I was granted Australian citizenship at a ceremony at the end of last month, having received the official papers only one week before the event. I would have had to wait until Australia Day in January for the proper big ceremony, but an election’s due and I’m a retardedly huge fan of democracy in all its forms (and the Australian government fines citizens who don’t vote, which is awesome), so I had very little time to really take it all in.

At any rate, I thought I’d commemorate the event with a short story about one of the many excellent experiences I’ve had over the past five years in my second home. Unfortunately, I’m lazy like nothing else, so this post has been sitting 80% finished for nearly a month now. Enough delays! Gather ’round the fire and listen to a tale of travel, adventure and foreign lands…

Melbourne is the capital of Victoria, one of Australia’s six states (sorry locals, I’m talking to people on a few continents here). It is said that Melbourne is the spiritual and cultural capital of Australia. Certainly, every time I’ve visited Melbourne I have had my taste buds blown by its rich ethnic cuisine, and I never cease to be in awe of the constant vibrancy of the place. Hard not to fall in love with a town that has a pub on nearly every corner – makes those walks home on a cold night all the more enjoyable with a pitstop (or two, or three…).

Melbourne is also the home of Australian Rules Football, and should you ask me, I will tell you it is hands-down the most kickass team competition on the planet. It requires an amazingly broad skill set from its athletes and a balance of both power and endurance like no other sport (and there is no greater highlight reel material than a corker of a speccie). The AFL is the third most well-attended sporting competition in the world, and of the league’s sixteen teams, nine of them are in Melbourne and one in nearby Geelong.

A quick aside (not the last aside we’ll encounter on this journey) at this point: the AFL and me. I’d become enthralled with Aussie rules football some time before meeting my Australian bride-to-be. Once upon a time, I worked odd shifts, and on days off I might be lucky enough to catch the AFL game of the week on the sports channel some time after midnight. I was hooked. Fast forward some years later, and I’m now living in Australia, brandishing a temporary resident visa. Kate lands a job that’s too good to pass up, but it’s in Cairns, 1800kms away from Kate’s folks and home town and the bulk of the Australian population – it’s closer to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia than it is to Brisbane, the state capital. One of my first new friends on this continent was (and still is!) Greg, husband of one of Kate’s ex-workmates. Upon hearing that we were moving so far away he gave us some golden advice: ‘Join a sports team! You’ll inherit an instant group of friends and busy up your social life in no time.’ Too true. I signed on with the Cairns Saints in 2002 and I was welcomed into the ranks of the average Aussie. I made a lot of good friends and had a lot of good times. And I paid back into the organization that indoctrinated me into Aussie culture (including lessons on proper pronunciation of curse words), earning ‘Clubman of the Year’, an award given to the player who contributes the most to the club over the course of a season, off or on the field – and my on-field skills wouldn’t earn me the prize out of a box of Cracker Jacks.

Mitch Haggman - Cairns Saints Clubman of the Year 2003

Cairns Saints Clubman of the Year 2003

With all that backstory out of the way, we can move on to the crux of the tale. Cities in Australia and the New World tend to be shy on tradition, but Melbourne is one of those rare places where us colonials partake in a sacred ritual. It’s no religious ritual (although it’s not a stretch to call football a religion in Melbourne), but it is ritual none the less. There is something very special about the 100,000-seat Melbourne Cricket Ground on a big day. Melburnians and ex-Victorians all across Australia speak in reverent tones of the atmosphere in ‘The Gee’ and the building’s near-mystical powers to make a good day a great day.

I had the opportunity to take part in the ritual, guided by Matt (boyfriend of Kate, who is the sister of Ali, who went to university with my Kate), who while not a Melburnian, was a son of Geelong and had been playing footy for some years with the Monash Blues of the Victorian Amateur Football Association. Our cabal was brought to five with the inclusion of with the the aforementioned Ali and both Kates.

It was April 25, 2005. ANZAC Day – the Australian equivalent of Remembrance Day (which they also celebrate, but ANZAC Day is their day). The annual Coolingwood-Essendon ANZAC Day clash is the always the highest attended regular season game of the season. My birthday happens to fall one day after, so for my birthday that year myself and Mrs. Viper Pilot made a pilgrimage to Melbourne to experience the MCG.

The Gee

‘The Gee’

The ritual has no set pattern, but it has a few key ingredients which you should try to incorporate into the day. The ritual begins in a pub within walking distance of the footy ground. Where, of course, the upcoming game is discussed over frosty cold pots of Victoria Bitter, and any pre-game wagers are sealed. The trip on foot to The Gee after a couple of refreshing beverages is where the atmosphere starts to kick in. The streets are full, and everyone’s walking in the same direction. Fathers and sons sharing an afternoon together, mobs of junior grade footy boys, husbands and wives, whole families of every culture and creed all sharing in the same great afternoon. Regardless of the team you support, everyone’s happy and excited about the day (except Collingwood supporters, of course; they are universally either sulking about a loss or gloating about how they’re a Collingwood supporter and you’re not).

Once inside the stadium, there are further components of the ritual, including but not limited to: eating at least one dodgy meat pie, heckling the umpire, drinking overpriced midstrength beer, and making friends with random people sitting around you so you can all heckle the umpire together. And, of course, missing the best goal/mark/hit of the game while standing in line for the bathroom.

Another aside: The Footy Grandma. Melbourne really is unique. In any other city, it would be out of the ordinary to see a septuagenarian at the football. In Melbourne, though, there she is, calmly knitting a scarf in her grandson’s favourite team colours one moment, only to explode into a fit of fury at a poor call from the umpire. ‘Go home, you filthy white maggot!’ The Footy Grandma would shout, referring to the white shirts the umpires wear. With a harrumph and a scowl at the unfortunate official, she’d readjust her blanket and sit back down, pausing to root around in the cooler she’s packed for the afternoon, perhaps finding a roast beef sandwich to take a few bites from before picking up the knitting again.

After the football game is over (and many more beers consumed and much enjoyment has been had by all) there remains but to complete the ritual. Again, the streets fill with fans in their team colours, but rather than return to the pubs near the MCG, this time the destination is the tram stations. The trams are packed to capacity, and in order to compete the game day ritual, one must skip on paying one’s fare.

‘What’s up with the title of the story?’ you ask. Sure, I may have bought a Port Adelaide Power jersey (primarily because it was on eBay for about half what you’d pay in the shop), I had played for the Cairns Saints (who takes its name from St. Kilda’s team) and the first AFL game I attended had been a thumping of Brisbane by the Geelong Cats, so historically my allegiances were split between the Saints, the Power and the Cats. As thanks to Matt for guiding us on one of the best days I can remember, on that day as the ritual drew to a close, I cast my lot in with Geelong.

Every good story needs a denouement: Four days after my citizenship was granted, the Cats ended a 44 year-long premiership drought, smashing the ever-living shit out of Port Adelaide in the grand final by a record-making 119 point margin. Mighty fine of them to wait for me.

“Go the Cats!”