I’ve been obsessing about what I could have done better at this year’s GAC. I was running around frantically all weekend, after being promoted from decent volunteer to organising committee. I really should have worn a belt, my pants always on the verge of falling down because of the weight of the radio…alas, all my belts were at home. But I’m trying to remember all the good things that happened, instead of focusing on the negative. One might even call it emotional maturity…

Anyways, some of the highlights behind the scenes. Read the rest of this entry »

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(Mom, please don’t get mad over the title. It’s just me being snarky.)

So, after a long convoluted application process, I’m back in Melb, and starting my PhD on Monday. Of course, everything’s different now, people have graduated and moved on (and out of the country), I miss my family even more now with baby Ollie growing up, and I don’t actually have a place to live. But it’s something I’ve wanted for a long time…to make people call me Doctor. Sure, I won’t exactly be saving lives, or delivering them but I will be preventing horny teenagers and young adults from getting Chlamydia! I hope.

Anyways, to recap my travel experience, even though I’ll go into minute details when I eventually call my parents, the check-in agent at Air Canada in Toronto is an idiot, he tried to charge me $150 for being one kilo over the weight limit of 23 kg. I’d like to point out that the website says that anything over 32kg will be charged for overweight luggage, and I was only at 24. Luckily, my parents were there, and are just going to mail me “Modern Infectious Disease Epidemiology”. When asked, he said that my bags were checked all the way to Melb even though my first point of entry was Sydney. To be fair, one of the flight attendants said the same thing when I got off the plane in Sydney.

It’s hard to make 24 hrs of flying time interesting. I threw up one hour into the 15 hr flight between Vancouver and Sydney, made it to the bathroom in time. Still bored. So I watched Gnomeo & Juliet (or Ga-nomeo, as my sisters like to say), How to Train Your Dragon (surprisingly good, I love sarcastic Vikings), Yogi Bear (predictably cheesy) and sadly, No Strings Attached (just predictable… I forgot Unstoppable was an option), as well as a couple of episodes of The Good Wife, one of my favourite shows. From Toronto to Vancouver, the pilot kept us updated on Game 1 between the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins. There was a gap between the English and French announcements of the score, kind of funny to me, like the French were an afterthought. And of course, the entire cabin clapped when Vancouver won. A lot of the employees at the Vancouver airport were wearing Canucks gear, will Pearson employees ever have that chance?

Finally, I get into Kingsford Smith Airport in Sydney. Go through customs, collect bags, get checked out by sniffer beagle who decides to do some impromptu spirals, and may have smelled Daisy on my jacket, and then have to transfer to another terminal, dragging 2 pieces of luggage, my backpack with laptop, purse and camera bag. Missed my flight by about 10 minutes, which I saw was still boarding when I got off the shuttle bus. Oh well, I was pretty stressed at this point, and used to extra time to just sit, read and calm down. And I ate a sausage roll, I figured that was a symbol that I was really back in Aus.

Now, I’m just hanging in the library using the internet. I’m away from the world for 3 days and everything happens – Jay Triano is out as the coach of the Raptors, Dallas wins Game 2, and Shaq retires. Will be limited until I get into my own place.

Later, peeps.

Day 3: Sunday, March 14, 2010

I had to be at the MCC by 7:30 that morning, and we were scheduled to register another 1000 attendees that morning. So once again, I missed a bit of the morning’s addresses for late arrivals. (In my sleep deprived state- I asked people if they were here to “registrate”). Thanks to many road closures in Melbourne that day, people were not all that happy to see me. The alternative was for volunteers to be constantly interrupted by security at the back of the plenary hall, so I said I would stay out there. In hindsight, that was a dumb idea. Although, I’m quite sure I would have fallen asleep in the hall, as I did the day before during a prominent speaker’s speech, and would repeat on Sunday afternoon. When I was in the plenary hall, sitting in the gold section as volunteers were allowed to do, I spent a fair bit bouncing those without gold lanyards or maroon shirts out of the front section (via the ushers, which then backfired, as one of them tried to kick me out of gold because I had a blue lanyard and I had to reiterate to her that maroon shirts identifying the volunteers were allowed to sit there).

