Lamb cutlets and Bok Choy.

April 18, 2015
My parents wedding photo.

My parents wedding photo.

Don’t ever make the mistake of calling lamb cutlets, lamb chops. There is a big difference. We used to like both and didn’t really mind one above the other and never were guilty of bias when it came to eating lamb. Some readers might now well call it quits. I understand and have full sympathy when some of you object to eating animals. I would too, but have found giving up eating meat even harder than smoking and I really loved smoking! A meek excuse hereby offered is that we haven’t eaten lamb cutlets for years. I have to confess it wasn’t due for concern of lambs but more for the concern of money. Lamb became more costly than smoked trout or caviar with Finlandia Vodka.

Sorry about inserting yet another Sibelius’ Finlandia but that’s what you get contemplating lamb cutlets. A beautiful piece of music that I cannot listen to without shedding tears.

I wonder if Australian lamb compares with the Dutch butter mountain some years ago? The Dutch had conquered the world market in butter. It was so successful that other countries  gave up on butter and despaired of their dairy industries. Cows were sold off and lush paddocks were left fallow. Farmers instead went into cabbages,  turnips and many took to the bottle. Stout buxom wives resorted to locking bedroom doors, forcing husbands to sleep off their drunken stupor on top of slow combustion wood stoves or in the hay loft with languid but faithful old horses. Poverty was knocking at many a dreaded midnight farmer’s door. There were scuffles at local town-halls and Russian dignitaries at world conferences were pelted with frozen Dutch butter.

And then, like magic it resolved itself. The Dutch had become so intoxicated with success they went mad making so much butter, so plentiful, it became a butter mountain, the price dropped! An oversupply of butter that no one wanted. (A bit like the iron ore in Australia at present). In order to keep selling this huge oversupply they sold off butter at a loss and compensated somewhat by  increasing the local price of butter in Holland. But…nothing is simple. Hordes of Dutch would now drive to Russia and buy the cheap subsidised Dutch butter, fill up their car- boots and drive back, all snug with having overcome the exorbitant prices now charged for their own butter in Holland.

Years ago in Australia lamb was as cheap as chips. Farmers were not worried because the wool was really the money earner. Then came synthetics and the market collapsed. The logical answer was selling lamb to eat. Soon shipload after shipload of lamb was sold overseas. The locals soon noticed a quad doubling of price. Lamb cutlets are sold now on par with a rare Penfold’s Hermitage wine or a pair of manacled  Diesel jeans.

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My granddad painting while smoking his pipe. His wife in left bottom corner.

Today I noticed lamb cutlets almost at the due date at half price.  I snapped up two packets and barbequed them a couple of hours ago with bok- choy and spuds. A really lovely meal. It might well be another couple of years before we have saved enough for another lamb cutlet or two.

Nothing is easy but we all keep going the best we can!

A life uncertain but ducks remain calm.

April 17, 2015
first'rickety' house in Balmain 1968.

first’rickety’ house in Balmain 1968.

So much seems to be in flux lately. My local bank branch and ATM machine have suddenly moved to the other side of town. Why is it that familiarity and permanency  of everyday life is rapidly disappearing, going away? There is so much nervous movements about. I still keep walking to the old ATM to try and get our daily bread in cash.  For the last two week I  have still walked to the old address and end up staring at a brick wall covered over with black plastic. That is where the old ATM used to be. A sign tells me where the bank and cash machine have moved to. I am not the only one to end up looking at the brick wall which is a great relief. I still marvel each time when the money comes out. If ever there was a bit of magic! The ATM at the new address is now in an alcove and has bits of electronics bolted on the ceiling. I know I am being watched and now make sure I wear my RM Williams instead of casually dressed in long black socks and open sandals. You just never know of being called to a police line-up after a large SUV has driven into the ATM and made a grab for cash. It does happen. My grandsons refuse to go with me when I wear those sandals.

I find the message  to cover the pin numbers with one hand while at the same time pinning in the numbers with other hand complicated. You would have thought that technology could improve on that  a bit better. Today there was a long queue at the ATM with an employee of the bank patiently explaining the ATM routine to an elderly client. Please note that the word customer is rapidly being replaced by ‘client’. Even a prisoner now is likely to be called a client. The elderly client had great difficulty with understanding ATM protocol and the queue was getting longer. The employee did her best and I overheard common terms being used that now is assumed everybody knows. I overheard the elderly lady asking what is a ‘pin’ number followed by the lengthy and patient explanations. However, the queue of other clients was getting  restless, brows were being raised , feet were shuffling and some words being uttered, albeit still muffled.

