Saturday, June 30, 2007

Farewell 450

Last night at 450 Lygon Street, my home for the last nine months. Here’s the view early this morning. You’ll notice the new graffiti on the wall. It went up about a month ago – the artists came to the door to notify us before they started, a month or so ago, and, in the way of Carlton house shares, have now been connected up with housemate P’s sister who runs a gallery in Manchester and is interested in graffiti art. I don’t much like it, seems derivative of retro tattoos or something, but P assures me it’s not finished. I was much happier with the graffiti on the wall before (the picture was taken in January), which had much more character and even wit – isn’t this fellow dreaming of spray-painting St. Jude’s across the street?

450 Lygon Street is a place almost everyone I meet can picture, or claims to be able to picture – the last terrace on Lygon Street, above Elgin, bluestone, before the Housing Commission flats. One block south from us, towards the CBD, you reach places everyone in Melbourne knows – Jimmy Watsons (the city’s first wine bar), Readings bookstore, and some tried and true Italian restaurant/coffee shops: Tiamo, Brunettis, Università. On the corner of our block, next to Victoria’s biggest used bookshop, is Percy’s (which you’ll remember from the pics of my trip to the Center). J, the manager of the Philosophy Department at Melbourne Uni grew up two houses down from us (have I mentioned this?), and her very short very Italian parents are still there. In the house between, also a bluestone (J reckons our two blustones could be heritage listed if the owner wanted), lives a roadie – he’s a friend of a friend of D, and has lived there for thirty years. Small world!
What I haven’t mentioned, because I haven’t really thought enough about it, is that I live on a frontier between the known world and an unknown one. The Housing Commission Flats start just above us. I’ve had little to do with them, although I took my nephews to one of the playgrounds once, and the younger one quickly befriended some bashful Somali girls. I thought I might meet some in the Church of All Nations, the Uniting (once Methodist) Church you can see from our kitchen, so went once, finding, instead, a small congregation of very good very old middle class white people. The people from all the nations who live in the flats, just beyond the big cross in the brick wall, haven’t become members. It made me very sad.

A few weeks ago I saw a community theater piece by people form the flats, developed at the Church of All Nations’ Walk In Centre. From it I learned that the the towers stand on several large blocks from which slums of terraces like ours had been removed. There are 4500 people in the towers, many of them recent immigrants – I hear more different languages as people pass my window here than you’d hear on any street in Manhattan (if not in Queens). What I hadn’t really considered until I saw this play (called “Le Corbusier’s dream”) was that in 1964, when all this happened, there were no residential buildings in Melbourne taller than a few storeys; J says that the tallest buildings she remembers as a child were Myers, five or six storeys tall in the CBD. And then suddenly, twenty-one storeys. Imagine: a slum translated into the sky.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Nathanael's question

Let me tell you about a terrific new book, Robert Kenny’s The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World (Melbourne: Scribe, 2007). I noticed it at Readings, the famous bookstore down the road (and on whose back window noticeboard I found the place I’ve been staying), and judged it by its cover, which is gorgeous – the mysterious white shape (which may be the earliest Aboriginal representation of western animals) is embossed and it’s impossible to resist running one’s fingers over it.

But the inside’s even better. The focal point of the book is the conversion of a Wotjabaluk man from what’s now western Victoria at a German Moravian mission in 1860. Nathanael Pepper’s conversion was much celebrated at the time, and has traditionally been seen as the founding moment of the indigenous church. Kenny shows there’s more going on than people have noticed, starting with the baptismal name Nathanael which all the (few) historical sources insist Pepper chose for himself – it wasn’t among the names suggested to him. There’s only one Nathanael in the Bible, and he’s known for only one thing, asking “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46) Kenny makes a suggestive case that Pepper’s aligning himself with “Nathanael’s question” shows his conversion to be a challenge to the culture of the western invaders rather than an acquiescence to it – like Nazareth, Europe hardly seemed like the sort of place from which salvation might come. It is Christianity he accepts, not the culture which brought it to Australia.

