Faraway, So Close!

Faraway

I feel a bit weird today. I can’t really put a finger on how I feel, but it’s a mixture of exhausted and deflated, that slightly empty feeling that comes when some intense and prolonged group activity (eg, a school camp) comes to an end, and you all part ways and go on with your separate lives.

I’m feeling that gloom because I arrived back in Melbourne at 7.45am this morning after a week away in the Philippines for my brother’s wedding. Traveling overseas to attend a wedding is a privilege, I know, and it’s because of the cost involved that my partner and daughter did not attend with me. Instead, I travelled with my father, who is 78 years old, and met my sister, who travelled to the Philippines from Dublin via Seoul. We were met and looked after there by my youngest brother, who is Melbourne-based, but works in the Philippines, and his wife-to-be, who is a Filipino woman. Add another two visitors to the country, friends of my brother, who joined us on Friday night, and that made up the wacky little gang of friends and family that I’ve been with over the past few days.

Where did the week go? Dad and I checked into Melbourne airport on a cold, grey, rainy Wednesday morning one week ago at 7am, and this morning at about 8.25am we stepped back out of the doors of Terminal 2 and onto a footpath bathed in glorious Autumn sunlight.

As always seems to happen on a trip like this, the time in between those two Wednesday mornings seems to have simultaneously stretched and contracted.

Time seems to become pliable when you are away on a trip. As the days unfolded, there were some lovely trips in the country, and time spent chatting around a few drinks, but there were also moments when I felt tired of all the time spent waiting for transport or sitting on transport, irritated by the lack of privacy, worn out from the constant need to socialise and interact with others, or just plain exhausted, and at those times, I felt as though I had a long week stretched ahead of me. On Wednesday morning as my dad and I sat on a plane heading to Manilla, and again on Wednesday evening as we sat in a 12-seater van in Manilla traffic for about 4 hours on our way out of the city and into the country, when I thought of Saturday – the day of the wedding – it seemed a long way off.

But Saturday morning arrived, and once it did, it seemed as if time sped up. The day itself was very full and a lot of fun, and then suddenly at about 10.30pm everything was over. Sunday we went for a day-trip with the new bride and groom and some new friends, and out to a dinner hosted by a local, then, barely before I’d had time to blink, it was Monday and we were leaving the province where we’d been staying, and driving back into Manilla for our last night in the Philippines. Already! Tuesday – just yesterday – was spent trying to fit in shopping, around making huge allowances for Manilla traffic when we planned the timing of taxis to take us to and from the shopping centre, which resulted in more time spent sitting around and waiting.

I can hardly believe that just this time 24 hours ago, I was attempting to cross a 4 lane intersection in Manilla with my sister and my brother’s intrepid friends, on our way to find somewhere good to eat dinner.

The whole thing already seems like a blur. Especially last night. And no, it’s not because I drank too much to celebrate our last night there! It’s because every day, every hour, every minute there were so many new things to see and experience, and take in and think about.

I’ve never visited a developing country before, but in many ways the Philippines was exactly as I had imagined it. Perhaps my brother’s very eloquent and descriptive emails painted an accurate picture in my mind, or perhaps it was a conglomeration of images I’ve seen of lots of different developing countries, on TV in documentaries and news stories. In any case, although it was the first time I’d been confronted with such sights, I was not surprised by the long narrow streets in Manilla, packed with tiny houses and shops that looked poorly made and maintained, or the long stretch of slums on the outskirts of the city that we passed around sunset, where we spotted almost as many stray dogs wandering listlessly around as there were people sitting outside structures that pass for homes.

As we drove outside of Manilla the houses continued. It was not until the very last part of our journey, where there was forest on each side, that we saw any stretch of road that did not have houses lined along it. Every house was different to the one next to it, and every now and then, right in amongst the decaying houses, shacks made of pieces of rusted tin and slums we would see a large, though usually still run-down looking house, suggestive of a wealthier population in the past, or of wealthier residents willing to live right in amongst the abjectly poor, something I generally don’t see evidence of in my own country.

