Flinders Street Station.
H&M Bourke Street.
The State Library of Victoria.
The Block Arcade.
South Melbourne Market.
The fern tree gully at the Royal Botanic Gardens.
The Shrine of Remembrance.
Queen Victoria Market.
A latte from Market Lane, Queen Victoria Market.
Don't forget to stop and smell the flowers.
Australia has always been a country of fascination for me. Its fauna, both dangerous and fuzzy, arid-climate flora, along with it mishmash of different cultures made it an exotic place that seemed so close yet worlds away. In recent years, it’s established itself as this side of the world’s coffee cultural center, setting the bar for coffee shops in countries beyond its shores, and inspiring a plethora of Asian students to open coffee shops of their own when they returned home built upon the experiences they had there.
Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to not only visit Australia on vacation, but live in and really get into it. In the last four months, I lived and studied in Melbourne as an exchange student where I learned a couple things. I am extremely tempted to quote a reality TV star in saying that this is “the year of just realizing stuff.”
Before leaving Indonesia, all students are invited to join a pre-departure info session in which the university talks about what to expect abroad. This generally means experiencing culture shock, entering a ‘honeymoon’ period of seeing the country through rose-colored glasses at first, and then consistently move up and down the scales between elated and homesick throughout the course of the trip. Of course, everyone’s take is different, and here’s mine.
The flight from Denpasar to Melbourne departed in the middle of the night and was scheduled to arrive at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport at 6 a.m. I clearly remember the plane’s decent on Melbourne and the awe I felt at looking at a city coming to life – the streetlights still lit and highlighting the city’s neat perpendicular streets, and the sun just peeking out beyond the horizon.
I arrived in Melbourne on the tail-end of summer in mid-February. According to the weather forecast, temperatures were expected to be around 22°C, however as soon as I stepped out of the airport terminal, I felt as though my denim jacket wasn’t enough to keep the chill out. Looking back, I do blame a lot of it on coming straight off the plane from hot and humid Indonesia, but also on the fact that Melbourne really does have four seasons in one day. The first lesson I learned was even if you can wear denim cutoffs for lunch, don’t expect to get away with it at breakfast or dinner.
Because I was already expecting the bigger aspects of culture shock, not a whole lot surprised me. Instead, what got me were the little things, such as the un-tropical trees, the very strong wind, and how thirsty I would constantly be (because apparently breathing in Indonesia equates to chugging water).
“I’m planning to move to Hobart, the traffic in Melbourne is too much,” said our Uber driver. I was dumbstruck – the car was moving, therefore, there was no traffic (at least in my book). It goes without saying that coming from Jakarta, Melbourne seemed awfully quiet. People walking on the streets could maintain their personal bubble, public transport was perfectly bearable, and people had space to stop and look around without being shoved left and right. At first, it took some time to process the new pace at which I would have to live my life for the next four months. Living amongst a large crowd has always been the norm for me – I was from Jakarta, consider Southeast Asia as my backyard, and even lived in China for five years – a city like Melbourne would be the first.
The fact that Melbourne has often claimed the title of the world’s most livable city was not the only thing that pushed me to study there. Part of the reason I chose Melbourne and not any other Australian city was because of its art and culture. By art and culture, I don’t just mean their wonderful museums and exhibitions – most of which, by the way, are free if you bring your student card – but the cityscape in general. Due to its very British past, the buildings you’ll find around town are very Victorian – think delicate awnings and quaint wooden houses. The gardens scattered around the city are clean and well-kept, its famous vivid street art was ever changing, and the sight of trams passing by the streets could very much be a postcard. Oh, and lets not forget about their coffee scene.
Playing into the title of world’s most livable city, Melbourne’s public transport system really is as great as people make it out to be. Between trains, buses, and trams, you can generally get anywhere. For the most part, transport is on-time or only reasonably late. Every now and then a local would complain about the transport system, but they just don’t know how good they’ve got it! What isn’t as frequently mentioned however is how great Melbourne is for walking. The best way to explore the city is definitely on foot – that way, you’ll get to see all the pretty little nooks and crannies you’d otherwise miss on public transport.
Here’s one thing that really got me, how early the shops close. Back home, you could walk into a mall at 9 p.m. and still find a good handful of shops open, but don’t expect to do that in Melbourne – no late-night jeans shopping here. Back home, my friends and I would spend our nights out at coffee shops, but no such thing is heard of here – after dark, entertainment usually shifts to bars, pubs, and clubs.
You can’t talk about Australia without talking about its people. Most people’s idea of the typical Australian would probably range somewhere in between Steve Irwin and Hugh Jackman – thick Aussie accent and undeniable charisma. This is a generalization that is, for the most part, true. Most people had that hard-to-miss accent and bounding energy, but when you actually meet an Aussie in person, you’ll find that their friendliness just isn’t done justice on TV or the internet. Looking lost at a station? Someone will come up to you to help. Out for lunch? The waitstaff will always start with a cheerful, “hey, how are you?” Come often enough, and they’ll greet you by name and a story of what they did last Friday night. And here’s one other thing I found surprising, drivers will always give way to pedestrians – law or courtesy I’m not quite sure, but it was definitely a change.
Some Melburnians asked me what exactly I liked about Melbourne. I suppose when you’re born and raised in a certain place, its merits and shortcomings are just the norm. I liked Melbourne for the little things. I liked its changing seasons and all the colors they brought, it’s pedestrian-friendly pavements, the random conversations with strangers, its markets, and its state library. I liked how I could find familiar Indonesian food in South Melbourne, then try Ethiopian food for the first time in Footscray. I liked how the face of Australia was a blend of different cultures and ethnicities, and not just one character.
To be perfectly honest, the first couple of weeks were spent adjusting and comparing how unalike Melbourne was to my native Jakarta. The air was dry, university culture was different, I had to spell ‘color’ with a ‘u’, and even coffee culture was different – all of which are things I’ll elaborate on on a later date. One day, I just decided to let it go. This wasn’t Jakarta, and that’s why I’d packed up my bags and went there. Melbourne is its own city, different from anything I’ve known before, and I was keen on exploring it. Welcome to Australia, mate.
Victoria's distinct architecture.
Chinatown, Melbourne CBD.
More from the Block Arcade.
Mom's spaghetti? Balwyn.
A coffee cupping session at Aunty Peg's, Collingwood.
Welcome to Thornbury, Northcote.
Bollard Street Walk, Geelong.
Melbourne at the tail-end of summer.