Dream-borne in Melbourne

Everything was wrong with my life when I moved to Melbourne. But everything was right with the city. And who can remain immune to the charms of such sunny perfection? Not even tragedy-hit me. An inspiring story of a woman who lost everything; yet reclaimed her life in the city that welcomed her with open arms.

1. Goodbye, Mumbai

Melbourne Docklands and the city skyline from Waterfront City looking across Victoria Harbour (Wikimedia Commons)
This image of Melbourne's skyline across Victoria Harbour was all I knew of the city before I packed my bags and turned my back on Mumbai. I remember thinking - why is everything so blue? It looked like a happy place - full of sunshine, smiling faces and bustling cafes. Yet, I was sure the clouds of my despondence would somehow manage to eclipse even a city as bright as this.

The morning after I received the news of my family's death on the Mumbai-Pune expressway, my manager at the IT consultancy firm I worked at, summoned me into his cabin. The wondering eyes of my colleagues fought to catch a glimpse of what they imagined to be a tragedy-stricken face. But their vulturous instincts found nothing. That call from the police control room, telling me that a drunk truck driver had smashed into my parents' car had left me numb. I did have a fleeting feeling of being left out. I'd passed on attending the wedding of our family friend Meera, in favour of a project at work that was nearing its deadline. Maybe I should have stopped being a model employee and gone along instead. At least then, I wouldn't have to be the one hearing those cold words, "There were no survivors." I realised that my boss's lips were moving. "Melbourne is the most livable city in the world, Anoushka. You're bound to love it there." "Melbourne?" Varun sighed. "You haven't been listening to a word I said, have you?" He sighed again. "I want to transfer you to Melbourne. We need someone with your skills there and I believe you need the change of scene as well." Okay, wait. "How long will I have to remain there?" Varun shrugged. "As long as it takes. It's a long project." He seemed to sense my hesitancy. "Come on Anoushka, anyone else would jump at this chance! But I'm keen on sending you there." So this was it. Goodbye to Mumbai and all the fond memories it held for me. Not a permanent farewell perhaps, but nevertheless, one with no potential end in sight. "All right, I'll go," I said. Varun was relieved. "That's great Anoushka! We'll begin the formalities rightaway."

I gathered that I had around a week before I flew over the ocean to a city with immense promise, according to every single person I asked. "Are you kidding me?! Melbourne is the best city ever! I lived there for a year when we were newly wed and you should have seen those Victorian era buildings on Collins Street. They were straight out of a Charlotte Bronte novel!" Pankti, my colleague gushed.

Collins Street (Wikimedia Commons)
"You're moving to Melbourne? Are you serious? Do you know that it's the world's ultimate sports city? You must go to the National Sports Museum! And go watch a match at the Docklands Stadium if you can!" Sahil, my jogging buddy advised.

Tom Wills statue at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (Wikimedia Commons)
"I'm so jealous! Public transport just isn't the same here. Riding those trams with the one you love on a rainy evening - it's just about the most romantic experience one can have. You must try the free Heritage Trams on the city circle route. Oh and the restaurant trams!" Mahi, my cousin shrieked over the phone.

Melbourne is home to the world's largest tram network (Wikimedia Commons)
Wasn't there a single thing to dislike about this city? I rather viewed it as a challenge. There had to be something I could use to feed the sadness inside me. The house was silent and watchful, as I swept my belongings into the largest travel bags I could find. I had no idea I had accumulated so much, in the twenty five years that I had lived. I discarded anything that reminded me of mom, dad or Spunky, our dear cocker spaniel. My cell phone was full of messages and missed calls from friends, cousins and people I hadn't spoken to in ages. I switched that off as well. I began to look forward to the 12 hours of solitude I would enjoy, several feet above the sky, as I left behind the city that had been home ever since I was brought into this world.