As for the actual speakers, I saw Peter Singer’s Q&A, and Ian Robinson’s presentation. I’ve met Ian before (he’s out go-to guy during UMSS debates with the Christian Union), and I thought he was great, although a few people were offended by his “I’ll talk slowly”comment and “drongos” comparison for believers. I’m not going to get into whether or not ridicule is an effective tactic because there is no right answer, just different opinions with valid supporting facts.

Then back on duty for queue patrol for AC Grayling and Peter Singer book signings, then registration (again). So I missed Kylie Sturgess and Robyn Williams but I had a purpose this time. I was going to be on queue patrol again for Catherine Deveny (and at the time, Dan Barker was scheduled too), as the previous AC/Singer signing had been massive, I was going to need my energy. Anyways, being out in the hall meant I could snag lunch early. Good thing I did, they had ice cream for dessert. I then spent the lunch break holding up a sign saying the book signing line was here, which no one could see. Signage is something that could be improved for next time.

Unfortunately, one of the other volunteers had taken ill, so I missed Dan Barker and Jamie Kilstein (who had come up to me in the morning to get his pass, in a repeat of the Chaser episode. Too bad I had no idea who he was until he said “I’m Jamie Kilstein”). Apparently, he swore a lot. Thanks to Dr. Jason Tye-Din for helping with the sick volunteer, we made it back in at the end of Dan Barker’s Q&A. Of course, I was out of breath, sweaty and just generally exhausted, so I tripped getting into my seat and managed to be disruptive. Another volunteer made sure to point out that he noticed me tripping afterwards.

Then, the moment we were all waiting for. Him. Introduced by a Fatboy Slim video, Richard Dawkins walked out, wearing a Hawaiian shirt. A Hawaiian shirt. Unexpected. I wasn’t taking notes, so I can’t really remember what the talk was about other than the title “The evolution of gratitude and the gratitude of evolution”. However, he truly shined during the Q&A. Some woman who openly declared she was a Christian and asked “what is DNA?”, naively. Beyond the booing of the audience, he answered her question patiently, and thoroughly. I don’t think he’ll ever stop being the science professor, and I love him for it. He’s willing to engage, and teach, rather than my response – high school biology. He also signed at least one book/material for every person in line during the book signing afterwards. Back on queue patrol, I was quite grateful for that as the line stretched up and down the MCC.

I was both simultaneously relieved and sad that the convention was over.

Day 4: Monday, March 15, 2010.

Almost over, as it turns out. I had to be at Tullamarine Airport by about 6:30am the next morning for a nice long day of flying. But while wandering, I ran into Kylie Sturgess! She (and Stuart Bechmann) did a fabulous job of MC’ing the entire event. I did admit that I had missed her presentation but she filled me in on some off-the-record details over a coffee before our respective flights left. Then I walked away from her, realizing I never actually said my name. She was cool enough to pretend she knew.

Thanks to all the other volunteers, and the committee, particularly, Tanya, Joel and Jason for executing a near-perfect convention without any experience.

And thanks Australia, for giving me the adventure of a lifetime.

Stardate: 15.03.2010.

Oh wait. Wrong kind of convention.

Now that I’m back in Canada, recovering from jetlag, a severe reaction to insect bites, a cold, and 3 sleepless nights during the convention, I can finally write about my hectic last days in Aus running Secular Society events and volunteering at the Con! It was an amazing time despite a few hiccups that were completely out of the organizers’ hands.

Day 0: Thurs Mar 11/10

Secular Society goes to Healesville with very special guest PZed Myers.

How the man had energy to walk around Healesville after a 15 hour flight, I’ll never know. He didn’t even fall asleep in the car! Anyways, Jason picked him up from the airport at 9am, identifying himself with a picture of a squid (my idea, even if JB initially laughed at it) and immediately drove out into the Valley. We made it just in time for the platypus talk (as I hustled everyone along) but missed many of the others, including the kangaroo feed because of the late start. We did make it to the Birds of Prey show, where a massive wedge-tailed eagle swooped dangerously low over our heads (necessitating this hopeful thought “Please don’t poop on us”). A quick run up to the Wildlife Hospital allowed us to view a tiny joey who had been brought in. Rushing back to the city, we spotted the ads for the Atheist Bus Campaign. It seemed fitting that my first (and only) sighting was while I was in the car behind PZed.

