Around the World With a Vagabond

Chinese Proverbs and Songs with Strangers March 17, 2011

 

I realized it was going to be another unpredictable and crazed night in the city when a man boarded the tram wearing no pants.

 

For the 10 minutes I remained seated, the man with no pants firmly gripped the handle bars piped along the tram’s ceiling.  He had with him a small, seemingly well-kept suitcase, which I could only assume packed no pants.  The man seemed a little agitated, but wasn’t bothering anyone.  He was clean-shaven, odorless (or not offensively unhygienic), so I don’t think he was homeless. Deranged? Possibly.  But he wasn’t very old.  Although he seemed a little too old to have been a user of any kind of drug – at least presently.

 

It’s possible he was victim of a very unkind prank, it being about 4 in the afternoon of a weekday teeming with commuters.

 

What the man’s circumstances actually were, I’ll never know. The crowded tram rolled along the rails, leaving me behind on the corner of Chinatown, amidst street chatter and red glowing lights.

 

Melbourne has been an incredible place to explore. But after nine months, I feel I have only circled the city, with a few sneak-peaks and toe-dips into some of the cafés, gigs, and showcasing promenades that make this city so vibrant.

 

A few days earlier, Chris and I had been wandering aimlessly down Swanston Street when we came across a few marquis set up for the Food and Wine Festival.  An “edible garden” was on display: baskets of vine-ripened tomatoes, jungles of chili peppers, and even a rustic old car from the 50’s or 60’s, its back seat piled high with gourds of all kinds, and its doors open and spilling leafy pumpkins and squash out onto the pavement in a beautiful display of autumn harvest.

 

Courtesy of Peter Lim

We sat for a bit, flipping through the guidebook to find out where the wine part of the festival was being held.

 

As we did, an older Chinese man sat next to us and asked Chris if he wouldn’t mind taking his picture. Chris, always obliging, set about adjusting the lens.  This simple gesture of politeness unleashed a whirlybird of unexpected conversation.

 

Peter Lim was a 71 year old Chinese man with quite a bit to say. For the next 20 minutes or so, Peter, laughing and eyes all a-twinkle, explained to us his wife’s three loves (her sister, roses, and thirdly, Peter himself). He told us about his life growing up in Malaya and how he had practiced playing violin since he was 5.

 

As we nodded and listened, Peter interrupted himself to tell Chris how very good looking Chris was, and that he should go to Hollywood and be a movie star.  Peter continued on again, and told us that he raised his children to understand that life is full of disappointments, and that it is very, very important to be positive.

 

To demonstrate to us just how important being positive is, Peter suddenly burst into song. The Italian opera poured out of his open mouth – Puccini – and Peter sang the verses, briefly, but with gusto, as the emotion rippled across his face with each crescendo. Peter explained that it was the last song Puccini sang on the day Puccini knew he was about to die.  Puccini had been an exceedingly positive person.

 

Away and away Peter chatted to us there, among the quiet vegetables and clamorous city street, and told us we seemed like very happy people.

 

He insisted on having a picture with us, and called over to a nearby child to snap the photo for us (“You, boy! Come here boy! Boy!”). The kid was gorgeous, and as Peter handed over his camera, he told the young boy how good looking the kid was, and that he should go to Hollywood and be a movie star.

 

In the Edible Garden with Peter Lim, courtesy of Peter Lim

Peter was lovely and charismatic, and pleasantly offered to send us his poetry and links to his songs.  I am glad he did, because I am sure my memory would eventually blur and I would forget bits of our conversation.  Meeting Peter reminded me of how alive a person could be, how quirky and funny, and serious all at once, for absolutely no reason, with perfect strangers.

 

But Peter isn’t the first stranger in Melbourne to burst into song without warning.

 

One Saturday morning I was weaving in and out of market-goers at Queen Victoria Market, heading towards the food court to meet a friend. As I entered the covered eating area, my ears were greeted with a rising hum.  Over the sea of heads, the hum became more of an “ahhh” – such as the “A” sound of a choir singing “A-men”, only this “ahhh” was being held a very long time.

 

The food hall was very busy, but nearly everyone was either sitting, or standing still, facing something just above to my left and singing “ahhhhh” and then louder “AHHHHHH”.

 

What. was. going. on?

 

The entire lunching crowd were being lead by what looked like “Gandolf” in casual surf wear.  Or perhaps it was Einstein.  Either way, the conductor had the whole long white-shaggy-hair-and-beard look going on and he pulled it off quite well.

 

His voice was the loudest, and no doubt he was the leader of this spontaneous choir.  He lifted the “ahhhHHHHH”s, and then dropped the “AHHHhhhhhhhhhh”s deeply with his smile, his voice and his gestures, and the people’s voices followed like happy puppies.

 

Their vocals echoed in unison as rising and dropping “ahhhhs” filled the hall, lifted to the rafters, and floated out onto the market square, where an un-singing crowd was quickly drawing closer.

 

“What’s this about?” I asked my bemused friend as I sat down at his table. Cameras flashed around us.

 

“I don’t know. He just started singing,” nodding at Gandolf, “and then everyone else started to sing too.”

 

I looked around at the smiling, surprised, spontaneous singers at the Saturday morning market, who were “ahhh-ing” still, and glancing grins at each other as they sang.

 

The lunch hall, usually a din of chatter, had transformed into song. Something about it was soulfully uplifting.  It made my day.

 

In fact, Gandolf (whose real name also happens to be Peter) has made the days of quite a few people. This clip isn’t quite the same as my experience at Victoria Market, but if you replace the trees with roofed market stalls, and the hand-holding hippies with families carrying bags of produce, then you’ll get the idea. Gandolf is in the rainbow jumper.

 

Back in Chinatown, the man on the tram without pants had escaped my thoughts. I was now with friends and unpredictably erupting with our own songs. We moved through the evening, the last of the summer nights, dining (gorging) on dumplings and singing (shouting) the lyrics to “Eternal Flame” and karaoke-ing way past our abilities and our bedtime.

 

Ironically, this same night ended hours later with my friends and I stumbling home, still singing, and parading an extra pair of pants that had inexplicably found its way amongst our bags.

 

I remember briefly thinking back to earlier that day and the awkwardly undressed man on the tram who certainly needed pants.  He wouldn’t have fit into the tiny women’s pair of Hurley’s now draped over my friend’s shoulders, but it was still a strange coincidence.

 

Such has life been in Melbourne; people flittering across my path unexpectedly in the most remarkable and memorable ways. Whether singing over dumplings in Chinatown, or being sung to in street-side gardens by  Chinese men, or as an audience for Gandolf leading crowds into chorus, this city has me captivated.

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