Monday, April 28, 2008


A few weeks ago, Petra’s uncle John took us to visit an artist’s community called Montsalvat. It’s about 25k (15 miles) outside the Melbourne in the town of Eltham.

Having just celebrated it’s 75th birthday, it’s practically ancient by Australian standards. The sense of antiquity isn’t hurt by the fact that it was all built by unskilled laborers in a style imaginatively imitative of medieval rural France. The buildings are suitably odd and decrepit, made mostly of scavenged timber and daub. Galleries, a lofty dining hall, studios large and small, living quarters even larger and smaller, courtyards and chapels are arbitrarily nestled amongst 12 acres of alternately landscaped and neglected patches of greenery. Peacocks seem to be the kings of the land. A cafe commands the best view of the city across rolling hills, and serves a proper high tea complete with clotted cream.

Current artists in residence include painters; jewelers; makers of violins, guitars, and Japanese flutes; dressmakers; and others. They also have a resident winemaker, whom they seem to greatly appreciate. The best part of the day was watching two middle-aged guys who’d apprenticed to the guitar maker string and strum their hand-made instruments for the first time. Their quiet joy and pride and skill, listening to their hard fingers slide up the steel strings and watch these grown men silently grin, with the wine and sun and geese underfoot and hay smell and old wood to lean against… it was hard to get me to go back to the hard cold city.

Unfortunately most of the visual art produced here, both historically and presently, is rather terrible. That manages to not detract too much from the grounds and their ideal. Today, Monstalvat is mostly used as a location for weddings and other similar events, as a backdrop for films and ads, and as a place for Melbournians to go for tea and a stroll. I’d recommend it any day.

Friday, April 25, 2008


Some of you may have been fortunate enough at some point to sample one of my mother’s famous oatmealy coconutty ANZAC Biscuits*. They’re truly delicious, with a texture and flavor unmatched by any I’ve tried in the US or Australia. Today—25th April—is the day that these scrumptious desserts commemorate: ANZAC Day, one of Australia’s most important public holidays.

ANZAC stands for “Australia New Zealand Army Corps.” Both the holiday and the biscuits mark the 1st major military action fought by the combined forces of the then-young countries Australia and New Zealand in WWI—specifically, the landing in Gallipoli, Turkey in 1915. The aim of the battle was to capture Istanbul, at that point the capital of the Ottoman Empire. More than 80,000 Aussies and 3,000 New Zealanders died in this failed campaign, representing a significant percentage of the countries’ contemporary populations.

ANZAC Day started during the war as a national celebration of military endeavor. Once the war ended and the veterans returned home, they sought fellowship, a way to remember their dead friends, and a way to reconcile themselves with the brutalities of war. They began gathering annually on ANZAC Day in silent dawn vigils, adding an element of memorial and reflection to the military enthusiasm. These days, ANZAC Day honors the victims of all wars. The dawn vigils remain one of the most important parts of the day, and nicely balance the mighty parades. In addition to domestic events, almost 20,000 Australians make an ANZAC Day pilgrimage each year to the battlefields in Turkey to commemorate the fallen.

According to The Age, Australia’s last surviving WWI vet watched today’s parade via the TV in his nursing home. He was 16 at the time of the battle, and is now 109 years old. I hope he had a really good day and ate lots of biscuits.

The University of Melbourne’s student newspaper included a few interesting articles about some lesser-known aspects of the day, which we recommend reading:
The echoes of war,” “Youth, Death, and Gallipoli,” and “Don’t mention the anti-war feeling.”

*Delightfully, Australian law actually prohibits anyone from referring to ANZAC Biscuits as cookies.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

i don't want a pickle

I love riding my bike. For starters, my bicycle is beautiful and perfect in every way: I splurged on a new Trek hybrid road/mountain bike, more on the road side than mountain. It’s black. And very fast.

There are bike lanes on almost all of the city streets, and drivers are accustomed to bikers, so it’s safer than any city I’ve ever biked in before. There’s even little bike streetlights on big intersections. Riding through the city to school every day is a breeze.

