How do you know if you’re really Australian?

Two memoir book covers
Jay Martin is the author of Vodka and Apple Juice, a memoir of living in Warsaw, Poland as a diplomat’s wife – or more accurately, an undiplomatic wife. Jay also lived in Alberta, Canada, for two years, and has recently moved back to Perth.

I recently had the chance to chat with Jay about Canada, Australia, writing other cultures, pumpkin spice season, being married, and the all-important question: How can you tell if you’re really Australian?

Jay: Both of us wrote books about moving to other countries. I really wanted to introduce people to Poland through writing my book. I felt like it was a really unknown country that had a lot to offer and that there was no one doing it justice. So I wanted to write a book that would make people want to go there. I also think I wrote it as a kind of therapy, processing what had been a very intense period for me with coming to terms with not working, and trying to make sense of myself in the expat world.

Ashley: Your book definitely made me want to go to Poland! Not in winter though. IMG_6517.JPGJay: And that’s coming from a Canadian! Now, of course, you’re an Australian of Canadian origin, and your book is about the process of adding the Australian to that. What was the strangest or most unexpected thing for you about moving to Australia?

Ashley: I still haven’t found a snake hiding in my dishwasher – venomous or otherwise. Australia’s got a reputation to hold up, and frankly, it’s failing. What about for you as an Australian moving to Canada?

Jay: One of the strangest things for me was that it was so similar. It was possibly partly because I moved from Western Australia to Alberta, both of which are described as the Texas of the respective countries. I got there and found crazy right-wing politicians, a boom-bust economy based on digging stuff out of the ground and a city that from some angles looks like an endless series of strip malls and thought, ‘I’ve moved to the other side of the world and this is just like being home’. I tried to introduce the term “cashed-up bogan,” but it didn’t stick. When I explained it everyone knew exactly what I meant, though.

Ashley: How was the process of writing another culture for you? Were there things you felt like you had to modify or leave out?

Jay: Is it too early in this conversation to comment that that’s probably a very Canadian question – because Canadians wouldn’t want to be seen to be impolite? Canadians are polite, though. I used to love the signs in our apartment building that told people they had to not open the door to people. It was like they needed to be instructed how be rude. Is this too stereotypical?

Author Jay Martin in Canada winter

Ashley: That’s funny, because we have the same signs in our Sydney apartment building! Aussies are also very polite, in my experience – although maybe they’re just being very polite around me because they’re concerned their natural brusqueness will offend my delicate Canadian sensibilities? I once had a friend break off in the middle of telling a story about an encounter she had at work, turn to her husband and exclaim, ‘I can’t say the C-word in front of Ashley and Steve!’

And now I’ll politely remind you that you didn’t answer my question.

Jay: Yes, there were so many sensitivities in what I was writing about. The war, Poland’s Jewish population, concentration camps, they all get a mention because they were a part of what I was experiencing, what I was learning. There was also the ridiculousness – to me – of communism. But it’s easy for me to say it’s ridiculous and make a joke about it, when I never had to live under that system. And I did tone the humour down in parts, in deference to that. What about for you? Australia calls you map and tourism adAshley: I felt the same. I felt I couldn’t write about Australia without bringing up topics like Indigenous rights, the treatment of asylum seekers, racism (an Indian reader recently said to me, ‘I can’t believe you used the R-word’). But it was tricky to do this, especially in a book that’s full of jokes about seven-legged spiders, inappropriate tattoos, and Iced VoVos.

Jay: I particularly liked that you covered all the ‘usual’ Australian stereotypes, like sharks and spiders, but you also talk about some of the more complex things, like Australia’s cultural cringe. My husband and I ended up having a long conversation about that, and discovered we both had very clear understandings of the term – that were completely different. It prompted me to think about how reading about your own country can help you see it differently.

Ashley: I wish someone had written a book called “How to Be Canadian” that revealed all the magical things that I’d grown accustomed to overlooking as a Canadian. If I could have read that as a teen, I probably would have appreciated everything around me more. Is there anything else in the book that really struck you, as an Aussie?

Jay: Well I’d never thought about the other meaning for the world “bush”. I can almost hear you giggle every time you write it. Although now I’ve seen it, I’ll never unsee it.

