Thursday, December 22, 2005

Holland's Social Experiment: following the Dutch drug debate.

Recently I was fortunate enough to visit The Netherlands. My two weeks there was during second semester at University, and whilst there I needed to find and write about a topic for a feature article for a journalism subject I was doing. This is my article.

Like an indulgent, eccentric uncle, Amsterdam is a European city, where people who want to legally smoke cannabis can do so openly in one of Holland’s coffeeshops, much to the concern of the city’s surrounding neighbours. These neighbouring countries take a harder stance against drugs that is at odds with Holland’s social experiment, where the Dutch believe their lax attitude is more compassionate and a better way.
One of the first places many of Holland’s tourists visit is Amsterdam’s coffeeshops. Located along the city’s canals and narrow streets, they display a green and white sticker on their windows, indicating that inside you will find a hash or weed menu. However, you don’t really need to see these stickers to know that you can get high within Amsterdam’s coffeeshops, as the sweet, pungent aroma emitted from them is clue enough. Glancing through one of the hash menus, I found offerings such as “Hawaiian Haze”, “Juicy Fruit”, and “Purple Power”. There are pre-rolled joints, weed from Morocco, indoor plants, outdoor plants and marijuana dubbed either local or foreign.
According to a display at the Amsterdam History Museum (Historisch Museum), the Netherlands have decriminalised soft drugs since 1976. This means that in Holland a blind eye is turned to the sale and use of up to five grams of marijuana.
The display also includes a video, where an American accented panel of experts debate the merits of Holland’s drug policy, the amended Opium Act of 1976.
Pietr, who works at the History Museum thinks that the Dutch government is becoming increasingly conservative. “All the time medical reports are coming, saying that the use of cannabis is not good. Personally I do not like the smell. I hate the smell of smoking. It is everywhere. I do not like it”.
The smoky marijuana smell is indeed everywhere. This is particularly noticeable when zigzagging through pedestrians and the throng visiting coffeeshops, trying to locate the Hash Marijuana Hemp Museum, finally finding a doorway flanked by Marijuana plants and that distinctive odour. The man accepting Euros for entry into the museum was extremely cagey in answering any questions. Standing beside him was a belligerent American woman, puffing a joint, the marijuana smell emitted from the museum clearly coming from her. Declining even first name basis to be used, the man behind the counter kept trying to usher me towards the disorganised displays in an effort to answer my questions. The man at one point became irritated at my use of the word “legalised”. With a shake of his head and a deep frown, he emphasised that marijuana use is “tolerated” not legalised. From then on, in all my conversations regarding soft drug use, I made sure I used the word, tolerated instead. He told me that households are allowed five plants, and there is continual pressure from the United Nations to stop it. “We do not drink alcohol. We smoke”. With a shrug he continued, “Smoking can be bad for you. You can get addicted. It’s never written down when somebody dies using it”. Then, giving me his one and only smile, “if politicians were to smoke it, there would be less problems”.
Most of the Hemp Museum’s displays were propagandist. Lots of yellow and brown cutout newspaper articles taped along the walls, citing headlines of human rights and the drug war. There was a display about Pot Pride Marches that also included a poster of a marching chant: “We’re here, we’re high. Get used to it”.
A few doors down, at the Tiani Hemp shop, I spoke to Jorge, who was much more forthcoming than the man at the Hemp Museum. Jorge has owned his hemp shop for thirty years or more, selling all the hemp products associated with the drug, but not the drug itself. “The hemp is used for a lot”, he told me, “plastic, material, shirts, soap, rope, everything”. He nods in satisfaction. “The tobacco and plastic companies stopped production of hemp because of plastic competition”.
Jorge also thought that becoming addicted was not true. “I have smoked for thirty years. If you want to believe them…. I believe myself. Smoking has been happening for thousands of years. There’s Indian culture, Arabic, Latino, Indigenous. I think of it as a cure. People who have asthma; it opens their lungs”. Jorge is often asked for the drug itself, many tourists coming to the shop thinking they can get it here. He directs them to the numerous coffeeshops surrounding his establishment.
According to the Dutch Justice Ministry, coffeeshops numbered 1’179 in 1997, and this has dropped to 754 in 2003. Jorge is concerned about this. “Since the sixties people are making a living from this. Making money. They grow it in their own homes. Some people grow in special places, but the police catch them, so they have to grow in their homes. It’s a family affair”. Jorge explains to me that the government will not renew or issue new licences. Consequently there is no new coffeeshops opening. However, more hemp shops, like Jorge’s, are started. “If the owner dies they won’t renew. This is how they stop it. Coffeeshops are fighting this by becoming an association or cooperative”. Then he adds, “Politicians like to keep quiet because it brings tourists to Holland. Hotels are full. Everybody that is here is happy. Other countries have a higher percentage of violence. In England they drink alcohol, they become aggressive, they fight. Here they smoke; they want to make love. Other countries drug addicted people die on the street. Here people have somewhere to go”.
There is certainly an argument here. The Dutch have always reasoned that the coffeeshops allow their authorities to keep a close eye on cannabis use. Their policy also includes low threshold treatment. This means that those with a drug problem are encouraged to seek help, and Holland’s drug programs are designed so minimal paperwork is involved and minimal demands are made. The Centre for Drug Research, University of Amsterdam (CEDRO) contends that cannabis use is substantially lower than often assumed. An article from the Journal of Health and Social Policy, debates the Dutch drug policy and asks if it can be used as a model for America. The Netherlands and the USA being two countries at distinct opposite sides when it comes to drug use. The Netherlands support ‘harm reduction’ whilst America prefers ‘supply reduction’. The latter policy promotes reducing drugs, and enforces strict sanctions on those who do not. To the consternation of many of Holland’s critics, drug use has had a negligibly small increase since 1976. In other parts of Europe and also America, there has been much increase, despite prohibition.
Jorge also enthusiastically tells me about the Cannabis Cup. The Cannabis Cup has been awarded for the last sixteen years to someone or a company providing excellence in marijuana samples. When the Cannabis Cup event is taking place, there are many tours frequenting the coffeeshops. An event some tourists may not want to miss.
Most Dutch people seem to advocate Holland’s ‘social experiment’. Further afield, in the small town of Emmen, about three hours journey from Amsterdam, I meet the Boer family. Invited for a traditional meal, I enter their awe-inspiring home – a completely renovated Dutch farmhouse, hundreds of years old, but brought into the twenty-first century. The Boer family have converted the farmhouse into liveable conditions, but it still has its imposing thatched roof, and inside, the black misshapen beams with their patina of age. Even here, miles away from Amsterdam’s coffeeshops, this topic created much debate from nine people seated around the dinner table.
Marius Boer, the eldest son in his twenties says, “it’s a good thing, and it keeps away criminal things. When it is allowed it is controllable. To go under, it will not be. Trading is done at a reasonable level, the legal price goes down. What’s the difference between alcohol and hemp? It’s a soft drug”.
Marius’ parents, Peter and Karen Boer agree, Karen saying, “It must be free and allowed. Whatever you want. Also the hard drugs. Problem is solved, the price drops to nothing”.
Peter talks about the production of marijuana. “A lot of energy is put into the growing. A lot of countries are looking at how Holland controls its drugs. You can buy equipment for three or four thousand Euros, and make it back in a year growing”.
“Less than a year”, Marius interjects. Everyone around the table nods.
Peter continues. “A room, lamps, ventilation. Power companies can see power being used in the meters, they can come and close you down”. The Boer family tell of one of their neighbours close by. His thatched roof had no snow on it! His home had big gates and also big dogs! Everyone laughs at the visual of a house with no snow on its roof, due to the heat inside, growing marijuana plants.
Robert, another guest says, “We should tolerate it. But I’ve never tried it”. I turn to him surprised. Robert who has lived in Holland all his life had never tried marijuana? Is this unusual, I ask? He shrugs in answer. Peter answers for him, “When it’s not seen under the table you can control it. That’s the tactics here. Holland is united thinking the same thing. When people deal in the street it is frowned upon. Why sell drugs on the street if you can get it in the shops?” He looks at Robert, “because it’s not experimental anymore”.
I ask Karen and Natasha, another guest, how they feel about children and marijuana. Karen responds first, “I hate it”. Henk, Natasha’s husband tells me, “I hope not, that they will use drugs”. Natasha says, “I am afraid of it, that they will use drugs”. At this point I see natural parental concern. Even though Holland’s society is tolerant about drugs, there is still an instinctive worry about their children.
Jacqueline, Marius’ girlfriend gives her opinion here. “I think it has to do with your social life and your friends. When I was in school I wasn’t in a group that experimented with drugs. The friends I had were very close, from the age of four. We were always the same group doing other things”.
Karen tells us, “At school, policemen stand there during breaks so that dealers don’t come”. Everyone frowns at the thought of drug dealers in the street.
There is a powerful argument of economics that Peter contends, “coffeeshops are closing. Nobody is interested anymore. When there is too much supply the price drops. There will be a peak for a short while. There were three or four coffeeshops in Emmen, but now two are closing because there is no interest anymore”.
Back in Amsterdam, walking the city’s streets, I see people milling about a doorway. Realising they are just watching table dancers I continue on my way, the hoots of jocularity fading as I go. Later I see a bicycle tour. A group of girls are about to embark, donned with party hats and pretty clothes, here for a hen’s weekend, the bride-to-be’s last hoorah. I pass wild bucks parties, groups of people from all cultures, roaming the streets, some clearly worse for wear, away from the usual humdrum of their working lives. I think of Jorge’s words: the tourists come; the hotels are full. Everyone is here in this all-encompassing party city, which Amsterdam is known for.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

What I've been reading lately: If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (a postmodern essay.)

