Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Magical Mystical Tour

When I was holidaying in London in early 2001, I went to see a tarot reader. After a thoughtful harrumph and a quick fiddle with the cards, he shuffled a few phrases: You aren't from here. You don't want to leave London. You'll be back. Very soon.

He was right. Within months I was living there.

Ok, with my quirky accent and cotton winter coat I was clearly someone who didn't come from those parts. We conducted the reading behind a souvenir stand in touristic Covent Garden, speaking above the tinkling of a trillion london bus keyrings. Tourist = on holidays = probably doesn't want holiday to end. May even come back.

I love seeing tarot readers. The cards are mere props. Over the years my tarot readers have acted as an army of psychologists for me. They are much less expensive than professional psychologists and many times I've managed to have an "off the cards" talk with a tarot reader which has equipped me with the necessary boot in my thought patterns for whatever I may have to kick through. Although that is not always the case.

In New York when I was in one of those re-building periods of my life, I saw a sign: "Tarot Reading - Five Dollars".

After climbing a staircase in need of a creak, a door opened and through the smog of incense I greeted a woman. She was wearing a scarf around her head and the hoop earrings considered mandatory among some "professional" tarot readers.

Behind her was a sign that read: "Three questions - five dollars/Tarot reading - twenty dollars".
"Oh", I said, remembering that I'd just moved into my new place and I was now a fully-fledged rent payer so I needed to save my pennies before they hatch, "What's three questions?"

She grabbed my arm and stained me with a yellow-eyed stare, so yellow that I thought her liver was in her brain, and hissed dramatically: "Forget three questions, you need a tarot reading".

"Nah, I can't", I shook my head, starting to turn away. She leant against the wall and began to ooh and ahh like a poodle in pain, and I thought of Basil Fawlty, who pretends to have a bit of shrapnel in his leg from the war, whenever he wants to prevent people from doing something he doesn't want them to do.

"You alright?"

"It's just that I can feel your darkness", she moaned.

I now recalled a soothsayer from yonder days in Sydney, a homeless woman, who, when I was standing not far from her, said to me: I know that evil walks the streets but do you have to stand so close.

My curiosity was piqued by the word darkness and what now seemed to be a persistent theme in my life and within moments the tarot reader had me in a windowless room, sitting at a table of what appeared to be half-eaten tarot cards. She spoke with a heavy eastern european accent which I think was an artifice to make people believe she is authentic. But I had the impression that it was a flimsy (and in any case unnecessary) prop. Like in one of those courtroom dramas where someone makes a loud noise, lets off a gun or whatever, to make the person who has lodged a false claim for insurance because of a neck injury, suddenly turn their head, I felt that if I placed an angry spider in her hand she would no doubt start to scream and swear in a broad New York accent.

"Do I get to ask three questions?"

"Well that was one already. Just ask another one inside your head, or else you'll upset the room. Don't worry, it will be answered in the reading."

Sorry room, I said, looking around at what was more like a closet.

She had an interesting tarot reading technique, that is, she didn't actually look at the cards that I'd carefully selected at her command. She just nursed them in her hands and explained to me matter of factly that I have a lot of darkness because there are lots of people around me who envy me and want to do me harm.

Suddenly my life was getting exciting. Oh yeah? I said happily, why do they envy me?

I don't know, she shrugged.

I tried to get her to explain whether the darkness surrounding me was actually other people's darkness or if darkness, provoked by the dark forces who want to do me harm, was emanating from me.

She avoided the question but confirmed that things were fairly dark. Then she offered to burn my darkness away...for another twenty dollars.

"I'll keep my darkness and the twenty dollars. My darkness is rather becoming, don't you think?"

She shook her head as if to say "the kids of today".

"What about my question? It wasn't answered!"

"Sorry but you just asked another question so you've used up all your questions now," and she dismissed me with a wave of an incense stick.

As well as being a tarot reader groupie, I've also dabbled in giving tarot readings of my own to friends and acquaintances and I'd like to think I've given some fairly spot on readings.

I've often fancied myself as having special powers. Once in the heat of a sweltering tarot reading, where the cards were like a mixed bag of lollies full of all my favourite colours: success, love, creative heights, I babbled to the tarot reader: so do you feel something special about me - like I have a power?

She scrutinised me for a long time and then said "No".

"But I think you have some kind of, how do you say, inflammation at the moment don't you?", she added.

Monday, October 30, 2006

La Californie: Hollywood's black beast lives on the Côte d'Azur

My general preference for French cinema over American cinema stems from my desire to see women and men free to roam outside structure, to be transported out of the niches they are placed in our society which is far from being progressive.

And the middle-aged woman is the bête noire of Hollywood films. Women of a certain age are often portrayed as neurotic, sexually and emotionally desperate and somehow dirty so that male viewers hold them in contempt, young women snigger, thirty-something women quake in sagging boots, and middle-aged women feel indignant at their beastly reflection in this distorted, carnivale mirror. French films are much more likely to portray middle-aged women in strong, sexy roles that make both men and women dream.

This even goes down to something as core as lighting. In mainstream, American cinema if a middle-aged woman must be shown as anything but pathos-evoking (or "just a mother"), she is likely to be shown in soft wrinkle-erasing light, the scars of life are removed so that she appears ageless.

But in France, when it comes to celebrities, the French aren't as prone to prostrate themselves before the altar of youth. Being in the limelight in France means showing wrinkles as a celebration of life and not erasing all traces that you have lived for longer than twenty years. Here, in the magazines devoted to celebrities, they will put one of their older actresses, wrinkles and all, on the cover. No question of photoshopping. Because that's how it is, you get older, you get wrinkles but it does not mean that you are washed up, you are still beautiful and celebrated.

Oh sure, you see wrinkles in English-speaking nations' magazines as well, but it's not `by the way she has wrinkles', usually it is in a special about wrinkles and offers tips on the kind of injection she (I say she because adherence to the cult of youth is primarily thrust upon women) should get to decrease these. It's merely so we can all have a good cackle at her for not being perfect.

In so many Hollywood films if you are passed the "age of consent", to use the Japanese expression: you are christmas cake, starting to crumble, and by default you must be neurotic and feeble.

That’s why I was disappointed with Jacques Fieschi's La Californie. Although the title of the film was chosen for other reasons, I think it was aptly named in the sense that this film was closer to Hollywood-style than your average French film.

Maguy (played by Nathalie Baye) is soaking rich, in her fifties, whiling away very long days in her huge house on the Côte d'Azur with an eclectic mix of friendly parasites: her personal hairdresser (gay ofcourse: it was beyond the limits of this film to have a male hairdresser who isn’t gay or a gay, male hairdresser who doesn't like going to night clubs and "making parties", or for example, to include a role for a gay butcher) and his boyfriend, her drinking buddy Katia (Mylène Demongeot) and two strapping lads -Mirko (Roschdy Zem) and Stefan (Radivoje Bukvic) best friends who escaped their country “in the east” after the crash of communism and now operate as chore-boys and gigolos for Maguy.

