Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My grandfather's ears

We occasionally drive up a particular hill in suburban Melbourne. Each and every time we crest the hill, I panic. Laid out before me are thousands of houses. I think of all the women living here who have to drive everywhere - to school, the shops, work, the train station - and I start to sweat. My heart swells into the back of my throat, my palms go clammy, and I obsessively rub the tops of my thighs as I try to calm down. I can't live here! I blurt at my partner, my eyes prickling with tears. He smiles patiently - it's the twentieth time we've gone through this ridiculous scene -, strokes my arm and reassures me.

I know how silly I sound. After all, we have a house in an inner suburb; and if we ever had to move, we'd certainly find something smaller in the same area rather than head out east. Even so, I still feel our house is too big, the streets too wide, the shops too far away. It may the closest thing to 'my' suburb in Melbourne, but even after fifteen years, I still don't feel like I belong. The roads are choked with traffic, and people just aren't that friendly. Most of the smiles I offer are not returned; few shopkeepers recognise us; few parents like to chat in parks. I don't know why (is it a symptom of city life? or is it me? is it me??), but that's the way it is. So often I feel I am floating away, adrift, not tethered to house or suburb or anything much except my family and a few friends. Where do I belong? I wonder.

This week, I'm visiting Penzance, the land of my forebears. Some streets are so narrow that the houses seem to touch overhead; the houses have party walls. The roads go up and down and roundabout; there are no straight lines. The footpaths are so narrow that they only just fit the stroller. We often walk on the street instead. The shops are tiny, the shopkeepers friendly, and they recognise us already. I am relaxed here.

At some deep level, this town feels familiar. This is how people should live, I think - in an anthill, with fields to the back of us and ocean to the front. We can see where the food is grown and caught; we can do everything on foot; this world is people-sized. Water runs through the town, in brooks and fountains and gutters. The dark stones glisten in the rain and make my heart leap.

The landscape resonates, and so do the people. Here are the people who smile back. It's a bustling town, but people nod and grin in the street. Here is the origin of my family's flash smile that lasts less than half an instant. I've seen it on face after face. Here are the people who chat with strangers - it's not just me! As we watched the waves crashing against the sea wall, a chatty man told us tales. Here are the people who sing. This afternoon I walked behind a woman singing to herself; she could have been me. Last week, on request, I gave the local grocery a rousing rendition of the Vegemite song, followed by an Aeroplane Jelly duet with the girl on the register. Time and again, my eyes meet another's and I feel a jolt of recognition.

Talk about the illusion of belonging. I don't know anyone here and am cheerfully oblivious to private life - but the public life is so familiar, I could weep.

My grandfather's ears walked past me yesterday. They were on someone else's head, but I recognised them instantly. This morning I saw an eighteenth century clock, its face inscribed with the maker's signature. He had my father's name.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Postcard: Sailors' Eyes

Old men's eyes here run blue. After years of watching wind and waves, they radiate light; they cannot focus on earthly things. They gaze past, through, beyond as we pass by.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bread and circuses

I spent last week in London wondering what it means to belong. My ancestors are from England, but they fled the crushing poverty and emigrated to Australia. 150-odd years later, I was born. 34 years after that, I thought it was time to check the place out!

Mooching around, with a big apartment to go home to, a down jacket to keep out the elements and money in my pocket, was a blast. We spent four days in a blur of touring: Buckingham Palace (where I was most gratified to see a cleaning lady burst out a side door, weave between two soldiers, and stuff a sack of garbage into a dumpster halfway through the otherwise highly choreographed changing of the guard); the Tower of London; the National Gallery; the Portrait Gallery; and the British Museum. We saw the greatest hits of British history and English colonialism: the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian mummies and the Crown Jewels, and dozens of paintings that left me gobsmacked. I spent hours gazing at art, thinking and dreaming and wondering, and have been nourished for months to come.

All well and good. But my ancestors left for a reason. They were tin miners in Cornwall. With the opening of the mines, life expectancy dropped to just over 20. Children as young as seven worked in the mines, and babies were cared for by even younger children and invalids. Industrial and household accidents were common. Nutrition was abysmal, disease was rife, and everyone was poor.

By contrast, life expectancy in South Australia, where my family moved, was 45. Fresh food was available, young children did not work, and people had a reasonable chance of survival. The only reason I can afford to waltz around London, three kids in tow, is because our people left the UK many years ago.