Kenny's unafraid to take on academic commonplaces, like that missionaries are the agents of colonialism: during this period, some of the Christian missions were on the side of the angels, working to protect Aboriginal people and their lands. (In Australia the missionaries usually came after the ranchers had come into a territory with their flocks.) Kenny reports his surprise on learning that, in this period, the ideals of equality and anti-racism were being promoted by religious figures persuaded that all human beings were of “One Blood,” not by secular thinkers. And so, one by one, Kenny brings various stereotypes and accepted views down a notch – it’s an exciting read. The work is a fine example of a new kind of global microhistory – attention to how some apparently local event was affected by larger movements, and also in its way made its mark: Pepper’s conversion was reported in various publications in Europe as proof positive that the Australian Aborigines were among God’s chosen, too.

The harder part of the story to tell concerns the culture and religion of the Wotjabaluk. His title records Kenny’s brilliant idea that, to a people for whom animals were of great religious as well as social (and nutritional) importance, European animals will have been a bigger shock than ‘white’ human beings: there are no animals as big as horses or cows in Australia, and none domesticated. Why should not the Wotjabaluk have concluded that one of these animals was this people’s totem?

But if we decide that the physical scale of the cattle, horses, and carts challenged Aboriginal cosmology, the same can’t be said of sheep, who were no larger than wallabies or wombats. Their numbers alone may have done so, but there was a more important reason for the local peoples to see the sheep as symbolic to the settlers—to see the sheep as the settlers’ group “totem.” It was. (176)

I was so enthralled by Kenny’s book that I wrote to him – loved your book, intersects with so many things I’m interested in, pity we can’t meet since I am leaving in a week – and he found time to get together. We met for coffee yesterday at Cicalata, just beyond Readings, and got on like a house on fire! He’s got the closest thing to a religious studies sensibility I’ve found here. Had his book appeared six months sooner I suspect we’d be best mates by now, and I’d know a lot more academicky people here, but look on the bright side: it didn’t come out six months from now. And I have yet another reason to come back to Melbourne!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Ready to go?

“Are you glad to be going back?” I'm asked.

“Of course I am,” I say, not sure whether it was rude to have said 'of course.' “But sad, too. Glad to be going, not to be leaving.”

“But you’ll be back” – it’s not a question.

“Of course I will.”

White out?

As the drought finally seems to be ending - lots of rain throughout the land - controversy over the Prime Minister's "takeover "of Aboriginal lands in the N.T. heats up by the hour. Howard announced that this issue was "our Katrina," an unfortunate claim since Katrina, too, revealed that neglect had allowed part of a western country's non-white population to live in third-world conditions - and inviting the retort that his comportment has been like his pal Bush's, reacting way too slowly after ignoring repeated warnings! Elders in Mutitjulu, the (Pitjantjatjara- speaking ) community near Uluru which will be the first place to get a government makeover, say they've appealed for help in vain for years even as there have been no litigable cases of abuse in their town. "This is our black children overboard," they say, a reference to lies Howard told about refugees in a boat off Australia throwing their own children overboard which swung his most recent reelection. Not sure why it took a few days for these responses to hit the papers and the airwaves, but the place is on fire.
I went this morning to the Cultural Centre of the Koorie Heritage Trust (Koorie is the name used for the Aborigines of southeast Australia), a fine museum with interesting contemporary art galleries. At their shop I nearly bought a souvenir eraser, purest white in a little white paper wrapper with the Trust logo with the Aboriginal flag on it, wondering if this was someone's idea of a joke. Or maybe it's hope: as the white erases the black, it eventually gets worn down and disappears, too?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Making the rounds

I wrote last week that I thought it was my last trip up the worn steps in the Trades Hall to the Pitjantjatjara group. Not quite. Six of us regulars met last night, in part to bid me farewell! Nice start for what’s looking to be a week of fond Melbourne farewells.

We “Trades Hall Mob” (as we’re known at Ngapartji HQ in Alice Springs) started with another convivial language- learning hour in the medical union seminar room back in a newer building behind the Trades Hall's grand facade. L, the woman whose day it was to conduct the class took us through the range of meanings of the all-important word tjukurpa, which, our dictionary told us, can mean story, law, what someone said, message, word… It is often translated as “dreaming,” though it has nothing to do with the oneiric. The idea (which I think she called word-bag) was to understand that a word has many meanings, one word has many words within it. This seemed to me a premature and potentially demoralizing lesson for people still barely able to string together three words, but she was right. We’re not going to become fluent, but to know the kind of resonance and breadth of reference which a few words bear gives us a sense of the richness and subtlety of the language on whose surface we stumble along. At the culture center at Uluru I knew almost none of the Pitjantjatjara words in the bilingual captions, but I knew enough to mouth my way through it and recognize it as language — word endings, sentence structure — and it felt terrific.

