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Melbourne's Yarra River - photos by Max Hartshorne
Melbourne's Yarra River - photos by Max Hartshorne

Melbourne, Australia: The City of Arts, Sport and Fun

I sat next to two young women on the long flight to Melbourne. One of the things they told me I should see while I was here was Australian Rules Football. So despite the jetlag, I took the tram down to Melbourne Cricket Grounds and soon I was holding a beer, chomping on a meat pie and watching the action.

It's a fun game that to me blends many of the best aspects of other sports. It has football's laterals and punts, soccer's precision passing and nonstop action, and rugby's tackling and shirt grabbing. Read Melbourne hotel reviews

The action takes place in a large circular field, with four posts on either end. The men jump high to grab at the ball, which is bounced hard off the grass and then they begin lateralling, punting and passing the ball trying to get in position to boot it through the uprights.

The fans are part of the fun. Most of them were dressed in team colors, including the sponsorship logos, and are a raucous bunch, waving flags, singing songs, and drinking big cups of beer cheering everything going on down on the field.

With my $20 ticket, I was relegated to the high stands up on the fourth level, where the view of the field is excellent.

Collingwood was victorious on this Sunday game against Richmond, and when the game let out, forty thousand rabid fans all made their way to the trams, which were mobbed. But everything sorted out nicely, and I had enjoyed my first game of AFL football here on a crisp fall day in Australia. Read more about Australian football on GoNOMAD.

The Melbourne Cricket Grounds, one of the city's two Footy meccas.
The Melbourne Cricket Grounds
The Twinkling of Glasses Marks Melbourne's Prosperity

Melbourne has the prosperous feel of a city on the up and up. I got this sense right after we got off the plane and stood in a line waiting for customs. As a cute blond Labrador was walked through the line, sniffing every passenger's feet and luggage, posters up on the wall described the multi-billion dollar upgrade going on at the airport, with new terminals, parking and jetways that will accommodate the biggest plane ever built, Airbus' A380.

Last night I walked home from dinner at Taxi, an upscale Australian/Japanese restaurant where glasses of wine were priced at $12-17 each, with no shortage of takers. Entrees, (that's what they call appetizers here) were priced at about $20-25 and 'Mains' scaled up to about $45 or $55. I picked a wild Barramundi filet, which was crispy and buttery inside. This fish is farmed in Massachusetts, but the wild variety was more flavorful.

I sat at the bar and tried to get the waiter to explain the rules of Australian football. But he said that you either know art or football around here, and he fits the first category.

The walk through the busy and bustling streets showed a city full of people with money to spend on those $15 glasses of Chardonnay. That's always a good sign, full bars, people laughing and talking, sitting outside on terraces heated with gas heaters in the chill of fall here down under. There are cranes dotting the skyline, a new convention center being built and even the cabbie sounded proud of the way this city is shaping up and expanding.

Dean Stewart teaches students about the 250 aboriginal languages once spoken on the continent.
Dean Stewart teaches students about the 250 aboriginal languages once spoken on the continent.
"I'm Sorry" Are Two Words That Mean Everything to Aborigines

"I'm sorry."

These words are everything to Australia's Aborigine community, and just a month ago, they were uttered by Australia's new liberal prime minister Kevin Rudd.

For more than a decade, the conservatives have ruled, and they were not about to apologize for what the white man has done to those who were already living here. But as I viewed photos of the new PM saying these historic words to Parliament today at the Koorie Heritage Trust in Melbourne, Dean Stewart explained to me how much they meant. He calls it a cultural tsunami, and the facts bear him out.

We walked up a stairway and past a replica of a River Red gum tree. At one time these white barked trees stood tall all over the city. But the English settlers cut them down, and with them came very important parts of the Aborigine's lives.

Dean showed me where his ancestors, members of the Wamba Wamba about four hours north, once cut the bark to make a canoe. And the possums that lived in these trees provided the pelts for the possum skin cloaks, that every native man and woman wore to keep warm.

"If you asked those kids over there playing football which tree is a river red gum tree, they'd have no idea. Nor would they know the sound of the Magpie Lark. But these things were engrained in the native people's mind. This tree provided everything, from painkillers to bark for canoes, to oil for their skin, to honey for food.

Federation Square is the center of it all in downtown Melbourne, Australia.
Federation Square is the center of it all in downtown Melbourne, Australia. photos by Max Hartshorne.

Dean turned to me and said his grandfather had played for the Australian football team that won the championship. Yet when the census was taken back then, just two generations back, native peoples were not counted as part of the humans who lived here.

"It wasn't until 1967 that Aborigines were allowed to vote, and were actually counted." He said this with a tolerant sort of incredulity that made his point eloquently.

He teaches school children about the more than 250 different languages that the original people here once spoke. So many of them were killed, on Tasmania there used to be a bounty for each native that settlers could kill. There was recently fossil evidence that put the age of the first aborigines here at 35,000 years ago. The English came in 1825.

Dean spoke excitedly about how part of the Royal conservatory a few years ago was replanted with indigenous plants, and the English ivy was torn out. Birds and bugs not seen in many years returned, sensing that this might be their new home.

As children planted the native plants, two huge predator birds swept over the garden, birds that hadn't been spotted in Melbourne in more than 40 years. They too, he said, must have sensed that the place was being returned to the way it was before the settlers changed everything.

How Much Do Things Cost in Australia?

I had an chat with a man named Murray who runs Melbourne's Best Bicycle Tours yesterday. We sat by the Yarra river and sipped lattes and talked about how much people get paid here. Then we asked the waitress how much she made, and she wasn't at all shy. "$18 to 20 minimum," she said. That's per hour.

Entering the city, you pass under a bridge that's a blend of form and function.
Entering the city, you pass under a bridge that's more of a blend of form and function. Max Hartshorne photos.

I told her that at our cafe we have baristas who make between $8.50 and $11.00 per hour. But the coffee here is $3 minimum for a small, and I've noticed that the drinks in bars are way higher, as are the menu prices. Everything here is racheted up higher, because wages are so much higher.

The whole system, said Murray, comes from the days when Labor ran the country. So wages are set much higher, and in this country there is no tipping. There are giant apartment buildings for the unfortunate, the crippled, and those who have no homes... and there is a safety net of health insurance that isn't like a complete HMO but covers the basics.

People work as waitresses and bartenders and at service jobs for careers, because the average wage is about $50,000 a year. That means they have the money to go out for dinner, and to pay a cover charge of $32 to see a comedy show, or spend $89 for a bike tour.

It all works well for Aussies, but not as well for Americans, since we exchange our dollars for basically the same amount of Aussie dollars. But we are used to adding twenty percent on top of everything, so it's closer than we think.

One thing that Murray was not pleased about was when he tried to take his kids to an American football game in the states, and was shocked at the $65 minimum ticket price. "Here we can take the kids to a footie (Aussie football game) and it's a twenty for me and just $3 for them....so the whole family can watch the game for not that much."

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