Coffee in Carlton North

Mary Street, Carlton North

The boulangerie and patisserie on Nicholson Street is five minutes walk from our apartment at the leafy end of Rathdowne. The bike path that was once a train line isn’t far. A hip new café up there has good coffee and food but it’s busy. I prefer to walk the laneway. Skip the path, swing through the trees, I once read.

The walk takes me along a cobbled bluestone street cutting between Lygon and Nicholson. More lane than street, it is a backstage glimpse of inner city life. Thunderboxes lining the back fences have been converted into sheds and an old stable is now a loft apartment but they are a reminder of another time, a different city.

Rathdowne is busy in the morning. Office workers in flash cars looking to shortcut through the traffic sit bumper to bumper anyway. Fixed wheeled bikes zip along the inside lane carrying guys and gals with asymmetrical haircuts and the cuffs of their jeans folded up.

A catering company spans the entire laneway, a red brick warehouse on one side and the old barn opposite. Day and night people scurry from building to building loading food in and out of a white van.

A sixty-foot gum tree springs out of the cobbled ground between Ames and Canning. Neat cottages and terraces nestle beneath its leafy branches. It is cooler under there and the autumn sun filters down through a sea of green.

I think of the bush, then look down Canning Street and see a city full of possibilities. A wide boulevard dotted with palms and double storey terraces leads toward a city skyline reaching up to put its fingerprint on the big sky.

The lane gets its punk on at Station Street. Black, silver, reds and greens. Tags and pop references creeping across the walls and around windows guarded by metal bars. Tiny courtyards overflow with ashtrays, herbs and hard rubbish chairs. Late starters are still rising in the flats above the shops.

Step out on Nicholson Street and the Railway Hotel is on the left and the Empress on the right. They deal in pots, cheap grub and live music. Maria’s Deli is down the road a ways selling meats of all sorts as well as dips and cheese. There is a butcher, two souvlaki joints, a TAB, a bookshop and a green grocer. I could jump the 96 to St Kilda beach or East Brunswick but the coffee is there at the bakery on the corner. It costs $3.20. The service is shit but it is a strong brew. Life back in Melbourne is good.

Is airport coffee hipsters’ kryptonite?

Taking an early morning flight means rising at 4am, minimum. At that unholy hour, sleep deprivation combined with airport lighting awakens a caffeine craving that rivals the walking dead’s appetite for human flesh. While airport coffee isn’t the most finely crafted drop it still satisfies a fundamental human requirement. We need it.

coffee2

Every time I arrive back in Melbourne after a morning flight I inevitably find myself in one of the many shrines to caffeine snobbery that occupy the city’s graffiti lanes and old warehouses. Waiting for my order, I always look around and wonder what the fixed-wheel bicycle riding hipsters that surround me would make of the takeaway coffee I ordered from the Dreamy Donuts near Gate 23 just hours before.

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I’m sure that the discussion about whether to order or not would raise any number of interesting questions. Where does International Roast actually fit in the single-origin versus boutique blend argument? Is coffee with milk superior to an extra strong decaf soy latte with a shot of vanilla? Does ordering black coffee rather than a Long Black undermine the cred established by skinny jeans an asymmetrical haircut? Is coffee that tastes like twice-burnt monkey excrement filtered through used dishwater actually any different to Kopi luwak? Would a single sip of airport coffee render someone completely incapable of riding a gearless bicycle? (I think we all know the answer to that question is a definite yes.)

Don’t get me wrong, I like good coffee but I am also more than willing to drink shit coffee. Perhaps that is where I’m going wrong. Maybe I if swapped my taste for cheap burnt coffee for tribal ink, highly sculpted facial hair and body piercings, I’d finally discover that ‘track suit pants are not welcome here’ attitude that everybody seems so keen on. I could do that but where would it leave me the next time me and my clapped out tracksuit pants stand in the harsh fluorescent glow of the domestic terminal at 5am? Tired and caffeine deficient. That’s where. Nobody wants that, least of all me.

Hot in Ho Chi Minh

Dinner in Ho Chi Minh
Negotiating the traffic of Ho Chi Minh

We had wandered into a little restaurant near the Ben Thanh market, right in the heart of Ho Chi Minh. We found seats where we could sit adjacent one another. Just days earlier the lovely Amy, girlfriend and companion in our six-month Asian adventure, and I had finally abandoned our professional lives in Melbourne.

We had spent the morning exploring a labyrinth of ramshackle laneways. First impressions were of a city well and truly on the move. The city felt alive. The air is hot and humid, life fast and busy. The hum of a million Motos was punctuated by a thousand different horns. This was Ho Chi Minh’s mood music.

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