Archive for the ‘Other’ Category

Summer weekend on the Oslo fjord

This weekend was the end of my first week in Oslo and a friend from work invited me to join her for a weekend trip to Hvitsten (White Stone), a small village halfway along the Oslo Fjord. We set off on Friday evening after work, and given how gloriously warm the weather has been this week (+/- 28 degrees Celcius each day), we were not the only people making a break for the coastline.


Wenche’s summer house is a small wooden cabin, nestled among trees overlooking the water. She told us how they’d recently updated the interior, painting it all white (floors, walls, ceilings) and drastically reducing the amount of furniture. The result is an incredibly peaceful, light-filled space, and with the sun barely setting at this time of year in Norway, it was like being inside a cloud!

It was her first visit in a while, and Wenche was horrified at the length of the grass, especially as she knew her lawn mower was a temperamental machine that (literally and figuratively) wouldn’t cut it. But Anne and I were charmed.

Like Australians, Norwegians love the outdoors and do much of their summer living outdoors. Wenche’s home as an outdoor patio/eating/sitting area, like a half-cabin, with its own fireplace and chimney, long dining table and couch. We ate dinner there both nights. From here the sunset views (starting from around 10.30pm) were magnificent and lasted for hours. I have no idea what time the show finally ended, as I’d gone to bed. But we are nearly at the solstice here (the ‘turning of the sun’, as the locals call it in English) and there are very few hours of darkness each night. In fact, I don’t think it ever gets truly dark.

We swam! This was a highlight of the trip. We put on bathrobes made of light-weight fleece (apparently they are Turkish, and used in hamaams there) and walked a little way from the cabin to the local beach. Wenche recommended that the best way into the water was via the ladder, rather than from the shoreline. With the nip in the air coming off the water, I wondered if I really wanted to do this. “Oh. You’re not a real Norwegian,” said Wenche dismissively. That decided it, I was in.


My God, it was icy. ‘Swimming’ is a misnomer; it was definitely more of a dip. No heads went under.  I went in twice on Saturday; the second time I managed 24 breaststrokes altogether before getting out. That was pretty good. A neighbour brought out a thermometer to check the water temperature – it was 14 degrees. And we went in twice – morning and afternoon! We cheered ourselves afterwards.

On Saturday I was excited to go to a local flea market. Packing for a 6 month trip where most of it is in tropical Sri Lanka, but 2 months are in much cooler Norway and Scotland, I knew I could use a couple of warmer bits of clothing. The Vestby Flea market (raising money for the local youth marching band) was right place to find these – I bought a warm Swedish-made merino jumper, and a pair of boots. I also found an atlas (my mental map of Scandinavia and northern Europe beyond the Baltic states and Poland had proved wanting in the previous night’s conversation) and an English-Norwegian dictionary. Anne found a very demure 1950s handbag. Good haul.


Anne’s new handbag

We also visited Hvitsten village, which is an incredibly pretty little place, with views up the fjord out to the open sea, many beautiful wooden houses, a fairy-tale wooden church, and with its many manicured gardens and public spaces punctuated with figureheads from old ships. The story is, Hvitsten is home to a family that made its fortune in shipping. All the figureheads have been re-purposed as civic monuments after the ships they decorated were decommissioned. Many of the village’s public spaces, along with the church, were also gifts from this billionaire family to the people.


The landscape is filled with wildflowers. Anne told me that purple and yellow are  considered “the colours of June”. As well the flowers that we picked near Wenche’s cabin, the roadsides were filled with giant pink and purple lupins.


All very pretty, all very idyllic. Nice to see some of the Norwegian countryside (which is so central to Norwegian identity) so early in my stay here. I brought some of it back to my small apartment in central Oslo, the flowers posing here with my flea market haul.


Memories of my time in a post-Soviet Children’s Camp

Probably the most famous of the Soviet Union’s ‘Young Pioneers’ Children’s Camps was Artek, on the Crimean Peninsula. Positioned along the sparkling blue waters of the Black Sea, it was the first Young Pioneers camp, opened in 1925, and grew to become a vast complex, and an extremely prestigious place to go. In the European summer of 1996 I made my way to Artek to spend a few weeks as a guest vozhaty – group leader. I spoke a little bit of Russian and was up for an adventure. This weekend, Artek is celebrating its 90th birthday. Sveta, one of the vozhaty that I befriended there 19 years ago invited me to write an article with memories from my visit. This is what I wrote.

View of Artek from Ayu-Dag mountain

View of Artek from Ayu-Dag mountain

I arrived at Artek somewhat unceremoniously. It was late July, 1996. I’d flown to Odessa, and had planned to travel by train to Crimea. But then I met a group of other travellers in the visa queue who were also travelling to Crimea but by private bus. I asked if I could hitch a ride with them to the city centre because I had heard there was no public transport from the airport. Instead, they persuaded me to travel to Crimea in their bus with them. I agreed, but it was a big mistake on my part. It was an awful journey that took three times longer than they’d said it would. It was a Friday, and I had arranged to call the Artek office from Odessa before they finished work for the day to say what time I would arrive by train in Sevastopol. But the private bus never stopped so that I could phone. No-one had mobile phones in those days. I also had no chance to change money, so I couldn’t buy myself any food and had no water. It was a very bad decision and to this day I regret hitching a ride with that group of Germans, friendly though they were, and missing the chance to see Odessa and travel by train to Crimea.

