CITIES, travel notes

The delicately delineated ecology of the Queen Victoria Market

Ah, the great institution that is the Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne’s central and biggest marketplace! The unsung landmark of this town, the bastion of wog values, the shrine to everything we stand for. How unappreciated for the microcosm of Victorian society that you are! How underanalysed, and critically unassessed you remain!

We are now going to make a dent in this tragic cultural omission, by looking at the human fauna of this delicate ecosystem – listing them in order, from the rarest and most in need of conservation, via the common and the abundant, to the most weedily persistent.

The Tourist

Self-explanatory. Tourist may be an American or Swedish backpacker, a high-minded photographer documenting the life among the ethnics, a flurry of pastel-wearing Queensladers, or timid Melburnians from the outer suburbs, tasting the rough inner city – it is not their outfit or their hometown that defines them as a tourist, but, in the eyes of the other QV Market goers, their tendency to walk slowly, turn awkwardly and unexpectedly, block important circulation routes with their backpacks and fanny packs and parasols and whatnots, take photographs of bread or toilets, and generally make themselves an odious human obstacle on purpose. Tourists tend to keep in uncircumventable packs, and are often overheard making comments of highly embarrassing kind to everyone except them. (E.g., a snippet of dialogue un-self-consciously performed by a group of American backpackers in front of the Iranian nut-and-sweets stall circa May 2011: “‘Turkish Delight’?! What’s that?!” “You don’t wanna know!”)

The Wandering Hipster

Nobody knows what these creatures are attempting to get out of the experience. While The Tourist is deeply inhaling the atmosphere of anxiety-free food consumption and vibrancy such as only people of colour possess, The Wandering Hipster resembles one of those children dragged to very exclusive cocktail parties by their Gen-X parents, and withdrawn to a corner to sulk in a significant fashion. They often sit in inopportune locations attempting to merely hang out in a casual manner, as if the market were a highly desirable social setting, out of which they cannot escape, such is the strength of the finger they hold on the pulse of town. The do not buy anything, possibly because fresh food is exotic and intimidating. Once they overcome such fears, they graduate to become The Confident Hipster.

The Reluctant Aussie

The only taxonomy of the multicultural Australian population into ethnic chunks that I in any way endorse is the one that has been explained to me during my waitress times on Lygon Street. This is how the Lygon Italians broke it down:

THE ETHNIC BREAKDOWN OF AUSTRALIA ACCORDING TO LYGON STREET ITALIAN
There are wogs, Aussies, and Asians.

Many wogs are terrible, ludicrous people (Serbs if you’re Croatian, or Croats if you’re a Serb, or Lebanese if you’re a Calabrian on Lygon, etc), but they are, significantly, people, real people, people like us. Then there are Aussies, which are completely aberrant in every way, eat badly, get fat, have ugly women, and rob you if you venture into their Aussie parts of town alone. Aussies are more like funny animals than real people, and they do weird things like wear ugly glasses. Their men drink milky coffee all day long, which tells you everything really. And then there are Asians. The least said about them, the better.

I admit that there are insurmountably great problems with this taxonomy, but it is more functionally useful to us in matters concerning QV Market than the official white people’s taxonomy.

WHITE AUSTRALIANS’ ETHNIC BREAKDOWN OF AUSTRALIA:
There are white people, and then there are ethnics. The ethnics are better people, without a doubt, but inscrutably different. If a white person talks to an ethnic for more than 5 minutes, such ethnic is immediately revealed to be not incredibly different to the white person, and therefore must also be a kind of white person. A true ethnic, therefore, is elusive, and can never be within reach, like a permanently receding horizon.

To return to the QV Market. The Reluctant Aussie is an Aussie who has decided that market shopping is in some way desirable, has arrived, and now doesn’t know what to do. They only ever appear in groups, for mutual support, and are often seen standing in front of produce, exchanging timid questions: “Do you think that steak looks good?” “I think it looks OK, yeah…?” “Should we maybe get some?” “Would you like to get some, darling?” And so on, slowly and inconclusively, careful not to hurt each other’s feelings, while legit market-goers try to wrestle them out of the way in order to snatch that last snapper.

The Confident Hipster

If The Wandering Hipster has hung in for long enough, he eventually grows up into The Confident Hipster. Recognisable by expensive market gadgets (e.g., biodegradable bags, cycling helmet), The Confident Hipster is there to buy. Why such effort? Because s/he knows that shopping at the Market sets them apart from their suburban-expat brethren as inner-city-savy (1), puts a polish on their claim to food-making expertise (hipsters must have fields of expertise) (2), but also allows them to mingle with dirty, uncool people in an ironic way, giving that je ne sais quoi to their lives that cannot be store-bought. In order to glean this gold of social capital outside of the Market, The Confident Hipster gladly suffers the million little stabs and pricks of pride injury inside the Market, as they reveal their general lack of fluency in food matters in front of shop staff, their glasses are derided by Market Workers, and short wog and Asian women jostle them out of the way in unkind ways. Every so often, The Confident Hipster tries miserably to squeeze an apple with a knowing look, yet inside he feels a little bit ironic – and that makes it OK.

The Upmarket Aussie

The Upmarket Aussie comes from Hawthorn, Richmond or Brunswick to buy economy organics, free-range eggs, gluten-free bread, soy yoghurt, and French cheeses in bulk. They can be quickly identified by their stern looks, and the humourless inspection to which they submit all the vegetables in the organic section of the market, their choice habitat. For The Upmarket Aussie, food is a source of bottomless concern and requires unending vigilance. Nobody at the market is a friend for The Upmarket Aussie, only another selfish, greedy, immoral purveyor of suspicious, in-all-likelihood carcinogenic produce, probably grown somewhere in Werribee (!).

The Upmarket Aussie was The Confident Hipster of its time some ten, twenty years ago, learning to eat food without succumbing to crushing anxieties, and learning that good food = good life. But then came children and first signs of ageing, and for The Upmarket Aussie food became less of an emancipating liberation, and more of a potential toxin bomb invented, so it sometimes seems, purely to destroy the fledging happiness of their beautiful family. The Upmarket Aussie arrives early and is gone before most vendors even unpack their produce, but can sometimes be heard after 12pm, asking questions such as: “What is the percentage of good cholesterol in your eggs?”

The Downmarket Aussie

Also unkindly known as ‘bogan’. The important thing about this kind is that they never shop for food: they are at the market for dot-painted boomerangs, genuine sheepskin paraphernalia, jarrah chopping boards, koala beer holders, and other such things. This is in no way a marginal activity: the better part of QV Market is devoted to such house furnishings, and the purveyors of these goods are themselves Downmarket Aussies, making this a bit of a niche sub-system.

The reason to this abstinence is that The Downmarket Aussie believes all interest in food to be spurious and unmanly, and against all the values they hold dear. Perhaps aware of the Lygon Street Italian’s ethnic taxonomy, The Downmarket Aussie in this way proudly and in no uncertain terms distinguishes her/himself from wogs and Asians that populate the rest of the market. The only exception to the rule is meat, which The Downmarket Aussie buys only in XL quantities from the butchers, making a big noise along the way so as to not be mistaken for a girl.

The Wog/The Asian

Also known to themselves as normal people. Normal people come to the Market to buy food. They usually have vendors they know by name and talk to in language, and will volunteer advice on where to buy what, and what vendors to avoid like plague, if you only poke them a bit. This is because such knowledge is a sign of street-savviness that is prized very highly among normal people (‘wogs’/’Asians’). They are prepared to touch and taste every bit of produce on sale, thus being the principal cause of ‘no self service’ signs. If you want to both test them and flatter them simultaneously, approach them in no-market settings and challenge them to draw you a detailed map of the Market from memory. The Wog/The Asian often buys in bulk, for family and family restaurants, but is never to be confused with The Downmarket Aussie, as there is no greater sign of disrespect.

The Seasoned Wog

The old guard. The living legends. The men and women who built this market. They occasionally get fanny-packed in the ribs by The Tourist, hit on the head with a crate of steak by The Downmarket Aussie, elbowed from their legitimate place in a queue by The Upmarket Aussie, their toes stepped on by The Confident Hipster, and The Wandering Hipster regularly chews gum as The Seasoned Wog goes by. All of this breaks the heart of those in the know, and is not unlike in emotional impact as seeing that war veteran in the gutter, forgotten by the society.

The Second Generation

These young people might look and behave like the two kinds of Hipster, but they are a totally distinct species. They might be new to QV Market, they might be wearing them 50s spectacles, they might even be fresh off the plane from China or Malaysia, in Melbourne as students, but they know their way around fresh produce. The Second Generation members are in all ways the same as The Wog/The Asian, only younger and better-looking. They poke, they touch, they barter, they self-serve, and they pick breads and cheeses and vegetables untouched by a speck of anxiety that plagues The Aussie and The Hipster. They might occasionally falter, in front of a particularly inscrutable selection of Pacific fish, or Polish sausages, but they were still essentially born with a carrot in one hand, and a peeler in the other.

The Bum

These men and women might not be many, and they do not shop much beyond the fast food stalls, but they both glean like a well-coordinated army, and linger around the market long enough to punch far above their weight in general impression of activity. Not to be confused with The Wandering Hipster, with which The Bum shares almost nothing. A market is a very favourable habitat for The Bum, as most market vendors are generous and easy-going people, not themselves entirely disconnected from the tough side of life.

The Market Worker

Let us not forget the vendors themselves. It is tempting to forget that the vendors arrive first, leave last, and probably outnumber shoppers at any time of day, that they work the hardest and have the amazing ability to calculate how much 475g of cauliflower at $3/kilo costs in the half-second it takes for you to pull your heshen bag out.

It is true for every functioning market in this world that people who sells goods at them also tend to shop at them. In fact, for many it is the primary place to procure all they need, from potatoes to a winter coat. I suspect the Market would function perfectly well without any of the categories listed so far (all stricto sensu consumers), just through the intra-trade.

The Wog That Hangs Out

This is a highly visible category for which I have no explanation. I would wager that most are children of stall holders, who grew up in and around the Queen Victoria Market, have friends who work there, or are in some other way involved in the general food industry of Melbourne. Perhaps they enjoy having coffee among pigeons and food scraps, right between one of the bigger McDonald’s venues in Melbourne and the band that plays El Condor Pasa in regular intervals? But it is ultimately those who hang out with no aesthetic or monetary reward that make QV Market into more than a soulless concentration of food retail and consumption: a community! This creature, like The Bum and The Market Worker, holds QV Market together the way most of us can only dream of, and is thus the ultimate winner in street-cred stakes – but is probably too cool to think too much of the gold dust of social capital that they are accruing.

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