I was not able to take photos of the houses I saw on these trips because we were always in the van and moving when I saw them.* We drove everywhere for a few reasons. Firstly, for most of the week we were based, as organised by my brother and his wife, in a resort-style hotel situated about 20 minutes drive out past a town called Tanay, and there was nowhere else to go that was within walking distance. Secondly, we had our 78-year old father with us, and he joined in most of our outings. Thirdly, a van and driver had been loaned to my brother and his wife for the week for the precise purpose of driving us around, and finally, once in the city of Manilla (without the van and driver), anywhere we wanted to go seemed to far for Dad to walk and we couldn’t expect a 78-year old to cross roads in the city by marching rapidly through lanes of oncoming traffic as locals do.

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Manilla public transport – a jeepney

For me, this trip was a mixture of observing and learning about a culture I’ve never visited before, meeting and getting to know new people – my brother’s wife, her three children, and two of his Australian friends I’d never met before – and spending an unusual amount of quality time with my brother, my father and two of my siblings. I always value time with my sister, since she’s my only sister, the sibling closest to me in age, and we get along well together, but don’t see her often as she lives a 24 hour flight away from me, in Dublin.

The most unusual aspect of this holiday, as far as the family side of it goes, was spending so much time hanging out with my father.  I’m pleased to say that he constantly surprised me. I did not anticipate that he would be so willing to “go with the flow,” and join in whatever plans we made, nor did I think he’d be willing to try any drink or food item that was recommended to him, and usually like it.

So what is affecting me the most today is that the time spent with family, particularly my sister, has come to an end.

Of course, the ending came gradually. The time spent with my brother ended on Monday night when he accompanied us to Manilla and then headed back to Tanay. The time with my sister, whose flight back to Ireland left much later than ours, ended abruptly when our taxi for the airport arrived at the hotel. After that it was back to the old team – just Dad and I – and all the tedious parts of international travel: the queuing, the waiting, and the sitting. We sat together for 3 hours at the airport (because the taxi had, after all, ended up getting us there faster than predicted), we sat together on the 8 hour flight, queued up together to get through passport control, baggage collection and customs. I walked him to his bus (back to the country town where he lives) and we said goodbye, and then it was just me.

But even as I finish writing this post, 13 hours later, my sister is still flying. According to flight tracking, her flight from Korea is about 26 minutes away from landing in Paris, but she still needs to connect with her flight to Dublin. So the trip is not quite over yet in my head, because one of the gang is still travelling. It never fails to bend my mind, when she flies home from Australia – or in this case, the Philippines – to witness how my life goes on while she is stuck in the twilight zone of a long-haul flight.

Time is a tricky beast. 24 hours is not very long: I just said goodbye to her at 5pm last night, hardly any time ago at all. But when someone is flying away from you, it’s far too long: she’s a whole day’s travel away from us now.

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*I’m not sure that I could have taken photos of the houses anyway as I would have felt like I was treating people’s homes as if they are novelties to post pictures of on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I love Paris in the Springtime

It’s Spring in Melbourne! After the unusually cold winter we had in Melbourne this year – we were treated to an extended version of Winter this year, that continued on through most of September – Spring finally seems to have arrived, and with it the renewed energy and lifted spirits that longer hours of sunshine and warmer temperatures bring. Hurrah!

Unfortunately Spring is also to blame for why I’ve already sneezed twice since writing the word It’s about 1 minute ago. Perhaps Spring also accounts for the large, slow-witted blowflies that mysteriously find their way into our house in droves at the moment and then proceed to fly in a slow and wobbly manner, around the house at shoulder height, as if they are stoned and paranoid about heights.

Anyway, it’s Spring, the time when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of cricket, now that the football season is over. Spring, when the buds start budding, the blooms start blooming, and my eyes start running. Spring, when we all get Spring fever. Spring, when we all….Spring clean. ?

I’m afraid I’m not really into cleaning, especially Spring cleaning. Who ever decided it was a good idea to devote an entire 3 month period – arguably the nicest 3 month period of the year for being outdoors –  to cleaning?