2. Hello, Melbourne

The Melbourne skyline as viewed from the Rialto Observatory (Wikimedia Commons)
This was the kind of view I woke up to, as the pilot announced that we were beginning our descent into Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. There didn't seem to be too many Asians on the airplane. I hoped the city wasn't racist. "On holiday?" a friendly voice next to me piped up. It was the youngish gentleman in spectacles who had politely receded behind his book on modern architecture for the entire journey. But it seemed the vow of silence had now been broken in favour of some socialisation. "No. I'm moving here," I replied. I didn't think Melbourne was going to be racist after all. Yet another reason to allow myself to be happy in this city. But how could I? "I'm Mason." I shook his hand, warm unlike my chilly ones. How did he manage that, with the icy-cold air conditioning around us? Mason's blue eyes and light brown hair shone in the Australian sun that now filtered in through the unshuttered windows. "Anoushka." "Like the singer?" I was surprised he knew of Ravi Shankar's talented daughter. "Yeah, even the same spelling," I smiled. "Are you from Melbourne?" Mason nodded. "Yeah. It's a great city." "I've been hearing that everywhere," I said, slightly amused. "Tell me five reasons why you love the city." I've found that enumerating things always lends clarity to one's thoughts. "Five? I could tell you a thousand," Mason laughed. "But all right. Number one - we have our own dance move - the Melbourne shuffle!" He had to be making that up. But Mason actually stood up, and showed me a preview of the famed move! I clapped. "Okay, that's pretty cool. Four more to go." "It's the one place where you can still easily get a vinyl record." "Really?" When I was little, mom and dad loved playing Abba on our vinyl record player. And there was always something comforting about the little scratches and imperfections in tune. I wrote the strangest poems, under the hypnotic lull of those rotating discs. "Third, you can buy flowers at the post office! Not to mention, a lot of other cool stuff as well." "Post offices here must be pretty rich then," I quipped. "Fourth, Melbourne has the most quirkily named free community festival ever." I waited with bated breath. "Moomba!" "Hahaha! You have to be kidding me." Moomba sounded like the first utterance of a baby with its mouth full of cerelac. Mason shook his head. "I'm serious! It's awesome and it means 'let's get together and have fun' in the Aboriginal tongue. And that's exactly what we do!" "Okay, that was four. Still another one to go." People were starting to disembark from the airplane, and suddenly, I wished we'd begun this conversation sooner. "That would be my favourite reason - we have a bay that you can loop around in a single day! Begin at Melbourne and wind through the wine districts of Mornington, then head down to the historic towns of Portsea and Sorrento. Thereon, jump or drive on the boat to Queenscliffe - from there you’ll be back on home ground: Melbourne via Geelong."

Yarra River running through Melbourne (Wikimedia Commons)
That sounded like something I could try during my first weekend in this golden city. I said goodbye to Mason and made my way out as quickly as possible, to avoid the awkwardness of a forced and an extended conversation. He looked like he wanted to say something more and it occurred to me later, that perhaps he'd been looking for a way to stay in touch. The only thing I seemed to be able to stay in touch with, however, were the haunting ghosts of my loving, colourful past. Mom and dad had never been abroad and I couldn't help wondering what they'd have thought of the majestic facade of Flinders Street Station or the peaceful interiors of St Paul's Cathedral. I couldn't help wondering if they might have enjoyed the vibrant cultural scene at Federation Square, National Gallery of Victoria and Melbourne Concert Hall more than me.

Hamer Hall (Wikimedia Commons)
My house overlooked Princes Bridge on Yarra River and in the wee hours of the morning, I'd often wake up the gentle splish splash of a boat coursing down the river.

Princes Bridge (Wikimedia Commons)
The sound of the breeze and the water calmed the storm that came rushing back, as soon as I left the safe confines of sleep. As images of the gruesome accident returned, I'd focus instead on the moving streams of chic Melbournians making their way to the stunning edifices that lay on the other side of Princes Bridge. One of them housed my new workplace and I was not too pleased at the prospect of being confronted by so many strangers.