The story begins with the arrival of Maguy’s daughter Hélène who she hasn’t seen for ten years (Ludivine Sagnier always to be applauded with feet and hands for her versatile roles) who wants to borrow money from her mother to start a business venture - an independent book printing shop in Paris.

Hélène and Stefan promptly fall in love, leaving us to flinch as Mirko, the third wheel, froths with violent jealousy and dissatisfaction with his own impotent and useless life, and just as promptly as it began, destroys the relationship between Stefan and Hélène.

Maguy, pattering about her home wearing tailored African cottons, caught up in endless petty squabbles as the household chokes on the fumes of ennui and alcohol, is clingy and needy when it comes to Mirko - trying to control him through her money (that old idea that nothing in a middle-aged woman could attract a younger man - and hey, mirko's not that young - except money).

Other characters in the film hold her in contempt. Her daughter calls her mother a "pute" when Stefan admits he slept with her several times and even Mirko himself refers to her as a prostitute. Correctly speaking money did change hands, but when calling names it's probably best to remember who was paying who for sex. At one point Mirko refers to her as "dirty" and that he doesn't know how he can keep having sex with her, this old notion that middle-aged woman must quash their libidos (or else cop a load of abuse) and resign themselves to the fact that they smell like mothballs and polyester sweat and are therefore completely unattractive to even the ugliest of men.

Right up to the violent end of the film Maguy is portrayed as hysterical and ridiculous and we can't help feeling that beyond a certain age her life was a pointless exercise: best just to cover her with a drab blanket and forget about her and check out what's happening with the young people. Mirko's "suicide" in a dark street at the hands of the mafia seemed somehow heroic, compared to Maguy's domestic murder in the soft lighting of a home she rarely left whilst in the middle of a hissy fit - what are they trying to tell us? it was all for the best?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Lesson 1: If you pour boiling water on ants they scream

Entre Les Murs is a frank and colourful novel about the education system in France, narrated by a bored teacher of the French language. He recounts the day to day brouhaha of a classroom of teenagers in a parisien school. The book creates some interesting, if neat, parallels between the way that teachers are shaped by the system in the same way as kids - their way of interacting at staff meetings often echoing their pupils. But perhaps most importantly it looks at the way that the French language is spat out by the kids, the way that it is used outside the grammar books. Of course all this is very interesting for someone studying the French language.

The book bloated me with memories of how much I hated school and also my own early days learning French.

After a couple of months cowering around Paris asking shopkeepers for "un of that" and "une of this", I enrolled in a French class at a community college full of Russians. I would have loved to have engaged in the general comraderie and nattered to them about literature and history. However, here the bridging language had shifted from English to French and as I couldn't speak any French I found myself spluttering around in troubled waters, pulling fish bones and unsightly vowel sounds out of my hair, trembling from cold and fear. It took two lessons for me to remember "school sucks", and I decided that home schooling (so that I didn’t have to make any effort other than open my door) was the way forward for me.

I selected a random "french teacher" from a magazine for english-speakers in Paris.
He was in his forties and smelt like he had been sleeping in his cupboard on a pile of bat dung for the last year. It turns out that he was not really in it for the money, or for that matter to watch a debutante come out into french society and pirouette her way to advanced grammar. No, what he wanted was to improve his English with a "long-haired dictionary" ... and I was an easy target.

After ten minutes of speaking French my brain would become as soft as baby food and when I was in this vulnerable state he would start to feed more and more English words into the conversation until we would be conducting the whole lesson in English. I'd be saying "yeah in French you probably say it differently" and then he'd explain in English how you'd say it in French.

Evidence that he had no idea of my level of French was when, after three lessons, he brought me a gift "for you to practise reading french": The Big Book of Ants – 2,000 pages on everything you need to know about ants (no photos). Not really the kind of thing you offer a beginner to practise french, particularly a beginner who had never expressed any interest in ants, although I certainly was starting to feel antsy about all this wasted time and money.

One fine day I had a personal revolution and deposed this misguided antophile. I decided once again to try leaving my house for lessons and so trekked across town to the home of another random french teacher.

This guy lasted one day. His first error was to make me take my shoes off and replace them with his old slippers. I soon found out the reason for this is that he “likes Japan”. But on further probing I realised that he was just one of those people who likes manga and knows that they have those vending machines in Japan full of used school girl’s underwear and so he has therefore decided he “likes Japan”.

But forcing me to take my shoes off and having no substance weren't his greatest sins. The problem was the biscuits. He’d put a couple of biscuits on the table in an attempt to make his place look welcoming and not like a sex den for students of the french language, but he never offered me one. Oh I didn’t want one - they looked kind of stale and a bit wet - but they were just there and I couldn't take my eyes off them. Just the fact that he didn’t know how to offer biscuits to a guest who was wearing his old slippers made me know I could never go back to him.
Now I have a female french teacher who comes to my place once a week. It’s more of a conversation than a lesson. We have lots of similar interests and we talk like mad women about books and films. The problem is that it is working out so well between us that it is becoming a little embarrassing - I’m starting to feel like I’m paying her to be my friend. Yep, she’s one of my best friends in France and I pay her.

She’s from an older generation and with her I learn old fashioned expressions like Il tombe des cordes, kind of like saying "it's raining cats and dogs" rather than saying "it's raining shit and bricks". She gives me the language of the drawing rooms.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

When young pinochiette sweeps a room

When young Pinochiette [sic] sweeps a room
I vow she dances with the broom

I'll hit you right away with it: I'm rather fond of cleaning, although not when it comes to downright scrubbing. I prefer dusting, a light yet fulfilling sweep, and arranging.

The quote above comes from a poem by Nancy Byrd Turner which I read when I was younger than Larry. [Note: Larry is a fictional character and any resemblance to anyone real is mere coincidence. He will appear often in my blog and he is used as a yard stick to express extremity of youngness, oldness, fatness etc.] It’s a poem about a little girl (that was in the days when boys were given blue shovels and girls were given pink brooms) who has been ordered to sweep by unseen gods and, using her broom as a dancing partner, she jigs, capers, and whirls through the house until it is clean.

I used to like this poem even though I found the subject matter dull as doughnuts (or Larry if you prefer). I liked it because our young sweeper extraordinaire was called “Pinochiette” and even if we didn't get our kicks the same way, at least we had the same nameday.

So I was thinking about this poem the other day in the context of my current life and I found an editorial review of it which says that the poem “captures the enthusiasm and imagination
children can bring to the most ordinary task”.

Lots of feminist writers have talked about how there is no creativity in cleaning
and how throughout history women have been assigned repetitive tasks lacking creativity whereas transcendent man (usually called Larry) has been allowed to go wild with a paint brush and climb new heights of creativity.