They dropped me in Sevastopol the next morning, a Saturday, and as I’d been warned, I couldn’t contact the Artek people to say that I’d arrived, because the administrative office was closed. So I boarded a bus that was travelling to Hurzuf, which I knew was the nearest village. As an Australian, I was used to travelling independently, but it meant that I arrived at Artek (with the help of some friendly Hurzuf locals) with no prior warning, which I think was a bit of a shock and inconvenience for everyone.



Kiparisniy (Cypress) Camp is the camp that is closest to Hurzuf, and that is why I ended up at Kiparisniy Camp – because I could walk there. My visit to Artek had been organised by a youth exchange organisation in Riga, and I think I was supposed to go to Lazurny, or one of the more modern, flagship camps designed by famous Soviet architects. Kiparisniy was already full, with no spare beds. It was also old with lots of problems with the plumbing. But Kiparisniy Camp was beautiful with its tall cypress trees and views of the ocean, and the people I met welcomed me so warmly that I was happy nobody tried to make me move to another camp, once that first weekend had finished.

Meeting the vozhatie

It’s funny that most of my photos are of life in the dormitory shared by the camp’s group leaders (vozhatie) . It would appear that I never went anywhere else! But it is also appropriate, because my memories of Artek are mostly of the people.

Right from the beginning the wonderful, indefatigable, funny, kind Sveta took me under her wing, and we’ve remained friends ever since. She had less English than I had Russian, but she had patience and energy and ingenuity, and a very inclusive spirit. I remember her approaching me that first evening saying, “A bunch of us are going out to eat arbuz – Do you want to come?” I had no idea what arbuz was but I went anyway, and learned that arbuz meant watermelon. A group of us sat and ate slices of juicy watermelon and I played my clarinet for everyone, sitting outside, around the edge of a fountain. That was my first evening at Artek.

Tourist Games

One of the first excursions I went on during my Artek experience was to play what were described to me as “tourist games”. In English I think we would call it orienteering. I had never done anything like this before, and I’ve never done anything like it since. With another young woman who was also a short-term visitor I was taken by car to the middle of a forest, and, using some clues that made very little sense to me, had to find our way to an end point, out of the forest. Fortunately, vozhatie and older campers popped out from behind trees every now and then to help us along the way.

One of the tests we had to pass required us to use sticks and stones to ford a wide stream. We were hopeless – our feet got very wet. Another test required knowledge of different kinds of wood. A serious, slightly world-weary girl scout asked us to choose which from among three bits of wood was the one we should use to start a fire, and which to use to keep the fire burning. To me they all looked like random sticks, so I just guessed. The girl scout sighed heavily, and matter-of-factly told me that I had failed. In fact, this one (she pointed to it) was Wood Type X, and would be the quickest to catch alight, and that one (she pointed to another) was Wood Type Y, and was a slow-burning wood. So there. She let us go past anyway. Thank goodness. In the end my team failed the Tourist Games. I think we got collected by a bus at some point, because we were so slow and so far behind the other teams. I laugh at the memory now, because I know that I really had no idea what was going on, nor how to succeed!

Another excursion I remember was going on a walk to see the marble caves. I think this might have been on my second day at Artek – it was very early in my visit and I didn’t really know anyone. A girl named Luda befriended me that day, and Luda was a great companion for the rest of my stay.

Artek days were very, very long. The vozhatie got up very early, because they had to get their group of children up and out of bed – which meant rising before them. Then, in the evenings, after the children were sleeping, their free time began, so they would socialise and then go to bed very late. There was nap-time in the afternoons. But how did everyone keep their energy going?

The earliest start was the day that my group went to climb Ayu-Dag, the high “bear” mountain that overlooks the whole Artek complex. We left long before sunrise – maybe at 4am? We went first to the kitchen, where the staff had prepared packed lunches and bottles of boiled water for us (all the drinking water in Crimea had to be boiled at that time). We travelled awhile by bus – or did we walk from the camp? – and then we started climbing upwards. When we reached the mountain summit Sveta painted coloured stripes on our faces. These were to say that we’d climbed Ayu-Dag. On the walk down we had wonderful views across all of Artek.

