Category Archives: Travel

To Rome with love (and a bit of hate)

to-rome-with-loveWoody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’ is a gorgeous tribute to the “eternal city” and a feast for the eyes.

The Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum, the Spanish Steps, quiet cobbled back streets and rooftop panoramas are the backdrops to four off-beat stories about people caught up in various adventures and mis-adventures in Rome.

While not a classic among the director’s huge body of work (no less than 50 movies), it is filled with enough classic “Woody Allen” moments to make it one I would recommend to fans.

There are plenty of trademark Annie Hall-style intellectual jokes delivered by Woody Allen’s character, Jerry an unhappily retired opera director, much to the exasperation of his wife Phyllis (played by the always brilliant Judy Davis):

Jerry: “I couldn’t be a communist. I could never share the bathroom”

And…

Jerry: “You know, you married a very bright guy. I got a 150/160 IQ.
Phyllis: You’re figuring it in euros, in dollars it’s much less

There are also some very funny moments as when Giancarlo (played by real Italian opera singer Fabio Armiliato) – the soon to be father-in-law of Jerry’s daughter Hayley  – is wheeled on stage in a production of the opera Pagliacci singing in a portable shower while he soaps himself (I am sure you can work out the reason for yourself).

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Jerry: I see New York. I see Vienna Opera House. I see Paris.
Phyllis: All in the shower?
Jerry: Yes. They love it that he sings in the shower. They identify. You know, he’s going to be the most popular opera singer in the world.
Phyllis: Certainly the cleanest.

Like the more successful Midnight in Paris, elements of magical realism are interwoven in the story as when Leopoldo (played by the charismatic Italian Oscar winner Roberto Begnini) awakes one morning transformed into an instant celebrity (much like George Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, though a slightly more appealing predicament) hounded by the paparazzi:

Journalist: Good morning. We are at the home of  Mr. Leopoldo Pisanello. It’s half past seven, and Mr. Pisanello is shaving…an event that we document
from first to last gesture. Mr. Pisanello is having his hair cut. – Look, just a trim – He opted for only a trim.

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Roberto Begnini finds himself irresistable to beautiful Italian women

There’s also a sensational performance by Penelope Cruz as Anna a gorgeous, buxom prostitute and great cameos by Italian actors Rosa Di Brigida and Antonio Albanese among others.

Watching ‘To Rome with Love’ took me back to my last visit to the city, in 2010, when I was backpacking around the world with my wife.

I blogged on July 15 under the heading: “No roman holiday” -

“Rome is too bloody hot, too overcrowded with tourists and we can’t wait to leave”

Rome felt nothing like the care free, enchanting city depicted by Woody Allen.

Our few days in the “infernal city” had been a disaster from beginning to end starting from nearly getting run over by Italians in small cars as we hiked down a narrow road, in desperation, trying to find our budget hotel on the edge of town.

After that ordeal, we spent our days fighting our way through traffic jams of tourists at every famous site and on every crowded piazza. Even getting a simple scoop of gelato meant standing in a long line. Worse was the sun which pounded down relentlessly while Rome seemed to offer no shade or escape from the heat. Everything was too expensive, the subways and trains were like ovens and we felt like the only two fools in Rome without a penny to scratch between us. We were glad to leave.

This was nothing like my experience of Rome about eight years prior, when I visited with friends.

I was living in London at the time and money was less of an issue.

We hired a large rooftop flat with sweeping views over the city. We ate delicious pizza and pasta al fresco on big piazzas with the locals. We drank lots of Italian red wine, sipped cappuccinos and shots of Amaretto liquer and watched the sun sink below the white church domes from our mock-castle in the sky. At least that’s how I remember it!

We visited all the sites; stared up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and explored countless old churches. We went walking along the Appian Way to find the ancient catacombs and took naps in parks in the afternoons.

I remembered getting lost outside the Altare della Patria, the white marble national monument known as the ‘wedding cake’ on our way to find some famous site just as Hayley (Alison Pill) does at the start of the movie, only for Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) to show her the way.

When John (an architect played by Alec Baldwin) is drinking a glass of wine with his wife and friends on the piazza, I remembered sitting at an outside table in front of the Pantheon, ordering a ‘prosciutto’ pizza only for the waiter, confused by my poor pronunciation to bring me a ‘bruschetta’ – much to the amusement of my friends.

‘To Rome with Love’ is not Woody Allen’s greatest film or even a great one, but as a homage to Rome, it is practically flawless.

It reminded me of all the reasons I loved Rome the first time.

Have you paid too much for your iPad?

ipadFinancial institution CommSec recently published an interesting global retailing index called the iPad Index.

The index ranks the cost of a buying an Apple Air 16 GB wi-fi iPad in 51 different countries converted into US dollars at prevailing exchange rates, mirroring The Economist’s much more famous Big Mac index.

The latest iPad Index shows Australia slipped from 4th cheapest country to purchase the popular computer tablet in September last year to 13th on the latest list – still (surprisingly) one of the cheapest places in the world to buy the gadget.

The fall down the list reflects a decision by Apple to lift local pricing rather than currency fluctuations – the Australian dollar was around 94 US cents when the index was compiled, hardly changed from an exchange rate of 94.3 US cents in September last year.