So I have mixed feelings. I may be visiting the home of my ancestors and drinking deep from cultural wells; I may be relishing the ice and snow and grey skies and muddy puddles; I may feel a deep sense of comfort in the narrow laneways and the squashed together sort of living - but I also feel resentful. For all the grand buildings in London, for all the wealth represented by the acquisition of paintings and antiquities from around the world, for all the money spent on war with the Spanish and French, my people, along with many thousands of others, went hungry. As much as I love visiting the galleries and museums, I no longer belong here because my people had to leave in order to live. We were at the bottom of the social scale at a time when there was no safety net.

Our London apartment emphasized the class structure. It was a flat in a grand old mansion. The lounge was triple the size of our lounge at home, with three couches taking up only half the room; large bureaux and arm chairs were dotted around the remaining space. The dining room held a mahogany table that seated eight. My husband and I enjoyed sitting at the far ends of the table and waving - but the footmen never reported for duty, so we spent most of every meal walking laps just to pass the food. The front bedrooms were high ceilinged and generous. The kitchen, however, was accessed through a dark narrow corridor, and through the kitchen one found the third bedroom and bathroom. They were low-ceilinged, single glazed, and cramped. It was the servant's quarters. There was no structural reason to have low ceilings in the back part of the flat. Instead, it was a political statement: your ceilings are low, your rooms chilly, your cornices devoid of decoration, because you are a servant. I may have slept in the front bedroom this week, but I belong in the back, and I resented it.

Down at the Palace, the band played martial music and then, to my astonishment, an ABBA medley. The Union Jack hung limply from the flagpole. The Queen was not at home. As we stood in the crush of tourists, listening to Mamma Mia and watching the guards stride around in front of an enormous empty building, all I could think was, Bread and circuses.

We walked away and my father said, Well that's the one good thing that came out of the monarchy.

The disparity in wealth here radicalised my family. On all sides they were dissenters, passionately opposed to the State Church. 150 years on, their great great grandchildren simmer still.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Postcard: London Underground

The sign says the next train is WIMBLED. What does it take to wimble a train, I wonder? Will it still run? Are there clowns at Piccadilly Circus? Druids and oaks at St John's Wood? What do they grow at Chalk Farm? Who are the Seven Sisters? The King's Cross - what made him so? Which is the Shepherd's Bush? Who is Bec, and why is she Tooting? Does the Elephant live in the Castle? Can the Angel fly?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Dear Nancy

Dear Nancy,

You told me that it didn't matter if my kids were grizzly when I was eating croissants in Paris. I've been thinking about it. Because now the whole family has been sick, and we've spent the last few days apologising: to a maid in Hong Kong for soiling her shoe; to airline stewards for throwing up on a seat; to our hostess in Berlin for the vomit on the pillow and the vomit on the mattress; to our friends, for missing a birthday dinner.

Last night, as I was on my hands and knees throwing up into a bowl - couldn't make the toilet - I started to cry. Hot tears ran down my nose and dripped into the sick. But it wasn't the vomiting, really, or the distance from home which made me cry. It was that this was the night we had planned a babysitter, and dinner and a long conversation with our friends who live here. I miss them so much.

As my husband helped me back to bed, I sobbed like a baby. And watched the snow fall outside the window and wondered, would I prefer to be home?

And guess what, Nancy? You were right of course. Still glad to be here. If one must vomit, it may as well be in a beautiful old apartment in Berlin. The ceilings are fourteen foot high, and I could ride a camel through the double doors between each room.

Round the corner is Stephane, who sells French wine and cheese. He doesn't lock his shop, so I wandered down the precipitous stairs into his basement shop to find something to eat. But the light was so dim and noone was there, so I came back upstairs, puzzled, only to find a guy running across the park, waving both arms in the air and cheerfully calling 'Hallo! Hallo!'. Stephane was running late.

We've been to our favourite boot store, which reminds me of a temple. The walls are white and spare, with boots and shoes tucked into carefully lit niches. The shop is absolutely quiet, except for the hushed voices of the assistants. Our tired baby cried throughout, yet the staff only told us to relax, try on another pair. Babies are supposed to cry, they said. Then they weatherproofed our new boots so we could wear them out into the snow. My new boots have a double layer of leather. They're weird and funky and a gorgeous red. You won't find them in Melbourne!

I threw a snowball at my sister and it exploded in her face. O joy! My children are entranced. It's the first time they've seen snow. They examine the flakes on their sleeves, then turn their faces skywards to catch it on their tongues, on their eyelashes. We went to the playground, climbed the icy steps and rode the flying fox over a soft white world.