Some of the Ayu-Dag group

Some of the Ayu-Dag group

Swimming in the Black Sea

I remember being fascinated by the daily swimming program. The sea water had been divided into lanes, with all the children’s groups assigned a lane each. When a whistle blew, they were allowed to run into the water. No-one was allowed to put their head under water (I wasn’t sure if this was so that they didn’t drown, or because of ear and eye infections). Time in the water was strictly monitored and when the whistle blew, the children had to get out again. During these rest times, I remember hunting for shells with some of the children. We tried to find shells that had dirochka – little holes – in them (you see, I still remember these words), that could be threaded onto leather strips and made into necklaces. Beaches are prominent in my Australian childhood memories, and the shell-gathering was a familiar activity for me. However, the restrictions around being in the water were very strange for me, and I admit I found the whole regimented process quite bizarre. Australia has a strong beach culture. We see access to beaches as something akin to a human right!

Arts and culture

There was so much skill and talent among the vozhatie and the children! I remember there was a ballroom dancing competition while I was there. A whole crowd of vozhatie took part. In Australia, there is no way a random group of trainee teachers and youth leaders would know how to ballroom-dance. And no way they would take part in a competition – unless it was supposed to be humorous. I have photos of the costume preparation – whole teams of vozhatie sewing black trousers and short red skirts for the dancers.

I remember some extraordinary young singers – they had won a local competition, and both first- and second-place getters had come to Artek as part of their prize. They were clearly on track to be the pop stars of the future. Also while I was there, a dancing troupe from Belarus was in residence, and gave several performances.

I remember playing duets with a young saxophonist named Vika. We played the Theme from Love Story [Legende Lyubimiy] together, with me improvising a harmony to her soaring melody. I led workshops for a small music group, and together we wrote songs and improvised. I also joined with two other vozhatie to sing lullabies every night in the dormitory for the 8-9 year olds. I loved doing this, and learned several Russian songs in 3-part harmony in the nightly singing sessions.

The singers, thumbing their way through my Russian dictionary

The singers, thumbing their way through my Russian dictionary

Life in the dormitory

Sveta celebrated her birthday during my time at Artek. She organised an elaborate party, with all sorts of tasty food and lots of Georgian wine. We re-arranged the girls’ dormitory to make it look festive and used every table in the building to make a long table in the centre of the room. Later, we hauled our mattresses up to the roof and slept outside, under the stars.

The vozhatie’s dormitory had some definite plumbing problems. I hope nobody minds that I remember this! For me, it was part of the adventure – but I was only there 2 weeks. Probably it was more annoying for everyone else. I remember the water only came out of the taps once in the mornings and once in the evenings. People would make sure to fill up all the buckets each day and we would use this stored water to make tea, wash hands, and flush the toilet. I loved the colourful labels that were on the bottles of Georgian wine we were drinking, and I remember soaking the labels off the bottles in the buckets of water, then drying them between the pages of my journal. People thought wine labels a fairly odd thing to collect, but I remember Sveta sending me some more labels, years later. Thinking back now, I’m not sure how hygienic it was to soak empty wine bottles in our water storage.

Hot water was more unpredictable. I learned that when someone yelled out “Goryachaya voda” (hot water) in the dormitory building, it was a cue for everyone to take advantage of the opportunity to have a hot shower. People would run into the corridors carrying towels, and head down to the basement showers. No-one could ever be sure how long the hot water would last. Goryachaya voda is Russian vocabulary that I learned in Artek, and that I have never forgotten!

Also ‘smyena’. It took me a long time to work out that there were two sitting sessions for each meal. I was supposed to know which smyena – first or second session – my group had been assigned each day. I didn’t understand this, and kept turning up whenever I was hungry. This meant that I was taking up a seat, and that someone who was supposed to be there didn’t get to sit down for their meal.

(Which reminds me – I also learned the word ‘poldnik’ (afternoon snack) at Artek. I loved poldnik – both the cuteness of the word, and what it meant. I can’t remember now what we used to eat, but I remember how nice it was to have a snack at that time of day).

Similarly, it was only at the end of my stay that I realised I was sleeping in someone else’s bed. That person had given up her bed to me, when I turned up at the camp all of a sudden, and was now sleeping somewhere else. That’s how welcoming and kind people were to me. I continually didn’t understand how the systems was supposed to work, and kept disrupting things. It must have been annoying for people, but no-one ever, ever let me know.

В Добрый Час, Друзья

By the end of my stay I felt like I had been drawn into an extended Artek family. When I continued my travels (to Kiev, and then to Lvov), the Kiparisny Camp Director arranged for me to stay with a former Kipirisny vozhaty, Katya. She and her family were so kind to me, welcoming me into their home and showing me their city. They then arranged for me to stay with their relatives in Lvov.

Director of Kiparisny Camp making a speech at the Farewell Concert

Director of Kiparisny Camp making a speech at the Farewell Concert

Because of Artek, I finally learned the irregular case endings for dyeti, children. S dyetymi, dlya dyetyei. And also for drug, friends. Druzya, s druzyami, dlya moyikh druzyei. These words were often needed, because I met lots of children, and I made lots of friends. At the final concert for that two-week holiday (the children arrived and left in 2-week batches) the vozhaty performed a song together – V Dobriy chas, Druzya (Good luck, friends). I think it was a popular song at the time, but not everyone knew the words. I remember one girl muttering the next set of lyrics at the end of each phrase for those of us that didn’t know the song, so that we could attempt to sing along. Nineteen years later, I can still remember the chorus.

