Melbourne: Catfish and Sealions

It’s been busy here in Melbourne, although I’m struggling to write this dairy at the moment as recently I’ve found myself worrying about what people might think of me, rather than writing anything honest or real. I don’t want to be dishonest, yet I fear to present an unsatisfying narrative – because as I have said before, contentedness doesn’t make for a particularly riveting read, and content I am. And so I generally compromise and write nothing. It’s a strange thing I find myself doing now, then: posting an article into a very public sphere, with an introductory caveat explaining how very shy I feel. An odd dichotomy indeed, but there it is. Olé!

Jeanne and I live together in a small flat in West Melbourne, and we do not have very much money but we are very happy. I quit my marketing job back in December because I felt like a sell-out;  I’m still struggling on with my book (in fact writing this article is a procrastination from writing the damned thing) and working as an SEO copywriter while trying to write creatively at home just doesn’t seem to be very productive. Spending all day writing keyword-optimised robo-copy for the almighty Google algorithm doesn’t really get the creative juices flowing. Yes, it is a good and clever way to make writing pay and utilise my natural abilities, but it makes me feel like a fraud, and worse still it murders my inspiration.

I’ve got a little $$$ heading my way from some freelance writing jobs which provide enough for food and rent, but I need more if I plan to ever leave Melbourne. Jeanne has some savings, but again, they are slowly dripping away. I didn’t bother searching for work through the festive season; I was content to eat and drink and be more-or-less merry. Pressure’s on now though; Jeanne is leaving Australia with Justine on the 4th of March for New Zealand. I’m going to stay behind to work longer in Melbourne, and later in the year we are going to head to Europe together to see what kind of life we can scrape together. The more I can save before leaving, the easier everything will be.

Not sure where we will be living. In one breathless conversation that took place in the National Gallery of Victoria one balmy afternoon a few weeks ago, we talked about France.

“But I won’t be able to find a job there,” I had said. “I don’t speak enough French.”

“You will easily find a job in Paris without speaking French,” Jeanne replied.

“Paris?”

“Oui.”

“You want to live in Paris?”

“Oui.”

“You never told me that.”

A smile, and a very French shrug.

“Don’t say it if you don’t mean it, because I’ll get excited. Are we really going to live in Paris this year?”

“I mean it.”

And then I got excited.

So it seems Paris is on the cards. And for that we need jobs. I am waiting to hear back from an interview I had with the charity Melbourne City Mission last week for a writing gig; it sounds pretty cool – I’m excited at the opportunity to use my writing for something positive, rather than flogging people shit.

Aside from that, I took a test for my White Card – a bare minimum safety qualification that allows you to work in construction – and have signed up with a couple of agencies. I bought a helmet, steel-toed boots, goggles and a fluorescent green work shirt this weekend, and I’m just waiting for that first phone call to come through. Labouring work is – according to my friends that work in it – relatively simple and painless, and it pays extremely well.

I’m excited to get started – assuming the phone rings. Melbourne is absolutely rammed with construction sites. You can’t walk one block without passing two construction sites, each one manned by at least 20 labourers, 80% of whom are invariably doing nothing. I’m looking forward to being out and about during the day, and to hopefully lose the little bit of bread and wine and cheese weight I’ve gained over the past month. Living with a French girl is a nightmare for your physique, let me tell you.

Life is pretty idyllic. I’m in this weird cognitive dissonance state where I am simultaneously frustrated with the calm pace of life and the routine of Melbourne, and in love with the familiarity and quaintness of it all. Slowly, slowly, I am growing accustomed to the new pace of things.

Take yesterday, for example. Jeanne and I woke up in the morning and lay in bed for an hour chatting. We decided we wanted a special breakfast, so we dressed and headed to the market just over the road – five days a week you can buy all manner of fresh produce just ten metres from my front door. We skipped across the road and browsed the stalls, picking up avocados and mangoes and tomatoes for a dollar a kilo. Then we spent a little while floating around a few stalls filled with rare books, before heading back home for our big breakfast.

As the afternoon drew in we headed into the CBD to find a hard hat and boots for me, then met up with Will, Robyn, Jeremy, Justine and Rob at the Alexandra Gardens for Midsumma, a free queer festival taking place every Sunday until the middle of February. On the riverbank Jeanne and I shared a bottle of wine and watched the little boats chug by. On the far bank the Australian Open was in full swing, and we could see crowds gathered around the blue tennis courts. After, we shared a mushroom pizza in the festival and watched people dance in their flamboyant costumes. It was a beautiful day. We cooked pasta with a homemade sauce later that evening, and watched a film together.

