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TRAVELING IN STYLE : TOP DOG DOWN UNDER : Sydney Might Sneer and Canberra Will Definitely Protest, but Australia's Real Capital, Argues One Not Impartial Observer, Is Handsome, Civil Melbourne

October 17, 1993|ROSS TERRILL | Terrill is the author of "China in Our Time," "Mao," "Madame Mao" and "The Australians," all published by Touchstone and Simon & Schuster

MELBOURNE IS A MULTICULTURAL METROPOLIS. Fully half of the city's residents are said to be either foreign-born or have at least one parent who is foreign-born. Southern European, Asian and Middle Eastern influences are particularly strong. The suburb of Clayton has the largest Greek population of any town outside of Athens. About 20% of the primary school pupils in the suburb of Footscray are Vietnamese. On a bus headed for Footscray recently, my fellow passengers were not just Vietnamese but also Maltese, Polish, Lebanese and Croatian. Hardly one of them was speaking English. In a single food shop in the suburb, I found souvlakia, lasagna, dim sum, American-style roast beef sandwiches, Wiener Schnitzel, pizza and the inevitable Australian pastie--a crescent-shaped pastry stuffed with vegetables.

It is largely because of its ever-larger immigrant population that Melbourne--as even the people of Sydney will often concede--has become the capital of Australian gastronomy. This is a recent distinction. Melburnians used to be casual and apologetic about food. When I was a youth, pie and tea (the former being a meat pie that was largely gravy enclosed in heavy pastry) or fish and chips (fried and greasy in the English way) were viewed as staples--adequate "tucker" for any "real Australian." Today, diners in Melbourne's restaurants are likely to peer at lengthy wine lists, puzzle over the right sauce for their duckling and debate the merits of Sichuan versus Hunan cuisine as if they were arguing about Melbourne football. At the same time, a certain red-blooded attitude toward food and drink persists. People still eat butter with gusto here. The salt shaker is not seen as a dagger pointed at the heart. No one has yet explained the dangers of red meat to the truckers who eat huge steaks for breakfast along the highways into Melbourne. Even at lunchtime, it is quite common to see businessmen (and sometimes businesswomen) putting away half a bottle of wine, or even a full bottle, apiece.

I have favorite eating and drinking spots of my own in Melbourne--places I try to visit every time I return to the city: the espresso cafes in Toorak Road, South Yarra, where I sit with a newspaper and watch the street life; the spacious bar on top of the Regent Hotel at the "Paris end" of Collins Street, where I nurse a champagne cocktail and think over the day's events; Il Bacio in Lygon Street in Carlton, a university quarter, where the high quality of Australian meat and vegetables and fruit joins happy forces with Italian culinary skill--and where the conversations I overhear always give me clues to what Melbourne intellectuals are agonizing about this month.

THE PEOPLE OF MELBOURNEprobably don't play sports more than anyone else in sports-mad Australia, but they do turn out in prodigious numbers to watch big sporting events. Attendance figures of 80,000 to 100,000 are frequent for important matches in cricket or "Australian Rules football"--a fast, rough game different from soccer or American football. The Melbourne Cricket Ground, Australia's premier sports stadium, is located right in the heart of the city--about where the cathedral would have been in a medieval European town.

I go there often to watch matches between Australia and the West Indies, England, India or some other part of the former British Empire--and the stadium is so big that from a bench high in the public stand I always feel as if I am on a mountain, peering at a scene in a valley below. Out come the umpires, looking like penguins in their white hats, long black pants and white jackets. Polite applause signals a big hit or the dismissal of a batsman. A roar of formidable Melbourne moral disapproval rises against an unpopular umpire's decision. Beer cans hit the stadium's concrete floors more often than the bat hits the ball. This is Melbourne with its mind on the job; this is Melbourne at worship.

The city also mounts the greatest annual public blowout in Australia--the Spring Racing Carnival--with a horse race known as the Melbourne Cup, held on the first Tuesday of November (remember that the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere) as the excuse. On this day, people don crazy clothes, drink like fish and risk their earnings on horses they have never seen. A century ago, Mark Twain, after witnessing the Melbourne Cup, remarked, "It brings Australia to a halt." Indeed, the day of the event is an official holiday in the city.

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