I have some sympathy for the elderly though. I mean, how far will this go? The technology is mainly to cut out employing people and save the bank money. It is not designed to improve service. It is all so faceless and impersonal. I mean that mindless electronic message at the end of having scanned all the shopping through, after money has been pushed in that slot, change given, you get that inane message ‘Thank you for shopping at Woolworth, the Fresh food people.’  Don’t you feel like hitting the machine? Where is the warm smile, and personal contact or exchange of pleasantry?

Creek

Creek

We now try and compensate and get warm contact with many uncritical ducks in the small creek that never stops flowing over muddy pebbles at the back of our house. Some of them know us and expect a crust of bread, especially a large white duck. Milo understands and behaves with a degree of decorum by not barking madly. Often similar people, seeking a smile or greeting, take that walk too and escape from the wiles of ATMs and overhead rotating sinister black eyes, electronic blinded thanks from shops and the IPhonic cluttered up youth in holey Diesel jeans, with some so iced up, hurling trolleys into creeks or around telegraph poles.

We should be so thankful for calm ducks.

Cevaps and pancakes.

April 16, 2015
The Cevaps and grandsons with Milo

The Cevaps and grandsons with Milo

This last week has been spent nursing a well earned cold. My dad used to shout, “close the door”, over and over again, often to no avail. As kids we never did, as cold wasn’t something we felt. In fact we were always warm and running. Dad was the keeper of our warmth in winter and felt it his duty to keep living areas warm. He was the stoker of fires. It is strange how men are drawn to fire much more than women. In the period between post WW2 and pre our migration period, heating by dad was done with the help of coal in ornately decorated cast iron combustion heaters. The coal was taken up two flights of stairs in jute bags carried on the back of strong Dutch coal carriers. Mum used to put drop- sheets down from the bottom of the stairs all the way to the top and leading through a corridor to the back balcony were the coal was dumped in a small coal shed. The jute bags would be  taken back empty. It was one of those yearly events in early autumn for the coming winter. My mother’s job would be to make the amount of coal last as heating was expensive. A severe winter was never welcome.

These were some of my limpid flu inspired  thoughts trying to make the best of the situation as well as having two of our grandchildren for a couple of days giving their mum a break. She had to work and school holidays are not easy on working mums. Both grandsons have a father born in Australia but from Croatian background. No need to dwell on its history but most will agree that the eating of chevatis always played a big role not just with Croatia but also Serbia and surrounding States, that vacillated between bloody endless wars with each other, yet never forgetting that sharing the cevaps also held promise of peace between neighbours. With that in mind and a promised barbeque made inescapable by gloriously warm weather I made my way to Woollies with grandsons hopping behind and around me,  busy on IPhonic mania of which I have long given into and surrendered.

I love the Super market’s somewhat hidden  counter proudly displaying the items ‘close to out of date’ and spotted a packet of twelve cevaps for just $ 5.75 reduced from $7.85 and still two days left till being be a bit off or rotten. I bought them quickly and after buying a loaf of white sandwich bread rushed home. The kids were ravenous and probably ready to eat anything irrespective of any dates. The rugged Croatian blood line and the frugal Dutch a perfect combination. I pointed out to grandsons that we should be so happy to have rescued those almost out of date cevaps from getting thrown out. Many in this world go hungry, why waste food at all?

pancakes

Thomas looked a bit serious after that little sermon. He could well end up telling his mum to go and loiter around the ‘out of date’ food items, which might be a good thing apart from saving money. I lit the barbeque and all twelve but one of the cevaps were packet between the white bread and eaten quickly. My flu symptoms were pushed  in the background by the show of grandsons concentrated enthusiasm for their, no doubt inherited love, for the Croatian  cevaps. It was a joy to watch. Next morning it was always going to be pancakes. I mentioned many posts ago about having an inscription;  ‘Here rests a good Opa, he made very fine pan-cakes and loved bargains.’ For those that wondered about the twelfth cevaps, that was given to Milo.

The Aspidistra and a Bed.

April 13, 2015
Aspidistra

Aspidistra

If one could compare an aspidistra with some marriages, it would not be far off the mark. The same conclusion might be drawn from home-made timber beds.  I am always in awe of those death notices in the back pages of newspapers reading how Mr or Mrs  Robinson passed away at over eighty or more, leaving a sad and bewildered partner , countless children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. All to continue on and pick up the pieces, in that strange unpredictable fickle game which we call life.  I am of course talking about the aspidistra- like- endurance to keep going, making the best of all life’s problems. Actually, I should write ‘challenges’. There are no problems anymore, just challenges. We are all  ‘challenged’ throughout our lives, so we are told…but I remain suspicious. Be wary of the wisdom espoused from learned couches.