Ashley: You’re welcome.

Jay: Hmm. It was sort of the same for me with “beaver”, though, you know. I couldn’t talk about them with a straight face. Maybe Canadian Australians should be called bush beavers? What do you think?Couple with turquoise lake, mountain peak, evergreens
Ashley
: I once suggested at a local trivia night that our team name be the beaveroos and was promptly shouted down. Bush beavers is even better!

Jay: That person has no sense of humour. It’s interesting to talk with someone else about choosing what to include and exclude when you’re writing about a country and culture. I know some of the things I wrote struck a chord with Polish people – like shop assistants never having any change. Some of them cry from laughing at that. I also write about the difference between narodowość and obywatelctwo in Polish, which can both be translated into English as citizenship, but really describe different concepts – one being the nationality you have on your passport, and the other a deeper notion of belonging to a place, a land, which is you carry in your heart. I’m not sure that those of us from settler cultures can really understand this. What do you think?
Couple shadowed on sandAshley: I spent a lot of years researching and writing about Armenia, because my great grandparents were survivors of the Armenian genocide of World War One. And that research taught me a lot about the deep notion of belonging to a place, which I think in turn helps give me some insight into Aboriginal connection to land. And I agree, for me, especially because my family moved all over when I was a kid, I feel more like a pot plant, able to be picked up and relocated. And yet I am very Canadian (hence the politeness) and in Vodka and Apple Juice, you explore your Australianness.

Visit Jay Martin’s website for the continuation of this conversation, including her definitive quiz testing my Australianness!

Follow her on Twitter at @jaymartinwrites and check out her fabulous memoir,Vodka and Apple Juice.

 

Be Nice to Australians Month

Part of learning how to become Australian has meant trying to figure out the relationship between Australian and New Zealand.
Woman stands on hilltop bench above Auckland
Growing up in Canada, I never thought much about NZ. Australia had a defined character, a national brand, thanks to Crocodile Dundee and Foster’s beer ads. New Zealand was just a place on the map, like Wales or Delaware.

One article described Aus and NZ as “two warring children with the same parents“, which is a lengthy way to say siblings. The author couldn’t pinpoint the origins of the rivalry, though a lot of it has to do with sport – and possibly the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

My most significant insight came from the March 2007 Tourism New Zealand marketing campaign Be-Nice-to-Australians Month.

The campaign was created in earnest, and involved “painting New Zealand green and gold” in honour of Australia. It also encouraged Kiwis to cut back on the snide remarks: “While one comment is pretty innocuous, if every second Kiwi makes a comment about the cricket or about the rugby, it will start to grate on them.”

New Zealanders didn’t respond well to it. An article in the NZ Herald describing the initiative was headlined “Through gritted teeth”. The Herald ran a follow-up article of collected responses.

What I found most interesting about these comments is that you could substitute Canada/America for New Zealand/Australia in most of them. Take these:

“I am all for a Be-Nice-To-Australians month. And from the 1st of April, I will be looking forward 1000 years or more to the next one.”

“How can you be nice to people whom 90 per cent of do not know where NZ is or even that it exists? To the average Australian, New Zealand means zilch.”

Works both ways! A Canadian political TV show used to have a segment called Talking to Americans. In it, a reporter travelled to the US and interviewed Americans about fake Canadian news stories, like the dome we had to install over the igloo that serves as our capitol building, to prevent it from melting. At one point, the governor of Arkansas congratulates Canada on preserving their national igloo.

I’ve enjoyed getting to know New Zealand as part of our Australian experience. It has some of the most unique places I’ve ever visited, like Hot Water Beach, Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, and Hells Gate Mud Spa. (Smearing that mud on my face was a mistake though, I had a splotchy face rash for the rest of the trip.) 

I wonder if, as Canadians, we would have fit in better in New Zealand. But I suspect much of the ‘rivalry’ stems from both nations’ habit of expressing affection (and many other feelings) through needling sarcasm – and that’s something I’ll never adjust to.

 

4.5 minutes of fame

It’s ironic that my first appearance on national TV would be on breakfast news, since an actual line from my memoir How to Be Australian reads, “The breakfast news was on (it was always on at the gym, like some sort of curse).”

