A frank story, part 7 (The Hermitage, Winter Palace and intestinal hurry.)
A Frank Story. Part 7.
Tricks of Trade.
With the return from South America to back home I faced the sombre ‘real world’ again and found it somewhat depressing, the familiarity of a life so orderly, the mortgage payments on time, the jobs coming in regularly, kids going to high schools and the usual up and downs to shopping centres elevators, the waiting and watching petrol bowsers ticking over and the relief of friends and relatives dinners or outings about the only diversion from a steady and achingly normal life. The progress in artistic endeavours was a trickle, with being accepted for the prestigious Wynne Art Prize and ‘hung’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, being the peak so far. There was also a first prize at the Lane Cove art exhibition judged by a well known and respected artist.
The acceptance at the Art Gallery of New South Wales was much earlier; little would I have known that I would end up being the accepted painting contractor for painting both the old and the new additions to the gallery as well. The architect was fussy with some of the colouring of exhibition spaces and insisted we would follow the specified colours that he had supplied on samples of ply-wood panels. At the time when all this was happening the work was done by mainly Greek painters which were employed by me. They always surprised me with their healthy eating habits and lunches. Fresh vegetables with olives and feta cheese and lots of fruit. They would never buy those chips and meat pies with the obligatory Coke or Fanta that most others, especially Australians would buy.
The architects colour samples I would try and match as closely as possible. The quantities of each colour had to be estimated and no matter how many colour cards would be consulted, (the British Colour Standard would normally be used) no colour would resemble the choice by the architect. After many hours spent mixing and matching, and when the colour was as close as possible I got fed up and painted the given and supplied architect samples with the coloured paint that I had mixed up. Of course the result was that all colours were exactly like the samples. Even so, the architect doing the rounds, held the samples up to the walls and said that the colours ‘were pretty close’, but could I try and do better at the next coat of paint! Years later, when my painting was accepted and hung on walls that I had painted as well, I felt achievement of some sort.
Another big job done at the time was the Sydney Airport Flight Kitchen. This was supposed to be the biggest building catering for the air traveller’s stomach in the whole world. Or was it the Southern Hemisphere again? It was huge with large aluminium tubes going to all directions of the airport to deliver food. The whole building was just a few stories high but it spanned tens of acres. We were there right till the moment, when a week after we had finished, we would take off for a trip to France and flew over the building with the plane filled to the rafters of food prepared in the freshly decorated flight kitchen, by G.A Oosterman, Painting & Decorating Contractors.
Of Pezenas and Moliere.
We again decided to take a trip and had pre-booked a sixteenth century stone cottage in Belarga which is in the Languedoc Provence of Southern France. The cottage was owned by a veterinary couple near Maitland, they had formed a group with other Australians who owned cottages and small chateaux in that region of France and were advertising vacancies in the Sydney Morning Herald. I had met up with the bloke letting it and got the address and where the key would be etc. We again said goodbye to our kids and flew first to Amsterdam Schiphol and took a long train journey to my mother’s place in the East of Holland with plans to visit my brother Frank in the following week or so. We, before departing for France bought the usual travel cheques but I had to get a visa for our visit to France, while Helvi being Finnish, had no such requirement put on her. The relations between Australia had soured significantly with France’s intelligence operatives having blown up a protestor’s boat, the Rainbow Warrior in the port of Auckland in 1985.
The visit to Frank was as expected, he was his usual self absorbed and would sit in his chair trying to think of some word that would just fit in right in his sentence, but would get stuck in the process of his scrambled thought process. I did notice that he was quicker in giving up on his mind search for the forgotten and complicated word and just sink back in his chair with his enthusiasm for small talk waning. If only he could get passed that idea fixe, how his life would have been different. Mother was still hopeful of Frank finding a wife with whom to mate and procreate even though at the time of our visit he was already forty six and hardly in a position of maintaining a wife and children. My dad would just sit there with his head bowed and hoping the outburst of usual anger would not occur. His treatment and his care was very good and he would be active in some sport, swimming, dances would be held and even the occasional visit to a girl friend on the same premises was in order and encouraged by his carers. The limp in his left foot had got more pronounced and a result of jumping from Pyrmont bridge back in the days of Australia’s Callan Park Hospital around the early 1970’s. He was totally institutionalised and while his life had not gone well according to our standards, he did not have worries about family or jobs or income or mortgage payments. He would see dentists or foot specialist and any other necessary medical need was provided for. He collected stamps and kept many albums in his own room which later on would also have a television. The comparisons between his care now and back in Australia are cheese and chalk. The absorption of mentally ill people in the community in Australia was a disaster which was noticeable wherever those houses existed where the former mental patients were being ‘absorbed’ into the community. The lost souls and bodies of the mentally ill are now roaming the streets of Australia, unkempt and unbuttoned, lying in doorways and begging, teeth rotting and nails eaten by fungus. A large percentage of crime results from this lack of Mental Health. The Mental Health Act, at best gives a few days and nights respite to assess a possible patients after which they are put on a medication and sent back into the nightmare they came from.
We then flew to Marseille where we were hoping that the Citroen car we had pre-booked would be waiting for us. Unbelievably, it was waiting for us, brand spanking new, just rolled out of the factory and ours now for three weeks. It was a tiny car, more like a jacket that you put on but frugal to drive and had everything. We had heard rumours of the airports in France being surrounded by angry farmers, fighting the world of EU protection and tariffs and unfair trade advantages, but we thought that the Marseille airport would escape the fury. The farmers were organized though and Marseille farmers with trucks and tractors had surrounded us. The airport was in lock down mode, nothing would leave or enter. Who would be brave enough to face the wrath and break a French farmer’s strike? We sat in our car, no food and the prospect of having to stay in one of the hotels at the airport till the French farmers decided to quit, go home and eat. Surely for them to sit on the tractor or in the truck would become just as trying as passengers hanging around the arrival terminals. At least the passengers had the advantage of the food canteens, cafes and convenience of hotels and shops. While I was contemplating all the above pro’s and con’s I noticed a small table-top truck driving off in front of us and crossing a part of the tarmac. I, for hitherto unknown reason, decided to just follow this truck. We went up some kerbs and crossed airport entrances when we ended on a narrow dirt track. Still this truck was in front of us. All of a sudden we came onto the highway with a sign which said Montpellier. The truck veered off and a hairy arm came out of the window and with a wave sped off in the opposite direction. This French farmer must have known we were foreigners; it was such a nice gesture. Vive La France!
