The Big M: notes on a weekend in Melbourne

Some of my closest girlfriends live in the suburbs of Melbourne and at least once a year (before the terrible early 2020s) we converge in the CBD for eating, shopping and lots and lots of talking. It’s been a few years since I have been there and this time I took Miss E, now 14. So I have a few new perspectives on this glorious city.

Shopping: Finding your own style

Kinki Gerlinki has an understated eccentricity- playful, elegantly vintage looks. They find a fabric and then create something quite unique. I discovered this designer around 2009 when there were a number of stores dotted across Melbourne: in my first blowout in Acland Street St Kilda I bought hundreds of dollars worth of items- then another time in Carlisle Street and one time on Sydney Road. The city store in Degraves Lane is so tiny only about 5 people can fit at a time, and that is the only shopfront that is still around. I remember chatting to the owner in 2016 and she said they were already struggling with the fast fashion market of H and M and Dangerfield/Princess Highway across the laneway, as they were selling similar, albeit more mass-produced pieces.

Every couple of years I do a cleanse of my wardrobe and I have to say that much of what remains is a stock of Kinki items- they are well made and despite of, or because of, their quality of fabric and quirky design, they are timeless pieces which remain to create a work of art or diluted with more conventional tailored items from high street chains. I have three fluffy jumpers from 2012 that I wear on high rotation.

Kinky Gerlinky may have been named after the London clubnight which lasted 1989-1994. Following the vibes of 80s clubs like the Blitz and Taboo, the culture celebrated outrageous fashion and drag. Boy George was (according to Wikipedia) one of its regulars and his style is synonymous with the early 80s style revolution of wearing whatever you want as long as it’s creative and fun and somehow expresses something you would like to say to the world, even if you didn’t know how to articulate it in words.

A worthy mention is ‘Hells Kitchen’, the bar above KL. I had a glass of bubbles to celebrate my shopping binge/careful selection of my spring wardrobe and Miss E had a very well-made Marguerita Pizza. And I caught up with a lovely friend I met in Bali.

Around the cafe strips are also The Quick Brown Fox and Dangerfield for some quirky pieces.

Miss E would be quite happy living in her bedroom as long as the temperature was a constant 22 degrees, has good internet speed and food was delivered to her door- (Covid isolation was living her best life) but having had a taste of the world outside her little bubble she is becoming increasingly curious about what else is out here for her. I vowed never to bring her the Melbourne again after her 2016 proclamation of ‘shopping is boring’ and she assured me she has changed since then. She bought her first pair of Dr Martens boots, and a new ensemble from Dangerfield. A few gamer shops helped her realise that there are other people out there who think and dress and act like her. She can see that there are nurturing environments where she can be unapologetically herself. She was also shocked by the visibility of homeless people and the landmines of vomit on the main streets. This opened conversations about social issues and I assured her that homelessness is a pandemic and these are just the people we can see- the amount of people living in their cars and couch surfing is on the rise.

High Culture, Low Culture and eating whatever you want…

One of my life goals is to get to Melbourne at least once a year and it’s great to go in winter as that is when the NGV have the winter masterpieces. I have had first-hand connections with the likes of Brett Whitely, Rembrandt (I took my Mum and Nanna to that one), Degas (the last time Miss E allowed me to dress her in a pink tutu) among many others and this year it was Picasso. Beautifully curated and enough room to jostle and move amongst the exhibits. That’s the joy of travelling in winter and it’s not school holidays!

As I had not spent any time in the CBD of Big M since 2016, I did notice some differences. It was more quiet, less vibrant. I didn’t go to the MCG for the last round of the season with 90000 heaving fans as my friends did, so perhaps if I did that I would have felt more of a vibe. As the most locked-down city in the world during the first waves of the pandemic, I am sure businesses really had to dig deep to work out how to keep going. Melbourne friends say the keyword was ‘pivot’ and I felt very out of touch and isolated from this milieu given I live in a quiet town in SA with a big yard – so our shorter lockdowns were seen as a break from life rather than the depressing disruptions they were for people in larger cities.

One of the reasons to go to Melbourne is to EAT. So imagine my disappointment when our first meal was booked to be ‘Karen’s Diner’ in Lygon Street Carlton. I erroneously and hopefully believed it might be the epicentre of Karen Martini’s food- but no- it was a burger place where the waiters are rude to you and you are encouraged to be rude back. Miss E and my teenage friends had all heard of it as it features on some strange little app called TicToc. It’s a performance/theme restaurant- made unhelpful that my friend is a real ‘Karen’ and I have a Karen haircut. The vernacular of a Karen (any middle-aged woman knows that a Karen is actually a Heather or from my personal experience, probably a – insert a name from a dreadful girl from my high school experience- is as follows: a white woman perceived as entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is normal. They demand to get their own way. My friends and I are all a little guilty of occasionally wanting good service.

I was labelled as ‘an old slag’ as I walked in and we complained about the tiny sticky table we were sat at so had napkins thrown at us. There was a catwalk competition which Miss E won as she did a jive walk and displayed ‘attitude’. She received the prize of a plastic container of some cherries. I did enjoy the experience to an extent but didn’t like the ‘f’ word being thrown around so much. The witty put-downs were hilarious and the waiters/actors did a fabulous job. The food was awful but I didn’t expect much. We had a lot of laughs.

As a side note, we went for a twilight/getting soaked with rain walk down a graffiti lane near Federation Square and popped into a little Mexican Bar which looked like a lovely place to sit and have a Margarita and catch up with a friend. We were told by the snooty waitress that there was ‘no room for you here’, and so we left. It’s poetic that she was ruder than the waiters at Karen’s. We ended up going to the tourist pub opposite the grand entrance of the Flinders Street Station and were welcomed warmly and had a lovely cosy drink and chat before dinner.

Living in practically-monocultural country SA I was thrilled to hang out at Asian supermarkets in Elizabeth Street (Miss E couldn’t walk after wearing her new Docs all day so we didn’t make it to Chinatown) and caught up with one of my favourite hobbies- discovering new chip and chocolate flavours. I don’t actually eat them of course (well, sometimes.) I also found some cryovac chicken feet. My Chinese friend has no idea how to prepare such a delicacy, given that she was born in Ballarat and has never been to China.

My favourite part about the trip was staying up around the Queen Victoria Markets and finding two excellent cafes which sold Indonesian food. The first one was opposite McDonalds- a coffee shop by day and Indonesian restaurant by night- and I had my first Balinese Nasi Campur/Bintang combo since I left the Island of the Gods in March 2020. The second was just down the road on Elizabeth Street and Miss E and I wolfed down another Nasi Campur for lunch the next day and I would have had dinner there too if all of the cafes on that strip did not shut at 9.30 sharp. I had to wait for late lunch the next day.

Another notable experience was the pistachio pastry I found somewhere in the halls of Queen Victoria Market on Saturday morning. I ate it without speaking and kept swooning. If you know me, that is a remarkable achievement for a piece of food. It didn’t even last long enough for anyone to take a photo.

PS: See you soon, Melbourne

Melbourne is truly a world city, with a snapshot of the big wide world for Miss E and an oasis of culture and shopping and eating for me. Thank you Melbourne- hope to see you again soon.

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