To open a book is to invite the fictional world in. Readers always know when they are reading fiction. There are conventions and codes, an author to listen to, reading is a way to understand and think. The most challenging feature of postmodern writing is its insinuation of the fictionality of the world we live in. Readers are challenged when overt metafictional writers, such as Italo Calvino, choose to display the fictionality of their novels. This essay will focus on Italo Calvino’s novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. It will explore metafiction, a type of postmodern writing and examine the conventions of fiction, deconstruction of language, the notion of an author and their precursors and the relationship between reading and writing. All this will reveal the fictionality within postmodern writing.

Italo Calvino is deliberate and determined to convey the notions and the intricacy in preparing a text. It is never forgotten that we are reading a book. There is an author, a scene set, a plot and characters to be met. Calvino intentionally allows the book’s contrivance to be seen. He asserts this from the very beginning in his opening chapter: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel” (Calvino, 1998, p.3), and later: “The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph” (Calvino,1998, p.10).

Although we are reading, we are never directly able to read for ourselves, someone else reads each narrative and this allows Calvino to highlight the novel’s constructs and conventions. “We are never allowed even the illusion of direct access to these stories: they are all mediated, which is just another way of saying that they are fabricated” (Brink, 1998, p.317). Through the eyes of others such as, the narrator; professor Uzzi-Tuzzi; Lotaria and Silas Flannery, we are made aware that this is a book and it has been made. Furthermore, we are told that even these readings have been read before, translated by the infamous Ermes Marana. The novel has been previously read, previously interpreted and constantly mediated.
Jacques Derrida, a postmodern theorist, examined the use of language. He saw language as deconstructed, disorderly and unstable. Language viewed this way allows for interpretation. Disorderly and unstable means that when language is used to represent, to each person that language can be different, therefore destabilised and unstructured. An author may have the best intentions to use language to represent one particular view, but this may not always be the case. Calvino emphasises this further in his novel.

“[The] act of reading…becomes simultaneously an act of radical destabilisation of language. Each of the readers in Calvino's novel reads the ‘same’ novel, yet experiences it as a ‘different’ novel; the whole process of reading unsettles fixed meanings” (Brink, 1998, p.314).

Derrida also used the theatre as an analogy to writing, to convey this idea.
“[An] author-creator who, absent and from afar, is armed with a text and keeps watch over, assembles, regulates the time or meaning of representation…He lets representation represent him through representatives, directors or actor, enslaved interpreters who…more or less directly represent the thought of the ‘creator’” (Ritzer, 2003, p. 584).

Similarly in fiction, language represents the thoughts of the creator and the reader is the interpreter. This is an important concept in postmodern writing. Also is the notion of previously read, previously interpreted, mediated, represented and then interpreted again and again. It is the idea of precursors. An author has read before. An author allows these ideas to influence their writing. The ideas are consequently mediated or represented and the reader, in turn, re-interprets these ideas. If the reader is also a writer, the cycle continues.
Calvino's If on a winter’s night a traveller uses the premise of precursors and portrays it through his novel by different chapters. The “novel offers an increasingly, dizzying experience of reading, with each chapter acting as supplement to what has gone before and as a preface to the next” (Brink, 1998 p. 320). Precursors are important to the idea of the author when it is explored. It questions the notion of ideas mediated, authors influenced, akin to Derrida’s notion of representation.

Calvino uses his character Marana to display this, where he deems authors irrelevant. (Calvino, 1998, p. 101) As if to say it is everyone’s and anyone’s idea.
“Marana often misrepresents what he sends to publishers, submitting manuscripts incorrectly titled and attributed and sometimes passing off insignificant works as major works. Marana is a kind of anti-authorial terrorist" (Gaggi, 1997, pp 56-57).

Michel Foucault examined the idea of author-function. Foucault, another postmodern theorist, looked at the way writers would seek to write what they believed to be an individual voice. However, Foucault asserts that the reading of any given text allows for inevitable interpretation. Multiple readings, changing an individual voice into a fractured voice:
“that the author-function is a construction that imposes ideological constraints upon the reading of a body of texts identified as being by a certain ‘author’…the subject of the author in particular – is a product of discourse rather than the origin of discourse” (Gaggi, 1997, p. 57).

A good illustration of this is Calvino’s idea of two writers, each struggling to write, and while imagining the other writes better, each begins to write as they imagine the other would, and consequently they write the same book.
Calvino goes on to include computers in his novel that are working to emulate the work of famous writers. Here he is “demystifying literature and the author” (Gaggi, 1997, p. 62). Calvino’s novel shows that an author's own discourse is a product and cannot be described as original, he shows it to be ‘fictional’.
Calvino allows the authorship of his own novel to be ambiguous. Calvino himself, a real author, allows himself to be a character. This questions the idea of what has been written and by whom? Marana’s deliberate attempt’s to steal, forge and misrepresent texts ensures that “reading will be freed from the constraints imposed on it by the aura of authorship” (Gaggi, 1997, p. 57). Roland Barths, also a postmodernist, asserts that in writing there is the ‘death of the author’. “The more the author appears, the less he or she exists. The more the author flaunts his or her presence in the novel, the more noticeable is his or her absence outside it” (Waugh, 1984, p. 134). Certainly Calvino is doing just this in his novel, and by doing so he is breaking the conventions of fiction writing.

“I have – no, the author has – been circling around the feminine presence, for several pages you have been expecting this female shadow to take shape the way female shadows take shape on the written page, and it is your expectation, reader, that drives the author towards her” (Calvino, 1998, p. 20).

If on a winter’s night a traveller is metafiction. Fiction about fiction, stories within stories. Linda Hutcheon writes about metafiction and she calls this narcissistic text. She talks about reading narrative and expectations a reader has. When these expectations are not met, she says writers know full well that they are overtly being self-conscious in their writing and the subverting and breaking of novelistic codes show this. (Hutcheon, 1984, p. 139) Thus far, Calvino has unsettled the author, the novel’s conventions and used the notion of precursors and this easily falls into Hutcheon’s theory of narcissistic text.

The book does not conform to a linear fashion. Instead Calvino allows it to be multi-linear. One story or chapter can lead to the next, but it can also lead to others, all at the same time and even re-trace itself back. An example of this is when the book’s narrator goes in search of the famous author Silas Flannery. Flannery describes his ideal reader, clearly evoking the character of Ludmilla. This image of Ludmilla connects her to the reading of all the previous chapters as well as future one’s and also within Flannery’s own writing. Indeed, Ludmilla’s character is a good example of portraying the novel as being multi-diagetic, where “stories successfully frame other stories often to the point of infinite regress (Cotrupi, 1991, p. 2 of 7)

As well as being multi-diagetic it has been argued that Ludmilla personifies the male reader’s erotic desire. There are three quests running alongside each other. The quest for Ludmilla; the quest for the desired perfect reading experience and the narrator’s quest to find his elusive narrative. Reading is spurred on by the desire to see what comes next. Ludmilla’s character is a metaphor for sexual conquest. (Cotrupi, 1991)
Calvino elaborates on the different types of readers. Ludmilla and Lotaria are contrasted.
“Ludmilla, the named and described female reader, clearly personifies the ideal reader in pointed contrast to Lotaria’s pseudoscientific, ideologically motivated, devalued, and degenerated readings of the texts” (Cotrupi, 1991, p. 3 of 7).
Further, Ludmilla talks of there being a boundary line for the reader when she refuses to accompany the narrator to the publishers. Ludmilla prefers to be just a reader on a quest within the fictional world only.
“There’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other those who read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line. Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends, or at least is transformed into something else, which is not what I want (Calvino, 1998, p. 93).

Calvino’s manipulation lays bare all the literal conventions of the novel and reveals its interior constructs, and also its exterior constructs. Many protagonists in the novel belong to the literary world, the realm of books. The writer; the reader; the publisher; the narrator; the bookshop owner; literary agents; the academic; the librarian; the plagiarist and the translator. He has incorporated all these into his storytelling. Writing fiction and the ‘real’ players all at once.