Regardless, here I am! Wearing my Iced VoVo earrings and exposing the Hollywood kookaburra con to the entire country.

In case you haven’t yet read the book, let me summarise: kookaburras have been putting Hollywood monkeys out of work for years.

The first time I heard real live kookaburra laughter, I started looking around for monkeys. Later I discovered I could blame Hollywood for this. At some point, an American producer decided kookaburras sounded more like monkeys than monkeys themselves. The birds have been creating jungle ambiance in blockbusters ever since, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park to Jumanji.

Thanks to the power of the internet, however, I discovered that the conspiracy goes way deeper than that.

Or, to be accurate, someone else discovered it, and a third excellent person informed me of it:

It turns out kookaburra sounds effects were used in The Wizard of Oz way back in 1939! I guess at the time, Hollywood producers figured the average American film audience wouldn’t know what either monkeys or kookaburras sounded like, and went about creating their own version of reality … which then seeped into my understanding of actual reality.

But this article breaks down the early Tarzan movies, and finds that kookaburras were conning audiences even earlier than that – in 1938. This means for more than eight decades, overseas audiences have trained to believe that Australia’s riotous avian laughter is actually produced by primates. It’s the ultimate interspecies con.

Now that How to Be Australian is out, people have been getting in touch to share all kinds of fabulous Australiana I wasn’t even aware of, and I’ve been delighting it. Like the fabulous Kristy Diffey, who shared this important revelation with me:  

In 2019, the Royal Australian Mint released millions of $1 coins featuring Australian themes. Not just Iced Vovos, but also meat pies, lamingtons, Vegemite, Weet-Bix and something called Zooper Dooper, which doesn’t sound like something dignified enough to appear on any national currency.

There’s no equivalent to this in Canada. We don’t have loonies (yes, our $1 coins are called loonies. There’s a loon on them. And our $2 coins are called toonies) with nanaimo bars on them, or Timbits, or even tiny bottles of maple syrup. Maybe we should, but we don’t – and I believe that’s a significant cultural distinction.

If you’d like to hear about my upcoming events and other exciting news, you can sign up for my monthly-ish newsletter.

Ashley
xo

 

Road trip to the future

Forest of trees, blurred We’d managed to find the A10. We were headed north from Hobart, through Tasmania’s forested heart, our hired black Commodore straddling the highway’s narrow lane. Steve gripped the wheel. His body tensed with the effort of driving on what we still secretly felt was the wrong side of the road.

Man with Tasmanian tiger muralOriginally from Canada, we’d recently held our hands to our chests and pledged our loyalty to Australia. Our stiff new passports featured dingoes and kookaburras. Keen to explore more of this vast and baffling country, we were road-tripping around what I’d come to think of as New Zealand Lite.

Bright summer sky arched above us. We’d planned a spontaneous, stop-wherever-the-drive-takes-you day, at least until we arrived at our Airbnb in Launceston, a town neither of us could pronounce. We settled on Lawnchester.
Empty winding single-lane highway, fields
As we passed a sign for something called the Tarraleah lookout, I pushed myself upright.

This was exactly the sort of spontaneous Tasmaniana I’d been hoping for. I pointed to the sign.

“Steve, Steve!”

“You haven’t seen enough lookouts yet?”

After a decade together, I knew Steve wasn’t as keen on lookouts, or wineries, or anything that involved stopping the car. He likewise knew this ran counter to my enforced spirit of road-trip spontaneity. With a sign, he attempted to signal the turn by flicking on the windscreen wipers.

Woman with mountains, lakeAn industrial pipeline, large enough to drive the Commodore through, ran parallel to the scrawny side road. Another sign indicated the lookout was “ahead”.

“You’re sure you haven’t seen enough lookouts?”

“Just keep going.”

Single-storey houses appeared, lining the street. Rectangular structures with tidy triangle roofs, it seemed their architectural designs were based on preschooler art. The neighbourhood colour palate was Easter pastel – sea-foam green, lavender, pale pink.

The small front gardens were uniformly kept.

No other humans were in sight.

“Does something feel odd about this?” I asked.

Steve nodded. His eyes narrowed. The street signs were also not quite right: too decorative, in pastels that matched the house paint. It was as if we’d driven into a museum attempting to replicate small-town Australia in the late 20th century, except with a Latin American colour scheme.