Day 1: Fri Mar 12, 2010

The start of the GAC was preceded by the launch of the Australian Freethought University Alliance, which I had to miss due to treatment for the aforementioned insect bites (you know it’s bad when both the doctor and the nurse go “whoa”). After this whole thing with Sean the Blogonaut (who I meant to search for at the con but ran out of time), I missed out on PZed wearing his new UMSS tshirt (thus cementing UMSS’ status as the best uni freethought group in Aus, if not the globe), JB getting elected President of the AFUA (surprise, surprise) and free food (a necessary component of the broke grad student’s diet)!

At the official kickoff of the GAC, where I was registering attendees, David Nicholls stated that atheists were not after world domination, everyone went “Aw”. Sue-Ann Post likes to punch hippies, rather than Christians. I discovered I like messing around with Richard’s twitter, and Catherine Deveny is outrageous as always.

Day 2: Saturday, March 13, 2010.

More rego (registration) and mistakes on Saturday morning. None were actually made by the organizing committee but it almost made their collective head explode. Unfortunately, that meant I missed out on seeing Phillip Adams, Russell Blackford and Max Wallace (the latter 2 I had heard before, so I wasn’t fussed. Then everyone came out raving how good Phillip Adams was. Then I was fussed). I was not about to miss Taslima Nasrin, though. Having vaguely heard of her before, and then reading her bio in the program made me realize that I actually did need to sit in on some of these sessions. And she was amazing, although I’m not entirely sure why the (crappy) media coverage keeps describing her as a Muslim activist, when she’s clearly ex-Muslim. Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, she’s constantly under threat, and has been physically attacked for speaking on her views (I’ll be honest, that probably piqued my interest when I overheard security telling one another that she was ready to be escorted from the hotel to the convention centre next door). But hearing her story, growing up as a Muslim child in Bangladesh, deciding at a young age that Allah didn’t exist, and then being forced into exile because she wrote on the oppression of women through religion, was incredible. She wasn’t allowed home when her mother died or when her father died. She hasn’t been back in over 16 years, she can’t even travel to India to remain connected to her culture. Thinking about my own travel plans, about how desperate I was to go home, and I’ve only been gone for a year. I thought about being banned from returning home, and my heart just ached for her, and yeah, I welled up. She got a standing ovation, and deserved it fully. She’s my new hero.

At lunch, I got this photo taken. Almost makes up for missing the luncheon the day before. Also, ended up introducing a bunch of people to him, which is ironic, because I’m pretty sure he doesn’t remember my name.

Did tell him that it was a good thing that he was going last on Saturday, since he could get drunk right after.

Best bit of working at the rego/enquiries desk all day? The two guys from the Chaser came up to me, as they were needing their passes for the weekend. I had a moment where I was like “Why do you guys look familiar?” Then promptly notified some of the other volunteers by hitting them excitedly. During the Grayling talk, Julian Morrow came and sat in my row, taking notes.

Saturday Night Dinner was kind of awesome. I was seated at the same table as AC Grayling! He sat down and introduced himself as Anthony 🙂 Such a lovely man, and his brother (who lives in Sydney) was incredibly nice too. Actually, all my dinner mates kind of rocked, particularly the guy who agreed to split the desserts so I could try all of them without looking greedy. Simon Taylor, did some great mind tricks but I can’t figure out how he did the number thing at the end. NonStampCollector (aka Steve) was a bit nervous but did a great job. The Chaser boys always push the envelope, and we love them for it. Taking shots at Peter Singer is never easy, particularly when he’s sitting at the front table, about 2 metres away. And yes, I got my picture taken with them (separately, I was looking for Craig Reucassel, then discovered he was sitting on a chair behind me). Also, Richard kept poking me when I had my photo taken with Prof Grayling, prompting AC to ask Richard why he was tickling me.

To be continued.

Melbourne has been my city for the past 2 years. Truly mine because I learned where stuff was on my own. Not being told where to go like Toronto, or unable to explore the town without a car like Guelph. So, as my time here winds down, there are things that I will miss, and some that I won’t.

Secular Society: I was never that involved with school activities in Guelph, or at least not to the extent that I was in high school.  Even in high school I was a shadow, hiding behind the alpha kids.  I showed up to the first general committee meeting of UMSS without having ever spoken to any of the members, and did not stand out, despite being the only female, and minority, in a group of 8 white guys.  But now, I’m top, alpha female shadow.Few people figured out that I engineered the removal of the vice president position so that I could say that I was irreplaceable as VP. I used UMSS to get to know the campus and its students, and used it as my portal to the greater secular community.