One reason might by that not long ago, life was supposed to be not really difficult or challenging. It was just a matter  of grabbing ‘solutions’. Remember the age of solutions? Huge trucks would thunder past with tarpaulins covering ‘banana solution to you from sunny Queensland.’  Our butcher,  when we were still living on the farm had ‘meat solutions’ written on his display window. “I’ll have two kilo of your best sausage solutions, please butcher!” And before that some of us might have a life somehow unnecessarily tangled up by not practising enough of ‘logistics’. We needed to get our logistics sorted out! There are some  of the brightest ad men in town thinking all this up. The psychiatrist couch is worn threadbare by endless queues lining up to sort out all that confusion. And it is no wonder. It used to be simple.

All this latest insight while sipping my first coffee at 5.30 am and staring at an aspidistra, sitting on the kitchen bench keeping an eye out for any eventuality. If aspidistra’s could talk! Helvi told me that it is the same one we had in Balmain in 1976 when we moved in after returning from three years in Holland. Helvi’s memory is phenomenal. She remembers having bought it at a market stall that is still being held every Saturday. The same market stall where I tried setting up a business selling chicken sates. It lasted just a couple of Saturdays. The smell of  raw chicken pieces on bamboo stick with peanut sauce was overwhelming. I don’t mind eating them. But amazingly, around 2002, and buying my sausage solutions I got talking to the butcher at Marulan (170 KMs from Balmain’s Sydney) who remembered my chicken sate all those years ago. He said; “they were the best chicken sates I ever had and the spicy peanut sauce was fantastic.” No small praise from a butcher! It is a small world indeed.

On par with the longevity of our aspidistra we also had a bed  that lived even longer. I made that bed soon after our arrival in Holland when we left Australia in 1976. We had taken our camping airbeds with us in the aeroplane together with clothes. All was packed tightly in four suitcases. We had no address to go to but had arranged to meet a mayor of a small town to whom I had written from Australia. He had published an article about art and community. We stayed one night in a hotel near the airport from where I arranged to hire a car. Next day we met the Mayor and he knew a farmer who had an old farm house for us to use while we found our feet. It was quite an undertaking with our three children, but we were young and adventurous, but perhaps on hindsight a bit foolish as well.

Family living in Holland

Family living in Holland

In any case, after we settled in the farm-house in North-West Holland on the second day after arrival, I bought a Skill electric saw and some dressed pine to try and make a bed. I had already made a bed in that rickety old Balmain cottage because the narrow curving stairs would never allow a double bed through.  I had refined the design to the simplest form. The matrass would rest on slats that were being held within a frame of four planks dowelled together with timber dowels. The whole bed would be flush with floor, so nothing could ever get lost underneath this bed, ever; not even a single sock. It was Queen size and totally demountable. It had no nails.

After three years in Holland we returned to Australia and straight back to Balmain. This time we had two large crates shipped over with all of our present furniture  including the home made bed that I had disassembled in a small bundle of slats and the four planks. This bed survived many, many years, with lots of sleeping and tossing and turning, sadness’s, crying and laughter,  actions. Even some unbelievable geriatric  gymnastics of latter years.

Life back in Australia

Life back in Australia

I don’t know wether we can draw any conclusions from all this, but I would suggest that making own timber bed goes a long way in the ‘logistics’ of long lasting relationships.  As for the Aspidistra, you can’t go wrong and is the least of life’s challenges.

They are sometimes called ‘cast iron’ plant. What does that tell you?

The Safari suit.

April 12, 2015
Balmain cottage downstairs room

Balmain cottage downstairs room

We are now going back to a period when our children numbered just two. It was a long time ago. We were living in our second house on Sydney’s Balmain harbour peninsula after having lived in a 1 bedroom apartment in a somewhat  bohemian area called Pott’s Point which is next or part of Kings Cross, Sydney. It was an area of artists, crooks,  prostitutes with sandaled souteneurs, and priests. There were also many delicatessen where one could buy real coffee , prosciutto, cheeses not named ‘tasty’ and books. If I remember correctly there was also special dispensation given to some  Euro-continental shops allowing to stay open after 6pm. It was still frowned upon as decadent by some who tried desperate to uphold decent ‘peace and quiet’ Anglo closed up traditions. This all during the  sixties when our marriage was so young, sprightly and sprouting  first babies.

