I had a few people I wanted to thank personally for various input they contributed, so I sent them separate emails a few days ago advising them of the published piece. To all of you, please excuse this doubling up.
I am very pleased to have finished Parts1 & 2 including the ‘heavy’ stuff and hope you find it interesting and informative, if challenging in part. You may be waiting again for quite a time for Part 3 which will further follow some of the emigre story of my parents’ life in Australia before merging into my experience growing up as a child of emigrants…lots of happy stories here however.
Hello again. A few people have commented on my ‘absence’. It is always a bit of a thrill to know that there are a few who apparently eagerly await my next offerings! I hope I will not disappoint. It’s also quite strange for me, this online ‘publishing’, the fact that it goes to such a range of people, from my nearest and dearest right through to people I don’t know at all, especially when it comes to such a personal story.
I have been working on this Memoir piece for some months. It is my parents’ Émigré story, their life in Vienna leading up to when they fled from Nazism in 1938 to the safety of a new life in Australia. It is also the story of my maternal grandparents, Max and Lola, who didn’t make it. Not easy to write, but finally for me an imperative. All the more so in the light of what is now happening in the Ukraine. And be warned, some of it is probably not easy to read.
My darling late mother had a phrase that rings in my head, accent and all: It’s not such a nice world we live in, she would say in response to terrible things that occurred out in the world at large. And as you will see, she had plenty about which to feel this way. Fortunately this was, as for me, balanced by great appreciation of all that was/is good and beautiful!
Whenever I thought I had finished Parts 1& 2, it seemed further information came to me and I was constantly adding to it. Thus it has proved to be too long a piece for a Blog/Post, and due to its nature, more appropriately placed under WRITING in the main menu. I have included many photos and hope you find it interesting and perhaps informative.
Part 3 is underway but will undoubtedly take many months again, (phew, you can breath easy!) It follows the early years of my parent’s life in Melbourne and some stories of my early years growing up as the child of emigrants.
I hope life has been and continues to be good for you all despite the challenges we face. I send my warmest greetings.
We are ten, all women, celebrating a birthday, a ritual amongst a group of friends. Catherine, who is hosting the lunch, only weeks ago was sadly and unexpectedly widowed and we, together with many more, stood in this same room, an expansive living/kitchen/dining space overlooking the sea and the town beyond, in another form of ‘celebration’ to commemorate her husband’s life.
Having been ‘at home’ recuperating from my new hip for several weeks, I have been looking forward to getting out and seeing this group of friends again and connecting with Catherine in person rather than just by phone. So, now we stand chatting, delicate champagne glasses in hand, room full of catch-up and smiles and an excited birthday ‘girl’, now turned seventy-six! Nonetheless, it is in a sense, and certainly for Catherine, a celebration in the shadow of loss.
After a time, Catherine moves to the kitchen area, keeps busy. She is a wonderful cook and stands at the stove tossing fat prawns in a hot wok to add to the green curry which sits patiently, rich, and smooth, in a large shallow pan. I stand with her, giving the prawns a final toss as she steps to the sink momentarily. They are ready! Would you like me to call people to the table? Yes please. she replies. As I approach the ‘gaggle of girls’, a memory from early childhood in the kitchen with my mother appears from nowhere. Whenever my German-speaking parents had dinner guests, elegant table set, my mother, also a wonderful cook, would bestow upon me the honour to inform their guests when it was time to eat. Tell them Zu Tisch bitte, she would instruct me, to the table please. So, in my best seven- year- old German, I repeat these words while the charmed adults, many of them childless, smile indulgently. Somewhat shyly I find the same words now shyly popping out of my mouth, Zu Tisch bitte, to the gathered group, thinking it needs an explanation, but they are too preoccupied.
Ten of us now sit around the long, beautifully set table in this new, contemporary space, graced with items of Catherine’s family inheritance- Limoges plates, glassware, linen napkins. Large, handsome pieces of French antique furniture sit spaced around the walls. I feel so ‘at home’ as our shared, though distinctive, European heritage makes for a familiarity and is one of the things that draws us together; less significantly, our love of spicy food, really spicy. Catherine is the only person I know who takes hot chillies when going out to lunch, always adding them to whatever she is eating, offering them to me also. Ever the gracious hostess, she announces that, to suit the varied palates the green prawn curry is only a little spiced.
It is customary at our get-togethers, that everyone contributes to the meal. Accompanying Catherine’s green prawn curry and bowl of fish bites are dishes made by others- a pasta salad with an excellent Indonesian-style dressing, and a spectacular spicy Vietnamese salad, a complex array of colour and taste. I make a note to ask for the green curry and Vietnamese salad recipes. Between courses, she quietly slips to the kitchen area. I notice too late that she has already cleared and cleaned benches, filled the dishwasher, everything is in place. I grab my trusty crutch and make my way over to keep her company. I understand her compulsion to ‘keep busy’, her coping mechanism. Nonetheless I marvel that she is up to all this.
Kerry has made the birthday cake. She glides across the floor toward the table, petite, palms upward, bearing the cake on a white platter. As she approaches the birthday girl, I gasp. It is so pretty. The cake consists of three golden spongy layers; citrus yellow lemon curd oozes between each. On top, whipped cream. In its centre, a single sparkler spurts and fizzes, a pale pink hibiscus bloom beside it. On the rim of the white platter two more hibiscus nestle. This striped wonder now sits in neat triangular pieces on our little Limoges plates. It is a tangy orange cake, the lemon curd still more piquant, served with mixed berries-plump blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. I can’t help myself- as always, I’m uttering words and making sounds conveying how delicious it is.
Do you remember the cake Cath made a few years ago? I ask, and describe the rectangular, cream-covered cake encrusted with fruit, flowers, and petals of every conceivable colour. I had never seen anything quite like it, a culinary artwork, and am astonished that no one else remembers it. Of course, my obsession with documenting keeps things forever alive in my memory aided by occasional revisiting of images as I flick through stored photos on my devices.
Throughout the meal I find myself thinking about what a ‘foodie’ I am or have become. I had not understood this about myself until my friend Dure, one-time partner of the eminent Melbourne restauranteur Stephanie Alexander, described me as such, thus offering me a new view of myself. I am fascinated by the process of discovering anew and how such an engagement changes something within oneself. As a young woman in Europe, for example, I recall visiting the Prado Museum in Madrid where the nightmarish visions of Goya’s Black Paintings, Pinturas Negras, fourteen late works from around 1820, overwhelmed and deeply affected me. They portrayed his personal distress and bleak outlook on humanity caused by the political and social upheavals in Spain of the time. Precursors of Expressionism, these works left an indelible impression on me, offering a new insight into the power of the visual image. So, although Goya’s work was ‘known’ to me, I had not really ‘seen’ it.
After the meal, Roz, the ‘birthday girl’ unwraps her presents -a quirky tea-towel with an image of a cockatoo on it, chocolates in a heart-shaped box, a small handbag, Turkish delight, soaps, a bottle of a scented liquid for laundry items, a book, all selected with care and beautifully presented. Catherine picks up her chair and moves between Roz and me. We are now able to indulge in more intimate conversation. She comments on the ring I’m wearing, one of my late mother’s, an unusual design consisting of strands of twisted gold. As I lead a quiet, casual, home-based life, the opportunity to ‘dress-up’ and wear such a ring is infrequent. I wish I knew the story of this ring, I say, but I have an inkling it is Italian as it has that ‘look’, possibly purchased on one of their trips back to Europe.
Catherine’s eyes next move up to the coral necklace I am wearing, also something of my late mother’s. Although she has seen it before, she asks about its origins and so I begin to tell her the story – a story I love to tell as I have quite often done. But first I must backtrack.
Of the jewellery which came to me after my mother’s death in Melbourne aged one-hundred -and-one, were two items that had been gifts from her dear Italian friend, Giovanni-the coral necklace, and a silver Roman coin ring. I knew Giovanni only through the stories my olive-skinned, once dark-haired mother and my father, had shared with me. She had met the fair, blue eyed northern Italian when they were both students at the university in Vienna, her home city, in the mid 1920’s. Studying German literature, she subsequently obtained a Ph.D., her thesis on the great German poet, Mörike. Giovanni was studying medicine. They shared a deep relationship but I understood from her that, as he was an Italian Catholic and she a Viennese Jew, marriage was never a prospect, and presume he returned to Italy on completion of his studies.
I came to realize, after her death, that despite hearing about him and his family over many years, there remained gaps in my knowledge about their relationship. I believe they were lovers but don’t know for how long they were together, what form the relationship took once they had finished university, and for how long they were ‘lost’ to one another before reconnecting again.
Subsequently, my mother met my father at a ‘tea dance’ sometime after she completed her studies, and after a long engagement, married in 1937. The National Socialist noose was ever tightening and in March,1938 Nazi Germany annexed Austria. With enormous difficulty my parents managed to leave Vienna by the skin of their teeth in December,1938 for the safety of Australia. At the same time my mother’s only sibling and his wife had emigrated to the USA and, as with my parents, arrived in their new country penniless having lost everything. Tragically, together with other relatives and millions more, their parents, who they almost succeeded in saving, perished at the hands of the Nazis.
My father, step by persistent step, was working to establish himself as a photographer in Melbourne. Meanwhile, my uncle in America served in the Pacific during war, subsequently studying Accounting under the American GI Bill. After some years, and in advance of my parents, he was sufficiently financially established to be able to afford a first trip back to Europe. Since they were to spend time in Italy, my mother asked him to try to locate Giovanni which he succeeded in doing, and from that point on my mother and Giovanni enjoyed a regular correspondence.
Being an excellent linguist, she began studying Italian, her fourth language, through Adult Education classes, conversation classes and rigorous self-study and corresponded with Giovanni in Italian. My parents learned that he was happily married with four children, a daughter, Antonella, and three sons, and was a professor at the University in Bologna. And so unfolded another chapter in their deep and enduring friendship, embraced and accepted by the respective spouses. When my parents were able to afford trips back to Europe, they met with Giovanni and his wife, shared holidays together and got to know their children. I don’t know when he gave these beautiful gifts to my mother but presumably on such get-togethers.
In 1967, a year after completing four years at university, I was bound for Europe to join my then boyfriend to live together in Rome. We didn’t make it as a couple, but already a resolute Italophile, I made Rome my home for six months, began the painful process of recovering from the relationship breakup, and remained in Europe for six of the next seven years. In Rome, enthralled by the city, I found myself amongst a community of artists and musicians, including American Fulbright scholars and supported myself teaching English at the Berlitz School of Languages. I was busy, buzzing and fulfilled living my daily life in this brilliant city amongst stimulating new friends. Probably imbued with a healthy sense of young adult rebellion and independence, I did not pursue my mother’s suggestion to contact Giovanni, whose daughter Antonella was about my age. More fool me!