There was no lookout in sight. Was this a trap? Was this whole town some sort of murder village, luring tourists off the highway with the low-risk charm of a lookout, only for their vehicles to later be pushed down a ravine and their bodies dissolved in barrels of acid? No, this was Tassie, not South Australia.

Steve pulled into an empty café car park. An open sign hung on the door.

“Lunch?” he asked.

“Aren’t you kind of creeped out?”

“Sure, but I’m mostly hungry.”

Inside, a teenager stood behind the counter, thumbing her mobile. Fluorescent lights accentuated the dozen tables and accompanying metal chairs. Billy Joel was on the speakers. There were no other customers.

Steve shrugged, stepped up to the counter, ordered the soup of the day – pumpkin – and took a window seat.

“Do you live in Tarraleah?” I asked the teen as I dug my wallet from my bag.

She kept her eyes on the till, waving a hand vaguely toward Steve. “There’s some info on the tables.”

On each table was a laminated A4 handout, printed on blue paper. It was titled “Answers to all the questions about Tarraleah you are dying to ask”. Originally a hydro village built in the 1930s, Tarraleah’s reason for existing vanished when the hydro operation was automated, the handout explained.

In 1996, Tarraleah closed down like an unprofitable convenience store. Most people left, taking their houses with them: “The houses were sold then literally cut up and were loaded onto trucks to be relocated around Tasmania”.

A man overlooks a ravine at a hydroelectric plant
By 2005 only four people still lived in what remained of Tarraleah. In the meantime “a Tasmanian company” (left suspiciously unnamed) had bought what was left of the town and converted it into a resort with “a various number” of “accommodation types” and a golf course. The resort staff were now “the only people now living in Tarraleah apart from 24 ducks, 2 goats, 6 geese and about 30 highland cows”.

Tarraleah was no longer a town, but a five-star luxury lodge, with clientele including Australian dominatrix Madam Lash. The pamphlet noted Madam Lash “specialised in S&M services”, but did not clarify whether this was a not-so-subtle hint about the availability of said services, or just a fun nugget of Tarraleah trivia.

“What a weird place,” Steve said, dipping a piece of sourdough in his soup.

I nodded, looking out the window to the empty parking lot. I’d been partly right.

Tarraleah wasn’t a museum of the past, but an inadvertent glimpse into life to come.

Here was an Australian town at the vanguard of a dystopian future. Robots had taken nearly all the jobs, a shadowy company ran civic life, and ducks were considered people.

But the pumpkin soup was quite tasty, so the future isn’t all bad.
Fields and forestThis article was originally published in the Big Issue, and was originally written as part of my debut memoir, How to Be Australian, in stores now.

Get your copy from Booktopia, or better yet, support your local bookshop. (Outside Aus/NZ? Get it here.)

 

Museum of Modern Gravel

Years ago, Steve and I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto. Among the works in the modern art exhibition wing was a conical pile of small grey stones, about three feet high. Steve rolled his eyes.

‘It doesn’t speak to you?’ I asked.

‘It’s gravel,’ he said, his voice full of disgust. ‘I can see it in my driveway.’

Now whenever I’m at a museum and see any pile of rocks, I send Steve a picture, so he knows he’s missing out.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt poses with rocksNational Gallery of Victoria, 2018, artist unknown

Xu Zhen installation Calm
Xu Zhen’s ‘Calm’

When I visited White Rabbit Gallery recently, I went with a friend. I was delighted to see a large pile of rubble spread across one floor, and even more delighted when I noticed the pile gently rising and falling, as though it were breathing.

My friend flitted among the exhibitions like a hummingbird. ‘I don’t like modern art,’ she said. ‘These artists do stupid things.’

On the second level, a museum volunteer stopped us. ‘I need to warn you that one of the exhibits here is very graphic, so you may want to avoid it,’ she said, gesturing to the space behind her. ‘The rest of the floor is fine.’

I went straight to the work she’d pointed out. My friend followed a little slower. It was a series of photographs and a video featuring the artist He Yunchang.

He had asked his friends to vote on whether he should have an incision cut from his knee up to his collar bone without anesthetic. They voted yes, by a narrow majority (some abstained).