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The Apple iPad Index

Malaysia at $494 is actually the cheapest place for Australians to buy an iPad, saving you around US$68 off the Australian price ($562). Canada and Japan both add sales taxes to their purchases, pushing their iPad prices well above $500.

As the index shows, you certainly wouldn’t want to buy an iPad while visiting  Brazil for this year’s Fifa World Cup while much of Europe is also a no-go zone for cheap iPad purchases, mainly because of high taxes.

Alternatively, if you’re a Kiwi heading over to Australia for the Bledisloe Cup, you could save yourselves around $90 by purchasing an iPad over here.

Even if you’re not planning any overseas trips, the fall in Australia’s iPad Index ranking is interesting for a number of reasons:

Firstly, it could be interpreted to reflect Apple’s gouging of its Australian customers at the same time as its also gouges those who purchase songs and movies on iTunes (ABC show The Checkout highlighted this recently and provided a way around it), whilst gouging the Australian Tax office by shifting all of its taxable profits offshore. If you’re not feeling the Apple love, perhaps a Samsung or Google Nexus device will do instead.

Secondly, in the word’s of CommSec chief economist Craig James the index reflects why “on-line shopping sites and the power of travel are putting pressure on Australia retailers to remain competitive”. “If local pricing isn’t responsive to exchange rate changes then Aussie shoppers will increasingly look overseas to purchase imported items,” James says.

Thirdly, for investors, the current index could be interpreted to mean that the Australian dollar is overvalued if you compare it with the cost of an iPad in California ($543) but undervalued if you compare it with what it costs in China ($578) where all iPads are manufactured.

Fourthly, the higher price may also reflect higher Australian freight costs, tariffs and mark-ups.

So it’s a useful index both for retailers who want to remain competitive and for consumers, if they’re planning a holiday in the coming months and want to upgrade their tablet.

Alternatively, if you’ve got a friend visiting from Argentina or Brazil or Europe, a visit to an Australian Apple store might be a good suggestion.

Gerald Durrell’s idyllic Corfu childhood: a review of “My family and other animals”

My_Family_and_Other_Animals_BookI had hardly thought of Gerald Durrell, the author and naturalist until my wife bought me his boyhood memoir “My family and other animals” as a gift.

It tells the story of the four years he spent from 1935 to 1939 as a young boy living with his family on the Greek island of Corfu.

The family left the dampness and cold of London for the fresh air, sunshine and open spaces of the Greek island at the behest of Lawrence Durrell – Gerald’s oldest brother, who himself would go on to be a famous novelist, essayist and travel writer.

Picking up the book, I recalled a childhood memory of Gerald Durrell from a television show he presented that ran on South African television in the 1980s: a short, plump man with a white beard who appeared on television to tell us fascinating things about exotic animals. I looked at photos of him online and my memory served me well for he was indeed, short, plump and bearded.

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Gerald Durrell as I remember him from my childhood

The book is a wonderful account of an idyllic childhood for a young boy fascinating with nature. It’s one of the most entertaining books I have read, full of wonderful anecdotes about Gerry (as the family called him) and the animals he collects and brings into the family home.

These include: an owl, snakes (that end up being kept in the bath tub), frogs, a pigeon called Quasimodo, a tortoise and scorpions (that scatter one day across the floor during dinner) to name just a few.

Gerry Durrell is part Steve Irwin – unafraid to pick up creatures to see them up close – but more so Sir David Attenborough, with a wonderful eye for the details of nature and how it works plus the skills of a gifted novelist to bring it all to life.

In one scene he describes a gecko who has come to live in his room, which he names Geronimo:

He would sit on the window sill gulping to himself, until it got dark and a light was brought in; in the lamp’s golden gleam he seemed to change colour from ash-grey to a pale translucent pinky pearl that made his neat pattern of goose pimples stand out and made his skin look so fine that you felt it should be transparent so that you could see the viscera, coiled neatly as a butterfly’s proboscis, in his fat tummy. His eyes glowing with enthusiasm, he would waddle up the wall to his favourite spot, the left hand outside corner of the ceiling, and hang there upside down, waiting for his evening meal to appear.

This wonderful gift for describing a scene and revealing the wondrous details and idiosyncracies of nature is found throughout the book.

It is a mix of boy’s own adventure (Gerry accompanied by his faithful dog Roger exploring the island with almost unlimited freedom in which “all discoveries” filled him with “tremendous delight”) accompanied by hilarious tales of family life – Larry and his arty friends invading the island, his diet-obsessed sister Margo and the adventurous, gun-mad Leslie.

The other wonderful aspect of the book are the lovable eccentric local characters: There’s Spiro, the Durrell’s taxi driver, “guide, mentor and friend” – a “short, barrel-shaped man” with a unique grasp of the English language and who adored the family, the tremendously fat and cheerful Agathi who taught Gerry peasant songs and the immaculately groomed, sparkly eyed, Dr. Theodore Stephanides, who became Gerry’s guide  to the natural world plus a parade of doctors, housekeepers and tutors.