When it comes to cleaning, I begrudgingly allocate a small amount of time now and then to cleaning things a visitor might reasonably be expected to encounter on a tour through my house – dishes, cups, cutlery, floors and surfaces in bathrooms and kitchens, for example. (I have only one kitchen, so I’m not sure why there is a plural kitchens there). I allocate proportionally less time to things only the discerning, or pedantic, visitor will ever look at – the dust on the bookshelves, or behind the toilet, for example – and basically no time ever to wiping, sorting or tidying the junk that accumulates inside cupboards or wardrobes or in the junk room study, so if you ever happen to drop in to my house for a surprise visit, please don’t look behind the couch, or inside the vases, or even into the junk room study. (that could prove difficult if you’re staying overnight, as you’ll be in there on a fold-out bed amongst the junk.) In fact whether it’s a surprise visit or not will make no difference, I still won’t be wiping out cupboards for you.

This afternoon is a case in point. My parents and one of my brothers are coming over for lunch tomorrow. Things I need to do before that lunch could be divided into 2 categories, much like skills and experience on a job application:

  1. Essential – clean up the dirty dishes currently in the kitchen, go shopping for ingredients, prepare the lunch and dessert so the guests have something to eat when they arrive.
  2. Desirable – clean the bathroom, mop the floors, clear the table, set the table for guests.

Today I was out all day until about 3.30pm, and I’m going out again at 6pm. At about 4.30 this afternoon I calculated that I had 1 1/2 hours, and 2 possible paths to take in that time, namely either:

  • The Road Less Travelled/The Path of the Well-Prepared Host. This path involves shopping for the required groceries today, and perhaps even making a start on some of the food preparations, thereby making tomorrow morning more relaxed
  • or
  • The Road Quite Frequently Travelled/The Path of the Unprepared Host. This path involves getting out my laptop and settling in to spend the next 1 1/2 hours, or, basically, right up to the moment that I’m planning to leave to go out again, writing a post. The consequences will be to spend all of tomorrow morning doing all of the above mentioned tasks in order to have the house, and the lunch, ready by midday, probably feeling a bit rushed and stressed out while doing so – but hey – that won’t occur until tomorrow, right?

Was there ever any real doubt about which path I would choose? I opted for number 2, The Road Quite Frequently Travelled, (at least by bloggers)- so here I am.

Yes, the dust is gently accumulating on the floorboards, the rhubarb I’m intending to stew for dessert tomorrow is still sitting in bunches down at the Fruit shop, and I don’t recall when the floor was last mopped, but I’m here at my blog.

In my defence, I’m attempting a Spring clean of sorts. A literary Spring clean, if you will. I’m continuing on a personal mission to clean out some of the 19 Draft posts I’ve accumulated over the past few years, by shaping them into something decent and then posting them. I purged one just the other day, by turning it into a silly post about doing the laundry at night.

Today, the challenge is tougher than finishing off a half-written poem about hanging laundry. Today’s challenge is to devise an introduction that will nicely segue into a draft written two years ago, after an overseas holiday, about being in Paris. Now, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a simple task. A topic like this is difficult to resurrect 2 years later, because when the writer is not in, and has no particular claim to any expertise on, a particular place, the timing of the post is crucial. Having now lost the immediacy of being written right after being in Paris, there is a high risk that a post about Paris, written by an Australian woman from her awfully dusty house in Melbourne, will come across as trite, superficial and cliched.

Looking over my original draft, I fear that some of the writing was pretty trite, superficial and cliched anyway. Witness the following lame sentence: “There is, of course, a lot that could be said about Paris, and I am not going to try and cover it all.”  Did I really think that was worth stating?

In the spirit of Spring cleaning, this draft has either got to be salvaged, or  thrown out for good.

I began this exercise quite ruthlessly, chopping out the first 4-5 paragraphs of the original draft with not a blink of the eye. Ruthless – this is how  you really clean things out. (If only I could do this as ruthlessly in the physical world.) There was nothing astounding in those paragraphs anyway, just some trite and superficial writing about how great it is to travel and how pretty Paris was. No wonder I refrained from hitting the “publish” button!

So after consideration, this is the only part I’m keeping. It’s about a little tradition I began, and try to uphold when ever I’m lucky enough to travel.  That is, to buy a book about the city I’m in.  I began this tradition on my very first overseas trip some 16 or so years ago, when I landed in San Fransisco, and headed, (not literally straight from the airport) to the famous CityLights bookshop, where I purchased a collection of short histories of San Fransisco. Reading the book later, back home in Melbourne, was all the more enjoyable because I was able to reminisce about locations I’d been to, while also learning more about the history of a city that I’d immediately liked and felt interested in.