And now, the final part of this story unfolds. When Giovanni died aged about ninety, Antonella sent my parents his memorial card together with newspaper clippings. On reading the articles and clippings, my mother commented proudly that she hadn’t fully appreciated ‘what an important person’ he had become, acclaimed as a professor of medicine and all that attends that. So, when she died, I returned the courtesy. Just as Giovanni’s memorial card touched us, so too Antonella was touched on receiving my mother’s memorial card. Thus began a correspondence between us and found we had an immediate rapport. We planned to meet when Jon and I, now free to travel, would be in Italy.
I consider myself blessed that, having reached the age of seventy-six, I can with honesty say I have almost no regrets; but one I do have is that I didn’t follow my mother’s offer to connect with Giovanni and family in 1967. In retrospect, regardless of ‘healthy rebellion’ and establishing my independence, it now seems negligent not to have made an effort on my mother’s behalf and I wonder if it hurt or disappointed her? And I am surprised at my lack of curiosity about her first love, such a deep and enduring friendship. Perhaps there was an underlying assumption that they would be too conventional and wouldn’t interest me. How arrogant this now seems and how wrong I was about Antonella!
Jon and I have met up with Antonella twice since my mother died, also meeting members of her family including her much loved nephew, Giovanni junior, then in his mid-twenties. We found that we share a great deal in common – humour, eccentricities, left leaning political views, cultural interests, and our ‘way of being’ in the world. We have been to their home, eaten in trattorias, had little guided tours around the city. A single woman with enormous energy, she almost runs us off our feet! Her flamboyance is contagious. As we drive around, she wants to stop to show us this or that and, like so many drivers in Rome, pulls the small car over and parks up on the verge at right angles between two parked cars! A nearby carabiniere, police officer, ambles over. An Italian-style interaction unfolds before us- she gesticulates, he gesticulates, she points to us in the car, the carabiniere then shrugs his shoulders accompanied by the matching palms-facing-up hand gesture. She then happily escorts us from the car. We walk a short distance to enjoy a spectacular viewpoint overlooking the city before driving on to dinner at her brother’s elegant home in a leafy suburb. On another occasion she takes us to the famous Cimitero Acattolico, or non-Catholic cemetery, which has special meaning for her as it holds the graves of many famous people including Antonio Gramsci – the Italian philosopher and organiser, and co-founder of the Italian Communist Party- and poets Keats and Shelley. It is a beautiful place, serene, green, gently undulating. On a sweltering day, we walk a section of Via Appia Antica, the ancient Roman road I first learned about when studying Latin in High School and which I had always wanted to experience! Our conversation is in a mix of my poor Italian and her considerably better English. But once back home, it is more difficult to keep in regular contact. Sadly, she does not use email and we both find talking on the phone in the other’s language a bit difficult. So, we communicate by occasional letters, and emails to Giovanni junior who speaks excellent English, now lives in London and is in close contact with Antonella.
I feel a special closeness to Antonella but know that having refused my mother’s ‘introduction’ to the family as a young woman, I wasted fifty years of a wonderful friendship! At least when wearing either the necklace (infrequently), or the ring (extensively) there is some recompense – I am honouring my beloved mother, the enduring special relationship she shared with Giovanni, and my friendship with Antonella.
And a Happy New Year to all. Let’s hope 2022 is better for everyone than 2021.
Think airports, think runways, planes lined up awaiting take off, their great titanium wings plowing upwards cutting through air. And conversely on descent, that illusion of slow motion, still at great height and distance until suddenly plowing into the final approach and touchdown. Wheels grab tarmac which hurtles by at breakneck speed, before the great bird comes to a shuddering halt. Parallels before my very eyes as I sit on the deck, one crutch propped against the chair four weeks post hip surgery, still somehow quiet and a bit brain-woozed, gazing over the garden as the kookaburras make their entrance.
Another season has turned, late spring, the perfume of the Frangipani redolent. Several days ago I had an inkling that perhaps the breeding season had begun. ‘Our’ family of seven kookaburras have a nest in a hollow high in the trunk of one of the great eucalypts on our foreshore to which they return each breeding season. My hunch is correct and in the following few days one or two kookaburras appear on the balcony railing to take from our hand a small amount of offered food. Accustomed as they are to landing on the railing, they sit patiently, sometimes for a good half hour or more, awaiting the food they have learned to expect. They are well atuned to the nuances of the situation – their large heads cock slightly as they watch and listen to us approach the refrigerator in the kitchen. Heads cock again to the sound of the fridge door opening, then closing. As I reappear with the small pink plastic container of meat in hand, they once more cock their heads in recognition, glancing at me and as I near them, their velvety brown eyes look directly into mine, then looking to my outstretched palm to pluck small pieces of meat with their large beaks. The meat has been carefully mixed with Insectivore, a powdery substance made from ground insects, providing all the protein obtained in their natural diet. We’re discouraged from feeding the native birds but it’s an irresistible force availing us very close interaction with nature. But if we are to do the ‘wrong’ thing, at least let’s ensure we do it as ethically as possible, so I follow the instructions of the bird carer community.
A few days later it is a different proposition altogether. Several kookaburras now appear in a constant succession of landings, presumably because the babies in their tree hollow are growing, and with them, their appetites (and we are back at the airport scene- imagine the accompanying soundtrack, a child’s imitation of a plane landing, nyeaaihh). Just as with planes, wings outstretched, high speed approach, wheels down/feet forward; and there it is, a sudden and precise landing right in front of me on the railing, air scattering. If we have placed a piece of meat on the railing, it will be scooped up even before touchdown; but more frequently we are there with palm outstretched from which the pieces are gently plucked. Sometimes it’s eaten immediately; at other times they hold it in their beak for a few seconds, hesitating, eyes elsewhere, senses alert, indicating to me that they are going to take it back to the nest…take it to baby, I say, pointing toward their tree and off they fly, accompanied by a specific cluck cluck cluck sound, which I have learned to recognize as a message to the young, or perhaps to co-feeding adults, that they are on their way.
The departure – they are following the aerial runway in a slight curve from balcony railing to the end of our garden before veering to the right past densely foliaged trees to disappear out of sight to their nesting tree a little further along the foreshore.
In 2017 our community took a direct hit from Cyclone Debbie, a massive 4.5 category cyclone with gusts reaching category 5, almost 300 km per hour. A couple of huge coconut palms crashed to the ground in our garden and, to a lesser extent, a small number of very large trees on the foreshore. But enormous limbs and smaller branches were torn off everything, all foliage ripped off the trees leaving a completely devastated-looking garden and landscape. But here’s the glory – from our deck a sky full of birds was revealed. At a sudden we had an 180° view right along the beach and, for the first time, an unobstructed view of the hollow in the kookaburra’s nesting tree. We were then able to observe the entire process of that breeding/feeding season as the birds landed on the balcony railing and took off again in a direct line to the tree. Now, four years later, with foliage fully replenished, we only see the ‘take off’ via the end of our garden after which they disappear behind large trees en route to the hollow in their nesting tree a little further along the foreshore.
For those unfamiliar with kookaburras at close range, it is difficult to convey just how charming and idiosyncratic these stocky, sizeable birds are (about 40-47 cm in length). So tame are our group that they not only land on the railings but will perch on the back of our chairs or land on the table where we spend so much time sitting. Whoops, incoming incoming, speeding toward us along the aerial runway, the beat of wings fans air onto my face and one fella lands on the back of the chair on which I am sitting. I feel his presence behind me, then, unusually, feathers brushing against my neck! I turn sideways just enough to stroke the tail feathers. He is facing away from me and seems perfectly content to allow this as I chat to him using the terms of endearment to which they are all familiar-Kookoosh kookoosh, I coo, still surprised that he is allowing this amount of touching before finally relocating onto the railing a few metres away.
The largest of the Kingfisher family, two of the four species of kookaburras inhabit the Australian mainland, the Laughing Kookaburra (so named for their laugh-like call -go online to hear it) and the Blue Winged. We awaken at dawn each day to a cacophony of ‘laughter’ as the mob call and interact with one another. The two species look very much alike- same size, same colouration, both possessing a large head and powerful beak but the Laughing, which are the ones that come to us, have brown eyes that emanate a kindly expression. The wings of the blue winged kookaburras are more intensely blue and they have light coloured, cold-looking eyes and an entirely different call. Both types are present in our area but have clearly demarcated territories. We never see the Blue Winged at our place and conversely, our friends up the road never see the Laughing. The territorial boundary is some ten houses further along the road and on occasion I see a row of the blue winged ones sitting on a balcony above the road calling in their unfamiliar voices. I have also on occasion observed territorial warfare, a great fracas overhead as the two species have engaged in an aerial battle, swooping and flying at one another filling the air with noise.
Yes, the season has turned and with it a few other delights- the Peace lily on my balcony in bloom, the giant bromeliads throwing elegant tall orange flower heads, the phalaenopsis orchids still flowering but just starting to drop a few flowers…and Bertie, the nine- month old Dachshund from next door treating us like his favorite auntie and uncle, graces us with his sausage -like presence almost daily. He appears at the top of the external stairs, checks out the deck for possible remnants of meat which the kookaburras have inadvertantly let slip from their great beaks before heading into the kitchen and awaiting his little treat from Jon; and then he sometimes falls asleep in my arms, both his and my heartbeat slowing to meditation-something to be said for lap-sized dogs!
And then Roz my nearby girlfriend ,sends an SMS with a picture of a Tawny Frogmouth and its baby nesting in a tree on their property. I decide to venture out in the car, one crutch at the ready, to take a look before the little one fledges. Another unique Australian bird, they look very much like owls but bear no common lineage to them and, in fact, are more closely related to the kookaburra. The behaviors of these two birds, however, are quite different. The Frogmouth, like an owl, is nocturnal, and during the day perches on a tree branch. They are masters of camouflage often making it extremely difficulty to spot them as their feather colouration and design is so similar to tree bark. Note in the photo below how carefully one must look to spot the baby! If they feel threatened they assume a ‘frozen’ position sometimes referred to as ‘branching’, elongating their body to look like a tree branch. Their nest is a loose platform of sticks, usually placed in the fork of a tree branch. Given their large size, (a little larger than the kookaburra), I am surprised to note how relatively small the nest is on which the adult and young perch. The kookaburras crane their necks in our direction when watching for us to appear bearing food. But as I start talking to the Frogmouths in the tree before me, both adult and baby remain motionless in a frontal position moving only their large heads from side to side from the shoulders, like an exotic Balinese dancer, big eyes staring out.