Gerrald Durrel with 'Spiro' on Corfu

Gerald Durrell with ‘Spiro’ on Corfu

Durrell writes of an afternoon spent with Agathi outside her “tumbledown cottage high on a hill:

Sitting on an old tin in the sun, eating grapes or pomegranates from her garden, I would sing with her and she would break off now and then to correct my pronunciation. We sang (verse by verse) the gay, rousing song of the river, Vangelio and how it dropped from the mountains, making the gardens rich, the fields fertile and the trees heavy with fruit.

By the time I finished reading the book, I yearned for just a few days of Corfu sunshine and a walks among its hills, valleys, gently swaying Cypress trees and olive groves.

I challenge you to find a more charming, magical account of a childhood we should only dream of giving to our children.

Of trains, trams and tiny apartments: Melbourne’s collapsing public transport network

Could this be a Melbourne train in a couple of year's time?

Could this be a Melbourne train in a couple of year’s time? Source: http://sachinkhosla.com/fun/pakistan-train-bizarre

Those, like me, who suffer the daily train commute into Melbourne will know of the train driver who enjoys performing his stand-up comedy material.

One of his favourite lines, when the train is overcrowded, is to remind squashed passengers that “a packed train is better than no train at all”.

This, I suspect, may reflect more the prevailing Metro Trains’ attitude towards its service, than an attempt at lightening the mood.

The truth is that Melbourne’s transport network is no joke, unless you like your humour black and enjoyed from underneath a stranger’s armpit.

The city seems to be grinding towards eventual standstill and gridlock: train and tram cancellations and delays are daily occurrences; timetables have become objects of hope and derision rather than of any practical use.

Train stations have become places of confusion and chaos; on board, commuters endure sardine-like conditions, the sighs and grunts of frustrated fellow commuters, and worst of all, bad jokes from train drivers. None of this is helped by the disinterested, robot-like announcements of platform announcers, who deliver the unwelcome news with the indifference of someone reading the daily shipping report.

About the only good thing about a packed train is the lack of room for authorised officers (transport police) to patrol the carriages sniffing out fare evaders, though I wouldn’t put it past them to try.

But these problems are only the tip of the iceberg.  Rapid urbanisation and a desire to embrace Manhattan-style apartment living is bringing more and more people streaming into inner-ring suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. In just one example, Melbourne’s Yarra City Council says it expects half a dozen new apartment developments to spring up along the Victorian-era streetscape of Smith Street, each adding dozens (sometimes hundreds) of new residents who will need to catch the train, tram or bus to the city.

The Victorian facades of Smith Street, Melbourne

The Victorian facades of Smith Street, Melbourne

The council claims there are no “glaring deficiencies” in transport services on Smith Street but that it is monitoring the situation and “understands” there are improved tram services planned. Hardly reassuring, when local residents claim you can’t get on a tram that runs up and down the street as it is. This scenario is being replicated in dozens of inner-city suburbs in Melbourne and Sydney, where transport infrastructure is at breaking point.

RMIT professor Michael Buxton, a renowned authority on urbanisation and planning, expects a proliferation of six-to-nine-storey apartment blocks along all Melbourne’s Victorian retailing streetscapes in the next few years with little restriction on height, the number of apartments or their sizes, allowing developers to chase maximum profits. Last year, a developer called Sixth Lieutenant received approval for 28 apartments, some as small as 33 square metres (about four Toyota minivans lined up side by side), on a tiny 142-square-metre site on Smith Street, Fitzroy.

Plan Melbourne, the Victorian government’s so-called blueprint for development of the city to 2050 when the population is forecast to reach 6.5 million, acknowledges the increased congestion on roads and public transport and talks loftily about a long-term plan of developing a more efficient, faster “metro train service” that does not share train lines with regional services.

It’s an admirable vision, but many, many years away, if it happens at all.

The truth is that the Victorian government’s transport plans are lagging far behind huge demographic changes favouring inner-city living, when they should be leading them or at the very least, keeping pace.

In Mexico City, the best functioning megacity I’ve yet visited, a subway train comes every two or three minutes, and end-to end-journeys cost three pesos – about 25 Australian cents. In New York, an extensive, efficient and usually reliable subway network removes the need for cars.

The Mexico City Metro is the second biggest in the Americas after New York's subway system

The Mexico City Metro is the second biggest in the Americas after New York’s subway system

But in supposedly the world’s most liveable city, we find ourselves cursing as the train announcer drones on about another delayed or cancelled service. I wonder just how long it will be until those scenes of Japanese passengers being prodded and shoved into trains by uniformed platform officials become part of the daily commute here. It can surely only be a matter of time.

(This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.)

Mexico is indeed “gentle and fine”, Jack Kerouac

lonesome_travellerIn Lonesome Traveller, he’s poetic, mystical, sometimes incomprehensible account of wanderings and odd jobs in the mid-1950s, the beat writer Jack Kerouac writes of a trip to Mexico:

“There is no violence in Mexico, that was all a lot of bull written up by Hollywood writers or writers who went to Mexico ‘to be violent’.”

Kerouac continues:

“I know of an American who went Mexico for bar brawls because you usually don’t get arrested there for disorderly conduct, my God I have seen people wrestle playfully in the middle of the road blocking traffic, screaming with laughter, as people walk by smiling – Mexico is generally gentle and fine, even when you travel among the dangerous characters as I did – ‘dangerous’ in the sense we mean in America – in fact the further you go away from the border, and deeper down, the finer it is, as though the influence of civilizations hung over the border like a cloud.”