The highlight was singing, what’s become the most valuable part of our learning for me. (I often sing these songs as I walk, more audibly if I think there’s nobody else there!) B, a young artist from New Zealand who’s spent a few years with the Pitjantjatjara-speaking community at Ernabella in South Australia, taught us Pitjantjatjara words she’d heard to “Waltzing Matilda” (Nyanpi Matilda! Nyanpi Matilda! / Nyuntu Matilda nyanpi ngalula), and then we sang two songs we’d learned before as rounds: one to the melody of “Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree” and the other to “Frère Jacques.” I hadn’t sung a round in a long time and it’s a lovely thing, isn’t it? Magical, a vision (dare I say?) of good…

Finally we sang the always moving Land Rights Song, with a beautiful, somewhat mournful melody of its own I tried to write out a few weeks ago. (Each space is a beat, in 4:4.)

Kulilaya Kulilaya! EEE-E--- ---- EEE-E--- ----
Ngura nyangatja manta wiru EE EDC- CC DCA---
Nganampa tjamuku kamiku FFFG AAA- AGF-
Ngura iriti-nguru FE DCC CC-- -------- --------
Kulilaya! EEE-E---
Manta miilmiilpa-tjara --EE E-DCDC---
Tjukurpa alatjitu DDD- DCb(flat)A----
Nyaa-ku nyura kulintja wiya? C-CD C-A- AG--GGG

(Listen you all! / This place is good country. / [It’s] our grandfathers’ grandmothers’ / Place from long ago. / Listen you all! / This is sacred land. / Truly tjukurpa. / Why are you all not listening?) It gives us all goosebumps to sing. We didn’t talk about Prime Minister Howard’s “takeover” of Aboriginal communities — “let’s not go there” said our convener R wisely when I made some reference to it — but in singing this we might have been.

(By the way, voices of opposition and alarm are now coming louder and louder to Howard’s plan. Aboriginal leaders are insisting on consultation, health professionals are saying the plan is unimplementable, and some Aboriginal women are said to be fleeing towns in fear their children will be taken away. The governments of the states are not playing ball either; the leader of the state of South Australia said it was like sending troops in to “shock and awe” and then leave six months later claiming “mission accomplished.” I’m not sure why we didn’t hear these voices right away, but it’s a good thing to be hearing them now. Perhaps a truer national consensus on the gravity of the problems and the need for real solutions will emerge.)

And then we headed off up Lygon Street for an Italian dinner, crowned with Italian hot chocolate at the famous Brunetti’s. We’re an odd lot, we Trades Hall Mob—all women again now that I’m leaving (two art historians from Melbourne Uni, including a man, have come and gone again), people doing interesting social justicey things at the margins and interstices of health, education, the labor movement and art; two have daughters doing the same. I’m glad to have met them, and we’ll keep in touch. When I’m in Melbourne next I’ll look them up. I’ve a hunch they’ll still be there, meeting two or three Mondays a month except holidays, enjoying friendship with other people whose journeys have brought them to value some connection with Aboriginal language and people, a link in the growing web connecting Aboriginal and settler Australians and their cultures which will — must! — become more important to both communities in the coming years.

As for me, the New York correspondent: I heard in Alice that there was a chance that the Ngapartji Ngapartji show (whose Melbourne Festival performances are how we Trades Hall Mob learned about all this, including me) might at some point come to Lincoln Center. If so I’ll gather a group of students and we’ll greet them with the Land Rights Song. Maybe my own renewed sense of the power and life of the land and its traditional custodians here will have led me by then to learn more about the erstwhile owners of the island of Manhatto and even met some of their descendants.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

“National emergency”

Don’t know if it’s made its way into the international news, but there’s just been a big change in the lives of Aboriginal Australians. In response to a report on sexual abuse of women and children in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territorry, Prime Minister John Howard is scrapping policies of thirty years, and “taking over." (The Commonwealth Government has jurisdiction in the NT because it’s not a State.) A “national emergency” calls for dramatic meausures, says Howard. So starting today, alcohol and pornography are banned in scores of towns, some of which the government will take over through a 5-year-lease. There will be more police, compulsory health checks for children, and the withholding of welfare moneys from people whose children miss school. These decisions, made without consultation of the NT Government or even the PM’s own hand-picked council on Aboriginal affairs, were announced not a week ago.