As I am about to post this after another night of heavy rain, air freighted with humidity, not three metres in front of us a tiny olive-backed sunbird hovers over a chair on the deck followed immediately by its mate. One hovers mid air as if suspended, wings beating fast. Then its mate mirrors this behavior in front of a large potted plant a short distance away behind where Jon is sitting. It is enough to silence us – the wonder of their proximity, fearlessness and this gymnastic, mid-air display. It is a rare sight. In the twenty three years we have lived here, only once have they appeared on the deck to build their hanging nest but discarded it shortly thereafter. We do, however, often see them taking nectar from various flowers we have planted throughout the garden specifically to attract the honey eaters. Clearly they are seeking a place to make a nest and hopefully they make a wiser choice. Their most recent attempt resulted in a perfect nest suspended from our washing line, and not for the first time. This required some an adjustment on my part as to how to hang the washing leaving sufficient space for the birds to feel comfortable flying to the nest. Sadly by the very next day as I came to look, the nest had been ruined, half of it lying on the ground, probably destroyed by a kookaburra or butcherbird seeking eggs or young upon whom they prey. Little sunbird, find a safer place to build your next nest but please come visit again soon. And then a lorikeet with new fledgling lands and feeds its spring baby.
So, late spring brings new life and now, with summer only days away, early rains and wild storms have drenched much of the east coast of Australia. While our garden and immediate area flourish, extensive flooding has ruined crops just recovering from extended drought in many places in Queensland and NSW and rivers inland continue to rise. The world spins in its usual turmoil with much to worry about both locally and internationally and a new Covid variant emerges in S.Africa. All in all, a salient reminder to count our blessings and take daily pleasure in even the the smallest details of our lives.
Periodically, Green Tree Ants, Oecophylla Smaragdina, a species endemic to Australia, cause a problem in our garden. Being a gardener, I am frequently out amongst the dense foliage pruning or raking and spot their nests, sometimes quite large, and often swarming with ants. Green Tree Ant workers are aggressive and defend their nests by swarming onto the ‘attacker’. They cannot sting but bite with their jaws and squirt a burning fluid, formic acid, from the tip of the abdomen onto the ‘wound’. Many an innocent brushing against a bush or tree, has found themselves covered in ants. Then follows the inimitable green- tree -ant- dance, hopping up and down on the spot, arms flailing, slapping at ants to brush them off. It’s a sight to behold. The phrase ‘she’s got ants in her pants’ comes to my mind and gives me cause to giggle because the ‘dance’ looks exactly so! The word ‘antsy’ (agitated, impatient, restless according to the Oxford Dictionary) similarly makes an appearance in my brain.
I have been prey to this onslaught many times, usually with a small number of ants though occasionally, and most unpleasantly, far more. Over time, I have adapted to these little creatures, at close-range, reminiscent of some weird spacecraft or robot. It is curious how ancient evolutionary creatures which evolved 140-168 million years ago, have inspired sci-fi, futuristic imagery.
As with all else in nature, I am reluctant to dispose of them, polite for ‘kill’ them. I am one to remove rather than kill spiders, moths and so on from the house, scooping them carefully into a container, lid quickly clapped on, and releasing them outside; and to rescue lizards, skinks and bees from the pool in a similar manner. I usually talk to them in the process…there you go, you’re OK now you little thing – you know the kind of sentiment I am engaging in, heartfelt, perhaps a touch of the Buddhist in me – as it scurries a small distance across the terracotta tiles, stops, remains there for minutes just staring at me, its saviour.
Cane toads, which in warmer months are prevalent in the pool, around the compost bin and other parts of the garden, are considerably more challenging. Allow me to digress, as is my wont. The cane toad, Bufo Marinus, indigenous to Central and South America, was introduced to Australia prior to the use of agricultural chemicals in the 1930’s as an attempt to control a beetle which infests sugar cane crops. The control failed and we are now left with huge numbers of these rather grotesque-looking creatures making their way from the far north westward across the top end and down the east coast of Australia at an ever-increasing rate of forty-sixty km per annum. It would take another brothers Grimm fairy-tale to transform this feller into a handsome prince, or even a handsome frog! They are present in large numbers in the warm months and emit a poison toxic enough to kill frogs, quolls, snakes, goannas, and even crocodiles! And dogs! But the lovely native Green Tree Frogs we have here are diminishing partly due to their presence and we are advised to attempt to rid ourselves of the toads. And hence another dilemma – how to do so humanely. Jon, who has had a bit of a relationship with Buddhism, when confronted with cane toads, becomes a murderous killer. I will save you from a description of his methodology! I have re-read the latest about humane disposing of cane toads which involves a two-part process. Firstly, captured and encapsulated in a plastic bag, place them in the fridge which puts them to sleep (this is the step of which I was previously unaware, and which makes all the difference), then into the freezer for a few days, job done! Fortunately, we have a small second fridge downstairs. I must again try to convince the man that this is the way to go. You just remove the toad from the pool, and I will do the rest, I offer.
Even snakes, which of course are present in the tropics in our dense garden, warrant and are granted the same respect by me. They are more afraid of me than I of them and will quickly retreat. If non-toxic, snakes are quite harmless, enjoying their exploration through the trees, sometimes leaving their beautiful, shed skin as testament to their presence, or slithering invisibly along the ground amongst the foliage. Jon, being from Michigan, USA, is culturally unaccustomed to snakes, and instinctively wishes them dead. But I can’t condone this unless it is a dangerous snake close to the house in which case removal by some means is necessary though not to be tackled by the inexperienced!
Digression over, I return to the Green Tree Ant. About a centimetre length and quite obviously of green body and honey-coloured legs, they create nesting chambers, a sophisticated structure of leaves bound together to form a compacted cluster. Leaves are bound with silk pulled together through the cooperation of many worker ants carrying silk- producing larvae. The ants move to and fro, binding the seams of the leaf nest with precision, the other workers patiently holding the leaves in place. The ants form a dangling chain, hundreds clinging to one another. Once leaves are positioned, another wave of workers appear with young grub-like larvae in their jaws. The entire construction may take several hours to complete.
Although the colonies have a single queen, they may ultimately expand to have many nest sites throughout a single tree, or even adjacent trees, which the ants travel between. These super colonies can contain tens of thousands of ants, and the various nest sites will have different functions. Some may store larvae and pupae of different ages, others will simply house workers, and of course one will house the queen and will be fiercely protected. The ants tend to prefer living leaves to form their nest chambers. As the leaf clusters die off, the ants will scout for a new location and repeat the construction process.
Nest building is not the only unique talent of these high-rise ants. If there is a particular branch below them that they need to reach, rather than walking the long way round they can construct bridges and ladders using their own bodies to span the gap with incredible cooperation. Once they reach the branch below, other ants will use the living structure to walk across. Of course, the structure is not permanent, but allows effective temporary access to a spot otherwise difficult to get to. These remarkable ants have also taken to a form of insect farming. They actively protect and tend to several species of caterpillars, various leaf hoppers and other sap sucking insects. The ants are in turn rewarded with sugary secretions, known as honeydew, produced by the farmed insects. This is a rich food source. Traditionally, green tree ants have many medicinal uses and are still widely used by indigenous Australians as a remedy for coughs and colds. Studies have shown that the ants’ abdomen is high in vitamin C and protein. They are either eaten alive, crushed and inhaled like vapour-rub to open the sinus, or taken as a drink. Mothers with infants rub green ants on their breasts to make the milk flow, and many believe that, taken in high concentrations, they act as a contraceptive. As I research more about these little insects, my admiration grows which lends weight to my disquiet.
Every couple of years we employ a tree pruner for trees too tall for us to manage. Last time, as he progressed with a towering yellow-flowering shrub which he tackled from the empty paddock next to ours, he was suddenly ‘doing the dance’. There he was, jumping around on the spot, vigorously swatting at various parts of his body, flicking ants hither and thither to the accompaniment of a liberal smattering of pejoratives…faark, faark etc. He was covered with the little blighters whose bite is quite unpleasant though not long-lasting and definitely more than unpleasant if numerous, as was the case. Afterwards, the poor guy suggested that before we next call him, we rid our garden of these green tree ants. He recommended a poison (unfortunately, but it works). Just a few drops, mix it in with a bit of pilchards or tinned tuna or something similar and stick it up in the trees, he advised.
Reluctant as I am to us poison, and knowing it would be a long time before he returned, I delayed this task deciding on an interim, short-term solution if required. So, a few weeks ago, a substantial number of green ants appeared on our balcony railings and deck, and it seemed action was required. I take out the trusty Mortein insect spray (still poisonous but much more ‘domestic’ and certainly quick and easy) and spray around the railings, pshtt phstt, targeted specifically. Ants drop to the ground. As I look closely, the occasional one is still moving, clearly in their death throes. And suddenly I can’t bear it. All god’s creatures etc, every living thing deserves a humane death, so I snuff them out with my thumb – a merciful quick death is the way to go if you’ve got to kill. Go to god, I say, a small personal joke I share with myself whenever I kill something. Well not so much a joke, rather, a moment of reverence acknowledging my discomfort at killing. We are all part of the natural world. Even ants deserve respect.
Go to god – the back-story. Many years ago, a friend Marion was dying of cancer. I saw a lot of her in the last months of her life and it was from her that I first heard this utterance as she swatted a fly. Go to god, she proclaimed. I thought it so generous and touching that in the light of her personal journey she still cared for tiny creatures. But it also amused me as neither of us were believers. I commented at the time and we had a good laugh. Thereafter and evermore, I adopted the phrase, and the memory of Marion lives on with every swat of an insect!
I am also reminded of the Jain religion in India. Jainism is the smallest of India’s six religions, comprised of 0.4% of the population, and shares much in common with Buddhism. Non-violence is one of the basic tenets of their religion, carried to interesting ‘extremes’. In Jain temples in Rajasthan, I have observed monks sweeping the ground before them in order not to inadvertently trample ants. Jains are vegetarians but do not eat root vegetables as this is seen as a form of violence, because consuming the root destroys the plant. Jain monks cover their nose and mouth with a cloth to prevent micro-organisms in the air from entering and being killed. How extraordinary and thrilling is the diversity on our planet of people and their belief systems.