It doesn’t have to be non-fiction. In Edinburgh, Scotland, I purchased a second hand copy of Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh. In Dublin, Ireland, I bought a copy of Dubliners, by James Joyce. I don’t devise my whole itinerary in each place around hunting down such a book, and there are plenty of cities I’ve visited where I haven’t managed to come across a book that was emblematic of the city: I failed to find just the right book when in New York, Hong Kong, Montreal, Edmonton, Cork, Nice, Venice, or Barcelona, for example.

 

Shakespeare and Co. bookshop, picture courtesy of Wikipedia

Shakespeare and Co. bookshop, Paris

In Paris, the legendary bookshop for any English-speaking tourist is Shakespeare and Co. I imagine every single English-speaking tourist who has ever visited Paris has dropped into this shop at some point during their stay. In fact, I think they were all there on the perfect Spring afternoon that I visited, because it was so crowded that I couldn’t turn around, or walk anywhere without……well, I just simply couldn’t turn around or walk anywhere. It was quite unpleasant, actually, as the store is tiny. To make matters worse, it was a warm day,  I was flying out that day, and I had already checked out of my accommodation – therefore, I was wearing unnecessary layers of clothes including a cardigan and thick rain jacket, simply because I couldn’t squash more clothes into the suitcase. I was also carrying my bulky backpack with me. I felt like the Michelin Man, trying to squeeze his way through a store full of young, thin, literary type-Australian students discussing the French-speaking Politics class they were taking at the university. (true)

Thus, once in Shakespeare and Co, all I wanted to do was get out as quickly as possible, so instead of spending time enjoying the atmosphere in this legendary store, famously a hang out for all sorts of literary figures through the years, including Beat poets, and Anais Nin, I made a quick decision – I saw a small history of Paris, so I shoved my way through to the counter, purchased it, and got the hell out of there.

I brought my newly aquired tome back to Melbourne with me, and read my way through all 600 or so pages, detailing the history of the city from the 3rd Century BC when the Parisii tribe set up at the site then known as Lutetia, and fought Julius Ceasar’s armies, through to its incarnation as the city it is now – or was when the book was published about 3 years ago.

As I learned from my reading, a city is a constantly evolving thing, with many layers of history hidden underneath the streets, below the ground cover in its parks; its buildings are demolished or repurposed, its physical boundaries are ever expanding.

In that sense, as it turns out, this post is a bit like a city.

 

Interior of the store: imagine approximately 400 people buzzing around and one large fat Michelin Man stumbling through them all.

Interior of Shakespeare and Co, obviously taken after hours. Imagine about 400 people climbing over one another, and one large fat Michelin Man stumbling through them all.

 

Pics of Shakespeare and Co store courtesy of Wikipedia.

For a concise, 1 page history of Paris, as opposed to 600 pages, try this useful link.

Worlds above and worlds below

Is it just me, or does everyone, visiting a town they have not been in for, say, 11 years, walk around town recalling moments from their previous visit with a slight sense of melancholy? Does everyone – or just me – walk past a park in the middle of the CBD and spend a little too long trying to imagine the ghost of their former self still sitting there?

I used to have a tendency towards indulging in nostalgia quite a lot. This was unsympathetically pointed out to me years ago by a teacher at art school – I was about 22 years old at the time. One wonders what could make someone nostalgic at the age of 22.  I’ve certainly wondered about that quite a bit, and have some ideas on the matter, but I’ll save those for another post.

At 22, my tendency to feel melancholy about the passing of time, to the extent of mourning the past, as if it was always better than the present, contributed to me frequently feeling depressed. Or perhaps it was the other way around.

As I got older, I was able to recognise that this thought pattern was illogical. I didn’t have a particularly happy childhood, so there was no sense in feeling sad about it being over. Even taking into account that I wasn’t exactly upbeat every moment of my twenties, given the choice I would definitely have stayed there rather than go back to my miserable childhood.

My flawed thinking was brought home quite clearly one time in my early thirties, when my daughter was about a year old, and I found myself thinking with melancholy back to a year earlier, feeling overwhelmingly sad that it was in the past.

