View from the Bio Box

Last week the world almost ended while I was at the Old 505 theatre in Newtown. I’d been here before, mostly in the audience, but over this five night residency I was the tech operator for Blind Tasting, a beautiful play by Paul Gilchrist, performed brilliantly by Sylvia Keays.

old 505 bar

From the bio box I could view the stage, and watch both the audience and the performance through a rectangle cut into the partition that divides the original ballroom of the old Newtown School of Arts. It is now a theatre and a foyer with a well stocked bar. It’s comfortable, intimate and beautiful and if you look up, next to the rigging, you can see the original plaster ceiling panels. Not a bad place to be for the final showdown.

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‘Teching’ a show is a little like being a DJ. I have a lighting board and a sound console and two computer screens, all with which to mix the mood for the play. And although it sounds complicated all I have to do is press the buttons in the right order. Liam O’Keefe, the lighting designer had already created and programmed the light cues, and the soundscape had been taken care of by the director. It included rain and thunder, seagulls and cicadas.

By the fourth night of this five night run everything was going smoothly. I had wrangled my fingers so they tapped the cues at just the right moment. I was dancing back and forth between light and sound and feeling like Nicky Siano at Studio 54. But then suddenly disaster struck. I began to lose control of my console. I’d just activated Cue 5, the excited chatter and squawk of seagulls, when suddenly I heard the gentle patter of rain, Cue 8. In a panic I checked the screen. What was happening? Had I hit the wrong button? No. The arrow signifying Cue 5 still serenely blinked its little green light at me. Nothing seemed to be wrong but why could I hear two cues instead of one? And then sounds that weren’t even programmed into my QLab software began to tumble around me. The theatre revealed its own musical score, one that I had no authority over; the whistling of wind rattling old window frames and the rustling of paper, starting and stopping at uncanny moments.

I looked up expecting the audience to be looking around in confusion, the actor raising her voice to combat the shamble of sound, staring daggers at me that said, ‘fix this bloody mess now!’ But no. The show was blithely continuing on its amusing little path completely oblivious to the impending disaster unfolding in the bio box.

Bio Box

It was just me. And all of these computers. Suddenly I realized that those Luddite nightmares that had plagued me for years were about to come true. Any sane person knows that computers and robots are about to take over the world and force us into mindless slavery. More mindless even than consumerism. But I’d thought perhaps we had a few more years of human autonomy left; the remainder of my lifetime ideally. There was still so much I needed to buy. But alas it seemed that the time had come.  A technical catastrophe preceding the final annihilation.  An apocalypse. Armageddon. The end of the world. And our new technological masters had chosen to start their universal domination by taking over my soundscape!

I made myself calm down. After all, if it really was the end, I may as well enjoy it. If these computers were determined to take over the show, then perhaps I should use this as an opportunity to pop over to the bar and order a gin and tonic. I slowly edged away from the tech desk, and as I did, the sound of wind and rain got louder and louder, until it was all I could hear. But the beautiful Sydney summer day on the stage remained undisturbed. The audience didn’t know that it was raining. And suddenly I realized that it wasn’t the fabricated world that had gone awry after all. Apparently the ambitions of the machine intelligence before me were still dormant. It was the real world that had turned intemperate.

Let me explain. The bio box was actually the stage of the old dance hall we were in and behind me were the glass windows of the building, covered over with paper to keep out any light. It was through these that the sounds of rain and wind, that were whipping the world outside, were coming from. The audience were surrounded by walls and thick black curtains which is why they couldn’t hear anything except what was happening on stage. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief, which did turn a few heads, as I leapt back to the desk just in time to press the next cue.

I’d been so excited to be able to watch each performance and, like an alchemist, or a high tech god, add sound and light to the world on the stage. But now I realized that I was the one in a performance, which had its very own soundscape, administered by the great tech operator in the sky. It was as if he or she had been watching me all along, like I’d been watching the audience and the actor on the stage.

“All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players.

Had Shakespeare been a tech operator too? Perhaps he’d also had strange behind the scenes experiences? Maybe I too would now be able to write thirty seven plays and one hundred and fifty four sonnets.

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Theatre is a strange medium. Odd things happen. The space itself becomes a new character with every new play.  With all this drama perhaps the walls retain the residue of all that’s been before. All of those characters created, and then left behind when the actors move on; each set laboriously made and then exuberantly unmade. And what of that old ballroom that preceded us, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d suddenly heard the whisper of satin slippers and the flutter of dance cards.

Theatrical productions are the result of a temporary illusion imposed on a permanent structure; a new way to look at the world, a view into someone else’s experience. In the theatre you can live vicariously the human drama, suspend reality for a time; enjoy for an hour or so, another world, another place.  And when we emerge, and the lights come up, and the actor takes their encore, we slowly come back to our own realities. But we’ve experienced magic, perhaps we’ve had an epiphany; and hopefully that means we take a little more joy, or empathy, back out into the real world with us.

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Image of Newtown School of Arts Ballroom, courtesy of Eastside FM

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Festive Season Survival Kit

What a year it’s been! It’s time to celebrate!