Obviously I’m all for division of labour with women and men both sharing the task of vacuuming the cat hairs out of the laptop ventilator and removing the kitty litter
from the cracks in the floorboards, but I think we can't accept that there is no
creativity in cleaning or we're just going to get depressed. Cleaning and household chores are
a big part of life for many people and the repetitive nature of the tasks can feel futile. Why wash the dishes when I'm just gonna have to wash them again tomorrow? Can't I just throw the plates in the bin and buy new ones like that rich rapper guy who is keeping capitalism on its feet?

Nancy (if I can be so bold as to call her by her first name) has the right idea - we need to inject creativity into these tasks the way kids do. But Gaston Bachelard also says a thing or two in
his book Poetics of Space. Now I don’t have a copy of the book at the moment
and I read this book many moons ago, so I’m just going off the top of my head and will accept no responsibility for any acts of cleaning anybody commits as a result of reading the following, but very basically: Bachelard talks about cleaning as being a creative act in the sense of making things new. When you clean something you are changing it from the state it was in before and ultimately creating a new bath tub, your very own work of art.

I think we all need to read that book (again) and have a think about how we can transcend cleaning, like other great thinkers such as Nancy Byrd Turner and Gaston Bachelard have done.

Just one last comment, while writing this post I was thinking about the mundane task of withdrawing money from an automatic teller machine. Well I love doing this in France because when you choose the english language option you get a message on the screen which says “please wait while we are preparing your money”. It makes me think of a chef behind the machine preparing a veritable feast of money which I am going to receive on a plate with a side
helping of hot money sauce.

Friday, October 27, 2006

War of the Walks

Often I see clusters of people on those guided walking tours around Montmartre. I watch as the different tour groups clash together in a bottleneck on Rue Lepic, wondering if perhaps a hapless Amelie fan tracing the steps of her idol from the Amelie cafe to the Sacre Coeur, is going to get disorientated in the mosh, and find herself walking away with the wrong tour party on the sex and dragons tour through the brothels and strip clubs of Pigalle.

I think back to my own foray into chartered walks when I was living in London. My mop-headed sleuth friend decided it might be interesting, criminologically speaking, to take the Jack the Ripper tour around London's east end, run by a company called London Walks. Quite liking the idea of being spooked in the London fog, one evening I tagged along with him to the appointed meeting place, somewhere on the banks of the Thames.

London Walks seems to have the monopoly on walking in London. If you're going to walk, London Walks will show you how to do it. When we arrived we realised that what we thought was going to be a cosy, night promenade with one or two other people, was in fact going to be an efficiently operated walk in rows of ten (a bit like the distinction between chatting and conversation we would definitely be walking not ambling). Mild-mannered gore-seekers would finish as objective scholars of this nineteenth century whodunnit, which mysteriously pokes out of the history of London's east end.

At least forty or fifty people had assembled for the walk, and as we watched the cruise ship of people set sail down the road in the direction of the murder sites of Jack the Ripper's victims, we had doubts as to whether to bother following.

Below the voices of the departing crowd, we heard a `psssst psssst' and turned to see a portly man in his mid-fifties, dressed in sweaty clothes, with straggly greyblue hair and eyes which seemed to be stinging from alcohol or knowledge. He was holding above his head a torn and sweat-stained sign that said "The Real Jack the Ripper Walking Tour, over here", with an arrow pointing down at himself.

"Come here, quick", he said with a fearful glance over his shoulder to make sure the gods who operated the London Walks weren't watching. "I'm not supposed to do this," he explained, "it's London Walks who have this timeslot and the authorisation to take a tour from this point, but i'm a direct descendant of Jack the Ripper."

"I thought they don't know who Jack the Ripper was?" I said.

"There are theories," he swiped my words out of the way like they were belligerent wasps, "and mine is the definitive theory and I am the authority on the truth, a truthsayer. Plus with my walk you get to visit one extra murder site for one less pound!" Then he began to rant that London Walks was the Mcdonalds of walking: "like fries and shakes and sundaes, they are all made from the same substance, just cut into different shapes and sizes. All of the London Walks are the same, just packaged differently."

As the London Walks group was now gone, heading towards the belly of the East End, a couple of fresh-faced American girls and a few other wannabe walkers who had arrived late, assumed that this guy was the tour leader for the London Walks of which they had read such spankingly good reviews in their guide books.

As we commenced our tour I noticed yet another even more crumpled man standing nearby, feebly holding a post-it note with the words: "The REAL Jack the Ripper tour over here". The war of the walks.

Perhaps alarm bells started dinging for the other people in the tour party when our tour guide produced a dirty old scrap book full of, well, scraps - scraps of paper a bit like vegetable peelings with words scurrying across them written by a hasty pen, as well as haggard newspaper clippings. "I'm a ripperologist," he said proudly, "a true Ripper scholar. I've written a book on who did it, why he did it, how he did it, he explained as we walked down endless dark east end streets. One woman's scrap is another man's authority.

I guess I don't remember most of his theories, I was just content to be walking and exploring in the dark. But our guide had a lot of theories on Jack the Ripper and a lot of theories on London Walks and a general desire for its demise. Apparently as well as being a Jack the Ripper expert he was an expert on east end botany, beachcombing the Thames, and a whole host of other specialisms which were monopolised by London Walks, the daddy of walking.

My quiet harmony was disrupted when a drunken guy hanging out the door of a pub tried to physically attack our unruffled tour leader (who was really just an eccentric and passionate ripperologist rather than a malicious ghoul), accusing him of disrespecting the dead and us of being morbid for going to look at the sites where working women had been murdered. I started to feel uneasy. Always interested in history and walking around in the dark, i'd never seen my curiosity as disrespect.

Already jittery from the near death of our tour guide, things took another unruly turn down a black alley. Our guide grabbed one of the fresh-faced girls in the darkest point of the street and used her as `volunteer' victim to demonstrate how Jack the Ripper committed a lust murder in this spot, vigorously aiming his plastic knife in the direction of her groin with relevant sound effects, while the unimpressed (and downright frightened) girl's face glowed white in the dark.

Things could have gone awry there, but our bold tour guide's pace started to quicken and it appeared his interest in ripperology had started to wane when he vaguely indicated another dark bridge in the distance `there was a murder over there', before hurrying us all into what now manifested itself as the ultimate and most important goal of the tour - a beer at the pub en route.

Over a pint and his provided snack of sultanas and cheese (which he cut with the same plastic knife he had used for his earlier demonstration), we came to the conclusion that people who go on Jack the Ripper walks aren't necessarily the most socially skilled or don't necessarily have anything in common. About six of us, wannabe ripperologists, were just worn out mouses, with nothing to say. Until someone made the mistake of mentioning London Walks and our guide went hurtling down his favourite tangent, cursing and spitting out sultanas to punctuate his words.