I haven’t seen a cloud in days and days. I remember how I used to complain that the sky in England was white more than it was blue; it seems like such a long time ago. Even the farm seems like a long time ago now. I’ve been in Australia for seven months. How the hell did that happen? I hadn’t counted on coming here at all, never mind for the majority of my trip. But that’s life, I guess. Once you just let go and stop caring whether or not your grand future vision plays out, you find yourself swept into some wonderful places. A leaf on the breeze.

I spent New Year’s Eve with Seth down in Lorne, two hours from Melbourne. Once a year Lorne is host to Falls Festival, and I bought a ticket by myself back in November as one of my favourite bands – Catfish and the Bottlemen – were playing. I was preparing for a lonely NYE, but Seth swooped in at the last hour. Fresh from a couple of months picking cherries, he was heading to Melbourne and keen for a smattering of debauchery. It was a joy to see him again, along with the clapped-out car he’s ragged around Australia for the last couple of years (if he knew I’d said that about his beloved automobile he’d kill me).

It was a glorious drive to Lorne down the Great Ocean Road. Radio playing, windows down, a pouch of tobacco on the dashboard and a bottle of rum and coke rolling about in the footwell; it was as though I’d never left the farm. When we arrived in the town we left the car down a leafy sidestreet two blocks from the town’s police station. We found a picnic table near the beach, where we sat and talked about everything and finished the litre of rum in just over an hour. We laughed a lot.

Merry, we took a shuttle bus and hit up the festival, ingested dubious chemicals, ate a lot of pizza, and saw the Vaccines, DMA’s, Chvrches, Toto (AMAZING) and, of course, Catfish. I was so riddled with euphoria to see Catfish play live again after three long years that I shed a tear as they took to the stage, mere feet away from where I was stood. Their set ran from 11pm to 12.30am, and so my new year was welcomed in with a crowd countdown, a guitar solo, and giddy hugs with anybody within arm’s reach.

Festival camping was expensive, so when the time came to sleep we headed back into the little beach town of Lorne and roughed it, opting to spend the evening sprawling under the stars on a roll-out matt, hidden from prying eyes behind a run of bushes and trees. We sat up in our sleeping bags and finished one last beer each. It grew cold in the night and I woke up shivering at 7am, relieved that no police officers has stumbled across our makeshift camp in the night. We shook off the hangovers, caught another 40 winks or so in Seth’s warm car, and at around 9am we bought bacon rolls for breakfast and aimed the old car home.

The Great Ocean Road is exactly the image the name conjures in your mind. A single carriageway winds around jungle-coated cliffs and hills for miles and miles, unspooling parallel to the azure waves that lap against the shore, and the road winds high enough that you can see fishing ships twenty miles away on the horizon. Nursing our hangovers we found a quiet spot just off the road and left the car while we headed down to the beach. And so I spent my New Year’s Day on an empty stretch of sand with one of the best friends I’ve made travelling, swimming in the cool morning sea beneath a cloudless sky. We ran into the sea again and again, drying off within minutes of being back on the shore.

I picked up a glittering shell as a gift for Jeanne before we left, after sprinting out for one last dip in the ocean. It seems the water works wanders for a hangover; I felt fresh and energised and joyous and alive. We sat back in the car and stared out at the ocean and debated whether a cigarette would be a good idea. We unanimously agreed it would not be, but we had one each anyway, and sure enough, felt nauseous and hungover once more. Some things never change.

Then, as we watched the ocean, Seth pointed something out.

“What’s that there, under the water?”

He pointed but I couldn’t see anything.

“Looks like a dolphin or a shark.”

I followed his finger and saw it: a large, fast-moving shape just beneath the waves. Jet black, and bigger than a man. Meanwhile twenty metres away, oblivious, was a lone surfer, idly bobbing on his board, waiting for a wave. The black shape closed in.

“Do you really think it’s a shark?” I murmured. We were too far away to warn the surfer.

The creature breached then, and we saw it: an enormous seal, tossing itself into the air above the waves. It crashed back down and surfed the wave, then dipped back beneath the surface. It bobbed back up a few metres on, inches from the surfer. He watched it pass by in amazement, and we laughed as he threw his arms up in disbelief. With one last leap into the air, the seal dived back into the surf and zipped away up the beach, its great black shadow soon lost to the rolling froth.

As Seth drove us home and the Rolling Stones played on the radio, I looked out of the passenger’s window.

“You know, it’s funny. I talk so much about how hard travelling can be, how homesick I can get and all that stuff. Sometimes I think about everything I’m missing back home and I wonder if I’m mad. I wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life. And then I have a day like today and I just think… yeah. I’m not doing so bad at all.”

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