And here, no matter who your family or friends are, is a festive season survival kit to take with you everywhere and indulge in as needed. It’s easy. Just pack the following ingredients in an Esky with plenty of ice and keep handy throughout the festivities:

  • a six pack of common sense craft beer (available at good independent breweries, choose middle of the range in price, and don’t shake before you open)
  • a Mason jar of freshly whipped confidence cream (eat straight from the jar with a spoon, as needed, to remind you that your presence is a gift to family and friends. WARNING: don’t over indulge)
  • a chunk of fortified, well aged, blue vein questions (may be a bit smelly, and not to everyone’s taste, but persevere as it’s the Royal Easter Show Gold Medal winner in the Easy Flow Conversation category)
  • a mini herb and spice pantry to add zest and flavour to any event: cinnamon (for sweetness), basil (for empathy), bergamot (for gratitude or attitude), spikenard (to just stop thinking about the year that’s been, or your boss, or your in-laws, or your bestie that’s been behaving like a beastie or….), frankincense (for calm), and fennel (to aid digestion)
  • a plate of ‘be here now’ biscuits (if out of ‘be here now’, substitute self medicating grade cannabis)
  • a thermos of laughter (or strong coffee if driving)
  • and finally don’t forget the Christmas pudding, well wrapped in cheese cloth, it should fit nicely next to the half bottle of golden spiced rum; after all there’s at least a glass left over from soaking the fruit, and yourself, while cooking. As for the French Cognac that you used for feeding the cake after it was baked….

 

 

(Images courtesy of Giorgi family album and Wikicommons)

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Spirit of Place: Walking Burwood Road

Burwood Park is a testament to the strange and unexpected wonders that can be discovered in public spaces. I began my wander near the WWI memorial arch where I’d spied the white umbrellas of the park cafe. And  I was glad for my coffee when I came upon the Sandakan memorial only a few meters further into the park. This commemorates the 2,345 Allied prisoners of war held captive in Borneo and forced to march from Sandakan to Ranau during WWII. Only six of them survived.

On this beautiful  sunny day in early November I contemplated the awful suffering of the thousands of men and women caught in world conflicts.  But as I continued to explore, the newly green grass on the cricket oval reminded me that it was spring, and the four months without rain had ended only two days before.

After spotting an outdoor performance shell, a giant chessboard, a mini lake, a community centre, a memorial to Confucius, and a multitude of Ibis, I left this unique public garden and walked south along eclectic Burwood Road. Burwood lies 10 kilometres west from the Sydney CBD between two of the old Aboriginal tracks that became Parramatta Road and Liverpool Road. Burwood Road stretches from  north to south joining the two.  Perhaps because of this geography, and the placement of the railway station just on the half way point, Burwood is one of those suburbs that despite the advent of a Westfield’s, has remained a lively strip; a mix of Middle Eastern restaurants mingling seductively with East Asian eateries. Sahara By The Park, Golden Globe Seafood, Sydney Dumpling King, Momiji Japanese, Mint Vietnamese, Little Nepal and Mee Noodle House, to name a few.

Burwood Road is grungy, never without traffic, especially buses; and the footpaths are crowded with commuters waiting to get on those buses, and pedestrians weaving their way between the station and the shopping centre. And there are smokers and beggars and dawdling couples and dogs in sidewalk cafes. And there are also two pubs: The Burwood Hotel and the Avalon Hotel.

Inside the Burwood Hotel the long counter of the bar has a glass wall behind it revealing the once hidden kitchen of the Burwood Eating House. This is where, according to their website, ‘East Meets West’. And so as you order your drinks you watch the white clad chefs juggle the pots and pans that will become Roasted Lamb Rump with pomegranate pearls and Wagyu Beef Burger with house pickle sauce or Korean Chicken Drumsticks with chilli, lime and peanuts.

And then there is the second pub, The Avondale Hotel. There are no glass windows here. The outside is a bottle shop but not one where you step inside to browse. The bottles of booze are displayed in a glass case set into the front wall of the pub and you ask for what you want through a barred window. Reminiscent of troubled outback towns rather than the main street of a lively Sydney suburb.

On the ground level is the front bar which I go into. The walk up and down the street has made me thirsty. There are three old fellows sitting on stools with a wall of screens above their heads. Every dog race in the country seems to be being broadcast loudly but despite this the men turn and look at me as I enter. Immediately one of them calls out, “Ladies are upstairs Love,” meaning the toilets I presume.

Obviously that’s the only reason a woman would ever step in here, the logic might run. And I’m not sure that they’d be wrong I think, as I climb the wildly out of place gold plated staircase, which conjures in my imagination the opulent casinos of Macau, not an old suburban pub in Australia. Or perhaps this is still a segregated pub, and it’s the Ladies Lounge they were directing me to. But at the top of the stairs is the VIP Lounge. I’m tempted to have a quick flutter. Luckily I also spot the door to the Ladies (toilet not Lounge) right next to the gambling den. I do need to go, so I silently thank the old blokes who are obviously mind readers.

When I come out I’m tempted by a long, open corridor; the covered balcony overlooking the railway line. This pub may have a narrow frontage but it hides architectural depth.  And then I realise that this pub has a Bistro too, with what look like generous serves of classic pub food.