The bike gives me such a sense of freedom. It’s not just the joy of riding: my heartbeat up, the wind, the speed, the alertness, the scenery. It’s being able to go absolutely anywhere. Road? Sidewalk? Playingfield? To the library? To another town? Want to sit in a quiet forest (“the bush”) somewhere? No problem. Me and my bike will be there. Possibly via thirteen fun and scenic detours.

The first time I took off to explore outside the city was a bit of a disaster: right after I got my bike, about two weeks ago, I explored north up the Murray river. It turned out to a big wind tunnel that smelled like poo, had a lot of construction, no bathrooms, and getting there involved a containership port, two highway underpasses, a railroad yard, an active marathon course, new-bike adjustment troubles, and a broken bridge. Not hard to beat that.

Today’s ride was beautiful. Not even just in comparison, just beautiful. It was about 75 degrees and sunny. (some autumn, eh?) I got out of the city by biking east through an interesting old shopping lane (Johnston Street), then wound northeast along the Yarra river. Despite theoretically following a major bike lane, I managed to get lost about every kilometer (1/2 mile), but that merely allowed me to discover a waterfall, a nice bench on a dirt path, myriad views of the muddy river, a nice beagle puppy, and other things I’d never have seen if I’d been where I thought I was. This made my 35 k (20 miles) take more than three hours door back to door, which is silly really even though it was quite hilly.

My favorite part of the day was stealing all of the chocolate chips and dried apricots out of my trail mix while watching a particularly mischievous kookaburra perched above lovely waving grasses by the Yarra, slouching its way toward the city. I'm really not cut out for the city. Give me half a chance and you'll find me beating a hasty retreat from the hussle and noise. Good thing I have that option here.

Petra’s getting a hand-me-down bike from a cousin later this week, and I’m looking forward to showing her all the wonderful places I’ve discovered. That’s the only thing that could possibly make biking better: having someone to bike with. It should be great.

View Larger Map

green 2nd impressions

This is the first in a series of posts about my deeper impressions of Melbourne and Australian culture. I don’t claim to be an expert: we’ve only been here for two months now, and I know I have a lot to learn. But I find what I see around me to be fascinating, and y’all keep asking about this place, so here’s what I’ve noticed.


There is a country-wide environmental ethic here. Everyone's well-informed about environmental issues, every local government and company is doing everything they can (or seeming to) to be more green.

Environmentally-friendly products are all the rage: organic is quite common, even for clothing cotton. Half the booths at the food market are exclusively organic. Trendy t-shirts that say "Listen to your mother" with a picture of the earth, "Respect Planet Earth," "I love the planet," "stop killing whales," and the like are the most popular for hip kiddos. The biggest department store in the city, Myers (like Macys) currently has filled all of their display windows with their newest line of eco-friendly clothing. You can find 100% post-consumer recycled toilet paper at any grocery store, tiny inner-city convenience stores stock all-natural dish soap and laundry detergent… you get the idea. And the best part: these products are only a tiny bit more expensive than their non-organic counterparts.

It’s not just products that are above the eco-norm: Everyone uses cloth shopping bags, and you get a dirty look if you forget yours. Public transit's great, and is the norm for getting around. Lots of people, even professionals, bike. There's a lot less paper used, everything's electronic instead. People are quite keen to buy local items if they’re available, and they know why that matters. Their water conservation techniques are quite innovative, and the average bloke’s understanding of natural watershed filtration systems is impressive. Petra’s favorite graffiti in the city is a big one that says “stop logging our water cachements!” Even the vandals (“hoons”) care.

It's not perfect--they have a lot of British infrastructure (external plumbing, single-pane windows, high ceilings, etc) to undo. The only eco-bad practice that’s common here is that shopkeepers seem to think it’s a great idea to air condition the city: shops will blast the air or heat and leave their doors wide open, and it’s very common for restaurants to use those free-standing sidewalk heaters even on pretty warm nights. But in general everyone really really cares and is trying to think outside of the box and make fast and effective change to save the environment.