I recall the warnings from well meaning friends and family – There’s still time to change your plans/It’s not safe/It’s a dangerous place/Don’t go – before we boarded a New York flight in Christmas 2010 for a month long Mexican bus sojourn from Cancun all the way west to Guadalajara.

Though the notion of Mexico as a violent place is indeed “a load of bull” but still seemingly engrained in the American psyche more than fifty years after he wrote about it, Kerouac’s description of Mexico as “generally gentle and fine” is wonderfully precise.

There is little violence south of the shady border towns where the stories of gangs, beheadings, shootings and drugs garner garish headlines in American newspapers and stoke the flames of fear.

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A fruit stall, Mexican style

As travellers, we found the biggest danger in Mexico to be from a falling coconut while snoozing under the shade of a palm tree on an unspoilt sandy beaches on Isles Mujeres or Tulum.

Or perhaps from one of those mad windy bus journeys – where brakes are unnecessary accessories – up through the mountains to postcard perfect town like San Cristobel de las Casas, where the only sense of danger are the dolls, paintings and postcards for sale in souvenir shops depicting the Zapatista rebels with guns criss-crossed across their chests (and scary steely stares).

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The colourful, quite streets of San Cristobel de las Casas beneath the mountains

I write in my journal of a day spent in this oasis of bright colours, cobbled quiet streets and lazy wanderings:

“Students and tourists abound.The streets are lined with brightly painted mainly single story houses and shops in shades of yellows, reds, blues and oranges and with slanting roofs of Spanish-style red tiles…the perfect place to wander, sit and sip a coffee or beer and people watch.”

In comparison to the constant pleadings, coercions and tourist tricks and traps in Thailand, India, Morocco and Egypt (all places I nonetheless loved), Mexicans are so laid back they hardly bother when it comes to approaching tourists.

On Isles Mujeres, the little island off Cancun, this lack of savvy was perfectly captured by a man offering boat trips to see whales:

“Wanna go on a whale ride?” he enquired as we strolled by one afternoon.
“No gracias,” we replied.
Silence, then he said sleepily:
“Lotta whales…”

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Ice creams in the park, Valledolid

No one harasses you in Mexico. Not in the small, sleepy afternoon siesta towns like Valledolid (where we visited the ruins of Chichen Itza and swam in the underground Cenotes) and not in sprawling, bustling Mexico City, the world’s best functioning mega-sized city.

Are there dangers in Mexico? Of course. I would not be so naive as to suggest otherwise. But the risks are small unless you’re smuggling drugs, heading for the seedy border towns or in the words of Kerouac going there “to be violent”

The Mexico I remember is that of little black haired men with moustaches; their plump wives pulling chihuahuas on leads, climbing steps to find churches painted in brightest pink and orange, wandering streets in shades of yellow and red, the little taco stands sizzling away by the side of the road, poodles sleeping in hammocks, glorious, colonial Spanish architecture, the boulevards of Mexico City, the murals of Diego Rivero, Frida Kahlo’s sad paintings in the blue house in Coyoacán, ancient Mayan ruins overlooking beaches and azure oceans.

Alive in colour, light and smiles. A sentiment Jack Kerouac would have agreed with, I think.

Jack Keroauc top left next to the poet Allen Ginsberg and firends in Mexico City

Jack Keroauc top left next to the poet Allen Ginsberg and firends in Mexico City

Snake oil: Door-to-door salesmen and other scams

snakeoilIf an alien crash landed on earth, probably the first thing that would happen to him is he’d get scammed and he’d have to fly back to his faraway planet in just his space undies. That’s if someone hadn’t stolen his identity and sold his space-craft already.

My wife and I were the proverbial ‘aliens’ a couple of years, when we flew into Cairo for a week’s visit as part of a round-the-world trip in 2010.We figured since it was so short a visit and all we wanted to do was see the Pyramids of Giza, the Egyptian Museum, take a cruise on the Nile and wander around the ancient streets that we’d not bother to buy a guide-book and just wing it.

Big mistake!

We got conned on our way to the pyramids.We got conned wandering the ancient streets. I got conned on an evening stroll when looking for a place to eat. Conned. Conned Conned. By old kindly looking men. By young boys. By exuberant fathers with stories about their children. It was incredible.

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Riding a very expensive camel in Cairo, October 2010

The scams were not sophisticated in the way they are in Australia and other westernised cities and “harmless” in the sense that all you lost was a bit of dosh. Looking back they were somewhat endearing (or perhaps pitiful) and assumingly thought-up as a means of getting by in a very tough city.

Back in Australia, it’s a far more dangerous proposition with greed the primary motive. There are scam-artists waiting on the telephone, in the letter box and at the front door. It’s so bad that the government has a dedicated website called Scamwatch to warn you about each of them with real-life stories and advice.

Our home phone, which we hardly ever use except for our internet service is a constant source of dodgy phone calls. We hardly ever answer it now, figuring that if it’s an important call, people will try our mobiles or Skype.