The series of photos showed Yunchang naked, undergoing the procedure, his friends in the room. He did this, he said, to represent the suffering of the people under the Chinese government, titling the work ‘One Metre of Democracy’.

‘It’s stupid to have yourself cut open while your friends watch, to take pictures of your wound bleeding,’ I said. ‘But if you do it to make others think about something important, I think that’s interesting, at the very least.’

Even a pile of non-breathing gravel is interesting, I think, even if it doesn’t directly symbolise injustice or ruthless self-interest or the corrupting forces of capitalism.

Though if I were a visual artist, I’d be more inclined to create works like Shen Shaomin’s  ‘Laboratory – Three-Headed, Six-Armed Superman’.
Shen Shaomin, Laboratory Three-Headed, Six-Armed Superman
Shaomin envisions a future in which animals will take the place of humans, ‘and the world will be dominated by strange or mutated life-forms.’

I might not have three heads, but some days it feels like the world is dominated by strange and mutated life-forms already, and for some reason we keep voting them into office.

 

The most expensive method of preparing a corpse

‘Each day, the scarab beetle emerges from its hole in the ground to gather dung, form it into a ball, and roll it across the earth, before disappearing with it back down into the hole.’
Nicholson Museum - dung beetles.jpg
When I read that at the Nicholson Museum, I thought, yeah, that sums up a lot of my days. Wake up, scrape some dung together, roll it around, call it a day.

The ancient Egyptians didn’t see the beetle’s work in the same uninspired way I did. They equated the beetle with the sun god, Ra, who gets up in the morning and the rolls across the sky, vanishing at night. The insects mirrored the sun god’s work, and because they laid their eggs in their dung balls, both the sun and the balls brought new life.

This is why the Egyptians buried scarab beetles in jars with the deceased up until 2300 BCE, when they realised they could bury scarab amulets instead.
Nicholson Museum Sydney.jpg
I love museums because you never know what random historical craziness you’ll discover. Like a jar of regular snakes positioned in front of an ancient image of snakes with hands and feet that are holding scorpions to ward off evil. (Look in the background, you’ll see it.)
Snakes in a jar, Nicholson Museum, Sydney.jpg
Or this ‘mummified head of an unknown man’, paired with a preserved brain.
Mummified head, preserved brain, Nicholson Museum, Sydney.jpg
‘Embalming’, according to Herodotus, writing about ancient Egypt, ‘was performed by specialists. Their first step is to insert an iron hook through the nostrils and pull out the brain. Next … the embalmers cut a slit along the soft part of the body, and remove all the intestines. After this they stuff the cavity with sweet-smelling spices. Once the stomach has been filled, they sew it back up and pickle the body by packing it in [salt]. … This is the most expensive method of preparing a corpse.’

I wouldn’t equate dung beetles with the daily journey of the sun sun, or imagine that scorpions could ward off evil. I don’t imagine any sort of afterlife, particularly not the ancient Egyptian variety that required all your organs to be buried with you in their own jars.

But I like to step into a museum and imagine these things. I like to imagine what it would be like if, 2000 years from now, my mummified head ended up on public display. I’d feel pretty chuffed about that, I think. It’s almost like time travel.

Maybe, in the future, my cavity will be stuffed with sweet-smelling spices, and my debrained head pickled in salt. Maybe in a few thousand years, my head will end up in museum on another planet for people to squint at. Even if it’s not the most expensive method of preparing a corpse, I’d be happy with that. It’s the closest to time travel I’m likely to come.

 

A bold remedy for apparently hopeless cases

There was one more discovery at Melbourne’s Medical History Museum that delighted me even more than Champagne Jimmy, though I know that’s hard to believe.

Allow me to introduce you to the ‘colonial snakebite kit’.
Colonial snakebite kit at Melbourne Medical History MuseumActually that’s a few different kits. There were many treatments for snakebite in 19th-century Australia, the museum signage explains, including ‘incision, amputation, and a variety of “antidotes” (including mercury and medicinal brandy)’ as well as one man’s ‘use of intravenous ammonia’. (He thought snakebite poisoning was a result of germs, so I suppose his theory was that pumping ammonia into your blood would … kill the germs?)

