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Postcards

In La Paz, an electrician is wiring an apartment in a new part of town. In Melbourne, bartenders are rattling bottle bins into laneways. But in Waiting Room B of the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord, there’s a British lady rifling through the trash for the piece of cake she accidentally tossed out and an American mother calling out to her colgate of brats, “Do you want to buy a souvenir?”. It’s 5:45pm but it’s never too late for binned brioche or a Carla Bruni keyring, now is it?

I’m finally bidding adieu to the arrondissements and architraves, the transparent bins and iron railings of Paris. Last time I wrote, the rain was keeping me indoors, away from the Bastille Day pomp and firework, away from a 44km walk.

John and I eventually dislodged ourselves from our Marais loft for a night in the 20th at Mama Shelter, a hotel penned by design guru Philippe Starck—a man who can pull off paunch, acne scars and leather pants at the same time. As it turns out, he can also pull off a hotel. Though I didn’t have time to discover much in the hip 20th (bar a Lebanese lunch spot where freshly-shaved bastourma and kibbeh sated my appetite), it is the well-known home to a hell of a lot of famous dead people. To tackle the tombs of Père Lachaise, I met up with Electra, my new partner in flâneurising, gourmandery and aestheticisation.

After some aimless meandering, we realised a map would be useful if we were to commune with the resting places of anyone other than various Barons of Mecklenburg. A pair of mopey Swedish girls curtly refused to tell us where they got their map from in two languages no less—has the country still not recovered from it’s relegation to the Eurovision wilderness? Anyway, we found a map and duly marched on. No one was doing anything remotely cool at Jim Morrison’s grave (you couldn’t even buy smack, I mean c’mon), while Oscar Wilde’s ostentatious plinth attracts all the loonies. Nearby, Marcel Proust has a humble little spot devoid of kisses, garbled tributes, misquotations and signed Metro stubs. Maybe the Proust fans need a gimmick too—like writing the title of their post-doctoral thesis in White Out or something. Maybe not.

After almost two weeks in Paris, the experience that stands out as the most Gallic was not the bronze shimmer of fried duck fat, nor the two students playing Django Reinhardt tunes to their friends on the banks of Île Saint Louis. No, it was a trip to the Roger Le Gall swimming pool via the Promenade Plantée. John and I had had a brief jogging flirtation with the Promenade earlier on, but it warranted revisiting. A disused train line, the Promenade begins just behind Place de la Bastille as raised brick arches and continues as an uninterrupted lineal park for several kilometres eastward. New York’s Highline is based on it, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke walked along it in Before Sunrise, it offers one of the most pleasant walks in Paris and, yet, thankfully, somehow, it remains largely free of tourists in a city that is bursting at the seams with them. In their place, is a jogger or two, a book-reading student, a homeless man and a crocodile line of kindergarten kids. After an hour or more of walking it, Electra and I emerged at the far edge of the 12th, a few steps from one of the only full-sized outdoor pools in Paris.

At its doorway was a simple sign explaining key rules: boardshorts forbidden, bathing caps obligatory. We had met the first requirement but the second prompted a visit to the pool’s vending machine, which doled out everything from goggles to rubber lifeboats. We decided to buy one bathing cap and take turns, though we acknowledged that stretching it over both our heads at the same time would have been much funnier. We split off into our gendered changing rooms and Electra, who “ne parle pas français”, promptly got a browbeating from a French lady for wearing her shoes over the no-shoes-beyond-this-line line—a border defended more fiercely than the Maginot Line ever was. Meanwhile, I almost faceplanted in a pool of tepid chlorinated water when I failed to notice the sheep-dip-style foot bath at the exit to the change rooms. Reaching the pool area, it very quickly became clear that, though bathing caps and budgie smugglers are de rigeur, wearing a bikini top is entirely optional. Sunbathing breasts dotted the horizon as pointed evidence of France’s stubborn but gratifying certainty in itself as a rational, rather than a moral state. A country where the veil is supposedly banned not because of what it represents but because “we need to be able to see you”. The continuing echoes of 1789

And then there was Ireland. My cousin Madelin and I had managed to co-ordinate travel plans so that we could reach Dublin on the same morning and, in a feat of triangulation that Pythagoras would have smirked at, we were met at the airport by Margie, erstwhile travel companion and Adelaidean, who has lived in Dublin long enough to say “grand” and “craic” but not so long as to forget the word “gumboot”.