“Through these innovations Calvino has added another layer to the semantic density of fiction, incorporating within the narrative text not only an awareness of its own status as literary artefact or verbal construct but also an explicit self-engagement with its role as literary text, as the locus of human creative, perceptual and hermeneutic activities” (Cotrupi, 1991, p. 2 of 7)

Calvino exposing literary construction allows the book to be an overt metafictional novel, a narcissistic text. Calvino subverts the notion of the author, and deems them irrelevant. Where writers can write the exact same thing, but readers can read the exact same thing differently. For Calvino’s metafictional novel to succeed, he must alleviate the void between the fiction of the book and the real world. The reader must never forget that they are reading a book. Calvino does this by the ever-present reader reading over the shoulder of another. When a novel is opened and narrative begins, readers have expectations, but postmodern writing challenges this. Italo Calvino has succeeded in insinuating fictionality into his writing.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Feedback on my feature article

I'm very excited!! I received an email from my lecturer for my journalism subject. This semester one of my assignments was to write a feature article, and because I was fortunate enough to accompany my husband to Holland I decided to write about the drug debate.

Her email reads: If you are receiving this email it means you wrote a fantastic feature article. In some cases I have made recommendations for you to publish in a different magazine/newspaper in my comments, but your article would certainly be of interest to Tabula Rasa [student magazine] as well.

When I read this I felt that warm fuzzy glow, the kind when you have succeeded in doing something well. Note she used the word "fantastic"!! I do plan to post the article in the coming weeks. There's nothing like the feeling of getting positive feedback from someone. It really does make all the difference.

Monday, November 28, 2005

singing the la la la's

Well I did it. I joined a new choir. It was fantastic! I left feeling very welcomed. Also, I found out that the choir had only been going for a year, so everyone is still learning music. This meant that I was able to keep up and I actually was able to join in singing at my first rehearsal. That was a great feeling. I remember the last choir I was at, when I attended the first rehearsal I could only sit and listen, because everyone knew the music so well they just launched right into it. It took me ages to learn some of the songs, and even now I'm not sure if I had learnt all of the music.

About three years ago I auditioned for the Royal Philharmonic Choir. It was an audition that began brilliantly and then quickly went downhill. I should probably explain that I cannot sight read music. I have been in two choirs (now a third), but I have always been able to get on with an 'ear' to music, so to speak. I can sort of tell when to go up and down etc., but that's about it.

So, I went to the audition, not expecting much, but I thought I'd give it a go. The audition began with some scales. I normally sing Soprano, and can sing fairly high notes. As I continued going up in scales, I noticed the Pianist give the musical director a bit of a look, as if to say, not bad.

The second part of the audition was to sing a piece of music that I knew. I had brought along a French classical piece that I had sung in my previous choir. So, away I went, and I daresay that it went rather well.

The final part of the audition was to sight read some music. The Musical Director told me to go over to the stand where I found some classical German music. He then told me to sing the Alto part. This is when it got quite scary. There was absolutely no way I would be able to do this. He told me to proceed, and that 'Lars' will do. I quickly scanned the music, looking for 'Lars". The music began, and I felt my face grow hot because no matter how hard I looked I could not find 'lars', and therefore, where to begin. Entirely missing the cue to begin, the musical director began to sing the part, trying to be helpful. Just as he began to sing, it dawned on me that 'lars' meant sing 'la la la', and not worry about the words. I'm sure some of you reading this probably realised that's what he meant straightaway! Anway, it was perfectly obvious that I was having trouble reading and therefore singing the music, so the music director then asked me to clap the notes instead. Keen not to disappoint in anyway, I began clapping. The wrong notes. This time I noticed the pianist give him a look, but this was was clearly showing how unimpressed she was. The audition ended by him not looking me in the eyes, and uttering something along the lines of don't call us we'll call you. A few days later I received my rejection letter.

I like this new gospel choir that I've joined. They're nice and relaxed, with no music sight reading ability needed.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The things I can do.

Well second year of my undergraduate degree is now officially over!! There's nothing like the feeling of walking away from that last exam of the year. This summer I have made some plans to do things that I have been putting off because of study. My previous post had my immense reading list that I am planning to get through. I am also planning on doing some writing. I have what I think (and hope) a mystery novel floating around in my head. I'm going to set a writing schedule for myself over the summer and see what comes of it. The other thing I am doing is joining a gospel choir. I have been involved with two different choirs over the years, and I left my last one because I began my degree and found I didn't have time for it. So, the other night I rang a contact number of a choir I found that rehearses literally just around the corner from my home. In fact it was interesting the way it came about.

On the weekend Richard and I were away for a rowing regatta out in country Victoria. (He's a rower). Richard was towing the rowboats, and as we left the rowing club, coming up the long drive, I noticed a lovely bluestone church on the corner and spent a few seconds admiring it. On the Monday at work - which is now very quiet because all the students are gone (except for summer school students) - I decided to get on the internet and see if I could find any choirs that rehearsed close to home. I found a handful, but the gospel choir really caught my eye. And what's more, they rehearse in the old bluestone church I had been admiring over the weekend. How fortuitous is that! Anyway, I am going to attend a rehearsal tonight after work for the first time. Hopefully it will be great. I'm really looking forward to giving my vocal chords something to do, they have been getting very hoarse from disuse. Also, because they practice on Thursday nights, I think I will be able to fit rehearsals in next year (or at least for first semester), because so far the class timetable has me at uni during the day, which will leave Thursday night free.

So those are my plans for the summer. Reading, writing and singing. I feel like I'm getting back to the basics of who I am. In the past three to four years I have been trying out different things, and finding that I either lose interest or it just doesn't feel right. I think you have to be really passionate about something for it to work properly. It's good to try out new things, but sometimes when there is so little time it can be better to focus on the things that you can do.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

kennelling the Pooches

Over the weekend Richard and I attended a rowing regatta out in the country. We put both our dogs in a kennel for the first time. This proved to be quite traumatic for me. I can just imagine what I'll be like when I have children!! (If and when).

Now one of my dogs was quite ok. Nelson is a terrier cross and we got him from the RSPCA three years ago. I get the impression he has been in kennels before, and certainly, the RSPCA is a kennel type of environment. Kaz, on the other hand, is a Jack Russell that we have had since she was eight weeks old. I'm very sad to report that her kennel experience was very traumatic for her. My mum went to collect them since the kennel closed at 5pm, and the last rowing race was 3pm. Therefore we would only return to Melbourne by 8pm. Anway, went to collect them from my mum's place, and my poor Kaz just would not take her eyes off us. It was as though if she blinked we would disappear. I was feeling very sorry for my pooch. Nelson on the other hand had lost his bark! When he sees other dogs he either wants them to come over to him or he go to them, so he can say a nice doggy hello. Kaz is the opposite. Because they were being kept together we had ticked the box saying to keep them separate from the other dogs. Poor Nelson. I think he must have barked for the whole weekend, shouting over to the other dogs that he just could not get to. The result? He lost his voice. Even though I felt bad about it, it was quite hilarious to listen to him bark when we got home. His bark is slowly getting back to normal now though.

We thought it would be a good idea to try out a kennel for them as we are going away in January, and also we are trying to find a 'good' kennel that we can trust. I think that if we go away camping on the next regattas we could take Kaz with us. Nelson hates camping. The bugs literally sends him bananas. He's been camping with us twice and both times we had to put him in the tent just to keep him sane. Also, he likes to wander and has selective hearing when being called. Kaz loves camping. She is very docile and will sit quietly with us. I think definitely for the next camping trip we will take her and put Nelson in the kennel and tick the box that allows him to socialise with the other dogs. He will have a fantastic holiday, and Kaz will happily sit with us and be the well behaved dog she is. Other than the camping I think next time we are away we may have to find someone to housesit and look after both of them. Which we have done before. Or, unfortunately for Kaz, it will be back to the kennel.

My reading list (so far!) I just seem to keep adding to it.......

Well second year of my degree is almost over. I have one more exam to get through and then my summer begins. I still have my part time job to go to, but it's nice knowing I can relax for a few months and not worry about anything due in.

I've made a huge list of fiction books to read, not necessarily to be finished by the end of summer, but I can certainly make a start on it. I thought I might use this post to share my reading list. Please feel free to comment if you have read any of these titles and let me know what you think. But no spoilers please!!

1. The Rule of Four. Caldwell
2. Arthur & George. Barnes
3. Pride and Presience. Bebris
4. Espresso tales. McCall Smith
5. Vellum. Duncan
6. Pomegranate soup. Mehran
7. The Big Over Easy. Fforde
8. Hyde Park gate news: the stephen family newspaper. Woolf & Bell
9. A breath of snow and ashes. Gabaldon
10.The secret river. Grenville
11.To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee (re-read for my book discussion group)
12.Summer at Mount Hope. Ham
13.The Ghost Writer. Harwood
14.The book thief. Zusak
15.Knife of Dreams. Jordan
16.A thing of blood. Gott
17.Justice Hall. King
18.The city of falling angels. Berendt
19.A conspiracy of Paper. Liss
20.The book of lost books. Kelly
21.The Dante Club. Pearl
22.Great Books. Denby
23.The Apothecary's House. Mathews
24.The conjuror's bird. Davies
25.Seven Ancient Wonders. Reilly
26.Climbing the mango trees. Jaffrey
27.The Stone Ship. Raftos
28.Is history fiction? Curthoys & Docker
29.The Minotaur. Vine
30.Uncorrected proof: the true history of the Australian book scene. Anonymous
31.Suspense and Sensibility. Bebris
32.Italian joy. Coulson
33.The Italian Secretary. Carr
34.Sicilian summer. Johnston
35.Living Dangerously. Fforde
36.The Game. King
37.The Serpent on the Crown. Peters
38.The Historian. Kostova
39.The History of Love. Krauss

Well that's it so far. The bad thing is that each day I just seem to add to it. This list doesn't even include all the classics I try to get hold of as well! It's me playing catch up after two years so far of study, and letting my fiction reading take a backseat.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The travel bug strikes again!