The other day I picked up the phone and  a woman proceeded to tell me she was from Microsoft support and that I had downloaded a virus on to my computer. She implored me to go on to my computer and search for a certain file to verify this. I could hear she was talking from a faraway place, and with a strange manner of speaking English, so I just hung up the phone. Sure enough this was a scam as described on this UK website with the end result that you download a real virus that steals all your personal information.

Then’s there’s the door-to-door energy salesmen trying to get you to switch energy accounts.

Twice this has happened to us in Melbourne. The first time the salesman identified himself as from an energy company, the second time was more sinister.

Last week, just before dinner, a guy appeared at our door with a clipboard. He pulled out a spreadsheet, told me he was from Jemena and said he needed to see my last energy bill to compare what I was currently paying.

Jemena is an energy infrastructure company which provides electricity and gas to homes. This electricity and gas is then on sold to consumers from retail suppliers like Origin Energy, who are our gas and electricity supplier.

The salesman gave me the impressions this was all very official and pressing so I rifled through a cupboard full of documents and on my iPad until I found an online bill. The man stood there quietly, smiling with his clipboard. I showed him the bill and he studied it. Then he said something like “Oh my god” and went on tell me I was paying 20 per cent more each month then  I needed to. He said he would sign me up and that I would save money from next month.It was then I realised this wall all a deceptive little scam.

He wasn’t from Jemena, but from a retail energy supplier called “Simply Energy”. I told him I wasn’t going to sign up to anything on my doorstep and he left with a piece of paper on which he had scribbled his mobile phone number in pencil in case I changed my mind.

I googled Simply Energy. The reviews were scandalous. It got an average rating of 1.4 out of 5 from 235 reviews on productreview.com.au with stories of customers being overcharged, having their gas and electricity supply cut and even contacting a customer’s current supplier to say they had switched to Simply Energy even when they never agreed to.

They use to call these people snake oil salesmen, referring to travelling charlatans selling miracle cures and quack medicines. Now the scams have become far more sophisticated and devious.

Have a look at the Scamwatch website, there are dozens of scams preying on the naive, weak-minded, plain unlucky or vulnerable from online auctions, to pharmaceutical products to real estate scams.

One of my most popular blog posts was about a letter I received in the post over a year ago covered with Spanish stamps and postmarks. It was addressed to me in person, offering me the chance to share in an inheritance of an oil magnate called “Albert Schlesinger” who had apparently died in a car crash in 2004.

Seems ridiculous right? Who would fall for that? But every year thousands of Australians do.

A program on the ABC’s 7.30 Report reported that every month, Australians lose $7 million just through internet scams.

They’re impossible to avoid unless you choose to live like a hermit, never answering the phone, turning on your computer or answering the doorbell.

A homage to the humble boerewors

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I’m all for globalisation, the mixing of cultures, the idea of the city as ‘melting pot’. After all, who wants to eat fish and chips every day? Or meat and two veg?

But sometimes globalisation gives me the shits.

Shopping in Woolworths last weekend. Grand final weekend. I’m picking up something to take to the barbecue.

As if it’s bred into my genes, my old South African eyes lock in on a coil of sausage behind clingwrap.

Boerewors” it says. No, it proclaims proudly!

“Yes please!” (I chant to myself).

Anyone who has spent anytime in South Africa, will know that you can’t have a barbecue (or ‘braai‘) in the homeland without this humble sausage sizzling away alongside a few giant steaks, chicken kebabs, pap and Castle Lager.

For Australian natives, think this combination: football, beer and meat pie.

The word ‘boerewors’ is Afrikaans, the language spoken by Afrikaners (the descendents of the original Dutch settlers to the Cape in 1652) famous for lots of great things (rugby, Francois Pienaar, Charlize Theron, Ernie Else, the first heart transplant) and some not so “lekker” things (apartheid, Oscar Pistorius, PW Botha).

But the boerewors is certainly one of their finest inventions and one that all South Africans, black, white, expat, coloured, indian have incorporated into their cultures and exported to far flung places. It’s uniquely South African, as the Lamington is to Australia and pavlova is to New Zealand.

The word actually translates as: boere (farmer’s) wors (sausage), which now that I think about it throws up some rather silly jokes and images I’ve not thought of up until now.

But, no, no, no and no! The boerewors is sacred. It is delectable a mix of delicious fatty meats and spices. It’s heaven in a sausage.

But, back to the boerewors on the shelf at Woolies and my temporary annoyance with globalisation.

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Just look at the packaging! Made by the British Sausage Company. But even worse: Uniquely Australian!

WHAT???

Not a mention of South Africa or farmers or apartheid. Not a boer insight.

I shake my fists in the supermarket. I consider stealing all the boerewors packets on the shelf, justified in my mind by the lack of respect that has been shown.

But, I calm down. Gather myself. And think about boerewors.

My stomach and taste buds win in the end. I buy the damn thing, take it to the barbeque, cook it, eat it and…

It’s simply sensational. At least those boerewors-loving Brits/Aussies got the recipe right.

I eat almost the entire coil and with heaving gut, think to myself: if it wasn’t for this bloody globalisation, I’d never get to eat the damn thing in the first place.

Throw another boerewors on the barbie, Shane!