The Atheist Circle: It led to another group that I’ll miss that I’ve nicknamed the Atheist Circle, a group of friends based on common atheist principles but really, based on our everyday similarities, just like you would with any friends. Brunches, pub nights, games of Beatles Rock Band…

The Public Health Girls: Danielle, Lim, Mina, Carolyne. Sure they prefer qualitiative over quant but you gotta love them anyways. Other great friends that I’ve met through public health studies- Nisha (with her baby parasite Madhav), Molly, Angeline

Food: Brunetti, Casa del Gelato, Pellegrini’s, Flour Mill, cheap Japanese hand rolls that make up a decent lunch, Indian fast food for a butter chicken fix, Queen Vic Market, churros that you have to be careful not to get icing sugar all down your front because it looks like you’ve been snorting coke, Cupcake shops, Koala cookies from Coles, Tim Tams,generally better chocolate. (Not enough pancakes though.)

Melbourne Sexual Health Centre/Key Centre/School of Population Health: Because I don’t think I could have asked for a better (or more expensive) education. Kit’s got one more disciple.

My gay husband: As much I dislike complimenting him, I have to single him out here because I don’t think there’s anyone here who has influenced my life more in Melbourne.  Despite leaving him twice for Derek (because he’s internet famous!), I am not alone in thinking that one day he’ll end up in politics. Maybe even as Prime Minister of Australia. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, he attributes success to hard work and opportunity coalescing at the right time, something I see in Blondie (now if only he paid that much attention to his studies).  Without Jason’s effort in pushing Secular Society, and the atheist agenda forward, I certainly would not have half of the experiences I have had so far.  I suppose now I can’t actually refer to him as my gay husband as we’re not getting married to circumvent Aussie immigration (which he would have agreed to in exchange for cupcakes) but he’ll always be my first gay husband.

PS- I gave him a million nicknames but one I didn’t use often enough was Pup. There are 3 ways in which he resembles a puppy. 1. He’s always happy to see you 2. Everyone loves him, especially old ladies 3. If you give him a treat, he’ll be your friend forever.

Lovely. Nothing like being told you’re invisible.

To be fair, I said the same thing to my supervisor when I introduced myself and he asked why we had never met before. “I fly under the radar”. Totally stealth. Like a cat.

When I first arrived in Aus, I was told Tasmania was treated like Canada treats Newfoundland. It’s like the little brother you left at the beach but your parents weren’t all that concerned when they found out. Despite its reputation, I had a good time in Tassie (Although Jetstar and humid hostel rooms tried their best to ruin my vacation).

Landed in Hobart (3 hours after we were supposed to, Thanks Jetstar!) and headed out to Port Arthur. But first, we stopped at the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park. The Tassie Devil originally got its name from the first European settlers who had no lights. When they heard this low grumbling sound in the dark, they thought it was the devil. Turned out to be a carnivorous marsupial! Did get some great footage of them fighting over wallaby meat. The poor devils are besieged by devil facial tumour disease, that is caused by a virus and transmitted when they bite each other. They were also all over the roads, killed by speeding cars.

Port Arthur is a former penitentiary (second jail/gaol I’ve been to in Aus) that is now a historical site. It was really interesting as it was one of the first ‘reform’ prisons – as in rehabilitation over punishment. It still had severe penalties for disobedient like solitary cells. Those in isolation were placed into a cell for 23 hours a day, one particularly creepy room had 2 sets of doors, lest the prisoner witness daylight. Even creepier was the chapel in the Separate Building (solitary) as it had a recording of men singing hymns and chants. Prisoners were even isolated from each other during services – pews were divided into cells.  Ironically, the grounds of Port Arthur are beautiful and serene, overlooking the harbour.

After Hobart, we headed up to Coles Bay, the township surrounding Freycinet (it’s French, pronounced without the t) National Park, and watched the sunset on Muirs beach. The next morning, we headed out on the water in a 2-person kayak, something listed as #4 on the list of things to do before you die.  Of course, the uncoordinated klutz that I am had issues with getting the paddle movements right, while D, an experienced canoeist, sat in the back to steer and paddle at the same time. Now that’s real talent. Although we had fairly sore arms by the end, it was definitely worth doing and probably the best way to see the harbour. A penguin was spotted at one point, and I was bitterly disappointed that I didn’t get to see it. They generally aren’t on that side of the peninsula, so our tour guide concluded that the poor penguin was lost.