So here I am, no Jain, crushing the poor innocent ants. I anticipate the lemony scent, which surprisingly isn’t forthcoming. Green ants are citrus flavoured and widely used in indigenous cooking. In more recent times, green ants as with other bush tucker (Ozzie slang for bush food), are gaining momentum in culinary circles, with growing interest from influential Australian and international chefs as both garnish and key ingredient, exemplified by green ant cheese and boutique gin brands. I can attest to the favourable flavour, having tested it by licking my fingers after crushing an ant. It is not at all repugnant, in fact delicious, but killing them and observing their death throes is repugnant. As I look upon the painted deck where they lie scattered, they seem like so many fallen petals, like the white wind-blown Begonia blossoms carpeting a patch nearby. I feel as though I have committed genocide! Even killing ants does not come easy.
But now, some weeks later again, it is time to get serious; they are everywhere all over the garden. It is impossible to work and not be confronted by nests just waiting to be brushed against. I have been bitten once too often for the season. So, I discuss it with my friend Paul who buys the appropriate and very expensive poison in larger quantities as he runs a caravan park which must be green-ant free for the customers, or ‘punters’ as his wife, my friend Roz, refers to them. Can I buy a bit from you, I ask, and a few pilchards? They have a ready supply of ‘pillies’, fish bait for the ‘punters’. I devise a simple way to contain the mix which must be hung amongst the foliage where ants are visible. I will use the small black plastic doggy poo bags found along the foreshore provided by our local Council to encourage responsible dog management. (Who, after all, wants to go for a delightful walk along the beach or foreshore only to step into fresh dog poo?). They will be perfect as I can simply tie the looped handle around branches, securing it tightly.
So, as instructed, well gloved up, I rub a few drops of the poison on each pilchard, place one in each of six bags and secure them to trees throughout the garden. And voilà. Within a day or two not an ant to be seen…nor weeks later. But, in the meantime, having read and learned so much more about these little creatures and their amazing behaviors and purpose within the scheme of nature, in addition to gaining admiration for them, I am also further confronted by my genocidal action against them! It’s good, however, to be morally wide-awake, as even though one cannot always avoid difficult paths of action, we are surrounded by more than sufficient moral bankruptcy.
And so to titling this piece. I am searching my imagination. From working title Green Ants, what can I come up with? Titling, as with my artwork, is tricky and important. It is the handle onto which the viewer or reader must grab. Last night I was reading an article in the New York Review of Books about Walter Sickert, the English artist, 1860-1942, who moved through Realism, his version of Impressionism and on to champion the Avant Garde. He influenced such luminaries as Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon and challenged the conventional approach to painting the nude. Instead, he painted provocative scenes of urban culture and common people including prostitutes, preferring the ‘kitchen to the drawing room’.(I was hoping to include more images of their work but found it difficult to access). Undoubtedly an oversimplification, his oeuvre was described as dealing with Sex and Death (like M.O.N.A, Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart) and there it was, my title unfolding…sex and death/ insects and death/ insex and death!
The most recent Post Not Yet Over the Hill brought quite a few generous comments, some of which are on the site. But a few others sent comments via emails which I thought I would share anonymously as the diversity of what was said was interesting and gratifying. It is good to know that people relate to it in their various ways. Thank you all. This is what they said:
This one strikes a chord because I am also 78 and have many thoughts about ageing and relationships.
Thank you so very much for sharing what has been and still is(!) a fabulous life! Full of love, nature, travels and wisdom. It is always a joy to read your writing.
You’re always sending such evocative photos. Methinks your dad left an indelible mark on you.
I have just finished a lovely ‘laugh out loud’ few minutes…… reading your latest blog. What a scream, I could see it all !!! Thank goodness Jon remembered the 3 step ladder.Iwas though, waiting for the often heard comments….. ‘but you shouldn’t be climbing ladders‘.
Well no harm done on the ladder but I did take a nasty fall at my local recycling tip this week which has left me a bit bruised, grazed and battered- nothing serious but slow, sore and hobbling….which has opened up more writing, sitting, contemplating and watching/listening time. So, for what it it’s worth….
Animal lovers may enjoy utube segments from the Cincinnati Zoo on Fiona, the little hippo born six- weeks prematurely in 2017… a lovely story of dedication, resourcefulness, care and survival. And another on a baby rhino practising charging.
What I love about u-tube is that when I am reading up on something of serious interest, in this case an avant-garde American jazz saxophonist/composer, Julius Hemphill, the dropdown menu on the left brings up other items (clearly related to stuff I have shown an interest in the past- yes, what is privacy?), such as the above animal clips….and down the rabbit hole I go!
Jazz lovers may enjoy Esperanza Spaulding who my pianist friend Susan in the USA drew my attention to. Jazz bassist, singer, songwriter, and composer. She is now a Prof.at Harvard too. If you are fascinated by the process of music-making, you might, like me, enjoy the long u-tube videos of her project Exposure as well as many others.
And if you want to round out your education across many fields and enjoy the highest level of journalism, check out the New York review of Books (NYRB)
And finally, a little treat: some pics of my Phaelenopsis orchids below. Stay well and safe, listen to the birds, look at the trees and stay tuned…working on some more Posts.
Another ‘take’ on the ageing process, memory, and the pull of the past
Peanuts cartoonist Charles Shultz remarked, ‘once you’re over the hill, you begin to pick up speed.’ My funny partner Jon, like Shultz, makes light of ageing. Plenty of jokes: ‘I won’t be going to his funeral as he certainly won’t be coming to mine’ etc. He has a great attitude about his aging and his eventual demise. He enjoys pretty good health at seventy-eight, but each such remark triggers unease in me. To date I think I share his good attitude to the ageing process and feel far from being ‘over the hill’ though I harbour some fears around outliving him, how it might play out, especially in the absence of family.
Recalling teenage years, like most, I was in a hurry to ‘grow up’, to gain greater independence, obtain a driver’s licence, stay out late without my mother ‘secretly’ lying awake awaiting my safe return. Fast forward fifty years. With good health and genetics on my side – both parents having made a century- it seemed that life would proceed long into the future. But this sense of unease at Jon’s jokes is telling, a turning point has been reached, the slippage of years too fast-as the past lengthens, so the future shortens; this feels like a new place I am just beginning to experience.
The psychology of aging states that there is a kind of magic in recollection that gives us a sense of the person we were at one time within a context we did not have at the time. The quality of our future changes as we age, from an indefinite and infinite one to a definitive and finite one. To advance psychologically, we must acknowledge the evolution that inevitably has taken place in us (and others) over time—I am not the same person I was before. While patently true on one level-we gain wisdom, we change- this statement lacks nuance because much also remains unchanged. For my own part, so much of who I am at seventy-six, was clearly recognizable from a very early age. I include these photo galleries to illustrate before moving on- a delight in the natural world (plants, animals, the environment), and characteristics such as curiosity, determination, adventurousness, a desire to communicate, connect and document (whether verbally, visually or through the written word) and valuing love and friendship.
ALWAYS ANIMALS: my parent’s first ‘child’ was the cocker spaniel shown below. There has barely been a time in my/our life without pets.(hopefully if you click on individual images you will find info about each if desired)
EARLY CHARACTERISTICS: love of sea, flowers and plants, a certain independence and determination…
AND LOVE OF LANDSCAPE AND ADVENTURE: A tiny sample-see TRAVEL on this website if interested, though that also represents only a tiny sample!
DOCUMENTATION: I have always felt the need to documente experiences, people and place through writing, photography (my father being a professional photographer might be telling) and a wide range of artworks. Here are a few examples.
ALWAYS LOVE OF PLANTS, FLOWERS AND THE NATURAL WORLD: My parents loved both. Picking flowers from our garden with my parents was always fun but I learned much about plant names and gardening from my dad. Plants/landscape/the natural world impacted significantly on my art in a variety of guises over many years.
LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP: when searching for photos of myself together with those close to my heart, I found that there were gaps. A few of my very close friends, including the special children in my life are sadly missing! Please do not take offence! You know who you are and that you are loved.
The human brain and the process of memory is fascinating. Memory involves three major processes-encoding, storage, and retrieval. We have learned to store seemingly forgotten long-term memories until some unexpected trigger activates the brain within which they have lain safely, subliminal, drawn to consciousness when needed. Our past was experienced at a time when innumerable potentialities were open. Reflecting on a (still) rich and fortunate life, people, and experiences from earlier years, some as far back as early childhood, retain a potency yet are somehow frozen in time, unchanged through the intervening years. The past holds increasing fascination for me, and I have reached out in recent years to a few people in different places and from different eras. In turn I have been contacted by a few people from my past, perhaps the subject of another piece. But now to the most recent ‘encounter’.
It is April and I am watching an online discussion by two pre-eminent Jewish scholars, Sir Simon Schama & Professor Deborah Lipstadt about how our understanding of history shapes our current reality, how this plays out in a fractured Israel and a divided America, amidst challenges to democracy and an increase in nationalism and racism around the world. After the event I receive an email signed by Liam G., the Sydney-based Executive Director of the sponsoring organization. His German surname matches that of a boy, Ian G, from a Jewish youth group I was briefly affiliated with in my mid-teens. My curiosity is peaked; it has led me down a variety of interesting paths of late, and as it’s an unusual name, I immediately wonder if Liam and Ian might be related. I flick Liam an email asking if perchance they are related and within minutes receive a reply: I am! Ian’s late father, Leo, and my grandfather were first cousins. Ian’s in the US now – and we are in touch each week to talk about the most important thing… football! I reply telling him that Ian and I, aged fifteen, met at the youth group. I ask him please to send my greetings when next they talk, informing him of my maiden name by which Ian would have known me.
A week or two later an email arrives from Ian G.: Jill (if you still go by that- I got your message via Liam. Good to hear from you. Looks like you are welland doing some fascinating artwork. I’m glad. I live in Oregon in the U.S. Ian.
BB: Hey Ian! I so remember your name but can’t put a face to you…figured there was a good chance you were related to Liam…. if you feel like being in touch and sending a pic of yourself then and now (anything else also welcome) that would be great. I have been known as Bonney since I was 22. I mention a few people I am still in touch with from that era and go on to say: Curious about you, your life, what you did/do and Oregon. Although I have seen a fair bit of the USA as I have relatives there and Jon, my very long-term partner is American, I have never been to beautiful Oregon. Are you in Portland? Thanks for getting in touch.
A fast exchange of emails zips across the Pacific. Ian G.: Well, that was a blow to my ego (just joking) – can’t remember what I looked like! I remember a lot about you – your father was a photographer.I have a photo of the two of us together – will send it later.We live in a suburb of Portland. I still follow the footy (St Kilda) and watch games every week. Good to hear from you. He signs off with just his name. I reply referring to a couple of other people I associate his name with, and that I look forward to the photos.