(Turns out the ‘British Sausage Company’ is a butchery in Perth, no doubt of South African heritage).

“Girt by sea” and yet we fear an invasion of the desperate

“Our home is girt by sea”

So rings out the fourth line of the Australian anthem, Advance Australia Fair.

visa policy

“Girt” that awkward, uncomfortable word meaning “surrounded”.

But now the line is firmly planted in my head as the national debate about our hardline approach to asylum seekers continues.

I flicked on the radio last weekend and found myself tuning into a conversation on ABC Radio National (3RN) about the new immigration policy announced by our prime minister Kevin Rudd, which will see genuine asylum seekers settled in Papau New Guinea (PNG), a place he says is “an emerging economy with a strong future; a robust democracy which is also a signatory to the United Nations Refugees Convention”.

Not so says the government’s own travel advisory website, Smart Traveller, which has an “Exercise a high degree of caution” warning about PNG and has a list of things to be careful of that includes “high levels of serious crime”, public gatherings that may turn violent, “heightened risk of armed robbery and attack at well-attended shopping centres in urban areas” and an “increase in reported incidents of sexual assault, including gang rape [where] foreigners have been targeted”.

The list goes on and on making me wonder if the South African government should not have stepped in and offered my old town of Johannesburg as an alternative off-shore centre. It actually seems a lot safer and certainly offers better opportunities for economic advancement than PNG.

This apparent government contradiction on the merits of travelling to and residing in PNG fits in just about perfectly with our feverish, illogical, national obsession with asylum seekers who arrive by boats.

Indeed I have blogged about this very issue before – on Crikey.

This point was put most eloquently by professor Michelle Foster, director of the International Refugee Law Research Programme at Melbourne University, who said on the same radio program on 3RN that we have this strange fear of being invaded when in reality – surrounded or “girt” by water – it should be low down on our list of national fears.

Perhaps we should also consider some of the other lines of the anthem:

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.

Sadly, the spirit encompassed in these words seem to have been forgotten or discarded when it comes to the most desperate in society seeking a new life on Australian shores.

The prime minister says we are punishing the “scourge of people smugglers” by effectively making their illegal trade null and void, but it is refugees who are being punished – banished to a strange island, rife with social problems, and according to this opinion piece in the Fairfax papers, where they will be left to fight for survival in squalid urban conditions, with no rights to own land due to their foreign-born status.

None of this makes any sense and must surely confound human rights advocates looking in from overseas who can only wonder what we mean by a “fair go”.

Asylum seekers are a small problem made huge by something in the national psyche that’s turned it into an enormous political minefield.

For those Australians who say these people will take their jobs – this is apparently the burning issue in the key Western Sydney electorate – consider the facts and do some research.

Official Department of Immigration figures show that 6,004 refugees came to Australia in 2011-12, less than 5% of the 190,000 economic migrants who arrived courtesy of ‘official’ migration programs.

So if anyone is going to take their jobs and jump queues it’s skilled migrants and their families, not refugees arriving by boat or any other means.

Indeed if you have $5 million to invest in Australian bonds or managed investment schemes, the Australian government will give you a visa to stay, without even the requirement that you learn the national language. Just hand over the dosh and the government will throw out the welcome mat, complete with a jar of vegemite and a bowl of lamingtons.

But for those who are the most desperate, who risk their lives on rickety boats, they will be dumped on an inhospitable island, one deemed by our own government to be dangerous and rife with crime to be forgotten.

Shameful!

(For more on this debate, these are some excellent opinion pieces worth reading from former Howard-era immigration minister Amanda Vandstone and Victoria Stead is a researcher at RMIT University’s Globalism Research Centre.)

Back on my bike: Of Essendon Station bicycle vandals and London memories

3645939622_505a2122f2A quick post to faithful readers of my blog, of which I hope there are a few.

I’ve been off air for a while moving house and getting set up with a new internet provider.

Moving has necessitated me buying a bicycle and cycling to the train station at Essendon, about 5 kilometres away, a 10 to 15 minute bike ride depending on how fast I’m pedaling.

It’s been a long time since I’ve cycled regularly and it’s not been the best of experiences to date.

Last Friday night I came back to Essendon Station late after going to the rugby and as I was wheeling my bicycle down the platform, a police officer asked me if I had a lock on my bike as they were on the lookout for thieves – they had set up an unlocked, previously stolen bicycle as a trap.

The news was somewhat unsettling.

Returning to pick up my bike on Monday after work, I found the plastic cover on my lock had been ripped off, apparently, I figure, so that someone could try and manipulate the lock.

On Tuesday evening I returned to the station to find one of the brackets that keep my front wheel on lifted up and the front brake cable pulled out of position, rendering the brakes useless.

These incidents angered me and I could just about imagine a couple of young punks in hoodies, messing with my bike out of boredom or frustration at not being able to steal it. I hope they fall on the train tracks!

Tonight I parked it across the road from the station in the Rose Street shopping strip and it seems to have been left untouched.

Hopefully this new spot – under the gaze of shopkeepers and with constant passing foot traffic – will ensure my bike remains the state in which I leave it in the morning.

I’ve been tempted to put a note on it saying:

“Dear bicycle thieves. This bike cost only $200. Please try steal a more expensive one!”