Two decades later

Travelling to Artek and spending 2 weeks as a guest vozhatiye remains one of the most extraordinary things I’ve done in my life (and I’ve done a lot since then, working as a musician in post-war countries and using music as a tool for peace and recovery). When I meet Russians or people from the former Soviet Union, I delight in telling them, “I spent some time at Artek. Do you know Artek?” The older ones know the name, and are always impressed. The younger ones – well, maybe my pronunciation is bad, but when I asked my new Russian teacher (born in 1990) this question, he thought I was saying I’d been to the Arctic!

Thinking back to that time, nearly 20 years ago, we see how much has changed. In 1996, there was no internet. How did I even find out about Artek? Why was I so determined to go there myself? I was looking for adventure and unique experiences. I knew of its prestige and its history, and wanted to be part of something that had held such pride of place in the former Soviet system.

Artek seemed to me like this glorious social experiment of bringing diverse people together to relax, play, and learn. Because of its size, some people joked that it was another of the former Soviet Union’s autonomous republics. It had its own schools! And public transport system! But it also had, in my experience, a genuine openness to connecting diverse peoples, and exploring and celebrating all their common ground. Call it a multicultural policy, perhaps.

I still hope to go back. I loved Sveta’s descriptions of Artek at Christmas time, when it would still be 20 degrees each day, and the water would still be warm. I’m sure that I will go back one day (maybe for the 100th Birthday?), and when I do, I hope that the times will be more peaceful than they are now in that part of the world. It is devastating to read of the turmoil and suffering that has taken place in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea in recent times. But when I do return, I hope that Sveta and her friends will again take me to eat arbuz. We’ll dangle our feet in the fountain, share stories, and open ourselves to the different life experiences we all bring from opposite sides of the world, and be intrigued, inspired, and changed by each other once again.

Adventures in trade and human niceness

In recent weeks I’ve discovered the thrill of Gumtree, our free local classifieds where people sell, swap or give away their unwanted stuff. It started when we decided to reorganise our home office – my study. I sold the loft bed I’d been working under for the last 3 years, and bought a sofa bed for those once-a-year guests to sleep on instead.

The loft-bed/home office

The loft-bed/home office

Within 24 hours of posting the loft bed advertisement on Gumtree, it was sold. The man who bought it drove 2 hours in a small hire car (because his ute was in for repairs) to see the bed and bought it on the spot, but then had to come back a week later to collect it. As I helped him and his wife carry the pieces of dismantled loft bed down to their car I learned that they’d spent years in the navy, something that was evidenced by the precise and exacting way they packed the pieces of that loft bed into their rented trailer like total pros. They worked it like a giant jigsaw puzzle. They were buying it for their eleven year old boy and told me he was beside himself with excitement about his new bed.

The topless chest-of-drawers

The topless chest-of-drawers

Reorganising the room got us reorganising the cupboards and we started finding things we no longer wanted. I advertised these on Gumtree for free. A student from Colombia snatched up a functional but unlovely chest of drawers missing its ‘top’. He said thank you when he saw the drawers, thank you again when I went downstairs with him to hold the security door open, again when I helped him manoeuvre the unit into the back of his tiny hatchback, and again when we closed the doors and he got back in his car. I responded to his thank yous by thanking him for taking the drawers away, which just goes to show what a mutually beneficial interaction giving away stuff can be.

Pretty vintage chair

Pretty vintage chair

Next I gave away a chair. “Pretty vintage chair, needs some work but will restore nicely” was how I advertised it. A girl named Renae answered the ad and her brother came by for the chair two days later. “Why did it catch your eye?” I asked him when I handed it over at the front door. “We’re moving house, and we’re short one chair for the dining table,” he replied. I wished him well with the house move and the dinner parties.

Vintage portable audio

Vintage portable audio

When we cleared out the spare room cupboards we found a stash of what I later advertised as ‘vintage portable audio’ – a Sanyo Walkman the size and weight of a small brick, a Sharp Minidisc recorder that was my pride and joy when I bought it in 1999, an iRiver mp3 player, a portable amplifier with built-in cassette player, and an assortment of random cables and ear buds. I priced it as a bundle for $20. The guy who bought it only wanted the iRiver, but took the whole box away. I told him I’d had quite a bit of interest in the Minidisc recorder as an individual item and that he should try and sell it on.

The biggest surprise has been the padded post bags. I had loads of these, plus mounds of bubble wrap. I’d kept all I’d ever been sent, assuming I’d be able to reuse it, but I obviously don’t send as much as I receive. I wasn’t convinced I could put them in the paper recycling, so, somewhat speculatively, I took a photo of the boxful, and posted it to the Free section of Gumtree. Three days later, a young guy named Abbas, starting up an online business, had dropped by to collect it. “What do you do?” he asked me from over the top of his box of packaging. “Buy books,” I confessed.