It isn’t enough to walk around Burwood I’ll have to come back and eat here, over and over again. Perhaps I’ll need to move in for a few months to really experience it properly. Unfortunately this suburb has classy old bones, reflected in the property prices. People want to live here, either in brand new high rise apartments or in beautiful old Federation houses that sit elegantly on cultivated quarter acre blocks. But that’s the beauty of being a tourist in my own city: window shopping and crowd gazing are free; and I can come back as many times as I want.

When we walk around our cities we discover unknown terrain, and later when we relive the small delights of that new landscape in our  memories, although it remains communal civic space, it also becomes uniquely ours. In so doing  history is rendered to a human scale and the future becomes cause for hope.

 

 

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The Next Big Thing

“Bowl head! Bowl head!”

“Stupid wog! Look at her hair!”

I’d thought my 1920s Parisian style bop was quite sophisticated.

“Did your mother put a bowl over your head to cut your hair?” one of them snarled, as the rest of the group of Year 8 girls crowded around me.

“No,” I wanted to say. “My hairdresser recommended this as the perfect style cut for me.”

But I didn’t. Not just because I was petrified and knew that opening my mouth at this point could result in a black eye, which although it would match my hair, wouldn’t suit my face, but because it wasn’t true. My mother had cut my hair. But she hadn’t used a bowl.

So I just cowered quietly on the bench praying that they would get bored soon and notice one of their other victims; perhaps someone who’d stupidly thought they should actually wear the regulation school uniform. When they did finally leave I finished my salami sandwich before going to sit in the library for the rest of the lunch break. The library was a safe space that the bullies didn’t venture into, probably because they couldn’t read.

The next time my mother suggested a haircut I pleaded with her to take me to the hair dresser. Strangely she agreed and booked me into the salon that she went to. Maybe her scissors were blunt that day. Whatever the case, I was grateful.  I needed a new look. I scoured the pages of Vogue, Vanity Fair and Dolly and it quickly became obvious what the most sophisticated hairstyle of the moment was.

The royal wedding had only been a few months earlier. It was attended by three hundred and fifty guests and watched by about 750 million people on TV worldwide; evidence that the hairstyle worked. If I adopted it, not only might the bully girls show a little more respect but maybe one of the boys I had a crush on might even look my way.

When I arrived at school on Monday morning I proudly waited for everyone’s reaction. No one said anything until music class when one of the girls asked the teacher if we could listen to some Duran Duran.

“Of course not,” the teacher replied.

“Maybe Simon Le Bon can sing for us then?” she said as she pointed straight at me, while everyone else writhed around on their desks shrieking with laughter.

“Boy cut! Boy cut!”

“Stupid wog! Look at her hair!”

I’d thought my smooth short layers looked just like Lady Di’s.

“She looks like a boy! Her mother took her to the barber!”

It’s taken many years to get over this childhood trauma. I count myself lucky, so many other victims of bullying have not come out of it so well. But I still feel insecure at the hairdressers. I don’t trust myself to make a choice that won’t rip the scars off old wounds. And it’s as if the stylist with the shears in their hands senses my fear because no matter how firmly I request just a 2cm trim, they always try to convince me to try something new.

“Maybe a chin length, Parisian style bop?” they suggest.  “Very chic. Would really suit your features.”

And they’re fascinated by the giant white stripe on the side of my head that makes me look like a skunk and is no doubt the result of traumatised brain cells. I can never tell if they are trying not to laugh at the fact that I refuse to colour it or are wondering if its the next big thing.

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10 Things To Do In between Croissants

When I was at university I read Simone De Beauvoir’s memoirs and fell in love with the French Existentialists and their subversive lifestyle. It seemed they sat in Parisian cafes long into the night, drinking coffee and cocktails and talking about all the important things: love and sex, politics and philosophy. Not only did they address the perennial question: How to Live? but they also knew how to dress. Think black: turtleneck and trench coats, berets and boots. I immediately adopted this Rive Gauche uniform but succeeded in looking more like a member of an unsuccessful punk band rather than a member of the French Resistance.

So it was with great excitement, but also a little trepidation, that I picked up Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails in a bookstore recently. Would the adventures of Sartre and De Beauvoir and the other philosophers in their milieu leave me wondering if my life had been a complete waste with no meaning or purpose whatsoever to my existence?

Fortunately before I could succumb to my existentialist angst I got sidetracked by what the author was saying. “Existentialists think that what makes humans different from all other beings is the fact that we can choose what to do. In fact we must choose: the only thing we are not free to do is not be free…. I may be influenced by biology, culture, and personal background, but at each moment I am making myself up as I go along, depending on what I choose to do next. As Sartre put it: ‘There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path.’ ” 1

What a terrifying thought. But perhaps it was also hopeful. Even though I may not have done anything exciting or worthwhile with my life so far, I could always choose to do so in future. Even though I was currently sitting in a cafe eating a lovely chocolate croissant it didn’t mean that I’d have to do it tomorrow. I was free to choose what to do with my life. Tomorrow I could begin training for the half marathon instead.