Is swooning still fashionable?

It seems that in Jane Austen’s day love used to have a much more debilitating
effect on the body. Oh of course I’ve been love’s little fool many times and my body has been subject to all kinds of minor mishaps: shaky voice upon meeting with a Him, inundated with stomach-butterflies when I hear the rustle of my phone in my pocket, tear it open – will it be Him?

But it seems that those vast distances that had to be covered by carriage in order to be reunited with a beloved were much more conducive to swooning than the time it takes for someone to respond to a text. Maybe I'm just not looking around enough - but do people still swoon?

Ingrid Bergman was a highly skilled swooner.

After watching her in Roberto Rossellini's Stromboli I have reconsidered tailored pants as a viable `around the house’ option. She also wears her nose with a great deal of finesse but despite the promise of the dvd cover she doesn’t swoon very much in this film.

Here we find her in a displaced person’s camp after the second world war when
everyone wants to get away from Europe and go somewhere starting with `A': Australia,
Argentina, Anywhere but Europe. Her application to go to Argentina is turned down, so when
a boyish Italian who has just been un-soldiered asks her through the camp’s barbed wire
fence if she wants to marry him and see his big volcano, she agrees, out of desperation
more than anything else.

It turns out his big volcano is on the island of Stromboli and so Ingrid,
with her well cut voice and modern ideas, finds herself martini-less and
on a desolate island that has been deserted by anyone who could could get the hell out of there. The few inhabitants include a pack of conservative old women who grimace at her because she is different, a husband who `doesn’t understand', and a volcano that keeps spitting hot lava at her.

Ingrid makes some tiny efforts to understand her husband - once she goes to see him on his fishing boat - but this is merely a ploy by the filmmaker to show us a spectacular and detailed tuna fishing scene - and doesn't succeed in bringing them any closer together.

In desperation Ingrid tries to seduce the local priest, but much to our disappointment he resists her impressive lechery and so, after splashing around in the sea a bit with the lighthousekeeper she convinces him to give her enough money to escape from her husband/the island.

The problem is that in order to do this she has to pass the furious volcano, which seems to be even less fond of her than the other inhabitants of the island. In the final scene we are left with an anguished Ingrid crying out to god, covered in volcano dust and encircled by vultures. I guess we could say that the volcano is phallic society preventing a woman from having a room of her own, or perhaps its a symbol of her own personal explosion. We certainly hope it isn't meant to be divine retribution for not wanting to hang out on an island without books for the rest of her life.

One of the main problems with this film is that they never showed anyone eating. Eating is such an important part of life and it just gets creepy when no one eats. I thought it was supposed to be neo-realist. Also there wasn't enough swooning. People should swoon more.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

You look like a varanus prasinus

In Paris sometimes I feel like I’m an actress walking around the artificial set of my film (I’m certainly famous, the only problem is that no one realises it). Beautiful buildings press up against me. Trees line the edges of streets. Flowers are confined in their pots on window sills. The rest of nature is cordoned off in parks. Everything in its place – lights, camera, action.

On a visit to my native Sydney earlier this year after having been away for two years, one of the things that I noticed with my eyes cloudy with European winter, was the way that in Sydney nature has not been put in its place. There vegetation won’t be tamed to stay in pots and parks and can be found creeping all over the buildings, sprouting through cracks in the road, coiling around the wheels of your car. The copy on advertising billboards is covered cheekily by vines and weeds sprout through office keyboards.

Often when I put my hand into my letterbox in Paris without looking to see what’s inside first, I think to myself how I would never do that in Sydney, where who knows what deadly spider might be partying in there, ready to bite my big party pooper hand. In Paris the only spiders I’ve ever seen are spindly household midgets, the kind of spiders that couldn’t harm a jelly baby and which are, in any case, quickly gobbled up by my cat.

Of course although Australia has fourteen species of lethal snakes, including the Taipan-the most poisonous snake on earth- and a whole tribe of lethal spiders, it’s not like
when you grow up in Sydney you carry around anti-venom in your purse.
But when I lived there, accidently sitting on a blue-tongued lizard, huntsman spiders making out on my bed and fat cockroaches (the likes of which have never visited Paris) running up my leg, although scream-worthy events, were common occurences.

But something they have in Paris which they don’t have in Sydney is
Reptile’s World.

The name of the shop makes me swallow a giggle, like Toy World or something, for me it conjures up images of a supermarket where people wheeling trolleys browse around, adding a snake to their trolley, some turtles, some Varanus Prasinus and so on. But really it's just your average reptile shop.

I visited the shop recently and I am officially a fan of Varanus Prasinus. I’m certainly not one of those lizard-girls who walk around with lizards on their shoulders or poking out of their handbags, but these goggle-eyed green lizards, which climb trees with a dancer’s agility, won my winnable heart. They reminded me of about a million people I know.

But it was depressing to see a large iguana in a cage not much bigger than him (the sign said `not for sale' and I’m hoping this means that he’s just resting there for a day before he takes off on a package deal to the Caribbean).

I'm addicted to visiting zoos and peeking in at pet shops because it gives me the opportunity to be near animals I don't normally get to see. But when I see big, animated dogs trapped inside tiny glass boxes in those pet shops on the quai de la Mégisserie or tropical iguanas packed into cages in cosmopolitan pet shops I get teary and question whether I should actually visit these places.

I was just reading an article saying that reptiles live twice as long in captivity. It makes me think of what Woody Allen says in the film Annie Hall.

He recounts the conversation between two women where one says `Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.'
The other one says, `Yeah, I know; and such small portions. '
And then Woody says:
`Well, that's essentially how I feel about life - full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering,
and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly'.

I think about that iguana stuck in a cage, full of loneliness, misery and suffering... and he gets to live twice as long!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

When a stranger calls

I spent my childhood quaking down to the tips of my little yellow rain boots whenever the telephone rang.

For this fear of telephones and the sounds they make, I can thank the film When a Stranger Calls, which I saw at the impressionable age of six or seven. For those of you who haven't seen the film, the horrorgraphy is as follows: young and pretty babysitter hasn't checked the children. She receives phone calls from a stranger asking her if she has checked the children. She doesn't check the children but rings the police who trace the calls and they say (this line still gives me the heebie jeebies) "we have traced the calls and they are coming from your house". Yep, the stranger is upstairs and he has killed the kids.

This film shaped my life in that I took up dog walking for extra dosh rather than babysitting, and I felt safer on the streets than inside my home.

I am still scared of phones now but as I don't have an upstairs anymore I'm scared for other reasons.

I'm scared when the phone rings it is going to be one of those people from my past who I have long since given the old high ho but who pop up every now and again like rusty jack in the boxes and expect me to be in exactly the same spot that I was years ago, still wanting and needing the same things.