After a quick stint in the capital that involved Irish beer (tick), Irish potatoes (tick), Irish butter (tick) and an excellent exhibition of illuminated manuscripts from the Mughal Empire (tick?), Madelin and I headed west to Galway, which served as launching pad for the wild coastlines, mountains and lakes of County Mayo, Connemara and the Aran Islands.

Housing us for our first night was Inishmore, a treeless island of cows, horses and the odd person. Those familiar with Father Ted won’t have to imagine what it looks like. A healthy dose of bike riding got us round most of the island in an afternoon. Even on a sunny day putting my feet in the Atlantic at a “swimmable” beach was a jaw-shatteringly cold experience, but watching the same icy waters crash underneath us as we sat in the ruins of a Neolithic cliff-top fort was much much more appropriate. Indeed, though the sun was gloriously present, the wind from the west destroyed any scraps of real warmth on the island, which meant that even in high summer smoke rose from the chimneys. And, thus, riding past cottages and farmhouses gave us our first experience of the humid, cigar-like whiff of a peat fire. There is something irrefutably primitive but pragmatic about burning the soil in your backyard and the ubiquitous scars of peat diggings and that smell followed us wherever we went. One thing has to be said, sitting in front of a peat fire has none of the romantic nor pyrotechnic appeal of a wood fire.

In Leenane, the youth hostel was run and populated by French people hiking the surrounding national park. Yet, the first person we met was not a Pierre or a Claudette, it was a Neil. Before I’d managed to get my less than enormous frame out of our hire car, Neil was already engaged in a conversation that we soon realised we were party to. He was a tall man with a ginger beard and ponytail, wearing a 3-piece black polyester suit and speaking with the rapid bounce of a salesman in full pitch. After some spurious name-dropping related to how we should have a drink with him (Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Russell Crowe), he told us that he lives in Prague, wears his beard like a proud Irishman, is part of a band called Digital Druids, has recorded with someone from The Cure and gave us a quick review of the book he was reading on the Cathars. Just when I thought he was going to give us a flyer for a gnostic rave seance, he asked us whether we had traced ourselves back to our Irish clan name. “Ah no, we’re Greek”. His response, “Fantastic! You’ve done well. I was a Greek high priest in a past life.” Oh yeah, I thought, a very convenient path of reincarnation given that, when the Greeks were building Delphi, his ancestors were probably throwing mud at each others genitals and calling it organised religion.

When do you know you’ve arrived? In Sweden, it was the first crunch of snow underfoot in the Landvetter carpark and air so cold it could bite your face off. In Borneo, it was the hot, clinging humidity in the air bridge. In Greece, it was the undeniable whiff of cheap aftershave mixed with dubious fiscal policies. This time, at Charles de Gaulle airport, it wasn’t the 150cm-tall policewoman with an 80cm-long assault rifle or the 50 centimes toilets, it was the sudden and instinctive loss of muscular tension at the gentle touch of 7am sunshine on a 30° day.

Today is Bastille Day and I wasn’t meant to be indoors. I’d planned to join a Finnish artist and a bunch of others on a 44km walk that would spiral through the centre of Paris’ numbered arrondissements, from the 20th to the 1st. Unfortunately, getting up at 5am to do so proved untenable after a sleeplessly muggy night listening to mosquitoes, firecrackers and general revelling. But more on that anon.

The first week here in France was spent in and around the Dordogne Valley. Two short wogs, père et fils, had the run of a cottage in the little village of Carennac in a part of France famed for its truffles, its foie gras and its history of cardiovascular disease. And when in Rome … so, much of our time in Carennac was spent lowering our fitness, raising our cholesterol and otherwise pushing strongly for a bout of gout.

Being at the Lot end of the Dordogne, rather than the more touristed Perigord, the local markets at Bretenoux were truly local and it soon became clear that the only person importing anything from outside the valley was the fromageur. Thus we found sustenance in stone fruits and berries, potato and leek, lettuce and tomato, pork and more pork, a little bit of extra pork, and quantities of cheese that I’m still digesting a week later (for those playing at home: Brie de Meaux, Tomme d’Estaing, Tomme de Savoie and Bethmale Vache, plus the pale, fatty goodness of Beurre des Charentes Grand Cru).

