Until I moved to Europe, I assumed that people randomly chose the direction they moved to avoid oncoming pedestrians. In Belgium, I found myself stepping to the same side of the footpath as my counterpart almost every time. It didn't take me long to realise that I always stepped to my left while they stepped to their right, and that both of us stepped to the side that we drive on in our home countries (right in Africa, Europe and the Americas, left in Japan, India and the UK). Looking back, I'd rarely had the problem while in Australia and almost never in Japan, where people also drive on the left. Foreigners were rare in Japan and most foreigners in Australia were immigrants who'd lived in Australia much of their lives. The further I travelled, the more my findings were reinforced. When I returned to Australia, I began to get annoyed at the number of people who hadn't worked all this out and persisted in stepping to the right, and even in standing to the right on escalators. I'm only just beginning to realise that Australia is much more multicultural now than it was even 15 years ago when I left. Rather than keeping to a single suburb, immigrants from each culture are settling wherever they can, and I'm likely to hear Japanese being spoken in almost any Sydney suburb. The same is probably true for other languages that I don't recognise so quickly. With so many people stepping to the right, most people have no reason to know that we traditionally stepped to the left. I'm just starting to realise that's a good thing - even if it does take me slightly longer to
I was dismayed to see that the French rugby team were fined for their response to the Haka at the World Cup Grand Final. Apparently there is a 10 meter exclusion zone for the 'cultural ritual.' This isn't the first time that a team opposing the Kiwis has been challenged for responding inappropriately. I can understand that the Haka has become a significant identifier for both the All Blacks and Rugby Union as a whole, but it should be seen as it really is. The Haka is a war dance, performed before a battle to intimidate the enemy. Sport plays a role in replacing war in modern societies by providing an outlet for aggression and national pride. Reenacting the war dance is then appropriate before a major sporting event, but it must give the All Blacks a major psychological advantage. I know I'd be intimidated by a group of large men screaming at me with muscles bulging aggressively. Interestingly, the All Blacks web site describes the Haka as a dance of welcome. If that's true, the welcome is one given as a warning that the host is not to be trifled with. Why must the opposing teams quietly allow themselves to be intimidated? In a real war, the opposition would be performing their own war dance. The French don't have a war dance so they tried to show that they weren't intimidated by forming a wall and walking towards the All Blacks. Rather than recognising the response, the International Rugby Board fined the French team. In 1996, the Wallabies decided to show they were not cowed by turning their backs on the Haka and warming up. The English also turned their backs on the Haka
Toulouse feels a bit like Brussels as you walk down narrow streets lined with shops to suddenly pop out into a large square. I'm not really in the mood to experience the country this time, though, as I've come to get divorced. The process began in about October with a couple of forms to sign, basically saying that it was an amicable separation with no property or children to cause complications. Then we had to wait for the court date to be settled. Marie paid the solicitor her half of the fee and said that I'd pay the remainder when I came to France. The date was today, only shared just after christmas and then began the mad scramble to get flights to Toulouse for the occasion. We found the court building in a back street in the south of the city and joined the 10+ other couples waiting for their turn in the same session. Although we should have been about 7th in line, we were pushed to about 4th because we were paying for an interpreter as well. This is a new requirement to stop silly foreigners like me claiming that they had no idea what they were saying yes to when they wed or divorce. I still don't know exactly I vowed, because the law wasn't in place 4 years ago, but at least I know that it no longer matters. The solicitor, Marie, the interpreter and I were ushered into the magistrates office and asked if we were still wanting an amicable split. Marie and I both nodded and that was pretty much it. Until we got outside and we found out that the magistrate would prepare the final papers to
It was Brusseling when I arrived in Belgium - that misty drizzle that never quite settles. I wondered if I'd have the same feeling about Belgium as did for France, but whether the animosity had been dissolved by the positive experiences I'd had there, or because there was so much more to my Belgian history than Marie, I was happy to be back. I avoided the Grand Place on the first night in case they'd be doing the light show - laser colours on old stone buildings don't work for me - and went straight to join my old writing group. Forteen people had turned out for the occasion. I only knew 4 of them, so I can't claim they were all there for me, but it was daunting to read in front of so many people again. At least the feedback was generally positive. I did visit the Grand Place the next day, hoping it wouldn't have lost its charm. It hadn't. Despite the grey sky and spray on my face, I couldn't help smiling as soon as I saw the huge Hotel de ville. I can't imagine future generations feeling the same about any of the Sydney Opera House or the Gugenheim, let alone the standard buildings that go up around the world these days. In the end, the rain got worse to the point that I needed a rain coat (an event that I only recall occuring twice in the three years I lived here) and I decided to head north to meet up with my old colleagues for drinks and a hearty Belgian meal. Not stoemp or beer rabbit this time, but a bowl of beef stew flavoured with beer and
I've been to London a few times and I've seen pretty much everything I want to see, done everything I want to do. In fact, London is the only part of England that I've ever seen. I really wanted to go for a walk through All Creatures Great and Small territory, crossing fields and climbing styles, but with two days in London, but my nights booked, it wasn't really possible to get far away. I spent the first wandering the shops and going to see a movie. Yesterday, I looked through the Lonely Planet in more detail and realised that I could get to Windsor castle and back in a day. And you can never see enough castles. Proper defensive castles, not just palaces, but castles with thick walls, bastions and wandering corridors. If it weren't for all the tourists, I think I'd like living in Windsor. From almost everywhere in the town, you can look up and see the castle that the queen considers her home. Apparently it's housed the royal family for 990 years and it's still well looked after. The state rooms are accessible to the public, but the interiors don't interest me too much. Except, surprisingly, the doll's house made for Queen Mary. Everything 1:12 scale and functional right down to the electricity and plumbing. My real interest was outdoors - the walls, the embattlements, the crenelations and towers. In this case, the walls were at least 4m thick, built to withstand the best that medieval armies could throw at them. Arrow slits and crenelations lined the walls, inside and out, but there was no way of getting onto them. I was limited to walking around the bottom and imagining what
Merle tried the door of the bar we'd come to on our return to Tallinn. In the middle of the old town, it was a place closed to tourists. The door was clearly locked and there was no intercom. Merle pulled out a card and stuck it in a reader by the door. A click and a hum and we were in. This was a bar for artists, but in her previous job as foreign PR officer for Estonia, Merle had access to all parts of the city to bring journalists and had kept that right. Inside, the bar looked much like any other with stools before the bar, tables around the walls and a few lounges in the back room. With summer in its early days and the working week starting the next morning, there were few revelers, but I the quiet gave the pub a stronger feeling of exclusivity. I ordered a Malaysian dish from a menu covering continental and Asian food and enjoyed the last conversations with my new friends. 'Most people who visit Estonia come back again,' they said knowingly. I wondered. When would I next be in the area and would I make the trip again. Quite possibly.