Random assortment of used packaging

Random assortment of used packaging

I’ve learned that Gumtree can get quite addictive. I remember my father buying the Trading Post every week, even though there was nothing in particular he needed. He just liked to read it. Read about the bargains. Gumtree works in similar ways – read it with a browsing mind and you’ll find all sorts of treasures. I found the new sofa bed on Gumtree, and also a wonderful hand-knotted Hali rug for our living room floor.  The couple that sold it to us were European, both artists, but with very distinctive aesthetic tastes. She was Scandinavian, he was Czech. He liked dark wood and Bohemia, she liked clean lines, white furnishing and Ikea. Despite living in a little Edwardian house with dark wood trims, Ikea and whiteness won, and the rug had to go. We rolled it up and put it in the back of our car, and celebrated with lunch at a nearby St Kilda café with a southside friend and a serendipitous car spot right by our outdoor sun-soaked table. It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon’s activities.

Of course, it feels good to give things away, but what I’ve really enjoyed about these adventures in trade are the human interactions I’ve had. The small stories we have shared in these brief exchanges and transactions have given me glimpses into other people’s aspirations, strivings, and efforts to shape their lives, in the same way that the things I buy and get rid of reveal something of my own. And it has all been so friendly, so willing and open to trust. There was delight in the exchanges. They were short, to the point, but also incredibly affirming of the genuine niceness of most people.

(My sister has also been writing about Other People’s Stuff lately. Read her article in the Sydney Morning Herald here)

And just another thing…

More on the joy of managerial speak. Weird Al Yankovic says/sings it better than anyone else. And the video is one of those wonderful live drawing efforts – an excellent asset in anyone’s communication tool box to facilitate engagement and maximise outcomes going forward.

Counting the good stuff

Some weeks, it feels like you are just putting stuff out there, but nothing comes back, nothing gets resolved, and you end the week wondering if you actually made any tangible progress. Other weeks, you put stuff out there, and your efforts yield all sorts of interesting and valuable returns. This has been one of those weeks.

Last Friday night I went along to the monthly gathering of the Melbourne East Timor Activity Centre. I met lots of new people – Timorese PHD scholars, Australian supporters and longtime activists for Timorese independence – who offered me suggestions and contacts for my fieldwork in Timor-Leste, which starts in 10 days. I spent the week following up these contacts, and its been very satisfying to find myself running out of room in my diary in the ‘phone numbers’ section.

Saturday, I went shopping for a new mouthpiece to go with my new soprano saxophone. That was fun, especially because I found one I liked as much as the one I’ve been using up until now (and that I’d been reluctant to return to its owner).

On Sunday evening, Yumeros Cuban Salsa Band did a gig – our first for the year, and the first in Melbourne since Tony Hicks and I joined the group last year. Lots of fun – the venue was packed with dancers and listeners. It was also the first outing for my new soprano saxophone. I love playing in this band.  Things took a slightly dodgy turn on Sunday night when I realised that in the changeover to the new sax, the box of reeds had been forgotten. But alto sax player Susie came to the rescue with a couple of alto sax reeds, which worked on the new mouthpiece… in fact, they sounded pretty damn good!

On Monday I gave my last lecture for this semester, talking to first-year Music and Culture students at NMIT about the early days of the Pavarotti Music Centre. Talking to an interested audience about a subject I care a great deal for – it’s not exactly a tough gig! Nevertheless, the preparation took a long time, and I was pleased that it was well-received by the students and tutors.

From then on, the week was basically spent emailing – I sent emails in all directions, for hours and hours on end. Then replies came in – and I replied in turn, for hours and hours. Intense! But satisfying because I could see my East Timor trip starting to come together, where a few weeks ago I had been questioning whether I had enough contacts to justify going over. I also interviewed one of my Australia-based researchparticipants via Skype, which was an incredibly informative and free-flowing conversation. I hope all my interview participants have this much to tell me!

On Thursday I taught my young clarinet student, who had clearly done a lot of focused practice. Brilliant! I hope he was also satisfied with himself – we teachers always try to impress upon our students the difference that frequent, regular practice makes (as opposed to isolated but long practice sessions), but we need the students to actually do it in order to appreciate this difference!

Now it’s the end of the week – I have my Dili accommodation sorted out, I have a number of projects to go and observe, people happy to be interviewed, good students here in Melbourne, a new instrument that I love playing… tonight I will get to catch up with teachers and students from Pelican Primary School, where I used to teach, and who I still think about with great fondness… tomorrow I going to see the new film by Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic, For those that can tell no tales in the Human Rights and Arts Film Festival… and next week is shaping up to be filled with more interesting people. Life is good!

Later addition: Oh! I forgot to add an extra piece of niceness – I got a grant to support my fieldwork in Timor-Leste! Yes, it was indeed a good week.

Risking creativity

This week The Age published an article* by Melbourne author Alice Pung. She wrote about a creative writing and publishing program for children called the 100 Story Building, and wove in observations of the place of cultivated creativity in the lives of young migrant and refugee children.