In an election season it is clearly political (Howard is nothing if not political), and in harmony with larger agendas to replace a communally-structured with an individualistic society and to assert federal over state power. It is the PM’s first sign of concern for Aboriginal people — there have been reports on addiction and abuse for years, already in 1988 an epidemic of child abuse was reported, and Howard’s main legacy has been neglect and support of mining companies challenging Aboriginal land claims; to some it resonates disturbingly with his refusal to apologize to the “stolen generations,” those mixed-race Aboriginal children who were taken from their Aboriginal parents in the early and mid-20th century. But there seems general support for his intervention and even gratitude that someone in power has finally noticed it. The present system’s clearly failed. And the present situation is indeed horrible. There were reports of the abuse of children in every one of the fifty towns surveyed for the NT study, sometimes of children not much older than toddlers.

The larger problem (which Howard’s authoritarian measures are not likely to address) is the breakdown of traditional Aboriginal society in many places. Elders of communities throughout the land lament the neglect of their grandchildren by their children. Some speak of the greatest crisis for Aboriginal people since the arrival of the Europeans. (At least that's the elders we hear about; Vincent, the elder I met in Alice Springs, lamented decades' of lacking political will on the government side, and regretted what's been lost through an educational system which few Aboriginal children complete.)

How did things get so bad? (Not that they’ve ever been good since us lot arrived.) It is in part the consequence of failed communal policies and the corrupting effects of dependence on government handouts, but the deeper problems are economic – there is as good as no work in Aboriginal lands – and the deepest are cultural. As Aborigines have found their way into quasi-permanent settlements in various unhappy ways, the link to the land in, by and for which they lived has weakened. So have the elaborate mutual systems of social cooperation between genders, generations and groups in maintaining the land and the Law. (I don't expect that these societies were much less sexist than any other human culture, but the present horrors were not traditional parts of any of them.) The gulf between traditional and modern western consumer culture is vast and there are few bridges. Cut off from a past and unable to imagine a future, people flee to “the grog” and drugs, families and communities fall apart, abuse proliferates. (As in most child abuse, many of the abusers were themselves abused.)

The situation is comparable to that of many other indigenous populations around the world. Just as the rest of us are learning the importance of living in harmony with the land, those cultures with the most intimate understanding of the life and needs of the land are collapsing. Or is it that the land is dying, with its powerless custodians? Aboriginal cultures aren’t all dying - an Aboriginal writer just won the Miles Franklin award, Australia’s Pulitzer for fiction – but the situation is dire. Let’s hope that Howard’s moves, whatever their motivation, set the stage for new thought and new policies, and new hope.

(The picture is of Mimi Spirits by Djawida Nadjongorle; I found it here.)

Friday, June 22, 2007

Full circle

Some of you may remember that my very first post on arriving in Australia had a picture of a meandering stream, seen from the air between Sydney and Melbourne. Well, flying back from Sydney yesterday we flew over

the same territory, and this time I got a little film of the sun reflected in the loops and squiggles of a similar stream. It would make good background to the opening credits if this blog were a film, dontcha think?

Surf's up!

I love the surf and what it does to cliffs, so I was on cloud nine watching these windswept Pacific beauties crashing onto the beaches at Manly and Bondi! Windy seascapes are always in motion, so if you can't imagine these waves moving at least try to imagine the sound of crashing surf and the wind whistling in your ears! (In first pic look into the distance.)

Mysterium tremendum fascinans

Sydney's Anzac Memorial is a sight to see, an art deco mausoleum at the end of an avenue of trees and a reflecting pool. As you walk up the stair, you notice clusters of life-size figures on the corners of the edifice, and then you're in a vast domes chamber with a ceiling covered with golden stars. But you're really on a kind of round balcony, and below you is this startling - nay, astonishing - lifesize figure below, suspended on a column by grieving women and children as if crucified on a sword. The focal point of the whole building, terrible and terribly beautiful, it's death and religion and sex all at once. Wasteful glory, glorious waste of war.