The one bedroom apartment was soon crowded out with birth of our second daughter. We bought a very old and rickety weather board cottage that just had one large sitting-kitchen-dining-bathroom downstairs and two small bedrooms upstairs. The downstairs would  originally have had rooms but the previous architect owner had taken all walls out leaving just one spacious room that looked out over a glorious and vibrant harbour. In those day it was always sunny.

That the bathroom was part of our sitting area could not have worried architect nor did it us. In the middle of this room was a round wood burning cast- iron heater with the name ‘Broadway’ on it. It was  lined with stone on the inside and as chimney had a large galvanised pipe going through the ceiling and upstairs bedrooms ending finally through both levels  on top of the roof. It was capped by a china- man’s hat to keep out rain.  It heated the whole house during winter with cut up old wooden rail sleepers.The cottage had a waxed wooden floor downstairs and upstairs I painted the floors white. This was a typical workman’s cottage that might have housed some years back, a family with three or four children with a husband who could well have been employed in the stevedoring industry. He might  have smelled of tar, salt and rope each time he arrived home with his wife making tea and his children playing outside.

The harbour in front of this cottage was less than 100 metres away and always busy with towing of large boats of which the house would vibrate each time the propellers reversed. We made own furniture and made do with little.  Milk came in glass bottles and bread by baker doing the rounds announced by barking dogs. Even roosters were still around. We could afford the luxury of a nappy service and had a second hand washing machine of which the only drawback was that the pump had packed it up.  No worries, we sucked on the hose to get the gravity of flow going and let it run into our court yard. That is how it was. Not anymore now.

And at Christmas we had parties and fondues with friends and family sitting on planks suspended between paint drums while listening to the Beatles’ Sargent Pepper or Peter, Paul & Mary  thumping out from home made giant speaker boxes with 12 inch woofers, tweeters and cross-overs. Did we not also drink cheap headache wine squeezed out of bladders but yet into nice fluted glasses?. We would meet and compare the tie dyes. Wives sometimes dressed in pantsuits, men with hair the longer the better,  jeans dangerously flared. The enormous shoulder pads were yet to come, waiting in the wings.  They were the best years but aren’t all years of past the best?

 In Athens

In Athens

During that time when things had settled and some money coming in Helvi decided to visit her family in Finland taking our two young children with her. Our youngest daughter would be carried in a papoose while her sister was old enough to walk at airports  during change- overs while helpful in carrying her own little bag. It was quite a trip from Sydney with another plane to catch in Finland to the closest airport where her family lived. Finland is a huge country,  greater than the UK.

It  was going to be a six weeks holiday and I would be on my own. I could hardly wait for their return but had to do with receiving letters for the time being and the rare phone call. It was a lonely time and I missed my family.

It is then I made a choice that till this day I am still haunted, remembered and reminded of. I bought a wine-red knitted Safari suit. It had flared pants and a double breasted jacket held together with brass gold buttons and a belt of same material above my hips but below armpits with large gold coloured ostentatious looking  buckle. The pants were held up with its own wine red belt made of same knitted material.I also bought  something resembling shoes that were from Egypt and made of rope that was coiled around the toe  and heel  part above the sole with in between the rope arrangement  a  cream leather-like material and  a buckle on top. I completed the whole outfit with a modest gold chain worn unobtrusively but magnificently opulent, around my neck.  My idea was to look a new man or at least a reborn man.  A proud prince of unsurpassed passion and vibrant vitality. I wanted to impress my Helvi. I looked of course a one hit pop star failure, but at the time wasn’t aware of this, blinded as usual by foolish folly.

Finland, just married.

Finland, just married.

I went to the airport on the day of my family’s return to Sydney. All good things come to an end. As my little family passed through customs and into the  arrival hall I spotted them first. The look on my wife’s face was of utter disbelief soon followed by a scowling disapproval. ‘What are you wearing now?’ she said. My daughters too looked frightened. Of course we drove home all excited to be together again but Helvi kept on looking at my suit and shaking her head. I never wore the suit again nor ever shopped for clothes without Helvi having an input. I am fashion blind.

The shoes went into the slow combustion Broadway.

Whitby-Peterborough-Rotterdam-Bruxelles-Sydney.

April 10, 2015

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The stay in London’s Shepherd’s Bush was during the time Holland won a World soccer cup or European soccer cup. Sport is not my forte, apart from a short stint of basket- ball playing, I generally have always ran away if a ball of any shape threatens to roll towards me. Of course at my age now, balls have given up all hope and never roll towards me anymore.

