I used to live in London which is an urban behemoth made up of a hundred villages. These villages each have their own identity, architecture, atmosphere and inhabitants from all over the world. London is not just a global city, it feels like it has the whole globe living in it. But it is Melbourne that is the world’s most liveable city.
For the 6th successive year Melbourne has been judged the most liveable city, which measures things in five categories: healthcare, culture and environment, education, infrastructure and stability. I would characterise it as measuring pleasantness and comfort. My suspicion of the measures is heightened by my previous home, Phnom Penh, being rated 127th of 140 cities reviewed.
Across the main roads in Phnom Penh they used to have a banner saying that it was the charming city. Charming is close to pleasant, and Phnom Penh is neither. Like all of Cambodia, and most poor countries, it has terrible education and health services. Infrastructure is either non-existent, being built, or being built again because it was done poorly the first time. Green space is lacking and stability is actually undesirable for many who want change. But Phnom Penh is vibrant. Life does not happen in the home but out on the streets as people dine on the pavement, play badminton in the park, drive with friends on their motos, and chat at the street corner. Like London, the city has its own electricity current that sizzles through you.
I had been in Melbourne a couple of months and was at the late night venue of Melbourne’s festival. A musician, who was meant to be relatively famous in the Melbourne music scene, asked me what I thought of Melbourne so far. I replied that Melbourne was “pleasant” and immediately sensed the expected resentment at my faint praise. Melburnians only expect such underwhelming reaction from a Sydneysider; Melburnians hold their city in a certain regard.
I was missing Phnom Penh and the underwhelming compliment was unkind, but what other description could there be of a place where its Festival’s late-night open-air bar was situated on the grassy banks of the river beside rowing clubs and the Botanic Gardens? This screams pleasantness and, admittedly, it was so pleasant that I went back again the year after. The issue is that Melburnians appear to feel Melbourne has something even greater than pleasantness, something like what New York has – a comparison I’ve heard a couple of times.
Never having been to New York, I asked a New Jersey native who has lived in Melbourne for his opinion on the comparison. It was as emphatic a response, whilst maybe being more polite, as I would have expected from a New Yorker. Amongst other things, he thought Melbourne lacks the spirit – or maybe the electricity – that New York has. Melbourne’s international comparisons continue with one of the main shopping streets having a “Paris” end because of its expensive, boutique shops. It would only be funnier if Melburnians said it in a French accent.
Despite having one of the world’s best comedy festivals, Melbourne is a city that takes itself seriously, and has a level of pretension to go with it. Glasgow’s Miles Better whereas Melbourne is better and has multiple, independently judged, international awards to prove it: ok? The music festival beside my house the other weekend was not just a dance festival, but an “intelligent dance festival”. A friend defends the pretension by saying that Melburnians are not pretending; they actually believe Melbourne is something extraordinary.
It is good that local people talk about Melbourne being world renowned for food; the host of famous sporting events; a city that celebrate high arts and a thriving sub-culture; that maintains traditional markets and independent retailers whilst attracting international business; and all whilst having parks, rivers and beaches. But sometimes a little self-ridicule can be funnier, and focusing on the best can also mean ignoring the interesting.
Like London, Melbourne is a collection of suburbs that have their own feel, atmosphere and dynamic. St. Kilda has bars and backpackers in a beachside feel-good atmosphere. Prahran is a throng of narrower streets, shops, bars and restaurants, with nightlife similar to Clapham in London. Trendy and arty types own Fitzroy, where counter-culture dominates, and resent the curious visitors from sedate Melbourne coming to see graffiti, tattoos and a wilder side. Richmond is the place to go for Vietnamese pho and Box Hill if you want to see Chinese living, rather than Chinatown where you just see Chinese eating. You can hear Cambodian spoken in Springvale and the kings of laksa are in Kensington. And of course there is Footscray, which I’ve previously written about and is unlike any other part of Melbourne.
When looking for somewhere to live in Melbourne we decided we wanted to live near the beach. Most cities have trendy places like Fitzroy but there aren’t many cities where you can live by the beach. And for Scots in Australia we wanted something that we can’t get back home.
Our preference was met with some resistance by colleagues who told us the beach wasn’t a proper beach but, by Australian standards, a meagre strip of sand next to water. And the water wasn’t even ocean but just a bay. Plus, north of the river had cute pop-up shops, little cafés and cool bars. However, we stuck to our guns and opted to live next to the one thing that Melburnians weren’t terribly proud of. We found ourselves a place in Middle Park right opposite the beach.
A suburb whose name is a description of its location in relation to somewhere else may lack its own distinctive features, but the streets are tree-lined, Albert Park and its lake are a few hundred metres away, South Melbourne Market is up the road, the bars of St Kilda are just a walk down the beach and the tram into the city centre is outside our house. It is so quaint that it even gets called Middle Park Village.
I get up in the morning, cross the road and eat my cereal sitting in the sand. Some mornings I may even wander in for a dip. We’ve flown a kite, played pétanque, seen dolphins and seals, kicked a ball around, read a book, eaten cheese, drank wine and watched the sunset on the horizon – all on the beach metres from our home. And when it’s surprisingly cold and windy, we can still see the bay and sunsets from our front window.
My favourite bit of Melbourne is the only bit that Melburnians rate as inferior, but it’s hard not think how life by the beach is so, well, pleasant.