We've been stuffing ourselves with bread and cheese, and those little rolls that taste like pretzels. Raspberry jam and French wine cost nothing here; the butter tastes like heaven.

So yesterday I decided, yes, I'm glad to be here - even with my head in a bucket. And today, I'm feeling better.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Washing in strange places

One of my friends defines travelling with small children as doing washing in strange places. When we visited Berlin a few years ago, this was certainly the case. The washing facilities were Im Kellar, a floor unmarked on the elevator panel. It was accessible only in the company of Margaret – a six-foot-six hairy-legged deep-voiced twin-set-and-pearled transvestite – who held the key which, at a turn, sent the elevator deep underground. Margaret was reluctant to take us there, yet refused to lend the key. She also refused to sell more drying tokens than washing tokens, although every load of washing required two cycles through the dryer.

Twice, my husband sat locked down Im Kellar, a dark labyrinth of storage cages for the apartment buildings above, out of phone range, lit by a single bulb over the machines, for the two hours it took to launder a single load. The first time, I thought he had been kidnapped. The second time, he took a book. The third time, he refused, and we found a public Laundromat instead.

When we visited Hong Kong recently, Im Kellar came flooding back.

Day One. Baby eats everything in sight: bamboo shoots in black vinegar; steamed dumplings stuffed with pumpkin; bowls of noodles. Baby gnaws happily on salt and pepper squid, long dangly legs hanging out her mouth and swinging gently against her chest. Baby smiles at everyone, waves and shouts bye-bye to the ladies on the bus, the touts on the street and the dozens of people who take her photo.

Day Two. Baby throws up on everything in sight. Daddy, the shoe of a Filipino maid, Daddy, the footpath, the backpack, stairs, Daddy again. She waited until we were well and truly out, then was spectacular. Hours after we took refuge in our hotel, she threw up on Mama, Mama's new slippers, the bedspread, the carpet and the bathroom floor in one little spree.

We were in a hotel, so I called housekeeping. I had mopped up the worst with towels, but the maid insisted I stop cleaning. She flapped her hands at me, shooing me away before getting down on her hands and knees to polish the floor. I sat wrapped in a towel, sitting on the edge of the tub next to my sodden clothes, watching her back and waiting so I could take a shower.

Thankfully, our hotel had a laundry room. They sold us all the tokens we needed, we did two loads, and all returned to normal. But my friend was right. Travelling with small children means washing in strange places, some more strange than others.

It would have vexed me except, as another friend said: So what if your kids are grumpy - you're eating croissants in Paris! Or, in my case, dim sum in Hong Kong! Vomit and all, I was thrilled to do my washing where I could watch eagles circling the hotel, or see the tackiest light show in the world before putting the kids to bed. What a privilege!

But I do think of the maid, on her hands and knees cleaning up the last of the mess; and the Filipino maid on the street, so cheerfully dismissive of the splash on her shoe. Baby threw up on a Sunday, the day of rest. The Filipino maids left the apartments where they work and live to be with their friends in the streets of Central. In their thousands, they spread over several city blocks.

With nowhere else to sit, they laid out blankets and flattened cardboard boxes on the ground. Some arranged open umbrellas around their group, handles pointing inwards, carving out a small private space to nap while others chatted or read or played cards. Some passed small netbooks around, so friends could check emails. Some swapped photos, or dozed, or gossiped. And so many smiled and waved at my kids that my heart constricted.

Many were my age. Many have degrees, but can earn much more as maids in Hong Kong than in professions at home. And many have left their own children to earn the money their families need. It brought home how wealthy we are, I am. I went to look around. They were there to do other people's washing and look after other people's children, leaving their own children and washing behind them.

Every Sunday, they go out to see friends, rest, and prepare for the week ahead. And on that Sunday, as woman after woman greeted my daughters, who perhaps for a moment reminded them of their own little ones, my eyes filled with tears. How I long for a world in which they could do their own laundry, and where the only people doing washing in strange places were those mad enough to travel with young children.

Postcard: Kowloon

Dead pigs nestle under an orange woollen blanket. Dried squid spill out of sacks. Chicken's feet are heaped into pyramids, toes pointing to the street. Bunches of lizards, tied at the tail, dangle from the ceiling. Fish swim around a styrofoam box; their fins break the surface of the water. A geoduck extends a siphon as long as my forearm and explores.
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