It’s not quite the London experience I recall, the last time I cycled regularly.

I bought a cheap bike at this enormous French sports store called Decathalon somewhere near Docklands and pedaled it back all the way to Golders Green in north London.

I remember the first time a double-decker bus loomed up behind me, it was terrifying.

But I soon grew used to the buses and London cabs, the traffic build-up on Finchley Road and the other mad cyclists, weaving in and out of the traffic and thundering down the road at crazy speeds.

Cycling was best in the summer, those long London days when it was light till 10pm and I would head out through Soho, up through the cobbled streets towards Goodge Street, sometimes detouring through Regents Park to read a book on the grass for an hour or two or just to people watch. Sometimes I’d cycle past Lords cricket ground with its UFO-like media centre hovering above the stands and then up through Finchley, whizzing past the O2 Centre and then into the thigh-burning upwards climb towards Cricklewood and down into Golders Green.

On other occasions I’d chose a route through grimey Camden Town, but then up the steep climb through the wealthy, leafier, cafe-lined suburbs of Chalk Farm, Belsize Park and Hampstead, zooming down North End way (where once I lost my back and front lights over a bump, the gadgets smashing into pieces on the road) and passed Golders Tube Station.

Sometimes on a Sunday’s I’d hop on my bike and explore the East End with no definite destination in mind (though always with my A-Z guide just in case) exploring the quiet streets, stopping for a pint in a pub and taking detours on a whim.

Other times I’d cycle along the Thames, stopping to eat a sandwich in a park near the river.

Great memories.

My ride now is not quite historic, passed largely uninspiring suburbia, but dotted with a few appealing, squat California bungalows and Victorian-era relics, slowing down at traffic circles, freewheeling where I can and mostly alert to the rushing early morning traffic.

It’s good to finally be doing some regular exercise and feeling the wind rushing past my face.

Let’s hope the bicycle vandals don’t spoil my fun.

Between the two Ireland’s of McCourt and McCartney, my own proud ‘Oirish’ roots

AngelasAshesThere can surely be two no more disparate accounts of Ireland than Pete McCarthy’s meandering travelogue ‘McCarthy’s Bar’ and Frank McCourt’s classic memoir of a miserable childhood, ‘Angela’s Ashes’.

I read both books one after the other.

‘Angela’s Ashes’ won Frank McCourt the Pulitzer Prize while ‘McCarthy’s Bar’ won Peter McCarthy – already a successful television host of travel programs – a legion of new fans.

mccarthys barBoth made me laugh out loud as I read them on the train into work (as well as feel cringeful, sad and nostalgic).

They made me want to undertake my own Irish adventure, a place I have visited only once.

It was in 1990, when I was just 16 and Germany had won the World Cup (I remember a hand-written sign at Heathrow as we disembarked: Germany 1 – Argentina 0) when my family went there as part of a three-week UK and Ireland holiday.

We visited my Great Aunt Bertha and her husband, my Great Uncle Jack Weingreen, the only relative I know who gets a mention on Wikipedia.

It’s a short entry, but I am proud of it nonetheless:

Professor Jacob Weingreen (c. 1907 – April 11, 1995) was a professor of Hebrew in Trinity College, Dublin – School of religion and theology between 1939 and 1979. He excavated in Samaria and maintained contact with archaeologists who donated pieces to the Weingreen museum which was named after him. Professor Weingreen was the author of the Hebrew grammar textbook that is still recognized as the standard teaching work on the subject.

His wife Bertha, doesn’t get a mention in Wikipedia, but you’ll find information about her to if you look online:

The Holocaust Education Trust of Ireland writes:

Bertha came from South Africa where she taught English and Drama at a training college for ‘coloured’ teachers. In 1945, Jack and Bertha joined the Jewish Relief Unit which cared for the remnants of European Jewry who had survived the Nazi concentration camps. Bertha was Chief Welfare Officer responsible for all Jewish DPs (Displaced Persons) in the British Zone, and was stationed at the former military barracks at Bergen-Belsen.

This is a picture of them taken presumably just after the war. (They returned to Dublin in 1947)

jack and bertha

Reading Angela’s Ashes and McCarthy’s Bar, stirred up memories of our family visit to Ireland to see Jack and Bertha, when both were in their eighties and in the twilight years of their lives.

Ireland felt poor in 1990, but not as poor as it did for Frank McCourt.

Most of Angela’s Ashes (published 1996) is set in the poorest backwater lanes of Limerick, where the McCourt family lived in a squalid two-storey hovel in the 1940s. In winter, the ground floor would flood, so the family lived upstairs, which they called ‘Italy’ with a fireplace that kept them warm, surviving on fried bread and tea.

In ‘McCarthy’s Bar’ (published in 2000) Pete McCarthy journeys around Ireland in a beat-up  blue Volvo he nicknames ‘The Tank’ observing the eighth rule of travel: ‘Never pass a bar that has your name on it’ while he ponders his identity (over a Guinness). With an Irish mother but an English father and memories of family holidays in Drimoleague, in county Cork, he tries to understand his strong sense of Irishness and whether he claim membership of the Irish race.