Well I'm all excited. I have the itinerary planned for our next trip, Im going to book tickets, accommodation and tours probably tomorrow. This is what we're going to be doing:

21 Jan Saturday - Leave Melbourne for Hervey Bay (Queensland)
Sunday - Hervey Bay
Monday - Day tour Lady Elliot Island, snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef
Tuesday - leave for 3 day Wilderness Safari on Fraser Island
Wednesday - Fraser Island
Thursday - Fraser Island, return Hervey Bay. (Australia Day)
Friday - Hervey Bay
Saturday - Hervey Bay and Uncle's birthday party (the whole reason why we're going!)
Sunday - Hervey Bay
Monday - Hervey Bay
Tuesday - return to Melbourne.

I'm feeling pretty satisfied about my planned itinerary. I've got a friend that I travelled with last year around Europe, and I had an itinerary all planned out about a couple of months before leaving. He was completely freaked out by it. Do you think that makes me a control freak? I just like to think that it's better to know what you're doing so that you get the most out of your time there. When I returned to work I had people coming up and saying, did you really do all that? Every thing you had on your itinerary? They seemed pretty amazed. I think it forces you to keep going, rather than spend time asking yourself where to next, and then by the time you get your act together half your day is gone. Also, I can't help it if I know what I like......and in case you're wondering, hubby is happy to just go with the flow. In fact over the weekend I overheard him tell someone that I had it all planned, and he seemed pretty pleased by that. :)

Definitely been bitten by the travel bug.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

My shit year continued

Well in my last post I mentioned that I was having staffing problems and that Amy was part of all that. One thing I did forget to mention about Amy, is that she was often late to work. I would arrive expecting her to be there or turn up soon after, and I would get a phone call an hour later saying she was at the doctor's! One time she didn't even call and turned up at 11am, rather than 8am, when she was supposed to start, saying that she had been to her friends house because her brother had just died. I know that sentence sounds callous on my part, but there are three reasons for that. Firstly, I was at the end of my patience with her. Secondly, she could at least have rung - she does have a mobile phone. I was beginning to worry about her, then when I found out she was ok, I got annoyed. Thirdly, a few days later I asked her if she was going to the funeral, and she replied that she was not. I would have greater sympathy for what happened if she had at least attended the funeral. By the end of the four months that I put up with her, I went through my diary where I jot down who was in for work for pay etc., and realised that this sort of behaviour was averaging at least once a week! I don't know why I put up with it for so long.

In addition to this, I had another staff member who worked every Thursday. His name was Joel - the wanna be actor/producer. He was the sort of person where if you told him to do something, you would have to ask about three times before it was done. I had come from an environment where if I asked a staff member to please do a job, it was done immediately, or at least prioritised accordingly.
Joel was often at least a few minutes late. This I don't mind so much, but there was one afternoon when he had come in and was busily talking to one of the other staff members. Being fairly quiet, I said to him that I was going to send him home. The time was ten minutes past two. He looked at the clock, turned to me and very cooly said, I'll work till 2.30pm and then go. He then turned back around to the other staff member and continued his conversation. That was it. I told him very calmly but forcefully, that no, he was finishing up now, and if he was concerned about the extra ten minutes past the hour, that we can put that down for all the times that he's late. Lucky for him he didn't answer me back, because I think I would have fired him on the spot.
Well, I'm going to unfortunately admit that I put up with this kind of behaviour from him for far too long.

One day I told him that I wanted to let him go, he actually pleaded with me and set about making a case as to how badly he needed the money etc. Me feeling sorry for him actually relented. I know, very bad management on my part! I will admit to that.
When I did finally make a firm stand and say that I was letting him go and there were going to be no 'buts' about it, he came in for his final pay check and walked into the back area where one of the other girls was cleaning the floor using bleach. Joel is the type of guy who wears his jean trouser legs well over his shoes dragging along the ground. You can guess what happened. The next day he brought in his jeans, nicely folded in a plastic bag, and proceeded to show me the damage the bleach had done. He then asked me to cough up $250 for them, as this was the amount he had paid for them. I told him no, and that because he had walked into the back area on his own accord, that was his bad luck. I well and truly had had enough of him by this stage.
To cut a long story short, I eventually did offer to pay him for it, but he didn't bother coming in for the money, so that was the end of that.
This all happened towards the end of our stay at the cafe. So, for the first four months I had to put up with Amy and for the latter part I was putting up with Joel. I think the final three months I was fairly stress free with regards to staff. Except for Tanya, who wasn't a bad worker, and is a lovely person, but she suffers from depression and that made things difficult. She would often use her children as excuses, and it's very hard to argue with that. How can you argue that work comes before family? Particularly as I don't believe in that.

On a personal note, one of the things I found hardest to deal with, was the fact that people thought I was stupid. It was an attitude that came from people time and time again. Just because you work behind a counter does not mean you are stupid and uneducated. I constantly found that I was justifyng myself. Richard and friends kept on telling me to just smile and take their money. In my previous job, I was always talking to borrowers. They respected my opinion. They would come and ask me for advice on what to read. I would help them with their research. I found at the cafe that I was not getting anything out of it. I would go home each night disatisfied with my job, with an aching body because I had been on my feet all day. Considering all my previous jobs were all government positions, I suppose I was a bit spoiled. I just didn't know how spoilt I was until I went into business for myself.

Well, a year went by,and we finally sold it!
Looking back it all seems a bit surreal. I literally have to ask myself, did I really do that? Did I work myself to the bone that much
Now, two years later, I am working a very comfortable job at a university library and I am studying an undergraduate degree to become a teacher. It all seems a world away from the cafe. So, that's the story of my shit year. I went into it, with optimism, excitement, big stars in my eyes, only to come away, deflated, sad and fairly teary. But, as they say, when a door closes a window opens, and that's exactly what's happened to me. I had been thinking of doing teaching for quite a few years, and that whole episode propelled me towards it.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

My shit year

I've been meaning to write a post about this for ages, although I try to put it to the back of my mind as much as possible, pretending it didn't happen.
Halfway through 2002, Richard and I had the opportunity to buy a cafe. We went spent all our hardearned money, everything saved, to take this opportunity, that really should be described as a whim. Big, big mistake!! Firstly, neither of us had made a coffee in our lives. My background is in libraries and he's an engineer. We decided that it would be best if he keeps his job (thankfully this was the brightest decision through the whole mess), and I consequently handed in my resignation where I was working and embarked on what I thought was going to be a great adventure.
At the end of six months I began to think, mmm, maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. At the end of eight months, I was literally crying, saying I can't do this anymore! At the end of eleven months, I couldn't wait to get out of there, especially as by then it was up for sale, and I just wanted it over and done with.
To make matters worse, I also had staffing problems. My cousin's girlfriend (now fiancee as of last weekend), has worked in hospitality all her working life, and I thought it would be a good idea to bring her on board. Someone experienced who knows what they are doing. There were a couple of other part time staff members I also kept on, after buying the business. A few weeks into it all, I noticed that these two girls were getting irritated with, (we'll call her) Amy.
After spending a few days watching Amy, I noticed that she was extremely slow. Just before she started working for us, she confessed that she had a hearing problem. Knowing this, the penny suddenly dropped, it explained quite a lot over the years. Why, when you would be talking to her and she would have this blank look on her face. Well, this was what was happening at the cafe. Customers would ask her for something, and she wouldn't hear and stand there with a blank look on her face. I know that it's not her fault, but it was very frustrating to watch. Also, the set up we had was very different to where she had come from. Previously she would take down an order, give it to the chef, get people's drinks, and once the meal was ready carry it out to the patron. We had a sandwich bar, as part of the cafe, so if you took an order you had to make the sandwich and give it to the person. She was taking one order after another and not making anything! I think she expected the food to appear out of thin air.
As well as the problems with her work, I found that I was spending much more time with her. She began to tell me things. That she had a whole lot of money and in the next year she was going to buy a car for my cousin, her boyfriend (now fiancee!). What sort of house she was going to have. What sort of wedding, once they got engaged. That she could play the piano, as in she just has to listen to a song and could immediately play it by ear.
Now, I have always admitted to being gullible. If you tell me you have a yacht on the harbour, I will believe you. Why the hell shouldn't I. I ask you this, why the hell do people lie?
The way Amy talked, it became obvious to me that she must have quite a lot of money stashed away. One day, I said to her, if you don't mind me asking, how much money have you saved? Do you know what she told me? $200 thousand. I was flabberghasted! My response to her? Congratulations I told her. It's very hard to save that kind of money. You must be very disciplined. And on I went.....even now writing it, two years later, I sound so bloody foolish!
Anyway, the working situation didn't improve and we consequently had to let her go, especially as one of the other girls we had kept on was proving she was worth her weight in gold. At the same time, I happened to mention to my aunt, (her future mother-in-law) that Amy had all this money and was going to buy her son a car next year. You know what my aunt's response to that was? Bullshit! Yep. And then, I began to see the light. I felt like an absolute goose. I began to think of all the conversations that I'd had with her - everything that I believed, and then I got angry. Well, the shit hit the fan, so to speak. As well as the problem regarding her work at the cafe, she now had to deal with my family, as to everything she had been saying. And, she became belligerent about it. It's none of your business is what she would say when questioned. I had a phone call from her where she ranted to me that she didn't know that I was that kind of person. Hello?? That kind of person? She's the one going around telling porky pies!!
I've fully digressed from the rest of the story with the cafe, but now, in my retelling, i'm getting angry all over again! I think that the worst part, is that she didn't come to any family events anymore, and went on holiday with her family soon after. As a result I didn't get to vent. To tell her off and get it off my chest and then move on. Well, I'll have to do another post to continue the story about my shit year, because Amy was only part of it.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Los Angeles