I get the picture-he writes in short, punctuated sentences telling me where in Portland he lives, who he has kept in contact with from the youth group days, that all those in Australia with his surname are related.
He is a master of concision and I, the mistress of elaboration.
Of course, I have already provided Dr Google with Ian’s name and immediately learn that he has written a book. The term bipolar transistor appears. I wonder what on earth this is. Science was never my forte. My darling dad helped me through school maths with many frustrations and much (teenage, graceless) irritation on my part. When studying Social Work at university, Social Biology was a compulsory subject. I scraped a pass in that with assistance from my best friend Janet. I seem to remember committing to memory something she had written in the hope that it was relevant to the exam. Happily, it was! I somehow scraped through Statistics also.
My area of ‘specialization’ and interest at university (and in my subsequent ‘first life’ profession an aeon ago), was philosophy, psychology & psychopathology. Thus, I associated the word bipolar with bi-polar disease, referred to as manic-depression at that time -1960’s. So, is Ian a psychiatrist? The trusty Mr Google enlightens me further and it becomes apparent that we are talking not about psychiatry but about electronics- (transistor as in transistor radio my science-deficient brain explains to me). I then find that the company of which he is the business director has won some prestigious prizes for manufacturing things geothermal, and others. Impressive but of course gobbledygook to me. The lively, outgoing, teenager has obviously channelled his boisterous energy and intelligence and made a significant mark. He had not indicated any of this to me; thus, I presume he is a modest man. I like that too.
And then the photos arrive. Ian G: Here are two photos-taken several years apart, you may not recognize the girl in the first picture 😊 (Good blackmail material since you wouldn’t want it to be shown around!) The first is of the two of us both in our mid- teens. Ah, so that’s who he is! He is immediately recognizable. For all the world we look like boyfriend/girlfriend, draped around one another, all smiles and youthful energy though I have no recollection of being boyfriend/girlfriend. He adds: should be enough for you to say, “Oh my god, remember/recognize that idiot!” He has not lost his sense of fun and good humour.
I am curious as to what has prompted the remark about my not wanting the photo to be shown around. I am comfortable with my past. And my ageing. It’s probably just a joke, yes, a joke. Well, we will see. Perhaps he is not comfortable with it. He finishes the email saying: By the way, I do like your art – my style. He has obviously visited my website so no need to send him a photo of myself. He knows how I now look. The second photo is of Ian at a reunion of the youth group some twenty years ago with Peter and Tony. I find no hesitation in recognizing them. He signs off: Keep well, Ian
So, I reply commenting that it is sweet that the three men seem to have kept in contact and go on to say: I looked you up and found you associated with the words ‘bi-polar transistor’, meaningless to me, of course. I wondered if it referred to psychiatry but as I proceeded, I saw its electronics, pertaining to sound…life is mysterious, I love the chase…now I want to know all about you and the intervening yrs. Curiosity killed the cat, but it won’t kill me!
As to the blackmailable pic…well, weren’t we cute but we do look like girlfriend boyfriend, yet I don’t recall that. Pls don’t tell me I have forgotten or done you an injustice! But yes, I recognize you immediately. You were so lively and bright probably are still the same…our essence doesn’t change much, does it? I thank him for his positive response to my art and explain my shift to writing. And sign off: Fond Regards, Bonney
Now I am thinking about how amusing this is, another connection from the past walking through the door metaphorically and I have an urge to write about it. I flick off another email.
Can’t help myself…want to write a little story about all this…well have made a start. As it would end up as a Post on my website, I am wondering if you would prefer me to refer to you simply as Ian G. rather than using your full name, whether I can mention the name of your company as I have read the tiniest about it to enlighten myself (most impressive, my dear!), and if you are comfortable with me using chunks of our email exchange.? Let me know your thoughts. Additionally, I can run it by you when complete before publishing. It might be titled Curiosity Killed the Cat. (: Bonney.
The following day he writes:
Yes, I am an electronics engineer. Got my bachelors and masters at Univ. of Melbourne, then my PhD at Berkeley, then went to work in a company here in the Portland area. Been at several companies since then, based here. Working from home for a company in Arkansas now. Bipolar transistors are a type of electronic transistor, and I wrote a book about them – the surprising thing is it still sells today (almost 50 years later – which is rare in engineering since things get out-of-date quickly).
Yes, it looks like we were girl-boyfriend in that picture but, to be honest, I don’t remember that either. I suspect we were for a very brief time at camp. I was hoping you might remember. So, we can both apologize and laugh about it! He signs off, Ian.
BB: Well Sir if neither of remembers not much was happening. But it looks affectionate. Sweet. I was still only fourteen, no experience with boys though I remember having a bit of a crush on someone called Bernie G. Do you remember him? He looked like a bit of a ‘bodgie’, to use the parlance of the day. (Bernie had an Elvis-style hairdo and jacket sleeves rolled up- very cool!) I only lasted that one fun year in the Youth Group cos then I met and fell in love with my first boyfriend who wasn’t Jewish and that was that.
Presumably you are retired. Other than the footy, what is your life? Married, kids, grandkids, life in Oregon, COVID safe? Christ you must be glad to have seen the back of Trump! We are about to get Astra Zeneca shot, no options but am sure it’s fine. A little sadly, no kids but ultimately our choice so can’t now complain. I am too affectionate to use the term ‘cheers’ and never found my handy emojis on my phone, only iPad, so here is a hug.
And he replies: No, I don’t think it was much. I do not remember Bernie G. I thought you were more than a year in the youth group – that’s surprising. I am not retired – still working for the company in Arkansas. Keeps me off the streets. Married, 2 kids live here, 2 granddaughters (12 & 14). All within 2 miles of us. Moved 2 years ago into a 1-level house with a kind of apartment downstairs that the girls use when they come over. We’ve had our shots (Moderna). Taking it easy. Ian
And that’s the last of our correspondence. He has disappeared into the ether, me offering hugs and he signing Ian. It’s so funny, a ‘boy’ thing.
Quite some time later I write asking about using the photos but, in the absence of a reply from him, have decided to keep him anonymous. We subsequently agree I will run the finished piece past him before publishing. Now is the time so here goes! I send him what I assume will be the final email as I continue to read about the terrible fires and storms afflicting much of the USA (and of course elsewhere):
Hi Ian, trust no storms will sweep you off your feet or fires burn your home down…the world is in a sorry state! We remain lucky thus far though Liam will be in lockdown and only one lot of our Melb. friends made it up here as planned!
I think the attached is about finished so please let me know if you have any issues. Also, are you happy for me to include the two photos you sent? There will be quite a lot of other photos too.
I am so appreciative because next day I receive a reply of which I include the following:
Ian G: Well, that was an interesting document. It’s very rare to see what someone is expecting to get from your emails and to see how well you met those expectations. Or should I say how poorly I met those expectations? 🙂 I am terse because I don’t like talking about myself. I prefer the wisdom of others – I’m known for my collection of sayings. Sayings (good ones) are wisdom expressed efficiently. One of my favourites is: “Whenever you point a finger at someone, Stop. Turn your hand over. There are 3 fingers pointing right back at you.” Before you get your daily exercise by jumping to conclusions, that was not aimed at you – it is just an illustration of a great saying. I have done my exercise for today Ian, as every day, so don’t worry about my jumping to conclusions-no need!
In any case, I was correct in my presumption about his modesty, and it is somehow gratifying that he ends on a note of wisdom about not judging others. So here are a couple for Ian by way of thanking him for playing this game with me. It has been enjoyable and perhaps, post Covid, we may meet up here or in the USA.
But, nattering on as I do, you might want to tell me to zip up or take myself to the dunce’s corner! Still, I have had fun working on this piece and hope you enjoy it too.
And thank you to all those who responded to my previous Post which seemed to have amused many! While I will continue to avoid tall ladders, there’s no stopping me on the 2-step and 3-step ones. And I have discovered how truly unresourceful I actually was while stuck on that kitchen bench. I visited a friend’s building site yesterday and the same thing happened, too big a step down. She unhesitatingly suggested I sit on my bum first and from there it was easy peasy. We live and learn, still!
So, there am, stuck on top of the new kitchen counter. I can’t believe this. For fifty years I, less often Jon, have climbed ladders. He has no head for heights – a very serious fall put paid to that. Young and dumb (and ready for some), he was being a show-off and swung from a vine high in a tree. The vine broke, he landed on the lethal pointed end of a sturdy, recently cut sapling and ended up with an enormous, deep laceration on his thigh. It required three layers of stitches, about seventy in all, a short hospitalization, crutches, and a considerable recuperation period. He tells me it involved ‘fairly convoluted sexual positions that nobody should ever try.’
I have happily climbed ladders – to hang exhibitions, wash windows, clear gutters, bang in nails to hang pictures at home etc. However, since my hip replacement almost a year ago, the strength has not (yet) fully returned to that leg, and the left hip awaits replacement in six- weeks. It is sore and like the other, is somewhat deficient in strength. Thus, I decided it best to avoid ladders, not the taller ones at any rate. The little 2-and 3-step ladders we have in the house I deemed sufficiently safe.
After our recent kitchen renovation, a few items required re-hanging – the indispensable red clock, one of my drawings, a new magnetic knife rack and a perspex-boxed artwork. I am particularly enamored of the idea of a knife rack as, until this refurbish, there was no available wall space for such a (practical) item. However, it looks a little tricky to attach and so I asked a friend if he would kindly help me out when time allowed.
I have now been without my kitchen clock for many months while the work proceeded. Doesn’t everyone who refuses to wear a watch, rely, as do I, on a kitchen clock? This morning my impatience got the better of me. I decided to tackle the re-hang of the drawing above the new, taller fridge, as well as the clock, (leaving the knife rack until my friend returns from holiday and the remaining artwork for another occasion as it presents its own challenges.) So, Jon fetches the 2-step ladder from a nearby cupboard as I gather the required tools – electric drill, the appropriately sized drill bits, screwdrivers, a choice of nails/screws, measuring tape and pencil. I always had a good eye for horizontality but long-ago developed skills to measure accurately so, easy peasy. Why have I put it off for so long, the vacant spots beckoning daily.
We share the first job, the drawing on top of the fridge. Up he goes on the two-step ladder, takes the picture off its hook and, under my instruction, raises it to the new appropriate height (Stop there, she cries) and he marks where the top of the frame should sit. He hands the picture down to me and I carefully measure and calculate where the screw must go on the wall to achieve the desired hanging height. Down he comes and up I go, no problem. I happily drill the hole and try one, then a second Phillips-head screwdriver. Job done!