The kit on the right, with the rather luxurious royal purple lining, is a ‘chloride of lime antidote for snakebite,’ circa 1895.

My favourite thing about this display, and the entire Medical History Museum, is the kit in the top left corner, dated from 1872. Its instructions start off shouting and just keep getting better:

AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE AFTER BEING BITTEN
1. Tie something very tightly above the bite.
2. Cut out the part bitten and wash the wound.
3. Watch for signs of Snake Poison.
Inability to walk. — Sleepiness. — Pale and Cold Skin. — Enlarged Pupils.
4. Keep the person warm, quiet, and hopeful.
5. DO NOT get flurried; do everything calmly.
6. DO NOT give any Stimulants; they do harm.
7. DO NOT force the person to walk about.
8. Remember that many Snakes are not Poisonous.
9. Remember that Fear alone may cause alarming signs and even cause Death.
10. Try in every way to allay fear and inspire courage and hope.
11. Directly signs of Snake Poison appear—
– Inject a dose of Strychnia.
– In a Child under 10, One Tablet, or one-fiftieth of a grain.
– In a Person over 10, Two Tablets, or one-twenty-fifth of a grain.
– In a Severe Case, Five Tablets, or one-tenth of a grain.
12. Repeat dose in quantity and frequency required.
USE THE REMEDY BOLDLY IN APPARENTLY HOPELESS CASES.

I love everything about these instructions. I love the random use of Capital Letters. I love that, after instructing you to remain calm in point 5, point 9 then informs you that fear alone can cause death, which is a fear-inducing statement if I’ve ever heard one. (Fear can also cause ‘alarming signs’, whatever those are.) I love that the instructions wait until point 5 to tell you to remain calm, and that instead of using those two simple words, they use seven, one of which is ‘flurried’.

And I especially love the concluding instruction to use your colonial snakebite remedy ‘boldly’, even if the bite victim seems to have already died of either Snake Poison or Fear Alone.

This colonial snakebite kit is my favourite piece of Australiana yet, and that’s including these handsome concrete driveway kangaroos:
Concrete guard kangaroos in Australia
Take care, and try not to get flurried,
Ashley
xo

 

Melbourne’s most terrifying attraction

Melbourne Medical History Museum
When I visited the Medical History Museum at the University of Melbourne, the last thing I expected to find was Champagne Jimmy.

I expected to find Dr Tracy’s ovariotomy instruments. Well, not his specifically, but something very much like them.
Ovariotomy instruments, medial history
Dr Richard Tracy performed the first such surgery in Victoria in 1864, using this horrifying set of ovariotomy instruments. He became ‘locally and internationally renowned’ for his success with the procedure. The set contains a scalpel, scissors, ‘a vulsellum forceps (with hooked tips),’ a ‘double sharp hook for raising the peritoneum’, pedicle clamps with detachable handles, and on the left, a mess of thick greyish thread that looks like it’s been removed from a ratty blanket.

I also expected the original shock therapy machine from 1885, described as an example the annals of ‘quackery’. It uses a hand crank to generate a charge.
IMG_2077
I even expected to learn about bizarre apothecary treatments, such as the use of fox lungs for respiratory conditions. The Saxons believed that ‘for oppressive hard drawn breathing, a fox lung sodden and put into a sweetened wine, and administered is wonderfully healthy.’ (Fox lung in beer, however, results in blindness). 

Amid all that, Champagne Jimmy caught me off guard. First of all, check him out.
Champagne Jimmy or Diamond Jim, historic Melbourne medical doctor
The slicked-back horns, the bushy horseshoe moustache, his apparent love of the Hawaiian hang ten sign. Not to mention the uncorked champagne bottle at his feet, which is definitely what I look for when choosing a surgeon. ‘Does this guy know how to party?’ is the first question you should ask when considering a new doctor.

The museum describes Dr James Beany as a flamboyant and controversial senior surgeon and a ‘Melbourne personaility’. He was so flamboyant he earned himself two nicknames. He was called Diamond Jim for the rings he wore, ‘even during operations’, and Champagne Jimmy, ‘because of the champagne he dispensed freely.’

