Travel teaches us things about places. While this is not always what compels travellers to buy a ticket to somewhere, to buy a backpack, to buy weird things like money belts and Tilley hats and individual-sized mosquito nets and strong little dysentery pills, it is inevitably what we discover. (It is important to note that not all travel is equal, and that not all travellers are equal, and that not all travellers head to South East Asia for the first time armed with any or all of the above, convinced for some reason that they will spend the ensuing months wearing nothing but sports bras and relaxed fit Lululemon yoga crops – because somehow this trip will be otherwise physically uncomfortable – and having failed to take any precautions against the psychic discomfort that will inevitably ensue.)
As travellers, we pack our bags with all these things and take a plane and arrive at our destination with a rush of exhilaration and fear and think to ourselves Holy crow how weird is this I’m all the way over here like completely on the other side of the map and I can’t believe how different the air smells and feels I wasn’t expecting that. And then we find things. Dragon fruit, for one, or gestures that accompany greetings, or that certain insects are edible, or that sometimes a bus schedule is merely a formality, or that we look strange in the yoga pants. (I won’t go on about it, but it must be said that after these initial revelations, we discover a new kind of loneliness, a new kind of self loathing, a new kind of loss, an uncomfortable negotiation of distance from and proximity to our selves.)
Places teach us things about places. It takes a while to see, but for everything we discover about the places we go to, we learn just as much about the place we’ve come from. Once we have travelled, the places we see are no longer free of comparison, and elements of past places appear in the present, brought back to life and into the moment through memory and association. I think of this as layered transparencies, or as Andre Aciman calls the phenomenon, Shadow Cities. (“Depending on where I sat, or on which corner I moved to within the park, I could be in any of four to five countries and never for a second be in the one I couldn’t avoid hearing, seeing, and smelling. This, I think, is when I started to love, if love is the word for it, New York.” [The New York Review of Books, Dec 1997]). When I look at Lake Ontario, I am also looking at The Pacific off the coast of Vancouver Island where I grew up, and at the coastline west of Melbourne that crashes beside the Great Ocean Road, and at the small beach in southern Japan where I’d sit and write at dawn on Sundays while friends bobbed like spools and waited for waves. (Let’s be real: I’m also looking at a grey and vastly cold and flat body of water that doesn’t smell like the ocean and whose virtually unused Toronto shoreline is a blatant missed opportunity.) These transparencies teach us not only to remember, but also to contextualize and categorize, and to make sense of how we internalize what lays itself out before us.
Now that I live in Toronto, I realize I am still learning so much about Melbourne, my home for the past four years. It is not that I walk around actively making comparisons; rather, I see or hear shadows of things that teach me more than my four years there could.
Below are a few things I learned about Melbourne after moving to Toronto:
People in Melbourne don’t spit.
I don’t just see this sometimes. I see it every time I go out. It’s not just people with colds, people exercising at high intensity, smokers, baseball players, or old-timey people expressing distaste toward one another. It’s women in pretty dresses, it’s men with manicured hands and expensive shoes, it’s people I know, it’s a kid goshdarnit, indoors! I’m sure there are spitters in Melbourne – it’s a big enough city that there’s room for all kinds – but it is not something I would see while walking through the city. It makes me wonder if there was a time in the past that I found it normal. If so, I wish I could return to that state. Maybe then I’d feel less grossed out all the time.
Australia, as whole, gets kind of a bad rap.
Here are some things actual Canadians have actually said to me since I’ve returned from Australia, to which I struggled to respond:
“So how did you find Australia? I really liked visiting there – those beaches! – but I don’t know if I could live there. There’s so many things that can kill you!”
“Sorry we never came to visit. I mean, I just don’t know how well it would have gone, you know, since neither of us are white.”
“Was it difficult to be a woman in Australia?”
“You lived in Australia? Wow, so what do you think about this whole crazy Britexit [sic] thing?” (Okay, so that was just a dumb Canadian and had nothing to do with Australia’s reputation, but how could I not include it?)
Trams = streetcars / streetcars = trams.