Now, it’s not unusual for parents to feel poignant from time to time at how quickly their child grows up, but the specific memory I was projecting all that melancholy onto was a memory of myself walking my daughter in the pram, around and around in the back yard, crying, because I couldn’t get my daughter to go to sleep and I was so utterly exhausted myself. It wasn’t a happy memory, and what’s more, it wasn’t a once-off moment – it was indicative of a whole year where I suffered from insomnia, usually lying awake most of the night while my baby slept, and then struggling through the days on maybe 2-3 hours sleep while she would not sleep at all, or at most for maybe 30 minutes once or twice – not long enough for me to doze off if I tried, being as tightly wound as I was.

When I found myself idealising that specific moment of crying from exhaustion a year earlier as if it was better than the present moment, I knew I had to do something about that mindset. I went to counselling – for a variety of reasons – and learned to use cognitive behavioural therapy to work on not automatically feeling nostalgic and sad when I thought about the past. That seemed to work for me.

Since that time, I haven’t been victim to overwhelming and illogical melancholy about the past – at least, no more than any other parent. I’m sure all parents occasionally feel a little bitter-sweet sadness when we notice that our once dependent, adoring child is now a surly teenager, complete with independent thought and the tendency to roll her eyes when anything is asked of her!

And, for most of us, visiting a town we were last in 11 years earlier probably is going to bring back memories, memories not just of being in that town, but also of how we were “back then.”Memories of whether we were happy, sad, depressed, single, in a relationship, whether our child was then a toddler and is now a teenager – all of that is normal. Perhaps also normal is the tendency to mark the first time you see, do, or go somewhere that you last saw/did/went to when someone now dead was still alive. Or perhaps that’s just me.

This week I went on a short trip to Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania, Australia’s smallest and most southern island state, separated from Victoria, the state where I live, by the cold waters of Bass Strait.

Hobart is a picturesque little city, (population of the entire greater Hobart area is only around 217k), Australia’s second-oldest city, after Sydney. Its age is illustrated by the lovely old sandstone buildings in the CBD, and down at Salamanca Place, that probably date back 200 years or more – that’s pretty old architecture in Australia!

Hobart is also picturesque from a distance – travelling along the river on the ferry, or into town from the airport, I felt as if I was seeing what Sydney might have looked like about 120 years ago. Hobart’s suburbs are little pockets of houses built into the foothills of mountain ranges all along the Derwent River. It’s not over-developed – in all cases, buildings peter off about half-way up, leaving plenty of bushland around and above them. It’s a town that is still very closely connected to the bush, the mountains and the water. Looking along any street in the Hobart CBD, your view will almost always end with water, or a mountain range, or both. The city is snuggled up to Mount Wellington(Kunanyi), which towers in the background, 1269 metres (4163 ft) above sea level. Drinking coffee in a cafe in the CBD I could clearly see the remnants of snow on its peak, glistening in the winter sun, as if it was just a few blocks away.

Winter afternoon sun in Salamanca Place, Mt Wellington in the background.

Winter afternoon sun in Salamanca Place, Mt Wellington in the background.

I relished having two days to myself to wander around this pretty little town, which offered all the luxuries one expects in a city (good coffee, and great corn bread!) while feeling as friendly, and as close to nature, as a country town.

The other time I was in Hobart was about 11 years ago, with my partner and daughter, when she was about 4 years old. Thinking back to that time, it’s as if I was another person back then. I was still struggling with all my own insecurities, with being a parent, married, in my thirties, not having any career – basically any cliched anxiety you can name. I was still much closer to the slightly depressed person I’d been in my twenties. Perhaps that’s why, of all the memories I have of that trip 11 years ago, a negative incident stands out – we ran for a bus, and our little 4 year old girl, running, tripped and fell on the footpath. She cut her lip and nose, blood gushed from her nose and all over her clothes, and she howled – all difficult to deal with when you are tourists in an unfamiliar town. I felt terrible, and guilty, though probably not with any good reason.

But I know that we had fun, too. We took a ferry ride, and rode a double-decker bus to the Cadbury chocolate factory. We shopped in the local op (thrift) shop. We ate out at some nice cafes, wandered around the Salamanca market area, went for walks and, on at least one occasion, we rested on a bench seat in one of the parks in the CBD area.

I only recall that last detail because we have photos of us sitting in a park, although as I walked around Hobart this week, I couldn’t identify with certainty which park they were taken in.