As a condition of our trip, I was allowed to dine at seafood restaurants in front of a vego in exchange for doing a bushwalk in the park. However, the walk ended up being 11km (!) over mostly rocky vegetation. Carpark – Wineglass bay lookout = 1.3km, Lookout to Wineglass Bay beach =1, Wineglass to Hazards beach via the Isthmus track = 2km, Hazards = 1km, Hazards back to carpark = 6 km. Ouchy. And only 3 mozzie bites! (I was lathered in insect repellent) We also started pretty late, after 2 pm but were rewarded with gorgeous views and I think one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me in Oz. We took a break at the beach at Wineglass Bay, and sat on some rocks, cleaning the sand off after dabbling in the water. I turned around and there was a wallaby less than 2 metres away. I think I may have bruised D from hitting her to get her attention. I told the wallaby (who I thusly named George) that he had sand on his muzzle. George loped into some rocks nearby, then I realised why he had come down to the beach. Not to surf but to pick up people’s leftovers (which you’re not supposed to do! if they eat human food, they can develop a condition called lumpy jaw. Although, he snacked on a banana, so I’m not sure if that qualifies). We also spotted more wallabies along the inland track, but they didn’t give 2 hoots about us, as my camera made many beeping sounds. And yes, I named the rest of them (Sally, Hoppy, Walter and Julio).

Our last day in Tassie consisted of driving to the lighthouse in Freycinet only to be greeted by some morning fog and a drive to Launceston. We didn’t actually see the town as we went to Cataract Gorge. A couple of chairlift rides and obnoxious teenage boys jumping off the rocks into the water later, we headed to the airport for our flight home, sleep-deprived and overheated.

Tassie, good place to visit. Wouldn’t live there. And for some reason, full of French backpackers.

They drive on the wrong (left) side of the road.  I can no longer tell left from right, chances are, you won’t be able to either.  Look both ways before crossing the street (and then check again), the pedestrian does not come first here! (supposedly they do, but I don’t believe that …and that may be due to the copious amounts of jaywalking)  Also, the driver’s side in a car is on the right.  Get it? I still attempt the North American passengers’ side before taking a minute to orient myself.  Or just sit in the back, you can’t get that one wrong (Actually…I managed that dubious accomplishment last week).  Keep that in mind if you’re planning to hire (rent) a car to get around down under.

A uniquely Melburnian phenomenon is the hook right.  On the road, to make way for the trams, in order to turn right, you must get into the left most lane, and then wait.  This is specific to some streets in the CBD and surrounding streets.  As a pedestrian, I always wonder why the car is coming up alongside me, until someone reminds me of the hook right.

Public Transport

Melbourne has a great tram system, it works on the honour system but you can get inspected and fined if you’re caught without a ticket, known as a metcard.  A local urban myth to scare the international students is that if you’re caught 3 times without a valid metcard, you can be deported.  If you buy the multi-trip ticket, you can save yourself a trip on the cost.  The city is testing out a new system, similar to Octopus in Hong Kong, or Oyster in London, called Myki.  There is a multitude of bugs in the system, not least of which that they didn’t name it after some kind of sea creature.  (Wellington, New Zealand calls their system Snapper).  Metcards work on a zone and time basis.  Zone 1 covers the city and inner suburbs, Zone 2 covers the outer suburbs and Zone 3 goes into regional Victoria.  You can get a card for 2 hours (but if you activate it a few minutes after the start of the hour, it’ll be valid for a full 2 hours at the next hour.  For example, if you validate at 10:05am, it’s valid until 1pm) or daily, weekly, monthly, etc.  If you activate a 2 hour multi-trip card twice in one day, then the second trip is valid until 3am the next day.  If you activate a 2 hour card after 6pm, it’s valid until 3am the next day.  For most travellers, a zone 1 daily is the best bet (there’s also the city hopper but it has some fairly arbitrary boundaries).  Also, on weekends, if you get the 5x daily weekend ticket, it works out to about $3 for travel on Sat/Sun.  You’ll most likely have to pay full fare for metcards, concession is only available to those carrying a concession card.