Back home

Just got home from Sydney, which seems impossibly beautiful, the kind of place too glamorous and lovely for anyone to actually live there. An odd thing for me to say, I suppose, since I stayed with an old classmate (from 1983-4!) who lives there with hubby and four kids (age 2-14) in a rather swank part of town called Paddington — and have myself lived in several places of which visitors say the same (and will again very soon!).
Maybe it’s that Sydney reminded me of great cities I’ve never dared to dream of living in. Roughly in order: London (arriving on a dark wet day by train from the airport at St. James), San Francisco (later that day climbing steep streets lined with cute little terraces as evening fell), Los Angeles (next day, admiring the surf at Manly, and again this morning walking the cliffs above Bondi — Sydney and LA are on the same ocean after all!), Boston & Philadelphia (yesterday, admiring the colonial era buildings). I haven’t even mentioned the spectacular harbor, and the ever delightful Opera House, which charms from every angle and in every kind of light… (The pics/film are in chronological order, from the plane [it's top center, bottom right the next beach from Bondi], from Mrs. Maquarie's Chair at a rainy sunset, from the Rocks on a grey morning, from the ferry returning from Manly, from the ferry on its way to Pyrmont, where many of the immigrant liners berthed.) In fact my first impression was just: city! Not in the resplendent Emerald City sense but something quite different: old, grand, sophisticated, used, a bit jaded, a bit louche, full of secrets, with more going on (including things from an undying past) than you could ever know or perhaps would want to - and not particularly interested in you. Maybe I should say: 20th century city. The colors on my first drizzly afternoon were the colors of mid-20th century paintings of cities, and then, as night fell and I walked from Wooloomooloo up to Oxford Street toward Paddington, the electic lights reflected in wet city streets conjured up mid-20th century photos of city. In short, I arrived in Sydney wide-eyed like someone from the provinces, who knew cities only from art and literature and movies. How could this happen?! Not to say that Melbourne is provincial, though I guess I’ve always wondered whether it isn’t just too clean and pleasant and well-organized to be a real city…

I wrote the above at the Starbucks at Southern Cross Station, but the trams up Bourke and Swanston to get to my old friend the SLV have confused me. How could I doubt Melbourne's urbanity? The streetscapes are grand, and the sidewalks teeming with people, and trams suddenly seemed the most civilized thing in the world (Sydney’s tramless). Sparkling Sydney was a dream, this was real life - and home.
I was reminded of a saying from the town where my mother grew up. Appetit holt man sich draussen, gegessen wird zuhaus (your appetite grows outside but you eat at home). Not that Melbourne's my home for much longer... but I guess I hadn't realized it was in the first place!

I wonder: when I get back to New York in two weeks (gulp!) will it be "city, city, city!" all over again, or "home sweet home"? New York's tramless, too.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


No wonder Melburnians have a complex. It's like meeting someone's glamorous, slightly risque and ever so much more experienced sibling!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Final steps

Here's a picture I've long been meaning to post - the steps of the Trades Hall, home of the union movement in Victoria and the place where my Pitjantjatjara study group meets. (I love the way they sag with history.) Tonight's probably my last time ascending them...

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Where it all began

So I am indeed going to Sydney for a few days, leaving Tuesday and returning Friday. Part of me is worried I'll fall in love and conclude I've spent the year in the wrong city. Sydney's older, richer, flashier, and on one of the world's most beautiful harbors. Three days won't really be long enough to test my Melburnian friends' claim that Sydney's great for a fling but not for a relationship... Oh well, I'm not really into flings - though I have quite enjoyed my little trysts with Adelaide, Perth and Darwin!
It's reassuring to note that while Sydney was founded by Captain James Cook in 1788, half a century before Melbourne got started, the cottage where Cook was born (and built in 1755) is right here in Melbourne! It was brought over from Yorkshire in 1933, to celebrate the centenary of European settlement in Melbourne! (The postcard, at SLV, is from about 1945.) A bit twisted, in a way Borges might have appreciated. But can you get the better of your begetter by getting where its begetter was begot?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Mountain air!