I knew they’ve had a really good governmental eco-history since the late 1980s, but I’ve been fascinated to learn about the amazingly astute stewardship sensibilities of some (though certainly not all) of the early European settlers. Some of the world’s first conservation efforts were undertaken by the leaders of the young colonies here, often with the intent to protect natural resources (timber, seals, etc.) from being used up by the eager new residents. The more astute farmers among the ‘transported’ inmates cautioned against swift livestock breeding and overgrazing, saying the seemingly-endless plains here were too dry to grow back quickly enough to replenish themselves. A mayor here and there tried to protect all of the trees surrounding the little proto-cities to ensure a lasting firewood supply, good drainage, and soil retention. A few of the more aesthetically-minded prisoners even got some pretty gullies and hills protected just because they were nice to look at. These were ideas hundreds of years ahead of their times.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the colonies didn’t have much control over what the residents did, so a lot of the timber, seals, grasslands, pretty bits, etc. did get wiped out anyways, with predictable results. Some blame the current imbalance in the Australian climate entirely on this early damage: this view is oversimplified, but it’s interesting how they’re very aware of their forbearers’ effect on the landscape and their culpability in the current water cycle and all. How many Americans have ever thought what the landscape of our country looked like before white people arrived?

I think Australia’s recent enthusiasm for all things green is not only because of this historical awareness, but also because of the big whopping hole in the ozone layer that's sitting over their heads PLUS the drastic effects of global warming that are already being seen here: 13th year of drought here in the south, devastating flooding in the north, and Antarctica and it's collapse are right on the doorstep here. With all that, it's hard to ignore our responsibility.

Monday, April 14, 2008

we are the Navy Blues

We are the Navy Blues
We are the old dark navy Blues
We’re the team that never lets you down
We’re the only team all Carlton knows.

With all the champions
They like to send us
We’ll keep our ends up
And they'll know that they've been playing
Against the famous old dark Blues!

This weekend we visited an iconic local landmark known as the MCG (the Melbourne Cricket Ground) hoping to see the Carton Blues trounce the Collingwood Magpies. I was thrilled – and honestly, a bit surprised – because in fact we saw exactly that! It was the Blues’ first win in 14 games. We take full credit – our attendance clearly inspired my cousin’s team to win their first victory of the season. Collingwood and Carlton have a longstanding rivalry, so this weekend’s win was particularly satisfying.

Given that we were at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, you might suppose we were watching, well, cricket. In fact the sport was Australian Rules Football (“Footie”), a game which resembles nothing so much as soccer played with a rugby ball with passes and plays reminiscent of American Football.

The AFL (Australian Football League) was established in Melbourne and most of the teams are still based here. Consequently, Australia’s largest national sport has a peculiarly local flavor. The teams maintain strong connections to the suburbs and neighborhoods in which they are based. The Carlton Blues, for example, have an historic connection with the Italian immigrant community (though ironically, my Italian immigrant family has historically supported St. Kilda). Imagine what it would be like if Somerville, Lexington, Allston, the North End, Cambridge, and Southie each had their own baseball teams, but these teams had national prominence.

For someone used to the hyper-commercial, flashy, inflated, and expensive beast that is American Football, the Australian Football League is refreshingly relaxed and down-to-earth. Tickets are comparatively reasonable in price. The halftime show consisted of a dozen mini footie games being played all over the field by pint-sized participants in the AFL’s after-school sports program. They even had adorably re-sized goal posts.

The highlight, of course, was seeing my cousin play. Andy is the son of my mother’s first cousin (for those of you who know Matt, Andy is Matt’s younger brother). Andy plays Midfield (I say like I know what that means). I’m very much enjoying being related to a famous sports star. The taxi driver who brought us home from Ikea the other day was very impressed and gave us a discounted fare. I proudly show off my fan button to the people at work, and I hear there are little figurines of Andy available in a gift shop somewhere. Figurines! My cousin has merchandise. The possibilities for mischief are endless. What would you do to (gently!) tease your cousin if you had access to his action figure?

