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Now that some spectacular Fall weather has returned to Melbourne, it is difficult to imagine that not long ago we were walking across a lake in Hamburg, Germany. The ice is gone now, of course, and Spring is happening. Thanks to the staff at the Gasthaus, I have seen a photo of crocuses. I suspect that with all the wet weather this winter, Spring and Summer are going to be wonderful and we are going to miss it.

But I am glad to be back in my own bed, with my own kitchen and our lovely attic study up among the birds. I can look at the airplanes coming and going from Tullamarine Airport without the feeling of dread that I get when I know that one day soon I will be clambering aboard yet another fifteen or sixteen hour flight, followed by the “short” haul to our destination.

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It is impossible for me to imagine what it was like for the millions of Europeans to pull up stakes and leave everything they knew for a new life on the North American continent, South America or Australia. From the middle of the nineteenth century until the beginning of the Second World War, Hamburg was the gateway to the world for five million emigrants. They streamed into the City to board ships that would take them to new lands and new lives. Our Gasthaus home in Hamburg was around the corner from the house of Albert Ballin, which had a suite of rooms for the Kaiser’s use when he was in Hamburg.

Albert Ballin’s father was Jewish. He was part-owner of an emigration agency that arranged passages to the United States. When he died in 1874, young Albert took over the business. He developed it into an independent shipping line, saving costs by carrying cargo on the return trip. This brought him to the attention of the Hamburg America Line, (HAPAG) who hired him in 1886, and made him general director in 1899.

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In 1901 Ballin had Emigration Halls constructed on the Hamburg island of Veddel to accommodate the many thousands of people who arrived at the Port of Hamburg every week to emigrate to North and South America on his company’s ships. The original “city” comprised 30 simple, one-story buildings and included a synagogue, church, hospital, and cafeterias as well as a playground.

Eastern European Jews fleeing economic and religious hardship were especially attracted to Hamburg. The halls are the setting of the Emigration Museum, appropriately called Ballinstadt. For many emigrants, the end of the trip was an island in the harbour of New York City, — Ellis Island. I was astonished to see a map of the USA midwest with the names of German cities peppered all over it like crackerjacks. Every fifth American has a German ancestor. Balinstadt’s passenger lists are a treasure trove for genealogical research.

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My own personal journey compelled me to head for the Reeperbahn one wet and rainy afternoon. In a misguided attempt to recapture a feeling for the magic of the Beatles, I made the pilgrimage to a museum dedicated to their early sojourn in Hamburg. Beatlemania doesn’t stint on display space, but whatever it was about the Fab Four that turned me into a convert failed to materialize for me on that miserable afternoon.

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It may be time to put “Backbeat” in my DVD queue and watch the story unfold up on the screen. Or simply let go of the Beatles infatuation. The sixties have been over for half a century, and the two remaining members of the group are not doing much of interest anymore. The Yellow Submarine may putter along in the back of my brain, but the magic of “A Hard Day’s Night” is no more.

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It was difficult to tear ourselves away from Grand Pre, Nova Scotia just as summer seemed to be on the verge of fulfilling its annual promise of sunshine and strawberries, but my wife does have an academic appointment in Australia. Despite a sabbatical and the opportunity to teach a semester in London on behalf of the University of Melbourne, it was time to return to Oz. When I was young, a trip to the antipodes would have taken several days.

Now, in enormous jets traveling at over 800 kms an hour it takes, well, days. It could have taken fewer of them if we hadn’t made a detour through Portland, Oregon to visit our son and his family, but the jet lag would have been worse. Instead of two legs, our itinerary morphed into four– Halifax to Calgary, Calgary to Portland, Portland to L.A., and Los Angeles to Melbourne. It is that last jaunt, the one that Australians laughingly call the hop over the “pond,” that is tantamount to torture. I used to refer to being at the economy end of the stick as traveling “cattle class.” I don’t anymore.

A shocking investigation into the treatment of cattle transported to Indonesian abattoirs cured me of using that term forever. The video was so appalling I simply couldn’t watch more than a minute. Australian viewers were apparently of the same mind, so the traffic of live animals to other countries for slaughter was halted, temporarily. It is set to begin again, under a lot more scrutiny. “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer and that video confirmed my inclination to go green in body as well as mind.  It is certainly not easy, despite the advent of so-called veggie options in restaurants.  And it does require a major shift in thinking about meals.