As I read on I was pleased to see that the author agreed with me about the hope stuff. She questions what Existentialism might mean for us today in an age where we have become uncertain about freedom and bombarded by the idea that there are so many forces beyond our control in the world. She suggests that although we find this a disturbing idea it is also reassuring; letting us off the hook of personal responsibility. “Sartre would call that Bad Faith. …Moreover, recent research suggests that those who have been encouraged to think they are unfree are inclined to behave less ethically.” 2

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Oh. Maybe it wasn’t so hopeful. I ordered another croissant.

This philosophical stuff requires lots of energy as does living in a world where there is so much to do and yet where doing anything at all seems so hard. Had I forgotten how to live freely? Was I just an  amoral automaton? I needed to take responsibility, and perhaps order a cocktail.

I decided to make a list. You’ve got to start somewhere and anyone can make a list. I spent a little bit of time on the heading for my list, after all it’s the first thing that I will read each time I use my list.

How to beat the forces of evil currently ruling the world (or things to do in between croissants):

  • make a date to see a friend
  • have a screen free day
  • read another book;
  • go for a walk in the park.
  • become informed about an issue;
  • do your job with care;
  • smile at a stranger;
  • give money to someone that’s hungry;
  • sign a petition or send an email to an MP;
  • order another croissant

 

1  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/04/ten-reasons-to-be-an-existentialist

2 p319  At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails, Sarah Bakewell, Vintage 2016

Images: Punks, courtesy of ‘A History of Bad Girl Clothing’ blog; and book cover: At The Existentialist Café.

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Rage against the dying of the light

I hate Vivid.

Or I did. That’s because essentially I’m a snob. If a whole lot of people like something then you can be sure I won’t be caught dead anywhere near it. And that’s what I thought when I first heard about this over rated light show. A modern example of bread and circuses for the masses.  Little did I know that it had started in 2009 as a light festival show casing energy efficiency. I only knew that hundreds of thousands of people flocked into Sydney every June long weekend to stare at the liquid-like images projected onto the sails of the Opera House; or stood mesmerised as the walls of the MCA turned into bowls of coloured jelly.  And perhaps I hated Vivid because it had hijacked this long weekend that marks the beginning of winter – the least holiday like of seasons. A time to retreat and wait for the warmth to return.

But then I remembered that the Saturday night of the Queen’s Birthday long weekend was  traditionally Cracker Night. Walking home from school on the Friday you’d spot the various wood piles on street verges all ready to become bonfires. And in just about every garage was a stash of fireworks purchased from the local shop; Throwdowns, Bungers Roman Candles and Catherine Wheels all ready to turn the average back yard into a mini war zone. And on the Monday morning the inevitable news stories would appear reporting how many hands and fingers had been blown off over the weekend.

In our household it was also  the weekend closest to my father’s birthday which fell on the 13th of June.  That was a great excuse to gather family and friends around the back yard barbecue. I remember burying potatoes in the embers; to be cooked slowly and eaten late that night, long after the cake and fireworks had disappeared. But although the long weekend is still with us cracker night has long been abolished and the majority of children now retain all there fingers into adulthood.

As a child I wouldn’t have thought it possible to remove such an event from the calendar. It would have seemed like getting rid of Christmas. And equally as an adult I would not have thought it possible that I would come to love Vivid.  So what happened to change my mind?

Perhaps I’m no longer a snob.

But more likely it could be because of the huge amounts of time I now spend on public transport.  I refuse to look at my phone like everybody else and instead insist on looking around like a crazy person.  So the other night I was sitting on a train at about 10 pm just looking around. And I realised that everybody else was also looking around. In fact the train was really crowded and no one was looking at a screen.  I was in a carriage filled with happy parents and sleepy children. I went into a panic. Had my refusal to look at my phone meant that I’d missed a major event? I knew that Harry had recently been here but had the Queen actually made an appearance for her birthday weekend? What other reason could there possibly be for all these people to be out in this big, dangerous city on this cold, wet winter night? And that’s when I remembered Vivid.

So the next night I went into town to see for myself what was going on. I wandered with the masses, caught up in the incandescence that had transformed our little harbour city into a winter wonderland. There were ethereal columns and human crosswords, fluorescent sunflowers and giant luminous mailboxes; and an electric forest of Morton Bay Figs. And there were talks and walks, activities and artworks, and of course food everywhere. I even spotted teenagers looking calm and happy, talking quietly in groups or looking vaguely off into the distance. This was something I hadn’t seen since the year 2000 when Sydney became the Olympic city and I was convinced that the government had pumped happy gas through the city streets to keep us all calm. Were they at it again? Because what else could explain my enchantment. This sense of wonder and joy despite the pouring rain. This was magical. This was the perfect winter festival.

And suddenly I realised that Vivid had replaced the cultural tradition of Cracker Night. And I was transported back to the innocence of childhood. So despite my initial misgivings and the shallow satisfactions of paranoid conspiracy theories, I am now an avid Vivid fan. I’ve decided that an event that brings people together and dispels the temptation to hibernate is a good thing. Because as Dylan Thomas once wrote, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night…Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ Particularly if while raging you meet the light globe, goggle wearing animals that can now be found in our Botanic Gardens during the festival. How could you not love ‘Rowi’ the electric Kiwi and her chick?