I am also scared it is going to be one of those double vitrage people. I'm wondering how much of a demand there is for double-glazing in Paris. More people have tried to double glaze me in the last year than they have asked me directions to the Moulin Rouge. These used to be long conversations but i've learnt now to let the magic word locataire flutter from my tongue - "sorry, I rent!" and there is nothing left to say except bonne journée, although some hang around a bit longer despite the icy winds coming from my voice.

I also receive a whole host of calls from people wanting to change my internet connection. In order to avoid these terrifying phone experiences I’ve started to, quite simply, not be me:
Could I speak with Mademoiselle Pinochiette?
Nah, she's not here at the moment
Well when can I speak with her
Ummm…she is only here between 2am and 3am Friday and Sunday mornings

So I hate phones. But when a stranger texts, well that’s ok.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Les Annees Folles: Growing up catholic

Growing up catholic I didn’t have fears of ghoulies under the bed and I didn't think that an innocent splutter in the dark was Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th coughing up blood and water outside my window (although admittedly I tried not to be the perpetrator of too
many practical jokes because we all know that it’s the fun-loving joker who gets killed first).

No, my big fear was Virgin Mary. I think I’d read too many christian comic books about saints where they didn’t even try to be funny “what did one saint say to the other?”
“Virgin Mary appeared to me the other day!”

So I was fixated upon the idea that Virgin Mary was going to appear to me and I was
mind-blisteringly terrified. I used to pray every night “oh please God don’t let Mary
appear to me. I’m sure she’s a nice girl and everything and she looks very becoming in blue but no no no I really don’t need to see her”.

Exiting the shower I’d expect the steam on the mirror to vanish and Mary would be serenely smiling back at me and then she'd say "boo!" Maybe if she didn’t have such a good reputation she would have been less scary. But all that bit about not having sex or going through the motions of child birth gave me the heebie jeebies.

I steered clear of grottos, but in the end my perversity reared its head
when the time came to choose a confirmation name (the tradition was to choose the name of a saint) and I chose none other than Saint Bernadette of Lourdes - the young lassie who Mary made a guest appearance to in the grotto.

[Incidentally, I was also too scared to be good because I didn’t want to die and only the good die young (although I think Billy Joel was largely to blame for this fear), but at the same time I tried to be meek in the hope of inheriting the earth (which I think used to be worth a fair bit before we started plundering it)].

Anyway, speaking of Virgin Mary, I went to the
Museum of the 1930s to see an exhibition of Tamara De Lempicka who is one of my favourite artists and I saw for the first time her portrait of the Virgin Mary. In evidence that my fears have long subsided I'm actually considering buying a print of it - in typical Lempicka style she depicts a "jet set" kind of Mary.

If you are as interested as me in the way that Mary has been depicted in art throughout the ages, I suggest you get your hands on this book: Alone of all her Sex; the Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary by Marina Warner.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Mrs Mademoiselle

If you take me apart the way you would take apart a matryoshka, you will find that some of the little versions of me are mademoiselles and others are madames. [Although admittedly sometimes I just have vodka inside me like my representative doll in this photo].

The "mini me" that pays my bills is a madame whereas the "me" who skips through paris clamouring for violet-flavoured icecream is a mademoiselle.

Like in english speaking countries with the titles "miss" and "mrs", marital status determines whether i'm a mademoiselle or madame for official purposes. But in my daily interactions with strangers, who am I?

People size you up and judge your age before branding you with a title, "madame" generally considered the safest bet for any girl beyond puberty. But of course this is relative. For the truly old, I’m always mademoiselle, and to tiny tots bullied into social niceties by their parents, I’m mostly madame.

After I had a sleepless night recently, everyone was madam-ing me like there’s no tomorrow. But on the days where my skin is freshly white direct from the teat of a cow, I can hear them crying "mademoiselle!" in the streets.

My title is of course related to my comportment. If I enter a shop squeaking and hunched I'm likely to be coaxed out of my nut house with a "Bonjour Mademoiselle". Alternatively if I stride on in, tearing up the room with my authority, I’m Madame.

I saw a film called Mademoiselle a couple of years ago which highlights this idea of comportment. I must have been at a low point in my life because I managed to get to its end, despite the film's obvious banality or pehaps because of this.

It was the story of a married woman with two kids, clearly a madame in the eyes of society, who goes on a 24 hour love binge with a man she meets at an out of town work conference. The next morning when they are in a brasserie about to say goodbye forever, the waiter brings our heroine an espresso and says: “would you like sugar mademoiselle" and we ooh and ahh and remark how the juices of love have injected her with new youth-giving vitamins. She excuses herself and skips off to the bathroom to admire her new yummy mummy self in mirror, but alas, when she gets back her lover is gone (obviously bored at the idea of having to repeat the same phrases over and over about her being the best lover ever) and she slumps into her chair with dismay.

Our waiter bustles on to the scene, proud that although he only has two lines he has the most poignant line in the film, and he says in a big voice: “voila l’addition madame". His ill chosen words immediately zap her back to the drab world of madamehood, her face creases in conformity to her re-appropriated role, and she realises that her lover has left the table covered in crumbs and hasn't paid the bill.

Perhaps there is also a bit of old world morality in the way that someone chooses to address you. For example, boys who approach me in the street always call me mademoiselle as a way of showing that even they, the ultimate personal space invaders, wouldn't stoop to steal "someone else's woman".

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Modern Doctor

When I'm sick and I let out feeble meows, French friends suggests I pop some pills which I can obtain from one of the many pharmacies planted on the streets of my quartier, taking up valuable tree space (I think for every chemist in the 18th arrondissement there should be at least one park). For a common garden variety flu – bed rest, sans medication, is my usual solution.

However, when I’m not sick with the flu or a cold, I go to see doctors a lot. I guess I might be what you call a hypochondriac. But don't worry, I’m “out”. I’ve admitted to the world that I am
one. I've been like this since I was a kid. I used to watch this Australian tv show called A Country Practice (mainly because I was a fan of the dashing doctor played by Grant Dodwell) but whatever disease they focused on that week, I’d come down with it the next week: alzheimers, cat scratch fever, you name it, i'd be manifesting signs of it before you could say "Larry". Reading 19th novels didn’t help either – if we count the amount of times I’ve diagnosed myself with scarlet fever, tuberculosis and scurvy.

I've given up googling symptoms of illnesses, that's a start. But today I decided to see if I could find a cure for hypochondria so I looked at what The Modern Family Doctor (1928) had to say about hypochondriacs. It says that:

If the minds of these patients are deeply probed they can be found to have had all healthy inclinations starved and withered, and to be like unweeded gardens in which envy, hatred, malice, and spite have been allowed to flourish, and they are so self-absorbed that there is no room for outside interests. These patients have no kindliness of heart, no love of country and no generosities, and if they have any friends at all they have no real affection for them....history for him [Sic] has no meaning, and literature no existence...

That got me angry, because if anything exists for me it is literature.