The drive to Belarga and the stone cottage would have to be amongst the very best and fortuitous trips ever undertaken in my entire life. The idea of arriving at an airport under siege by angry French farmers is formidable enough to contemplate, but to escape this and then to drive (on the different side of the road) in a strange car and with a nervous disposition, all the way to the stone cottage without even once getting lost or going berserk, would have to rate as a triumph over any adversity experienced so far. Indeed, I had climbed the Mount Everest of foreign travel. The key to the house was exactly as I was promised by the Australian owner and the cottage was far better and bigger than expected. It was entirely built of stone with walls a metre thick. It had two stories above the lower ground floor which contained a huge storage and garage for the car. At the front of the first floor was a large stone flagged veranda with a kind of wood fire barbeque and generous wooden slatted seats. The top floor had a large bedroom with a high ceiling supported by hand hewn exposed timber rafters. It was all white washed except for the stone walls that had been raked and pointed in an adobe mixture of lime and clay. The exposed timber floor was bare and except for a huge bed and a small wardrobe the room was stark but very beautiful. The middle floor had two small bedrooms and bathroom. The ground floor had a small lounge room, the kitchen and large dining area and another bathroom.
Next morning, after consulting our map we were off to explore the immediate surroundings and the multitude of villages. For charm and getting a sense of history the French country side provides a never ending smorgasbord. It immediately transported me into a mode of; sell everything in Australia, forsake all the kids and friends, we are going to live here. The rapture of those three weeks is something that sustained me for years. Our friends in Australia must have got so tired of my descriptions of metre thick stone walls, sixteenth century houses like confetti, the Languedoc wineries and the boulangeries of Clermont L’Herault. The one story that my kids are almost in despair about each time I relate it to new victims is, that after visiting so many small towns and villages, we happened to come upon Pezenas. This little town is an absolute example of French middle age architecture, so charming and so unrelentingly unnerving in its historical beauty one cannot find the words to do justice. We walked the cobblestone streets of the old part of Pezenas and came upon a square in which there was a sign pointing to an upper storey of an old historical building in which the famous playwright; Jean-Baptiste-Poquelin with the stage name’ Moliere ‘(1622-1673) was supposed to have lived. On the ground-floor was a barber shop whose owner proudly claimed that this was the very same barber shop where Moliere used to have his long tresses of hair and moustache trimmed. I had nothing to lose and had my hair cut there as well!
Languedoc wine vintage.
We were there at the tail end of summer and the wine vintage was in full swing. The region of the Languedoc is one of the largest red wine growing regions in the world. Apart from those working in shops or businesses, everyone else, during vintage all and sundry are into grape harvesting and wine making. No matter where we went or where we stopped, the streets and kerbs were red with the flow of must and wine. We were stepping in it. The local farmers were immediately selling the freshly made wine and for less than the cost of a bottle of milk. The larger the quantity, the cheaper the price was. We ended buying the red wine in a five litre plastic container for which one had to pay a deposit. The drinking of those five litres had to be done fairly quickly because as air entered the container, the wine would oxidize and spoil rapidly. We would soon adhere to the routine of buying fresh trout with stick bread from the local boulangerie, fry up garlic in some very excellent olive oil, barbeque the trout and with the dipping of the bread into the oil and garlic mixture eat the trout washed down with copious quantities of the cheap wine. The Languedoc area is the largest wine producing area in the world and this region alone produces more wine than the entire United States. During its frenzied vintage height, while we were there, our shoes and car tyres were red from the flooded roadside kerbs and guttering with the spoils of the wine making. I don’t know how, but during the couple of weeks of trout and red wine consumption I found enough sobriety reading a book found on the shelves in the dining room. It was George Perec’s; ‘Life, A User’s manual’. A great story that involves a large jigsaw puzzle with people and their lives living in apartments forming the pieces of the jigsaw coming together bit by bit, a marvellous story.
A Parisian Policeman.
We all know that the most awe inspiring part of any woman is her brain. The multi tasking capabilities of the female are legendary and many professors are spending their entire lives studying this phenomenon trying to figure this out. Are there genetic markers or codes there? The male on the other hand has often trouble just doing a single task, and of course always expect great admiration and respect to follow. The question is how this multi-tasking of females came about. Is it learned or gene related? Mothers with one on the breast and another on hip (babies, not husband) can do cooking, cleaning, talking and write a thesis on 17th century Latvian ceramics, all at the same time. While the female does multi-task, the male with prompting can do serial tasking at best. He does one thing at the time. He changes his underwear one day; next day puts his dirty underwear on top of laundry basket, the third day, into the basket.
There is one thing that man is superior in. Map reading. The male map reading genetic marker has been bedded down. This is man’s speciality and the one thing standing between male self esteem and possible annihilation between the wars of the sexes. I suspect that map reading with many women is seen as a form of hieroglyphics. After all, how can one centimetre be twenty kilometres?
I am only mentioning the above differences between the sexes when we decided to pack in a few days touring Paris and surroundings and map reading skill became an important feature of the success or failure of our Parisian adventure. After arriving in Paris we of course visited the La Seine bridges, the Musee Du Louvre, Left Bank and Montmartre, we ended up at the Champs D’elysees and right in the middle of this wide Avenue we decided to set up camp on the ’trottoir, and sleep in our car with seats folded back. We thought it strange that no one else was parked there but next morning, much to our relief, there were many others putting on trousers and blouses. No doubt, many were wrapping up the fruits of true love as well. We planned to have breakfast of croissants and coffee after which a tour of the Loire Valley with Chateaux was in mind. This is where the less than perfect map reading of females became obvious.
Getting out of Paris is almost impossible, this in why many give up and stay there forever. We ended up driving at a huge round-about with a bronzed statue of a large man on an even larger horse in the middle. We circled around and around this horse statue like a shark around a cadaver. Finally, we stopped to ask a gendarme how to get away from this endless round-about. He not only kindly directed us but gave a special map on how to get off this round-about and how to get towards the Loire Valley with its promise of vin blanc and the chateaux.