Mind you, I drive too much and spend far too many hours burning up the skies. On a long haul flight, you are basically immobilized for sixteen hours as the giant metal tube creeps across that vast expanse of ocean far below.

If you are assigned to a seat in the very last row, as I was, you wish they would just shoot you and get it over with. But we are highly adaptable creatures, and 21st century commercial airlines prove it. One gets used to the stultifying boredom, the noise, the dehydrated air, the toilets and the airborne equivalent of “food.” It is a luxury most of the people on this planet cannot afford, so how can one complain? I am always amazed that those lumbering machines can actually get airborne despite all that luggage.

On the tiny screen three inches from your face, you can unreel a fair selection of Hollywooden flics, Australian films, TV shows and Other. One movie I had been wanting to see was on the menu, “Oranges and Sunshine.” It tells the tale of 130,000 children who were deported from England and sent off to various countries, including Australia, under a scheme to rid the motherland of children from orphanages as well as others the authorities felt might become wards of the State. It was entirely illegal, but that never stops governments.

The heart breaking story is revealed through the eyes of the British social worker, Margaret Humphreys, who found out about it when one of the “Australian” children sought information from her about her birth parents. This happened in 1986. It is a very moving film directed by Jim Loach, with a great performance by Emily Watson and a fine cast.

We arrived home to an eviction notice. Apparently our landlord wants to sell and wishes to do some renovations to the house before it is put on the market. So, yours truly had to scramble to find a new place to park ourselves and all our stuff. That has now been accomplished, and the rest is simply packing and moving. As my sister noted, wryly, we should be getting frequent mover miles. We are not going very far, but moving is moving. Everything still has to be boxed.

For my next posts, I will be reporting from Maribyrnong. I have written about the River in a couple of posts– The Walk We Drive To, and one about the Henly regatta, if memory serves. The new place has lots of windows, so it will be a bit like moving from a cave to a treehouse. I’m looking forward to that. And we’ll be able to walk to the river.

All new pics and posts have taken a back seat to all this travel and disruption. If you are waiting for photos from our adventure on the Bay of Fundy, please be patient. I’ll get to it. In the meantime, cheers from the country and continent Down Under.


The development of the city of Melbourne and the state of Victoria was a land grab, initiated by a handful of settlers who had arrived in Australia a little too late for the first big land grab– New South Wales.  This was Terra Nullus, after all, the “empty land,” and land was there for the taking.

According to British law, the territory of Australia beyond the borders of NSW belonged to the Crown.  The Crown acknowledged the rights of Aboriginal people to occupy it and discouraged squatters, but these were niceties.  And niceties did not discourage people like John Batman, who let it be known that he wished to establish a new settlement along the banks of the Yarra River and to call it Batmania.  I want you to know, dear reader, that “Batmania” very nearly started here, long before the comic books made their appearance.

What attracted Batman and other members of the Port Phillip Association to the area was the temperate climate, fertile pastures and fresh water.  Realizing that the new squatters could not be stopped, Governor Richard Bourke dispatched a party from Sydney to set up a government, survey the land and lay out a town plan.  Surveyor Robert Hoddle laid out his street grid on the north bank of the Yarra.  Governor Bourke named it after Lord Melbourne and the town was born.

The one drawback to the location of the settlement was that even with a fine port nearby, large ships could not reach the town itself.  Hoddle realized the problem, and his plan for Melbourne included a railway line to the sea.  But Melbourne was built on the backs of sheep, and wool did not require an extensive network of expensive railways.

It would take seventeen years for the rail line to be built.  In 1854,a private enterprise called the Hobson’s Bay Railway ushered in the era of railroads.  Three hundred guests enjoyed a lavish banquet in an engine shed in the village of Sandridge, accompanied by long speeches, bottles of champagne, and beer. It would prove to be the first of many such lavish banquets.

The gold rush drove the development of the iron horse.  Gold mining required many men, supplies, heavy equipment, and it was profitable.  The first railroads were privately funded, but despite the success of some lines, others were expensive failures.  Most of the investors were interested in the land speculation it afforded.  The Essendon railway was one such example.  Built in 1860, the directors were reduced to offering to sell it to the government three years later.

