Checking out the ‘burbs

December 14, 2008 – Checking out the ‘burbs

34.2% – that’s the level of Melbourne’s reservoirs after days of heavy rain. Over 60 mm have fallen as of the 14th, when I start this update. Those 60 mm have felt like a deluge. They have even broken a few records. But they represent only four days of Melbourne’s water use. Four days of restricted watering (watering cans or hand-held hoses, no sprinklers, 6 to 8 a.m., twice a week). Four days of four-minute showers. Four days of capturing grey water for gardens. Four days of using water barrels instead of the city’s water system (backyard water barrels common here).

Gilpin Park in Brunswick, next door to the flat we're house sitting
Gilpin Park in Brunswick, next door to the flat we're house sitting

It’s Sunday today, the day seniors travel free on Melbourne’s metropolitan trains, trams, and buses. We set out to explore suburbs that might be good places to live. Here only the CBD (central business district) and nearby neighbourhoods are considered “Melbourne”. Everything else is suburb. Addresses aren’t Melbourne. They are St. Kilda or South Yarra or Albert Park or Box Hill. That confused me when we arrived. Now it seems normal.

We boarded a #55 tram and rattled south, through Royal Park, past the zoo and Victoria Market, into the CBD, and to Flinders Street Station. Sundays before Christmas there’s an Arts Market in the Arts Centre in Southbank, across the Yarra River from the CBD. I figured that might be a good place to find a Kris Kringle gift but won’t say whether I did or not since the recipient might read the blog.

When we emerged from the Arts Market, we caught the #1 tram toward the beach. We rode it to the end, then waited on it until it switched directions and headed back toward the city center. Several stops north, we got off to investigate the Albert Park neighbourhood. It’s an upscale area, with lots of cafés, clothing and home decorating shops, and quiet streets of restored Victorian houses. We wondered if it might have anything in our modest price range (ummmm….no).

On Dundas Street Robin stopped to ask a woman smoking on her front stoop about the cost of houses and rentals in the area. Her husband heard her talking to us and came to the door. Before long, they had invited us into the high-ceilinged, wood-floored, artistically decorated home they have painstakingly restored in the years since they moved to Melbourne from Greece. Now the house is too big for them, but every time they think of selling, an entire adult lifetime of family block all talk of moving into smaller quarters.

Over glasses of home-made red wine we heard their story. Three children were born in the house. Four grandchildren gather with their parents on Wednesdays, when Grandmother pulls out all the stops and cooks the food that made the family’s restaurant a success for years.

As to options for us, we could never afford two million for a two-story renovated Victorian, no matter how desirable the neighbourhood. But the memory of a warm welcome by Greek-Australian strangers will linger and cost nothing more than opening questions. We have a standing invitation to stop by whenever we are in Albert Park. We’ll take them up on it.

From Albert Park we caught the #1 tram back into the city and then the Sandringham train to Prahran. Still one of the more desirable areas of Melbourne, Prahran is a step down the social scale from tonier Albert Park. Urbane, trendy, with lots of young people shopping or checking each other out in coffee shops and pubs, Prahran is a multicultural draw for urban dwellers willing to live on narrower, more crowded streets in exchange for vibrant city life.

At a sidewalk café Robin started a conversation with Paula H., a woman whose radiologist husband died ten years ago. She lives in Toorak, an upper-class suburb on the south side of Melbourne’s CBD. With her miniature poodle on her lap, she talked of today’s slipping standards, of how ordinary Australians are such dull company.

When the waiter came to collect payment for her wine, she was $5 short. We gladly chipped in, a small price to pay for an hour’s entertaining conversation. She promised to send us the money and to have her daughter, who specializes in residential rental properties, to call us. We don’t expect her to come through with either, but we met another story in her, and that’s worth $5.

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