On my first day here I did a tour of some of the main attractions in LA, whilst Richard was making some hard earned money. Our tour guide's name was Eddie, and he's a retired cop turned tour guide. He was very humorous, and kept asking me if I was single! On the tour there were some other aussies as well. Three boys from Frankston and a couple from country NSW. Eddie paired me up with a Chinese American lady who was visiting from New York. The Americans are really intense compared to us laid back Aussies. Lois, the lady I was paired up with, was really concerned about getting lost. If we just turned a corner she would start freaking out about where the tour bus was, or where Eddie was. I thought my sense of direction was bad!! I actually met someone who is worse. She wouldn't relax and enjoy herself, I kept trying to keep the vibes calm and relaxed and show her that there was nothing to stress about.

Eddie was very fond of repeating himself.
"You're here to do the Grand Tour, the Grand Tour is the best tour, and on the Grand Tour you will see some of the main attractions, more than what you will find on any other tour. Now on the Grand Tour, we will be making lots of stops, but the Grand Tour goes all day. So if you add it all up, there will be four hours on the bus and four hours off the bus. Ladies and Gentleman, this is the Grand Tour. Now four hours on the bus, is a long time, so we all are gonna get to know one another. Four hours equals a quarter of a day, that's a quarter of a day that we will be together and a quarter of a day that you're gonna be with Eddie. Now all you ladies without a partner, don't you go back and tell your partners that you spent a quarter of a day with Eddie. Nuh uh, I don't want somebody comin' after me after you spent a quarter of a day with Eddie......"
Eddie was intensly passionate about his city. He was also passionate about his food. One of the places we visited was the Farmers Market.

Eddie stressed that this was no market where they sell you things from the back of a truck, or from a box, or a bucket.
"Nuh uh, ya'll gonna see a Farmers Market like nothin' ya'll never seen before. Now we're gonna stop for lunch at the Farmers Market. I advise that ya'll get somethin' here. We got BBQ, hot dogs, shrimp, gumbo, roast chicken, Chinese, Mexican, seafood, sushi....we got sushi man, sushi (Eddie's voice rose about an octave here.  He was very excited about the sushi). Where else in the world can you find all this food, ya'll all make sure you try somethin', and don't forget to buy ya'll some cookies. Ya'll bring it back on the bus and ya'll nibble on some cookies."

Eddie was also very fond of pointing out all his favourite eateries as the bus went by.  The portions of food here are massive. Richard and I eat about a quarter of what's on the plate. They also like to serve salad and bread with practically every meal. I have to say though that the food has been very good.

On the tour we went to Hollywood, Mann's Chinese theatre, Kodak theatre, got to take a photo of the Hollywood sign, Beverley Hills, Sunset strip, Rodeo drive, but I didnt bother going into any shops, Olvera street, the oldest part of LA and Tijuana Mexican market, Frank Gehry's concert hall, marina del rey and Venice beach.

The next day, being a Saturday, Richard was able to join me and we went to Universal studios and spent the entire day there.

We hired a car, and it's been very strange (and nerve wracking) driving on the right side of the road. The American's love telling us that it's us who drive on the wrong side of the road! On Sunday we hired bicycles and rode for miles from Rodondo beach (where we are staying) to Marina del rey.

The next day my bottom and muscles cursed me soundly. We ended up riding for more than half a day, stopping only occasionally for water, and for about an hour or so to have lunch at Manhattan beach. The restaurant/cafe we went to for lunch has been the only sour point so far. There was a real sense of us being unwelcome. The girl (who needed to grow a smile) wanted to seat us inside on these high chairs, like the one's at a bar, but we said we wanted to eat outside. She made a face at this. Anyway, it wasn't a good impression, and we were tempted to leave a zero tip, but the waitress that actually served us was very nice, so we felt obliged to leave something.

Today, being Monday is shaping to be a very quiet day. Richard left at 5am to drive to San Diego, to look at some plant up there. He actually returned at 11.30am, and that was the last "work" thing he had to do, so now we have the rest of today and all day tomorrow before flying home at 11pm.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Flight from Amsterdam to Heathrow

Well, this promises to be a memorable flight because Richard spilt his cup of coffee on me. The whole, just-filled, to the brim, cup of coffee. In our home items often break and there are many spillages because quite frankly he is extremely clumsy. In fact, beverage spilling on a plane has occurred before. Only that time there were no casualties and it was only water that seemed to stream along the aisle of the plane. Really, when you think about it, I probably shouldn't be sitting next to him at all. Now, I must say I did handle it pretty well, expecially as I was soaked through to my underwear. In the plane's bathroom I washed the stickiness off my skin as well as I could, but there was nothing I could do about my soaked pants. I walked back to my seat, that the airhostess had kindly wiped down, the discomfort of wet clothing plain upon my face. Well, I said, when I get to Heathrow I will buy some new clothes. Designer Wear, I pointedly told him. So appeased by this I sat back for the rest of the journey, which luckily wasn't too long. For the rest of the flight Richard insisted that I somehow bumped him!! And he with the reputation of the clumsy. I asked him if he had ever had a feeling in his hand, and itch when a hand wants to deliver a smart slap.
At Heathrow I wandered through the shops, but could find no casual clothing. Everything really was Designer Wear, and even I baulked at paying 300 pound for a top! The only saving grace was that my pants were Kathmandu cargo's suitable for hiking and most importantly - Quick Dry. My underwear didn't feel as bad as I thought it had been, and it was just the bottom of my Tshirt that was wet, and by now damp. I resigned myself to staying in the clothing I was in, even though the next leg was eleven hours to LA. Now I had to do something about the coffee smell. I absolutely reeked. I started to listen to people's conversations to see if I could overhear them saying, what is that smell? Pwoah, someone really reeks! It smells like coffee. So, to the duty free perfumerie I went, where I liberally sprayed all manner of floral, exotics and citrus on me. I noticed one of the salesman was watching me and I felt obliged to tell him about my predicament. He produced a unisex perfume (Calvin Klein I think?), something containing vanilla and ohmbre, whatever that is. I have to say, the vanilla went quite well with the coffee smell! Then, to my amazement, I listened to Richard, who had suddenly appeared in the shop, telling the sales guy that it was me who had bumped him!!!!! The itchy hand was back......

Friday, October 14, 2005

Weekend at Amsterdam

Well Richard only worked a half-day on Friday, so we were able to take an afternoon train to Amsterdam for the weekend. It would be our first time there. The Friday afternoon trains were packed with people, mostly students, all out for a good time in the city.
After the quiet of Emmen, Amsterdam seemed like chaos incarnate. When we got off the train and I was pulling my bag behind me, I kept having to zigzag through the maze of people.
Amsterdam has an interesting vibe about it. There's almost a sexual thrum in the air. It is a little unsettling, slightly distasteful, yet at the same time compelling. There is a sense of wildness amongst the people, albeit this is mostly from the tourists, come to sample a hedonistic culture. When night falls people spill out of the city's nooks and crannies. There have been many locals living in Emmen who have fervently told me that Amsterdam is not their city. I can understand what they mean.
By day we took in the sights. We did a Yellow Bike Tour, a three hour ride around the city, taking in the major highlights. When we were waiting in line to be equipped with a cycle, there was a hens party, all the girls donned in party hats, and pretty clothes, ready for wild adventure. The bride to be's last hoorah.

We visited the History Museum (Historiche Museum) and Vondel Park, the Van Gogh Museum.

Our cycle tour took us through the Red Light District. Here the sense of sex was at its most concentrated. It is very difficult to gaze about and take in all the sights of this district whilst trying to manouvre about on a cycle. Here boys and men roamed about in packs.