Champagne Jimmy sounds like an absolute delight. That is, until you picture him wielding the surgical tools of his era.
Historic medical surgery tools
Imagine it: you’re on the surgical table, wearing an old-timey paper gown, and in stumbles Diamond Jim, champagne bottle in one bejewelled hand, giant amputation saw in the other, and little flakes of sausage roll pastry stuck in his moustache. Right before you pass out (from terror; anesthetic doesn’t exist yet), Jim drops the empty bottle at his feet and flashes you the hang ten sign.

How this museum didn’t make Melbourne’s top ten attractions, I’ll never understand.

Looking to buy mermaids in Melbourne?

Screen Shot 2019-09-22 at 12.00.05 pm.png
Walking through the Melbourne CBD, I passed a shopfront that had a plastic (I assume) skeleton posed inside one of the glass doors. The skeleton peered out, with its hand on the handle, like it was about to stroll onto the street.

The shop billed itself as a purveyor of “scientific curiosities”. I went in and turned to the first glass display case, a tall one beside the door. The guy working there appeared from another room and asked how I was going. I was saying the word “fine” as I looked at the glass case.

“Fine” isn’t a long word, but my voice caught in the middle of it, and it came out with a strangled upward inflection. Right as I was speaking, I caught sight of a spherical glass container, the size of a softball, that contained a preserved puppy corpse.

The puppy looked like a bulldog, or maybe a bull terrier, white fur with black patches. Its eyes were closed, and it was curled foetally, to fit the sphere. The liquid it floated in was clear, not cloudy the way formaldehyde normally is. (Maybe the formaldehyde – and the puppy – were fresh.)

The dude asked me if there was anything he could help me with.

“I’m just looking. Unless you have anything particularly interesting?” I was giving the guy an open invitation to show me his favourite oddities.

“No, things are just how they look.”

“Right, yeah, I just caught sight of the puppy. Is it … just for aesthetics?”

He looked at me strangely.

“Like, there’s no scientific purpose?”

“Nope, it’s just a puppy corpse.” He paused before adding, “Stillborn.”

The puppy ball cost $495.

The shop is Wunderkammer, and their tagline is “chamber of wonders.” They offer an explanatory pamphlet that notes, “The word ‘wunderkammer’ translates as ‘wonder-chamber’. The term is German, although collections of curiosities have existed in Italy since as early as the 16th century. These were the first museums and housed both the familiar museum fare such as natural specimens, coins and minerals, as well as more aberrant and miraculous objects, such as religious reliquaries, double apples, ‘mermaids’ and the like.”

I regret not asking if they had any mermaids in stock.

Some things Wunderkammer did have in stock during my visit:
– a mummified fox and rabbit in a shadow box
– preserved crocodile feet
– a Singapore ball (a type of mace in which the spikes retract)
– a taxidermied porcupine
– a dissected frog, its organs neatly labelled, under glass
– a ‘Breast Believer’ pump in its original cardboard box (I couldn’t figure out what this was, even after several minutes of googling)
– a Hamilton bone drill
– a taxidermied bat impaled on a metal pole, wings spread wide, mouth open as if screaming (probably because of the pole shoved up its butt)

The last time I was in Melbourne, I stumbled upon the secret headquarters of the Royal Over-Seas League, and discovered the perfect epitaph. I didn’t think a second Melbourne visit could beat that. But Wunderkammer decidedly did.

Then I discovered that Melbourne’s fire truck sirens sound like they’re shooting lasers. Pew pew pew! 

We also visited the Melbourne Zoo, and in talking about it with friends later, learned of two separate incidences of people (men) breaking into the zoo’s lion enclosure.

In 1989, an adult karate student broke into the den in the middle of the night in an attempt to test his martial arts skills by fighting the lions. Zoo officials found what was left of him the next morning.

Then in 2004, a man broke into the lion enclosure during the zoo’s opening hours. The crowd watched him pull a Bible from his bag, hold it over his head, and invite them to join him and pat the lions.

When an Age reporter later enquired about how much danger the man had been in, a zoo spokesperson gave the best official response: “They are large male lions and there are four of them, so I’m sure you can work that out for yourself.”

And finally, my absolute favourite thing on this trip: a barista with the image of an evergreen air freshener tattooed on her forearm.