(To confuse you a little bit more – places like movie theatres, museums, tourist attractions, etc, offer concession prices but that applies to students and pensioners without needing a concession card.  Those just need proof, like a student ID)

There are also buses and trains.  I avoid the buses as much as I can, an incident left me wandering around Kew, thanks to the bus and the unmarked streets in the suburbs.  Trains are relatively simple to use but are crowded during rush hour, and continuously late.  As I write this, the management of trains is being handed over to Metro (the same company that runs MTR in Hong Kong) from Connex.  All I can say is good riddance Connex.  (I wrote this paragraph before Metro took over. Now that Metro’s been in charge for a few weeks, it hasn’t really been any better)

Cycling is common, and car share schemes are on the rise.  If you’re planning to go outside the city to see the penguins or other regional attractions – hire a car or join a tour.

Around the CBD and the inner suburbs, walking is fairly easy.  The city is flat.

There are plenty of options for going to and from the airport.  Taxis are expensive but convenient.  There’s the Skybus that goes from the airport to Southern Cross station, and there’s usually a free transfer to your hotel from there (depending on the hotel) but be prepared to wait.  Another option is a shuttle van – Starbus, Jetbus, Airporter, etc – that’ll be more direct than the Skybus but cheaper than a taxi.  Check the websites for details. (If it comes across as an advert for these things, it’s not; I’m just basing these things on my experiences. A friend recently had a disaster with the shuttle vans that resulted in me hollering at her from my window to get a taxi when the company called because they messed up her pickup. But overall, I’ve done well with Starbus)

I haven’t tried Vegemite yet, and I don’t intend to.  The new version Cheesybite (formerly iSnack 2.0) is supposed to be more spreadable.  Doesn’t make it more appealing to foreigners like me.

Aussie “cuisine” is mostly British derived – meat pies and snags (sausages) are common; meals are usually meat and 3 veg.  True Aussie food is bush tucker, a few restaurants specialise in it ie  Tjanabi in Fed Square. A more modern take is Charcoal Lane in Fitzroy, a friend and I tried Charcoal Lane last week and it was awesome but expensive (What we had-  curried kingfish ceviche-style, punpkin gnocchi, yam fritters and a sample of 5 desserts) . It’s run by Mission Australia and helps to train people who wouldn’t normally have that opportunity, similar to Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen concept. This is one religious charity I can support.

If you are a carnivore, do try kangaroo, it’s quite good when done properly.

Vegos (vegetarians) have some decent options here.  Vegie Bar in Fitzroy is popular, Shakahari’s in Carlton is better if you stick to the traditionally veggie foods (skip the gnocchi, tempura was delicious).  Most restaurants have good vegie menus (Yes, vegie is only spelt with one “g”, that threw me off in the beginning too).

Lots of ethnic restaurants because of the diversity of Melbourne, friends have been able to do a week without repeating a cuisine. During the summer, the Queen Vic Markets host a night market on Wednesday evenings, great for foodies. Little Bourke St for Chinese, Victoria St (Richmond) for Vietnamese, Lygon St (Carlton) for Italian (it is hit and miss though), Lonsdale St for Greek.  Other restaurants like Malay, Thai, Japanese, Ethiopian, Indian etc are all over the place.

The city is renowned for its coffee, some say it’s the best outside of Italy.  However, it has its own language ie short black = espresso, long black = regular coffee/americano, flat white = regular coffee with milk.

No self-respecting Aussie drinks Fosters, Carlton Draught, Victoria Bitter, or XXXX.  Acceptable brews are Cascade, Boag’s, Little Creatures, etc.  There will be plenty of people happy to point you in the right direction of a good drink.  I know a couple who could easily spend a few hours only talking about beer.  As someone who doesn’t drink, I was bored during this conversation until I could make the inevitable sex joke about perfect head.

Beware of the Goon (overproofed box wine).  It has done many a traveller in.

While the city itself is not that dangerous, a lot of the violence in Melbourne is fuelled by alcohol.  So just watch yourself when you’re out late in the CBD at night.  The drinking culture (drinking to get drunk) is under fire, recent calls to raise the drinking age are debatable.  As a future public health official, I can tell you it won’t do jack-shit to kerb (curb) the rise of alcohol-fuelled violence.

Pubs are called hotels.  Some may actually have rooms but not all.  Mostly just for eating and drinking.