We did manage to get away, but it was only temporarily, a huge detour, and back on the same round-about, no escape; we seemed destined to just keep on rounding and rounding. We were starting to wonder if all roads in Paris always ended up at this same round-about. Was it a fiendish plot to get at English speaking tourists and suspected lovers of the, by the French, much despised McDonalds and future Starbucks?
We were getting frustrated but decided to stop and ask police again for directions. Would you believe it, the same policeman? This time he pencilled directions on the map. Again, stoically we drove off. After another fifty kilometres of listless driving, through the ‘banlieues’ and a mini Algeria, there loomed and beckoned the horse statue again. I was sobbing now, close to being catatonic and pleading with Helvi to direct me from map. Half an hour, looked out and saw this fucking horse and the same policeman. He was laughing and pointing at our car. I then glanced sideways; Helvi had the map upside down. Remember now men. We are good at map reading.
Boeuf Tartare avec UN oeuf.
We also went for a trip to Carcassonne where we spent time sauntering around an astonishing fortification of which the lower ramparts date back to Gallo-Roman times of the third century. The Carcassonne fortifications are a world heritage and were totally restored in the 19th century by Eugene Viollet-Le-Duc. Like all tourist ventures, world heritage or not, there are tourists to be fed, so we had a lovely lunch of chips and a piece of fish, right on top of one of the ramparts and its 53 towers. The lunch at Montpellier was a more memorable occasion. We had walked through its central and old part of the city and visited a bookshop where we easily found French translated editions of Australian authors Patrick White and Peter Carey. Years before, perhaps shortly after one of his first books of stories called ‘The Fat Man in History’, I had briefly met him a few times while he was living in Birchgrove. He was extending his house and building a kitchen and I was called upon to do the decorating. The front of his house, which was a double story terrace house, had a large glossy leaved Camellia. The extension and refurbishment was done by a builder who was the absolute perfectionist and a dream come true for those that wanted perfection, no matter how long it would take. Well, the extension took time and I suspect that Peter Carey was more inclined to be at his table and write, than deal endlessly with the minutiae of door hinges or what type of screws to be used. I suppose he finally ended up using the kitchen and being able to cook up something.
The walk around Montpellier resulted in needing to have lunch so we dove into one of those intimate little lunch and dinner places that seem to appear as soon as one gets hungry, especially in France and even more so in the south of France. We were shown our seat and left to ponder the menu including a wine list. The atmosphere was intimate with lighting subdued and with all sound reduced to a sotto voce. The garcon in white jacket and with the right un-pretentious manner, putting even the most belligerent customer at ease, came around our table to take the lunch order. The choice by Helvi was a sound one, a piece of top side beef with vegetables and ‘Pomme de Frites’. She was asked for her preferred choice of the ‘boeuf’ to be rare, medium or well-done. Medium was her choice. I had chosen the ‘Beef Tartar’, and told the garcon to have it ‘medium’ cooked as well. He laughed heartily but I did not really understand the finer points of his laughter until after the dish arrived. A plate of raw minced steak with a raw egg in the middle of it was what finally turned up on our dimly lit table. There was nothing cooked about it, never mind the ‘medium’ part of it. I bravely finished the plate but Helvi sensed my lack of enthusiasm and asked if everything was alright. I confessed my total ignorance of beef tartar and thought that the dish was a kind of steak done rare. A bit Russian perhaps, with images of horse riding Tartars doing the cooking of the meat on a fire after a fierce battle deep inside the Crimea. This embarrassing dereliction of culinary knowledge has been a source of endless mirth and enlightenment to our friends when the tale of medium cooked ‘beef tartar’ at Montpellier gets re-told by my beloved wife. It has been an ice breaker at many a social evening.
In the case of readers being surprised by this embarrassment, please consider that so many of my friends probably think nothing of eating vegemite, a food so horrendous to look at, so terrible to contemplate inside its brown jar, that I feel justified in making slight of this minor slip up.
Brussels is the culinary capital.
Years before, perhaps during my first trip to Holland and my bank job I had taken a trip to England where I stayed for a couple of weeks with a friend somewhere in Yorkshire. Perhaps it was called Whitby. In any case it was supposed to have been a place whereby Captain James Cook had sailed forth on one of his world discovery tours. It still had an original wood smoking kipper factory and, as my friend advised, many Americans from British stock, come over every year to stock up on kippers, which they fill suitcases up with and take back to New York. While I stayed at Whitby, we had many trips to the Moors and Dales.
My friend, who was born and bred in Yorkshire, and who did mostly all of the cooking when we were not eating out, called out once for us to go and have ‘tea’ after having enjoyed a dinner of veal cutlets and ‘bread sauce’. Having ‘tea’ was a name for going out for sweets and coffee or tea at a tea place or cafe. There is also an English expression going for ‘cream tea’, and advice on what to wear even. A baffling expression if ever there was. In Australia, as far as I am aware, the expression ‘having tea’ is often meant eating a full meal in the evening. The other place I stayed at then was an area of London called Shepherd’s Bush, an area supposedly so popular with Aussies that it was also known as Kangaroo Court. The area was somewhat upmarket but I found it to be depressing and even dodgy with the railway station tunnel sprayed from top to bottom with graffiti, the local cafes depressing with young workmen slumped over their breakfasts of bacon and eggs on toast with cuppa tea.
At some stage I took the ferry back from Peterborough to Rotterdam and a train to Brussels. After arrival in Brussels I booked a modest hotel near the centre on the advice of the local tourist information bureau. The centre of Brussels was exciting with a large public square, the Grande Place housing Den Gulden Boot, gilded town hall, post office and many other historical buildings. Not far from the centre was a very large glass domed shopping centre with very exclusive shops. Walking around the centre of Brussels I noticed many tucked away restaurants promoting their delicacies in front on the streets, inviting passersby to partake and taste their morsels. The fact amongst food connoisseurs that Brussels is the culinary capital of the world is well known, this is less well known amongst the majority of travellers who seemed to gravitate to the Big Golden arched M’s when I was there. One of the Mac Donald’s I noticed on the edge of The Grande Place. Is there no getting away from America anymore? Being my mother’s son, I rotated amongst the restaurants offering free cooked prawns, lovely oysters and mussels, pieces of cooked fish with patat frites and thanked them profusely. I went to my hotel very satisfied and impressed by both the hospitality of its restaurants and their fine foods.