Come and stand next to me, says I, suddenly not quite sure about stepping down onto the ladder, stepping up being one prospect, down quite another, it emerges. And then the circus begins. I can’t believe myself. The distance down onto the 2-step ladder is, of course far greater than a normal step and as I try, I lose confidence immediately. This wont work! I try placing the other foot first. It should be the physio’s ‘up to heaven/down to hell ‘rule regarding which foot is placed first for the lame/lamer/lamest. However, it becomes apparent that neither heaven nor hell will assist. I try by other means a) holding onto the edge of the fridge (elegant half twist); b) holding both Jon’s hands (friendly) and, giving both those away as failures, c) the last gasp, supporting myself with both hands on his shoulders (perhaps a little demeaning?!?) Well, crikey, as they say, that aint gonna work either! I’m stuffed.
I watch myself amused-suddenly I have become a cartoon character trying out these knee beds and foot dangling exercises. Here I am at seventy-six, looking a million dollars in my ¾ jeans, lippy, Zuni Indian ring and my new dangly earrings, a present from a recent visitor, stuck forever on top of the new kitchen benchtop! I start laughing and can’t stop. This appears to surprise Jon! What did he expect? That I would be upset, angry, frustrated, irritated-yep, tick any box but sometimes I surprise him still. Suddenly, me still giggling, in a moment of great insight and consideration, His Lordship helpfully says, how about the 3-step ladder from the studio? How brillie, I cry, that’ll work and off he goes, trundling downstairs to the studio. He brings it back upstairs, unfolds it, places it against the bench. The top rung is now a very manageable step down and voilà, elegantly Bonney steps down onto it and one, two, three my feet are safely on the wooden floor.
The other mission is to re-hang the gorgeous artwork of my late Vietnamese art-collaborator friend, Vu Dan Tan which is contained within a Perspex box. The narrow, vertical box was designed to hang on the wall with two small nails. Its previous position is now covered with a new cupboard, the end of which is perfectly proportioned and inviting. Ah, so many thoughts on how to now attach it – no way will I drill into virgin laminate. That will be a ladder job too!
Anyway, today’s adventure was, as they say, quite a ‘trip’ and a salient reminder that yes, I really DO need to get that other hip fixed and maybe in another year I will have recovered full strength in both hips, sufficient to tackle the 2-step ladder confidently. Perhaps even somewhat taller ladders. Hip, hip hooray!!! …or maybe, as with one of my girlfriends, the hips will never gain full strength, and today’s jolly folly will have been another lesson in ageing gracefully and with humour, reminding me of my darling father who, aged one hundred, once remarked that he had ‘so many spare parts’ ( false teeth, hip, pacemaker, hearing aids). I’ve a way to go yet!
Its been a while but here I am. I have just published a POST entitled A Walk on the Wild Side: encounters with the Romani inspired by a work of literary fiction I read a while ago. Book forward to your comments and hope it may stimulate and inspire.
Additionally, please note that I have added three photo galleries in TRAVEL WRITINGS, An African Journey 1973. I recently received more photos from my ex which I have added at the end of the sections on Morocco, Algeria and Egypt respectively, for those interested in that part of then world.
Stay well and safe as Covid transmutes and endures but so do we!
Propped on my knees a hardcover book, Colum Mc Cann’s Zoli, a rare daytime indulgence, more so as I am reclining on a sun lounge warming, lizard-like after exercising in a noticeably cooler pool, summer’s sweat-drench only recently behind us.
I am having a bit of a love affair with Colm Mc Cann! Stunned by Apeirogon, his most recent book (the first I have read), I commit to read all he has written and pass the word onto all my literature-loving friends. Let the Great World Spin follows; next Zoli, (a Slovakian gypsy woman/ songstress/poet/Communist party member around which the story, set between the 1930’s and 2003 revolves.) His character Zoli is loosely based on the Polish Romani poet Papusza, (Bronisława Wajs, image below).
Mc Cann is a masterful spinner of tales. Some of his characters leap from one book to another, an interesting literary device. As the writing of this piece spreads out over time, I find myself into the fourth book, TransAtlantic, another marvel.
Zoli opens thus: He drives alongside a small streambed and the terrible shitscape looms by increments– upturned buckets by the bend in the river, a broken baby carriage by the weeds, a petrol drum leaking out a tongue of rust, the carcass of a fridge in the brambles. Instantly transported, I get the picture; it is the punchiness, concision and poetry of his writing which has so captured my attention. And then there is the subject matter, the Romani people, in this case a group or kompanija whose world revolves around music, song, and survival, elements central to my fascination of and empathy for them. Times past return in the oddest ways-potent memories of European encounters with Roma people spin before my eyes.
But first, a little background.
Demographics and the People
The terms Roma or Romani are interchangeable; the nomenclature ‘gypsy’, though more commonly used, is considered politically inappropriate and offensive. Originating in north-west India, the Roma left in repeated migrations between the 6th-11th centuries. Worldwide they number 12 million, 8-10 million of whom live in Europe though estimates vary wildly as many these days do not want to publicly acknowledge their roots due to continued discrimination, revealing themselves only to other Roma.
My first encounter relates to music and dance. I love their music-think Django Reinhardt or those marvellous scenes in movies such as Tony Gatliff’s Latcho Drom (1993) and the earlier The Time of the Gypsies, by Emir Kusturica (1988). Still more recently the music of the Gypsy Kings. The Romani people have long acted as entertainers and in many places became well-known as musicians. The wide distances travelled introduced a multitude of influences, Byzantine, Greek, Arabic, Indian, Persian, Turkish, Slavic, Romanian, German, Dutch German, French, Spanish, and even Jewish musical forms, also reflected in the instruments they play. A large part of their musical culture dates to the late 1400’s in Spain, Hungary and Italy including a large range of instruments including lutes. Musical (usually instrumental) and cultural influences were taken from the countries where they settled, and slowly transformed into Romani styles, generally more complex than the original styles. In its turn, Romani music has greatly influenced the local music with some songs incorporating the Romani language. Original Romani folksongs, not derived from the countries where the Romani live, are relatively rare. This particular folk music is mainly vocal and consists of slow plaintive songs and fast melodies which may be accompanied by dancing and tongue-clacking, hand-clapping, mouth-basses, clicking of wooden spoons and other techniques. There are five main components found in Romani music- three voices or parts; syncopation; different phrases where musical themes enter and exit throughout a song; minor key harmony, and singing.
The first in-person encounter with their music takes place in Spain. It is the mid 1960’s. Aged twenty-two, I have been living in Rome for six months and set off travelling with a friend. After Barcelona and the island of Ibiza, we head south. We are now in Granada, the capital of Moorish Andalusia, with its striking architecture… and Flamenco. I am hot to experience it and here it is possible to find the real deal, gitano musicians and flamenco dancers. Flamenco is strongly influenced by the Gitanos (Spanish gypsies) but has deeper roots, although its origin is the subject of many hypotheses. The most widespread is that Flamenco is the result of the influence and miscegenation of various cultures such as Romani, Arab, Christian and Jewish, integrating music, song and dance. The Gitanos, are thought to have arrived in Andalusia from India in the 15th century. They brought with them an extensive repertoire of songs, dance styles and musical instruments such as tambourines, bells, and wooden castanets, that have strong Indian connections.
At this time Andalucía was still under Arab rule, and along with the Jews and the Moors, the Gitanos were soon to be persecuted by the Catholic monarchs and the Inquisition. The Moors were forced to convert to Christianity, and failure to do so resulted in expulsion from Spain, the Jews suffered a similar fate, and the Gitanos were subjected to some of the worst atrocities in an attempt to eliminate them as a race. Many laws were passed by various monarchs, which forbade them anything to do with their identity. They were to stop wearing their style of dress, cease speaking the Romani language, stop their wanderings and seek steady employment, which prohibited them obtaining money in their usual way from horse dealing, trading at fairs, and sorcery. These laws and restrictions resulted in bands of Gitanos, Moors, and Jews taking refuge in treacherous mountainous areas, too desolate for the authorities to pursue them. These diverse cultures lived in relative harmony for many years and by the eighteenth-century attitude towards the Gitanos changed considerably, allowing them to leave the remote mountains for small villages and towns bringing their music with them.
As in Sicily and other parts of southern Europe, rocky hillsides and escarpments are dotted with caves. These were still inhabited into the 1960’s though not much beyond. It is in one such intimate place that I find what I am seeking. A dark-haired man in waistcoat, gold chain around his neck, sits on a stool, hands punishing an acoustic guitar, fingers thrumming the fretboard. Two other men are singing accompanied by foot stomping, syncopated hand clapping and shouts of encouragement. The Spanish term for this is Jaleo, roughly translated as ‘hell raising’. The sound bounces off the cave walls, the energy is raw, we, the small audience, enthralled. A sole woman wearing a long red dress and black heeled shoes pounds the floor, stamps like a proud horse, head thrown back, hair flying, castanets clacking. She twists and swirls, lithe, lightning fast, then slow, sinuous. She is intense, contained. It is unlike anything I have experienced. Dancer and musicians are spinning in their own orbit, separate, together, passionate, powerful. Finding my research fascinating and illuminating, I delve further.
Language Romani is an Indo-Aryan language; according to Ethnologue, there are seven varieties, divergent enough to be considered separate languages. The largest of these are Vlax Romani, Balkan Romani, and Sinte and there are hundreds of dialects. No accurate statistics for the number of Romani speakers exist. However, according to a conservative estimation there are some 3.5 million speakers in Europe and a further 500,000 elsewhere, spoken by small groups in forty-two European countries. This makes Romani one of the largest minority languages in Europe, together with Catalan. The most concentrated areas of Romani speakers are found in Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia thoughRomani isn’t an official language in any country. Some Romani communities speak mixed languages based on the surrounding language with retained Romani-derived vocabulary. These are known by linguists as para-Romani varieties rather than dialects of the Romani language itself, and are the mother tongue of nine million people in nine countries, constituting a minor part of the overall population.
Social Structure and Religion Traditionally, anywhere from ten to several hundred extended families formed bands, or kumpanias, which travelled together in brightly painted and carved horse-drawn caravans. Each band was led by a voivode or chieftain, who is elected for life. A senior woman in the band, called a phuri dai, looks after the welfare of the group’s women and children.Communities typically involve members of the extended family living togetherand theyplace great value on close family ties. A typical household unit may include the head of the family and his wife, their married sons and daughters-in-law with their children, and unmarried young and adult children. Romani typically marry young – often in their teens – and many marriages are arranged. Weddings are typically very elaborate, involving large, colourful dresses for the bride and her many attendants. Though during the courtship phase, girls are encouraged to dress provocatively, sex is something that is not had until after marriage. In daily life women wore, and many still wear, long skirts or dresses and often head scarves and jewellery; for occasions or dancing, a more elaborate version thereof – the dresses are sometimes threaded with silver, skirts may be triple layered, the top one perhaps made from silk and pearls. Coins may be sewn into their hair.
