It’s Pronounced Melb’n

As with most places I travel, I didn’t do much research before hopping on a plane bound for Melbourne. I just knew that I’d met Melburnians all around the world who I’d really liked; I knew it was supposed to be “the most livable city in the world’; I knew that it was supposed to be like a bigger version of Wellington – one of my favorite cities.

What no one had mentioned, yet what is all over the internet, was how ridiculous the weather is down here.

After two years of chasing summer, fleeing as soon as the temperature dropped or the first snow fell, I found myself inadvertently chasing winter. From gloomy Waipu, trapped inside a beautiful home watching the cold rains rush across the bay, I darted further south to Wellington as soon as the sun threatened to stay for too long. But sure enough, as soon as spring popped its way into my life again, I found myself further south in Melbourne in October.

“Don’t worry,” everyone assured me as I finally caved to the cool temperatures and yielded into buying pants and a hat. “It’ll be summer soon enough, next week it’ll be warm.”

They promised me this for every week in October.

Then every week in November.

Then every week in December.

I’d occasionally get one day of the Promised Land, when the temperature would roar into the 90s, only to fall back into the 40s the following night.

So it goes.

Flinder’s Street or King’s Cross?

Finally, when Mariah’s plane landed and my college roommate joined me in Melbourne, the weather became… slightly more summer like. I could start wearing dresses again. My pants were relegated to the back of my closet, eschewed for shorts and skirts as the mercury climbed into the 80s. Then into the 90s. Then 104 with wind gusts up to 100mph.

Immediately followed by a day of 65° and cloudy, because Victoria.

Mariah was still jetlagged when the thermometer read 112°F. It was around this time when I finally started realizing these bushfires were kind of a Big Deal.

The next day dropped to the 70s, then soared back up to the 90s.

Fine, I admitted. This place really does have a “Don’t like the weather? Wait 10 minutes and it’ll change” type thing.

Over Christmas, I found myself in Adelaide. I relaxed in the smaller city, the slightly slower pace, the feel that in this urban area I could actually make myself at home. We met up with Glenna, my travel buddy of 9 countries, and her partner Bobby. Bobby’s family had forgotten they’d invited his girlfriend’s friend and her college roommate, but welcomed us to their celebrations with open arms.

Adelaide sculptures felt just like home

Once again, the weather bounced. Coats and clouds, followed by bathing suits and sunshine. I knew that there was a fire in the hills, but the haze may as well have been a humid summer day.

We wanted to go camping over the new year and found some caves that looked fascinating. Glenna booked our tickets, and hours later we looked a little closer at just where these caves east of Melbourne were. We called to cancel our tickets, citing the natural disaster raging across the roads between us and them, but the woman on the other end of the phone coolly informed us that the Buchan Caves would be open the next day and they wouldn’t cancel our reservation unless we sent in an email detailing our fears for our safety.

I screenshotted the State’s official app warning everyone how dangerous the region was. We’re still waiting, but we fully anticipate we’ll get our money back.

Sure, we thought. You’re definitely reopening tomorrow.

We went west instead, one eye on the fire map, ensuring we wouldn’t camp in its path. The first day in our caravan, the air conditioning puffed its hardest but scarcely reached the driver, let alone the rest of the Apollo. Bobby, the only one of us with an Australian driver’s license, was the only one permitted behind the wheel and drove us across the drought-stricken land, fighting the winds trying desperately to blow us off the road. Mariah and I sweated in the back of the tin box, carefully avoiding touching the walls or floors which radiated the heat and threatened to burn our exposed skin.

We knew a storm was on its way when we arrived at our first campsite. As the front raged in, we commented how much better it felt and then checked the temperature. It was 97°. Oh, Australia!

When we returned to Melbourne for the first time in the new decade and said goodbye to Glenna and Bobby, we finally had to confront what had been threatening our continent for months. For the first time, I looked downtown from my flat and the skyscrapers were shrouded. I shuddered, remembering my months in Asia when the pollution mimicked fog and I wore a mask whenever I was outside. Mariah and I retreated to our flat and closed the windows, obeying the warnings about hazardous air.

It was hot. Our flat was jenky, falling apart, and without air conditioning. Its high ceilings, closed-off fireplaces, and the tram dinging outside our windows all mimicked what I’d always imagined a Brooklyn apartment to be. The bathroom doorknob was just a stick of metal, the oven refused to heat, the freezer built up an inch of ice in two weeks, and the front door was in an alleyway with a nonfunctioning lock that in the hottest days swelled and got stuck on the concrete.

Mariah and I love it.

Even so, the closed windows were suffocating, and I often escaped to the neighborhood around me, embracing the cool air of the grocery store, coffee shops, and permanent farmer’s market.

A normal view out my window
“What are you doing?!” Mariah asked in horror as I opened the window to get this shot.

I was torn between being thrilled and saddened when the rain began yesterday. The comforting cool front was a relief, but I saw the ash-filled droplets stain the world around me. And it was precious little – just a few millimeters of rain, not enough to even dampen the ground in front of the fiendfyre. This was a slight reprieve, but people are still missing, animals are still dying, the continent is still burning from the outside in.

This morning, I woke, comfortable under my duvet, but my nostrils agitated. I buried my head in my pillow, willing the scent to go away. It was too familiar, the wafting smoke. I flashed back to a year ago when the house I was meant to watch caught fire the day before the family left on vacation, when every time I blew my nose that week soot shot into the tissue.

I am safe, here in Melbourne. I am in the middle of the city, mere blocks from the river and the ocean, buffeted by thousands of firetrucks and protected by sheer numbers. But I’m watching, wondering if we, too, will have to be evacuated. Mariah and I have a plan of places to go, what we should do if we get separated. My phone dings with any warning within 10 kilometers, and I wait and watch and wonder.

Travel has never been easy. Engaging, educating, energizing. But never easy.

It is challenging, concerning, and a little bit crazy.

Today I am safe, but like the weather fluctuations of Victoria, that is no guarantee for tomorrow. So watch with me, and keep safe, my friends.

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