Russian Ballet and the Hermitage.
I now remember what brought me to the UK and Yorkshire. In Australia I met a friend who had written children’s books and who was married to a publisher. I got to know him quite well and at one stage teamed up with him to Western Australia to visit lighthouses and wineries. It turned out in the order of wineries first and lighthouses after. The Swan Valley wineries, then Margaret River, then Blackwood Valley, then Great Southern, it went on for days when we finally also visited a few lighthouses including The Albany lighthouse. Through this friend, who by then also was helping me paint properties, I met an Englishman who was publishing books as well. He invited both my friend and I to paint his house in Sheppard’s Bush, London. Of course, it seems extraordinary to travel all across the world to paint a house, but was not so silly if combined with a trip elsewhere. I had noticed advertised two week all inclusive round trip to Russia for not much more than a conventional return trip by Qantas or KLM. It included all that I had ever dreamed of, Moscow and St Petersburg with Ballet and all the cultural sites of both cities. We would be put up in the 4 star hotels and all meals would be included. The flight was by Qantas, Sydney to Singapore, where we would overnight and then by Aeroflot to Moscow. I would meet up with my friend in London after the Russian trip to organize the hire of an enormous ladder and material and paint this house at Sheppard’s Bush. The tall and large ladder would be needed to reach the exterior of this triple storey house owned by the publisher friend.
I booked the Russian trip and would stay away from Sydney for four weeks in total. This would give me one week in London to paint the exterior of the house. The earnings for that would more or less cover the return trip with Russian art and culture thrown in. The trip to Russia had me so excited that I bought a Russian made camera at the local Chemist shop. Russian cameras were popular then. They were sturdy and had a very strong shutter mechanism. I tried it out and the developed black and white film came back with a slight lightening stripe on each photo on the left side. It seemed the sheer force of the shutter spring would cause it to bounce back slightly and cause a double exposure for a split second on the film. I did not think it was too great a problem and decided to record my trip to Russia regardless of the slight blemish on each left side of every photo. If anything, it would enhance the poetry of the photographs of what I would record on that part of the world that had been kept so hidden.
Our group met in Singapore and as we introduced each other several taxi drivers turned up to take us to our pre booked hotel. A magnificent building with lifts on the inner court yard made from opaque- plastic or glass that kept zooming up and down all day and night. I was fortunate to share a room with someone who had been to Russia before. He had worked at the Moscow Library during the fifties and was keen to try and meet up with some of the people he had worked with. He was a strong union supporter and lived at Tin Can Bay in Queensland. I was curious how a Dinky di Aussi came to work at a Moscow library during the fifties and as he explained, he was part of a cultural exchange of Australian Union members with Russian counter members. He was certainly fond of a beer and in no time did he have a supply of beer in the hotel room.
Next day after having caught the Aeroflot plane to Moscow our little group got acquainted and I sampled some lovely Georgian white wine and food during the flight. The no-smoking section seemed of no consequence until someone complained and even then the smokers got considerable support from other smoking passengers. The smoking continued on its merry way but the non-smoker got a first class seat and came back to tell the recalcitrant’s about his victory. We had a couple of stops; one of them was flying over a rubbish tip just before landing at Mumbai, which was Bombay then. The rubbish tip seen from the air was busy with many people looking for anything of value or even food. Years later this scene came alive in the wonderful film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.
At the arrival at Moscow airport we were met by our Russian guide and went through customs with some strange requests. We had to declare all our money and jewellery, including our watch and were given a receipt of both money and jewellery. We had to be able to show receipts of any money spent during our stay and also show the jewellery again before departure. We were told that one could get good money for any western type of clothes, especially western jeans etc. We were at the middle of Russia’s perestroika period and the freeing up was already having its effect whereby I did not get asked for any items of clothing and in fact so many young people wearing the same sort of fashion as in the west. Shops were almost nonexistent though. We were taken to a market place where women were queuing up and selling clothing or perhaps trading them for other items. I bought some apples that cost about five times as much as in Australia. We had a couple of Australian girls loaded up with enormous bags that everyone took turns with hauling to and from buses and trains. They told me they wanted mainly to go ‘shopping’. Shopping in Russia!
I loved everything about those two weeks. I know Stalin was not the most benevolent leader but has anyone experienced the Moscow subways? The hotel we stayed in had been used for foreign journalists during the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and we all had a room each with television that would show a screen that flickered somewhat. It was an enormous hotel with lifts and many floors. Underneath was a post office that sold stamps if they bothered opening up which they did most times after 1pm, but was usually delayed till 2.30pm. Each floor employed a lady at the end of the corridor who would just sit on a chair and watch televisions that would miraculously work. They watched comedy and much laughter would well across the corridor which gave the hotel a certain ambience and an air of easy going bonhomie. It seemed that Russia in transit with perestroika in full flight did still have ‘full employment’, especially of ladies that would just sit on a chair and watch television. Of course, that did not stay once western style capitalism became established. Watching from my window at the Moscow street scene below, I noticed men busy stirring things in a drum which was burning something. This they did all day, just standing around a smouldering drum.
My bathroom had of course all the necessities including a toilet that was erratic in its flushing habits. I suspect that water was in short supply and flushing could not be achieved when the cistern did not fill with water. From the sound of rushing water into the cistern I worked out the times when water was ‘on’ and saved this water for only the essential part of ablutions. Another architectural oddity was that the toilet’s waste pipe did not have an S bend; it just had a terracotta pipe going straight down but at an angle so absurd that one had to sit sideways, so that you could close the bathroom door and not be with knees pushing against the door. All in all, it gave me a good example how things can be different and this is what I mainly look for when elsewhere, a total difference.