Analie offered to show me how to use a real Estonian sauna. Merle and the boyfriend she'd come to Saaremaa to visit would take one privately later. I followed Analie into the main farmhouse to an area curtained off from the living room. She stripped off and headed into the shower room. In the name of decency, I'd kept my back turned and waited until I heard the shower stop before I stepped after her. I placed my towel on the window ledge and washed quickly, then grabbed my towel and stepped into the sauna proper. 'Oh good. You brought the towel. You'll probably need to put in on the seat so you don't burn your sensitive ass.' Once I'd recovered from the wave of heat, I saw that she was sitting naked as I'd heard was done in Scandinavia. She'd left her own towel outside. I've never been comfortable with the idea of being naked with anyone that I wasn't sleeping with, but there was little reason to argue. I unwrapped the towel from around my waist, placed it double on the wood and sat down next to her. We started chatting about her husband, who'd played the porn director in Sex and Death, Marie, life in Australia and a number of other topics and before I knew it, nakedness wasn't an issue. The thermometer read 95C, but Analie kept scooping water onto the hot stones. Eventually she decided that she'd had enough for the moment and I was glad that I'd matched her resistance to the heat, but I now realise that she was sitting closer to the heat source and the steam, where it was probably over 100C. I followed a minute
After spending all weekend with a group of Estonian girls, I've decided that Estonian sounds like Dutch, with all the shaped vowels and plenty of k's, but with an Italian rhythm. The girls were quite pleased with this description. Although they spent much of the weekend talking Estonian, they took the time to translate key pieces of conversation or just to talk to me about their lives, their work, their taste in music. We took a drive to Saaremaa, the largest island, where Estonians go to chill out in the summer. It had all the fun that road trips entail, and even if I couldn't understand everything that made them laugh, I enjoyed the antics. Merle put a piece of chocolate on the dashboard while she was driving, then forgot about it when we went to sit on the beach. Not one to waste chocolate, she licked it all up when we got back to the car. A five star hotel that Merle wanted to show us wouldn't let us look around, so she invented a story that I was a journalist doing a story for an Australian magazine. The cover was picked up by Margit, who decided she was doing a story on toilets on Saaremaa. We agreed that strip clubs were pointless because they gave an increase in dramatic tension but never provided the climax and a happy ending. We found secluded beaches to sit on, visited churches and walked around a Danish fortress. Unfortunately I'd forgotten my camera for the last, but the highlight was the guesthouse we stayed in on Saturday night. Built up around an old farmhouse, it had two more buildings for guests and a big barbecue area. We
I went to the cinema last night to see 'Sex and Death', a collection of short films by Estonians. Merle warned me they'd be surreal, but I still wasn't quite prepared. The first started with a young man selling ice creams in a street cart. When he didn't sell enough, his boss said he had other work for him and took him to a dinghy hotel room for a porn shoot. The girl he'd partner with was just as reluctant as him, but she dutifully spread her legs to have her hair trimmed while he took a shower. When the young man couldn't get an erection during the dialogue, the director ordered the camerman to give him a blowjob, but even through his shame, he ejaculated before they could start shooting. The second was of a wife who'd loved her husband until he had an accident and ended up in a wheelchair, at which time she'd started having an affair with a doctor friend and was expecting his baby. The doctor came to visit the couple socially and both the husband and wife, for their own reasons, asked the doctor to leave a needle full of morphine when he left. He did so grudgingly and the wife got drunk so she could commit the act. When the doctor arrived the next morning, he was delighted to find that the husband was still alive, but of course, when he went to share his joy with the wife, he found her dead with a big smile. The third began with soldiers in a trench, bizarrely firing to both sides. One of their number was shot and died with his finger on the trigger. A stray bullet took
The beautiful Russian Orthodox church stands on the highest point of the upper town, but the Estonians don't think it's beautiful. It's a reminder of the occupation, when Russia decided to 'save' them from German occupation, only to create their own. And it's built on the grave site of the father of one of Estonia's national heroes. 'Everyone knows you can't build on a grave site,' Merle told me with a smirk. 'We're all waiting for him to roll over in his grave and bring the whole building crashing down.'