Photo Credit: STARSFoundation via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: STARSFoundation via Compfight cc

She was writing from experience – Pung and her immediate family are survivors of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in Cambodia. She grew up in Braybrook, one of the most culturally-diverse and disadvantaged suburbs in the whole of Australia, where many children must assume adult duties and responsibilities, translating for parents, and helping them navigate an unfamiliar world.

One section of her article jumped out at me, when she wrote of the priorities of parents who have suffered and risked everything in order to bring their family to safety. For them, the ultimate goal for their children is that they have comfortable lives, safe and predictable employment, a home that is calm, secure, and ordered, and where there is space to grow.

Engaging in creativity – acts of engagement and production that are risky, open-ended, unpredictable, and that could fail just as easily as they could succeed – is a frightening option for the risk-averse.

Reading Pung’s words (she is a luminous writer, her prose is such a joy!) made me think of the children I have worked with in the English Language Schools in Melbourne, and their often complex relationships with creating and making their own work.

Some arrive at school in Melbourne with very little, or extremely interrupted, prior schooling. They feel behind the eight-ball in many things in school. For some, this creates a sense of anxiety to learn the right way to do things. Some may have had access to regular schooling, but in a harsh, punitive, and strongly authoritarian environment. Getting things right and not making mistakes in school is very important to these children too. Making up their own stuff can therefore feel like a threatening thing to do, because it is not clear what the “right” or required response will be.

Some children are alarmed or puzzled by the playfulness that is often part of cultivating creativity and freeing the imagination. Why is the teacher being silly? Will I get in trouble if I laugh? Will people laugh at me, and shame me or humiliate me?

Some children struggle deeply with how to reconcile and integrate their school experiences with their home lives. This used to generate a lot of anxiety for some children, particularly those who came from very strict Muslim families. I remember one family of three sisters. In their first couple of music lessons, they joined in everything. They were new in school, new to English, and followed all the class activities by observing and copying what they saw other children doing. But then, they began to remove themselves. Each week they would announce a new thing that they were not allowed to do. They were not allowed to hold their hands in a certain way in the warm-up. They were not allowed to dance. They were not allowed to clap or stamp. They were not allowed to sing. In the end, they were not allowed to take part in the end-of-term performance with their classmates either. They became more and more withdrawn and tense, living in worlds that were contracting while those of their classmates were expanding with new experiences.

Once the children become comfortable with the risks of creativity, they are often bursting to express themselves in these different ways. We see these children in the City Beats workshops too (which I led last week for the MSO and ArtPlay) – once they feel clear on the parameters and possibilities, they are filled with so many ambitions and ideas to share that it seems a shame to contain them in a 2-hour workshop.

In many ways, as Pung describes it, these children can be voiceless in our societies. They often speak for their parents, but their own voices are silenced in the striving to find the comfortable place that is their parents’ dream. And yet the stories they have to share have importance beyond the voice and platform provided to them. These are children that know many of the harsh realities of life, across many different generations.

This was poignantly and memorably demonstrated in the 2013 publication Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes, (you can read my review of this beautiful book here) with its stories of war, survival, family, and place written by young refugees from South Sudan, now living in country Victoria. Donkeys was published by Kids Own Publishing, a publishing house that, like 100 Story Building, supports children and diverse communities to write their own stories and publish them in books. Child-centred and community-centred publishing creates access for the young writers – by providing a platform for their stories and ideas, and cultivating their creativity – but also access for the potential audience for their stories, by illuminating worlds (real and imaginary) that might otherwise remain in the shadows.

*I couldn’t find an online version of the article. Look for The Age, 6 May 2014, Alice Pung ‘A book in every child’. Section: Focus. Page: 12-13.

The Dripolator

This is a beautiful installation (or is it an instrument?) that I think more people should see! The Dripolator was created by Graeme Leak, one of the most innovative creative musicians/composers/inventors you could ever hope to meet. It’s visually and aurally stunning, and so, so clever, as this video attests. When the Dripolator was installed at the Melbourne Recital Centre, people raved about it. They still rave about it, actually. So if you are someone who programs a festival, or an arts space, or a community space, anywhere in the world, you should consider getting The Dripolator and Graeme in residence.


Ushering in the Christmas spirit

A Facebook friend recently posted a discussion starter – what’s your favourite Christmas CD? I was horrified by some of the suggestions – there is little I dislike more than faded pop stars and hip young things giving their melismatic and affected performances of classic Christmas carols. What were my friends thinking? My nomination was for Tijuana Christmas (by Tijuana Brass). We had this LP when we were kids and it was our absolute favourite, guaranteed to get us jiving around the lounge room in our pyjamas and getting giddy. It’s still my absolute favourite. A few years back my sister tracked down a copy of the LP and made a CD of it for me. It only lasts for 38 minutes, so it gets a fairly constant rotation on Christmas Day here.


Start playing it now! It’s the best. Dig those vibes! (I mean the vibraphone, rather than groovy feeling, man).