Anyway, the Modern Family Doctor's solution was to take up religion.

Once when I went to a doctor in France and produced my petit papier with my lists of symptoms, the doctor looked at me with scorn, felt the beat of my unkindly heart, and gave me a healthy reprimand telling me to go forth and live, or at least weed my unruly garden.

But my current doctor is a dear about it. I went to see him recently for a tiny
white spot which had set up camp on my face.

"So you see I’m here because of this white spot. It’s probably just a pimple."

He takes out a little light and looks at it “yes, it’s just a pimple”.

Embarrassed pause where we both realise there’s nothing left to say and I’m gonna have to hand him 25 euros for telling me I have a pimple.

But he’s a resilient old thing, so he quickly whipped out a pen and drew a picture of the pimple, adding detailed pus and started to explain to me about sebum. That took about 50 seconds so then he added a little bit more detail. He drew my fingers squeezing the pimple and says “see if you squeeze it like that, it takes longer to go away”.

Then he screwed up the drawing and threw it in the bin and I went home to read
some literature, feeling a hell of a lot better.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Boyz in the street

Sometimes I'll recount something that happened during my day to H. and he'll say:
"Who said that to you?"
And I'll respond with: "Oh just a boy in the street"

You know who they are, and they know who you are, or at least they think they do.

They are gloomy parisien shadows leaning against the walls, skulking around the boulevards, walking two by two or operating solo. There is a nest of these boyz in the street at Place de Clichy and they have devoted their life to harassing what they see as loose n easy anglo saxon women.

Their eyes tear away your muted clothing and see right through to your inner pastel boob tube.
You rest your baby blue eyes on them for a nano second, the way you would look at a wheelie bin or a street post, and they see it as an invitation for sex and biscuits back at your place, or better still, right there behind the bins.

They are always approaching, but they are most active in spring. They pretend they don't know that you are foreign and ask you in French the way to the Moulin Rouge even though you are standing under it. Even if you reply in perfectly gendered and conjugated french, tied up with a nasal sounding bow, they invariably ask you "where are you from?, which is quickly followed by an invitation to coffee, to "make" a private party with them, or the seemingly benign but disconcerting: "Can I talk to you for a bit?"

It might be ok if it was just to discuss their dermatological problems or recent root canal work, but invariably what follows this request to chat is a list of adjectives strung together like fake pearls and meant to articulate that you are the most beautiful anglo saxon (i mean woman) who has ever walked on the streets of Pigalle, which climaxes in a request for a kiss.

It's not particularly flattering considering these mecs meander from woman to woman giving each the same formula: me man + you woman = sex behind the bins. Of course foreign women are considered juicier and easier prey as most french women wouldn't even bother responding.

I handle it a lot better than when I first came to Paris and I was still a well mannered young thing. Thinking I had to be polite to everyone, especially because they are French (and therefore sophisticated and hang out at the blue parrot night club), I'd find myself politely thanking a boy for saying i have a nice arse or being incredibly apologetic that i couldn't stick around to give them little butterfly kisses all over their face.

Of course we have this phenomenon of boyz in the street in Australia too. But they are generally in trucks shouting out something about the shape of your tits and then speeding away quick smart before they have time to hear the shape of your retorting obscenities. I guess I should be thankful that the `flirting' in the street here is a bit more civilised - an offer of coffee and a potential exchange of ideas, even if that exchange is just seen by them as a means to a very quick end.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Paris Ahem

Watching Paris Je t'aime, a collection of short films by different directors set throughout the twenty arrondissements of Paris, I couldn't help wanting to interrupt, to butt in with my ideas for the stories.

Of course when you live here you have your own sense of the city and you feel that given the chance to choose any place in one arrondissement of Paris and shoot a five minute film, you would have done it differently. "Oh I wouldn't have chosen that spot" or "I would have chosen to shoot in the tunnels underground, not just the metro, but the place where the police uncovered an underground movie cinema a couple of years ago, to show that Paris is not just about what is on the surface." I couldn't help furrowing my brow and wondering: Do these directors know Paris well enough? And how well is enough?

With the opening film which took place in my nook, I immediately saddled my high-horse and no no no no nos started slumping out of my mouth. I feel that there is so much in Montmartre that is particular to Paris, which I haven't seen anywhere else in the world: old shops like my local cordonnier or old style bars with zincs like the Petit Montmartre, or the Bar Jaune where the only real drinking options are beer or shots of whiskey. Places like this would have served as good backgrounds, although I can personally envision a politically charged love scene in the anarchist bookstore or a sensual grape squashing scene up in the vineyard.

I was disappointed that the director used the problem of trying to find a parking spot as the story backdrop, particularly when you need to walk to most of the interesting places in Montmartre. In the end all we had to indicate that it really was Montmartre is that the car seemed to be parked on a slope, and at the end of the film we are given a parting glance of the Sacre Coeur.

In a few of the films I had to remind myself that I was in the cinema and stop the cicada, ever ready with his fiddle, from coming to dance a jig in my brain. These were the films that were really just obese cliches. Yes, yes, overall Paris Je t'aime did take a step away from the romantic cliche of Robert Doisneau's Kiss at the Hotel de Ville, so why replace this cliche with other cliches?

I'm sure there was a lot of referencing and homaging going on which I missed, but just because we are amid the Asian community in the 13th arrondissement, must the woman in the hairdressing salon be a sexy kung fu artist who can quickly flip to a demure stereotype in order not to upset the status quo and scare away the boys?

The vampires were worringly unoriginal - a boring revamp of Adam and Eve, with one less apple and more tomato-blood. Woman locked in her role of temptress. I was really hoping for the director's sake that it wasn't actually a film but an advertisement, and I was waiting for the she-vampire to cut the biting and invite Frodo for some champagne and marron glaces at Fauchon.

As for the dying woman with the red trench coat (who i'm sure has done quite a bit for next season's fashion in Paris - as well as attachable fur tails as a hot upcoming look, I now predict that we will be drowning in a red sea of trenchcoats), I couldn't help feeling that the message behind the film may have been that if you are a middle-aged woman, the only way you'll be able to woo your wayward husband back from his cliched relationship with an air hostess, is by catching a fatal disease.

I felt the film with Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara as a divorcing couple was one of the most genuine stories, snugly played out in a typical Paris bistro. We see that though with time past love becomes a dull ache like a dead rat in the stomach, if we are once again confronted with that person from our past, the ghost of that dead rat can start to gnaw at the walls of our stomach again. We see how the playful dynamic between this couple who used to be so close and still know each other, revives in the form of dried up flirtation.

I also liked the piece about the relationship between Natalie Portman and `the blind guy'. It was more like a beautiful, rhythmic poem than a film, or at least a catchy pop song. It showed how love, stretched over a period of time, plays itself out against many, many backdrops, from the laundromat to the swimming pool.