Flush with the tremendous wealth generated in the goldfields, the Victorian government invested 9 million pounds from 1854 to 1864 to build just 409 kms (254 miles) of track.  Over the next sixty years, the lines expanded rapidly, reaching 4,670 kms (2,900 miles) by 1891.  By 1930, every town in Victoria with a population of over 500 had its own railway station.  The grandeur of some stations were astounding for the size of the rural populations.  Mark Twain wrote:

“Why, do you know, in order to curry favour with the voters, the government puts down a road wherever anybody wants it– anybody that owns two sheep and a dog; and by consequence we’ve got, in the colony of Victoria, 800 railway stations, and the business done at eighty of them doesn’t foot up twenty shillings a week….”

There were two problems with such a huge investment:  insufficient traffic and rail gauge incompatibility.  New South Wales and Victoria had different gauges.  Each state’s engineers favoured the gauge with which they were was most familiar.  The English had one gauge, the Irish had another and this was reflected in the colony.  A third gauge was chosen for Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia.  Narrow gauge lines were used for timber cutting and mining.   In 1917, a person wanting to travel across the country east-west had to change trains six times.

The depression of the 1930’s, World War II and increased competition from roads saw a decline in railway investment.  The affordable automobile ushered in an era of personal transport.  People took to cars and goods went on trucks. From the 1940’s to the 1980’s many branch lines were closed.   Contraction of the extensive and expensive Victorian railway system became inevitable.

But the death of the rural branch lines provided a bed that cyclists would adore.  The era of rail-trails was born.


It is hard to reconcile the beautiful weather in Melbourne with the economic hurricane devastating the world economy.  The skies here are pigeon-egg blue dotted with puffy, cotton ball clouds.  The temperature is perfect.  The flies and fires haven’t hit yet.  If it were possible to ignore the media, (which seems to have more than its share of bad news at the moment), it would be an excellent time to be in absolute bliss.

I headed up into gold country a couple of weeks ago to help a cycling friend celebrate his 60th birthday.  He lives on a farm in the country now and there were two lambs, just a few days old, gamboling in the paddock.  The sun was out and it cast a spell of enchantment.  Everyone seemed to be in a good mood.

The birds go berserk at this time of year.  The squawkers get up at first light, but they also make sure you know when the sun is going down.  Magpies dive-bomb cyclists under the mistaken impression that their nests are under attack. Lorikeets and parrots fly in colorful formations, but the bell birds are my favorites.  Riding through trees full of bell birds is like being delivered into a temple in Bangkok.  The tones are resonant and beautiful and stay with you long after the birds have gone.

The Arts Festival and the racing season have just started.  I mentioned in a previous post that this city is simply inundated with events.  I managed to catch two films in the Italian Film Festival but I missed at least two other festivals and the State Fair.  I stumbled across the furniture exhibition of the city’s Fringe Festival (perhaps its least interesting feature), One look at the catalog of offerings put me into a catatonic state.  I was simply overwhelmed.

We did make it out of the house to see some dance/theater last night and we have tickets for an evening with Philip Glass doing the poetry of Leonard Cohen.  We have to give our favorite Montreal poet a hearing. It is a city that has given us many good memories and Cohen is its most unlikely songbird.

I just got a lovely email from a friend there who is soaking up some balmy fall weather, thanks to a warm surge from down south.  He’s a Scot, a golfer naturally enough. Some foxes have been frequenting the golf course of late and a few have become quite tame. Not a good thing for the long-term health of the animals, but it allowed him to get a fine photograph.

by David Robertson

by David Robertson

It is difficult to ignore the local news, though.  It lands on the doorstep every morning and itches like a patch of poison ivy.

The bitter debate on Victoria’s controversial abortion bill continued this week.  The tragic fate of a lovely, 21 year-old Australian girl who disappeared in Dubrovnik on September 18 was just revealed.  Another Qantas flight turned into roller coaster ride when it plunged 1000 feet over Western Australia and had to make an emergency landing.  A quarter of the planet’s mammals are under threat of extinction; Australian mammals are the most at risk in the developed world.  The Australian dollar got hammered.

If you want to come see the wildlife or the race horses, now would be a good time. It’s Spring and the weather is perfect.

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