Coming over all Mexican

This weekend, quite exceptionally for me, I left Sydney and spent some time in Melbourne. I’ve been guilty of some Melbourne-bashing in the past and to be honest, I have often found it difficult to see its charms. I have to hold my hand up now and say I have been converted. Perhaps, just perhaps, I may have even been taken right over to the Melbourne-shits-all-over-Sydney side. Yes, the dark side.

Although I grew up in the country I have been in Sydney for almost 15 years so it’s been a long time since I’ve lived anywhere else. I have never lived in another city and have not travelled widely. Pathetic, I know.

I always felt Sydney just had too much going for it in terms of physical beauty, diversity, population size and sheer bloody gall for me to start casting come-hither looks the way of Melbourne.

And then I found myself spending a lazy Sunday afternoon in a pub in St Kilda, after having been on and off trams for the past two days, darting hither and tither around Melbourne’s surprisingly grid-like streets.

Unlike the pure organisation of Canberra, there is a certain looseness to the Melbourne’s streets that allow the city to hold some charm without the rat-hole feeling Sydney can give. Canberra’s anally organised grids and perfect circles emanating from their venerated centre lead to confusion and a sense of panic as landmarks for visitors are passed on any number of roads several metres apart.

As I sat in the pub and watched people walk past I definitely knew I wasn’t in Bondi, or Coogee, or any other Sydney beachside suburb. (Ok, so I’ve always scoffed at the fact that St Kilda is called a ‘beach’ but I will explain my ability to put this sort of thing aside later). And I liked it.

I was accompanied by someone who had lived in Melbourne before and my companion did their best to talk up Melbourne at every opportunity. At first I was resistant but slowly my defences were worn down.

The main point of my companion’s argument was that Sydney was always trying to compete on a global scale and that Melbourne just did its thing. Sydney is always wondering what others think of her. She dresses in the latest fashions, even when they don’t suit her. She has rare innate beauty but isn’t sure about how to feel comfortable in it. She uses it as she thinks others feel she should. She wants to make a big impact now, stuff how she feels tomorrow. Conversely, Melbourne dresses herself up for her own enjoyment. She doesn’t give a toss what other people think. She knows how to have fun but won’t be told how to do it. In essence: Melbourne is for the people, Sydney is for show.

A very basic example is the public transport systems. Why Sydney ever thought it would be a good idea to get rid of trams is beyond me. As a Sydney-sider I am always in awe at the ability of trams, cars and pedestrians to share the same space. The rules seem to be less rigid than in NSW, (who allows people to stand in the middle of four lanes of traffic to catch a tram? It’s bloody dangerous!), but it works.

Which, I guess, is like a lot of things in Melbourne. Our public transport is very much separate from our traffic. Car drivers and buses fight a daily battle to gain supremacy. You’re either a driver or a public transport person. In Melbourne you just go with whatever is easier and the public transport system, in both convenience and price, makes it easier to go without a car (hell, I even saw Barry Jones on a tram). In Melbourne it seems, to the outsider, transport all works seamlessly. In Sydney we have rules, we have inconvenience, we have the privilege of driving and we have inadequately planned and expensive public transport.

Victorians deign to allow alcohol to be sold in cafes and in even convenience stores. We in NSW are being saved from ourselves with licensing laws that treat us like children. There seems to be a level of trust between the law, the government and the people. Like their seemingly laissez-faire attitude to road safety, their attitude towards the idea of community is far less bound by laura norder and much more faith in the desire and ability for people to just get along.

Of course, I may be overstating things, I may be just blinded by a trouble-free weekend as a tourist with nothing to do but follow one’s whims. There is though an undeniable difference in the two cities that has less to do with sheer beauty and more to do with an idea of people and society. In Sydney we’re always being saved from ourselves, we are taught to ‘keep things for good’, for when the cosmopolitan relatives come to visit. Melbourne just gets on with living their own lives in a way that makes them happy. Hence Sydney seems more akin to the searingly beautiful but grasping and unconfident one, Melbourne the ‘cool’ and confident one who does her own thing and plays to her strengths. In the end, the one who doesn’t give a toss is always the most attractive to the outsider.