My fellow travellers apart from the Moscow Library union man were doing the typical tourist thing of forever comparing how things were in Australia, and that by and large, Australia was far freer and superior and better in this and better in that. It started to grate me severely and I rebuked a couple when it came to having dinner at a restaurant connected to this Hotel. There were the usual complaints about how in Australia we cooked this and that, and had bigger steaks and what not else. There was a wedding going on and our food was the same as the wedding party which I thought was not only delicious but also genuinely Russian fare. There was borscht and piroshky and the wedding table was having such a good time that the moaning of my fellow travellers again about the food just made the bucket run over and I made the remark about the awfulness of dribbling meat pies and those brown streaked vegemite pieces of toast to our Russian guide. The horror of Australian food fortunately does not get a run in overseas restaurants except perhaps in some below pavement and well hidden dives in London’s Kangaroo court.
We went to see, of all composers, the folk opera/ballet of Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin at The Bolshoi Theatre. It was an unforgettable experience and the encores and applause went on forever. Nothing casual of the theatre goers though, everyone dressed up and obviously out for a good night. Our travel guide had dressed up for the occasion in a splendidly looking dress with golden little applications to hems and collar. Her name of Natasha was all in style as well.
There were sometimes fellow Russian students amongst us who were interested in Australian literature and to my surprise were much better informed than my Aussie travellers were in Russian writers. Of course they were also students; even so, I felt that the average Russian student had a keen interest in things away from materialism. Of course that long suffering society steeped for centuries in so much tragedy and misfortune with leaders imposing their murderous campaigns over and over again, could hardly be expected to contemplate the dribble of average weekly earnings or the state of cricket. While the Russian students knew Patrick White and even the recent P.Carey, they had not heard of Boris Pasternak and even Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
It was after a week or so that we all went on the train to St Petersburg which we caught late in the afternoon from Moscow central station. The former Moscow library Australian had managed to visit the library but no one knew anything about what happened to his colleagues from the period when he was working there. This was disappointing for him but he took it rather well and managed to get a case of Australian beer on the train to St Petersburg. Some consolation! A true Australian quality to be philosophical about adversity and accept rapidly and quickly what cannot be changed and ‘move on’.
The train trip to St Petersburg was in midsummer and I shared the sleeper with a couple and an ample bosomed and beautiful Russian woman by the name of Lilly. Most of the sleeper cabins behind me had a group of American choir singers, both boys and girls of around 20-30 years of age. They had performed in Moscow and were booked to sing in St Petersburg. Being midsummer and so far north, the days lasted forever. It had also been very hot with thunderstorms in the late afternoon. The Americans were pleased to meet someone from Australia and, as proof of it, I was asked to give impromptu impersonation of Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan and say “goodiaye and hozygoin” over and over again. This was nothing compared with what would follow next.
The beautiful Lilly in my cabin spoke some German and so did I. The train was air conditioned but it was stifling hot and, as Lilly and I got acquainted, and she, now and then, would modestly dab her bosom with an Eau de Cologne sprinkled silken and embroidered handkerchief. She kindly asked what I did when I was not travelling and I told her that I painted pictures. Ach nein, du bist ein Kunstler? Wie ist das moglich? (An artist, how is that possible?) The hanky started working overtime.
The secret was out and went like wildfire through the whole train. The next thing, passengers were lining up to meet me, vodka was offered and Lilly unpacked some ‘kuchen’ with cubed sugar soaked in almond essence. (I remember it well) I was almost carried around on shoulders and tears were flowing. I was feted like an emperor. Some hours later, when darkness finally announced itself- and consider Russian sleeper trains are not gender separated, and the vodka had settled- the four of us, including the beautiful Lilly, calmly undressed. I hopped in the top bunk and she slept underneath. I slept on a cloud of Eau the Cologne and almond essence.
Next morning, breakfast was served in those ornate silver plated urns and glassware. The Americans behind us, thankfully, had had enough of Aussie imitations.
It was many years later I was reminded somewhat of that train journey, when so much reverence was shown at the funeral of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Thousands passed his open casket. Television showed metre long roses placed there by Putin and Gorbachev. I wondered if we would revere our writers and artists the same. I can’t remember when I have last seen a PM opening a book show or being photographed at an art gallery, or ever commenting on the importance of art. Why it is that sport is the Holy Grail above everything else?
What I am trying to get at is that if I would have gone around the Goulburn-City Rail Link announcing I painted pictures, the best I could hope for would be the question “Do you sell them, and how much? How many more years will be wasted in giving so much credit to sport and so little to art? When will we finally start recognizing that art is important because it lasts and also defines us as a nation that always strives above the mundane?
The arrival at St Petersburg was in the morning and as we got off the train we were met by our lovely Natasha who took us to our hotel for quick refreshment and something to eat. Again the hotel was good and with each having our own room with televisions that were working this time. A lady knocked on my door and with gestures indicated her husband was ill with sore elbows and wrists and needed some vodka to rub as a way to relieve his discomfort. She had a small flask and just needed it filled ‘only half’, which she indicated with her index finger. As it happened, I had a bottle of Vodka. She must have known it or perhaps thought that by knocking on the doors of all those Australian tourists she would probably strike it lucky. In any case, the husband seemed a bit off colour and I was glad to be of some assistance.
It was the next day, when we were all ready to be bundled into the bus, with Natasha our guide, and remarkably, also the two Queensland girls who came to Russia to ‘shop and drop with two enormous bags’, to do the visit of all visits, namely, ‘The Winter Palace and The Hermitage’. It seems inconceivable enough to have gone through live without having experienced those two icons, but to have visited Russia and not to have done so, an unconscionable offence. The so affable and unrelenting larrikin of our Aussie Moscow librarian took yet another turn and this time serious. He became seriously ill, out of breath and appeared to have a heart attack. Within a few minutes an ambulance arrived and he was taken to hospital. He, sadly, would miss out on his Hermitage experience, which he had told me, he had never visited during his stint at the Moscow library. We, after this short delay were whisked away and soon arrived at the Hermitage Museum. Much to our surprise we were led past a queue at least a kilometre long and invited through the gates within a couple of minutes of our arrival. Was communism with its heart supposedly embedded in the welfare of its proletariat already slipping that fast, to now give preference to rich foreign cashed-up capitalist tourists?