One of my subjects this semester is a journalism one. An assignment I need to complete is a feature article. I had to find a topic to write about whilst overseas, because I essentially have the weekend to write it up before handing it in when I get back. I told my lecturer that I will keep my eyes and ears open for a subject. What came to mind was the drug debate in Amsterdam. This was from an exhibit at the History museum. There was also a video playing with a panel discussing the issue. Part of the requirement of the assignment is that I have to interview people. It can't all be about research. I have well and truly decided that journalism is not for me - I hate having to approach people for an interview! Anyway, after much thought I thought up a list of possible interviewees. My plan was going to be: interview coffeeshop owner (the places where it all happens), maybe a policeman, and then perhaps some Amsterdam locals. In reality, what did happen, was I went to the Hemp museum, where I tried to do an interview with the guy behind the desk, and then I happened upon a Hemp shop (Tiani Hemp) where I was able to interview the owner Jorge. The gentleman working at the History museum shop had encouragingly told me that all the people of Holland have an opinion about the drugs, so it would be very easy to do interviews. Easier said than done, I'm afraid! Richard was mortified, and refused to go in with me to do the interviews. in some ways I can't blame him - if I was him I would have refused as well.

The interview at the Hemp museum was really difficult. The guy was not forthcoming, he did not want to be named for the article. and standing beside him was this vocal American woman, who kept up with the cynical comments, making it very difficult to explain and try and get some information. She was really irritating, (and that's me being nice about her). She kept on saying, you can get all this from the internet. I had to keep telling her, that yes, I know that, but I need to include quotes. It's an article. It's a requirement of the assignment. Her rolling her eyes at me made me feel extremely stupid! Richard had definitely made the right decision to hang about outside to wait for me.
Feeling very dejected after that, I walked away, casting my eyes for other potential interviewees. Everytime I looked inside a coffeeshop, I thought the people behind the counter didn't look very approachable, and especially after my awful interview at the museum I was very hesitant in entering.

Spying the Hemp retail store, I thought this may prove more promising. Which it did. Jorge was great. After his inititial hesitation, and after awkwardly trying to explain what I was about, he began to warm to the topic and gave me heaps of information - lots of things that I probably wouldn't find on the internet. I was talking to him for such a long time, Richard ventured into the store and Jorge was so relaxed about it, even he joined in the discussion. We even bought a Tshirt for my brother (to say thanks for looking after the dogs) from him. Jorge even took a couple of dollars off the price, which was very kind of him.

After this interview we found that we were running out of time, because we had to return by the afternoon Sunday train back to Emmen. As we walked away from the Hemp shop, I heard Richard say to me, don't you dare! Confused at first, I then realised what he meant. Two police officers were walking towards us on the street. I decided to spare him and just walked past - though I think I may have missed out on some valuable quotes from the esteemed Amsterdam police!

Now back in Emmen, I'm going to interview the Boer family. Richard is here working with Peter, who is one of the managers of the Holland company. We have been invited to dinner on Wednesday night, so I'm hoping I will get some opinions about the drug debate from some people living outside of Amsterdam. I think that will give the article a nice touch. Also invited to dinner are Robert and Henk. They spent about eight months working in Melbourne, returning to Holland only recently. Richard and I took them out and about whilst they were there.

So, my final thoughts of Amsterdam? Considering I managed to talk to some of the locals about the drug debate, and how it sits with the surrounding countries, I have decided to dub it, the indulgent, eccentric uncle of Europe! It's a culture that seems to be at odds. It is a refined cultural European city with the gorgeous backdrop of the canals and the pretty canal homes, contrasted with the seamy side of sex and drugs.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Netherlands - Emmen and the fictitious bicycle tour?

Well, here I am. I have arrived in a small town in Emmen, which is about a two hour drive from the airport in Amsterdam. So far I have wandered about the town, passed by numerous cyclists, with the town clock pleasantly chiming on the hour. I've also been to the dierenpark - or zoo.

There were lots of school groups about, and what I found interesting was that one group of young boys, who must have been all of twelve years old, were smoking! With so much anti smoking campaigning that happens in Australia I was really surprised by this. The Dutch really love their cigarettes! Everyone smokes everywhere. I just read in Lonely Planet of a museum that celebrates the history of smoking in Holland that I can view at Groningen, a small university town nearby.

I have been trying to organise a bicycle tour of Emmen, which can be done by the history society through the library or Bibliotheek. They are only open on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Yesterday, I was in the library busily typing emails when the Librarian who I had enquired about the bicycle tours came up to see me. Downstairs was a couple who were expecting to meet up with a tour group at 1.30pm. I looked at the computer clock and it said 1.28pm. Thinking this would be a good chance to try and join the cycle tour I quickly packed up and went downstairs. After a short discussion with this couple, we hastened to the railway station, as they thought that perhaps they had mistaken the meeting place for the library rather than the station. Once we reached the station, we could see, to no avail. that there was no tour group.

There is a bicycle rental shop at the station, and not even they had seen any bicycle tour. We had tried calling the contact number at the library and we again tried with my mobile phone, but there was no answer.

As we waited in front of the bike rental shop at the station, and after much protracted discussion (the husband did not speak any english but the wife's english was quite good) it began to rain. This put a very decisive stop to any thought of touring the countryside by bike!

They asked me where I was staying. My hotel was about a 10/15 minute walk away from the station. The wife spoke to her husband in Dutch, she then turned to me and said that they would drive me home. Since it was still drizzling I gratefully accepted. The husband then rode off on his bicycle.
The wife and I continued to chat and after a few minutes I asked her if they had parked their car at the library. No, she said. Her husband had ridden home to their nearby flat to get the car!! I was astonished, and this seemed like far too much trouble, which I then proceeded to tell her. She brushed my protestations aside and insisted that it was no trouble. This left me feeling as though it would be rude to protest anymore after their kind offer, so I stood there, instead, awkward with the knowledge that the poor husband had ridden home to collect the car. A sudden thought occurred to me. Would she be able to fit her bicycle in the car? The answer to this was no. So again, I stood there, wondering how on earth I had got myself into this situation, when the car arrived. The wife turned to me smiling, as she jumped back on her bicycle, and the husband, who didn't speak a word of English, was pleasantly holding the passenger door open for me. The wife waved as she cycled away, and I was left with no alternative but to get into the car. I thanked the husband profusely as I crawled inside.

However, by this stage I was feeling really ill at ease. I kept on thinking that I didn't know these people. The wife was really lovely, but she had ridden away, I would really have preferred it if she had also been in the car. How would I converse with this guy in English? Thankfully it was a very short trip!

During the drive all these horrible unbidden thoughts kept encroaching upon my mind. What if he tried something? I sat there, willing each traffic light to be green. To his credit, he tried to make conversation, but the only thing I understood was whether I had been to the Dierenpark (zoo)? Which I had.

Well, it all ended well, but I do know that things could just as easily have turned sour. Something gathered from reading the newspaper everyday! Here is an instance of the kindness of strangers. Something that is not always usual, but when it does occur, you only think bad thoughts and look for a hidden agenda. It was a funny episode, and even now looking back I have a small feeling of distaste, and a voice in my head saying that I shouldn't have put myself in that position. But I also feel guilty thinking that, because really it was all done with the best of intentions.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Travel plans

Well I leave tomorrow evening. Flying first to Sydney and from there to Amsterdam. I think I'm going to be able to see the countryside of the Netherlands also. A surprising tack on - that I only found out about a few days ago, is that we're also going to California for four days before heading home. Well, I'll try and write another blog entry when I get to Amsterdam. See you then. :)

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Travel plans and uni.

This semester I'm doing a journalism subject. One of my assignments is to do a story on my local area. My local library recently introduced an online book group. I thought this may be good to explore a little further. Yesterday I interviewed one of the librarians who is the moderator for the group. I'm also trying to set up and interview with staff at the council to find out what sort of other Internet groups there may be in the area. Through searching I found a project that provides the Internet for a disadvantaged community through a housing estate. I thought I could maybe juxtapose the story with what I've been learning in my sociology subject. We have been looking at issues of identity and community online. Also, I'm hoping the story will be able to promote the online book group in the library as well.
Well I leave for Holland, Amsterdam on Tuesday. We will be in Amsterdam for nine days and I found out just last night that there are four days in California as well! I haven't been to either of these countries before so I'm looking forward to it. I'm planning on writing my article whilst I'm away. The deadline for the story is the Wednesday 12 October, and I return only on the Tuesday! I'm going to try and get a week's extension.
I'm on mid-semester break at the moment. I thought it would be really quiet. Catch up on reading for uni and the fiction I've been wanting to read for myself. Organise my assignments for the rest of semester. Do some excercise - this usually falls by the wayside during semester! It was going to be time to chill out. Of course I still have to go to work, but because this is part-time I don't mind going. It breaks up the week. Now I've got some travel to look forward to as well. :)

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Well, I've had an interesting week........