Just came back from a few days at my sister's in Mount Macedon. Glorious scenery, and less than an hour from Melbourne - they've landed in a really lovely spot! And in this season the air, fresh and crisp with a whiff of woodfire smoke, tastes really delicious. (The picture is of a small reservoir on the side of the Mount.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Carlton house sharing connection

Tuesday night I was dropped off near my place in Carlton by a great chef, along with a gifted young saxophonist I'd just heard play. How could this happen to bookish writer's-blocked yours truly? It all goes back to Carlton house shares, which seem like the productive formulas for endlessly interesting permutations and combinations.

Flash back a few hours, and you'll find a table of seven people tucking into dinner at Mecanix, the training restaurant of the Prahran TAFE (Technical and Further Education college). The host was D, a college friend of K (back in Germany, her other life), who's taken me under wing a bit this past year; I think we're now officially mates. Other guests included D's lovely partner and two women, both of whom had shared a house with K twenty-odd years ago. The food was prepared by TAFE students but presided over by chef G, who ran (if I'm remembering correctly) a restaurant or two in Carlton when D, K and others were students here. Since then he ran a renowned restaurant in the country south of here for a while, since closed (Melbourne mourned) - but at Mecanix you can still encounter some of his culinary wonders. Fantastic fish soup, a sweet and sultry beef dish, crisp ratatouille, a lavender and yogurt ice cream alongside quinces cooked with raisins and pine nuts were only highlights.

The conversation was as delightful as the food, in a way I'm starting to recognize as one of the pleasures of living in a country with a small population. Someone at the table had a personal connection to almost everything which came up, though we tittered at the young people thrilled to find sausages being sold at the St Kilda (was it?) market by an actor they recognized from "The Matrix." Saw you in a movie? That's nothing: We talked of the film of Raimond Gaita's memoir Romulus my father which has just come out; star Eric Bana's married to one of our cousins, and the film was shot in a house rented from part of one of our families! That's a connection! I mentioned I'd just read Lily Brett's Too many men, recommended by K the last time we came to Mecanix, a not non-autobiographical novel about Brett and her father. We quickly passed over the book to Brett herself; two people at table had just seen Brett's father at a do in New York. (The Australasian diaspora includes two or three cities down here and everywhere you'd want to be in the world.)

Then D got an SMS from the young saxophonist, announcing that he was playing in a 5-person combo at a jazz club that evening. The saxophonist, a student at the Victorian College of the Arts, is the son of - you guessed it - someone with whom D shared a house years ago. The meal over, D and his partner and I hitched a ride with the chef to the jazz bar, where we were the only patrons not exact contemporaries or blood-relations of the very young (and gifted) quintet Wilu, centered around a trombonist and her jazz-guitar-playing brother. (You can hear some of their soulful compositions on their myspace page.) Later, when D and his partner were going to the place of - I'm sure - yet another ex-housemate, the chef dropped me and the saxophonist off on Lygon Street. The Saxophonist is of course sharing a house in Carlton, and so the cycle goes on.

Is there something like this in New York, perhaps in Brooklyn? If so, I'd love to be part of it. Sharing a house this year has been terrific. Even though it's with people it's taken me a year to like and still not friends, we've become comfortable with each other; were I staying on in the house or in town we'd probably end up becoming friends at least in the extended sense of thinking of each other when something of interest to the other came up. Very nice indeed to have this community matrix working alongside those of work, family and (if you're into that) religion.

What's the analog in the US? College roommates, I suppose, but that's not quite the same thing, since it's only for a few years. Here, it's not in university dorms and continues naturally into the life after uni, sometimes for many years. (Our next door neighbor at 450 Lygon - a friend, needless to say, of a friend of D's - moved in thirty years ago and is there still.) It all seems a wonderful corrective to the materialism and isolation of modern life. Remember my October rhapsody on sharing and Wohngemeinschaften (inspired by an early outing with D)? It's all true.

So if anyone knows of a promising share situation in Brooklyn, starting in August - do let me know.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Sense of an ending

Just over three weeks to go, which seems to me a useless chunk of time. Three days I can manage or three months. Or three weeks in a place I don't know. (My India stay was just over three weeks.) Farewells to Melbourne friends are still premature but there's no point already getting stressed about what awaits in New York - finding a new apartment, renewing my driver's license (which lapsed a few months ago), catching up on what's happened with friends and school, ordering textbooks for my Fall courses - and figuring out what to say I've been up to this year off the map. It feels odd to be thinking about summing up "my time in Australia" when life goes on for my family and friends here. (I'll also need to decide whether or not to keep this blog going.)