I confess I am a Christmas purist. I like it old-style. Tinsel and pine trees, special tree decorations (added to each year with one or two special finds) and nativity sets. Nothing proves this more than the fact that every year, I host a Christmas carol-singing party. I invite everyone I know (and some people I don’t know but that others have told me about) that likes to sing carols in the old-fashioned, ‘Oxford Book of Carols’ way. We gather together, we bring food to share, and we sing through all the carols. Then we hit the streets and go and sing for the neighbours. Sometimes they give us money, and we give this to a charity.


(Or as one friend put it on Sunday night, “Walk the streets for money – you don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right!”). Yep. Indeed.

“You have your own Christmas tradition,” my sister observed this year. It’s quite a long-running tradition now. It first started when I was still a student at the Victorian College of the Arts (waaaay back in the late 80s/early 90s). A group of friends and I decided to form a small group and market ourselves as carol-singers to shops and department stores in the lead-up to Christmas. We got booked to do a few gigs, made some money and had a lot of fun.

A year or two later, living in London as a post-graduate student, another group of friends and I did the same thing. We got a series of gigs in a chain of upmarket pubs (called ‘The Pitcher and Piano’). The deal usually included food as well as cash – always a welcome offer for cash-strapped students in London. The following year we talked about reforming the group and doing it again, but we never quite got organised with the marketing. Suddenly, it was the 20th December… and time had run out! So we got together anyway, and just sang the carols for the fun of it.

I think the carol-singing party tradition started there. Back in Australia, I invited friends around to sing, usually on the last weekend before Christmas, and it always happened that only those that wanted to sing came along. Everyone else stayed away. It meant that I didn’t have to worry about it being a boring or daggy event for people – everyone who was coming along was a bit of a purist like me, it seemed, and a lover of carols sung the old-school, four-part harmony way. No melismatic or faddish soulful renderings to be heard at all.

Carol singing, Dec 13 (Gillian Howell)

The party was usually held wherever I was living at the time. I remember one party in the back yard of a share house in Parkville, where we cooked up a big barbecue and tried to accompany ourselves on my new piano accordion (I couldn’t play it then, and can’t really play it now). Another year, we had it in my top-floor flat in North Melbourne. Somehow I managed to persuade a percussionist friend to bring his vibraphone to accompany the singing. He lugged it up four flights of stairs. He has never come to another carols party. I think I might have used up all of his good will on that night.

More recently, the party has been held in the home of my good friends Simon and Victoria, who are carol-singing regulars. They have a beautiful home with lots of room for people, song-sheets and large platters of food. They have hosted the event for the last few years. I even have a name for the event now – ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’. For some of the regulars, it is one of the only times we see each other each year. Traditions that belong to the carol-singing party have evolved, such as the deliberate mis-singing of Verse 4 of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (“Thus spake the Seraph and forthwith appeared a Shining Thong”). Hehehe. I always giggle.

Carol singing, Dec 13 (Gillian Howell)

Other songs always choke me up. I can’t get through Oh Little Town of Bethlehem without getting a big lump in my throat – awkward when you are the only person on the alto line. It’s the carol I loved best when I was a child. I remember getting a song book from a carols night at Ringwood Lake and being thrilled to be able to learn all the words to this carol off by heart. I practised it until I knew it. It was rarely sung at the carol services we had at church, so I had to sing it on my own at home, to get it out of my system.

These days, Christmas brings more pressure and madness than ever before. We are busier. There are more people to see, more friends and family to connect with. It’s hard to get a sense of Christmas spirit – that feeling that reminds us why we do all these busy things, because in fact these are people we love and care about – when everything feels so rushed.

The Christmas carols party is proving to be a way for many of us to usher in our own sense of Christmas spirit. The songs that get played in the supermarkets and department stores don’t do it for  us. Singing the songs ourselves, in the glorious, beautiful harmonies that we first learned years ago (and in some cases are still getting right), is what will get the eyes shining and the mouths smiling, and the goodwill and good cheer flowing. Traditions are important. They keep us grounded and connected. I’m happy to find that without ever really planning it to be so, I’ve created a Christmas tradition of my own that is important to many people other than myself.





XiHu Lake in Hangzhou

On Day 2 of the CMA [Community Music Activity] Commission Seminar, we had a group excursion to the renowned XiHu Lake (West Lake) which is the reason that Hangzhou is sometimes known as the Garden Paradise of China (or something along those lines).

It’s a famed beauty spot that attracts hordes of tourists everyday, but particularly during the summer holidays, which are in full swing in China. We travelled to the lake by bus, and as we got nearer, the clouds darkened. As we alighted the bus, the first raindrops began to fall. We walked briskly to the traditional dragon boat that would carry us across the water to one of the islands, and once aboard, the rain drops began to fall more frequently. Soon there was thunder, closely followed by lightning. The heavy clouds changed the whole ambience of the area – the outlines of the surrounding mountains became more distinct in their varying shades of grey, and and the bright colours of the dragon boats stood out sharply against this backdrop. I’m not sure the photo below does this justice. After a while I switched to black-and-white photos, to take advantage of the sombre atmosphere.