First image: Vivid Sydney 2016, James Horan/Destination NSW via Wikimedia Commons

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Little Green Cannon Balls

I got a text from my niece recently asking me to help her with her homework: an assignment on migration. It reminded me that I’m a migrant. In fact this year is the 40th anniversary of my family’s arrival in Australia.  These were the questions she asked me to answer:

  • Who is the person that migrated to Australia and where did they migrate from?
  • When did they migrate to Australia and where in Australia did they settle?
  • What was life like for them in their new country?
  • Any other information?

So I told her that I’d arrived in Australia with my mum and dad and younger sister from South Africa in 1977. And that we’d sailed for 17 days from Cape Town to Sydney on the cruise liner S. S. Ellenis and eaten a lot of food from the buffet.  I said that because I already spoke English when I arrived, my life as a migrant has not been as hard for me as for others who didn’t speak English very well; such as my parents who’d originally moved to South Africa from Italy. But then I remembered that because I had a South African accent when I arrived I was teased by the boys in my third grade class. And that reminded me of high school, when because of my Italian background I got called a wog. But who wasn’t called something they didn’t like at school. My friend in Year 10 was called a ‘chook’ by our maths teacher. Good old Mr Cook meant it as a term of affection like ‘petal’ or ‘possum’ but as you can imagine the rest of the class didn’t get that.

But it was the last question that had me stumped. Any other information?  The rule in homework, and in exams, and in job interviews, is answer every question. Don’t leave anything blank. But I really couldn’t think of anything else. Until a few days ago.  And although it’s too late for my niece’s homework assignment here’s my answer:

My family came to Australia with everything we thought we would need for life in a new country. In the hold of the ship we had our car, our TV and a giant trunk filled with clothes, manchester and household appliances. But it wasn’t until almost 40 years later that I discovered what we’d left behind.

Gem squash. Not quite pumpkin, not quite zucchini.

I’ve lived in Australia for all this time without so much as seeing a single gem squash. And then the other day while in a fruit shop I spotted a pile of little green canon balls and knew them immediately. The last time I’d eaten these little vegetables I was seven years old.  I was so excited to see them again that I bought three of them which I immediately regretted because not only did they look like little cannon balls, they were each about as heavy as one.  But I managed to carry them home without herniating the discs in my spine.

I had no idea how to cook a gem squash. After all, as a seven year old I didn’t have to do my own cooking. They would arrive in front of me, stringy, soft and with lashings of butter, ready for me to dip my spoon and sink my teeth into. I rang my mother.  A waste of time; being a busy pensioner, with life membership of various community clubs, she wasn’t available for advice. So in the absence of an elder I searched the internet. I was in luck. A very handsome website advised me to ‘cut the squash in half and steam for five minutes’. I placed the squash on my chopping board and got out the heavy duty knife that I use on pumpkins but succeeded only in jamming the knife into the side of a very hard vegetable. After about fifteen minutes of grunting, groaning and smashing I almost took off my hand but the squash remained whole.  A few more swings of the chopping board and a swear word or two and I finally managed to ease the knife back out of the squash. I used my remaining fingers to google again, this time taking the advice to ‘puncture the squash several times with a fork and boil for five minutes.’  By this time I was beginning to wonder if re-enacting this childhood memory was worth the effort.  Perhaps these little vegetables, and not Apartheid, were the real reason we’d left South Africa.

After fifteen minutes of boiling and a few more pokes with the fork there was still no sign of softening. This was obviously going to take a little longer than I’d been led to believe. I would need to while away some time. I got a book and stood next to the stove so as not to forget about my boiling pot and burn the house down. I read several chapters about an English couple who bought an olive farm in Sicily.  The frustrations they faced paled into insignificance once they uncorked the first bottle of their very own olive oil. But it had taken a lot of effort to get there – they’d had to renovate the farm house, prune the olive trees, harvest the olives and transport them over the hills to the mill. It gave me hope.  My own culinary adventures were a little less difficult.

After 30 minutes I checked the squashes. There seemed to be some give. I took them out and placed them on the chopping board and tried again to cut them in half. This time the knife slid in and after a little hacking, and a bit of banging, the squash cleaved in two. But alas much of the inside remained rock hard. So back into the pot they went, and on with another few chapters of the book I went. I had just reached the beginning of their second olive harvest when the smell, no scent, emanating from the pot began to play tricks with my mind.  I was transported back to my three foot self standing next to my mother at the stove in our Johannesburg kitchen.

I dragged myself back to my life as a five foot two inch adult and lifted the half squash out of the water. It was soft.  I remembered to be patient and laid it upside down on a plate to drain. Then I placed it in a bowl, spread butter onto it and tasted. I had waited forty years to relive this experience. And for the last hour had begun to suspect it wouldn’t be worthwhile, but the nutty, stringy consistency was exactly what I remembered.  As a seven year old I could only have described them as ‘yum’; now I could only say ‘more’.