The final score for Sunday’s game was 111 to 88. Carlton fans cheered and sang the teams song (lyrics above) over and over again while Magpie supporters slunk out of the stadium. As we were leaving Andy’s dad told us that we will now need to come to all of Carlton’s games for the rest of the season since we clearly bring the team good luck.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

an ode to quince

You will have to forgive my enthusiasm, but it is my ardent opinion that quince are divine. Truly. I think that if a god or gods existed in the traditional embodied sense, that this is the fruit they would have personally created and dined upon. Its flavors are the closest to my concept of nectar and ambrosia that has ever crossed my adventurous palate.

Uncooked, it has a beautiful golden hue that seems almost to glow. If you press your nose to its firm skin, a perfume to rival French Provence in springtime seems to permeate your mind. And it truly is a perfume: this is no mere smell. It brings to mind honey and roses and melting butter and warm sun on an old painted wooden wall and distant spices and a small river after a swollen rain.

To eat them you must cook them. With these two quince given to us by Petra's co-worker, we sliced them and stewed them in a shallow pan, then sautéed them in a light butterscotch reduction. The flesh of the quince, like that of an unripe white pear before cooking, slowly softens and releases its perfume, becoming translucent and then rosy-colored. The gritty grain of the fruit becomes apparent, then dissolves. Eventually you are left with the softest, sweetest, most sublime material to ever melt on your tongue.

I am very thankful for the English sensibilities here that have kept this glorious fruit in the public consciousness and gardens. Let it never be said again that the Brits don't know their food.

Friday, April 4, 2008

vic markets

I just got back from a weekly grocery shopping trip at Victoria Market. Groceries might not sound exciting, but they are. Queen Victoria Market, which has been around since 1850, is the largest open-air market in the Southern Hemisphere. We are lucky enough to live three blocks away.

Vic Market, as it’s colloquially known, is huge. Most of the vendors set up in stalls arranged in rows under roofs of corrugated tin: think warehouses without walls. The aisles are usually thronged with people. The more crowded it gets, the more the merchants holler: “Nannas wan-dalla, wan -dalla, wan-dalla-a-kilo! Aussie nannas!” (Translation: “These Australian bananas are selling at the truly bargin rate of one dollar per kilogram.” This is especially amusing because “Nanna” is also a common appellation for one’s grandmother). The market stalls are a riot of colors, with the products, sinage and the vendors themselves all competing for your eye. The smells are varied, pervasive, and sometimes – in the case of the butchers’ building – strong enough to shock you into immobility despite the urge to flee.

This is not a farmer’s market. Aside from a small local and organic section (small = ¼ acre), the produce piled in the 50+ fruit and veggie stalls comes off of containerships every morning. We’re still trying to figure out where the containerships come from. It used to be that they came from Europe. My Nono’s (grandfather’s) first business when he came to this country from Italy was a fruit and vegetable stand in this very market. He used to tell me tales of getting up at three o’clock in the morning to meet the boats. Looking at the boisterous, cheerful, and hectic atmosphere of the markets, I can see why he loved this work and why he did so well here.

The fruit and vegetable section is only a small portion of the food market. There are equally large sections devoted to cheeses and deli products, butcher stalls, fish, breads and baked goods, prepared foods, wine, live fowl, and anything else vaguely consumable that you might possibly desire, heavily weighted toward an Italian palate. It’s all incredibly fresh and the prices are amazingly good.

And that’s not all! There’s not just food: anything cheap that can be shipped in from China is sold here. A lot of it masquerades as Australian souvenirs (ugg boots, sheepskins, leather hats, Aboriginal-styled art objects, stuffed koalas), but unfortunately anything actually made in Australia seems to be scarce. As you might imagine, the market is a very popular tourist destination. The nice thing is that it’s still well utilized by locals too. There’s clothes, general-store stalls, home goods, decorative bits, fabric, even a few pet stalls.