My Australian friend was really English and he suggested I could spend some time with his mum. His dad had died a few years earlier. Her name was Maureen and was living in Yorkshire’s Whitby and had worked as a Magistrate dealing with difficult English youth. The English seem to specialise in rearing difficult children. Already then, whenever a soccer match was being played on the Euro continent, the police forces were marshalled in by the thousands and lists of banned English fans were already in the making.

After a farewell to Lord and daily English bread pudding we took a train and after introduction to my friend’s mum settled in at a spare room at Maureen’s charming cottage at Whitby. She was a very chatty and jovial person and she drove me many times to places of interest. It included the beautiful East coast up and down from Whitby and of course we had ‘real smoked’ kippers for breakfast while viewing Whitby Abbey during lunch.

Whitby or Robin Hood Bay?

Whitby or Robin Hood Bay?

A few years before Maureen’s husband had died he had left her to live with a French women. According to Maureen they met while enjoying a week’s  stay in a Yorkshire -Dale bed and breakfast high up one of those breathtakingly beautiful hill tops that the area was so famous for. I had already heard this sad story of her husband’s philandering way with a ‘French woman’ from her son. He was less accommodating and reckons his dad had the happiest few years of his all too soon end of  life. ‘My mother nagged him to death’ was the rather merciless opinion about his mother. Even so, I was given the opposite story from Maureen.

During their stay in that B&B the father met this French lady who was asking for directions. Maureen told me that soon after many bottles of French wine were bought by her husband who, according to Maureen was much more of a beer drinker. I heard that a much clearer sign of husbands’ infidelities are the mysterious appearances of brand new underpants. No new underpants in Whitby though! She did not think much about it till out of the blue, he just left her to live in France with the French woman, leaving the French wine in her cellar next to her car.

She was still totally overwrought with this as we sat around for the few evenings I was there, she asked me if I minded drinking the French wine that her ex-husband had bought at the beginning of the ‘affaire’. “I can’t stand the sight of those French wine bottles” she added ever so sadly. It was amazing that her husband had so abruptly left his wife and mother of children on a whim, just like that! As we kept up the French wine drinking, she kept repeating her surprise and anger interspersed with much love and devotion for her husband still lingering after the passing years and his early death, in the words flooding out with tears of unrelenting bitterness and so much regret;  a conjuring act between much love lost and hatred fanned. Are they really that close?

A bay somewhere on the East Coast of Yorkshire.

A bay somewhere on the East Coast of Yorkshire.

After a few days with Maureen, listening to woes of a lost marriage while drinking her ex-husband’s, ( deceased and buried) French wine I ended up cooking her a nice tuna pasta before saying goodbye, and caught a train to York. After wandering and some sight-seeing I suffered terrifying pangs of being on my own, decided to return to Holland and Helvi and caught a train to Peterborough, booked a bus-ferry-train to Rotterdam-Nijverdal and stayed there with my mum as well. So that’s two mums within a bit more than a week.

The whole trip away from Helvi all took place with just a bit over three to four weeks. Before going home to Helvi and family, I travelled by train to Brussels of which the reason why, I have forgotten. It was a wonderful visit and as someone pointed out afterwards, the world’s best restaurants are found there. My money was short so I  used to walk around the streets of cafes and restaurants and just tried the fare for free, offered by the waiters standing outside the restaurants for passers- by to try out. I tried not to overdo this in case they started to recognize me (the third time around) as some kind of free- loader if not a vagabond. I especially liked the way some expert cook  had done the mussels on toast.

Brussels restaurants

Brussels restaurants

From there back to Sydney and my Helvi. On return she reckoned the state of my underwear was ‘scandalous!’

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Of Sardines between St Petersburg and UK’s Whitby

April 8, 2015
The Hermitage

The Hermitage

The week in St Petersburg was somewhat marred by a bout of intestinal hurry I suffered within minutes of entering The Hermitage Museum.  The origin  of this was perplexing as the night before we had enjoyed a terrific meal of genuine Russian fare. The borscht was part of it together with potato dumplings drowned in a rich sauce of red wine with lots of bay leaves, sage and pepper. As a side dish we had piroshkies.

Our dinner was very interesting in that, apart from the delicious food, it included a large Russian wedding party which intermittently  in between eating and imbibing copious Vodka would repeatedly shout gorko, gorko which actually means ‘bitter, bitter’ but bitter would only cease if the groom and bride would get up an make bitter sweet in a long-time kiss and more kiss. This would happen every ten minutes or so. The noise was terrific and soon the bitter vodka was made sweet. The bride looked lovely and very happy.