I also felt, growing up, that I could claim some part of Ireland for myself and recall often wearing a T-shirt with words emblazoned in emerald-green on the front: “I have Irish roots”, the letters decorated with leaves and roots and somewhere, I imagine, a four-leaf clover.

I loved telling anyone who would listen, that my Great Uncle Jack Weingreen wrote the definitive text-book on Hebrew Grammar. In fact, we had a copy of the textbook at home, should anyone question the legitimacy of my claims. Ironically, I was terrible at Hebrew at school, despite five years of conjugations and the implorings of my Israeli hebrew teachers, I can only remember a phrase or two.

In 1946, while Bertha and Jack were helping holocaust survivors rebuild their lives after the horrors of the war, Frank McCourt, aged just 16, was working as a delivery boy at Easons, delivering newspapers and magazines around Limerick. He’d survived a bout of diphtheria that almost claimed his life, an extreme case of conjunctivitis that almost took his eye sight, an alcoholic father who drank what little money they had before disappearing to England, the loss of three siblings and the shame of watching his mother beg for food to keep her children from starving. A few years later he would set sail for America and begin a new life, before writing his memoirs many years later.

When we visited Jack and Bertha at their home in Dublin, they were old, but charming and kind. Jack I remember as an older version of the army photo: a stooped, small, man with a moustache and glasses, always in a tie and tweed jacket who made us soup with kneidelach (dumplings). He smoked a pipe and snorted a lot, which made all of us laugh uncontrollably.

My memories of Bertha are less clear, though I remember large kind eyes.

We slept on the floor of their cluttered house, filled with the things they had accumulated from lives lived to the full. They had a long, rambling garden, grown wild and unruly. It had once, according to my grandmother Nella (Bertha’s sister) been a stunning, colourful garden that had won prizes and been featured in magazines.

We visited Trinity college with Uncle Jack, who proudly showed us round his alma mater and I remember eating a distinctly awful and drap lunch in a gloomy cafeteria.

In 1990 Ireland felt poor. The emergence of the “Celtic” tiger economy of Pete McCarthy’s travelogue (where Singapore noodles cost more than “in a Chinese shop off Leicester Square”) was five years away. I remember we visiting a friend of my mother’s, who lived in a very rundown house with bicycles and other things scattered in an overgrown backyard.

There are, it turns out, a lot of bars in Ireland called ‘McCarthy’s Bar’ and Pete McCarthy duly spends much of the book in pubs all across Ireland drinking Guinness and whiskey with the locals (some of whom are German and English expats) often accompanied by a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, reading excerpts from a 19th century travel journal - Irish Sketches – by William Makepeace Thackeray and pondering his identity with long-lost friends and relatives, drunks, bar tenders and tourists.

He travels through Ireland describing mountains of “biblical ruggedness” where bearded men “play harps”, remote islands reached by rickety cable cars, fields of green divided by stone walls where farm animals graze. He visits ancient standing stones and ruined medieval churches and abbeys, uncovers the tourist trappings in overpriced Killarney bed and breakfasts, shares a pint with Jimi Hendrix’s semi-retired bass guitarist Noel Redding, but doesn’t run into U2 guitarist ‘The Edge in Cong.

Finally he finds himself after countless adventures and misadventures in Lough Dergh in County Donegal, where he undertakes the 1,000 year old Christian pilgrimage, a three-day marathon of praying, walking, fasting and circling.

My own family Irish adventure culminated in an “Oirish” castle, where we stayed for a few days courtesy of a ‘Timeshare’ swap and which would have amused Pete McCarthy. It had an indoor swimming pool and the towers and crenallations of a castle, but that is all I remember.

It is the kind of holiday Frank McCourt could only have dreamed of. For the McCourt’s Christmas meant Frank going out with his brother Malachy in their threadbare clothes in the freezing Irish winter to hunt for coal discarded on the road so they could have enough fuel to start a fire and enjoy a Christmas dinner of boiled pig’s head and floury potatoes and tea.

My Great Uncle Jack and Aunt Bertha played an active role in Irish academic life and Dublin’s small jewish community for almost fifty years. Jack died in 1995 and Berth in 1999.

Our family holiday is my only memories of them.

Frank McCourt and Pete McCarthy have also both departed, both sadly from cancer. Peter McCarthy died in 2004, aged just 53 and Frank McCourt at 78 in 2008.

Their paths crossed briefly in 1998, while Frank McCourt was touring the world to promote Angela’s Ashes and while Pete McCarthy was travelling around Ireland in his blue Volvo on his own personal pilgrimage of identity.

It was a chance meeting.

McCarthy gave a ride to a Canadian hitch-hiker who said she was going to Castlebar in County Mayo to a “library to listen to a writer”. It turned out to be Frank McCourt.

McCarthy describes Frank McCourt as wearing s a blue jacket, red shirt and looking much younger than his sixty-nine years. He plucks up the courage to ask McCourt a question.

“Where do you feel you belong?” McCarthy asks.

“New York” Frank McCourt replies.

But before McCarthy can ask him if its possible to “truly belong in a land where you’ve never actually live” the talk is over.

Later, while Peter McCarthy is eating a very good and cheap meal of Singaporean noodles (the bill comes to a reasonable £12), Frank McCourt walks past the window.