conveyance ploughed and after a short time, I was there. It certainly was different with its ramshackle water frontage forming an arc around its harbour. I alighted from my transportation at the jetty and indeed was seemingly injected into another era. It was teeming with people too, but these beings were entirely made up of what could only be described as the ‘peasant’ class. I poked and prodded around a few tawdry shops specialising in faded tourist tat before deciding I would need to while away time, before the return ferry, at some form of eatery – and I was feeling peckish. I had already concluded that there were few, if any, English speakers around and the signage was entirely in Chinese. There were no helpful translations as in cosmopolitan HK. I soon found a dining hut that was close to full of frugally attired locals tucking in– always a good indicator of worth. I entered to be greeted by a cacophony of noise. This abated as the locals spotted me. As the hush intensified every diner turned to face me, mouths agape. I concluded occidentals were a rare species on the island. A wizened old man came over, bowing obsequiously with every step. He ushered me to a centrally located table – all the better for the floor show that was to occur all too soon – and handed me a blackened, well creased sheet of paper, all in indecipherable characters – obviously the menu. I stared with incomprehension. ‘English?’ I shakily inquired. My host looked at me with widened eyes, shrugged his shoulders and pointed at a line on the ‘bill of fare’. I took this to be a suggestion and nodded vigorously. He gave me a toothless smile and backed away, bowing as furiously as when he had first attended me. Gradually, as I waited, the surrounding masses returned to their own repast and conversations. Very soon my choice arrived. I had no idea what it was. By now the silence around me was renewed as every eye again focussed on myself and whatever it was plated afore me. The waiter then thrust some chopsticks at me. I shook my head at the offending objects and even though I knew the outcome, I hopefully uttered, ‘Cutlery? Knife? Fork?’ The old man’s mouth fell open and he offered a blank look in return, so I proceeded to mime the action I presumed to be a reasonable imitation of non-oriental engagement with a plate of food. His eyes widened and he beat a hasty return to the kitchen, throwing the wooden sticks at me. A deathly hush fell over the place. This was right royal, if perplexing, entertainment. I knew I had flummoxed the waiter and now I had a conundrum. The locals were settling back to watch what would develop.

On my plate I spied a piece of meat of indeterminate provenance with a splinter of bone protruding. I felt that would be as good a starting point as any so I reached out with fingers poised to pluck it away from my plate and transport it to my mouth. On realising what I was about to do a frantic ululation arose from the horrified citizens around me, to the degree that I was soon in no doubt that to continue with this course of action would cause immense injury to their cultural sensitivities. This explains my reticence to do the same on that Melbourne eve thirty years on. I decided to then move to Plan B, with the only problem being – I didn’t have one. Thankfully a young lady arose from her seat nearby and ventured across to me. For the next few minutes she gave me a crash course in the correct manual manipulation of those two prongs of oriental torture. By the end of my schooling others had joined her and seemed to be offering advice as well, not that I could understand any of their helpful hints. But following my rescuer’s lead, I decided to at least give it a go. By now practically the whole clientele of the restaurant, staff included, were ogling me from the sidelines, absorbed in proceedings. I was sweating profusely with the stress of it all, my hands shaking as I took hold of the chopsticks and endeavoured to get a morsel to its destination. When, eventually, after many futile attempts, I managed to do so, there were audible murmurs of delight from the assembled eggers-on. Most tries failed. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed money was changing hands. The Chinese were actually betting on the outcome of each attempt! Gradually more success came my way, to be greeted by back-slaps and a few cheers. By now I could see the funny side of all this and felt more at ease with an audience, but still little progress was being made in terms of the gruel still remaining to be dealt with. I was even in danger of missing the return boat to ‘civilisation’. This called for a more determined attack, so throwing caution to the wind, I raised the plate to my face, placed its rim against my chin and stated using the implements more in the nature of a shovel. I started pushing the glistening mass into my masticating mouth. This was more like it and didn’t seem to offend, so eventually I finished to the applause of an appreciative throng. There were more pats on the back and proffered hands. I left monies and quickly made my exit, receiving copious bows. They appreciated the colour I had added to their day. I was relieved the ordeal, although good-natured, was over.

Returning to the Shark Fin, as the night wore on, with the tables beginning to fill, those on patrol became less of a concern. I was able to surreptitiously use my digits. This chopstick-a-phobe had learnt a valuable lesson and I will return to the Shark Fin, if only to prove a point to myself. And, dear reader, my DLP has now had two tasty meals there as well so, if more adept than I in the usage of chopsticks, do venture there. Personally, next time I will not order duck.

DLP, on a roll, also selected the dining venue for the following night – the Spaghetti Tree up the Parliament end of Bourke (No59). It was not my first time at that eatery – I worked out I’d been before, shortly after its opening – thirty-five years previously. Back then it was the place to go for pasta. In the decades since it has certainly faded too – not some shiny minimalist hipster joint this! My generous portion of excellent lasagne was just what the doctor ordered after the rigours of the previous night, although our waiter seemed a bit perplexed that I preferred the hand-cut chips to go with the meal rather than wedges. Still, with fast, smiling and efficient service, it wouldn’t be decades before I returned again.

Melbourne Now is a varied exhibition, seemingly taking its cue somewhat from the MONA model. Spread across the two NGVs, its free and well worth a couple of hours time. Again, the artistic talent/legacy of the city old Bearbrass has become is to the fore. Redolent of the faded charms of the Jazz Age are the slightly fuzzy, but exceedingly stunning images produced by Edward Steichen to showcase it in the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair back in the day. On show at the St Kilda Road gallery, the accompanying art deco dresses displayed are just as impressive. I had high hopes, but less alluring for me was ‘Spectacle:The Music Video Exhibition’ at ACMI, Fed Square. I expected a visual trip down memory lane. There was some nostalgia there, but much of the music it showcased had passed me by. Not so at the Mushroom memorabilia housed temporarily at the RMIT Gallery, the top end of Swanston Street. I was back in ‘Countdown’ heaven.

We had just alighted from the 112 to Brunswick Street and down it came – pluvial rainfall. We were attired for summer so DLP quickly had to make some waterproofing purchases. A visit to Klein’s Perfumery (No313) is always a must, as is now Zetta Florence (No197B), just about my favourite Melbourne shopping experience. The outpouring from the heavens didn’t let up all day, meaning that negotiating often narrow CBD side-walks can be eye-threatening when the pointy end of umbrellas are aimed directly at you. The danger ramps up to extreme when, in their other hand, uber-cool pedestrians are manipulating digital devices, thus having little focus on the dangers their sodden parasols pose to oncoming foot traffic.

There were other highlights – the pine trees artfully arranged in Federation Square for Christmas; a delightfully befuddled waiter at Spigo (Menzies Alley, Melbourne Central) on his first day on the job as we breakfasted one morning; sojourning along a sunny Acland Street; assisting Asian visitors with ‘selfies’ and of course, at this time of year, the expressions on the young when viewing the Myer windows.

Earlier this year I shook the hand of three of my heroes – the brothers Flanagan and Luka Bloom, at separate events. I would have been satisfied with that, but with Melbourne came the icing on the cake for 2013! Who should I stumble across waiting alone patiently for a promotion event to commence in the environs of Fed Square but the great Archie Roach. Knowing an opportunity to meet the man whose music has so enhanced my life would probably never occur for me again, I approached and asked for a handshake. He cordially complied and was also generous enough to scribble a couple of autographs, one for myself and another for my beautiful daughter. Let alone all of the above, this would have been enough to make another Melbourne visit special. I’ll never tire of this city – the rest of the world can wait.

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