2009 Melbourne Parks (MatadorU Assignment)

Bessie and I dodge cars and trams as we creep across the four lanes of Flemington Road. The prospect of getting caught between two passing trams is a real one if I don’t keep looking both ways. Holding my breath to avoid the peak hour petrol fumes, I remind myself again that traffic is the price we pay to live in the inner city.

It’s  6.30am on a Melbourne spring morning, and I look forward to the sunshine that usually follows the chilly mornings. Bessie jumps up on my leg, tail wagging, eager to cross the last lane of cars.

Reaching the other side of the road, we enter Royal Park and leave the traffic behind. I free Bessie. She races off, chasing a magpie who swoops down at her incessantly until we move away from their nesting area.  I smile.

I swish through some long grass, content again that after so many years of walking in a park  turned brown from drought, the more normal winter rains this year have have returned the park to a welcoming green.  I see it’s too cold for the homeless man who makes his bed under a clump of shrubs. He will return when the sun is out, and spend the day sitting on the grass overlooking the cricket oval, watching the world go by, only leaving when it gets cold.  In summer, he is there all the time, hanging his washing on tree branches and reading books.

Passing the wattle trees,  and their vivid yellow flowers, I stop and wait for the city tram to trundle by on tracks that neatly split the park into upper and lower sections.  People walk briskly on criss-crossing paths on their way to work. Bike riders swing effortlessly around them. Men in yellow safety jackets disappear into the gate in the very bright blue fence around the building site for the new Children’s Hospital, which has always lived comfortably at one edge of the park, but which has now expanded, taking a large green chunk away from us.

I reach the top circuit. The city skyline dominates, but down at eye level, the Victorian terrace houses that line one side of the park and the old church steeple remind me of how well Melbourne merges its history with its present.

Up here is like a club, with regulars stopping to chat as their dogs do that sniffing thing and have their own conversations.  I stop when Bessie stops.

“What kind of dog is that?” is a regular question.  “Border terrier, great dogs, very placid” I usually reply. Border terriers are an unusual breed in Australia, so we get this question often. I move on, feeling guilty for only a second that I’m not more dog-obsessed or want to spend my walk time chatting. I do stop to talk with the little old Chinese man who shuffles around the park with the help of a cane every day.

“How are you today?”
“Fine. And you?”
“Great.  It’s going to be a nice day isn’t it?”
“Yes. See you tomorrow”.

And with a flourish of his cane, he’s gone.  I still don’t know his name.

Back down to the lower park, with fewer dogs and more native birds. This is my time for some inner solitude. As we return to the road and to the coming day, I am grateful that Royal Park gives me this space in a city of 4 million. I share the park with homeless men, workers, students and dog lovers and we can each make it our own. Melbourne is good at making you feel at home.

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