Source: Flickr.com (Licensed under Creative Commons)
Dressed in a tweed coat over my blue pantsuit to combat the cool winter air, I stepped into my new office. Over the course of the day, I heard the words "This is Anoushka and she has joined us from India" so many times that they stopped making sense to me. I saw too many faces; heard too many names to be able to remember even a single one correctly the next day. But I did make one friend - Carla, who was my designated 'buddy'. Carla was friendly and easy to talk to, and I took to her immediately. I even told her about Mason. "Why on earth did you run away like that?!" Her sea green eyes widened in surprise. I sighed. "I don't know. I'm not in the best frame of mind for anything like that, right now." "Then you've come to the right place," Carla beamed. "No one can stay depressed in Melbourne." Over the next few weekends (and a few weekday evenings), she set out to prove exactly that.

3. Goodbye, sadness

Work kept me occupied during the day but my lonely dinners at home brought my spirits back to where I had left them in Bombay. On one such night, I stumbled upon a rib-tickling collection of short episodic videos about Melbourne, with my favourite comic duo Tanmay and Rohan playing host.


I have a special soft corner for penguins and the coming weekend, Carla had promised to take me to see the penguin parade at Phillip Island Nature Park. I learnt that the island contained 32000 little penguins! It might as well be called Penguin Island. But this was only after I watched Tanmay describe the penguins as having a very strange sound, only to realise that he had mistaken penguins for pigeons! That particular night, I did not feel lonely at all.

On Friday night, Carla and I, along with a few folks at work, headed to King Street for 'a wild night of revelry', to quote my friend who seemed to have gone quite insane. From their descriptions, King Street sounded a bit like Paris' Pigalle to me, complete with strip clubs and questionable shops. However, the club that we went to - 'Inflation', turned out to be surprisingly fun. The DJ was belting out some of my favourite rock numbers and the crowd was refreshingly well-behaved. I spent some time dancing with my colleagues and soaking in the cathartic beats of the music. But soon enough, I felt my moroseness returning and I headed to the bar to spend a few moments alone in my own company. "One scotch and soda please." "I'll have the same." I recognised that voice even in the midst of all the music and chatter. "Mason!" He was smiling down at me, his eyes bluer than ever. "Painting the town red already?" "Yeah, my colleagues insisted." We spent three drinks talking about my time in Melbourne so far. It wasn't until I told him that I realised how much the city was starting to grow on me. I didn't think about the accident more than once or twice a day; earlier I couldn't go more than five minutes without being devastated by the memories. "Have you gone ballooning over the vineyards at Yarra Valley?" "Not yet. I'm going to see the penguins tomorrow though!" Mason was delighted, and told me all about the excitement of watching little penguins emerge from the water. "Allow me to take you to Yarra Valley next weekend then." I couldn't possibly say no. Besides, I didn't seem to have a single friend apart from Carla. That was all this would be - a friendship. "I'd like that," I smiled.

Melbourne in the night (Wikimedia Commons)
I spied my colleagues approaching over the horizon and braced myself for a round of awkward introductions. "Hey! You must be Mason." Clara piped up. I blushed while Mason asked with a laugh in his voice, "You told her about me?" I nodded, wishing I had sent Mason packing a little earlier. "Yeah I recognised you from the deep blue eyes and hair the colour of wheat gleaming in the sun..." sang Clara. She was really going to have it from me. Mason was laughing outright now. "That's flattering..I think. All right, I'll see you next weekend then Anoushka." I loved the way he pronounced my name. And I was so glad he was leaving. "Bye!" I called and spent the next couple hours dodging a gazillion queries from my work mates.

The next morning dawned early and bright and Carla and I set out for Phillip Island. "We'll also take the seal watching cruise," Carla told me excitedly as we coursed along a smooth highway that was a dream to drive on. "But I want to see the penguins first!" Penguins are my first love. Perhaps it began with my favourite cartoon show in my childhood - Pingu. Whatever the reason, that moment when I saw the first one waddle out of the water under the sparkling early-morning rays - it felt like the culmination of a life-long desire. It was so beautiful that I could not take my eyes off from the penguin; not even to click a picture.

