Sunday 18 September 2011

Pentecost Island Vanuatu

I am a lucky man. I am off to Vanuatu for the fourth time in twelve months to work with the local National Council of Chiefs (Malvatumari) on a community development capacity building project. My colleague, Paul Toon, and i will spend three days in Port Vila working with our twelve ni-Vanuatu colleagues to review and develop a five day Komuniti Aksen workshop to be delivered to a group of forty leaders on Pentecost Island.

Pentecost is the home of the original bungy jumpers. Young men dive from tall towers built from local materials and hurtle towards the earth attached by a length of vine tied to one leg. It is a fertility ritual and to be most effective the diver is required to graze the ground below with his head. Predictably this sometimes goes terribly wrong.

My wife will be joining me at the end of our 12 day program for a week of well deserved R&R.
We will rendevous in Port Vila andl then spend eight days exploring the island in an anti-clockwise direction ( I'm not superstitious!). We'll have four nghts in P. Vila, then three in a village bungalow on the beach in the north, and a final night at a resort within striking distance of the airport. Andrea wants to relax, snorkle and be pampered. I hope we get at least two out of the three in spades.

Thursday 15 September 2011

Pen Pals - Byron Bay

It’s kind of old fashioned isn’t it, to write to someone you’ve never met. A pen-pal, in this era, just doesn’t quite fit. I was reminded of that this weekend just gone, when I encountered a woman standing on a platform overlooking the beautiful beach at Byron Bay (where Andrea and I had gone camping for three nights).

I walked past her as I was heading for a swim and, out of the blue, she announced out loud, to no one in particular (though i was the only person within earshot) how wonderful it was to be standing there and being in Byron Bay. I hesitated and we got to talking. She was in her seventies and had always wanted to visit Byron and wander the streets with the hippies – it was once the home of the flower people, though it’s now more likely to be over-run by backpackers and boozing young people whose parents may have been into peace, and mind-bending drugs in a former life (now most likely high flying solicitors or stock brokers). This is the area where the Australian version of Woodstock (the Aquarius Festival) took place in 1973. The hinterland is still full of alternative life-stylers living life in rainforest retreats and surviving on love and organic vegetables.

I suggested that, perhaps she had once been one, and she quickly assured me that no, that was never the case. She was from Western Australia, five days drive away on the West coast of Australia. She was having her exotic late life adventure.

I asked her what her plans were and it turned out she was doing a trip down the East coast with her husband and, I assumed, towing a caravan. But no, she was visiting her ‘pen-pals’.

She had already dropped in on one in Hervey Bay (about five hours drive North) and stayed there a few days and was now visiting another in nearby Ballina. She had her next lined up somewhere near Newcastle, another five hours drive South. These were people, she told me, she had been corresponding with for over twenty five years but had never met.

She was absolutely confident that her friendship with these strangers was genuine and felt no hesitation in assuming that she would be a welcome visitor for a decent stay in each place. She certainly hadn’t come all this way to drop in for a cup of tea and a biscuit.

It reminded me that facebook and internet friendships were preceded by other forms of international and distant connections with unseen strangers – people who craved links to other cultures and who became friends by dint of written correspondence.

Monday 5 September 2011

Driving 1953

Parking was never dad's strong point.
he saw cars as toys
rides to enjoy
a dodgem car bust up derby
a metal missile pointing us
home from a newly visited destination
or creeping along darkened streets
after emptying a keg of beer
at a birthday party
guided by gutters on either side
each bump left or right
a reminder to an inebriated brain
to make a correction
while we clung
white knuckled to the upholstery
screaming advice and
crying out in terror

More Magpie Tales click here or on the stamp

Hellenic House

I'm part of a group who are developing a series of history walks around my home suburb, West End. Last week a group of us did a dummy run of our next proposed route. As we rounded the final corner Tim (ex Lord Mayor) pointed out a set of soaring Greek columns set high above the footpath. A bit like the Parthenon in Athens (if you have a good imagination and have never seen the real thing). Strange, I thought, I've never noticed that before. 'That's Hellenic House' says Tim. 'I think it's the original Greek Club - before they built the grand one in Edmondstone Street.' I paused and noticed a sign with a list of traditional Greek meals - chicken souvlaki, haloumi, Greek salad and the obligitory Greek coffee. And another handwritten sign declaring Hellenic House OPEN. 'Do they do meals?' I asked Tim, ignoring the information before me. 'Yep' says Tim. 'Pretty simple but good.' Hmmmm, I thought, must give it a go some time.

A week later and it's father's day. My kids are taking me to dinner. My choice. So I've rung Hellenic House (they're not listed in the phone book) and made a booking for a table for four. The sun has set as we park opposite the Parthenon and my son says 'Looks like that place in Athens'. 'The Parthenon.' I add by way of helping him. My daughter says 'What?' 'The Parthenon,. You know, in Athens' he repeats. Nick has a good memory. He had seen it as his bus sped past in 2006 carrying a load of young inebriated Australian on a whirlwind tour of 11 European countries in 15 days.

Hellenic House is lit up like a christmas tree. We climb the concrete steps cut into the rock, alongside the overgrown embankment (just like Athens). There's not a lot of noise inside. I'm expecting it to be packed with Greek dancers circling and bobbing with traditional scarves in their hands while old men play backgammon on the terrace drinking strong black coffee.

We enter the foyer, past a wall decorated with a handful of old notices. There's the list of the committee from 2001 and a faded review from about the same year. Andrea has slowed to a stop and, as I catch up, I see what she sees. An empty hall with a kitchen two thirds way down on the left and an array of bare tables scattered between us and a besser brick wall at the other end. I notice an elderly Greek man with white hair sitting at a side table alone. I enter the space and smile at him and sort of nod. He looks up but shows no interest.

A petite Asian girl appears from nowhere and asks if she can help. Like, 'are you sure you're in the right place?' We inform her, rather unnecessarily, that we have a booking. She smiles and indicates for us to follow her, leading us to a side table close to the open portico (is that a Greek word?) which is set for four. We have been expected. We sit. She leaves and returns to the open kitchen.

I am a little embarrassed as I have talked this place up and now I offer my family the option to leave given that I am fearing that the young Asian girl might also be the cook and, well, there is a certain lack of ambiance despite the Greek music emerging from a very old sound system sitting fully exposed adjacent the entrance.

West End has at least ten Greek cafes, restaurants and clubs and most of them are packed most nights. We've driven past two on the way here and they are bulging with customers. I fear there is something they know that I don't. I've lived in the area for over thirty years and I've never heard of this place. Perhaps there's a reason.

Our Asian waitress returns with some wine glasses and four menus. We glance at them. They are short but have the basic traditional food minus the pasta and the lambs shanks and the stuffed capsicum. It's all food which can be cooked at short notice - souvlaki, grilled octopus , calamari, haloumi cheese and a few things I don't recognise. We decide to stay. The wine has been poured, the initial shock wears off and we proceed with fingers crossed.

Miss Asia has disappeared so I wander inside to order our selection and as I cross the floor I notice a second Greek man sitting outside on the right hand side of the main space drinking a coffee. That makes two Greek men. I join Miss Asia at the counter and give her my list, which she writes down and then asks me to pay on the spot. It's not much of an expert when it comes to restaurants but I'm used to paying as I leave and, as I'm a little bit suss of the likely quality of the food, I'm a little bit taken aback. But being a serious wuss I hand over my $48.00 without complaint. As I do I calculate in my head that we've ordered seven dishes and a soft drink for less than $50.00 so it's hardly a fortune.

Back at the table we chat. Miss Asia brings us the large Greek salad and we are surprised to find it, not only fresh, but very good. Lots of olive oil, good quality olives and fetta cheese, red onions and three large pickled green chillis. I compliment our hostess and ask slyly if she is also doing the cooking. She smiles sweetly and takes me for an idiot. 'Oh no, my boss do that'.

We're beginning to relax and enjoy our own company (we don't have many options). The next plate arrives, then the next in quick succession and each is beautiful. The grilled haloumi and grilled calamari are exquisite. We are all falling in love with the empty Parthenon and wondering why only we are enjoying this experience. I'm feeling priviliged.

As we near the end of our meal Miss Asia returns and, it not being a busy night, we engage her in conversation. 'Are you a student? How long have you been in Australia? Where do you come from? Do you miss home? Is it father's day in Korea? She is happy to chat and her English is remarkably good. In fact she is very appreciative of our interest. 'Most people doan wan to tok' she says. 'Only wan to be serve meal.' She's a real sweetie. She fesses up to being a little lonely living alone so far from home but being far from home is why she came here so...
Andrea is moved and wants to take her home.

We arrived at 7pm and it's now 8pm. We've spent an hour as a family on this little Greek island, far less crowded than the madness of Athens or Corfu (though I've never been there), and only having had to climb a few steps to enter this remnant of the Acropolis. It's been a pleasant surprise as is much of my emerging knowledge of my local community which the history project is revealing to me.

Have the Greeks really been in West End since 300BC? Some claim thay have.

I visited Greece once. It was June 1977. Andrea and I arrived there from Istanbul after 6 months crossing Asia beginning in Indonesia and touching down in every country on the way (including Afghanistan and Iran). It was high season and the only accommodation we could get was on the rooftop of a rundown backpackers joint open to the weather (we were young. And poor). It had a view of the Acropolis but we never made it there. Andrea turned yellow and was diagnosed with Hepatitis and the local Greek doctor advised us to flee the country. It was a notifiable disease requiring mandatory hospitalisation. He told us "Leave now or face a worse fate. The local hospital does not have a high standard of medical practice and it's highly likely you will not get out alive." We caught a flight to London the next day.

Sunday 4 September 2011


I have always been embarrassed by my back. From the front I am normal ( I am making some assumptions there but I can probably get away with that claim). Behind me lurks my secret shame. My scoliosis. It's not major. Nor is it minor. If I was a woman I'd be horrified but as a bloke I can get away with clothes that don't accentuate this deformity. I could never carry off a slinky silk number with form hugging low cut back. I've worn some weird stuff in my years but that I haven't tried. Maybe my back has protected me from some terrible decisions. I should be thankful.

So there I am in the fourth row of the audience waiting for the lights to dim on a dance piece celebrating one of my favourite choreographers of all time, the late Pina Bausch. Pina was famous for her non mainstream approach to dance using voice and ritual and gesture to evoke essences that catch you off guard. I only saw one piece in 1981 and I can still conjure up that experience - a dancer standing facing the audience cutting up an onion on a china plate held close to his eyes, a strange parade of dancers weaving in and around the audience doing repetive hand gestures drawn from everyday life.. That piece ("1980") as it turned out was quite lyrical.

Last night's piece "Out of Context - Pina" was about the boundary between the animal kingdom and we humans and at a fundamental level about opposites = Beauty and Ugliness. The performer's movements were not graceful. Their bodies jerked and convulsed and tic'd and took on groteque forms. At the same time their animal/human instinct to connect, to mate, to bond played out. It was both beautiful and harrowing.

And then, without any pause in the performance, a young woman rose from the audience and slowly, painfully, with the help of a pair of sticks, made her way to the stage. On the way she was offered a chair and carried it to centre stage. Dressed in a dark blue silk dress she sat and arranged her slim body in readiness. I knew what was coming but I was still not prepared for it. I was already silently sobbing.

She began to move her arms, tracing curves and angles through the space around her. She very deliberately crossed one knee over the other with the help of her mobile hands. She uncrossed them and, tilting her head to one side, allowing her long dark hair to fall towards the floor, she traced a final movement with her upper body.