Instead of watching the clouds out the window in wintry Melbourne, however dramatic, perhaps I should take a last-minute trip to Sydney! Since Melbourne's everything Sydney isn't (or so I'm told), that should get the juices flowing again. If I go next week (catching the Fête de la Musique) Melbourne will still have a week and a half for a retort!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Queen's birthday

Today's Queen's birthday, a public holiday. I'd forgotten about her, and her connection to Australia. So busy looking at the animals on Australian coins (except the $2 coin which has a picture of an old Aboriginal man, tho' it may not have been meant as an exception) that I'd quite forgotten she's there on the flip side! (Does she look kind of fed up or is it just me?)

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Not compulsory

There are so many things about Australia I haven't had a chance to mention in this blog (not to mention the things I don't know yet!). Like, say, compulsory voting. Everyone over the age of 18 has to vote or pay a penalty. And when you vote you have to vote for more than one party. It changes everything in elections, compared to the US, where candidates pay big money just to get supporters out to vote (and, um, to suppress the votes of presumed non-supporters).

Actually I don't think I've even mentioned that Australia's in the lead-up to federal elections. John Howard, pretty much George Bush's only remaining friend in staying the course in Iraq but not Kyoto, has been Prime Minister for ten years, coming from behind to win two reelections so far. Labor has had a big edge in the polls for the last few months since a palace coup last December where a somewhat nerdy self-described Christian socialist named Kevin Rudd took the helm. (My housemates, who vote Green and would have voted for Nader in the US elections, say he's just Howard with glasses.) The gap in the polls is narrowing though.

Australian politics is Westminster-style, so there's lots of verbal jousting in parliament. The Prime Minister and his government have to face questions every day, though they don't need to actually answer them and sometimes just huff in indignation at the nerve of the opposition's questions. The opposition, meanwhile, has a shadow cabinet so interesting alternatives to government policies are considered, at least in the lead-up to an election. But most of the sound-bites you hear on the radio are barbed ad hominem comments on the order of "his policy is a dagger in the heart to Australian industry" and "he's run out of ideas." It's kind of exciting, at least at first. Then, as people call each other name-callers, it gets old quickly.

Would I pay more attention if I were a citizen and knew I had to vote? I'm used to thinking of politics as something you don't have to be interested in. Back in the US the only things compulsory are death, taxes and tipping.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


A friend of mine has just published a book which will challenge everything you think you know about sushi and its arrival in America. (I certainly didn't know it started in Southeast Asia.) The book only just appeared last week so I haven't had a chance to look at it, but initial reviews are enthusiastic. Lucky Trevor - when people interview him about this book they tend to do it over a meal at the best sushi place in town! The book apparently tells the story of sushi from humble wharfside beginnings to fancy schmancy restaurants. I don't know if it discusses this way of serving sushi, one I have not seen in Japan or the US. So far as I know these take-away hand-held almost futomaki-sized rolls are an Australian spin on rolls. You eat them like a hotdog of springroll. People usually buy three or four of these rolls and a little fish-shaped plastic soy sauce dispenser, sit down on a parkbench and tuck in. No chopsticks needed!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Spent another few days up in Macedon with my sister's family. Exciting to be getting to know a new place, especially one as scenic as this! This colorful rosella (a kind of parrot) is not the most beautiful patron of their bird house, but the only one which stayed put long enough for me to run and get my camera. Most striking are some other rosellas which are all red except for touches of light and dark blue on the wings, and the huge white sulfur-crested cockatoos. There's almost always someone flying around the grand old trees. With the smoke of wood stoves in the air, it's definitely feeling cozy and wintry!

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Am here doing this

What's the present continuous for "been there, done that"? I'm exactly a month from heading home, but I'm realizing that in my meandering way I have been getting a pretty well-rounded sense of what Australia's about. (I have yet to be to a footie game, or to Sydney, though.). This was borne out for me at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin, where I intersected with a traveling exhibit of "National Treasures from Australia's Great Libraries," and found I sort of knew why each article there was displayed, and recognized many.

