Melbourne: Descent into Madness. With Snacks.

It finally happened. Ever since leaving the Ice, I’ve been waiting for it, expecting it. I was a little surprised that it didn’t happen in Christchurch, but then New Zealand feels like home to me.

It wasn’t until I arrived in Melbourne yesterday morning that I had a full-on, heart-racing, light-headed, blood-rushing-in-the-ears freak out about being back in the Real World. With, you know… people.

In my defense, I arrived here suffering from severe lack of sleep. Because I needed to be at the airport in Christchurch at 0400, I decided it was futile to get a bed for the night or pitch my tent. Instead, I’d just cruise around till I felt like napping and then take a snooze in my rental car before turning it in. Not the smartest of my ideas.

So, sleep-deprived and sad to be leaving New Zealand, I got on my Pacific Blue flight to Melbourne, passing over the Southern Alps before we climbed into the clouds.

Early morning light over the Southern Alps

We landed three and a half hours later in Melbourne and immediately I felt stressed. The airport reminded me of Newark before it got all gussied up and had a name change in hopes people might forget its 9/11 connection. It was grimy and crowded and labryinth-like and seemed a patch-together of various half-completed construction projects. After collecting my luggage, I found the shuttle I’d booked online the day before. My driver was very friendly and eager to point out various landmarks, including his house, and the other two passengers, women flying in from Sydney for the Melbourne Cup festivities, were chatty and fun. I sat like Wednesday Addams staring out the window, aghast.

The Newark analogy continued as we sped into the behemoth of metropolitan Melbourne, riding an asphalt tangle of exit ramps and merging freeways. It was windy and raining and gray as we passed outlet malls, ugly, tightly packed housing and industrial sprawls that recalled Rahway and Secaucus. Those place names likely mean nothing to you if you didn’t grow up in Central New Jersey, but trust me, there is a reason I vowed never to live in that part of the States again.

And the people… my God, they were everywhere! Greater Melbourne is a city of five million, give or take. That’s a million more than New Zealand has top to bottom (and with three out of four Kiwis living in the Auckland area, you can imagine the shock of this place compared with Christchurch, never mind Hanmer Springs or camping in the wild).

I really thought for a moment that I was going to have a panic attack, or pass out, or do something equally dramatic. Instead I chewed my fingers and, apparently, let the blood drain from my face enough that one of the Sydney women asked if I was okay.

The room at my slightly dodgy budget hotel wasn’t ready (well, it was only ten in the morning) so I left my bag and decided to take a walk, still unnerved. The worst thing I could have possibly done in my state was go to the Queen Victoria Market, the hub of shopping activity for Melburnians on a Sunday.

Which is, of course, exactly what I did.

Exterior of one corner of the sprawling Queen Victoria Market

The first hour was a hellish experience of constantly being jostled and crowded and yelled at by various produce hawkers. Everywhere I turned there were masses of people surging forward to place their order at the cheesemongers, gnawing on buttered cobs of corn or haggling down the price of Hannah Montana beach towels. There were leather jackets and cheaply made ripoff football (soccer) jerseys and ten different kinds of pears and twelve different kinds of sausages and crappy costume jewelry made in China and live ducklings…

AFLAC! There were also chicks and quail... uh... quailings? quail chicks? Dans? for sale.

Live ducklings? What the hell? I did a double take on that, I can assure you. From the signage it appeared they were being sold as pets and egg-layers, not meat.

Bedding and sunglasses and belts, an awful lot of leather belts, and those hippy-dippy bohemian skirts they claim are made in Nepal that never look good on anyone and incense and power tools that never needed sharpening and cleaning sponges of inexhaustible absorbency and slippers and socks and children’s fancy dress and mobile telephone parts. In the produce “sheds” as they’re called, I was confronted with mounds of carrots and piles of peppers, row upon row of potato, apples, mangos, mangos, mangos one dollar, one dollar, one dollar!

At least some of the rushing throngs thought to smile for the camera (note guy at center)

The guys manning the stalls were outshouting each other, the crowds of shoppers were streaming between them like a rip current, pushing me back from my intended direction as they chattered to each other or on their mobiles. My spirit broken, I was about to leave, or at least crumple weeping in a corner when I realized…

Wait. Did you just say one mango for a dollar?

I still hadn’t had my mango. In New Zealand they were six to seven bucks per piece. Gotta love Kiwi pricing on imported fruits and veg. So I bought a mango. Then I bought a punnet of strawberries for a dollar. Then, trying to get out of the thick of the crowd, I went down a short hallway and found myself in… the delicatessens. The food halls of Queen Victoria Market.

Still battling the roaring crowd but now in the middle of cheese... The Dairy Hall Delicatessens of Queen Victoria Market

Once more my senses were overwhelmed, but this time in a different way. Fresh ciabatta! Twelve different kinds of local blue cheese! Vivid red pepperdews stuffed with feta and fresh basil! Salted caramel macarons! Grape leaves! Borek! Free range eggs! Almond croissants! Fat portuguese custard tarts! I don’t know what it is but I’m getting one!

Please do not lick your computer screen.

One Portuguese custard tart later (utterly delicious shortcrust tart filled to the brim with a cinnamon and vanilla custard that was to die for), I realized that things were going to be okay. One kumara (New Zealand sweet potato, which I guess grows here, too), leek and feta quiche later, I started to enjoy myself. Yes, people were still shoving and pushing and all around me, and the sheer scope of colors, sounds and smells was making me faint, but come on. Who can be panicky when there are salted caramel macarons on offer?

I tried to order a spicy potato and kumara borek from the cranky old ladies selling them and was told “No! Is finished! You get chickpea!” So I got a spicy chickpea borek instead and it was delicious. Everything was delicious. The macarons were overpriced, as usual, but I told myself the reason I stay in slightly dodgy budget hotels is so that I can buy six macaron for A$14 and not think twice about it. And damn, they were good.

My favorite sweet, by the half-dozen, left to right from top left: Vanilla with white chocolate raspberry ganache (well done), Turkish Delight (fantastic, though I do love rose water. I suspect it might have been overwhelming for those who are not fans), Tiramisu (completely amazing, with mascarpone filling. I don't even like Tiramisu normally but this was the perfect balance of sweet cream and bitter coffee), Lemon Tart (the only disappointment. Not lemony enough for my taste. But still yummy), Salted Caramel (did not quite live up to its billing but then again I ate it after the Tiramisu, which was unexpected perfection) and Pistachio (always my favorite, and so well done, with perfectly smooth pistachio paste filling)

Melbourne itself, meanwhile, shed its Newark image. It has a lot of neat architecture and so far, now that the shock has passed, it reminds me most of Manchester, England. Today I’m hoping for better weather and will set out to see the sights. And to walk off the 8,000 calories I injested yesterday.

One example of Melbourne's more interesting architecture.

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