I wanted to biff the rigid tourist couple in the Père Lachaise Cemetery who were on the verge of marriage. The woman decides she doesn't want to marry the guy because he isn't witty like Oscar Wilde. Lucky for the guy, Oscar Wilde's ghost appears to him and gives him his power of wit, or at least possesses the body of the groom-to-be and rehashes his old quotes, winning back his bride-to-be. I couldn't help relishing the implications of this, that is, that if the groom continues on this merry way (that is, in the part we don't see because the film has already finished), the groom is going to cite some Oscarisms which aren't going to go down quite as well:
One should always be in love, that's the reason one should never marry.
How marriage ruins a man! It is as demoralising as cigarettes, and far more expensive.

I was pleased to see my boyz in the street manifesting themselves as boyz on the quai in the short film where a group of boys were harrassing women who were walking by, showing a face of Paris I know so well. I personally would have shot this one at Place de Clichy and had the men as encircling sharks.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Swimming in a saggy sea

During my first summer in Paris when the days were dripping by and we were tired of staring at our melting reflections in the Seine, French announced: "That’s it, we’re hiring a car and driving to Deauville this weekend!"

"You mean Normandy? We’re going to the coast of Normandy, which means we’re going to swim in the English Channel?"

"We’re going to swim in La Manche," French primly corrected me - rather than to encourage me to speak in French it was more to eliminate the qualifier `English', which no doubt encroached upon his patriotic fervour. [He often said that he preferred to take the plane to London because when he took the Eurostar he was forced to alight at Waterloo - the scars of this defeat have strangely been handed down intact to French from his ancestors and he re-lives this battle every time the French lose to the English in any kind of sport].

Swimming in the sleeve of water between England and France didn’t seem to be a whole lot better prospect than swimming in the Seine, and at least a paddle in the Seine, even if it did result in a bad stomache ache, wouldn’t involve a sweating, salty road trip, peppered with traffic jams.

Having travelled frequently between London and Paris by Eurostar through the tunnel under the channel (the chunnel), my vision of this sea was a little out of focus. I saw it as a transport hub and the idea of swimming in it was as pleasant a thought as getting all dolled up with parasol and petticoat to promenade on the side of a highway. I pictured myself wading among the bones of old boats and the discharge of new boats. I saw myself dodging the points of long-buried norman weaponry poking out of rust-coloured sand.

When we did go to Deauville I was a tad relieved to discover that, rather than a mooring spot for norman ghosts and a dump for the junk of a million wars, the beach was in fact a long stretch of fine-sanded, white beach which could rival Sydney's beaches.

I’m a Pacific Ocean snob when it comes to riding the surf, or searching the ultimate ride which the blonded up Patrick Swayze found at Bells Beach, Australia in Point Break. So of course the saggy waves of Deauville were a bit of a downgrade. In fact my first impressions of Deauville were clearly nothing to text home about. It was the Canicule Summer of 2003, the heat had eaten up all the shade and we were left covering our half-naked bodies in palm leaves to protect them from the sun. The sea was a desert; a hot, brown and sandy tub.

It was only when I saw the Claude Lelouch film Un homme et une femme, where Deauville was painted in soft budding pinks and greys as the backdrop to a love story, that I started to reconsider it as a viable beach option.

Admittedly the brownish sandy water near the shore still takes some getting used to compared to the bubbling blue of my beloved Pacific Ocean or the dashing green-blue of the Mediterranean Sea. But it is one of the closest beaches to Paris, and as my mother would say, it’s better than a smack in the eye with a dead fish – which admittedly could be a hazard here, as i'm still not entirely convinced that fish living in this sea feel chipper enough to continue with life and all its burdens.

The backdrop of Norman style manor houses which line the beachfront make it one of those versatile beaches, the kind of place that I love to visit in both winter and summer. I'm yet to see a beach covered in snow but I've heard tempting reports about this from Maine.

The added bonus is that, swimming in La Manche, unlike at Sydney beaches, I don’t have to be on full-time bluebottle alert. Losing children seems to be a bigger danger here, as our day at Deauville recently was constantly interrupted by a loud speaker reporting on yet another unaccompanied child who had been found seemingly dazed by the sun, randomly digging up holes in the sand, and was now waiting to be claimed at the beach orphanage.

As two nearby children learnt to play competitive sports - who has the bigger shriek and who can kick sand the furthest - I speculated whether any of these found children had been intentionally lost for a moment's respite.

Two hours each way on the train, a trip to Deauville gives me a welcome break from the enclosed heat of Paris. It's a quick venture back to something I miss most about Sydney; being able to get to the sea with a shake of your tail, to lick the air and taste salt, diving underwater to escape the sun, and lying on my back watching seagulls weave words in the sky.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Educating Rita

Educating Rita is certainly a film, among other things, about the power of the haircut. For most of the film Michael Caine's character mopes up and down the screen, inspiring pathos. On first glance we think that we feel pity for him because he is an alcoholic and failed poet whose wife has left him for better poetry. But when, towards the end of the film, in the ultimate act of love, Rita gives him a haircut and we see him stepping on to the plane to start a new life in Australia, our pity dissipates. The new haircut inspires our confidence and makes us believe that this two year sabbatical in Australia may really be the start of a new life and not just a re-make in a tropical location of his previous shenanigans with the whisky bottle. All along it was his hairdo that aroused our pity.

This is not to say that I am an advocate of the "get your haircut and get a job" school of thought. I quite like longish locks on both girls and boys, but I think a regular trim to get rid of split ends and keep hair bouncy is an important human renewal process - like a bored snake should shed its skin.

In Educating Rita, working class Rita takes an open university learning class in literature in order to "find herself", against the wishes of her husband who would prefer that she act like a baby machine and start "popping 'em out". Michael Caine, suffering from an extended bout of ennui from teaching literature to undergraduates, becomes her professor.

The professer/student relationship between the characters of Michael Caine and Rita (Julie Walters) reminds me a little of my own relations with my French teacher. She isn't a failed poet (not that I'm aware of anyway) but she does let me babble on about my life, in the same way that Michael Caine listens to Rita.

My French teacher is an enigma. Even though she has been coming to my house every week for nearly a year I know very little about her and she has all the dirt on me. Part of the reason for this is that when we first started I was still unable to construct questions in French. It was much more natural for me to make statements about myself than ask her questions.

Rita wanted to learn to write essays and talk about books like the rich kids on the university quadrangle. Me too, I'd like to be able to speak French like "them ones out there", that is, basically everyone else in Paris. But I'm like Rita, who in the race to air her thoughts, to let them breathe, just lets them blow out of her without any structure. In the almighty rush to use words, to communicate, to tell stories, I pay no heed to the framework of french grammar, I speak any which way I can as long as it gets the message across.