So in an effort to take stock of the changes in my life in the past 11 years, I decided to take the time to sit on a bench in a park for a few minutes. Perhaps with the ghost of my past self beside me, who knows. I wanted to think about layers of memories  – because of course, in contemplating the change in my life since I was last in Hobart, I’d need to contemplate the fact that my younger brother was alive when I was here last, and now he is not.

I chose a park at the edge of the CBD, before you go down to the piers at the water’s edge. The park seemed a little run down and uncared for, and a group of young men were hanging around doing skateboard tricks. I have nothing against young men skateboarding, but a combination of factors, including the time of day and their attire, made me feel that it would be better to sit as far away from them as possible, so I chose a seat half-way around the park.

With a view to writing something on my blog about this trip, I started to make some notes on my phone. I had just enough time to write, Sitting on a bench in the park with the fountain, off Elizabeth St – when, glancing up, I saw that one of the men was approaching me – clearly he was going to ask me for money. I’m not scared of people asking me for money – sometimes I give it to them. My policy is to decide quickly, and if giving money, to give it respectfully, making no judgement about what they are going to use it for. But his approach ended my hardly-begun reverie.

In this case I didn’t even consciously think about whether to give him money or not, possibly because, being seated, and alone, it was a no-brainer as to which course of action would bode better for me. Before he had even opened his mouth and begun the speech I had anticipated – about not wanting to ask for money but needing to catch a bus – I was reaching for my purse. As I gave him some coins, and chatted about where he was going on the bus, I stood up, making it obvious that I was getting ready to leave. That was another unconscious decision – it was only as I walked away that I realised I’d chosen to get up and leave. I guess instinct told me that that staying seated there was no longer an attractive option.

So that little interaction brought an abrupt end to my short-lived moment of pondering the layers of memories that were swirling around me as I walked the streets of Hobart. I never did quite see the ghost of my past, who may or may not still be hovering around on a park bench in Hobart.

Perhaps she didn’t want to be discovered.

Hobart, seen from a ferry on the Derwent river, Mt Wellington in the background.

Sunny Hobart, this week, from a ferry on the Derwent river, Mt Wellington in the background.

 

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  • for those playing at home, the title of this post is a lyric from a song by New Zealand band Crowded House. The song is Four Seasons In One Day (which, I think it’s fairly safe to say, is an ode to Melbourne.)

Old World, New World

I have a debt with the government. It’s left over from the Fine Arts degree I did about 20 years ago. Yes, you may be surprised to hear this, but an undergraduate degree in painting did not lead me straight into a glamorous, high paying career at the Stock Exchange – or even into a job paying the mid-level wage that would have triggered automatic debits from my salary to pay off the debt.

Over the years I’ve pondered a multitude of different career possibilities, yet done nothing about pursuing any of those careers. My main reason was the cost of further study, and the added debt I would have incurred from taking it up.

Careers I’ve considered over the years include: teacher, graphic designer, illustrator, interior designer, artist, curator, art therapist, aromatherapist, naturopath. One career that I never thought about until today, however, was that of anthropologist.

According to the University of Melbourne,  Anthropology is the study of the many societies and cultures of the world and their complex interaction. Admittedly that sounds interesting, but I’m not really thinking about studying it. For a start, if it’s at Melbourne University, it probably costs about $80,000 AUD, and therefore is out of my price range by about $78,000.

According to Wikipedia, however, There is a sense in which every human being is an anthropologist, if we accept a very humanistic and generous interpretation.

Hey, I’m happy to accept a humanistic and generous interpretation if it means I get an extra qualification without added debt! I’ll happily accept an honorary degree in anthropology – thanks Wikipedia! I’ll update my CV this weekend.

So, as I am now officially an anthropologist, I thought it would be appropriate to list some of the observations noted on my recent field-trip in Europe.

(Note: anthropologists with real, university degrees place a lot of emphasis on immersing oneself in a particular culture, and then producing long, and – let’s face it – sometimes dreary – treatises on the behaviour and cultural differences they observe. But as one of the new breed of “honorary anthropologists”, I think that a few days is quite sufficient, since the key differences between cultures can be spotted in a day, and that there is no need to write a 500 page book when a short blog post can summarise cultural differences quite succinctly.)