It is amazing what can happen in the space of a few days. On Tuesday morning, I was asked if I would like to do a radio show on my University radio. This came about when I was telling another fellow student about the Book/film discussion group I was organising. Well, it turned out he is really involved with the campus student radio. So for the rest of that day and night, my mind was going a million miles an hour, thinking about how it would work, how would we present the content etc. I called another friend who is really into books to ask her if she would be interested in doing this with me. There are three microphones in the studio, so our thoughts were to perhaps present together and then try and get a guest in each time and we can all sit there and talk about books!
The next day, my husband, who is in Brisbane this week for work, rang me. Over the phone he told me that work was sending him to Holland week after next for two weeks. So, the question was: what was my schedule like? Luckily, mid-semester break begins next week, so I worked out that if I went, I would be there for the last week of break and then I would miss one week of uni. Now I just have to organise time off from work. But it's all looking as though, Holland here I come! If you had told me on Monday, that by Thursday I could potentially be participating in a radio show and then be flying off to Holland in a week's time, I would never have believed you.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Identity, Community and Blogs.

I've got three essays due this week. For the past two weekends, that's all I've been doing. Essays. It's now approaching mid-semester break, and believe me, I really need a break. I haven't even found the time to post! One of my essays is worth 50% of my mark! If I don't do well in it, then the other 50% is from an exam. And I'm dreadful at exams!!!
I'm doing a minor in Sociology. One of my subjects is called eSociety. The assignment is to find an electronic resource of some sort and apply sociological theory to it. We could choose a website, a MUD, an online forum, a chat site, anything we wished. Guess what I chose? Now I'm going to horrify some of you. I had to choose someone's blog to evaluate sociologically. The concepts I chose to examine were identity and community. I think I chose this person's blog wisely, because quite frankly there was a lot of golden evidence within to support my examined theories. Have you, as a blogger, ever thought about the identity you portray on your blog? How different is it to you in real life? Are only positive aspects about yourself emphasised? The community part was really interesting. Do you consider yourself part of an online community just by participating on Blogexplosion? Well, the essay's due on Thursday. Cross fingers I'll do ok. I feel very cheeky writing and saying I've chosen someone's blog for my essay, but really I couldn't resist.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

I forgot my name!!!!!!

I have had my first piece of fiction published. It's a short story and I submitted it into my University Magazine. Yesterday I saw the latest publication, and eagerly opened up to the contents page. There I saw the title of my short story and with a sense or pride I flicked to the relevant page. Then, to my horror, I read the words: unfortuantely there was no name submitted with this piece. Next time please remember to submit work with your name. I had emailed my story, and stupidly (and naively I might add), I assumed that my name on my email would be attributed to the story. Obviously the Magazine must get hundreds of items sent to them, and obviously they print them out and there they sit awaiting publication. I had to go away and drown my sorrows in a mocha latte.

Friday, August 19, 2005

What I've been reading lately - Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

Murray Bail’s novel Eucalyptus successfully intertwines traditional fairy tale and traditional romance conventions. This essay will explore each of these conventions, arguing that the use of landscape is part of romance writing. It will look at typical Australian literary stereotypes of landscape and how Bail does not conform to this. This essay will also show that Murray Bail does not challenge sexist fairy tale-like depictions of women. Rather, he perpetuates the traditional feminine presence with both these conventions in his fiction.
Murray Bail essentially begins his novel with ‘once upon a time’, at once denoting a type of fantastical or fairy tale within his writing. Indeed, as the book continues, the reader discovers many fairy tale-like conventions. Bruno Bettelheim outlines many of these, such as, stories that begin with the death of a mother or father, or characteristics where a dragon must be slain, or even solving a riddle. “It is characteristic…that once the dragon is slain – or whatever deed that frees the beautiful princess from her captivity is accomplished - …the hero is united with her beloved” (Bettelheim, 1976, p. 112). Bettelheim also says that many fairy tales has a king bestowing his kingdom on the eventual successor and the heroine is always very beautiful and typically a princess. (Bettelheim, 1976) Further, “Tolkien describes the facets which are necessary in a good fairy tale as fantasy, recovery, escape and consolation…the happy ending…all complete fairy stories must have…It is ‘a sudden joyous turn’” (Bettelheim, 1976, p. 143).
Eucalyptus is all these things, using many of these conventions. At the beginning we learn that Ellen’s mother has died, and that she in turn was also motherless, raised by an ogre of a father, one amongst seven or eight sisters. Sisters like “woodland naiads or river nymphs [where they] play games by the river, whispering secrets to a tree trunk imagined to be full of magical portents” (McNear, 2002, p. 6 of 10). Holland rescues Ellen’s mother, or these are the connotations the reader is allowed to believe.
Ellen is the beautiful girl or princess, kept in a mythical grove of eucalypts waiting to be rescued. (DeFrain, 1999) Ellen’s father Holland, devises a riddle that must be solved: to name every one of the eucalypt species upon his property, hundreds and hundreds, a seemingly impossible task. This riddle becomes the metaphoric dragon that must be slain. Suitors from all over arrive, to successfully complete the quest and thus win Ellen’s hand and it is implied, ultimately Holland’s kingdom. All this are Bettelheim’s outlined fairy tale conventions, reworked to fit Bails’ story.
All fairy tales must have a hero, and Eucalyptus is no exception. Ellen literally stumbles across him lying beneath a tree. His strangeness and the way he almost magically appears on the property pique her interest. Later we find out, the hero has had (enchanted) help. Fortunate enough to meet the Sprunt sisters from town whilst travelling on a train, they tell him of “the most beautiful woman you’re ever likely to see” (bail, 1998, p. 253). Although this conversation takes place on a train, an apparent realist situation, Bail writes the encounter as though the two sisters are witches offering prophetic advice. “The other one chimed in ‘The father keeps the key to her bedroom dangling around his neck like a gaoler.’ ‘Begin at the river,’ the older sister advised, ‘don’t go near the house. She’ll be somewhere in among the trees.’” (Bail, 1998 p. 253). Here we also see the people of the town describing Ellen’s situation as a fairy tale.
As well as conventional fairy tale descriptions, Eucalyptus can also fall into the romance category. The hero and heroine play out their courtship, and there is also a rival whom the heroine must escape from. “The ideal romance sketches a faint picture of male-female relationship’s characterised by suspicion and distrust in order to set off more effectively its later, finished portrait of the perfect union” (Radway, 1987, p. 131). Ellen stumbling upon her hero certainly invokes distrust and suspicion at first, however the hero quickly disarms her by his compelling storytelling. It is almost as though Ellen and readers alike fall under the enchanted spell of his narrative. Ellen meeting him this way is also very romantic, particularly when it is contrasted later in the book, “’I remember you came out with the tea, looking very unhappy. I’d even say you looked bad-tempered, which may have been why your father didn’t introduce me’” (Bail, 1998, p. 254). This is a very matter-of-fact and unromantic description of the captive princess, where she is bad-tempered, and an allusion perhaps to the ugly stepsisters. The hero and heroine meeting underneath the trees is much more magical.
Mr Cave is the hero’s rival. Janice Radway describes rivals in a romance as usually being shadowy figures, “they are described sparingly and almost never prove even momentarily attractive to the heroine” (Radway, 1987, p. 131). Mr Cave does try and make overtures to try and get to know Ellen but she proves to be elusive. “Mr Cave’s sudden approach to her was a sign of his practical side. He knew he would be winning her; any day now. He could hardly take her away cold as it were” (Bail, 1998, p. 113).
Bail’s novel depicts the Australian landscape and this could be a feature of romantic writing. The romantic writer’s landscape is often gendered. It has been argued that it is closed and women in fiction tend to take refuge. The landscape is protective and,
“function as exaggerated landscape locations…the women…who prefer such space over one more open might be signalling their dissatisfaction with the feminine position of being constantly in view. Refuges also, of course, replicate the domestic sphere” (Labbe, 1998, p. 19).
We have already learned that Ellen can be found among the trees, and the eucalypts naturally hide her from view.
“Early one afternoon there she heard voices, men’s, when none were expected…She remained behind the pale tree when it would have been better to step out…They were around the other side of the tree. It was too late for Ellen to step out and surprise them” (Bail, 1998, pp. 92-93).
Most Australian literature about the bush shows that it is ‘no place’ for a woman. (Falkiner, 1992)
Instead of following the usual literary cultural pattern of writing the Australian landscape as singular descriptions of,
“fitted out blue sky and the obligator tremendous gum tree, perhaps some merino’s chewing on the bleached-out grass in the foreground, the kind of landscape seen during homesickness and in full colour on suburban butcher’s calendar” (McNeer, 2002, p. 2 of 10).
In fact, the book itself tells us this. Bail resolutely does not want to fall into the “rusty trap” that signify’s the usual norm of Australian landscape writing. Instead, by using landscape as a romantic convention, and together with the fairy tale trope of writing, Bail deftly side steps this usual literary tradition, and in his words: “That Australia itself should be viewed as a magic island is not out of the realm of possibility…any fairy tale element of life in Australia has most assuredly been missing from its literature” (McNeer, 2002, p. 2 of 10). In so doing, Bail challenges the traditional use of landscape in Australian writing.
Thus far, this essay has illustrated the various conventions Bail has used, and although the author has managed to write a novel opposite to stereotypical descriptions of the Australian bush, he is in no way representing a challenge to sexist fairy tale-like depictions of women.
Ellen is a captive princess, living in a house that has a “tower” and she finds herself completely trapped. Mr Cave, a suitor she does not love is only steps away of occupying her as a “neat house”. (Bail, 1998) Ellen is frantic, as she can see no one able to stop him. “As she scrambled down the steps and reached the hall she bumped into walls, and opened and closed doors. She stood down and stood up. In her bedroom she sat down again. She didn’t know what to do, where to go” (Bail, 1998, p. 87). Feminist critic, Kay Schaffer, writes about “imagery of the landscape as the body of a woman waiting to be conquered” (Falkiner, 1992, p. 118). Mr Cave is systematically naming each tree, as he goes along he is systematically conquering the landscape and therefore Ellen. She also talks about the “assumption that the masculine (Man, Empire, Civilisation) has an unquestioned God-given right to subdue or cultivate the feminine (Woman, Earth, Nature) and appropriate the feminine to masculine domination” (Schaffer, 1988, p. 82).
Both Holland and Mr Cave are struggling to claim ownership of Ellen and dominate her. When Ellen is hiding among the eucalypts and it becomes too late for her to reveal herself to them, she watches as they both urinate, marking territory and therefore her. Bail highlights the landscape’s domination by men.
Ellen never attempts to runaway. She allows herself to be kept and instead she waits to be saved. This is the role the novel’s hero plays. Throughout he remains nameless, although it could be surmised, perhaps, that he is a bushman? Francis Adams speaks of the landscape as the feminine other, where the “bushman-as-hero is constructed” (Schaffer, 1988 p. 52). When Ellen comes upon him he is lying under a Coolibah tree. Bushman or Swagman, it appears that Eucalypts’ hero is one that has been fashioned from the Australian landscape and folklore. Ellen’s hero also tries to own her unbeknown to Ellen’s father and her suitor Mr Cave, Ellen’s hero has seen her naked, and talks in such a way, leaving no doubt as to his ownership. Ellen seems happy at this turn of events and it is clear she is in love with him. However, she does not see how he can succeed over Mr Cave. There are rules to be obeyed in this quest.
Nevertheless, Ellen does manage to change the game slightly, or she inserts her own rules. Brought on by abandonment by her hero, she succumbs to a mysterious illness.
“She became furious not at them but at the other one, the most invisible unreliable one, who fitted her age and interests and everything else, who’d decided after all those stories no longer to appear, not to help – leaving her” (Bail, 1998, p. 208).
Essentially sliding into her own ‘glass coffin’, readers learn that she can only be “brought back to life by a story” (bail, 1998, p. 234). This again brings suitors, but storytelling is the weapon only the hero can wield effectively.
Thus, Ellen is captive within her home, shuttered by eucalypts, owned first by her father, who reluctantly realises he must let her go, and devises a riddle or quest that brings about events where Ellen must hopelessly await rescuing. This is a conventional fairy tale depiction, offering no challenge to sexist imagery of women. The book’s heroine ultimately awaits her final fate of domination by her hero. The hero of Eucalyptus is indeed ready to be Ellen’s saviour and thus own her. The final scenes of the book, where he does not hesitate upon entering Ellen’s bedroom or even getting into her bed, as though it is entirely his masculine right, is apparent. “He was touching her cheek…he took her by the waist…Still Ellen didn’t know what to say, above all, she was conscious again of their ease together. She felt strength behind his hand; he was determined” (Bail, 1998, p. 254). Eucalyptus does reconstitute romance conventions and through this, fairy tale ideas and the romantic notion of landscape, Murray Bail does not represent a challenge towards fairy tale’s sexist notions. Earlier Tolkien described a fairy tale as fantasy, recovery, escape and consolidation. We have seen all this happen. Ellen’s wish to escape Mr Cave, her reaction to the quest by her illness, her recovery and consolidation as she is consoled by the enigmatic stranger who is her suitor and finally her hero. It is the happy ending that must complete all fairy stories.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