Don’t freak out if a bird comes up to when you’re eating.  Restaurants usually take advantage the temperate weather and have outdoor seating on the sidewalk.  Other places, like shopping malls have open air areas, so the birds can hop right on in.  (Of course, that means they can hop into your home too, windows aren’t usually screened.  I’ve yelled at more than one bird to get out.)

The world’s greatest place is Brunetti in Carlton (also a location in the CBD by Collins St.).  The windows are full of food porn.  I usually skip the larger portions, and head for the mignons.  That way, I can justify having 2 or 3 pieces of everything. I also love Lygon St for its abundance of gelaterias (Casa del Gelato makes watermelon gelato!)

Melbourne is full of great eating experiences.  Take advantage of it.

After living here for almost two years, I’d like to think that I know this place well enough but there are a couple of things that still trip me up.  So, as a public service announcement, here are a few things you should know before you come here.  (Some apply to Australia in general, others are Melbourne-specific)

Don’t bring raw products into the country – that includes food, wood, bee and dairy products, and soil (Check the bottom of your shoes before you leave home if you’re a hiker). Packaged stuff is usually ok, like candy (lollies) or granola (muesli) bars but need to be declared anyways.  It’s safer to declare everything that might be on the list (Or just wait until you get here to buy travel snacks, they pretty much have everything we have. It is a mostly civilized country) My cousin picked up some wooden trinkets in Malaysia before flying over to visit me, and was yelled at by customs “You speak English, you should know better!” Also, you can’t hide it, it’ll be picked up by the sniffer beagles and you’ll end up on “Border Security/Border Patrol”.  When I first arrived, the beagle sniffed out bananas that had been in a woman’s bag three days earlier.  Check online for more information.  It also applies if you’re travelling interstate, something I didn’t know when I went to the Northern Territory to see Uluru (but quarantine was less strict as there was no one searching my bag) because nothing happened when I went to New South Wales or Queensland.

Australia is made of up of states – Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania – and territories – Northern and Australian Capital.  Then each region is subdivided into suburbs in the urban areas and shires in the rural areas.  No hobbits.

The true city of Melbourne is actually a rectangle, known as the Central Business District (CBD).  The CBD itself is quite small but the surrounding suburbs are expanding fairly quickly.  Like any metropolitan area, it has cultural/ethnic neighbourhoods.  My suburb of Carlton is the Italian quarter, Richmond has a large Vietnamese population, South Yarra, St.Kilda and Windsor are part of the gay district, Fitzroy is full of hippies, etc.

A lot of Melbourne looks pretty dodgy from the outside but once you get in, it’s actually quite hip and modern (and expensive).

Bring lots of sunscreen.  The sun is a lot stronger down here. A burn in my first few days was an early (and lasting) lesson.  Slip Slop Slap! (and Seek and Slide too)

The seasons are reversed.  Summer in the Southern Hemisphere is Winter in the Northern Hemisphere (and vice versa).  Keep that in mind if you’re coming down in March – it’s the end of summer but it still can get extremely hot.  However, many locals say that Melbourne experiences four seasons in one day.  I laugh and say it’s only three as the city doesn’t get snow in winter.  It may start raining at any time, even when the sun is shining.  Every weather cliché applies here – if you don’t like it, wait five minutes.

The country is in a drought.  A very bad, very long drought.  Please don’t use more water than you have to, as recent rainy days barely added to the dams.  And we can get really terrible bushfires.  We’re headed into another fire season and they still haven’t recovered from the Black Saturday catastrophe.  How bad was Black Saturday?  A major concert was held to raise money, and Peter Garrett (Federal Environment Minister) sang again with Midnight Oil.

The Labor party is run by Kevin Rudd (or as I like to call him, K.Rudd).  Labor is equivalent to the Democratic Party in the US or the Liberal Party in Canada (and quite dumbly, misspelled without the “u” to be more like the Americans).  The Australian Liberal Party is equivalent to the Republicans or the Canadian Conservatives, formerly run by John Howard but now, no one really runs it.  The Victorian premier is John Brumby.  Lord Mayor of Melbourne is Robert Doyle. Are any of them any good? Not really.

This is the first in a series about Melbourne and Australia.  I want to everyone to enjoy the city as much as I do.  While half of the fun is exploring on your own, I figured a few tips can help.