Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Street walking in Melbourne

"Omnis comparatio claudicate" (every comparison is to some extent flawed). This statement is more than appropriate when used in a travel context, yet impossible to restrain.

I had a chance to spend a couple of days among Melburnian, changing the rule of casual travel by having a long weekend on weekdays. My duty was to wonder in the street of Melbourne, Australia and to report my founding to head quarter for future investigation. I was a spy agent, undercover in the city, taking pictures, trying to pretend I was one of them while I was not at all. Before accepting my mission, I did my home work by locating the best ice cream shops and other corner stone of the local habits. But nothing prepared me what I saw on the field. Like one of my best inspire and role model used to say “Preparation is not ...” (John Rambo)

So as I said, my mission was to be alike in the city and notice everything and anything that could be used later on by HQ for a more mass scale invasion. Before dawn, on my first day, I decide that the best way of explore the city is to do the same as everybody else, and I decided to sleep in for at least 4 hours more. The red eye flight that I took was not comfortable enough to be able to rest and look fresh. The best way to spot a spy agent is to look at his/her eyes. I would be an easy target if I was walking around, asking question, starring at people with my red eyes. I did not want to take any risk, so I slept in and woke early in the afternoon (around 4PM or so)

During my homework, I discovered that Melbourne is the second most populous city in Australia, with population estimated at 4 million. My mission was going to be a very easy one, then. Being stationed already in a city of 4 millions people, I perfected the Art of Infiltration in foreign sovereignty without being spotted. In his book, “The 2 things a spy agent should know before crossing enemy’s line”, John Rambo mentioned that “Infiltration is the …” It took me a while to understand what John really wanted to say, but I realized later on during my stay in the capital of the Victoria state, what he meant. I guess he wanted to say that if you want to be in, you should not stay out.

Being a field agent for more that 15 years, I have to say that camouflage is probably the most difficult skill to acquire as a spy. Not enough, you’ll be recognized and too much, you’ll be spotted out; but the "four seasons in one day” proverb help me to choose my outfit for my first exploratory mission outside base camp number one (hotel room). I was the only one with a dawn jacket around my hips during the day and sweating like a pig at night. I guess that coming from a tropical island did not help me to easy the transition. I should write to John about this and ask him to update his online suitcase check list.

Anyway, my camera in one hand and my courage in the other, I decided to explore the city founded by free settlers in 1835, 47 years after the first European settlement of Australia, as a pastoral settlement situated around the Yarra River. On the way out, I put on my large Crocodile Dundee hat with the corks balancing around, but realized quickly that I should have done a bit more or research on the local habits.

I was the only one who had the bush outfit, and everyone on the block was tall, skinny and well dressed. I understood right away why the city is often referred to as Australia's sporting and cultural capital and it is home to many of the nation's most significant cultural and sporting events and institutions. At first, the locals are seeing as friendly and even non aggressive toward the tourist specie. At second, they are still seeing as friendly and even non aggressive toward the tourist specie. I am not used anymore to be the smallest in the street, but with was the case. I was immediately surrounded but a feeling of being at home.

Locals knew how to street walk.

I had to look up in the street and not be worried of one who cut throw your walking line, or one who suddenly change direction in front of you without noticing that you were behind, or one who not changing direction when going toward your direction playing the famous bluff game (You change! No YOU Change!), leading inevitably to improvised dance steps unheard at the “So You Think You Can Dance” competition.

In a not so recent article in the New York Time (Metro Matters; Urban Dance: Choreographing The City Streets), Sam Roberts ask himself which city has the best pedestrians. According to William H. Whyte, in his "Social Behavior in Public Places & Lessons for Urban Design: observations", the ones from New York City are the best. For 16 years William H. Whyte has been walking the streets and public spaces and watching how people use them. He started the "Street Life Project" with a number of social researchers and a band of observers.

According to William H. Whyte, New Yorker ''walk fast and they walk adroitly. They give and they take, at once aggressive and accommodating. With the subtlest of motions, they signal their intentions to one another - a shift of the eyes, a degree or so off axis, a slight move of the hand, a wave of a folded newspaper.''

This is what I rediscover, deep inside me was hidden this ability to handle the signals around me, and dance while walking without having to be or aggressive or accommodating, but both at once. My social street walker codes were all put back together and I was able to move around a city without having to fight against the flow of people and other ambush on my way. I was at home for 3 days, walking everywhere, jumping in and out the Free City Tourist Shuttle.

Now when you think that Melbourne is notable for its mix of Victorian and contemporary architecture, its extensive tram network and Victorian parks and gardens, as well as its diverse, multicultural society where food, restaurants and outdoor activities are ones of the finest in Australia…

Even thought I should not compare my current stationary camp with Melbourne, I have to say that street walking should be tough at school as a mandatory topic from the age of six to twelve and if you have consistent bad grades you should only be allowed to move around a city by taxi or in your own personal car. I am all for a street walking permit based on points and merit.

Melbournian passed the test, Singaporean did not.