MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — Melbourne has nearly as many people as all of New Zealand, 4.1 million, and they all seemed to be downtown on a sunny Saturday morning. Torsten had a little trouble adjusting.
“After New Zealand, it’s a big shock to the system — not like jumping into a cold lake, more like elephants stomping on my head,” he said. “I wish I were back in Christchurch.”
The day started well, with croissants, cappuccinos, fresh fruit and a plate of eggs Florentine. Beth had forgotten that she bought a hotel package that included made-to-order breakfasts, and they were pretty nice. Our server was, if possible, even more friendly than Kiwis, and after asking where we were from, told us her sister was studying in Manhattan, Kansas, and that she hoped to travel around Canada with her next year (the sister wants to get the hell out of Kansas).
Walking toward Federation Square, we passed the Immigration Museum. Australia is only a little younger than the United States, which also was a British colony settled by immigrants. But we guessed this museum wasn’t about walls and deportations. Banners read “Identity: yours, mine and ours,” and one showed a dark-skinned man and the slogan “I belong — do you?”
At the city visitors center, attendants approached to ask if we had any questions, and a friendly young woman behind the counter told us there were still tickets available to most of the touring shows we’d noticed. So we pocketed three Melbourne Walks maps and headed for the Halftix booth for discount tickets to “Ladies in Black,” a new Australian musical.
There was a big Trump protest on the next block, with “Stop This Maniac” signs. Organizers were urging people to sign a “Say No to Trump” petition, but, having done as much as we could last November, we moved on, feeling sad and embarrassed.
By then, Torsten needed immediate removal to a park, so we decided to follow the Walk in the Park tour. The free City Circle tourist trams were jam-packed, so we made our way through the Chinatown district and toward the Treasury Gardens.
Instant relief! They were delightful, with lots to see along wide avenues shaded by elms and fig trees: an art-deco conservatory, filled with tuberous begonias; Cooks’ Cottage, the home of Captain Cook’s parents, shipped from Yorkshire and re-erected in 1934; and the 1866 Sinclair’s Cottage, where the gardens’ first horticulturist lived. We sank onto a bench in its front yard, shaded by a palm, and relaxed.
Our map led us past a miniature Tudor village and carved “Fairies Tree” to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, whose massive bells were ringing after a wedding. Around the corner, Torsten was delighted to see the much smaller but just as pretty German Lutheran Trinity Church, built in 1853 and still the home of a German-language congregation.
The path led us past a memorial garden dedicated to John F. Kennedy, a U.S. president Aussies liked much better, then down to the Yarra River and Melbourne’s newest park, Birrarung Marr, or “on the side of the river of mists” in the language of the Wurundjeri people who once lived there.
We followed the river back toward Federation Square, hoping to get a late lunch at one of the wharf restaurants, but they all were packed and pounding with pop music. We were starting to get grumpy when we finally sat down at a cafe table outside Il Tempo, where our moods improved over a glass of sauvignon blanc and bowls of pasta bascaiola, with mushrooms and pancetta. On the lane behind us, a jazz musician played.
The restaurant was in a narrow pedestrian lane that turned out to be on another Melbourne Walks route, Arcades and Lanes. We followed it back to our hotel through a series of charming former alleyways that looked almost medieval.
We rested for an hour, then headed for the 1929 Regent Theatre and “Ladies in Black.” Set in 1959 Sydney, it features a high-school graduate who aspires to go to university and be a poet, against her father’s wishes, and takes a job during the holidays in a fancy department store, where one coworker fears she can’t have children and another that she won’t find a husband.
Yes, it’s 2017, and that’s the plot. The music was pleasant though unremarkable, but the lyrics? “Men are bastards/your life is custard/Totally disgusted,” and “I kissed a continental/His lips are so gentle/I must be mental.” Twice, the heroine sang a song to a ball gown named Lisette.
It was all slow going for two people whose idea of a fun musical is “Book of Mormon,” which we’ve seen three times and was playing nearby. We’re pretty sure — hoping, anyway — that “Ladies in Black” is not cutting-edge Aussie culture.
We walked back through still-crowded streets and hit the sack.