 

 

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The Courage To Eat Plums

Recently I discovered a secret source of wild berries. Or they discovered me. I was walking innocently along a footpath while on a lunch break when my shoes became stuck in a patch of violet slime. After using the edge of the gutter to scrape off as much as I could, I looked up into the high branches of the tree above me. It was laden with heavy purple fruit that looked like giant blueberries; in the same way that Diprotodons look like enormous pre-historic wombats.  The slime of course was the purple wombats turned to jam; squashed by the stomping feet of passers by. This of course appealed to my Italian wine making genes.

But although I love the tradition of homemade Italian wine I don’t like drinking it. I much prefer my wine to be made by modern viticulturists in high tech wineries with premium grapes. But I have  none of these qualms when it comes to blueberries. I love blueberries; no matter who has grown or harvested them they always taste like a tart little piece of blue heaven.  I love them in muffins, on yogurt but mainly just eaten by the punnet all by themselves. And just like a top quality wine they’re terribly expensive. So you can imagine how excited I felt to be looking into a tree full of them.

In the flash of a wonder woman twirl, albeit without the phone booth, I dropped my disguise as a city office worker and transformed into an urban food forager. Oblivious to the concerned glances of passers by, I swung my legs over the chain link fence that separated the footpath from the tiny bit of green that the tree stood on. On hands and knees I gathered several uncrushed specimens of these enormous blueberries, placing them carefully into my empty lunch box. I then took samples of the leaves from the tree; they too went into the lunch box.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t just gorge myself on all this free fruit there and then. Rule number one of foraging is don’t eat anything that you are not absolutely sure of. So although I had foraged before, it had always been in domestic environments that I could trust. Most recently lemons from a friend’s back yard tree, but also basil, figs and tomatoes from my mother’s garden (and cheese and prosciutto from her fridge). I realized that I’d never actually harvested a genuine wild source, admittedly in disguise as a street tree planted by the local council.  So I thought it best to listen to the over cautious part of my brain that doesn’t like to swallow anything that could kill me.

And so with all the enthusiasm of the amateur naturalist I spent hours trawling the internet in an attempt to identify my specimens. And that’s how I finally discovered that, although they weren’t actually giant blueberries (or purple wombats for that matter), they were indeed edible and in fact one of the more coveted native Australian bush foods, at least south of the border. Apparently they don’t think much of them up in Queensland. But let’s face it, with the impending Adani coal mine about to be constructed in that state, it seems Queenslanders don’t think much of the Great Barrier Reef either.

My research told me that I was in possession of a tasty crop of Illawarra plums or Podocarpus elatus, which is pretty much how I felt when I found that my foraging instincts had been spot on.

I also learnt that May or Autumn is the D’harawal season called Marrai-gang, a time when “the spotted tail or tiger quoll… can be heard growling and screeching in the night on the lookout for a mate. The lilli pilli is berrying and the magenta, crunchy, miniature-apple-like fruits are a favourite for birds, animals and members of the clan. … if you’re scraping hardened, purple bat and bird Lilli Pilli poo off your car, the Time of the Marrai-gang has well and truly settled in.”1

DSC_0345

I highly recommend this website. It was a fascinating read. So although my specimen wasn’t a scarlet Lilli Pilli berry it was exhibiting the same sticky characteristics and inspired me to continue my online research.

Then I struck gold, according to the Australian National University, the Illawarra Plum produces a fruit that “is rich in taste, with subtle pine and mild resinous flavours apparently enhanced with cooking.” Notwithstanding that the webpage had a warning that the site was no longer maintained by anybody at ANU, it went on to say that, “In NSW, Illawarra plums were regarded as one of the best wild foods by Aborigines and early settlers. They are …commonly served today as a sauce in wild food restaurants.”2

Well that was plenty of provenance for me.

Now some people see food foraging as a political activity; the gathering of free food available in urban environments as an act of rebellion against the industrial food system. For others it’s a spiritual fascination; the ability to connect with the natural world on a city street. But there is also the thrill of the treasure hunt; and for me the link to my peasant forbears who roamed the arid hills of Sicily foraging for wild greens. But by far the greatest incentive is budgetary. At upwards of $5.00 a punnet, berries are ridiculously expensive, so finding a free version, in abundance, is an occasion for celebration.

I had found them. But now they must be harvested. The big question was how.

Climbing the tree was a possibility.  I would need a longer lunch break, and a ladder. I’d also need the right clothing. A horticulturalist’s outfit – and by that I don’t mean a pretty floral dress. I would have to wear a long sleeved drill shirt and gardening pants with tool pockets, all in a lovely shade of camouflage, after all, I wanted to keep my city harvest a secret. Ironically I’d also have to wear a fluorescent tradies vest so that no questions would be asked about my right to climb the tree. My harvest after all was located in a high security, civic precinct. I wouldn’t want a security guard to mistake my purpose, which albeit not innocent, was far from evil. I’m simply an upstanding citizen who can’t stand seeing good food go to waste.

But that brought me to the second question. Would the fruit be worth all the effort it would take to harvest? Although I had gathered, photographed, and catalogued my wild find, I hadn’t actually tasted it. It would be a complete waste of an extended lunch break to die from mysterious food poisoning. The sensible thing to do would be to taste test the original sample. But unfortunately that overly cautious part of my brain simply put its foot down and refused to let me do that. It’s times like these that I regret not being a member of a powerful ancient royal household complete with my own personal food taster.