The phone rings….a call from my cousin Ellen in America. We talk regularly. She is a prolific reader and we always discuss books, so I mention Colum Mc Cann and I tell her about Zoli. It leads to a discussion about my interest in the Romani culture.
She tells me: We had a ‘gypsy’ family, the Lazarowich’s living just a few doors down from us in the 1950’s when we lived in Queens. As her tale unfolds, it reveals, amongst other things, an early and arranged marriage, hospitality, family, and celebration. She continues: They lived a few doors down in a Spanish stucco house built around 1910-1920. It still had the original red brick steps in the front. Our house, and many others in the street, had removed the steps to accommodate an additional room in front, like my father’s medical surgery. The Lazarowich’s were patients of my father. The grandmother used to sit out on those steps smoking her pipe. It was different, interesting. The daughter Dorothy had dark hair and an olive complexion, was year or two ahead of me at the same school, she says. They were hard-working people, led a quiet life. The father made brightly-coloured wax flowers and bamboo garden furniture and delivered the goods in his pickup truck. When she was thirteen or fourteen, Dorothy had an arranged marriage to a much older man she had never met and apparently was really panicked by this. Ellen continues: My father told me this as her parents brought her to see him. A year later I saw her visiting her family, she already had a baby. When her father died it was amazing- a big ‘do’ with about fifty pickup trucks from far and wide lining the street, many from out of state. I ask her if they spoke Romani and she suspects that the grandma did and probably spoke no English.
The Romani people live by a complex set of rules that govern things such as cleanliness, purity, respect, and justice. These rules are referred to as what is Rromano, to behave with dignity and respect as a Roma person. In some groups, the elders resolve conflicts and administer punishment, based upon the concept of honour. Punishment can mean a loss of reputation and at worst expulsion from the community, as in Zoli’s story. As a matter of survival, the Roma were continuously on the move. They developed a reputation for a nomadic lifestyle and a highly insular culture. Because of their outsider status and migratory nature, few attended school, thus literacy was not widespread. They were known for centuries for their skill as metalworkers and for basket-making. Local guilds often resented this type of competition from outside their ranks and economic action by these guilds may well have pushed Romani men and women to engage in acts of petty crime, like theft, to stay afloat. It was, unfortunately, this aspect of the culture that we encounter in Florence. (See below). These days dealing in scrap metal, horse-trading, working in fairs, fruit picking, hawking items such as basketry and wooden pegs, fortune telling (tarot cards, astrology, palmistry) are common practise. The Roma do not follow a single faith; rather, they often adopt the predominant religion of the country where they are living and describe themselves as “many stars scattered in the sight of God”. Catholic, Muslim, Pentecostal, Protestant, Anglican, or Baptist are all religions followed by the Romani people.
My second encounter is in the early 1970’s in a campground in Finland. Living in London at the time with my then husband, we spend several weeks driving through Scandinavia in a VW station wagon, camping with tent, small stove, folding table and two chairs. We pull into a campground adjacent to a lake, and following the unspoken rule, position ourselves at a respectable distance from the next campers in this large uncrowded space much like a local football oval. Tent pegs, guy ropes, up goes the tent amidst laughter, fumbling and all that ballyhoo. We are inside the tent arranging our few possessions when we hear engines revving. Many of them. Curious, we open the tent flap and peer out to see a procession of large American cars hauling caravans. Unlike the rest of us discretely spaced at regular intervals around the circumference, this lot make their way directly into the centre, confidently creating their own inner circle. Everyone is observing the unfolding scene, undoubtedly with varying reactions, we with fascination- it is reminiscent of a Fellini movie. The people, clearly Roma, are noisy, brazen, oblivious to those not part of their ‘tribe’. I can’t take my eyes off them. Like me, they are of a swarthy complexion. The women wear headscarves over their long hair, colourful skirts fall full to their ankles. One woman appears at the door of her caravan, tin basin in hand and hurls dishwater onto the ground in front of her. Nearby, a small girl squats and pees. As I recall this incident of some forty years ago, I clap with delight. It was wild! But was I perhaps also a little discomforted at the time or did I simply revel in their free-spiritedness?
While some Roma today are still itinerant, travelling with caravans, cars, trucks or RV’s, many others have adopted a settled lifestyle and livestock trading has given way to the sale of used cars and caravans. As I am writing, our eighty- three-year-old friend Dino drops by. We get talking about the Romany people. Much to my amazement he tells me that when he was a boy growing up on a farm in South Australia in the 1940’s, a group of ‘gypsies’ lived nearby on a Council-owned reserve in the middle of nowhere, distant from the one little store and far from any town. (Dino uses the term ‘gypsy’ probably unaware that despite its wide use, many Romani consider it a racial slur and are offended or made uncomfortable by its use). I am surprised to learn that they still used horse-drawn wagons. And from another source I hear that there were ‘gypsies’ engaged in seasonal fruit-picking in the 1950’s in Shepparton, Victoria. As this is the first time I am hearing about Romani folk in Australia, I want to know more.
The first Roma arrived in Australia in 1788 with migration patterns continuing throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The population is currently estimated to be between 5,000 and 25,000, with significant numbers living in New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia. Roma in Australia trace their roots to the United Kingdom and Greece, who in return trace their roots to northern India.
The Romani community is under-represented in Australian society, and is commonly referred to as the ‘invisible community’. Many members are not registered on the electoral roll, nor do they identify as Romani in the census. Reasons behind this include the nomadic lifestyle of many who fear discrimination. In Australia, the Romani community engages in many traditional practices, including early marriage, fortune-telling, nomadism and poetry writing, cultural practices central, as we see, to the diaspora in general, with slight variations across populations due to contextual influences. And I am struck by certain commonalities with aboriginal Australia for obvious reasons.
Like any diverse culture, there are many modern and assimilated Roma who eschew the traditional and more orthodox beliefs and have settled into houses and apartments. In such cases they are not readily distinguishable from other immigrant or marginalized groups; they live big, loud, and proud, refusing to be ashamed of what the past has wrought on them. Although mass production of stainless steel pots and pans has rendered the tinker obsolete, some urban Roma have found employment as car mechanics and auto body repairmen practicing their trades or working as unskilled wage labourers. Travelling circuses and amusement parks also provide employment for modern Roma as animal trainers and handlers, concession operators, and fortune-tellers. In the early 21st century Roma continued to struggle with contradictions in their culture. Although they are forced less often to defend themselves against persecution from a hostile society, some amount of distrust and intolerance continues. Perhaps the greater struggle they face is the erosion of their lifestyles from urban influences in industrialized societies. A phrase from Zoli again resonates with the Australian aboriginal experience – My land, we are your children. Who could tell the time from the stars if the roof was an inch from their eyes?
Themes of familial and ethnic loyalty typified in Roma music helped to preserve certain beliefs, yet some of the younger and more talented exponents of this music have been drawn away by material rewards in the outside world. Integrated housing, economic independence, and intermarriage with non-Roma are increasingly common. Romani artists and writers in addition to musicians, of course, are to be found and I have come across some beautiful works.
My third encounter, again a musical one, takes place in Vienna 2011, the city of my parent’s birth from which they fled in 1938. I have come with a mission- in my notebook addresses of the apartment where my mother lived with her parents before marriage; the apartment my parents lived in until emigrating to Australia; the Jewish cemetery where perhaps I can find some of my father’s relatives. It is also here that Dymia, a friend since primary school days in Melbourne, has lived since marrying an Austrian in the 1960’s and who we will visit. This beautiful city is the home of many magnificent art institutions which we intend to visit. After a morning spent in Mumok – the Museum of Modern Art, Jon returns to our Airbnb apartment. I set out to wander other parts of the city. I find myself at Karlsplatz (Charles Square) near the famous Karlskirche, the 18th-century baroque church built by Emperor Charles VI. To one side stands an elegant Art Nouveau pavilion which was the entrance to the Karlsplatz stadtbahn, a former station of the Viennese city railway built in 1898. The large area encompasses parks and gardens, manicured lawns, and flowerbeds. Mothers push prams through the park, kids zip past on skateboards, the trees show off their spring foliage and the park abounds with colour; roses, magnolia, wisteria, and tulips are in bloom. And then the haunting strains of an accordion and voice reach my ears. The sheer beauty entices me. As I draw closer, it becomes evident that it is coming from Romani musicians – two men, one playing the accordion, the other a violin, and a woman singer. They are in full flight. I sit on a low retaining wall listening for some time, swaying to the music, foot tapping.
There are 40,000 – 50,000 Roma living in Austria, 0.5% of the population, most in rural regions. Already from the late medieval/early modern period ‘Gypsies’ were considered dirty, deceitful, too lazy to work, prone to steal. Europeans came to equate them with vagabonds. Moreover, with their distinctive dress and language their culture, even if they professed faith in Christianity, was often reviled as something alien. The most heinous accusation was that they kidnapped the young, a charge frequently hurled against Jews as well. They were portrayed as cunning, mysterious outsiders who told fortunes and stole before moving on to the next town. In fact, the term ‘gypped’ is probably an abbreviation of Gypsy, meaning a sly, unscrupulous person (the word ‘gypsy’ actually traces its origins to Europeans incorrectly surmising that Romani people came from Egypt). Discrimination, as with the Jews, resulted in a shocking shared fate in the second world war.
The Roma and the Holocaust Drawing support from many non-Nazi Germans who harboured social prejudice towards Roma, the Nazis judged Roma to be racially inferior. The fate of Roma in some ways paralleled that of the Jews. Under the Nazi regime, the Roma were subjected to arbitrary internment, forced labour. Thousands were murdered in the German-occupied territories of the Soviet Union and Serbia and thousands more in the killing centres at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobobor and Treblinka. Altogether, 500,000 to 1,500,000 perished at the hands of the Nazis.