Source: http://www.visitmelbourne.com/Regions/Phillip-Island
We spent the day nestling shy koalas at the Koala Conservation Centre, hand-feeding wallabies, kangaroos and pelicans, waving at a colony of 16000 fur seals at Sea Rocks from our boat and trying to get good photographs of exotic Birds of Paradise. I don't think I'd ever seen so many new and wondrous birds and animals in a single day before. In the evening, completely exhausted from all our adventures, Carla and I lay on the beach, swigging beer and munching on Chiko Rolls (an Australian version of a chicken and vegetable roll that I quickly grew fond of). "That was a good day wasn't it?" Carla asked. I nodded. "You didn't think about..what happened, did you?" I was quiet. Indeed, I hadn't. Lately, the possibility of coping with life even despite all that I had lost, had begun to seem within reach. "What's Melbourne doing to me, Carla?" I asked. "It's working its magic - like it always does."

At night, before letting the beautiful penguins and seals of Phillip Island invade my dreams, I decided to watch another Tanmay-Rohan video in the 'Come alive in Melbourne' series.



4. Hello, happiness

Carla must have been pretty exhausted showing me around the city all the time. And I was glad to give her a breather on the weekend before Christmas. At 5 AM on Sunday morning, the alarm clock awoke me from a dream where I was reliving the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra last evening at the Myers Music Bowl. There has been a healing quality to the urgent strumming of the cello and the sweeter, poignant notes of the violin. Every instrument had taken me on a different inward journey but all the routes had led to the same sweet destination - pure joy. I hadn't thought that this place still existed inside me, in spite of everything my heart had sustained. The loss, the despair, the absolute hopelessness - all of it receded in the magical onslaught of the music. Later, I had even spoken to flutist Sarah Beggs to tell her how much her music had touched my soul. Carla and I had ended the night with a walk along Melbourne's famed Hosier Lane, which lived up to its reputation as one of the most artistic lanes in the world. I had been keen on visiting it ever since I saw Tanmay and Rohan go gaga over it.


Precisely at 5:30, Mason called up to tell me he had arrived to pick me up. In panic, I tossed things I thought I'd need into a rucksack and rushed out the front door, ready for an adventurous day of hot air ballooning over Yarra Valley and the Dandenong Ranges. "Do you like old steam engine trains?" Mason asked me, after I had strapped on my safety belt. "I love them." "Then we'll take a ride on the Puffing Billy Steam Railway. It's Australia's oldest steam railway and the ride will take us through lush glades and gullies filled with ferns." "I never thought any city could be so beautiful," I smiled. "And do you find the people beautiful as well?" Mason teased. He certainly fit the description, in his mint green shirt and casual chinos. "They are," I agreed without any embarrassment. Melbourne had been good to me. Suddenly, I realised I had Varun to thank for all this good fortune. I ought to tell him that. All though we'd been in touch, I'd only ever spoken to him about work.

Source: http://www.visitmelbourne.com/Regions/Yarra-Valley-and-Dandenong-Ranges
Mason had shown me pictures such as the one above, from his previous trips to Yarra Valley, which he said was his favourite spot in Melbourne. Yet, nothing could prepare me for the panorama of lush green valleys, forests and vineyards, rows and rows of which, defied description. "Hope you're not falling asleep," Mason smiled down at me, as I gazed and gazed at the impossibly beautiful world around me. "Not a chance. I'm a morning person and even if I wasn't, this sight would wake anyone up!" "So, you're going to be staying in Melbourne for a while, are you?" Did he want me to? Butterflies began to dance in my stomach all of a sudden. And I noticed for the first time, how our hands rested right next to each other, just a few inches shy of what I knew would be electrifying contact. "I guess so. This project isn't going to be wrapped up in a hurry," I smiled. We were 2000 feet above the ground and the only sound I could hear was that of my own breath. What I had gone through was still tragic but its hopelessness was somehow diminished by the expansiveness of the sky around me. With such majestic nature by my side, there was nothing I couldn't conquer. In that moment, I really believed it.

