Travelogue: A Tale of Two Cities

What do the buttons on your backpack say? Tell Cyrus at [email protected].

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Yeah, it's cold out there. Make sure you have a jacket-a jacket or a woman."

This was the advice given by an airplane technician to someone walking in front of me before disembarking from Melbourne, Australia.

Winter in Melbourne would be just like a winter in San Francisco, I had been told. Despite being kept warm by only a thin black jacket, the blunt joie de vivre was one of many strong commonalities that I have come to love about San Francisco and Melbourne.

Venturing into the suburbs beyond, I heard Melbourne referred to as "The City"- just like San Francisco.

As a native of Los Angeles, a wasteland devoid of meaningful public transport, a low-budget student like myself has learned to appreciate the wonders of AC Transit, Muni and BART. It makes getting around The City much easier.

In Melbourne, there are trams that crisscross the city and go beyond to the suburbs. They have the charm of San Francisco's cable cars, but people actually use them to commute (as opposed to being merely a tourist attraction), and they are reasonably priced. In fact, the #496 street car that runs along the Embarcadero was built in 1928 and served as a tram in Melbourne for many years.

While riding on the trams, it is a pleasure to marvel at the historical exteriors that most of the buildings have retained. Downtown Melbourne abounds with shops, hotels and pubs that have ground-floor commerce and upper-floor offices or apartments. Many of them boast dates of construction from the middle- and late-19th century, following both cities' respective gold rushes in the 1850s. While the original purpose of the building may have been lost, the outer facade remains, with intricate wrought-iron decor and large stone carvings to ground these "frontier" cities in some sort of establishment.

These are in direct contrast to their rival cities, Sydney and Los Angeles, which remain sprawling metropolises that tear down their history in favor of modern skyscrapers and freeways.

Like its American counterpart, Melbourne remains on the technological cutting-edge. Software companies, dot-coms and cyber cafes fit in well with the limit-pushing culture on which they were built. The other day I even noticed a scene that would easily fit in the SoMa dot-com ghetto-an "Internet Launderette" where you can surf the Internet while waiting for the last spin cycle to finish.

Melbourne also has the same vibrant component that makes San Francisco such an interesting place-its people. The strong "wog" (an originally derogatory Aussie slang term for a non-Anglo Australian) communities, mainly found among the pizzerias lining Lygon Street and the tempting aromas of olives, souvlaki and tzatziki on Lonsdale Street, that form the backbone of immigrant neighborhoods is not unlike San Francisco's Mission District.

Surely the established communities need a bit of rebelliousness-much more tolerated in The City, the Australian equivalent of the stereotypically rural, conservative communities of the U.S. Midwest. Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, a northeastern neighborhood of Melbourne, is the core of such anti-establishment esoterica.

Last weekend, while cafe-hopping and poking around in shops, I easily could have been strolling through the Castro. Stale concrete structures painted in living color and containing funky, couch-filled cafes were just down the block from PolyEster-a bookstore boasting "totally weird shit!" which included books on erotica, ufology, punk rock music and marijuana.

An advertisement hanging in the window urged passersby to "speak out," "stand up" and have a "day of action" against government atrocities-the biggest one in Australia currently being the legal incarceration of refugees in desert detention centers, to be held indefinitely, for having committed no crime. I, like many like-minded liberals, now proudly wear a "FREE THE REFUGEES" button on my backpack.


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