It was wonderful to see early maps where New Holland and New South Wales have not yet grown together, the only surviving prisoner's uniform, Governor Arthur's 1830 Declaration (the picture at right - can you figure out what it's trying to say? the Tasmanian Aborigines read between the lines) and a near contemporary print depicting the importation of wives to the male-dominated colonies (below), Ned Kelly's mask (usually in the SLV here in Melbourne), original drawings from The Magic Pudding, diaries from Cook's expedition to the Mabo land rights case, the origins of the Hills Hoist and the Sydney Opera House and "Waltzing Matilda" (with a different melody), and much else besides - right down to the original Gould's book of fish! Even the portrait of Bungaree (left), the Aboriginal guide who accompanied Matthew Flinders on the first circumnavigation of the continent seemed familiar. (Everything's on the website, nicely explained.)

"I've got this place sussed," I thought to myself, just before I headed off to Kakadu to once again have the ground pulled out from under my feet - or is it: ground put under the ground under my feet? Australia's strange and shifting mix of amazingly recent and unfathomably ancient gets you coming and going.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Pictures from South, Center and North

Here are some pictures from my trip from Melbourne to Adelaide, Adelaide to Alice Springs, Kings Canyon and Kata Tjuta and Uluru, Alice to Katherine to Darwin, and Kakadu. This is Percy's Bar, the corner of our block in Melbourne, dim in the predawn. The Overland takes ten hours to get to Adelaide. The scenery was fresh green from the autumn rains. We had some rain, too!I stayed overnight in Adelaide, and paid the Botanic Gardens an early morning visit before the midday departure of the Ghan. It was, of course, autumnal... very nice contrast with my last visit, half a year ago. The Ghan - oops, the train staff never failed to say "the legendary Ghan" too us up past Port Augusta, the northernmost point of Spencer Bay - the last body of water I'd see until I'd crossed the continent south to north! Vast country in both directions, the Flinders Ranges in the distance below. Next morning the land had turned a sort of ochry red (the same color as the supposedly "pink city" of Jaipur), and we crossed several dry river beds on our way to the Center.

In Alice Springs a friend of a friend of a friend (indeed the friend of two different friends of friends) took me to the telegraph station around which the settlement grew lay. Sunset shadows stretched long and a rock wallaby said hello! All around the ripply ranges of the "caterpillar dreaming" of the indigenous population.

Next day it was off to Kings Canyon, a stunning landscape, a bumpy moonscape of beehive-shaped conglomerate which fell off into a deep canyon with sheer pink walls (above) and at its center a narrow valley full of water and trees known as the Garden of Eden (whose water you've seen).

From there on to Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). It's too time-consuming to keep formatting, so here are a bunch of pictures, make of them what you will!

Off in the distance our first views of Uluru (Ayers Rock), whose strange scaly skin looks different from every angle and in every kind of light.

Back in Alice Springs I went to the Desert Museum (where I heard the amazing Djukurpa described yesterday). It also has a fantastic birds
of prey show (at right a fan-tail kite), a "nocturnal house" where you can see marvels like the thorny devil above, which looks more like a manga-inspired toy than a real animal, and some of the flowers which will soon blanket the desert around Uluru...

Back on to the legendary Ghan, which has only gone north to Darwin since early 2004, although it's been planned since the 1880s. (Notice the red termite mounds among the blurry gums out the train window.) It stops for a few hours in Katharine, where I went on a little "whistlestop" canoe excursion with some people I'd met on the tour to Uluru, and was befriended by a little red dragonfly.

And then after desert dryness the tropical ocean breezes of Darwin! Darwin too has a Botanical Garden, lovely coastlines with lodes of ochre used for millennia by Aboriginal artists... and in the Anglican Cathedral someone has interpreted the signs of the Evangelists in a way evoking local (and ancient) Aboriginal art. Here are a few snaps...

And last but certainly not least the ancient ancient landscape of Kakadu national park, which I'll let you wander your way through... you'll see the Escarpment of 2 billion year old rock which can look like the ruins of ancient fortresses, some of the rock paintings at Ubirr, cathedral termite mounds, a spider, a screw palm, the consequences of cyclone and flood on a riverbank forest, and the moon - if not quite in that order.