View from the lake

Dragon boats against the skyline

Fellow travellers

Me, drenched

And not just me

The tide of umbrellas as we made our way back to the bus

Shoes, skyscrapers, shops and subways

I spent my second day in Shanghai exploring further. I set off first to find the Train Ticket Office, located (according to the staff at my hotel) in the pedestrian shopping mall on Nanjing Road East, where it intersects with Central Zheijiang Road. Walk out of the hotel to the main road, turn right, then turn into the third street on the left, then keep walking until you get to Nanjing and look for a little window in a wall somewhere. Armed with the words “train ticket office” written down in Chinese, I got going.

Central Zheijiang St proved to be a great street, filled with interesting local shops. I wandered into a shoe shop and came out with new sandals. The woman guessed my size exactly (and was suitably pleased with herself). They were so comfortable, I wore them the whole day with not a blister to complain of!

In the distance of this street loomed an impressive gold building. A Chinese business built a ‘gold’ skyscraper in Melbourne’s Docklands. It is distinctive as it has a boat shape as its roofline, but even in the glow of sunset, that building never looks gold and I imagine it is a constant disappointment to the people that commissioned it, given the auspicious nature of gold. This golden skyscraper in Shanghai, however, is gold no matter what the sun is doing:

My eyes are constantly gazing upwards, marveling at the beautiful Art Deco architecture. I was struck by the Gotham City quality of one building – it reminded me of the Russell St Police Headquarters in Melbourne (these days a block of apartments). The Train Ticket Office turned out to be a window at the front of this building.

Next I took the metro to South Shaanxi Road, and walked from there into the French Concession district, a leafy residential/embassy area where plane trees cover the streets with lush green canopies. I enjoyed being out of the sun’s reach for a while. There are lots of interesting shops, galleries and cafes in this area. However, I stopped for lunch in a canteen-style coffee shop where the only English I could see was in a NO SMOKING sign, and the words PUSH and PULL on the door. The food was plentiful and all on display. I could point to what I wanted, and was delighted with my selection – broccoli, eggplants, mushrooms, some cabbage (I think) and rice. Finally a more balanced proportion of the five food groups. And for a bargain price.

While I was eating, it suddenly started to rain. How serendipitous, I thought – not only have found such a great place to eat, but to have found it and be eating right when the downpour started!

Next I went to the Taikang Road arts precinct, which was packed with visitors. It’s an interesting array of shops selling silk scarves, hand crafts, paintings and photographs, leather goods. I stopped for coffee at Kommune, where I paid nearly twice the cost of my lunch for an iced coffee. Everything balances up in the end, doesn’t it? Kommune has reproductions of Mao-era propaganda posters on its walls, and I particularly loved seeing the Mao figurines in the fishtank.

I exited the arts precinct and within just a few footsteps found I had left the French Concession district behind me.

I walked to the nearest Metro station (which wasn’t that near), navigating my way through an interchange without incident. In some of the trains they have TV screens and I particularly like it when they show a program about the DOs and DON’Ts of using the Shanghai metro system. The program is hosted by a handsome man with an endearing dimple in his right cheek and a flirty smile. I could imagine him in an ad for Mac products – cheeky, smart, little bit playful and arch. Yesterday’s program showed impatient business men doing things like pulling the Emergency cord, or trying to force the doors open, with a great big red X slamming down on top of the image. Then they show a similar man sighing, and making a call on a mobile phone – big green TICK for him. The key message here? If you are running late, or miss your stop, don’t try and disrupt the entire train service, make a call and tell whoever you’re meeting that you’ll be a bit late.

Today’s episode was about finding unattended luggage. A group of teenage girls is walking along the platform. One trips over a small black wheelie bag. Oh! she says, and she and her friends gather around the bag and open it up (presumably to find out who it belongs to). WRONG! says Dimple Man. In the next scene we see the same group of girls walking with two men in uniforms and pointing out the bag. The two men approach the bag and cover it with a blanket. RIGHT! says Dimple Man. Sweetheart.

There is another ad in this vein which is a cartoon. A sullen, round-shouldered character is lugging a kind of sack over his shoulder. He avoids the bag screening x-ray machine that everyone is supposed to put their bags through when entering the Metro system. (“For everyone’s safety” the signs on the machines remind us). There is a woman (with better posture) who has a smart red-and-white tote bag, and she puts it through the machine. Then the security guards go up to the round-shouldered person and ask to see his bag. They empty the contents out and – I’m not sure what it’s supposed to contain, but I think they find items for making bombs. And then they take the man away and he looks even more sullen and hang-dog than ever.

I enjoy this existence where I can’t speak the language. I am reduced to deciphering and guessing, and filling in the gaps from my own imagination. It’s what my students at Language School have to do all the time, of course. Here I get to do it while being entertained by a completely different style of visual communication, which amuses me no end.