Don’t freak out, people. These are the same thing. They do the same job, their drivers rage in the same ways, they are quaint in the same ways, and they fail in all the same ways as well. In Melbourne, when someone corrects you for referring to it as a streetcar – once they realize to what you could possibly be referring – the tone will be hushed and you will feel admonished.
Melbourne can seem less friendly than stereotypically friendly places.
It’s nice to be nice to people, and it’s nice when people are nice to you. And my Melbourne friends are all nice, and it’s nice to hear them say that it is important for them to be nice to others. And they are nice, it’s just that it’s different from Canadian nice – it’s not next level nice. I know that Canadian nice is a stereotype, and I also know that it is the brunt of jokes, both nice and less-nice, but let me just say how nice it is to make eye contact with strangers again, and have people be unexpectedly friendly on the subway, or even to have someone hold the door. And by someone, I mean everyone.
A week before I left Melbourne I was at the streetcar stop (oops!) opposite Flinders Street Station during rush hour. In the crush of people trying to squeeze onto the platform was a young girl of about eleven, wearing her provincial plaid summer school dress, tall socks and Anne-of-Green-Gables-esque straw hat (part of the uniform), shuffling along with all the rat-racers in their black suits, looking hot and beleaguered, a strand of strawberry blond fringe clinging dramatically to her cheek, her enormous backpack nearly toppling her. And as she finally pushed past me and onto the platform, she opened her mouth, looking as if she were about to cry, and suddenly shrieked: Keep moving, c*nts.
Melburnians drink from travel coffee cups of a reasonable and dignified size.
Wow. Toronto! Everywhere I go here people are drinking from enormous, 24oz plastic cups (that’s 700ml), through straws, and more often than not it’s some sweet-blended-looking thing topped with something whipped. They look like drinks for giant children. Even a small sized coffee is an anxiety-inducing 12oz. Before arriving, we tried our best to mentally prepare ourselves for the general terribleness of coffee here, but I’d give my cat right now (sorry Furio) for a flat white from anywhere in Brunswick, in an 8oz takeaway cup with a clever stamp on its side. That said, I’m not sure I miss the general coffee snobbery and how far Melbourne is willing to go with its coffee culture.
Melbourne ladies can aim.
In Toronto’s public ladies’ loos, it seems that the toilet bowl – yes, ladies, that’s the concave part with the water in it – is simply a suggested termination point for the trajectory of one’s excess water, salt, and nitrogen compounds. I never realized that women in Melbourne don’t pee all over toilet seats until I moved to a place where women do pee all over toilet seats. And by all over I mean ALL OVER, not the errant drop or two that happens to the best of us in moments of haste. Stumbling upon the results of such a laissez-faire urination style makes me wonder how much of themselves they’ve also peed on in the process of transforming a toilet seat into a veritable bird bath. For a population that’s known for its friendliness and consideration towards others, I am shocked to rediscover this. Again, it makes me wonder if there was a time in the past that I found it normal. Again, if so, I wish I could return to that state. Again, maybe then I’d feel less grossed out all the time.
Melbourne is a super clean and very attractive place.
It’s true. It may also be true that raising this point is an act of atonement for using the c-word a few minutes ago, but it bears mentioning. I had a dream last night I was riding my bike down Rathdowne St on a late summer day in February. The dry rasp of rustling gum leaves hovered in the air above me. The sky was that acute Australian blue-sky blue and the afternoon sun was glinting of my helmeted dome. I was headed somewhere nice like Fitzroy North or Carlton most likely to get a high-quality 8oz flat white perfectly and pretentiously crafted by a skinny tattooed barista wearing all black. I woke up and thought what a nearly perfect dream it was, and that it could have only been more perfect if the wind had been blowing cinematically through my hair, which it hadn’t been, because in Melbourne, unlike in Toronto, you can get a ticket for that.
I’m sure as time moves on and I settle more deeply into my little corner of Toronto there will be more still to learn about Melbourne, and about the other places I’ve lived as well. Perhaps longer still and the transparencies will fade, and nothing around me will look all that new anymore. Toronto will become familiar, and I will have a history here, and for the first time in my life, that prospect doesn’t frighten me in the least.