It’s kind of a classic free-market capitalist set-up. You can sell anything at whatever price you want, and either people buy it or they don’t. The only factors are supply and demand, price and quality. From talking to some of the stall-owners, there’s a lot of resentment that some of the stalls are being owned and staffed by foreign distribution companies (instead of owned by Australians and selling the goods of foreign distribution companies), making the money “go abroad instead of going to Australia.” The countries involved are almost entirely China and it’s Pacific Rim allies. Feelings are especially high about this because the market has such a long-standing tradition of being the place where new Australians get their start: with the money and stall spaces going to foreign companies, the many new immigrants don’t have a chance. While I love buying the cheap fresh organic produce, I hesitate to buy any of the free-market goods because I’d rather the money stay in Australia and not go to an economic system and government that I don’t want to support.

See, I told you grocery shopping was fun!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Jeremiah 4: 11-12

Yesterday was strange. All morning I had a bizarre light-headed feeling which I've only ever felt before hurricanes. I checked the weather: just some possible thunderstorms in the afternoon. So I settled in to my homework.

The winds started whipping through the city by midmorning. I had to close our window for fear of it being torn off its hinges, but its hinges are weak little screwy things, so that's not saying much. I was fully immersed in my reading, so wasn't thinking when the wind noise outside became so loud that I put in the earplugs I reserve for sleeping on loud nights. It sounded like those tin sheets you shake backstage to make thunder noise, then silent, then kindof screechy, then like a train going by. A small part of my brain started wondering about the structural integrity of my window frame. I pictured a dark cartoon cloud in the sky angrily puffing, and kept reading.

When, a little after noon, I absentmindedly switched on yet another lamp to read by, I realized something was wrong. I was sitting next to the 10'x9' window in our 9th-storey apartment, it was early afternoon, and there wasn't enough light to read by. "Must be quite the thunderstorm coming," I thought, and glanced out the window. Only to see a yellow sky hung low with dark clouds, our neighbor's patio torn to pieces, strips of the tin roof next door peeling up... and a wall of roiling orange stretching from earth to clouds moving toward me. "Sandstorm," my Hollywood-trained weather eye reported. Unfortunately, it was right.

Being fully indoctrinated into the post-post-modern era, I hopped on the computer and checked the current conditions and forecast to see what the heck was going on. Sustained winds of up to 65 mph, regular gusts of up to 85 mph, and "some blowing dust." I looked out the window again. "That's Australian understatement for you," I thought.

At this point, Petra called from work: "I hope you're not out biking in this!" She reported that the power was out in her area, but that they were all being asked to stay inside. Seemed reasonable to me. I turned off the power points and hunkered down.

The wall of sand began dissipating about three blocks away as it reached the edge of the tall-buildings part of the city. For the next hour, the winds (still galeing away on my poor windows, which thankfully were better constructed than they appeared) brought with them a deafening hiss of sediment. There was so much red sand in the air that next building over looked curtained in rust-stained cheesecloth.

A sudden cats-and-dogs rain did a good job clearing out the air in mid afternoon. The wind kept blowing all night, sometimes with rain, sometimes without, and is still gusting now under a sunny sky. Even the most staid and reasonable newspapers have reported on the storm with FOX-like zeal, but for once I think their adjectives and sense of drama are correct. It seemed somehow Biblical. One Ballarat newspaper described it as "The day the sky wept red tears." The winds were so strong they blew a brick wall onto a woman in one of Melbourne's suburbs, stripped farmers' fields of grain bare, knocked over countless stressed trees: it's like the three little piggys' wolf gone huge.

And the culprit behind this storm? Global warming. The seas are warming, currents are shifting, and Antarctica is melting. So, among the other problems this is causing, the winds are rising. Here. And now. Let's pray.

The view of central Melbourne (peer closely in the background for the tall buildings where I live) after the wall of sand dissipated.