To illustrate, here are some the differences (from Australian cities) I observed in cities in Europe:

Toilets: In Australia, public toilets usually have a toilet seat. In Europe, they were often without a seat. Who knows why this is? – I do not care to contemplate the lack-of-toilet-seat phenomenon too deeply.

Garbage Trucks: In Australia, garbage trucks are, well…..big, like real trucks are. In Rome, the garbage trucks are like big toy trucks!

A garbage truck in Rome (notice it's smaller than the person next to it).....so cute!

A garbage truck in Rome (notice it’s smaller than the person next to it)…..so cute!

Football: In Australia, of course, it’s well known that we have more space than we know what to do with – after all, most of the country is outback or desert. So there are large parks and football grounds all over the place, even in cities. In many of the European cities we visited we saw no large parks, but frequently walked through a group of kids kicking a soccer ball in a small, concrete city square. My field notes suggest that they seemed to be having just as much fun as Aussie kids have kicking it on grass.

The logistics of how consumer goods are moved and distributed: In Australia, food and consumer goods are brought in by container ships to the docks, and/or loaded onto semi-trailers, and driven across the country by truckies on speed. These semi-trailers are backed into huge warehouses, or loading docks, and the goods are unloaded in bulk, into vast, impersonal supermarkets. In many European cities we visited, the streets are simply too small for large trucks to bring bulk goods in, and there is no room to build huge supermarkets. This must make the logistics of getting food into the city tricky, but the advantage is that the food in the many small bakeries and delis is made fresh on the premises, and the locals probably know the baker/deli owner because they drop  in every second day for their loaf of bread and bottle of wine. So the lack of space in these cities creates a whole different culture of shopping – a much nicer culture, in my view.

Coffee: In Melbourne we pride ourselves on doing good coffee. So much so that lately I’ve heard from more than one source, that coffee in Melbourne is far better than coffee in Italy. Well I’m here to tell you that is bulls**t. There is definitely good coffee in Melbourne, but there is also plenty of mediocre coffee. All the coffees I had in Italy were good, and they were also better priced!

Suburban: Yes, it’s true. Despite the image of France that I’ve gained from French cinema, where everyone is thin, and lives in a cool inner-city apartment, or a quaint country cottage, I discovered that cities in France have outer suburbs that look like the outer suburbs  anywhere else in the world: dull, depressing, and filled with factories, truck yards, and daggy, themed restaurants.

IKEA: there is an IKEA store in an outer suburb of Paris. I suppose I should have expected it.

Plastic bags:  In the interests of strengthening the sustainability of the environment, in Australia we are strongly encouraged to re-use bags, and at some businesses, we are forced to buy a bag if we don’t have one. Ireland, where my sister lives, is way ahead of us – there, plastic bags have not been given out in shops for at least a decade. Not so in Italy, Spain and France, however.  It appeared that these countries are on a campaign to give out as many plastic bags as possible, and to do so even in the face of opposition. In Rome, early in our trip, I brought a bag with me, as I’m used to doing, and gestured to the elderly woman, to show that I had a bag to use for my purchase. Her response was a tolerant smile, as if I was being silly. She pulled out a plastic bag and popped my new coffee pot into it. I didn’t like to upset her, so I accepted it in the plastic bag she gave me. I went on to collect about 50 plastic bags over the  trip, which I will now, of course, re-use.

Disability: In Australian cities, people with a disability that affects their mobility are probably a lot better off – as far as ease of travel goes, at least. Naturally, because European cities are so much older, the streets are small and narrow, and frequently made of cobblestones. Lifts and elevators are often non-existent, particularly at railway stations, and when a lift was in operation, it was usually so small that it only fitted one person and one bag at a time – and would certainly not fit a wheelchair. For people with sight impairments there may be some advantages, though. We had cause to buy at least 3 different types of medication on our trip, and all 3 boxes had braille on them – presumably detailing the same information that we could read, about the medication. This is a small thing but seemed significant – a step that pharmaceutical companies selling their products within Australia could surely afford to do, too.

Those are just a few of the observations I made on my recent field trip. Now that I’m an anthropologist, I must write these up for my peers (according to Wikipedia, that’s all the rest of you, should you choose to accept the qualification)  to review. An anthropologist’s work is never done.

