Thursday, October 10, 2002

The Most Livable City?

Natalie Buxton of PixelKitty in Melbourne (not so) proudly reports that her town (well, actually, her town is Perth, but her current hone is Mellbourne) has been voted the world’s most livable city.

The title is surely deserved. Having been to Melbourne not long ago I can attest that it is indeed a beautiful place to be . . . shady boulevards, quaint trolley cars, and spectacular urban parks that rival anything in Europe or North America.

But like most of Australia, Melbourne benefits from one of the greatest public relations campaigns in human history. The city is located in one of the least hospitable corners on the planet . . . a part of the world so remote . . . as close to Antarctica as it is to any non-Auzzie-type nation . . . that even with supersonic transport, it is at least a day away from anywhere else.

The animals that live there are not cute and furry evolutionary oddities but vicious predators packing devilishly broad capabilities to deliver death with a peculiarly antediluvian emphasis on pain and suffering.

One of my ambitions since childhood had been to visit the Phillip Island nature preserve near Melbourne to see the large colony of Koala bears there. I mentioned to a local that I looked forward to holding one of these sleepy fur balls in my arms. The local turned grave and said, “you don’t want to touch one of those bastards, they’ll tear you apart.”

Sure enough Koalas are armed with long razor sharp claws and a foul disposition that appears to be common among marsupials. Photos show this quite clearly yet foreigners have been so successfully duped by Qantas (thanks Nat) advertisements that only locals would ever consider cuddly Koalas to be “vicious bastards.”

I traveled to Melbourne for work and had the luxury of travelling in business class non-stop from LA. It’s an extraordinarily long flight. Indeed, when I arrived the newspapers were reporting on a fellow traveler in who died of a blood clot that had formed after hours of immobility in a coach class seat.

What’s worst about this trip is that there is no pay-off. No exotic architecture, swarthy foreigners, or incomprehensible languages. Everything looks pretty much the same in Australia as it does in North America. It’s like taking a 22-hour flight to Toronto.

In Melbourne I stayed in a bizarre hotel that is probably the least characteristic building in the city. It’s an over-the-top 30-story phallus that looks like it was designed by a completely unrestrained Donald Trump. It was surrounded by massive pyres that simultaneously exploded into flame every hour on the hour much to the chagrin of the local winged creatures.

Attached to this hotel is a huge gambling casino – the only one in the country I’m told but I have no facts to base this on – that contributes an embarrassingly large proportion of the total tax revenue for the province. I had occasion to walk through it at 4am on the way to work and saw another Australian landscape not shared with outsiders . . . pitiful Asian tourists losing their shirts at blackjack . . . a man drinking alone at a deserted bar made entirely of neon. . . another man convulsing with tears surrounded by his dejected family. A pretty grim scene to behold before breakfast.

Outside, while sunnier, is no less disconcerting. While Australians speak fondly of its unique creatures they rarely, to my knowledge, mention the ubiquitous blood-sucking flies. These flies look like ordinary houseflies except that they bite and are single-mindedly attracted to the moisture that coats your eyes and the blood vessels in your head. As a result it’s not unusual to see people jumping, running and swatting the air around them as you tour the city of Melbourne.

And then there are the bats. Swarms of them as big as bread loaves. You can see them swooping over the skyscrapers at night blinded by the lights.

During a morning walk through the Botanical Gardens I entered a palm grove that was strangely denuded. About 50 yards inside the grove stood a sign that said something like “Warning: Huge ferocious bats the size of condors have infested this palm grove and are consuming it as you read this. Leave the area at once! But whatever you do don’t run because the bats are attracted to sudden movements and will surely swoop down and get their big leathery wings caught in your hair. If you are bitten or lacerated by one of these colossal bats, lie down immediately and prepare to die.”

Did I also mention that it’s blisteringly hot in Melbourne, especially around Christmastime?

Most livable city in the world? I wouldn’t know.

I don’t live there, thank God

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