In the absence of that I decided to enroll my family and friends in the experiment. Surprisingly I faced a distinct lack of enthusiasm. It seems that the average suburbanite is afraid of putting anything into their mouths that hasn’t been bought at a supermarket.

And so once again the spirit of science is sacrificed by a lack of courage and I am doomed to watch a season of wild plums go to waste. And at the supermarket I’ll be forced to hand over a fistful of cash in exchange for a puny punnet of common variety farmed blueberries. But I will eat them with hope because I did extract the seeds from my samples and I buried them in a pot full of soil on my terrace. Perhaps by the time the seeds have grown into a tree there might be a new generation of braver souls ready to taste the purple wombats.

 

(1) http://sydney.edu.au/news/science/397.html?newsstoryid=15064

(2) http://fennerschool-associated.anu.edu.au/fpt/nwfp/iplum/Iplum.html#anchor281213

Images 1 and 3 in the public domain, courtesy of Peter Woodard and Euaion Painter. Image 2, authors own.

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The Ninety Percent Club

The other day I was speaking to a group of gynecologists from the USA. This is the kind of thing I get paid to do. They were a very political group, and as part of their conference program in Sydney, had requested a visit to the local legislature. That’s how I met them.

As we chatted about all things democracy, I realised they were still in shock from the result of their recent Presidential elections. So I mentioned compulsory voting. We have it. They don’t.

“Should you give it a go, considering that only 58% of the population turned out to vote in the 2016 elections?” I asked.  “In fact, is it true that more people turned out to march in protest at the result, than actually voted?” I added.

“I suppose 100% of people turn out to vote at your Federal elections?” one of them responded rather sarcastically.

“Not quite,” I replied. “It’s about 95%.”

That answer seemed like a portal opening suddenly onto an alternate universe. There was absolute silence, followed by murmurs, and then exclamations. This group of highly qualified medical professionals, mainly male, with an average age of 60, were flabbergasted by the success of an electoral law.

Only 22 countries across the world have compulsory voting. We may whinge and grumble about politicians and elections but deep down we’re proud of our electoral system. We want to participate. We want to do the right thing. We value our civic rights.  We’re a hopeful culture. That’s also, I believe, why we’re a very cynical culture; we’re often disappointed. But when our hearts and minds are engaged we’re capable of amazing things. We believe we can vote and eat our democracy sausage too.

This year is the 50th anniversary of one of those amazing things. In 1967,  90.77% of Australians voted YES to amend the Constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census, and allow the Commonwealth, rather than individual States, to make laws for them.  This is the highest ever YES vote recorded in a referendum. Considering only 8 of 44 referendums since 1901 have been carried this was an extraordinary achievement. Apart from Federation, it has been the most successful civil movement in Australian history.

And so as we commemorate this wonderful event 50 years on, it’s a good time to reflect on all of the work still to be done. How do we close the life expectancy gap so that Indigenous Australians’ no longer die 10 years before the rest of us? What form should Recognition of our First Peoples take in our Constitution? These are questions of the moment in our democracy.

It’s interesting to note the number of Australians that believe the 1967 referendum gave Aboriginal people the right to vote. That actually occurred in 1962 when the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended. But the belief persists. I think this is an example of how much we value this practical and powerful function of citizenship. For so many Australians the 27th of May 1967 represents the day that we put away our prejudices and extended citizenship (and therefore justice) to Indigenous Australians. And so began the healing process.

Citizenship has been a fraught process in all democracies. And the right to vote, to have a say, to be represented, has been the marker of equality in civilized societies. When a government makes it harder for someone to become a citizen; not harder to live here, work here, pay taxes here, but harder to have a say, particularly in how those taxes are spent, then we revert to a very old fashioned type of democracy. It’s what the Ancient Greeks did to women and slaves.  It’s what our government now wants to do to migrants. Not to “illegal migrants”, that convenient euphemism that has made asylum seekers the scapegoat of our most recent fears, but to migrants in general. They are the new evil.

If the recently announced government policy becomes law, migrants who become permanent residents will have to wait four years before they can apply for citizenship. They will have to demonstrate that they have integrated into Australian society. They will have to pass a stringent English language test.  I oppose these changes. And not just because I’m a migrant. But because it goes against the spirit of 1967 and the spirit in which we commemorate that event 50 years on.

This year is also a much less significant anniversary. It is 40 years since my family migrated to Australia. We sailed into Sydney Harbour on the S.S. Ellinis on the 8th of April 1977.  A few years later my parents, despite their limited English, were able to become citizens. And my, and my sister’s, names appear on my father’s citizenship certificate. We didn’t have to wait for years and years. We didn’t have to do a test. My parents had been accepted into the country as economic migrants.  The assumption was that they wanted to be here, wanted to work, wanted to pay taxes; wanted to participate in this community.  Perhaps good policy comes from a hopeful vision of the future not a pandering to bigotry. What kind of country will be created from a law that makes it harder for people like my family to become citizens? Migration is both the fundamental fabric and the great tragedy of our nation. It has always been contentious. Just ask the Gadigal people.