Many days after beginning this piece, I finish reading Zoli, my eyes brim with tears in the closing pages. I am compelled to ‘talk’ with Mc Cann and pen the following: ‘Dear, dear, dearest Colum Mc Cann’, I begin’. I have an urge to add the pre-fix- ‘just another fan mail’, making fun of myself because it’s so ridiculous writing to a famous author, though I have done so twice in my lifetime. On the first occasion, long ago, a touching reply surprised me. Nonetheless I am unable to hold back. ‘What a fabulous, fabulous book’, I proclaim, and continue: ‘After reading Apeirogon- and you new to me- I immediately decided to read all your books. So, Let the Great World Spin- marvellous- and now Zoli, a brilliant read which has moved me so deeply. Never have I photographed pages and passages from a book but there was so much I wanted to recall, to record. I am the daughter of Hitler refugees thus very aware of the terrible fate of the Roma people who, like my mother, lost so much to the Holocaust’. And I quote from Zoli who says: I could not go back there, I could not cross that river, it was too difficult for me. That whole journey back…I wondered what I had missed, or perhaps what it was better to have missed. I feared my old country would be the same and yet I also feared it would be terribly changed.It seemed to me that our lives though mostly gone and getting smaller, were still large with doubt. I was still unsure I could make the journey back to the place I had been a child. ‘Again, an echo of my mother’s experience. Thank you for this great offering, you are a gem.’
Weeks have passed, these words sit firmly here but not (yet) sent to McCann. Perhaps I am writing to myself?
And now we are in Florence, 2014. This encounter is of an entirely different tenor. We are staying in a charming tiny Airbnb apartment in one of the narrow pedestrian-only streets a couple of minutes from the magnificent Duomo, the famous cathedral. Construction of the Duomo commenced in the Gothic style in 1296 and was completed in 1436. The extraordinary Dome, designed by Brunelleschi, dominates the city skyline. It marked the beginning of the Renaissance, inspired as it was by models from the classical age. It is considered one of the most significant architectural achievements of the Renaissance. The apartment is light-filled with pale terrazzo floors. The 1 sq. mt. kitchen with its eggshell blue tiles and bright window, leads off the small living room from which a glass door leads onto a tiny balcony just big enough to accommodate a diminutive white metal table, two matching chairs and some potted plants. Two storeys up in this four-storey building, it overlooks an open carpark area resembling a small square. The space is surrounded by huge deep green trees and beautiful, Florentine ochre-coloured buildings and is at the back of the university. The view from the apartment in this direction is like a Renaissance painting. As soon as we step out on our first evening, we see a group of people, clearly Roma, who appear to have made this place, secluded and devoid of cars on weekends and evenings, their home for now. We see them every day thereafter; no one appears to bother them. Numbering a dozen or more, women in their long skirts and headscarves, they have no actual shelter. They simply spread out large sheets of cardboard on the ground each evening, covering themselves with blankets. A few of the men sit on the low wall, one has a musical instrument. Strangely, we see no children, though a couple of younger women are amongst the group.
After unpacking and settling in, we venture out into a cold, windy 15-degrees well rugged-up, passing leather shops full of stylish, colourful handbags, backpacks & satchels in our little street. Looking down the street is a sight to behold; instead of seeing buildings or sky, a small section of the immense terracotta-tiled dome fills the entire visual space. Once at street end, we find ourselves in the area surrounding the Duomo with its soaring façade of white, green, and pinkish marble which I have not seen since I lived in Italy as a twenty-two-year-old. Immediately we are amidst a throng of people. Next day and each day thereafter we see a few Roma women in this area milling through the crowd. We recognize two of them as our ‘neighbours’ from below.
The following day after visiting some spectacular sites and Michelangelo sculptures, we have had enough of the crowds, take money from an ATM using our Travel Card, and head toward the Arno river to visit the Boboli Gardens. We approach the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest and most famous bridge in Florence, built in 1345, and hence another heavily touristed area. Here we find find road works with resultant barriers along the footpath channelling the throng of people who jostle single file through a confined space. Jon is carrying our small yolk-yellow daypack on his back. He is in front of me when suddenly I notice that the main zipper is undone. Stop, stop I cry, the zip of our bag is undone. Immediate panic as I look inside and see that my wallet is missing. It had contained the two-hundred euros just taken from the bank, all my important cards but most immediately relevant, my Travel Card loaded with our travel money. We, seasoned and careful travellers, have been pick-pocketed! We can’t believe our eyes. Jon then tells me that, in the throng as we started across the bridge, he had felt someone bumping his back. He had turned around and caught sight of a young woman who he thinks is one of our ‘neighbours’ from below. Very skilled indeed but upsetting. He looks ashen, my heart sinks. Our pride a tad damaged, we realize the foolishness of carrying a bag on back in such a crowded place. A big hassle ensues over the next two days. We have forgotten the password for Jon’s Travel Card and are consumed with frustration and anxiety contacting our bank by phone, replacing cards and so on with our less than helpful Airbnb ‘landlady’. Ah, the downside of travelling!
Such an incident can’t help but leave a bit of a bad taste and sadly, in the immediacy, we feel less sympathetic to our Roma ‘neighbours’. A day or so later we are walking around the Duomo area and notice the same young Roma woman working the crowd. She is asking everyone for money. When we see her, she instantly makes a 360-degree turn, and moves away fast as a jet plane hoping to merge into the crowd. It is obvious that she has seen us and is attempting to avoid us, so we deliberately move toward her several times, feeling quite Bolshy and determined. She is absolutely avoiding eye contact. We are now sure she is the culprit. I have the thought to get close enough to pointedly take her photo next time we see her just to give her a big fat fright, but this doesn’t transpire! We do not bother reporting the incident to the police as we are told the process takes an enormous amount of time and would undoubtedly prove fruitless. I would rather spend our limited remaining time taking Jon across the Arno to share with him the wonderful rose garden of yesterday, the quirky sculpture and the fantastic views back across Firenze (Florence).
In 2013 I reconnected by email with Dan Perlongo, an Italo-American composer/pianist I befriended while living in Rome in 1968 and with whom I have had no contact since that time. A more significant friendship begins. In 2014 while in America, we visit Dan and his pianist wife Susan Wheatley. A collaborative project emerges from our rekindled friendship, inspired by a triptych of mine, Skymaps.
The triptych artwork transforms into a three-movement piano piece (for four hands) titled Earth Soundprints. (See ART/OTHER PROJECTS/EARTH SOUNDPRINTS if interested). In 2015 Dan and Susan visit us in Australia and the piece is premiered in an intimate performance for music-lovers in our area. Later that year it has its European premier at the College Music Society 2015 International Conference at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. I am invited to present my works to accompany Dan’s piece. Thus, Jon and I incorporate a side-trip to Helsinki in our travel itinerary. As usual, Rome is our first stop in Europe, Rome, beloved ever since I spent six months living there as a young woman. Around Stazione Termini, the main railway terminal of Rome, several Romani people linger. It is a rather poor and rundown area, though much improved from fifty years ago when Dan first lived there. An old Roma woman pushes a cart with her meagre belongings across the open space. Some old men sit nearby, cars scoot by noisily, buses groan. The men have a desolate feel about them which washes me with sadness.
It is late June 2015, we have left our month in Sicily and some days in London behind us. We are now in Helsinki to meet with Dan and Susan and attend the Conference. We are so far north that, as I peer out the hotel window at 2 a.m. on our first night, the sleeping trains and railway lines below are still clearly visible in the dusk-like light. The strangeness is both beautiful and somehow disconcerting. Next day, we walk to the Sibelius Academy through a well-kempt park carpeted in summery green. A profusion of purple and pink Rhododendrons and Azaleas create a dizzying colour contrast. A group of Roma men, women and children sprawl on the grass, their belongings scattered around them. They do not make eye contact when we pass nearby. They are a world unto themselves. It is not clear if they have slept there or not but they project a feeling of contentment and at-homeness. Where might they be spending their days and nights through the freezing winter?
Next day, we head to the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in this uncrowded, quiet city. The expansive paved area in front of the modern art museum building is sparsely peopled but the air is stirred with music. A Roma woman in long skirt and head scarf sings accompanied by a Roma man playing a violin. Her voice is rich and powerful, the music is evocative, melodious. I am smitten and stand close by listening. The woman immediately makes eye contact with me and we exchange several smiles over the next bit of time. As I leave to enter the museum, I bow my head to them both and place a little money beside them in a small gesture of appreciation.
Just as I think I have finished this piece, I decide to phone my friend Julie in Brisbane. We last saw one another in February and haven’t spoken since then. But she and Colin arn’t in Brisbane-they are stuck in the freezing , hailing cold of Melbourne’s fifth Covid lockdown! So, she is quite pleased to hear from me. In the course of our conversation she asks: So, are you writing poetry?No, no, I haven’t for some time now, I reply and she asks for more detail. I explain I have been writing the African travel piece and some blogs and so we come to this current piece and Colum Mc Cann. As she is a literature-lover I recommend Apeirogon we get to Zoli and ‘gypsies’. Have you had any encounters? I ask, and she starts telling me a story about the UK where they spend time each year in rural Sussex where Colin’s mother lived until her death. A small road runs between fields. It is called Gypsy Lane; elsewhere in the area they spot a ‘gypsy’ cart. They are curious about both. In a nearby a bookshop she falls upon a Romani dictionary and curious, asks the bookshop owner about it. He tells her that he was approached by some people who, in the true Romani way convey their heritage by subtle ‘clues’, at the same time acknowledging that they recognize him as one of their own. He duly responds ‘in code’. And thus they begin to exchange conversation. He lets it be known that he wants a gypsy cart and asks if they might put it about within their network. Quickly someone comes forward and offers to build one for him. Hence the cart that Julie and Colin subsequently see. Julie then asks about the dictionary and learns that it was put together by the owner who, together with the group of Romani people in the area, worked on it .
And she tells another story from their time in Sussex. A group of Romani men in leather jerkins with slicked back hair goes door to door through the village seeking scrap metal to buy-traditional tinkers. The women folk, dressed in long skirts, independently follow. They approach households offering for sale their crafted items such as shawls. And thus the group goes from village to village eking out an honest living. Now I am starting to think that perhaps I should have asked more people of my acquaintance if they have encountered the Romani but perhaps this piece would then never end!
In any case, I have travelled far from Zoli, yet not so far; the book still resonates and I remain ‘in love with’ Colum Mc Cann, am by now into the fifth of his books but have not sent him his fan letter! I invite those of a literary bent to check out his work. In working on this piece, my knowledge and appreciation of Romani culture has deepened. I have revisited what I am able of the music and films referred to which brings great joy and excitement late into the night. I hope I have been able to convey my enthusiasm and interest and perhaps stir yours too, good reader(s). Finally, it is my hope that post-Covid, overseas travel will open up once again allowing further encounters with these enigmatic, fascinating people. Vesti bune ( Romani for good tidings)
Some time after publishing this, I found two photographs of myself as a child dressed in ‘gypsy’costume for two fancy dress parties some years apart. Apparently my interest in these folk dated back further than I had remembered!