The Hermitage Museum with The Winter Palace defies anything that I had seen so far, even the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Not just the buildings but the space in front of it. The sense of what space can add to buildings in nowhere as clear as that of the Red Square in Moscow and the huge square in front of The Hermitage Museum. So, by the time you reach the front of the buildings you are already in awe of whatever there might be inside. I suppose, this is also when you approach Sydney’s Opera House when viewed from the expanse of the Harbour. The Hermitage Museum houses over 3.000.000 pieces dating from the Stone Age to the 20th century and presents the development of the world of culture and art throughout that period. You cannot possibly do justice in spending a few tourists’ hours but, alas, that is all we had time for. I have always suffered from a kind of anxiety that breaks out in, what a doctor once described’ as ‘intestinal hurry’. It means that once you have ‘to go’ you have little time for contemplation or reflection. I virtually ran past dozens of Picassos and Rembrandts, even the Mona Lisa was forsaken for my urgent pursuit of a toilet, any toilet anywhere! After, what seemed like entire acres and miles of huge rooms were passed, final relief. I sighted the sign of ‘Toilets’. At that time, this was the essence of what I needed more that all the Chagall’s or Van Gogh’s or Mondrian’s could provide me. The ‘intestinal’ hurry had well passed the critical stage of concentration on art or absorption of Stone Age culture in any shape or form. Finally, it came in sight, the toilet I mean. It was a huge toilet with dozens of cubicles where by many were visible on the ‘throne’. This is what I liked so much about Russia, the overnight sleeper train with the mixed sex compartments and now toilets with doors that many did choose not to close. There we were, all united in our common ablutional needs. Some behind, others with open doors, so many nationalities and all doing what we all do, at times. At the corners of this huge public toilet, the obligatory ladies sitting on their chairs made the experience memorable as much as The Mona Lisa which I still had time for to visit afterwards.
The Mona Lisa was surrounded by dozens if not hundreds of viewers and one could only wait and shuffle towards it whenever a space became vacant. Oddly there were no catalogues in English available. I came within about four metres of Mona and I was sure that when I finally tore myself away that her eyes and serene smile continued to follow me. This is of course always proof of great art!
The collection and size of the gallery means that some tourists get so lost in time and space that buses have been known to leave without some and the lost souls then have to somehow find their own way back to hotel. It would take at least 4 or 5 days to just see the essence of what The Hermitage holds and the few hours that we spent there were totally inadequate, even so it afforded me to at least the opportunity to have seen some of it. I must say, that many times I have returned there, even though just in my mind’s eye. In getting older or better to say ‘old’, a reflective mind’s eye is better than an unreflective and boisterous blind eye. The 2 Queensland girls with the heavy and large bags had found nothing to shop at The Hermitage and were sitting at the entrance keen for the bus to take us back to the hotel, where at least they could order Vodka and giggle a bit with some Finnish boys that were staying at the same hotel. The next day the Australian library man came back from hospital. They had taken tests and confirmed that he had suffered a mild attack of some kind and also advised him to stop consuming alcohol. I expected him to be skint by the costs of ambulance and hospitalisation remembering reading that, if one ever fell sick in America and not insured you would almost have to sell your house to pay for the costs. Nothing, like that, all for free. Tourists in Russia would be cared for the same as their nationals. At least, that is how it was when I was there.
The next day our Russian tour would be over and I was to take the flight to London via Moscow. Most of us in the group were going to London. This was convenient for the Queensland girls as at least there would be help with lugging those giant travel bags. Unbelievably, the Tin Can Bay Australian whose trip was to try and meet up with his old comrades from the fifties at the Moscow library suffered another attack and was taken away by ambulance again. That was the last I ever heard from him.
The plane from St Petersburg to Moscow got delayed for several hours, never mind, we were all given a free lunch of deep fried sardines on a bed of salad and cubed potatoes with a lovely crusty bread roll. When we were finally called on the plane it was afternoon and it meant we would be arriving late in London. However, when arriving at Moscow airport there was a delay for the London connection till next morning. As a consolation we again had the sardine dish for dinner, this time with generous supplies of the same Georgian white wine we had on the way over from Singapore -Moscow. Another night in a hotel and next morning we were ushered through customs. Again we were to account for all our money less what we had spent with the proof of receipts a mandatory requirement. All the jewellery had to be looked at and checked and the girls who had above all expectations, managed to buy some earrings were put through some serious questioning with suspicious up and down looks by the custom officers. The officers where behind a wooden counter with a high wooden screen preventing you from seeing what they were actually looking at. I imagine they had some kind of computer on which there would be names of wanted spies, corrupting capitalists or terrorists with perhaps photographs as well. Anyway, the whole lot of us were allowed through and with our nerves a bit frayed we climbed on board for our last trip to London with compliments of Aeroflot.
The usual ‘non smoking’ was ignored again. A curious sideline in flying with Aeroflot was that the toilets had shoe polishing equipment, including a brush and buffing cloth with a collection of different coloured shoe polishes. We had hardly passed over Russia when lunch came through the narrow passageway. The trolleys on aeroplanes are always a kind of sideshow to watch for those that are not into film watching or fiddling with their earphones. Those that have locked themselves into toilets buffing their shoes or sprinkling eau de Cologne to hide those odiferous long haul flights smells without showering must now wait for the trolleys to finish delivering its food trays before returning to their seats. The balancing of food trays on those minute tables with the cutting of food made so difficult, arms tucked under and tightly packed against the chest welling up hope that nothing will spill to disappear between those unwashed trousers and legs. It seems a total waste of time and effort, but the truth must be told; we had sardines again!
Raising a forty foot ladder.
The arrival in London was uneventful and I made my way to Sheppard’s Bush where my friend was already waiting with an enormous forty feet aluminium ladder. It was in three parts with ropes and pulleys to bring the sections to full height. I thought I would at least have some time to wander about London but my friend insisted we take full use of the hiring of the ladder to reduce cost and do the job as quickly as possible. No rest for the wicket! The use of equipment at heights is my domain and the expertise gained by being unafraid of heights is what gave me and my family a standard of living that did not bring excessive riches but did bring a freedom, to every now and then do something out of the ordinary. This included the rare trip to Russia but even then most of the costs were recuperated by the painting of a house for which this ladder was hired. As stated before, the house was owned by a well to do publisher and this publisher was a friend of the bloke who lived in Australia also married to a publisher, and who at times gave me a hand with painting, including now the house in Sheppard’s Bush. I hope this is clear!