*

INXS – Old World New World

Old world, new world

I know nothing

but I’ll keep listening.

Trans Europe Express

Here I am at last, back at my blog after a month traveling in Europe, with no –  repeat – NO – laptop, only an iPhone, an Italian dictionary, and intermittent access to WiFi. (Less often than promised, no thanks to you, railway stations of France.)

As it happens, there is so much to do and see, when traveling in countries you’ve never been in before, that I didn’t have time to miss the internet, reading other people’s blogs, or writing on my own.

In Australia, we live so far away from most places, that traveling to almost any other country is a huge logistical and financial endeavour, so (speaking for myself at least) we don’t do it very often, and when we do, we feel compelled to make the most of it.  I aimed to see as much as I could, because it’s likely that I’ll never be in those places again.

For this reason, I had never planned to write my blog while I was travelling – I didn’t have the time or the headspace, and I didn’t go overseas in order to sit at a computer and write. In fact, shame on me, I didn’t write anything at all (with the exception of one blog post, written when we had access to a pre-historic computer in an apartment we were renting). That’s right, in a full month I wrote nothing more than an occasional shopping list! I didn’t scribble a single note to remind myself later of where we went or what we saw so that I could turn the whole trip into a jolly adventure story after the fact. (I did take over 1000 photos, so they might serve to jolt my memory of the trip if I do decide to publish my memoirs any time soon.)

It was a deliberate decision not to take a notebook and write notes to reference later. I wanted to be “in the moment,” rather than to be stepping back and constructing how an experience could be written about, even as it was still happening. Even when we travelled by train across Italy and France, I preferred to use that time to take in the landscape – and consequently saw some breathtaking scenery which I will probably never see again. I can stare for ages at landscapes/cityscapes/scenery, with that thought in mind – that I’ll probably never see this again. (You will notice that I add “probably” to myself, optimistically implying that there is a chance I might see it again.)

So now I’m left wondering where to start and what to say, about the past month that I spent in Italy, Spain and France.

Paris, looking over the Seine

Paris, looking over the Seine. Fake cloud backdrop courtesy of Paris Skys Pty Ltd.

There is so much that could be said, and probably has already been said by better travel writers than I (in fact, I’m not widely recognised as a travel writer, and given how infrequently I travel, other than to regional country towns to visit aging parents, I’d be mad to give up my day job and try surviving on travel writing, so let’s just admit here and now that I’m not a travel writer!) that almost every observation I could make about traveling, or the places we saw, seems in danger of sounding either trite, superficial or patronising. There is no point in me telling you all that Rome was fantastic, Paris was beautiful, Venice was pretty, Nice had a beautiful beach, etc. This is information you could glean from any travel brochure.

Looking over Barcelona, Gaudi architecture in the foreground

Looking over Barcelona, Gaudi architecture in the foreground

It will have to suffice for this post, for me to say that one surprising thing I noticed on this trip was how time slowed down. A work colleague told me this would happen, but I didn’t believe her. I’ve travelled before, but my memory of this effect must be hazy – I don’t remember noticing it. It’s surprising because you expect that, if anything, you’ll be having so much fun that time will fly, as it is proverbially supposed to do in that situation.

In reality though, we found that we were cramming so much into our days, and traveling to so many different places, (we stayed in 10 different cities in one month, and saw a LOT of train stations) that after a day and a half in a particular city we’d feel like we’d already been there a week. After the first week, we felt like we’d been traveling for a month. By half way through the trip (ie about 2.5 weeks in), we’d talk about things we did or saw in the very first city we’d been in, and it felt like we were talking about some distantly remembered holiday from years earlier. The other surprising effect of this was that, by the one month mark, despite being in Paris, we were not entirely sorry that the trip was coming to an end – apart from the grim awareness of the gruelling 22 hour journey ahead of us.

Overseas travel is a bit like having a baby, I guess – once you’ve gone through the extended period of pain that is 22 hours in transit, had a shower and a sleep in your own bed, and recovered from the tiredness, you are open to the idea of planning the whole thing all over again. Should finances permit.

Palantine Hill, Rome, in the middle of the city.

Palantine Hill, (Roman Ruins), in the middle of Rome city. Note scale of teeny-tiny people to massive ancient columns.

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