Can you imagine the whole United States just coming to a complete standstill? It’s hard to imagine, and it would take something huge to make it happen. A terrorist attack could do it, but I can’t think of anything else. Possibly a hurricane – but that would be more localized. Aliens maybe? Ok, probably aliens, but we’d probably just kill them and move on with our days. And holidays? Maybe a few, but not really. So much stuff these days is open on Thanksgiving and Christmas that they hardly feel like holidays anymore. We used to be confined to the typical Jewish Christmas of Chinese food and a movie, but now there are tons more options: Indian food, brewpubs, TGI Fridays, and even some grocery stores will remain open. Definitely not a standstill.
But in Australia, there is one thing that can and does “stop the nation”: a fucking horse race.
I’m not even shitting you. Horses. Let’s compare. The United States has the Kentucky Derby, which apparently is a damn big horse race. But does anyone actually pay attention to the Kentucky Derby? No. Not unless you’re from Kentucky or have a gambling problem (those two probably coincide) or are Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman.
I had always heard of the Kentucky Derby – and I knew it was a horse race – a big horse race – but I couldn’t tell you much more than that. I had never watched it, never knew about the fancy dress, and never really cared. I’m pretty sure that’s the sentiment of most Americans. I did watch it one year – only because my friend Nick’s boyfriend’s roommate was from Kentucky originally and they had a party at their apartment in Seattle. I didn’t dress up – because I had no idea that I was supposed to, but even if I had been aware, I’m really not festive enough for that and I was too hungover to care anyway - but everyone else at the party was all gussied up in their most ridiculous best. It was over-the-top: suits and dresses and big floppy hats that could’ve doubled as bed covers. Everyone was dressed like that! Except for one chick. This one chick was dressed like a slut in some sort of leotard thing. Seriously. I wish you could’ve seen it.
And everyone was drinking mint juleps (except for me, because I was too hungover). And that was the first time I had learned anything about the Kentucky Derby, and then race started and it lasted for about 14 seconds and I was like “Is that it?” Even I can run longer than that… And it was just disappointment which then turned into me not caring anymore and forgetting all about it.
Until earlier this week.
It was Melbourne Cup week! The Melbourne Cup is the Australian equivalent to the Kentucky Derby… but it’s huge beyond recognition here. The whole country stops. That’s not an overstatement. The race is coined “the race that stops the nation” – and it’s true. Offices close down – shops and cafes close down – even the cute baristas had a sign up: “We’ll be closing at 1pm this Tuesday in preparation for the Melbourne Cup”. We’re not even in Melbourne! That’s like 12 hours away! That’s like the equivalent of a Kinko’s in Baltimore closing because of a house fire in Louisville.
Is the Kentucky Derby even in Louisville? I guess that doesn’t really matter. Strike that question from the record.
Now, if it’s that bad in Sydney, just imagine Melbourne. In Melbourne… it’s a holiday. Literally – a holiday. Pretty much the whole state of Victoria shuts down, and it is actually a public holiday – like Christmas or Thanksgiving or Memorial Day. Schools are closed. Government offices are closed. Stores are closed. It’s just like Christmas except all the Jews aren’t huddled together in a Chinese restaurant. They’re hanging out with the gentiles watching the damn horse race too. Can you imagine?
All across the nation, people line up at the local TAB – a place where you can place bets – throw away a ton of money on it, and then gather in bars and restaurants and office breakrooms and homes – anywhere where there is a big TV - and watch in suspense.
And, being my first year in Australia and my first experience with the Melbourne Cup, I thought it only appropriate that I dive into the festivities head first… details to follow in the next post, but I will say this:
I should’ve worn a helmet.