The raising of a ladder of forty feet in three parts is not as easy as it seems. The trick is to foot the ladder. This essentially means that to lift one end of the ladder the other end must be firmly anchored to the ground. This is done by a person firmly planting their feet against the bottom legs of the ladder so that the other end can be raised without the bottom getting away. My friend was of solid build and he would foot the ladder while I would attempt to raise the other side and balance it against the first storey of the house. To foot a tall ladder while raising it is the most critical part of any ladder work. The forty foot ladder was in three parts, each part about 16 feet. Even though it was made of aluminium, the whole three parts still made the ladder heavy. While my friend had the easy part ‘footing’ the ladder, I had the task of lifting the other end. While I tried to do this heavy lift, straining and putting all my efforts into the task, much to my surprise a car stopped and a man got out. He was dressed in a striped suit and a hat. Without a word he crossed the road and started pushing against the ladder together with me, till it reached its upright position. I thanked him afterwards but he just nodded and crossed the road to the car and then drove off. What an extraordinary event, unforgettable even, and to think that just a few hours earlier I was in a plane with the third plate of sardines hardly having had the time to settle and digest.
The painting started in full earnest the next day. The chosen colour was white, so after scraping off any loose flakes and re-puttying some of the windows we managed to put an undercoat on. The top and highest part was of course left to me and my friend just did the lower windows. We then dragged the ladder to the back yard and did the same there, this time we had less trouble raising the ladder when we could put the foot of the ladder against the house and we could both raise the other end. The undercoat dry, we applied the gloss enamel and the whole building transformed to a stately residence once again. We slept in the house upstairs which also had a kitchen were we cooked our meals. After the job was finished, the ladder was returned and we received our pay. The owner was most pleased and years later we met up again at our house in Balmain, Australia.
After the painting was finished my friend went his way and I spent a few days catching the underground to the centre of London. I don’t think I ever noticed so many gloomy passengers on trains before than there in London’s subway. Most times not a word would be spoken and many would just sit down as if on their final journey to the cemetery. There did not seem to be any hope in those trains and a fatal despair was seeping thickly from pallid and pasty faces. I just took the sub way to what I thought was the centre of London and remember walking through Bond Street and looking at highly fashionable shops. I think that part was called Mayfair and I also walked through an area called Piccadilly.
The only criticism I have about England is that you must not get hungry. The expense of a simple coffee or hamburger will set you back a return flight to Austria or a couple of months’ payments on the mortgage. After the first day outing, I took the advice of the Sheppard’s Bush publisher, and took food with me. One of the highlights was when I went to a restaurant and have a proper meal. I had spent the entire day sitting on a bench observing the Anglo society in full flight while nibbling at the food that I had taken with me. There is nothing like observing a foreign culture than from a bench in a busy street while eating the left over dinner from the previous night, which happened to be fillets of pork with some boiled carrots. Having done the bench sitting for two days in a row, I decided to break the habit of being totally abstemious and frugal and walked to an Italian restaurant, sat down and booked a meal of Ossa Bocca with a fine bottle of wine. It was so good but did cost me the earnings of at least the painting of the top storey of the federation house at Sheppard’s Bush.
Strangely enough, despite having walked around that area and even across a bridge of what must have been the Thames, I did not see St Paul’s Cathedral nor do I remember Parliament house, or 10 Downing Street. My main impression was that the English are great at improvisation; they put shoulder under the task at hand and somehow make it through.
Traditional Piss up.
Perhaps those gloomy faces on the subway are only a sign of the looming day’s struggle ahead, to try and make the best of it, to overcome and conquer daily battle, to steel oneself against adversity. In any case, it explains the typical urge by the English, if all else fails to go for the ‘piss up’. The ‘piss up’ is the relief valve for the English what the mistress is for the French or the ‘tavola en casa’ is for the Italians. In between the painting job, I spent a night in Leeds. Leeds has a famous Cricket ground and a Fish and Chips shop that, according to the locals is not to be missed, ever! I am as ignorant of the game of Cricket as an Englishman is of fine food with garlic and I must have insulted my hosts of not showing due interest in wanting to see their famous Cricket ground. I made up though by shouting them to a nosh-up of Fish and Chips from their world famous Leeds shop. Indeed, at the arrival there was already a formidable queue of keen Fish & Chips addicts. It was a Saturday night and Leeds was loaded with expectations. When it was our turn, we ordered the Fish and Chips and duly collected the butcher papered steaming parcels and drove past the famous Cricket grounds. I murmured admirations and mentioned the names of a few Australian cricketers. That seemed to have satisfied my hosts and as soon as the fish and chips were consumed, the husband suggested we now go for a Saturday night ‘piss up’. With the deep fried sardines a few days before, then the Ossa Bocca in London and now the Leeds’ famous Fish and Chips bunkered down, we proceeded to the traditional Saturday night Leeds’ local pub. Unfortunately I have forgotten its name. Could it have been the ‘Bricklayers Arms’ or was it the ‘Duck and Drake’?
In any case after arriving, we got a beer and the evening started at a gentle pace, no sign of anything outrageous. The pub started filling with more and more people and I noticed the same habit of drinking as in Australia. For the most part, people stood up instead of being seated and drank fast and as the evening progressed the level of noise became louder. It was almost as if the evening was going to run out before one could get all words or ideas off once chest. The drinkers were mainly men but a few women as well. The girls for the most part would be sitting down and the drinking was a little less hectic or hurried. The host that had invited me had become embroiled in a discussion about how tough married life was and his drinking friends could be seen to nod and agree in an almost vehement fashion. The third beer was now being consumed and things were well on the way. I was still on my first but thought it wise to show good manners and shouted the little group beer number four. The conversation was now almost impossible to follow unless one was within about thirty centimetres of the mouth of the speaker which most drinkers were doing. The din was now becoming overwhelming and I decided to gentle break loose from the group to sit down and observe this ‘piss up’ cultural phenomenon.