Oh of course the situation is no where near as dire as it used to be when I'd go into the boulangerie in pursuit of a baguette and come out with three pain aux raisins. But it seems that I am currently dozing on a plateau. Part of the reason for this is admittedly a lack of zest when it comes to studying French grammar. I could also cite working in english from home and having lots of english speaking friends. But there is also the problem caused by speaking franglais all the time.
What are you mange-ing?
A pomme, d'you want to mange a bit of it?

It's got to the point where I'm unintentionally slipping English words into the conversation with my French teacher. I'm not talking about when you aren't sure of the French word so you just grab the the english word, umm `eruption', and say it in a french way - éruption. More often than not you get lucky and bingo the French word (except in the case of the back-stabbing faux amis).

I'm talking about when I say the English word (when of course I know the French word) because I am so used to speaking Franglais - picking and choosing and throwing in the French word when the English word has gone walkabout.

Can you speak French? I can understand french. That is, there's not much I don't understand in a French film or a conversation and I can read any dusty old french tome you want to lend me, but I'm still not great in spoken and written french. The problem with being a French understander is that it doesn't show on the surface (unless you're pushing a door when you should be pulling it and then you clearly don't understand). So when I speak to people in French they assume that my comprehension is on the same level as my spoken French and so I get lumped in the not very french at all category when I believe I belong in the not really french group.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Back to the Womb

Take me back to dear old Blighty!
Put me on the train for London town!
Take me over there,
Drop me anywhere,
Liverpool, Leeds, or Birmingham, well, I don't care!

A.J. Mills, F. Godfrey and B. Scott, 1916

Although I have English ancestry, I firmly believe that Australia should cut the umbilical cord and depose the English queen (as cute as she may look in slacks) as symbolic head of State, a symbolism rendered meaningless by multiculturalism and democracy.

I blow big raspberry bubbles at monarchist arguments such as Australia fought in war after war under the flag with the Union Jack and that if Australians were to stamp on this flag they would be stamping on the memories of the known and unknown soldiers (Not lot ago I had a discussion with a couple of French people who tried to tell me that there were actually no Australians, or at the most one or two, fighting in the First and Second World Wars on European soil. Yes there were, I affirmed, vaguely starting to worry that i'd misinterpreted the meaning of Anzac Day and that in fact it had just been an excuse to try out a new recipe for biscuits. But I stuck to my original affirmation about the percentage of the Australian population who lost their lives in World War One being the highest of any country in the world and added: Don't you remember that not long ago your government was building an airport runway over their graves?)

Despite these English roots, growing up I was never overly interested in a pilgrimage to the Mother Country. In terms of literature, except for a certain book where a swarthy hero battles with a sickly ghost on the moor, I was more attracted by the sled-driven magical and revolutionary politics of Russian literature or the fantastical beasts of heat in Latin American books. Hotspots to visit were India and Siberia.

And although English comedy made me laugh so hard that my guts were splattered all over my nearest and dearest, visiting England just seemed too much like visiting a family member who you visit because they are family but who you have little in common with.

Two weeks holed up in a hotel in Russell Square, London, in 1995, unable to sit upright due to a bout of homesickness, resting my hand on a doilie and being spoon-fed episodes of EastEnders, didn't do much to change my ideas about England.

It was my holiday in early 2001 that was the harbinger of change, when I needed a break from Sydney, and London was the most viable option as my funds were limited and I had friends there who could host me.

I was immediately struck by the way people jostle there, making you feel like you are part of a revolutionary throng. There's not enough people to really get down and jostle in Sydney. In fact now when I go back to Sydney, after having lived in two heavily populated cities, I'm always struck by how quiet it is, how many silent patches there are in what I used to think was a honking metropolis.

Dancing to Mr Scruff at 93 Feet East in London's East End I remarked how there was so much less attitude than in Sydney, everybody's boots were just the right size and made for dancing. People were there to have a good time. It wasn't all just about being seen, as is the case among a certain crowd in Sydney: I wear big sunglasses therefore I am (just quietly I do like oversized sunglasses when they are stripped of attitude) or I have Che Guevara's face stamped on my underwear therefore I am uber cool (as to my opinion on the use of Che Guevara as fashion statment i'll just quote Manning Marable in his essay `On Malcolm X: His message and meaning': "There is a tendency to drain the radical message of a dynamic, living activist into an abstract icon, to replace radical content with pure image" - and in the process the image becomes vacuous and loses its radical meaning!)

London's icy April surface was dotted with potholes of warmth. Although Parisiens are not really as rude as They say, I am still struck by the contrast when I visit London, the easygoing manner in which people generally respond to my needs, even to the point of one helpful underground employee accompanying me to the relevant platform.

I was looking through my diary of this London trip yesterday, snipping away at my memories with a pair of scissors, reconstructing and deconstructing them as I'm prone to do. I remember how London gave me such a winning smile on this holiday:

Sitting in some place called Sausage Heaven, not eating sausages, just calmly waiting for my skin to clear, watching everyone jostling past me, writing in my diary with my qantas pen.

Having my very own Before Sunrise, when instead of Vienna and a geeky Ethan Hawke, I had bold Anthony from Boston, who reckoned I looked like a german art student and needed some layers in my hair, proposing that I get off the tube with him at Tottenham Court Road to drink pale ale and stroll among the sex shops and fast food places. Maybe we could stop by Top Shop to help him pick out a retro shirt and take a trip to Tony & Guy to fix my hair.

Eating hot cross buns that weren't hot and falling asleep in the Mark Rothko room at the Tate Modern, my toes dangling out from under a vivid red and black quilt.

Feeling like I was part of a chase, walking through Hampstead Heath, hunting for love. Watching london blinking in a cold afternoon sun below me, looking where the Gherkin should be, but wasn't, because it hadn't yet been built. Hoping to find badgers and moles and all those other animals from Farthing Wood that were impossible to find in the Australian bush.

Queuing with my buddy John for 15 pence bagels in the wee small hours, the pollution of night clubs clinging to our skin, sneezing out of my eyes from too many late nights and heavy drinking I couldn't keep up with where the vodka started to taste like gin.

Drinking in old shoe shops, dank and cosy bars the likes of which are hard to come by in Sydney's bushland of metal and light.

Staying on the spice trail, Brick Lane, with curry hot enough to keep me happy.

Drinking tea in the crypt under St Martin in the Fields church on Trafalgar Square, talking to a man who spoke only in lists. He listed all the paintings in the National Gallery, the places he has visited, the people he has known, until I had to list the reasons why I couldn't talk to him any longer.

Eating sushi in Soho, with some people who talked about money the whole time (money has no poetry) and knowing I had no money, only invited me into the conversation once to say: So Pinochiette, what do you think of foot and mouth disease?

Big grassy parks with well bred ducks.

More nationalities than I could put my lips and fingers on, until Dali's melting watch at the Saatchi Gallery told me my month was up and I had to go home.

But as we all know, I went back.