  1. Hey!

    How am I — a displaced Brit — supposed to turn into a typical, arrogant Sydney-sider if you write crapstuff like that?

    Next you’ll be telling me that Canberra is nice and Queenslanders are progressive.

  2. Well, Canberra is nice, BK.

    And you’re still suckered bad, Georg. Look at the beautiful Freudian typo in your second para: “I have never lived in another Sydney …”

  3. Oh, I wouldn’t say that Melbourne is totally uninterested in world spotlights. Lots of talk from the city council and the state gov. about international standard and worlds best practise, yadda yadda.

    You might also get some stick from people in Fitzroy about how St Kilda is the “sydneyest” part of Melbourne and who would try to deny that you had an authentic Melbourne experience.

    I had a similar experience to yours, inverted, a few years ago when I had a couple of good weekends in Sydney with some mates. I know it’s churlish to say, but I reckon there’s room for both of them in this wide brown et cetera.

    Chewton, however – now THERE’s a town that’ll take some beating!

  4. Yes, I figured there would be people who said I didn’t see the ‘real’ Melbourne and of course, in three days it’s a bit difficult! Glad to see you had a similar experience of Sydney. I don’t actually think one is better than the other but I am always interested in the differences, given the history of bickering between the two.

    (And for a town of 400, Chewton sure puts a lot of work into its website!)

  5. Welcome to the dark side! Bwaaahahaa!

    I’ve lived in Melbourne and Sydney and am currently in Canberra (ok, also in Medlow Bath, Armidale and Wollongong. I move a lot). Melbourne was the first city I ever lived in (moving from Sydney to the Blue Mountains at the age of 5 doesn’t count, I reckon), and it will always remain my favourite – and for precisely the reasons you mention. These reasons are particularly noticeable in the cities’ attitude toward food.

    Sydney likes its food, all right, but cheap food is, on the whole, cheap’n’nasty. Good Food is Expensive Pretty Food. That’s How It Is.

    Melbourne, on the other hand, has that Italian/Greek background, which dictates “All Food Is Good Food”. It’s certainly not impossible to get bad food in Melbourne, but it’s a heck of a lot harder. The small takeaways are just as likely to have mind-blowingly-good food as the big joints.

    Canberra I adore, and have for a long time. In the end, I like small country towns. And Canberra, to my delight, appears to combine small country towns with a growing Melbourne-style sophistication, rather than Sydney-style beautiy and brashness. Yes, it’s very new at this “being a grown-up city” thing, much like BrisVegas was during the early 90s, and still finding its way. But you can get a drink at a cafe, like you can in Melbourne. And having a drink at a cafe watching the sun go down over the lake isn’t such a bad thing 🙂

    Note: I still love Sydney over Melbourne for some things. The harbour, for eg. How can you go wrong with that glorious harbour??

    Different is just different, not worse or better; personal preference is just that, personal preference. Which is a Good Thing ™.

    But I still like Melbourne the best ..

  6. As a Sydney-sider I am always in awe at the ability of trams, cars and pedestrians to share the same space. The rules seem to be less rigid than in NSW, (who allows people to stand in the middle of four lanes of traffic to catch a tram? It’s bloody dangerous!), but it works.

    Heh. I think you’re right, but I’ve had some interesting experiences on the public transport. Once I was sitting on the tram, when the tram driver LEAPED out of the seat and out the door and began abusing the driver for going past while the doors were open – there’s a regulation against that, you understand. The train stations were shocking for me at first – hardly fenced off at all, just sitting there amongst the trees and the ground. I like them!

  7. Note: I still love Sydney over Melbourne for some things. The harbour, for eg. How can you go wrong with that glorious harbour??

    There’s some international architects/town planners who think we treat it like shit, thinking we can get away with allowing any ugly old thing to be chucked up because the harbour will always soften it so that it’s not actually an eyesore. I think they may have a point.

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