The man pulling the beer was now starting to become more alert in case of trouble and saw him cautioning a few young drinkers who were trying to crack on to some of the girls. I would have thought that the girls were there to be cracked upon but apparently the blokes were already known by them and perhaps a little déjà vu for the evening. There might have been more exciting prospects around that those girls were waiting for. The make-up was rather heavy with thick mascara and lots of blush hiding valiantly an age more advanced than at first glance. The piss up was now gathering pace and caution by my host seemed to have gone to the wind. He was now in full stride with his tirade against the evils of being tied down in a marriage with a woman who did not understand him; neither did the wives in his entourage of men friends. They now started looking at the girls with the mascara and exchanged meaningful if somewhat cross eyed glances and smiles bordering on licentiousness, if a smile after 8 beers can be called by that word. The girls, who had drunk a couple of gin and tonics, were suitably impressed and responded by smiles and coyly cackling to each other.
The whole pub had now taken on a din of such proportions that nothing could be heard or made sense off. The ‘piss up’ was now at its zenith and our group had now become pissed, totally drunk. My host and friends had all sunk on their knees and proceeded to waddle towards the girls that were still seated on the other side of the bar; they all broke out in laughter with mascara running and the pink blush blooming bright red now. It was time for men to confess and conquer. The seduction of a woman with alcohol fuelled lust was coming to the fore and with thick tongue and tear stained face, the host on his knees was confessing how the wife did not really, really understand him. The matrimony was lagging and the conjugal promise had faded, he wanted to just have someone understanding. The next thing he was holding her hand and asking her for forgiveness. My host, full of fish and chips, ten schooners of beer was almost catatonic. The girls were now hooting with mirth, the evening was exactly as they had hoped and for another gin and tonic, the men were asked to sit around and join.
However, the peak had passed and the alcohol in the men was now churning their stomachs a little. The Fish & Chips were out for revenge. The queue to the toilets was growing and many now were seen to go and splash their boots outside. Our friend started to look decidedly seedy and he mumbled something of having to go for cheddar. I asked what cheddar meant. The girls did a good imitation of puking. All seduction plans were off and he had also lost his keys now to get back in. This did not look good as I had my luggage at his place and intended to sleep there before catching the train back to London in the morning. He was now well beyond hope of recovery before heading back to his place and I could envisage a tricky situation trying to get back inside. I searched his pockets but no car or house keys. Was the zenith turning into its nadir?
The car was parked not far so I decided to go and see if the keys were there. They were. It took another ten minutes to drag him to the car and I took over the drive home with also giving a lift to one of the girls who lived near him. She fortunately was sober enough to guide me and as we got to the host’s place she even helped me drag him to the door. The wife was there but with a smile she, told me that this was his Saturday night outing and she knew the routine. The girl blinked at the wife and me and walked the rest of the distance back to her place. Next morning we got up and the husband was somewhat grumpy, but the wife was kind and full of understanding. It was just a ‘piss up’, she said!
The train to Rookwood.
Surely, there has to be some reward for having survived all the misery and sadness having lived through so much uncertainty and the many difficulties. It is not unreasonable to assume that one becomes better with the passing of the years at coping with some of the misfortunes and events, that could, with foresight, have been avoided, and that the benefits of getting older begets us the wisdom to not repeat the errors and mistakes into the future.
We plod on with expectations of improvements, and hope that with age we will undoubtedly get rewards for the courage, determination and resilience in having cobbled something out of our lives. When enough time has lapsed we can have the luxury of reflectively taking stock and do the accounts, and hopefully find out that, by and large, we stayed the course and that we had achieved the things that we sat out to reach with the positives having outweighed the negatives.
When young and bursting with enthusiasm and raging hormones we recklessly hurled ourselves into the future, taking and accepting risks, relationships and partners all at once and with wild abandonment. We brazenly and bravely fought to make our mark. Nothing would stop us and we blindly believed that hard work and enterprise would ensure a stake in prosperity and much goodness, not just for ourselves, but also for our off spring and many others in our lives. Deposits would be made on house and car; schools for kids were booked years in advance, and inexorably with the passing of a few more years, we would reap rewards by climbing into even better and bigger houses with more bathrooms now and larger cars with the DVD player hooked from the back seat for kids to watch Shrek when driving to somewhere and anywhere.
Did we not also take into our stride the misfortune of family life gone off at a tangent or astray, with lives, like forgotten letters in the drawer, damaged or lost through accident, illness and inherited gene, and the scourge of modern age, addiction to evil substances?
Now, with the advance of years beyond the half century, we fully expect that wisdom and experience will now guide us to calmer waters and ease us into a nice and comfortable latter part or even, with luck of robust health and benefits of having given up smoking years earlier, to old age. We paid our dues and the mortgage man is now finally sated. The credit card we will still keep on sailing with, just in case of the unforseen, the failing car or broken and worn washer-dryer. A trip to Venice or even Chile’s Santiago.
Having steamed through that post mortgage, and for some, post marriage years, we have now travelled to the beginning of an advanced age with the cheerful Newsletter and Senior’s card in the mail. The Seniors Newsletter has holidays for the advanced seniors at Noosa with a plethora of advertisements for that handy battery operated electric little carriages with shopping tray at the back. Are we to zoom in and out of shopping centres soon, using lives’ ramps up and down? With the sheer numbers appearing on footpaths now, it won’t be long and there could be outbreaks of motorized wheelchair-rage, could it not?
Please, don’t get impatient now. Just hang in there for a few more years and few more times, when at age of eighty five or so, we are almost there, indeed, we have arrived. How did we fare? It is time now to have one more go at something, perhaps golf or , dread the though, bowling with cricket gear all in white and with men wearing neatly pressed pantaloons but suspiciously bulging when bending to bowl. Once more, we listen hear and hum the forlorn ‘le piano du pauvre’.
I am nothing
Only in the generous eyes of others
Somehow, with The Train to Rookwood now at station, we have so far stumbled, bumbled but stoutly plotted on. Time has finally arrived, with casket to carriage, no time for regret.
Even to memory
Appears and goes away
With a scull
For a nod
Poems by Friend Bernard Durrant.