That's something I've been meaning to do........

You know how you've always got a list of things you're meaning to do? This month I am (or at least trying to) make two things come to fruition. One, is that I've always wanted to go to a Writer's Festival. I am pleased to announce that I will be attending five events at this year's Melbourne Writer's festival. The other is to start a book discussion group. Yesterday, I sent out details advising people I know that I will be starting one with the first meeting taking place in October. I am feeling very proud of myself right now. :)

The Writer's festival events I am going to see is Karen Joy Flower, author of The Jane Austen Book Club. And yes, finishing this book two days ago did spur me on to start my own book group. Mind you, I have tried to start a book group twice now, and each time things just fell apart.... I'm also going to an event titled "Whatever happened to Miss Marple?", talking about contemporary mystery. Then there's "Women's fiction or just Chicklit?", followed by listening to Alexander McCall Smith, writer of the No. 1 Ladies Detective agency, and lastly I'm going to listen to two Australian writers talk about writing. I'm feeling very excited about this.

With regard to the Book Discussion Group, the first book we will be talking about will be Donna Tartt's The Secret History, in October, and then in December we will be doing Eucalyptus by Murray Bail. This novel is one that Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe were going to make into a movie - before Russell's ego got in the way that is. I'm hoping to get at least a few people in my book discussion group. Everyone keeps saying they don't have enough time!! So far six yes'!

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Media's Future?

This semester I am taking a class that is about Journalism. We're looking at what makes a Journalist today, and styles of writing etc. Yesterday in class we discussed the question: what is the future of media/journalists?
Some ideas our group came up with was the notion of backpack journalists evolving. I posited a scenario of Blogs evolving from what they are now, where in perhaps ten years from now, everyone will have a blog, just the way most people have email addresses. (This is not taking into account third world countries with no access to technology). This idea has a person who has a blog of some sorts, and roams around the world, much like a freelance journalist. However, instead of submitting stories to different publications, hoping that they are accepted, they submit their work to their site. The world of blogging has become much more advanced. More traffic is directed to different pages, and using the ideas of capitalism, those who have much to offer will be successful. Income is generated by advertisements within the site, thus ensuring the roaming reporter is able to make a living.
An additional question is how many people seek out the news? Will the world then become a place where the only news read will be what the individual deems worthy and therefore would people become so self absorbed they would ignore what is happening around them? Would the world become one big tabloid?

Monday, August 01, 2005

What I've been reading - The Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters

I was first introduced to Amelia Peabody about about eight years ago. This was when I was working in a public library and I was perusing the mystery paperbacks and my eyes alighted upon a fictional gem. The bonus was that it was the first book in the series, Crocodile on the Sandbank.

After reading the first one I quickly realised there were a further six to read! It didn't take me long to fly through them, becoming another one of Elizabeth Peters hordes of fans.

I then had to wait for the next installments just like them. There are now a total of 17 Amelia Peabody adventures.
Take one Victorian lady with acerbic wit who is ahead of her times, archeological fever, a dashing hero and the Egyptian desert and its pyramids as backdrop and this gives you a small clue as to what the books are about. Have you seen the movie The Mummy? This is the type of wondrous, enchanted background, dripping with antiquity that awaits you.
Recently I read an interview of Elizabeth Peters and they spoke about how her books are just mere 'fiction'. Yes they are escapist and would probably not venture upon the shelves in the 'literary' section or in a university library, but this is what makes them all the more fantastic. When I know another new installment has been released I feel a thrill of excitement go through me. I'm sure that all Harry Potter fans know what that means. Elizabeth Peters answered this criticism by saying, that yes, it is lighter reading, however, she is a writer that spends an enormous amount of time researching her work. And that is what it is. Work. Also Elizabeth Peters has the sort of credentials that highlight within her fictional work that she is one author who knows what she is talking about. She has a Ph.D in Egyptology. She also writes under another psuedynom, that of Barbara Michaels. Under this guise her books are different. They are more gothic horror. One remark often seen on the covers of her books is that public libraries need to keep her books under lock and key!
Anyway, I was behind in the series. I actually thought it was one book, but then discovered it was three! My reason for this is because I left my position in my public library branch to buy a cafe. (Something I will need to blog about soon. We had the cafe for a year, and I now dub this as the Shit year.) After getting rid of the thing (this is how I view that), I then found a position in a university library and began an undergraduate degree. Consequently, I didn't have time to read, and it is only now I am working through a long list of fiction I am trying to catch up with. University libraries only keep the 'good literature' on their shelves.
I'm digressing. So, I've just finished reading Guardian of the Horizon and strangely enough, this part of the story follows on from one in the series even further down the list. It really threw me when I brought it home from my local library branch. Two of the characters had gotten married the last time I read the series, and here they were prowling around each other, gone back to the sexual tension before admitting their feelings for each other. I was very confused. So much so I had to jump onto the 'net to try and find out if I was reading this book in the right order. I was positive I hadn't read this particular one as yet. I finally worked it out and had yet another enjoyable read.
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