At the next Federal election we need to vote for those that represent hope, that have the capacity to lead, that help us heal the past; we cannot continue to elect those who fall into the easy habit of exploiting our fears about the future. I hope that ninety percent of us decide to do this at the next election.

 

Images; 1: courtesy of Wikicommons; 2: courtesy of State Library of NSW; 3: courtesy of ssmaritime.com; 4: courtesy of Cathy Gray

 

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A Sapphire Blue Sydney Sky

“We’re going to stick it where the sun don’t shine.”

That’s not actually what he said.

It’s just what I imagined he was thinking. I blame such crassness on several days of ‘low residue white food’ diet followed by 24 hours of fasting. Although it felt like the Ancient Egyptian process of preserving a dead person’s viscera in canopic jars for the after life, it was just the preparation instructions for a modern colonoscopy.

What the doctor said was, “Haven’t seen you for a while. Hope you’ve been well?”

I nodded.

It had been six years in fact. Same place. Same time. Same position.

“Anyone else in the family had bowel cancer recently?”

I must have looked stunned at his question as I shook my head.

“That is why you’re here. Family history,” he said defensively. Almost in reprimand.  Almost as if my family being alive and healthy was  clear evidence that I’d just wanted a day off work.

“Right. We’ll get started. I’ll speak to you on the other side.”

Had he noticed as he spoke to me that I was holding a pair of undies, complete with sanitary napkin? If he had, he’d probably put it down to the usual strange behaviour of patients.

A new nurse asked me to turn on my side. “No towards me, towards me.” I didn’t bother explaining that I’d been trying to stuff my undies under my pillow.  As she took my  blood pressure I thought of the other nurses. They’d been extremely jolly. Bantering above my head as they whizzed my trolley down the long white corridor to the theatre. One of them was the same nurse that had taken me to the cubicle.

“Take off all your clothes and put them in this plastic bag,” she’d instructed. “Put on this white gown, open at the back. Please hurry as Dr Williams is ready for you.”

I managed to take hold of the door as she pulled it shut.

“I’ve got my period, ” I whispered.

“Just take your undies off at the last minute,” she called out as she walked away.

A ward full of patients and medical staff stared at me. I wanted to crawl somewhere where the sun didn’t shine. It felt like the very first day that I’d got my period when I was thirteen. That had been a Sunday morning. I’d told my mother just before we left for lunch with the extended family at my Uncle’s house. She’d hugged me and given me one of her menstruation pads. When we arrived she’d called everyone into the kitchen.

“Today is a day for celebration! Daniela is a woman!” she’d announced.

I can still feel the heat of the blush that spread across my face all those years ago.

“That is wonderful news!” my Aunt had said as she gathered me in a huge embrace. There were wolf whistles and clapping from my cousins.  My uncle had opened a bottle of spumante and my father had made a toast. No one had thought it was strange. No one had   been embarrassed. It had been like an ancient ritual of rebirth.  And I had just wanted to die.

For someone on the lookout there are plenty of opportunities to think about death. And lying on a hospital gurney being administered oxygen in preparation for a sedative that will take you into the underworld of consciousness is certainly one of them. The last few weeks had been wet and windy. Glimpses of sunshine few. Conversation all about the weather. I’d begun to wonder if we were becoming London or Melbourne. I’d started to realize how much of my mood is affected by the light outside. And so as I slipped away I did wonder if I would ever see the sunshine again. I did pray that….

I have no way of knowing what actually happened next. It would be nice if they recorded the examination, burnt it onto a DVD and sent it home with us in a little show bag. After the procedure you do get a show bag of sorts. Or at least, its would-be contents are waiting on the tray, on the table next to your bed in the recovery room. There is an interim report with discharge instructions. And there is your first meal: a see through plastic pack containing a cheese sandwich on buttered white bread; a small plastic tub of green jelly; a styrofoam cup of tea with two sugars; and a Freddo Frog.

Just as I was about to tuck into this feast I remembered my undies. I felt about under my pillow and was delighted to find that they were still there. I pulled them out and wriggled around for a few minutes under the blankets struggling to get them back on. When finally I resurfaced I was ready to eat.

That was when I noticed Dr Williams standing by my bedside.

“Ah you’re back from the dreamless in between.”

That’s not actually what he said. Just what my still drugged brain heard.

“You’ll be happy to know everything is clear. No problems at all. In fact you’ve got the pinkest guts I’ve seen in a long time,” was actually what he said.  “We’ll see you in five years time. But don’t forget, no operating heavy machinery, no driving, and no signing legal documents for the next twenty four hours.”

Nothing about sharing the experience on my blog.

Before I had a chance to thank him he’d rushed off to his next patient, or a game of golf. I hadn’t been able to say all of the things you want to say to someone who has taken you from a state of fear and worry to a whole new lease of life. Instead I turned towards the windows to hide my tears. What I saw outside was a stunning sapphire blue Sydney sky. And the sun. It was shining.  Everywhere.

 

 

 

Images courtesy of  Wikicommons

Posted in My Mother and Me, The Sex Diaries, Time | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments