As the plane dipped over London, the naked branches of trees snatched toward the sky. Dull and bleak it was too. Earlier that morning we excitedly breathed our first dose of sub-zero temperatures. A lady who left Europe seven years ago took her turn in the gangway but only to scuttle back inside. She said she didn't need that kind of reminder of the climates of her youth. Frankfurt. 7.00 am.
It's hard to describe the feelings of an Australian returning to the shores of Mother Britain. We look on it as `returning' although we may have never been there before. Not only did it plant us in the Antipodes, it ruled us. It is the home of our heritage for many of us, and although Heathrow's long baggage conveyor belts are a new sight, there is no trepidation, for we feel we almost belong there. A mother rarely rejects her offspring.
Phil cajoled that it was good timing on my part, for England was declining rapidly as a productive community. So often industry was crippled, and none of its recent governments had had the guts or the money to arrest the downsliding living standards. We journeyed down the motorway towards and through suburban London and I noticed it was two in the afternoon and the sun was barely above the horizon.
We were staying in Essex, just beyond the sprawling reach of this ancient metropolis. Huddled in front of the fire, warmed further by drink and memories of sunny Oz, we took England slowly, confidently, and nearly always graciously it welcomed us.
There was some sign of puzzlement when the kitchen staff at Barclays Bank in Piccadilly discovered that I had managed to score a job after just four days in the country. They knew people who had been queuing up for employment for weeks, sometimes months. The priorities of the welfare state don't always reward the deserving. After nine days I left. Spain was offering and Phil and company were driving down so I could get a ride back.
I was told on the bus to Barcelona that I had a good accent for the Spanish tongue, which didn't surprise me because I have their blood in me too somewhere. Border crossing in the Pyrennees was a delight as the homecomers clapped, cheered, and celebrated their re-entry into the now Franco-less Spain. The grand old fascist had passed away a few weeks before and not too many seemed to bemoan the fact.
Evening times in Spain are times
of life, and though the rain poured down at 7.00 pm in Barcelona, the city
thrived with action. English however was not easy to come by. It was then
I realised the value of Charles Berlitz's academy. I settled on the pavement
for a quick half hour introductory lesson to the lingo, found a hotel,
and realised next morning that my introductory lesson wasn't as successful
as I had thought. I slept way past the departure time for the connecting
bus to Alicante, but the desk clerk had had no idea of what I'd said -
that morning or the night before!
We were all far away from home, though for some (like Will) home had become increasingly meaningless as time between it and them grew. As we began the short trek by road to Ashqelon beach I became strangely aware of my own home. Memories of warmth and fondness ebbed across time and space to me in this foreign land, and I was taken at once by their immediacy. My dreams of home and enjoyment of the present intermingled effortlessly as I squatted in the back of the ute. Like departing the end of an endless tunnel, the Mediterranean view unfolded behind us. And there, lining each side of this revelatory tunnel, was the reason for it all: eucalyptus trees.
Bazz stumbled against the kitchen cupboard and brought a lamp crashing down. It was one of those occasions when you try and put into practice many of the things you've believed and stood by for many years. After all it's only a minor irritation and Bazz was blind drunk (and probably with good reason). So what if you had liked the lamp and had recently come to enjoy its soft light? Surely it's more important to extend patience and understanding to one who is obviously in need of it?
Outside it was raining after an abnormally warm late winter's night, and I had forgotten it was Saturday night - until after Bazz and Mike had left. Bazz was only celebrating in the usual fashion. Despite the rain it was not the least bit cold, and periodically people passed by my window on their home from this festive night's revelries unhurried by the heavy shower. One could actually have sweated with limited effort today, unusual for late August, and people in the southern half of the land of Oz are relieved that their poor excuse for a winter is passing on to northern latitudes.
Even as I write the rain gets
heavier, and together with car tyres swishing along the bitumen they form
an aural backdrop that is as comfortable as it is relentless. One can enjoy
one's shelter tonight: solid brick structures both warm and substantial,
while people in Sao Paulo, Bangkok, Calcutta and endless other cities live
life entirely at the elemental level, for they have no shelters. I shall
enjoy mine now - abed.
Tall, female; long, dark hair; travelling alone. Has spent the four hours of this journey so far almost completely still, save for some bouts of knitting, and when she does she looks a good deal more cheerier and more at ease to examine those about her. She could be bored, but I think more likely in thought. She has not yet cast her eyes over printed matter or done any of the things one normally does on such a journey. A mystery, definitely.
Dutch, though looks to have some Asian ancestry, possibly going back to Dutch rule in South East Asia. She is constantly involved in conversation with a companion who is lying down opposite her. She seems almost jolly, and is furtively aware of being watched. She knits constantly also, has baggy navy blue slacks topped by a loose fitting dark green sweater draped over a large bust. She is no beauty but her face looks warm.
Is seated alongside me. Has been reading a German novel, and has not uttered one word. Could be an academic, or a man of some professional stature, but his drab, unspectacular appearance, and his presence here in this second class cabin travelling incognito belies a trace of eccentricity, or it could be of course, just a contented acceptance of travel at its simplest and cheapest. Looks interesting.
Passengers four to eternity go forward into future life untrapped by my over-critical mediocre pen. The ferry ride over, peace and quiet moved in. Amsterdam, for the second time in as many visits, delivered unexpected warmth within minutes of arrival. Beautiful woman shows me the way out of Central Station, and I find Jos at home to answer my call. A quick walk through spitting rain to `Utkomst', the home of one recently split from his love and in need of friends. And I too in need of company to thwart a threateningly lonely Christmas. As it was, it came and went. Watched the Pope deliver what I suppose were messages of goodwill (my non-comprehension of Italian barring me from finding out exactly). Walked the city streets; it felt like any Sunday and save for the statutory tinsel-like decorations of the streets, looked like any Sunday. Maybe only those out walking came to discover something they could not find at home. I reminisced of just one year ago - on Scotland Island with Donna, Narelle, Julian, Ebony, Sean and Co drinking and stoning our way through a tropically warm Yuletide afternoon, to be broken up that night by one of the most amazing lightning displays I've ever witnessed, viewed from the balcony of a mini-palace on Bilgola Plateau. Home of the King of Sweets. An all denominational church lit up like an electric vision as the sky split and lightning bolted. No rain; just electricity for Christmas, and a few small joints to aid the enjoyment of such an awesome spectacle. Which brings me back to 1978. A steady stream of placid gentle people bring Christmas greetings without ever mentioning the word.
It's a strange race I belong to. We go along en masse to sit in the dark and watch the screen in front of us tell a story about how we are all kindly and tolerant of creatures different to us, while so many of us won't look a stranger in the face, while people rot in prisons, while we vote for our own greed at the expense of the poor.
Yesterday I read that Werner Herzog believes that the truth of life is more likely to be found in the jungles of Peru than in the Western world. I read that and then went back to school as a teacher for the first time in two years, back to a bastion of middle class conservatism; for which lately I have a growing contempt. The silent mediocrity: fodder for television sop and uninspired achievement. Materialism their boon, preoccupation, solace, the force that brings them closer together. Dedicated followers of fashion, they tell me I should not be 'carrying on' on a monkey bar at my age. I'm still being told to act my age and grow old like everyone else. I'm gonna fight it.
(I left this scrawl on the
kitchen table and when I came home Jimi had added: "Accept and learn to
understand it.") !
I arrived in Colombo early in January, 1980. I was to meet a friend flying in from London some few hours later but as is often the case with international flights her flight was delayed twelve hours.
After baggage collection (I refused offers of assistance from a squad of scrawny barefoot porters dressed in blue rags) and customs clearance I made my way into the arrival hall. I was soon asked by a neatly dressed chap if I needed any help and I told him of my plans to meet this friend from London. He did not recommend sleeping the night at the airport, but rather suggested that I find a hotel in Colombo for the night, and arranged a taxi for me accordingly.
He did for me nothing that international airport information officers are not required to do - he was doing his job. However there are a few things about my brief encounter with that man (my first with a Sri Lankan)) that make it a pleasant memory. Firstly, it is customary for those seeking information to approach them at their counter. He in fact left his counter and approached me. Secondly, there was a genuine warmth that was not just ‘bung on’ for the job - this being all the more a refreshing surprise when I learned he was the Chief Information Officer!.
We departed the airport by taxi for the long drive into Colombo. Though it was after midnight I remember the road being alive with activity. Ox cart drivers taking advantage of the cool of the night without too much competition from the daytime’s manic drivers. Pedestrians ambling along in conversation, some alone, seemingly headed nowhere in particular. Cyclists. And every mile at least one ‘boutique’ or hotel (what we know as cafes or restaurants) still quite alive and thriving on late night clientele.
And there were the shrines. This area, northward up the coast from Colombo, is heavily Christian, but signs of Buddhism were very evident - as they are throughout most of the country. Roadside Buddhist shrines, temples with larger than life images of the Enlightened One, and lit- up five metre high statues of the Virgin Mary all blended into the scenery as we came closer to Colombo.
Colombo itself came as a shock. I had read much of this country before coming here and was impressed by its standards of education, literacy, hygiene, and housing, all of which by Asian standards back then rated highly. I reasonably expected that Colombo, the capital, may show signs of Sri Lanka’s achievements in these areas and that it may be free of the blights of other Asian cities.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. To put it bluntly, Colombo is a shithole. I thought so that first night when I was genuinely surprised by what I saw, and I still do. I have since of course discovered some quite pleasant areas of Colombo, but they are few. I have also since discovered that despite its capital, Sri Lanka is better off than most of its Asian counterparts but one must look for evidence of that fact outside of Colombo.
My taxi driver took me in turn to the few cheap priced hotels we had been told to try - all full. We tried some in the medium price range - full. I refused to stay in the likes of the Intercontinental, but just about everything else seemed full. I still can’t believe to this day the solution my driver came up with. He said that as he was going back to the airport anyway, and as the next plane was not due until 6.00 am I could sleep in his car until then. After establishing that he was in fact quite serious, I thanked him profusely, accepted his offer, and we set off back to the airport. Not only did his car have lay back seats, neither did he charge me for the return leg back to the airport. So apart from interruptions from an occasional mosquito, I got a few hours sound sleep in my first night in this charming land.
Green grey. Palms and sky. Cadjan leaf houses; coconuts, source of so much essential for survival. Diving. Spearfishing. Fishing. For ideas and food. Nothing comes through clearly. Blue boat. And yes, are we the start of something we can't stop or control? Process. Water on the rocks. West meets East again and changes its personality forever. But the East seems to beg for it. They strive for what we have and we want what they have. The life of a fisherman: plasma of the village, sending life a mile inshore and further. Offshore, the rocks stand looking like eternity, but the sea cuts short their dream. The rocks sit and are transformed. It's way beyond their destiny to control. Change with the tide and it won't change you. And watch it carefully or it will gouge your flesh. Dreams of horror. Stark clash with the serenity of the daytime. Eden's rest will be Eden's test. Can he keep his distance? `Local entrepreneur', cigar in teeth, friend of Members of Parliament. And it shows.
If I were a prospective resident of Amsterdam, if I had the choice to live here, why would I stay? Would you consider living in Amsterdam? And those who do already: why are you here? Would you go on living happily here five years from now?
Two weeks here, and several have told me it's fucked, alive, exciting, heavy, over-policed, under-policed. And so on. A cool town I think. Though superficially. It's heavy citizens have a penetrable veneer. It has tradition too. Rather than see its history as part of international mercantilism for hundreds of years, a shoestring traveller is more tuned to its more recent tradition as youth capital of the world.
Youth Capital of the World? Because there are more younger people here than other cities? Because it furthers the aspirations and lifestyles of the young more so than other cities? Because dope's as good as legal? All of these things I suspect. But I can't help thinking there's a sense of decay in this city. Gangs of youths roam the street mustering negative energy; their appearance alone terrifies straight members of Amsterdam's sizeable bourgeoisie. And sometimes they act too. Violently. One is tempted to concede, "and why not?" Isn't it hard to think positive when you live per the grace of those more fortunate who have homes, jobs, and a future?
No future. The phrase is heard often here. So why consider living here in five years time? If there are so many who have no future, those who have `a future' will get theirs at a price. Their comfort will not rest easy. Increasingly they will be subjected to things that threaten the stability of their status quo: anarchic teenagers; intelligent dropouts; intelligent anarchists. Yeh, those with no future.
War - it's coming says Amsterdam. Says Holland. Says Europe? The Dutch have a reputation for tolerance and it seems to be in evidence here. But how long will it last? Five years? Can it survive the increasing spectre of war and a whole host of domestic disquiet? It's hard to answer yes. Another microcosm of futility? Another window into the decline of the Western world?
Amsterdam is a relatively free city. It plays host to a multitude of types, races, and lifestyles. All are at liberty to give vent to public affirmations of who they are and what they stand for. Authority is being challenged though, because it limits that liberty for selected classes - of course the dispossessed; the rebellious; and there's the tightrope the middle class must negotiate these coming five years.
For those who are foreign, will Amsterdam be able to support us? Those who breeze in to cash in on the groundwork of the enterprising Dutch and foreign activists who came before us? I think so. Tourism is ingrained here. It's still a tourist beacon for young and old. The well-being, or at least the jobs, of too many depend on it. The tourism superstructure is large, efficient, and for the most part, friendly. And it still is a friendly city for those who come from outside, in part because we come with positive expectations of a good time and good sights. We get the courtesy of cooperative people who at least go through the motions of being glad that we're here. And it may be genuine. I think in most cases it is. So it's therefore important that we appreciate that our time will be, on average, more enjoyable than a day in the life of an Amsterdammer.
"I'll just lay here and decay here." Are there many people who are thinking like that here? Yes. Walking tombs. People who renounce city life though they have no means to escape it. They are determined too to make the most of what lies within their reach. Light and dark. Hopelessness and optimism. Despair and elation, and all points of the pendulum in between. Worn out socks. Pink hair. Dam Square. Dam Square. The heart of Amsterdam for the foreigner. And home for the pigeons, the ice cream vendors, camera snappers, and for those who come to bathe in the glory of past massive youthful demonstrations of solidarity. It's almost as if the monolithic tower in the middle of the square rises as a monument to the alternative lifestyle, for this square was once its European focus. And a fitting scenario of contrast to the grand structure of Hotel Krasnopolsky just adjacent. Perhaps the amount of litter thoughtlessly left behind by the bohemian pilgrims of the 1980's is a good indication of the decay of idealism, and the wavering of their alleged goal of changing the world.
Still, the monied float eagerly
up the green canals in the swank Rondvaart cruiseboats, only to be spat
upon by an angry denim clad waif spawned by Amsterdam affluence. Still
the cafes cater to their specific devotees of whatever ideology or mood
they choose to symbolise: affluence, jazz, punk, folk, laissez-faire morality,
and so on. It's still a town of anything goes. It may yet be five years
from now, but more for the decadent than it is today.
We walked along the banks of the Goddess Nile in the area of Zamelek, home of some of Cairo’s wealthier folk, and came across an old man whose bearing suited the relatively affluent surroundings. He pointed at a strange structure moored at the water’s edge - something that may have once floated up and down the Nile. A big rectangular building like a two storey temporary home with its top floor left unfinished. This top floor had no walls; just wooden upright beams that may have once supported walls. But now the only walls upstairs were the makeshift planks banged together to serve as the old man’s home. He pointed to three heavy dinghies beside the floating building and indicated that they were his. Did we want a ride? After some bargaining through language barriers, we agreed on one Egyptian pound for one hour. He made his way down to the bank over rock and rubbish and for some unobvious reason motioned to us to get on the boat some fifty metres from where it was moored. He used the now familiar Middle Eastern gesture of thumb and index finger held together to tell us to wait until he’d moved the boat. He did and we too then descended the rocks and rubbish and when I asked if he was coming on the ride he just chuckled and pushed us off into the muddy river and climbed aboard.
After ten minutes or so of rowing it was obvious it was a strain for him and he didn’t hesitate to let us row when we offered our younger limbs. It was slow going against the strong flowing current but we made our way some few hundred metres up river until we drew opposite a boat which he informed us was a casino. We declined his offer to attend, stopped rowing, and the current carried us swiftly back to his home. The whole exercise had lasted about fifty minutes and when we proffered the agreed upon pound anyway he chuckled again, muttered something about baksheesh, and we left him in his heavy glassed spectacles to secure the boat, roll down his pants and robe, and I guess resume the role of stately old Arab passing his time on the Nile’s banks in Zamelek.
A restaurant we’d spotted from the river looked inviting but on closer inspection we saw that it was for a class not our own so we used it only as a pathway back to the road which led to the Cairo tower. Horse drawn cabs waited there and when we admired one of the horses its owner offered to make the beast work for us and take us for a ride to an address of an Arab horse stud - for free! Not quite what believing what he said, he asked us to wait in a nearby garden, followed us there and then began to show the real reason for his generosity. An opportunity to touch or be close to Hiske was what he was seeking, though he may also have been moved by feelings of kindness. We never found out. The guy turned me off and we left to ride the elevator up Cairo Tower where the first sight of the pyramids awaited us.
"The greatest Australian novel this year." I'd like to write the best Australian novel one year. To spend great parts of my life in a stuffy, cosy attic overlooking the sea, smoking amid copious cups of coffee - inspiration providing pearls of verbal wisdom.
Perhaps I can start today. It's Sunday. It's taken me a long time to grow used to Sundayness - that certain quality that the seventh day has that for years made me feel uncomfortable, restless, and bored with inaction. As a teenager living with my parents I was not allowed to go out on Sundays. Sundays were Mass in the morning, family affairs in the afternoon: visiting, gardening, homework, or being polite (while bored) to relatives who visited us. By evening the awesome lethargy of it all had passed and TV viewing was allowed, but it was always cut short. You know, "School tomorrow."
Sunday afternoon's still have that quality of inaction, but now it's to enjoy and appreciate; be glad to have those moments when the thoughts, happy or sad, have rein to flow through the brain and one can cull new insights from the stream of consciousness. Enjoy the mystique of the melancholia, the wondrous blur of warm thoughts at random, superimposed on family scenes of normalcy. Sometimes no connection between the thoughts, no great realisations, and no matter. It's just good to think aimlessly.
Today I wandered in this detached
mental state through Rundle Mall where the Italian festival was happening.
`Viva Italia' said the badges, and the red, white and green balloons and
flags. Dark haired heads and complexions proudly a majority today and I
warmed to it. I enjoy the fact that multicultural Australia enables its
immigrant groups to celebrate their alien cultures. As much as I enjoyed
it, I couldn't help feeling that something was lacking. Italians in Australia
are a hybrid culture. They must always be but it seems thus far that the
Mediterranean flair exhibited by these peoples' relatives still in Italy
has been dimmed by the affluence of bourgeois life in Australia.
It's silent writing time. I hear buzzing voices reading in the corridor and brains ticking over thinking, "what shall I write?" I feel I have no problems that weigh on my shoulders so there's nothing really urgent to write about. I see lines on the other side of this page. Some poor girl's punishment for being rude in class. Oh well, she had to learn the hard way, if she learned at all. Giggling in the corridor as they read articles aloud.
School Teacher #2 (1983)
I give the girls work to do which I remember hating at school. It's to do with a skill I've never used since the day I left school. I also when I was young refused to play the piano. I now wish I had been forced.....
Most people already know what they want to do so teach them what they want. I don't want to do Geography when I'm older so don't teach me it. - Shiv (aged 14)
P.S. I want to be a Phys. Ed. teacher or a Maths teacher
..... to. Will there be some in this room who will use this skill once they leave school? Will there be some who one day will be in a position where the skill of being able to sketch may advance their life position somehow? Will there be any in this room who will be grateful that they learned how to do this? Meanwhile, not knowing the answers to these questions I sit and begin to defuse my sympathy for them having to do what for some may be an objectionable task by sorting out my own thoughts on the matter on paper. They gather round, ask what am I doing? Something personal I say, realise that's bullshit too and then tell them exactly what I am doing. They're quite taken! `Shiv' writes me the above note and oh how I agree with her. Anything else is not being true to myself.
Finally got here after 28 years. Australia's dead heart. Twenty hours or so clickety clacketing through isolation, spinifex, saltbush. I guess that's what those bushes were. I've heard their names often in connection with the Outback. Also heard many stories about Aboriginals. Met a few tonight in the Stuart Arms. Open, friendly folk, they taught me a few things I didn't know and shattered some myths in the half hour in conversation with them.
1) Aboriginals went to Vietnam.
We saw a cowboy acoustic guitarist struttin' his dreadful stuff (probably had a ute parked out the back). I hope he wasn't getting paid for it. He struck up Neil Young's OLD MAN as we left for home and there found Neil Young singing about Hurricanes in the friendly lounge room. (We do it better says Hiske.)
People have such trouble with that name. Some, like a lady in the pub, say it perfectly, and then tell you it's hard to say. I think she thought Hiske and I were just friends and that I was up for grabs! Hope I didn't disappoint her. Likeable type she was too - given away by her parents when she was four. Adopted by a white couple who taught her a religion, she was schooled in Adelaide and Sydney, and learnt how to be a school teacher. It was she who thoroughly enjoyed her life as an Aboriginal. She drank and controlled, though her big lipped, big boobed little sister was pissed to the point where rationality no longer operated in her brain.
Tonight I was also refused entry to the Telford Alice hotel for not wearing dress jeans and a collar. What a joke! A big tanned human informed me that yes there was a band there tonight but I wouldn't be allowed in like that. He was polite about it, quiet and firm, even seemed a bit apologetic about it, excusing himself on account of the new management that wanted the dress regulations enforced. All this after carefully examining my shoes with a very definite, long, downward glance that had us thinking he was talking to my feet.
Today we stopped in a causeway over the Todd and took a photograph of a group of Aboriginals standing in the dusty river bed: a picture of third world squalor. A young women of their group, seeing the camera pointed in their direction began abusing us and running towards us. When she stopped to pick up a stone I prepared myself to face it, catch it if necessary - I didn't expect it to be thrown with much vigour. However as it left her hand it did so with a power that surprised me. Nor was the accuracy so bad. It flew between us and though I wanted to face her with Western reason (and a personal feeling of simply wanting to hurry away through fear), danger was clearly imminent and I pedalled away feeling quite confused, back along the bike path that leads along the Todd, under the gum trees, trying to make sense of the dilemma that a caring white Australian has relating to the pain and anger of our dispossessed Aboriginals.
AND JUNO 8/11/86 - A Review
The little rock music I've heard hailing from Russia has not impressed me : heavy on power, pedestrian in composition. Russian drama too often relies heavily on power, of a tragic origin. Both banal composition and an over-emphasis on heavy emotional dramatic overstatement were present in the rock opera, Amos and Juno.
So too were prodigious vocal talents from the supporting cast, and moments of stunning visual impact. A sloping plexiglas stage floor bathed in tasteful colours from various angles provide sufficient entertainment in itself to offset the fact that the vast majority of the audience could not understand the Russian dialogue and song texts, though it was noticeable that more understood the brief scenes performed in Spanish.
I expected in a rock opera that a foreign language should not detract from enjoyment of the spectacle, but was disappointed to discover that a good part of the performance was in fact straight dialogue, and by far the greater part of the vocal arrangements were delivered in a semi-conversational, albeit tragic and powerful if one understood Russian, style.
To criticise the use of melodrama without knowledge of Russian is perhaps unfair. Perhaps the narrative deserved such treatment but I couldn't tell. To call this a rock opera though is misleading. A musical it certainly is, with ample use of electric instruments, but to my mind few of the musical passages could be called rock music; more tragi-popular or middle of the road. A recurring use of church-like choral backing vocals, haunting and powerful, plus the use of parading hooded figures with lighted crucifix like symbols portrayed a definite religious influence. The story is set in 1806. Costuming and theatrical manners are of that time, so to set this story and that period in this manner is a courageous act, and somehow it succeeds. One is willing to pass over the anachronistic sight of a heavy set aging gent clad in the frilled collar and garters of a Spanish galleon seamen giving vent to 20th century sounds, in deference to a successful attempt to bridge times nearly two hundred centuries apart.
Until the final scene though I did find it too heavy, too much of the Russian Chekhov tradition, for me to take it too seriously. The final scene however was a coup de grace for Russian propaganda, totally light in contrast to the whole performance thus far. All cast members, several already dressed to go home, sat stage front, and swayed as one to a melodic alleluia chorus that had one message that was both valid in the context of the narrative, and in the real world: we are Russians and from us you have nothing to fear; in comparison with the Western world, Russia is still a fine place to live.
I enjoyed receiving the message, and the cast obviously enjoyed delivering it. A memorable performance.
HISKE (Amsterdam, 1987)
I look up at a beautifully formed building, and beyond to the grey sky. Solid, majestic, old. An art gallery. Three hundred years old, and housing some of the finest achievements of Western artists. Where I come from only the trees, rocks, and hills stand as monuments to times that long ago. To gaze at such buildings still holds excitement for me. Indeed, all typical Amsterdam houses beckon me with fond associations of shelter from the bitter cold, the lure of freshly made coffee, and exciting conversations with people from all over - people come to Amsterdam to feel the inspiration of the creative spirits that gather here. So many worthwhile self-developing pursuits to turn to to take one's mind from the cold and grey, to make it a pleasant thought to go indoors and use these gabled houses in the tradition of all those who for centuries have come before you. One adjusts, accepts cold weather as the norm, and sees beauty in things that once looked bleak. Solid old architecture against a grey sky in the drizzling rain. Yesterday I rode through areas of green space that offer sweeter smells than the inner city, and feelings of quiet. For so much of the year though these areas stand forlorn and unused. It's just too much hassle - it takes too many clothes, too much movement to keep warm in those green spaces, beautiful though they are.
Beautiful. Real blue sky. A really bright sun high in the sky. Are these any more beautiful than the three hundred year old building under a perennial grey sky? Are these things any more important?
Imagine lots of flat houses, all surrounded with their own green and shrubbery. A quiet heat haze in the early morn shimmers in bright southern light. The inhabitants of the flat modern houses prepare for the day's preoccupations: a barbecue perhaps, or a party in the garden, a drive to the beach with the kids, a walk in the park, an impromptu visit to old friends. A few dedicated artistic types hide themselves indoors to paint the nation's pictures and make the nation's music and dance the nation's dances. Not everyone will go waterskiing or fishing, but most will. It's just too inviting to be out of doors. With the kids. Lots of kids. Slow, non-tense, even dulling.
The people of Amsterdam are something special. Concerned with fashion, but not concerned with dressing up. Here one can work in a bank or a post office without ever having to put on a skirt or a tie. Not so where I come from. We're still stuck with some old fashioned values. In Australia people still look at people on the street who dress weirdly. In Amsterdam people are more likely to stare at the straight people. In Amsterdam you find an army of people who look like they could never belong anywhere else; who could never feel at home in the suburbs on a warm sunny morning under a tree in their own back yard. They'd rather be gathered in a cafe on a cold January night discussing their latest exhibition. Or would they? And I? What would I rather be doing? I enjoy cafes on cold nights too. I enjoy my life here. I enjoy my work, though I doubt that I could for long. I value my friends here.
Amsterdam is a wonderful place. I don't like the idea of saying goodbye to it forever. I feel I belong here, and yet, still a stranger. I think I could even stay here, but I don't know if that would be wise. My life so far has been a pattern of moving, often moving back home, though so far I've never stayed home indefinitely either. I don't know if I'm ready to do that (I know you're not), but I feel like one of my regular urges to go home is coming up. My trip home in January gave me a taste again of what life is like there.
My parents are old, and I want them to experience some more of our lovely child, and for him to know them. Living here Joti is more like a little Dutch boy, and he's lovely for that. But I also want him to experience what I did as a child. Living there he would be more a little Australian boy, more likely to be a footballer than a dancer! (I wouldn't mind either!)
So, I enjoy Holland, and your family, and realise that part of the person I am is more at home with the majority of people you find in Amsterdam in preference to the majority of people you find in Australia. But I know Australians, and value them for what they are also, and still feel that when it comes down to the basic needs of human existence, Australia provides them better then any other place I know. To live there happily though one must be prepared to accept that life there means to some extent its luxury of natural beauty, its sunshine, and living a life of comparatively shallow good times rather than aspiring to the creative; to accept its conservatism and the harshness of its people rather than pine for the progressive more modern thinking people in lands more in touch with the centre of the world stage. I like to leave the world stage behind, enjoy Australia's blue skies, cruise its highways and amble along its lonely beaches. Play tennis and football and sing a song or two. And I know that if I was to leave the life I have made here I would think about it a lot, but not miss it. Ancient buildings against a grey sky, cafe terraces by tree lined canals, keeping warm by the kachel on a winter's night, a canal steamer passing under an open bridge in the soft light of a Dutch dusk, an old hippie riding his bakfiets through de Jordaan - these things are all beautiful images that will always make lovely memories, but the feeling persists in me that it's lonely and rugged Australian landscapes that would make me feel more at rest. Shall we try it?
I'm sorry I'm always comparing Australia with Holland. I think I'm just fascinated by the differences between places. I certainly don't intend such comparisons to be statements of displeasure about having come to live over here. I'm glad we did. I hope you can see that after reading this. To leave here would be difficult for me; but it is always easy to go home.
- Greece, Turkey, Holland (December 91/January 92)
Out to dinner with the kids. Hurried. Plane to catch. It was happening. Sail on silver bird. Too much food. Cramped bodies. Swollen feet. Yahtzee. Singapore. A vacant airport late at night. Cavernous. Unused children's playground. No smoking everywhere. No chewing gum. No having more than two children (the playground might get crowded). No having long hair is outmoded now the populace is thoroughly subjugated. The whole event given a lift when we discover we're no longer pregnant. More flying. More too much food. Fall asleep during bad movies. Think of a John Candy character and we're there: Frankfurt. Freezing. Well clad, we encounter a succession of cold people. Mid-Europe, mid-winter, and culture is on display on a sleepy Sunday afternoon in a local museum. Indigenous aficianados take drawings of Rembrandt and Picasso for granted. We rest in a coffee shop and sense their reserve. Stroll on through malltown. Modern pavement paths guide us through relative antiquity. Frankfurters loiter in the town square in the icy air. Cathedral. Back to the station. Take away food. Look for somewhere congenial before the train ride back to the airport. Eritreans provide the answer. North African dignity permeates the cafe and enjoys, ignores our presence. We relax in a foreign land among fellow foreigners and we find warmth. In the air again - Athens. Late night. Taxi driver welcomes us with chat of roadblocks caused by snow. He talks easily. Check in. We lie on our first bed for what seems days and their sits the Acropolis in splendid view through our window. Time past and time present combine to excite notions of time future.
Seven years since Athens was this cold and I choose a singularly unattractive place for breakfast. We wander the Acropolis and freeze. Our first encounter with Greek suspicion of tourists. Yes, we had paid for two tickets, but you only gave me one. Hassle. Bad vibes. We enjoy the work of the ancients. I gaze out over the familiar landscape of this sprawling city spread among seven hills. Seven. It prompts memories of Israel. Not this time. Cafe in Plaka. An expensive, tasty restaurant for dinner. Mousaka. Next day we hire a car. Attendant endears himself to us with excessive care for the welfare of us and his car. I'm shaking in my boots as the moment draws closer when I must put the car in gear and drive. He stays by my driver's door looking for a break in the traffic. I wish he'd go away. He signals. I engage and we roll, smoothly thank God, through the streets of Athens without using our horn and following the carefully plotted route he'd given us. We're grateful. It becomes easier and we're out of Athens. Snow drenched hills on all sides. It seems most unlike Greece. We drive. Relax into the journey. Radio doesn't work.
Hungry. Time for lunch. Thebes. Narrow streets on hillsides. Squeeze the car into a tiny space and walk. Unassuming restaurant with fantastic food - zucchini and beans. Refreshed, we drive on. We dissect the mountains and enter mountain passes. Happily the road is open. Memories of reading about the approaches to Delphi. The ski town of Arachova perches on a cliff face and has a lot of skiing types sporting bulky coloured suits. Can Delphi be more quaint than this? The road winds around the cliffs and I catch a glimpse of columns by the roadside. Tourist buses. Hotel Acropole also perched cliffside. Our balcony stretches our eyes across the valley to the water of Itea. New Year's Eve. 1991. Delphi still stands. We find a cafe and Elizabeth talks me into playing guitar. Young Americans and middle aged Greek hosts - Iannis and Irini - enjoy the music. New Year's Eve in Greece is for families and we have none present. We adopt the young Americans, ply the willing one with whisky and listen to them talk of their homeland, their countrymen and their friends. I take the opportunity of giving them advice about how to behave as travelling Americans! Midnight, and the hotel owners bring out food and drink and we are invited to participate. We do. Strangers kiss and hug as only New Year's Eve would allow. Very warm glow about the whole affair. We drink and talk on, exchange probably never to be used addresses with the Young Americans, and a very satisfying evening is over. 1992.
Coffee on the balcony to celebrate the new year and this wondrous place. A different light diffuses across the valley to Itea. The ruins are closed, but we explore the renovated spring where the ancient pilgrims washed before gracing the temples of Apollo and Athena. Any mystique here needs to be imagined. A different view of the valley from yet another cafe has us again contemplating long ago people approaching the unseen temples from below. They walked in faith. We enter the valley. We wind through the olive groves and look up to the town now high above. Our home base on the cliff now looks very fragile and insubstantial clawing to the grandeur. The Phaedriades now look even more imposing and dwarf the town. The town now looks ugly from down here. We go on and wonder if the valley will ever let us out. It seems like we're climbing and we find our way home. Back to the cafe for more of the present. More guitar music shared with sophisticated out of town locals and a buxom big-mouthed warm hearted gushing Texaness. "I'm from Houston, Texas," she keeps repeating. We tire Irini out and leave her to clean up and go to bed later than she is accustomed. Iannis spends the night drinking, smoking and smiling by the heater. A wasted man who keeps his warmth.
Next day we keep our appointment with antiquity. First to Athena's temple. Not much left there standing in Apollo's shadow but enough to tell how fine it must have been. Ancient travellers from Itea would have seen the circular tholos first, high up beside the mountain, now flanked by the olive groves that have crept up the side of the valley. I touch ancient stone as I often do and hope that I touch a spot that felt the bare hands of a worker two thousand years ago. I try to feel his spirit. I wonder how he felt that day. Was it hot? Was it a labour of love? Did he cut that stone with love for Athena in his heart, or did he do it for money? Was he forced to do it? Did he ever see it finished? And if he came here today would he be sad at what he saw, or glad that any vestige of this glorious structure remains after so long so that we of 1992 can wonder at what he did? Did he believe in Athena? Did he fell the spirit of the place? I find that it's not so much what's there that excites me but rather that it happened at all, and that anything survives after all this time.
The Temple of Apollo is a different story. One climbs on entry to the compound and even from a distance there is a lot to excite the eye and mind. The place: rugged. It must have been almost inaccessible once upon a time. Closer to heaven, but still bowing to the Phaedriades. Nature is given a higher position than a god. They put it as high as they could but in the end the rocks of the twin peaks dominate. The temple's sloped zigzag paths work their secret way to the climax: the entry to the temple proper. Anticipation is played upon and the treasuries provide entertainment along the way. Easy to imagine it crowded with pilgrims dressed for the occasion. One would not have graced these holy confines in rags. Coloured marble and monumental stone all in a very particular order calculated to leave a lasting impression, and it still does. The place is magnificent: one looks below to Athena's temple and the valley beyond. One looks up to the rocky peaks standing as sentinels. One looks around at man's glorification of their beliefs with structures that demanded detailed planning and immense hard labour. And the result is not lost on me the modern man.
The amphitheatre sits behind
the temple, still perfect in form. Again the view from the stalls takes
in the valley. How could they concentrate solely on the drama of the players?
Nature provides the ultimate spectacular backdrop as it did for U2 in Death
Valley, and the temple proper like a gigantic majestic prop. Testament
to man and gods. And still there's more, unseen. Much higher up 20 minutes
walk away: the sportsfield for when spiritual worship was over. A perfectly
remaining arena 200 metres long among the trees. Stone seating for hundreds.
Elizabeth takes her place on the judges bench and signals start. Michael
leaves the ancient starting blocks still there in the dirt and runs towards
the fabled mountain. I feel the inspiration as the mountain calls: come
faster, run like the wind. I hear the din of a cheering crowd and I must
get there first. The race is over. Everyone has won by dint of the fact
that they've had the opportunity to run this splendid course. What exhilaration!
What an honour to run here! We take some photographs and visit the museum.
A mouse among museums, and expensive and we wonder why they remove statues
from places where they might actually mean something. Like displaced souls
they try and tell you something of their meaning and largely fail. Put
me back where I belong and my point will be obvious. In here I know you
struggle to make sense of me. We shouldn't have gone there. The museum's
external appearance is a thoughtless intrusion on a landscape that the
ancient Greeks knew how to improve upon. What modern man has lost.
We climb the Phaedriades. Early morning departure. Zigzag track up the twin peaks. Delphi disappears below. Tiny again. Dwarfed. As we are by the scale of things. We peel off clothes as the day grows warmer and the journey gets longer. I approach the edge. Cling to solid ground before the chasm that leads back down to the sacred spring. Temples lost from view, we cross the shoulder of the mountain and enter a narrow easily traversed path. Very high up now. Snow litters the pathway hidden at first under bushes, seeking shelter from the melting sunlight. The days have been warm but it clings to its cold existence growing ever smaller. We roll it up and throw it at each other. We drink it as it melts in our warmth mouths. It feels very far away from everything but an approaching car belies the fact and signals that a road is near. Damn. No solitude even here. Seek out a place for lunch. No, not here. Too open; too warm; too rocky. We pause. Respite from motion. No more cars. Still a lot of snow. Rest. Silence. Perch among the rocks and it feels alpine. Again the confusion - Greece, alpine? Cows with bells? Not quite. We start back, looking for lunch. No grassy knolls. No gentle shade beneath an olive tree. We descend again. Delphi returns to view. We leave the path and find other less travelled ways. Bread, cheese and retsina. Warmth on top of the ancient world. The man removes his shirt. He wants to make love. She doesn't want to. She's afraid of being seen. He reassures her. He persists. She gives in and they make love there on the mountain. Down. Delphi grows.
A drive to Itea into the setting sun. The olive groves of Marmara flank us all the way. A quiet seaside town. Cold down here after the warmth of the earlier day up on the mountain. Too cold to dangle our feet in the water and enjoy the shores of the Peloponnese in the distance. Sparta nestles safely behind the distant mountain range that from Itea is quite definitely separate from the sky. From Delphi one is never quite sure where the sea, the mountains, and the sky begin and end as they blur into each other. All you know for sure is that they are all there. We walk briskly and briefly beside the water's edge and return to the car.
One more climb up another zigzag path on the far side of the valley. We don't make the top. We have seen it from all angles now, and this angle is less spectacular than the others. And our legs are tired. We climb back down. Through the olive grove one more time.
It's time to leave town. We go once more to Iannis and Irini. In the afternoon. She is not there. He motions towards the small balcony and says she's coming soon. We sit in near silence as we always (but it's been only five days - how could I say always?) do with him. We smile a lot, make further futile attempts to talk across language barriers and drink coffee. We're impatient to hit the road. She hasn't arrived. We decide to leave. We take our leave. Bid Irini goodbye from us please Iannis.
Destination: somewhere outside of Athens. The road winds through mountain passes and past seaside tranquillity. We spy an idyllic outdoor cafe by the sea but decide it's too soon. There'll be more. This is Greece. We take a wrong turn, the first of many that day, and end up in an ugly industrial sore beautifully situated on the harbour. We drive inland. The countryside becomes more bland as we pull further away from Delphi magic. We cross plains where ancient battles were won and lost. The view becomes familiar as we backtrack towards Thebes once more. Suddenly we're in the heart of deep winter. Wet dripping snow piled up everywhere narrowing slim roads to a crawl. It must have just finished snowing here. Dangerous; eerie as it darkens. We're a long way from where we want to be. We leave the safety of the snowy town and fall into silence as we dare to go further. Will the roads be navigable up ahead. We climb and reach the top of a ridge and see a possible destination protected by an arc of mountains far below. Could we get out again? Will there be more snow tonight? It seemed risky and we play safe and leave that enticing place with an Italian name to our imagination. We will never be back here. This is not a beaten track. A long nine kilometres and the road dribbles out metres from the sea. We drive along a gravel beach slowly to a taverna. We've found it. I told you this was Greece. Unbelievable peace. Incredible beauty. Soothing silence. And the sun is setting. Coffee as the tide laps gently in the dusk. The proprietor tells me in German that yes we can make the next larger town before dark. There are two tracks - not roads - one is partly broken (kaput) and shorter. She seems to know what she's talking about and I decide to take her word for it. Ten minutes later we're almost sliding around a muddy track that yes seems to be leading to the larger town. Relief as it becomes true but.......a dead holiday town in the off season. Nowhere to stay here. Dark now and yet we must go on. At least it's bitumen, and the snow has gone down here by the coast. A BIG town. Too big really. Round and round down by the harbour where the big ships lay. Taverna - " this is a fish taverna " the boss man tells me. Men only but we go in and feel strange but welcome. Fantastic food. And expensive. It looks like it has to be Piraeus for the night, but that could be an advantage.
We drive on through sprawling Athens-like industrial zones that were once fabled places of mythical deeds and heroes. They have obviously long gone. We hurry on and are pleased to discover ourselves in familiar unattractive Piraeus. There's the port. Let's find a hotel over there. Just a left turn to bring us over there. One way streets don't allow the left turn and in a flash we're lost. A nightmare begins. Left turns, right turns. Hunches based on years of experience of sussing out foreign cities all irrelevant. Thirty minutes of aimless driving and I start to curse. Another dead end down by another dock. Another sleazy backstreet through neighbourhoods guaranteed to bring the up down. And I was down. Elizabeth is laughing. She's not driving. She sees the humour in our ludicrous situation and for a while it keeps me afloat. She tries navigation. Still lost. I'm furious. I try again. Still lost. We have now been in Pireaus for as long as it took to get here and I'm also exhausted. Aimless now. I give up. I drive the car in a hopeless dream. Maybe we're in Athens? At least then we'd know how to find the port in Piraeus. Maybe because I gave up and stopped trying to find anything in particular we're miraculously there. Ninety minutes after arriving in this shithole we're there. No time or energy to find a place with ambience. It's Hotel Delfini stroke Dingy there in the typical slime of a port. The hotel clerk looks at us almost in disbelief which exactly what I'm feeling as I contemplate what a romantic end I had planned for this day. These rooms are not intended for people staying the night but we go to sleep.
Morning ride down the freeway to Athens. This is easy. Return the car. No problems. Lunch on Omonia Square. Underground back to Piraeus. Choice time. Which island? Santorini? Ios? We plunge. Santorini. Such a lovely word. Fabled in modern times and old. The once Atlantis. We're sailing. It's dark again as we view the suburbs of Athens slithering southwards and I watch a succession of aeroplanes descend among the seven hills. Too late to see grand Sounion in the darkness. We take up residence in the ship's lounge. The dice again. Games turn to dare. Let's be dice people and let the tiny white cubes dictate the next several hours. Situations forced and I get defensive. I feel an unwarranted need to expose myself. Tell how I feel. And then Elizabeth throws five ones! = Criticise Michael!!!!!!! Great I say. Tell me. Tell me. There must be things that bother you. Tell me. She can but she won't. She very gracefully passes up the opportunity. I don't throw five sixes (= criticise Elizabeth). I'd find it very hard. Many many hours pass effortlessly and I find it wondrous. I have never before found it so easy to pass such lengths of time with anybody. A touch of sleep and a voice is announcing our arrival in Santorini. First glimpse in the darkness: a pillar of stone rising dramatically out of the ocean. It signals wilderness to me. Encouraging. And now we're on a bus wondering where to go to. Someone suggests the main town - Thira. Seems sensible. It's well after midnight. The bus chugs up slopes and leaves glittering ferries glowing like paradises of light on the liquid blackness far below. It seems things are often far above or far below in Greece. But concern now. We've stopped climbing and are now travelling on level ground. Too many lights. This means too many houses, too many people. We want isolation in a Greek island idyll. Too late to worry and we're in Thira. Wish we could go back. The pillar of rock has lied. There were no signs advertising mopeds on it. But Thira has plenty. It well and truly makes up for it. Damn it. We could leave tomorrow, but let's sleep here now. We walk looking for clues as to where. Clues hard to find. Everyone's asleep behind their signs.
But not all the dogs. We are amazed that we hadn't heard anything about them before. Whenever friendly strangers walk anywhere on Santorini they are there. Two or three would inevitably attach themselves to you and escort you wherever you wandered. We collect several on this our first night. We reach the edge of town. Dogs in tow we turn back. There's an all night cafe. We go in. We are warmly welcomed by the owner who quickly organises his lackey to take us in his ramshackle car to a place where we can stay. He's unsure where to go, gets directions from another late night local, and stops on a corner. He points to a two storey place that is obviously asleep and tells us to wake the inhabitants. Not the slightest sign that it's a hotel. We're reluctant. We walk back up the hill, toward the cafe, and meet a lady who we knew from the bus ride spoke English. She assures us that yes indeed that the place we'd been shown was a hotel, and hinted that they were desperate for business. We retrace our steps and knock. A kindly couple stir themselves and we're comfortably housed. Dawn reveals a balcony on the wrong side of the view and a rocky unspectacular landscape. The only place open for breakfast thumps western music at us and charges exorbitant prices for croissants and coffee. An omen of things to come. As luck would have it, it's a public holiday - the day that Santorini celebrates the sea. As we climb down the cliff-hugging staircase it's clear that most of the town is heading down to the sea as well. There's a little decorated podium erected by the water, and we learn from some long term Australian travellers that there's free food and drink for all present after the ceremony. We sit on the small quay awaiting the action and all eyes occasionally turn towards the cable car - expecting dignitaries? An adventurer stands atop the cable car calling out to the crowd below. Is he crazy? Are people angry at him for his bravado, or is this just all part of the show? It's certainly entertaining. Eventually the awaited dignitaries arrive in stately fashion, inside the cable car, and the show begins. Religious, military, and civic VIP's board the podium and take turns addressing the inattentive crowd through a shocking sound system, adorn each other with wreathes, and throw something into the sea. A disgustingly healthy looking aged citizen jumps into the winter water and jokes with the crowd. Is this part of the show? Does he do this every year, or is he crazy? We're really none the wiser, but it's time for the party and there are fish, bread, and ouzo all round. A lovely introduction to wipe away our fears of the night before.
Later we start to walk along a cliff path toward the distant end of the island and see clearly where Atlantis was split in half. It looks so enticing up ahead that we can't stop walking and we find a little chapel cut into the cliff face and watch the sun go down. Enchanting. We hurry back past the layered soils to avoid the oncoming dark. The dogs are bunking down in the town square and some cock their heads up sideways as we walk past. Next day we contemplate rehousing, and walk to Ea. Relatively untouched, white walls edging peaceful alley ways atop the ocean and we find the only place open. An outdoor patio commands the Aegean and we have lunch served by a Dutch waitress. Warm - I could sit for a long time here, watching local children play in their exotic cement surrounds; their cries of joy and play echo like the cries of gulls over the ocean. We wearily tread back to the island's blighted capital, stopping for coffee at the village next to Thira. We watch in silent amazement as the mother spoon feeds her twelve year old son. They enjoy our company. Back to our room with its viewless balcony. That night we dine at the all night cafe and chat with a New Zealand lady working there. She works periodically in Thira and uses it as a travelling base. I play guitar. Only the first night lackey around. Elizabeth draws him out and we find a thinking feeling human being under that mouse-like shell.
We find a place for morning coffees that doesn't rip us off and head for the other end of the of the island. Future hotels and guest houses going up everwhere. We go to an out of season archaeological site (permanently out of season for no one has any funds for it anymore). A huge site under cover. High admission price and I feel like they want me out of there in a hurry, so of course I take my time and savour the mounds of ancient dirt exposing walls and streets of an ancient city. Much work still to be done here, and we walk down to the sea - coffee (again!) inches from the water. Bus back to Thira, and is this the afternoon we went back to our room and made wonderful love that is never to be forgotten? Another day we set off over the flatter side of the island with our canine companion for the day and find a beach of pebbles. We sit on the rocks and drink ouzo. We want to leave this island without olive groves. Twisted crown of thorns grape vines a fascinating substitute, and then comes the cake story. One morning we went to this cafe and bought these delectable Greek pastries. We liked them so much that we went back next day to get them again only to find the same woman charging us more for the same item. I remonstrate to no avail and get so angry that I can't even bring myself to taste the things. I stand above the steep drop to the ocean screaming to Elizabeth how these bastards make tyrants out of even the most sensitive of visitors. The wind howls about me and I look and feel ridiculous as she laughs at me and devours her cake. I end my sermon and know it's time to leave. We wait for a bus that seems like it may never come. We stand in that same howling wind accompanied by several dogs that are now familiar to us, watching the dark grow and resisting the urge to cave into a taxi and eventually the bus comes. Relieved and finally warm we pile in. The driver begins a long rave and we're edgy. We desperately want to leave this island and it would be fitting that this driver's chat would mean we'd miss the boat and be captive on Santorini one more night. It wasn't that Santorini was so bad but that so many other places were so much nicer. Failed expectations. Where were Patmos and Sifnos? We made the boat with minutes to spare and we thankfully depart and I stay out on deck for a long time rueful for an island that's traded its soul for commercialism. I watch it recede into the darkness and feel very good saying, "You fucked it Santorini." Hours later Ios looks so quaint and enticing, but we are bound for Istanbul.
Not quite dawn. Piraeus again. No question this time. Leave it immediately. Try for the early morning flight to Istanbul. Which terminal asks the driver? We say we're going to Istanbul and he takes us to the international terminal in twenty minutes flat. We're refused entry into the terminal. The flight to Istanbul is at twelve o'clock and you're not allowed to hang around in the terminal. What about the seven o'clock flight? That's an Olympic Airways flight - the other fucking terminal! Another taxi. I approach the counter - sorry sir no student prices, no discounts, no sir they don't exist. We knew a trip back into Athens and a seven hour wait could save us three hundred dollars. Tired! We gamble and hang around watching people who have had a good night's sleep fly off to all sorts of interesting destinations looking rested and well dressed. I'm pissed off. Sufficient time has been killed and we take the bus back to Athens. We return to a restaurant that we foolishly had breakfast at a week or so earlier. After Santorini it seemed friendly and at least the prices were fixed. (I do go on about prices don't I, but I really did get sick of being taken for a ride by cold calculators on Santorini.) And it did seem delightfully crazy to eat breakfast on the pavement just metres away from frantic early morning Athens traffic. It was as if we have given up trying to control the course of events.
We wander back down towards Plaka. Still a couple of hours to kill before the travel agent opens. We find a small church courtyard with a bench. We wait there and watch the kindly church keeper feed the resident stray dog. Other early morning regulars drop off titbits; some pause briefly in the church. We watch them come and go, and the whole time the church keeper is aware of us and without looking at us once benignly signals his approval of our presence. Athens is waking up and here in the sheltered courtyard it's a time of peace. Every now and then I go to the corner to see if the travel agent's open yet. We go to one more cafe for one more coffee and it's now open for business. Yes, the cheap fare to Istanbul does indeed exist. It will take him forty five minutes to organise the tickets. We leave our dreaded luggage there and head off for the park beneath Hadrian's Arch. Elizabeth leads us on a brisk walk through the morning greenery, and back to the agent. We mind the office and he goes to pick up our tickets. I chat to an American who's pleased to be going home after eight months away. Airport bus. Duty free. Buy camera to replace the one we lost on Santorini. A tiny DC9 - the ones that used to crash a lot. I don't tell Elizabeth this. Throughout the short flight to Istanbul the door to the cockpit is open. It allows great views but somehow does not inspire confidence. We land safely and we're in scam land. Soothing classical guitar music from the airport sound system. Lots of attention from friendly people. It's a nice contrast after Greece, but everyone's on the take. We learn slowly that friendship here has ulterior motives. We try and make sense of conflicting reports about public transport into town and wait for a bus.
A well dressed man approaches and shows concern (!) for we naive tourists wanting to catch a bus into town. A taxi will be quicker he says, and not much more expensive. It will drop us at the door of our desired hotel. He can get us a good price. A taxi driver materialises. We smell a rat, but it's too late. We've given him an audience. The only way out now is to be rude. I look at Elizabeth for help. We're tired. Damn it, let's do it! The outskirts of Istanbul whiz past as we search our guide book for some cheap conveniently located hotel and try and relay our wishes to our driver in broken English. He seems unmoved by all this. He's decided where we're going and it's got nothing to do with our wishes. He pulls up outside Hotel Rio, which is not listed in our guide book. Porters descend on us and our bags are being unloaded and whisked inside in a flash. We protest, strenuously at first. The driver has plainly decided he's taking us nowhere else and I'm ushered inside to talk to the manager while Elizabeth stays outside with what's left of our luggage on the pavement. The manager begins to tell me a very long story in very good English about seasonal fluctuations in hotel prices, what the various numbers of stars mean in terms of facilities and price, hotel locations and prices, and offers us a double room lower than any quoted in our guide book. He throws in free breakfast for good measure and I'm wilting. We look at the room - small, tidy and at least an immediate haven from the hasslers downstairs and it just seems easier to stay. We all win something. We got a good price, and the well dressed man at the airport and the taxi driver and the hotel Rio boys all get their cut from us. All except the porter who insisted against our wishes on lugging our bags up to our room. Him I am not going to pay and I don't. What a scam, but at least we're far from the maddening crowd for a while, but they were waiting for us later in the evening.
We are to get intimately acquainted with the main drag that led from the hotel to old Istanbul over the next five days. We stroll through this city of a million merchants and place ourselves between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia lit against the night. Seagulls soar in silhouette around the fabled dome. We enter our first restaurant and discover that one selects from a range of delicious looking fare just inside the door and it tastes as good as it looks. As we're walking home a young man calls out to me. He's pretending that we've met before and as I don't feel like being conned I ignore him and walk on. He's offended and pursues us to make plain his irritation. I assure him that we've never met but his mission is already partly accomplished. He's stopped us and has got us talking. He works in a newly opened restaurant just above us. Would we like to come in for a coffee? Yes, but once inside among the silver service the offer is extended to a glass of beer and our host tries to juggle the delicate operation of being on duty and making us his guests feel comfortable with polite conversation. He says his name translates into English as Friday, which it is, and we wonder if it changes for each tourist according to what day it is. He speaks fondly of an Australian friend he had who accepted his offer of a cheap woman and escorts well-to-do Istanbul citizens to their gleaming cutlery. We decide to have a second beer and realise when it comes that we're the only people in the place that are not eating and sense a subtle disapproval. Hushed whispers and maybe Friday's in the shit for inviting these daggily clad Western boozers into this high class establishment. Our concerns are confirmed when an unasked-for plate of peeled fruit appears before each of us - with knife and fork! The idea seems absurd - beer together with fruit, and the fruit to be eaten with a knife and fork! I initially refuse, but Elizabeth says I must, so I do, to preserve whatever face we can.
Time to leave. Friday seems relieved and launches into attentive to the woman mode. I am left feeling like an extra in an Islamic movie (a feeling I recognise from my experience in Egypt years ago). The irrelevant male accompanying a Western woman, and she's obviously available. I mean she spoke to him didn't she? As we make our way downstairs Friday (I wish I could remember his Turkish name - 'Friday' seems to belittle him more than he deserves) stays close to Elizabeth, touches her on the arm and suggests they may meet again. I didn't hear it but I knew it. We enter the Istanbul night. It's getting late now but the million merchants are still very much in action. Fallen slabs of stone from ancient buildings lie unnoticed on this busy thoroughfare and we make it back to the hotel without further incident.
Breakfast on the mezzanine floor amid art deco. I like it. Lots of mirrors to wake up in front of. See the results of the night before. Blow smoke at the disarming reflection. Chandelier hangs impressively, ominously. Arab and Turkish families all eating thick bread and jam and coffee. Hustle the kitchen lady for extra cups. Slowly start the travelling day. Time for the main drag, arm in arm. The million merchants are out early. Several are selling perfume! Unbelievably low prices. We ignore several of these offers, but there are more and really they are too good to pass up. We wilt. We need to change money. Our perfume seller nervously hustles us into a nearby shop. It's Sunday and the banks are closed. No they won't cash our cheque. We realise later they were only trying to help us from ourselves. However we find a change place. Deal sealed. Perfume seller disappears and we may have over a hundred dollars worth of perfume for ten bucks. On to the Blue Mosque. I wander without my shoes, eyes heavenward. Carpets and calligraphy. Tiles and reminders of Mecca. Big heavy wooden doors. Surrounding courtyards. Elizabeth is approached by a young tout who jokingly tries to sell her the mosque. He seems relatively sophisticated and friendly. He's hard to get rid of. He hangs around while I fall for a shoeshine from a guy who insists he repay my generosity - I gave him a cigarette - with a shoeshine. Implication is that it's free. He seems deeply wounded by my refusal to let him even the score. Again I wilt. And out come the tales of woe about many hungry children and not much money. Clearly this shoeshine won't be free unless I'm a heartless bastard. I pay. He's insulted anyway. Obviously didn't give him enough. I'm not too concerned. I've been cheated and embarrassed (I've always hated the image of the western tourist towering over the local poor while they grovelled around your feet). My boots however look fantastic. Our sophisticated young friend says he knows a good place for coffee. "Oh yeah!" we say. He comes clean. His family have a carpet business. We can have coffee there. OK!
In we go. We're seated on a plush couch. Coffee comes and so does even more worldly big brother with stories and prices about carpets and rugs. They know their prey. There's a chink in our armour. They sense like male dogs that we're on heat and sniff ever closer. Rugs are unfolded, unrolled - the cheap ones! Show us the cheap ones! More coffee. The floor before us is becoming layers deep. Who's going to clean up this mess after we haven't bought anything? In the midst of all this returns yet another brother who just that minute has come back from a carpet fair in Germany. He takes over the attack. He's more high powered. No sitting on the floor with his back up against the wall delivering the fables attached to each carpet. He paces the space, talks about quality, throws orders around for more rugs to be displayed and makes it very clear that he'll be offended if we don't buy. Elizabeth by now has joined in the show and helps put away the ones we don't want. I'm now the sultan on the couch. I approve or disapprove. About half a dozen rugs left. They know now that I'm the stumbling block. They suggest Elizabeth makes sure I'm satisfied tonight if she wants to get her carpet. I find this idea appealing. We defer final decisions and promise to return. Ha! It's good to finally leave. It was fun though. We learnt lots and got our coffee for free. Time to stroll through old Istanbul.
Book in hand we begin. We trace narrow streets down away from the Hippodrome toward the water and come across a group of young boys playing soccer in a dusty courtyard. They immediately summon someone older with words that definitely translate as 'tourists.' We enter a larger courtyard of a school and are escorted in the accompanying mosque by the older guy - a teacher? Dimmer, more authentic mosque but we are clearly an imposition and we don't wish to linger. Contrary to what our guide book leads us to believe we are expected to pay. Fuck it's not much, but why do I feel like I'm always being taken for a ride? We go on down the hill to a busy market square full of people obviously going about local business. I check out a public toilet - yep, rancid - and men only. An elderly gent sees our plight and I swear he asks "wee wee?" I contain my laughter and he gratefully leads us into an adjacent empty school (it's Sunday) and shos us each our respective clean conveniences. Relieved we reemerge for more challenges and the dear thing does not ask for money. Down to the harbour for a walk along ancient walls. The wind is bitter; traffic frantic. We take in the giant boulders and try to imagine them as the limits of an ancient city. Step inside the walls. Look for clues of past places of worship. We notice my scarf is missing. We retrace our steps and the first person we pass is wearing a black scarf! I can't bring myself to stop her and ask where she got it - she may have had it for years. We never find mine.
Dinner time and it's silver service again, but this time with no alcohol allowed and a rude waiter. Again we feel like we're dressed like scum. We gulp quickly and depart. Maybe tonight, (or was it tomorrow?) we entertain ourselves back in the hotel room with gymnastics.
We head for Topkapi Palace on foot. We find it and walk along its walls of different shades and shapes and stones, all from different times. A wintry park holds us on our left with isolated families and willing couples braving the cold for romance. A tall man in uniform whispers sweet nothings in her ear as they stroll. We're more brisk and reaxh the end of the walls. No entry. But an outdoor cafe above the water. We're warm from walking and sit to take in view and tea. The tea served in elegant silverware allowing several cups. Lots of sugar lumps. Peace with style and we then retrace our steps along the walls to the palace entrance. Harem or no? No, not enough time left of this grey day. We enter and find large gardens. You must walk through to reach buildings. In the European version you more often go through building to get to gardens. We gaze at unbelievable wealth and splendour: all collected, or received as gifts, or robbed, or commisioned by the sultans. In all this they had great taste and a lot of money. Gigantic utensils to feed their armies of servants and resident artisans. Jewellery, thrones, weaponry, works of art and literature; examples of the art of calligraphy, transcriptions of the Koran. Summer houses; chambers for greeting fellow dignitaries. Ponds with fountains surrounded by walkways. Lonely spots of contemplation that look out over the city, or contain a world within the palace walls. The gardens, dead from winter and a touch neglected, boast their beauty in layout. We wander them in the biting wind and know we can't see it all, let alone understand what went on here its heyday. People swarm but we are all visitors. Once the place swarmed with people who belonged and had a job to do within the walls. Information overload and we are all asked to leave as the day grows greyer. The winter aspect weighs heavy and for me the place loses grandeur. Hard to imagine as a warm place and easy to imagine how its outdoors could be appreciated in summer. We'll see the Harem next time. Harem...so it wasn't all art, religion and politics......
To the pub. A real pub - English style. No silver service. You get your drinks and sit in your corner. We take turns sitting against the heater. We get a bit drunk and conversation turns to sex. Talk of the past - don't remember the cues. How did this conversation get started? But there's a purpose. Only one way to take photos without being hassled - Dutch courage. We hit the approaching dusk - Elizabeth as photographer and me as bodyguard. We both have plenty to do. The pace is frantic. Cries of what's your name? where do you come from? slow down! come and talk, etc all ignored. Some lingering local touts see the humour and the point and smile as we race past - Elizabeth metres ahead. Two guys con us in to a photo in what is now half darkness. Mission accomplished and it's Terminator time. A blast of Western celluloid violence. Seems comical. Cheap next to the palace but it probably cost more to make. And it's all over in one and a half hours. Feels like home! About four women in the audience. The Terminator is in Istanbul! And so is McDonalds. Elizabeth leads me off to dinner. I'm not sure where we're going, and there it is. A beacon of familiarity. Not as cheap as silver service, but the layout and modus operandi is a lot less threatening: order, pay, retire and eat. Unfussed, like the English pub. And guess who's there? Young Istanbul couples in their droves enjoying the freedom of the West and being seen in public with someone of the opposite sex without shame, without traditional stifling etiquette. They lean forward over the tables towards each other and laugh and talk. It does feel very free and liberating. I don't blame them. I don't think I've ever enjoyed a McDonalds as much and I feel warmly towards Elizabeth for such a great idea!
Sancta Sophia. Hagia Sophia. Cathedral come mosque. One of the two spiritual and architectural monoliths that stand opposite each other across a jaded park. Both with minarets drawing eyes upward. Both monumental in size and grandeur. First sight of the interior of Sancta Sophia reveals a gaudy and many splendoured thing with a towering round cuppola - a wonder of a past architectural age. Vast. Its history as a church lends it a linear aspect. It's easy to imagine an alter at one end, unlike the Blue Mosque. Is that why I remember it better now? I climb the spiral staircase and stand back, centre, and above - precisely where VIP's once sat. Return balconies allow you to wander viewing frescoes and architraves. Dark corners. Spacious walkways go all the way round. I wander for some time and begin to wonder where Elizabeth is. It occurs to me that she may have been latched on to by some willing Islamic sleaze, but nah - not in this wonderful place. A place of God. Wrong. She has been looking for me to try and shake off an official Sophia guide who has already asked her out after work. I could come too he says. Do I like whisky? Yes, but no thanks, but he does ply us with fascinating information. He helps us see the transformation from church to mosque. He points out spots where peeling painted plaster reveals dark sombre frescoes that once covered the entire interior. They exude beauty and yes a different set of beliefs, but not so intrusive that they couldn't have been incorporated into a mosque. It seems excessive to spend so much time and energy plastering over great art with other motifs, inferior in execution. It strikes me as barbaric and wantonly destructive. Strangely I still find Hagia Sophia wonderful; awesome even. Only when shown the work of Christians beneath the plaster does one appreciate how much more a thing of wonder and beauty it once was.
We've been here several days now, and we're beginning to tire of Istanbul. Everyone who talks to you has an ulterior motive: they have a carpet shop usually, or know someone who does; or they want to get closer to Elizabeth. It's like meeting insurance salesmen all day long. We wander the Grand Bazaar. A warren like collection of covered alley ways bursting with merchandise. We sit on an alley corner for coffee and are soon accompanied by a dapper well spoken man about 45 years of age. He seems upper class. He wants to know if we're interested in smoke. No, I tell him. He says he smokes daily and has several shops in the bazaar. No reason to doubt that but we smell a rat. He's more sophisticated; more sensitive to reformed Western dope smokers and knows not to rush us, but he's hedging. His class just means taking longer to get to the same ulterior motive. We don't have to buy anything - just come and look. Just come and learn a bit about Turkish carpets. We resist the teensy temptation and as soon as its clear that we are not going to change our mind and go with him he turns quickly and politely cold and takes his leave. I'm left with mixed feelings of good riddance, and what a shame he didn't just want to talk to us more. I liked him.
Our last day. Killing time now. Drizzly and uninviting. We exit the bazaar.It spills out into the adjoining streets into the rain like people running in the gutters from the overflow of humanity. The market must go on. Gradually, the crowd grows thinner and there are fewer umbrellas to duck. We head for Galata Bridge: the bridge to another continent. We visit the other continent by commuter ferry and find mundane suburbs where there are actually more shops than street sellers. Somehow predictable though that even this crazy city has its own dormitory suburbs. We sit in the warmth on the return journey and argue about whether or not we have actually momentarily visited another continent. We have. Back to the bridge and under it to find a string of fish restaurants just feet from the water. Great cheap food. A place where locals go for lunch. The establishment's tout enjoys entertaining us with his antics through the window and it feels like a good end to our stay here. The restaurant rocks suspended by this pontoon bridge and trucks make everything shudder as they rumble overhead. No need to worry - it's been going on for decades. Just like relaxing amid a succession of earthquakes. I gaze for one last time at the line of mosques that dot the hill in front of us in the mist. A fabled scene. Craft crisscross the grey waters. A scene from time immemorial. Back to the Hotel Rio one more time. Did the Eastern Europeans disturb us with their drunken racket tonight?...early morning taxi...airport...flight to Munich...all a blur until...
I'd sent Michael and Ushi a postcard telling of our arrival. 7.00 am. No real hopes of being met. We'll go into stadmitte and call from a phone box. And there he was! With his pretty sister. We're whisked off through the wintry streets to Ushi's for a regal, leisurely breakfast. Our recent journeys spoken of. We pore over magnificent photos of Australia and wonder where we are. I look out the window to remind myself. Hours of easy talk with a loving family flow by. We drive to the palace of Munich's dead kings and wander their gardens and I feel home away from home again. In contrast to Topkapi the grounds are immaculately kept. We walk just long enough to feel the northern winter's dampness creeping under my skin. Michael decides to give us an unnecessary tour of downtown Munich and we worry about the clock. We reach the airport in plenty of time and we're flying again.
We can see them on the other side of the customs hall - a blonde mother and son. I don't want to look. I want to savour the moment of expectation - one of those rare moments when something you have looked forward to with such eagerness IS without doubt going to happen. I'm going to hold my son again. We're through; he's there. I pick him up and my eyes burst. Bliss. Completion. The journey's outermost point. From here it's all return. Hiske's eyes are welcoming. Joti chats non-stop to Blaricum and we're back home once again with Vera and Mopsy. The place looks rundown. I get a tour of the booty Joti's acquired in his two months here and I gobble up every word. Next day we walk along that lovely leafy track to the hei. Memories of a song prompted by this place. Memories from an even deeper past evoked later back at the house when Hiske and I sing for old times sake. We gell as we used to while Joti and Elizabeth chat and baby Cash sits on Vera's knee. Everybody present feels and accepts their place and the moment weirdly and deliciously. I dare not look at Hiske. I don't want to break the spell. Elizabeth and I depart for Amsterdam. Bussum railway platform. Yellow train like I first saw on the television news when one was hijacked by South Moluccans. Centraal Station. We walk out from the underpass and savour a sight I fell in love with fifteen years ago. Amsterdam by night. A busker, lights twinkling on canal waters, a low skyline: human scale for an international city. We walk slowly and stop at one of the thousands of inviting cafes for wat pilsjes to let Amsterdam return to us. Our last anonymous act. Exciting. Anticipation burns. We both have our own stories here and now they join. Onward to Bickerseiland. We find the boat. Jim's on the telephone peering through the window. Home again - in a place neither of us have ever been. It takes but a few minutes. Sadly, here among friends we stop travelling. We will sleep here and then in our own beds, with a few days, a flood of memories, a social calendar, and a plane ride in between. From here it's personal again. I'm known here. There's emotional investment. I'm a creature of the past. I measure myself against what happened before. Expectations lurk that may not be satisfied. I feel responsibility. I carry a load. But not happily with Jim and Els. They know all my shades. Elizabeth does not. We're social beings again. I must deal with my past. Face its pleasures and indiscretions. Grapple with ghosts that haunt. A betrayed friend does not let me forget. He grapples with me - his ghost of fear. I bring pain back to him, and to his partner, pleasure. And she wants it again. Desperately it seems. I crack. Elizabeth and I argue. I'm here to separate a son from his mother. Perhaps I'll tell the whole story one day. It's time to go home.
Early morning airport again. Time for separation. Joti eventually leaves Hiske's embrace and comes towards us. He hesitates and turns to look at Hiske and Cash again. Other goodbye wishers look on in anguish. There is nothing easy about this. It's a time to steel yourself or one would never leave. I pick Joti up and tears are streaming down his face. One last look back. We round the corner and we're gone. I wonder about Hiske. How can she handle this? But there is no animosity. I'm grateful to her for that. It could have been much harder. We fly home. I have done what I came here to do. Start a new life now: Elizabeth, me, Joti, Ben and Alison. And they're at the airport, along with hordes of others. Time to look forward. Summer.
April Fool's Day. Duke of Brunswick, SCALA'S current home, for SCALA'S nth presentation of original music on Wednesday nights. How many years has it been? The program looked strong tonight: Terry Bradford, Robyn Habel, and the indomitable Bedridden. The indefatigable Jane Childs was of course on the door. The man who started it all, the mild - mannered public servant, El Presidente, was lurking somewhere.
I missed Terry's performance. I'm sure he attacked his music and his audience with his characteristic all or nothing approach. The first time I saw Terry Bradford play solo was upstairs at the Duke of York. I was floored by his onslaught. Like it or lump it, here I am in abundance was his message. I wasn't sure if I liked it. It was the second time round at the same venue that I was converted. That's the way to do it I thought - attack what you're doing. Make people squirm or swoon, but don't give them any chance to ignore you. Make sure they go away realising that the performer had given his all. That's not such a high risk when blessed with the talent that Terry has, but it's a policy more performers could follow.
I may have missed Terry's performance tonight but he was very present in other capacities as he roamed about the room listening to his musical confreres from different vantage points, applauding good lyrics, smiling at nuances that seemed like shared jokes, and kindly tuning Bedridden instruments after each thrash folk number. I came in on Robyn Habel who once played alongside Terry in The Everys. The room was full, and the stage had moved again, to the northern end this time. Robyn Habel is one of the few Christian musicians I have heard who does not make the disbelievers amongst us cringe. She sings with power and melody over pumping guitar rhythms about what concerns her with passion and sincerity. She makes no apologies for what she believes and leaves room for her audience to take away what they want. A great singer who fills a room with a sound that is warm and strong.
The MC warned us of the impending chaos of the Bedridden, and the mixer was already wisely making himself scarce. Michael Coghlan's tape was playing in the background as Lilybub, Batterz et al tried to sandwich themselves between the speakers. Batterz eventually gave up on this and spent a good part of the set playing in the audience - to wonderful dramatic effect. The room was full now. Didgeridoo Jeff was there up from Myponga again. The Grieves were displaying their bonny offspring, and little Joshua Battersby slept in his pusher. Fellow musicians discussed the Dylan concert, while others sought out drummers for their next project. Some were organising rehearsal times for the next few days. Dave Cronin was soliciting volunteers for MC and door jobs, and the Bedridden began their own brand of madness and total originality. Perhaps they more than any other SCALA performers embody what original music really means. Rumours that they were disbanding were circulated and squashed the same night, and Spayman gave the audience the chance of being their mixer. No one took him up on it! The Bedridden went on espousing the glories of stray cats, birthdates, Marion Rd and being able to swim as a measure of true love, with engaging harmonies, lots of strings, and stirring percussion.
11 o'clock unfortunately sounds
the death knell, ( "We gotta get outa this place." ), and songwriters gather
to write around a theme. The soft porn video screen plays on in the bar
and offends many. Some have spent the evening with craned necks.
I first discovered SCALA many years ago when someone told me of this place where people could play original music and get paid for it. Always on the lookout for a paid gig, no matter how measly, my partner and I went looking for this Stamps Cafe place. Somewhere in Mitcham. We found it, did a spot of our songs standing there in the corner without amplification, and were encouraged to return. El Presidente was there of course. Sean Mangan and Kate Battersby sat at a table, and at the end of the night Tom Trasy was sitting at the bar and was persuaded to trot out a gem of a number called "My Old Valiant". Unfortunately I haven't heard it since that night, but I had just parted with my beloved Valiant and my love affair with SCALA was sealed. To the Duke of York, upstairs and downstairs, the Gilbert, to the relatively swank surroundings of the Lord Melbourne with a real stage and real stage lighting, and now there's another Duke.
So that's it. Another night of SCALA music, and a great one. Makes me want to go home and have another go at that bloody song I'm trying to finish, because at SCALA on Wednesday nights people will want to hear it because it's mine. Thank you SCALA.
Sometime: The Curse of the Traveller
Things go right, I go right. Things go wrong, I go. Damian off to Mexico. I dream of faraway. He walks out on children and broken marriages. I contemplate walking into one that may end the same way. The slightest sign of things being slightly adrift and my knee jerk impulse is escape, run away where somehow it won't be so bad; where the illusion of freedom will distract me from the fact that something I wanted has not come to pass; where I can gloss over failure and at least draw solace from the fact that I am able to escape the site of pain; be a free spirit amongst the humdrum of others' existence; excite them with my exoticness; be welcomed because I'm a stranger from faraway; someone who people can look at to realise their own unreachable dreams; see me as a break in their mundaneity; see me as someone with no failed dreams! The "curse of the traveller": never to forget that it's out there: the grand illusion of achieving something just because you're somewhere interesting, exotic (read different), and thereby interesting yourself. What a grand illusion! I have been there many times, and know its emptiness. And yet, if things were to go terribly wrong here, I would be off like a shot. Pathetic! Inflict it all upon myself again. No, to spend a night with Bill in a bar in Jerusalem. To let him speak at that furious pace with passion and sacrilegious humour about the conflicts of himself and Israel; to make the pilgrimage to Titus' grave - to say the goodbye he cheated me of - nay, Nandi was the cheat. To front up on the doorstep of Yossi Devir's humble, comfortable dwelling at Gevim…...
TO JERUSALEM AND BACK - August, 1998
My presence at the ETAI conference in July was ultimately the result of a chance encounter with Valerie Jakar on an email list sometime late last year. I made some crack about list members not realising that there were people on the list from the forgotten hemisphere in the south and Valerie took the bait. Many emails later she suggested that I might attend the ETAI conference, and the seeds of a dream were sown.
Some 8-10 months later I landed at Ben Gurion - my first visit to Israel in 12 years. (I had first made the journey as a young and impecunious traveller looking for work, adventure and free board. You guessed it - kibbutz life!) First impressions this time round were immediate. Smog and traffic. Israel had clearly grown, and got busier.
I had several days before the conference to reacquaint myself with the smorgasbord of multicultural life that is Israel, and delved headlong into some soul-searching discussion with old friends about the current state of the Israeli body politic vis a vis the West Bank, etc. The intensity of life that makes a visit to Israel so charged with emotion, and living there such a strain, had registered. It was good to be back. I visited my old kibbutz, did the obligatory wander through the old city, and loitered in Ben Yehuda mall where I once spent many hours busking years ago and tried not to think about the shocking events that had occurred there in the interim.
And then to the conference. Registration complete, I took in the warning that keynote speaker David Graddol had for native English speaking nations - no longer was the EFL/ESL market ours by birthright. The following morning in his plenary address Mark Warschauer told of the changing employment patterns in the developed world, and the new skills that characterise the emerging symbolic analysts class (http://www.boker.org.il/eng/etni/etaitalk2.html). These two presentations provided ample intellectual and theoretical background against which to measure the value of what we do in our classrooms, and assess the presentations of the next few days.
I attended any session I could that had anything to do with virtual classrooms and the Internet - the Virtual Teaching and Learning session led by Sara Morgenstein discussing the teacher training program devised by Elaine Hoter perhaps being the most memorable. The enthusiasm of exiting graduates of the course was obvious testament to its success. I’m currently discussing with Elaine the possibility of using a modified version of her web-based program for ESL teachers here in South Australia.
My impression from the conference in general was that teachers in Israel seem to be making more use of the Internet as a classroom teaching tool than my colleagues here in Australia, but that Australia is using the Internet as a medium for distance education more - not surprisingly. Australia has long had to contend with communication over vast distances and has a well established distance education network. These are however only impressions gleaned from my experience at the conference, and may not be borne out by the facts. What is true is that the issues voiced by participants at the CALL counsellors session (Mentoring CALL as a Paradigm Shifter!) are in broad brush the same that concern teachers here - access, funding, professional development, and informed and systematic forward planning.
Most Internet presentations in a conference setting of course rely heavily on having a reliable and speedy Internet connection with multi media projection. This sounds simple, but the range of technical problems that can occur are more than a few and I would like to take this opportunity to thank Irena Pudalov and the technical staff at Binyanei Ha’Ooma for making this aspect of the conference smooth and efficient.
I very much enjoyed the opportunity of presenting at the ETAI conference, but come the last day I was unsure how to approach my final session. Four o’clock on day four would be lucky to draw together 20 souls, if that, I thought. Wrong. About 40 people turned up, and after some rather forthright advice from one participant at the outset the session was I believe a successful one for all present. I walked out of the conference centre and really felt like the appropriate thing would have been to head straight for the airport. Instead I had two days in the hills of Ein Kerem to assimilate it all.
This visit to Israel was also my first opportunity to meet people encountered online ‘in the flesh’, and I must say that it is an experience of intense anticipation and excitement. Meeting Valerie, Jean Vermel, Lily Vered, Margaret Walline and others was a delight. I had heard from others that impressions gathered from online contact are usually borne out in reality. And they were. The downside of it all is having to return to the medium of email after meeting people in real life. As wonderful as email is for opening up new horizons professionally and personally, it is no substitute for face to face contact and the warmth of real life interaction. So now, as I sit here at my desk in Adelaide, I am again reliant on email (and ETNI) to continue friendships with people I met in Israel. And it somehow seems second best.
Holed up here at the airport. Vancouver. "Major computer breakdown throughout the terminal" said the captain. Nice of him to let us know. That means at least fifteen minutes more in this seat. Modern international air travel - an exquisite form of torture invented by the 20th century. The benefits at the end of the torture are indisputable though. I have just spent a few days in the wondrous world of Whistler - a playground at the foot of Canadian mountains just north of Vancouver.
An artificially created town, Whistler was invented to try and seal a bid to host the Winter Olympics back in the seventies. The bid failed but Whistler flourished. The fortune paid out by a coterie of Vancouver businessman has resulted in a pretty, atmospheric, chic village at the foot of Whistler mountain. This and its companion mountain, Blackcomb, are the real reasons Whistler village exists. A twenty minute $22 gondola ride hauls you high above the valley floor and delivers you into the alpine world.
Late June. Start of the summer hiking season on Whistler and there is snow everywhere. So much in fact that all the official trails are closed. Still, many (us included) start trekking up a snow-covered path to Whistler peak. Walking and slipping on a snowy trail, the track becomes a muddy trickle of melted snow. Not very attractive but easier to walk on than snow. As we climb the awe and majesty of the mountains envelops us. Wet feet, tired legs, beating heart - none of this matters as your eyes are seduced by a beauty that empties your mind. You start to understand the addiction that people have for such places. ("Rocky Mountain High"). Not only is there space laterally, there is space vertically. At this altitude daily life is a long way off, and it's actually hard to come back down. Those who don't have this kind of terrain in their backyard linger, taking in just one more sight, one more aspect, one more peak, one more glimpse of the valley below. It is beguiling and you make the decision there and then to remember this. You push the scene to that part of the brain that will store it away for later recall. It's too good to forget - a feast for the eyes and a fillip for the soul.
The delay is almost over. Soon we'll pull away from the remarkable natural setting that is Vancouver. Younger than Adelaide, it's a city of contrasts. Homeless, reasonably well kept, patrol and beg on the pristine clean city streets. Downtown sits beside a spectacular setting that rivals Sydney's. Water everywhere. At one point middle class Vancouver descends into an underworld that would do LA's east side proud. Junkies, prostitutes (I guess), gangs, ethnic layabouts, rundown dwellings, dirty streets. The change is staggering and it happens in the space of a hundred metres or so. Safe one minute. Two hundred metres down the street and ……unsafe. Go back. You are going the wrong way! Would I hang around down there? I'd like to say yes but it did look pretty sleazy……
We are taxiing. I'll probably never be back here so I'll never have to find out. When I was younger I probably wouldn't have given it a second thought. Take the cheapest accommodation wherever, and experience all that comes with the territory. One of the great things about the last two weeks is how young this trip has made me feel. Sitting out on the deck of the ferry to Vancouver island as we wound our way through the islands in the morning sun, I felt as I did twenty years back when I was in some beautiful place and my only concern was which beautiful place would I go to next. It's still a beautiful, beautiful world. But you have all that wonderful coastline and all those beaches Canadians would say. And they're right of course. We do. But I live there and see our wonderful coast most days. And God willing I'll see the coast of Brisbane in about 16 hours. Sail on silver bird.