Once an outstanding dancer who had worked with Australian choreographer Meryl Tankard, who herself had been in that 1981 Pina Bausch show I had seen in Melbourne, this young woman has Multiple Sclerosis. She has not danced since her diagnosis. It made the dancers, working so hard to achieve distorted forms, seem both technically amazing and at the same time irrelevant.

How she could sit in the audience and see her pain portrayed on stage I can't start to comprehend. The joy she showed helped me comprehend that there is a power in us that allows us to meet the most challenging events in life with dignity and a positive spirit if we can tap that aspect of ourselves.

For my part, as I get older my vanity has fallen away a bit. Though I still don't like department store change rooms or getting undressed in front of strangers (the first time). Funny I still love swimming at the beach in my budgie smugglers, so my ego must be pretty healthy.

Friday 2 September 2011

Marina returns

The name Marina Battistuzzi might not mean much to you. In my mind she is one of the marvellous examples of how small is our world; and the positive side of technology. Technology, a double edged sword, has changed the world dramatically but some things, the fundamentals remain the same

I recently read a review of a book (Shakespeare's Blackberry) which examines the impact of our addiction to technology. The author argues that we need to learn how to step away from this addiction and find space in our lives for doing less, perhaps even doing nothing. He says that the sign of real wealth in our modern society may lie in being part of the group who can afford to turn off. People who can live independent of technology. In some cases this might be because being independently wealthy reduces the need to engage in employment and its associated technological demands. Or it could be that those who choose to live simply, self sufficiently, relying on face to face communication and resisting the need to have 200+ "on line friends" are rich in ways only wealthy people can imagine.

What's this got to do with Marina? Well she is a young woman who I met in person once and to whom I sent a single postcard. That's two contacts over a period of 23 years and yet, she holds a special significance in my life.

I've written about her previously and won't repeat the story. In summary she was a 25 year old who assisted my wife and I to look for my Italian ancestors when we visited her town. We had the good fortune to find Marina at the local Orsago Municipio (Town Hall). She shut up shop for the afternoon and drove us from village to village knocking on the doors of Catholic Parish churches and practicing her English on us.

By a serendipitous event (involving a middle distance relative) I had recently acquired her email address (something which she didn't have in 1988). So I sent her an email asking her how her life had unfolded. Now three months later she has replied.

She is now forty eight. She says her English is poor but it's a lot better than my Italian. She says:

"Dear Steve

.. my God .. I remember and I will amaze you. I conserve your post card with your address. There isn’t the date, but the memories does not to delete."

I love that Marina speaks about not deleting my postcard from her memory. I value being in her memory much more than being in some data bank.

"I work in the same office and in the same writing-desk and I like a lot my work. I had a good life, not many money but I had a good health."

I have moved jobs four or five times since 1988, and, while I've enjoyed every move, there is some comfort in the thought that one can be happy without constant change. Marina is not sedintary as she goes on to talk about travel and driving tours of Europe seeking out "the beautiful things make by nature and by the man"

She goes on:

"Orsago, my lovely little country, is the same.

Now the population are about 4000 persons.

In Orsago there is 10% of foreign people, above all from Albania, Macedonia, ex-Jugoslavia, Romania, Marocco, Egitto, Ucraina, Moldavia, Nigeria, Senegal, …

They are not very accepted.

Italian People don’t remember that many years ago, from Italy, from Veneto, from Orsago also many family go away to look for work.

They went in Australia before, after in Brasile and Argentina in the end of 1800, more recently (in the 1950-1960) in Canada, Svizzera, Belgio, Francia, …

Italian People don’t understand the we are the citizen of the world, non only citizen of our house."

A comment is hardly necessary. My great grandfather was a refugee escaping poverty in northern Italy for a better life in Australia. We humans seem to go around in ever decreasing circles generation after generation driven by fear of those different from us. Ironic given that many of us live in immigrant and colonial countries.

"So our meeting with mail and internet after 23 years had provoke in me emotions, surprise, delight, astonishment, and I don’t know, I understand that even we are distant thousands of kilometers Orsago and Australia are near"

How neat is that?