As a totally clichéd Melbourne coffee snob, I got pretty pissed off when, during Oprah Winfrey’s visit to Australia in 2010, TV presenter Carrie Bickmore, in a thoroughly-shameless display, announced to Oprah and the world that when hip Australians want to meet up for coffee, they pop down to McDonald’s.
This proclamation was made in Sydney. Had she said it in Melbourne, she’d have been met with a pretty violent round of scoffing and under-the-breath muttering as we tightened our black free-trade scarves and resumed reading our Nietzsche biography. Ah, Melbourne. The city that, according to a study from a few years ago that I vaguely remember but can’t be bothered researching for verification, was found to be the best place to get a coffee outside of Italy. (Thanks, in no small part, to our large Italian population. Grazie, guys!)
If there’s one thing we in Melbourne do, much to the eternal chagrin of the rest of the country thanks to the unerring sense of superiority with which we do it, it’s proper coffee. No McDonald’s drinkers are we.
This was one of the things that was going through my head as I drove away from my beloved Melbourne this Saturday past, recalling futile attempts during previous Sydney trips to find a good coffee in what will, for the next six months, be my home town. The trek I’d taken with two friends to find a decent café in Sydney’s CBD the year previous was now taught in schools alongside the Burke and Wills expedition for students who thought the Burke and Wills story ‘wasn’t depressing enough’.
If you saw my pre-trip post the other day, you’ll know I comically predicted my car would break down at the Victoria-New South Wales border. If only I’d made it that far. No, after my car repeatedly stalled, shut down, then started back up again, I realised I was in trouble.
I pulled off the Highway and into the town of Wangaratta. For those of you who don’t know much about Wangaratta, I am one of you, so don’t expect any illumination here. I drove down the main strip, searching for a mechanics. I spotted a car dealership, and began weighing the impracticalities of buying a new car and ditching the one I was in against joy I would experience as I dined out on the story for years to come.
Finding the only open-on-a-Saturday mechanic, I pulled in and explained the problem. My battery had run flat weeks earlier, and despite being advised to replace it outright, I’d chosen to charge it right back up again, which was clearly the stupid thing to do. ‘So yeah,’ I said, ‘I think it must be the battery.’ ‘Doesn’t sound like the battery,’ he said. ‘Oh. Are you sure?’ ‘Don’t know,’ he said, ‘I’ll take a look.’ ‘Check the battery first,’ I suggested.
It was going to be half an hour until he could take a look at it, so he suggested I wander around. ‘Not much to see around here, though,’ he said ruefully. ‘If you feel like a coffee, you could always pop over to the McDonald’s.’
I looked in the direction he’d nodded in, and saw the unmistakable monolith in the centre of the strip, surrounded by buildings that were steadfastly refusing to be Other Cafés.
‘Maybe,’ I said through gritted teeth. I was actually quite desperate for a coffee, and as the other local attractions – a K-Mart, a bridge, some grass – were closed, I steeled myself against my own instincts and headed towards it.
I took a seat from which I could see my car, and ordered the thing on the café menu that looked like it would come closest to tasting like coffee. I sent a few mournful texts, checked Twitter, and was eventually served with a beverage the colour of a Dickensian city planner’s favourite swatch.
I won’t dwell on the coffee, other than to say that it was neither as bad I was expecting, nor as good as their ads and Carrie Bickmore’s bank account would have me believe. It was hot, it was caffeine, and it had been four hours since my last one.
Work hadn’t begun on my car, so I trekked around to look at the sites. Other fast food restaurants. Traffic lights. Some bitumen. A real estate agency. That might be good. I browsed the window, trying to ascertain what property prices were like in Wangaratta so I would have a better frame of reference for the shock I was apparently supposed to display whenever someone told me how much the house across the road from theirs went for.
The door opened, and the realtor instantly spotted me gazing with more interest than I’d intended at the ads. ‘Can I help you with anything?’ he asked. ‘My car broke down,’ I explained. ‘If they can’t fix it, I was thinking I might have to settle down.’ He laughed the laugh of someone who hadn’t really followed any of that, and I wandered away.
When I returned to the mechanic, he was peering into engine. ‘How is it?’ I asked. ‘The battery is fine,’ he said, and I silently applauded my own battery-charging skills. This was, after all, my most significant mechanical achievement since extracting an old Meccano piece from my foot twenty-three years previous.
The actual problem was twofold. Fold one: the carburettor was playing up and not letting enough petrol get through to the engine when I was running it at high speeds. Fold two: he was unable to fix it himself.
‘Is there any chance I’m getting to Sydney today?’ I asked. ‘Maybe. You can’t go above 70kmph, though, or the thing will stall again.’ ‘Then I’d better get going.’
I set off once again, and the stupidity of my decision to drive the whole way slowly dawned. Why had I thought this was a good idea? I should have flown! Who needs a car in Sydney? Had I seriously being considering buying a car and a house in Wangaratta? As I ambled along at an excruciating 70kmph, I realised that, at the rate I was going, it would be about 10:30pm before I got into Sydney. If I made it there at all.
After calling up my partner Kate and talking the situation over with her, we both decided that the best course of risk mitigation was for me to turn around and come home and then catch a flight up. After all, I was 252km from Melbourne and 624km from Sydney. It was simple, frustrating maths.
As I ambled back at a leisurely 70kmph, waving to all the cheerful motorists who were happily passing me at the 110kmph that the Hume Highway permitted, nay, insisted upon, I considered what my day had been aid of. My only plan for Saturday had been ‘get to Sydney’, and having wasted half the day, I was now driving in the opposite direction of it. I needed to find a point to it all.
Halfway back, I stopped on the Highway to save what turned out to be a blind rabbit that had wandered into the path of traffic. After ushering him back into the brush, I wondered if maybe this was a Quantum Leap situation, and Sam Beckett had leaped into my body to save the rabbit’s life because it would one day write Yellow Submarine and assassinate Robert Kennedy.
Even with my reasoning, that was a stretch.
There was no avoiding it. I’d driven the 262km from my front door to Wangaratta for one thing and one thing only: a coffee. From McDonald’s. The furthest I had ever travelled for a single beverage.
They had won.
Nevertheless, I eventually made it home, repacked my things, and, thanks to the combined efforts of Kate, my brother Ben and my friend Kirk (who greeted me at Sydney airport) , I made it my final destination. At 10:30pm.
And hey, it wasn’t all bad. The eventual flight was pretty great: I got an emergency exit row with excessive leg room, nobody was sitting next to me, and everyone in the vicinity was quiet enough for me to concentrate on my book. And the first coffee I had since arriving in Sydney was both damned good and not from any fast food restaurant, so I call that – when all is said and done – a win.
To Wangaratta and Back Again – Lee’s Podcast Playlist (in order): On the Media (25/5/2012), The Science Show (26/5/2012), Radiolab (21/5/2012), Boxcutters (#307), This American Life (#465), Download This Show (25/5/2012 and 1/6/2012), The Writer’s Almanac (30/5/2012 – 1/6/2012), Onion Radio News (22/5/2012 – 1/6/2012), Desert Island Discs (Spike Milligan, 1978 and Arthur C Clarke, 1977).