The Shot Tower - a building so good they put it inside another building.
Last weekend Ms. Millicent Crow and I went to have a look at what Melbourne's been up to lately. We like to keep things authentic when we travel, so we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at our hostel and discovered that, due to my reluctance to read fine print and general lackadaisical approach to booking things, it appeared that we had inadvertently availed ourselves of an opportunity to celebrate Australia's convict heritage by staying in accommodation that painstakingly recreated the conditions in one of the earliest European buildings in the Port Philip colony, which was of course a manky old jailhouse. Since it was me who booked the 'room' (and I don't use inverted commas lightly, so believe me when I say this was actually a 'room,' rather than a room) I got to be the one who slunk down to reception to have a chat with the night clerk, a man who turned out to not be my best-ever interlocutor.
Note the grimy curtains, concealing the horrors within.
"I was, that is, ah, we were wondering. Ah... What are the chances that we could maybe change our room, would you say?"
"It's just, do you have any that have, like, windows, at all?"
The man just did a sort of grimacy eyebrow-raise.
"Or even one where the walls go all the way to the ceiling? Ours don't seem to do that."
"You on level two?"
"Yeah, level two."
"None of the walls go to the ceiling on level two."
"Says on the website."
"Ah. OK. What's the, ah, the window situation then? Is there any chance of a window, would you say?"
"Mate. The Grand Prix's on. We're full up all weekend."
After having spoken to several native Australians and a few foreigners who have been there long enough to learn the culture, I now understand that the correct thing to do at this point would have been to offer the man a bribe. Apparently this works for all official functionaries from Night Clerk right up to State Premier level (with the exception of sworn-in police horses, who are incorruptible) and is a cornerstone of the Australian way of life. All I can say in defense of my failure to uphold this custom is that I'm bad at picking up on social cues, I suppose - and besides, if I was into paying extra for things I probably wouldn't have booked the absolute dirtbag-cheapest hostel in all of downtown Melbourne in the first place.
Police horses, Swanston St: The last honest public servants?
In fairness, though, it's a bit inaccurate to compare our hostel to an actual prison. In prison, for example, they usually have delousing protocols that take care of the vermin, and you don't have to pay a key deposit. And, while the strange odours, noises in the night, unsanitary blotches on the flooring, and the casual racism of the other inmates may have put us in mind of old Sing Sing, we should remember that in western democracies at least, prisons are generally expected to adhere to certain minimum humanitarian standards that just don't seem to apply to hostels. The real-world outcome of this is that, while in both types of institution you'll see bossy little signs on every available surface laying down the law on a whole range of human behaviours, only in a hostel will the signs be laid out in that least humanitarian of fonts, Comic Sans. That is cruel and unusual and it will not stand.
This bossy sign is actually from the train station - in our hostel, spitting on the walls, floors or stairs was one of the few activities not expressly prohibited. Although by God it should have been.
This is what calm and mysterious looks like.