But back to this annoying intestinal hurry the day after and inside The Hermitage.. After asking for toilet directions they kept pointing towards the distance. Anyone who has been inside the Hermitage would know it takes about a week to walk from beginning to end. I did not have that much time so I started running through gilded room through gilded room. I lost care and interest. Monets, Manets, Gauguins were rushed past. Things were percolating madly to unbearable levels. I was in great panic. I remember the sad look on  Rembrandt’s The return of The Prodigal Son, the father’s eyes following me as I ran past. The moments of such great importance now  in total avoidance and ignorance of the world’s greatest art. Can you believe it?

Whitby? Captain Cook's cottage

Whitby? Captain Cook’s cottage

Final, triumph…the toilet is in sight. It was as huge as the rest of this museum.  The reader would know that Russian communism at that time was in flux but had as yet not changed with holding on to having full employment. A large seated lady overseeing the comings and goings in this huge toilet was part of this full employment. Ladies seated on chairs were everywhere in Russian society. The toilet I was in did not have a door or perhaps not a functioning door. I don’t know or remember if all the toilet cubicles were like that but mine was not door inclusive. I could not care less, I was so happy. Afterwards I calmly sauntered back and took some time to atone to The Prodigal Son  for my strange hurried behaviour, all was forgiven. The Monet’s looked so peaceful now too.

All good things come to past as so did my Russian trip. The time for departure to London had come. We all said goodbye and I made my way to the airport to fly back to Moscow and from there connect with a flight to London. Alas, the flight was delayed. Aeroflot was apologetic but made good with a ravishing lunch dish of freshly grilled sardines and salad. Butterflied sardines deeply grilled are my favourite. Soon after the sardines we took off and within an hour or so landed at Moscow. The connecting flight to London again was not forthcoming. I suppose with Russia in political flux or even without flux, patience gets rewarded. Soon a lunch was provided for the traveller. I was somewhat surprised to again be given the grilled sardines. They weren’t the last ones!

When we were finally put on board to London and dinner arrived soon. I had already enjoyed a couple of very fine Georgian white wines. As the food trolley slowly made its way towards my seat a familiar waft came towards me. You guess right, sardines again. I could only surmise a rich Russian oligarch  had gone long on the sardine option market and was forced to take the stock of a hundreds of tonnes of sardines at a loss. This loss was now shared by putting the whole of Russia on sardines including passengers on Aeroflot.

I arrived at Heathrow’s airport and was met by an Australian friend who took me to a house of a Lord and book-publisher at Shepherd Bush. Life can be very strange, even stranger than fiction. Who could imagine I would sleep in an English Lord’s house being full of sardines?

Robyn Hood Bay.

Robyn Hood Bay.

Moscow and overnight train to St Petersburg.( valley of Lily)

April 6, 2015
The red square with queue from l/r to see Lenin in his mausoleum.

The red square with queue from l/r to see Lenin in his mausoleum.

( About 1985) After a week or so in Moscow with the obligatory viewing of Red Square with the mile long queue at the Lenin Mausoleum,  the Stalin built but magnificent underground railway  with marbled statues and chandeliers,  an evening at the theatre watching ‘An American in Paris’ by American composer of Russian parentage, George Gershwin, we all took a late evening overnight train to St Petersburg. It was in July, very hot and days were interspersed with short but violent lightning storms. I was surprised that the giant  down pipes of those large buildings jettisoned the pelting rain straight onto the footpath whereby pedestrians had to perform large leaps into the air not get washed into the kerbs. I was astonished how high the Russians could leap but it did give me a better perspective on The Bolshoi Ballet phenomenon.

The overnight trip to St Petersburg has been covered earlier but is now buried at the bottom of this pile and in any case, my memory might well have shifted to even greater heights.  Here another retell. After getting on-board we were given the seats as shown on the pre-booked tickets. My compartment had a couple and a woman of typical generous Russian proportion and spirit. The two compartments behind me were taken up by an American group of singers who had performed in Moscow and now on their way to St Petersburg.

The Winter Palace (Hermitage)

The Winter Palace (Hermitage)

We soon settled and when I took a walk around my wagon I noticed the Americans who after introduction told me they were part of a choir. As I told them I was Australian they were keen for me to give an impromptu performance of  a Paul Hogan ‘Crocodile Dundee’ and several versions of   ‘Goodyaj, howszego’en maitey?’. I obliged but quickly escaped back to my cabin.  I can only perform on my own without an audience or mirror.The woman and couple introduced themselves and so did I. The Russian woman’s name was Lily and she could speak some German.