Source: http://www.visitmelbourne.com/Regions/Yarra-Valley-and-Dandenong-Ranges
After a sumptuous picnic lunch in the eclectic villages of Dandenong Ranges, we went for a ride on the Puffing Billy Steam Railway. Childhood memories of riding on the toy train at Matheran with my family came rushing back and I realised with a jolt, that I was actually happy to think about my family. That overpowering pain that usually accompanied any thought of them - it was missing. "Is something wrong?" Mason asked, as I stared into the distance, hardly able to comprehend how much the city and its delights had helped me heal. I found myself telling him about everything that happened before my arrival in Melbourne. Mason listened silently, gazing out from the open-sided carriage, as we rode from Belgrave to Gembrook. Finally he turned to me, and caressed my cheek - an action that took me quite by surprise. "You're a brave woman, Anoushka." He didn't say much else and it was good. The last thing I wanted was to hear empty consolations and niceties.

The next day, I was scrolling through my timeline on Facebook, suddenly filled with updates from my new Australian friends and I came upon a song that touched my heart for some reason. Perhaps it was the lyrics:
Come in my thoughts
Stomach in knots and then  
Steps, grass, gate, door 
Oh, you perfect stranger
 

Or it was the fact that the song took the singer through some lovely spots in Melbourne. It was titled 'From St Kilda to Fitzroy' and Amanda Palmer's lazy voice made me want to try singing it myself.


My heart told me to get up and see what St Kilda was all about and I decided to follow the impulse. I made sure to add the song to my mobile phone playlist and then it was time to say hello to the mid-morning colours and scents outside my door. I saw the smiling facade of Luna Park at St Kilda and walked around, enjoying the laughter and shrieks of the happy children. I heard the 'dings' of trams at Fitzroy -a sound I'd now become used to. And I had lunch at a streetside cafe, the taste of my food mingling with the comforting sounds of the street to create a multi-sensory symphony. 

St Kilda Beach by Sarah Worthy (Licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike)
Licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike.
And in that moment, the words of Amanda Palmer's song rung really true:
Then no more talk inside my head
Delicious feeling like I'm dead
For just a second, shutting up
A fire shock all in my gut
In the evening, I made my way to Fitzroy Crossing to see the river flowing there. There was not a single soul in sight and in that solitude and silence, I think I may have found myself again.

Fitzroy River (Wikimedia Commons)
Anoushka never left Melbourne. Her company offered her a chance to return after the completion of her project, but Anoushka decided to stay on. She eventually married Mason and together, they now run a travel company that allows visitors to discover why Melbourne is indeed the most livable and gorgeously vibrant city in the world.


Congratulations, Mohit Somani!

Dear reader, we have come to the end of Anoushka's story of how she came alive in Melbourne, and I'd like to reward you for reading till the very end. All you have to do is answer the following question:

Which of these places would you want to visit in Melbourne and why?

Leave your answer in the comments section below, and the best answer will win a gift/shopping voucher worth Rs 500, courtesy Tourism Victoria and Indiblogger. I'll be accepting answers till 4th Jan, 2015. Do follow my blog so you can stay updated about the winner! All the best, and here's wishing that you get to experience the magic of Melbourne.

P.S.: In return for this and a lot of hugs from my side, it would be great if you could view my travelogue and click on the heart button next to 'follow' and 'comment'. Do share if you like it. Also check out Airbnb if you want Rs 1583 off on your first trip to an exotic locale anywhere in India and the world. Thank you! 

 
This post has been written as a part of the 'Come Alive in Melbourne' initiative by Tourism Victoria and Indiblogger.