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One has to understand we were all going to sleep together so a kind of bonhomie and familiarity might ensure a reasonable and peaceful slumber later on. Russian trains do not segregate and at least in USSR sleeper trains, sleeping is not fraught with fear of an opportunistic sex maniac creeping in. That seems to be more the domain of those cultures that believe men and women are  so entirely different they ought to be separated from birth whenever possible.  For some, to attack remains the only option to get together.

Lily became instantly the epitome of what their race is known for. A socially, inclusive and talkative person. Friendly and keen to exchange talk on almost anything and everything. It was easy for me when we could also talk in German, but I am sure that even without a common language she would have seen that as a minor obstacle, easily overcome by gesture and body language, facial expressions. It was a hot and somewhat brooding thunderstorm threatening train journey. We were all sweating profusely and while talking Lily would pat and dab in between her generously forthcoming bosom with a crocheted hanky. ( I remember it well) that she kept sprinkling with  Eau de Cologne number 4711.

The Hermitage.

The Hermitage.

We exchanged small talk the best we could of which I have forgotten most but not all. What I did not forget is what ensued after she asked me what I did. “Ich bin ein Kunstler (..) und Lehrer. I answered”. I am an artist and teacher. Well, it was instant pandemonium.  You would know that teachers in Eastern Europe and especially Finland and former USSR countries are regarded and revered like lawyers and doctors, if not a new Dostoevsky or a burgeoning Tolstoy as well.   To be an artist and teacher is like being 2 doctors in one. She took out a small bottle of a greenish colour and poured some of the liquid in a metal beaker. The cabin immediately smelt strongly of aniseed.  She also had a packet of sugar cubes which she had opened earlier and given me some.

She went around the wagon telling all that here was, an Australian artist on board, while sharing the aniseed dipped sugar cubes all round. They all came and wanted to inspect this Australian ‘teacher – artist’. It was my moment of fame. When things calmed down we retired back to our cabin while she kept up the talk while  dabbing and giving  absinthe laced sugar. Around midnight we had enough and  as the aniseed euphoria and drowsiness was starting to wear off, all decided to go to sleep. The couple and Lily promptly pulled the beds of the wall.  We all took turns going to the corridor allowing ablutions and getting ready for bed. I took the top bunk and Lily the bottom one.

We were woken up early by the train lady conductor and given tea and sweet bread which famously gets served in a large very ornate silver  teapot with drinking glasses held in equally ornate silver holders with swan-necked ears.

We had arrived at St Petersburg.

St Petersburg Fortress which had held some very famous people including Trotsky.

St Petersburg Fortress which had held some very famous people including Trotsky.

My Russian Camera.

April 5, 2015
1958 Gerard with his sister on the Lambretta Scooter

1958 Gerard with his sister on the Lambretta Scooter

I’ll try and find my box of photos that I took while I was in the USSR during the mid eighties. I don’t write in diaries so my dates have to be given much leeway by those readers diligent and tenacious enough to keep following my words. Most of what I seem to write is from many decades ago. With old age also comes a kind of carelessness. Why not enjoy at least that luxury?

What is true so far, is that back in the eighties, or so, I noticed an advertisement in the travel section of our biggest Newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, about an all inclusive trip of USSR. It included as one would expect Moscow and St Petersburg, and would end in London. All hotels and all meals included. Russia was also going through a profound change whereby its last leader was being challenged by a more modern and forward looking man named  Mikhail Gorbachev. He was the last of Soviet Union’s Presidents.

I have now found the box of photos taken by the Russian Camera. As I mentioned it had a very powerful shutter mechanism which reminded me somewhat of my BSA 22 single shot rifle I used for rabbit hunting during the late fifties. The shutter spring must have been so strong the film was exposed twice during the release of the shutter on the bounce back.

Moscow University.

Moscow University.

Lomonosov Moscow State University is so big students have been found at an advanced age simply because they lost their way to the exit, and finally gave up preferring instead to live in its library with 9,000,000 books, 2,000,000 in foreign languages. The university has 1 000 000 m2 floor area in 1 000 buildings and structures, with its 8 dormitories housing over 12 000 students of its 40.000 students and 300 km of utility lines. All free of course, even the foreign students.

A Babushka paying respect to a noble forefather, probably a Tolstoy.

A Babushka paying respect to a noble forefather, probably a Tolstoy.

  • The Russians are big on visiting graves and so they should. Some say, you can tell a culture by the way they look after their departed souls. The graves are often surrounded by Syringa vulgaris (lilac) both pink and white, are well kept and thankfully not a plastic flower in sight. As you dear readers might know, I too am fond of graves and grave yards. There is something so life confirming about them, especially when you know it befalls everybody. A life well lived deserves a nice farewell and a good grave.
  • A bit of a drink party in Moscow.

    A bit of a drink party in Moscow.

    This photo shows a group drinking. I did not investigate what it was they were drinking. It might have been some soft drink or Vodka. Who knows?

  • Bartering in the USSR (Moscow)

    Bartering in the USSR (Moscow)

    A group of women exchanging goods. This was very common and westerners cunningly used to bring lots of jeans and quality goods for exchanging but I never understood what was wanted in exchange. You could not really buy much and had to account for all money spent by showing receipts when you left the country.

  • Moscow shop showing some fashion articles.

    Moscow shop showing some fashion articles.

At last a photo of a shop with some fashion items clothes. We had some Australian girls in our group who thought they would like to shop. They hadn’t done their homework on the USSR. I found it to be a very fascinating insight and absolutely enjoyed my stay there. People were curious and knew a lot about literature and art. I was ashamed to admit some students knew more about Australian writers than I did. On the train Moscow -St Petersburg I met a German speaking Russian woman named Lily who kept giving me sugar cubes dipped in Absinthe and when I told her I was an artist she told the rest of our train compartment. I was just about carried on the shoulders of the Russian travellers. But of that more next time.

I might call next article. ‘Valley of the Lily’.

ps. The scooter photo also shows my mother in the door of our temporary dwelling.  It was on ‘own’ block of land at 51 McGirr Street Revesby, Australia. It was made of the lethal asbestos cement!

The dog was nice but hated the postman who came by motorbike. It was always a race between the bike flat tack uphill and the dog chasing him.

My Box Camera

April 3, 2015
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The family 1975.

A few weeks ago I bought a book by Gunther Grass (umlaut) titled ‘The box’.  On its cover it features a box camera and the words ‘tales from the darkroom.’ It is funny how a picture is able to recall memories deeply buried in the ashes of time passed all too soon. It was during my last year at high school in The Hague and rumors of my parents wanting to migrate to Australia were vaguely doing the rounds. I was fifteen.  I happened to pass a camera shop and became instantly smitten by cameras that were displayed in the shop window.

My dad was a camera fan and had one of those cameras that one could focus on the subject by a lens that was able to be moved backwards and forwards by a concertina type action. I think it was a Leica camera. However, with his six children running around the dining table ( while shouting) and the Dutch rainy weather forever keeping us inside, his photography took a background stance.  I don’t think he took many photos that I can remember, except some years later after migration to send back some photos to his parents (my paternal grandparents) whom he never saw again. My mother lost her parents at ten years of age during the Spanish flue epidemic.

When the migration plans became certain I was taken out of school and within days was working delivering fruit and vegetables to different embassies of which The Hague was full of. I did those deliveries on a sturdy steel bike with huge handle bars and large cane basket fitted over the front wheel. It was an industrial bike build specific for deliveries. The season was heading towards winter and storms were normal. However, I had my mind set on a box camera that I looked at numerous time in the window of the camera shop. Perhaps I inherited my dad’s obsession gene. I just had to have that camera.

My greatest joy was when a delivery had to be made to the American embassy. I was friendly with the kitchen staff and practised my English that I had been taught since  two years at primary and the four years at high school. I would be given a hot soup and a tip that made my heart leap into my throat. I had started to smoke already and apart from the tip was given packets of Camel. Can you believe and understand my total happiness? Smoking in the fifties was regarded a form of maturity and for men at least almost a healthy habit to engage in. Even doctors gave it the nod of approval while wearing the stethoscope and white jacket.

I did also at times, try and get my hand underneath the wrapped up fruit and remember snitching a few grapes,  while I single handed manoeuvred the bike again storm and rain. It was hungry work. I am not sure if the kitchen staff ever noticed the juicy  ends of the few missing plucked grapes. In any case the tips kept on coming and within a few weeks I went to the camera shop and bought the camera. I always gave my earnings to my parents but was allowed to keep the generous tips. The camera is the same as on Gunther Grass’ book. I am sure it was a Brownie Kodak with a strap on top and two view finders.

I can still so vividly recall taking my first roll of film. I think it might have been eight photos or perhaps twelve.  I took the  exposed film spool to the camera shop who told me it would be ready in a week or so. I could hardly wait for them to be in my hands. The photos were poured over for hours. I was totally transfixed by the idea of getting an image to be fixed forever to be looked at over and over again. They had serrated edges as well and in black and white.

I took the camera to Australia and even took photos on the trip over. The boat had a developer on board so my excitement knew no bounds then.

I wish I could regain some of that excitement again.imagesCAY6GIQF


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