In between cooking, eating and watching the World Cup, we did manage somehow to raise our fatted arses from their rustic thrones and career around the winding roads to sightsee and the like. The region is unimpeachably lovely in the summer, with the humid heat making every inch of soil sprout a bounty of lush, chirping undergrowth beneath the enormous walnut and oak trees that forest the hills. Popping up every few kilometres are villages of old stone houses, sometimes lovingly restored to uberquaint perfection by Brits, sometimes pragmatically repaired with unbecoming cinder blocks by the locals, and occasionally refitted with glassy appendages by Germans. However, while the place is far from untouched, the narrow roads and lack of amenities keep the tourist buses away and the town squares humming with children and tractors rather than American accents.

I can’t claim to have seen a single tractor on the streets of Paris though. Tanks, fighter jets and other military miscellany, on the other hand, are in great supply today on the Champs Elysées — as are puffy dignitaries and very wet spectators. As the rain beats down and the lightning strikes, some of the baking heat trapped in the city’s cobbles and facades is being washed into the Seine to everyone’s relief.

As has become tradition when we’re in Paris, John and I have been startling council workers and homeward-bound drunkards by jogging the boulevards at 6am. The temperature is clement, the footpaths free, the smell of piss demure, and the city is almost entirely asleep. Indeed, it can be said quite definitively that Paris is not a morning person. Plenty of places don’t open til 11 and it can even be hard to get a baguette before 9. To top it off, my favourite new find, the Palais de Tokyo contemporary art space, restaurant, cooking school and general cool factory, is open from noon to midnight every day of the year. Yes, please!

Once the city gets going, the Marais, where we’re staying, bristles with the heady mix of people that comes from it being the orthodox Jewish quarter, the gay and lesbian quarter, the French hipster quarter and the young-american-with-a-trust-fund quarter. And, while I was loving the locavore cooking in Carennac, it’s nice to be back somewhere where terms like couscous, kibbeh, pho and polyunsaturated are used more commonly.

Ah, but now, the rain has paused. Perhaps only briefly. Or perhaps I’ll join the walkers when they get to the 10th.

As the child of migrants, I became inured to biennial 40-hour flights to Sweden, punctuated by those character-building 7-hour stopovers in Changi or Schiphol. My body learnt the rhythms of this journey, where a flight to Sydney was an hors d’oeuvre, the trip into Asia merely an entree, the stint to Europe an impossible braise and the hop across the Kattegatt an anticlimactic sorbet. Thus, flying to Asia as a destination has always been a somewhat mystifyingly pleasurable experience. “Oh, we’re here already.”

So it was that, at 6am the next morning, i woke up as the green dawn combed through the skyscrapers of Hong Kong. Alone on a shuttle bus I soon grew cold from the air conditioning. Indeed, in Hong Kong, one dresses not for the weather but for the air con. At this time of year, the temperature outside hovers between 20 to 25 and the humidity is clement enough, but every bus, arcade, restaurant and shop is chilled to ensure everyone can go on wearing suits and jackets. I’m not sartorially, nor ethnographically qualified to say whether this desire to deny the climate is a headache from a postcolonial hangover, but the preponderance of Anglophilia seems to at least nod in that direction.

I’m staying in a serviced apartment in Tsim Sha Tsui with John, the man who begot me a quarter of a century ago. It is, by my standards and by most standards, a luxy pad. As an aside, the receptionist who gives me my keycard and my guest membership to the gym downstairs is called Panther Lee. 12 days later and I’ve said “thank you” more times than i would normally do in a year as doors are opened for me, beds are turned down, chairs are pulled back and i’m otherwise treated to service embarrassingly beyond my means.

Tsim Sha Tsui is on the edge of the Kowloon peninsula, which means our window on the 30th floor faces the two dimensional concrete and glass jigsaw puzzle of Hong Kong island. Or, most days, it faces a wall of fog, spotted by ferries and pierced by falcons that circle at this altitude presumably looking for fake Rolexes or a good deal on a Louis Vuitton clutch bag. The fact that I’m here partly for the purpose of editing the English in science textbooks has meant that I’ve spent quite some time wistfully looking out this window when the thought of correcting another completely abstruse sentence on moss gets too much for me.

Fortunately, I’m also here for a lighter purpose, which is to cover the Hong Kong Arts Festival. First up it was the legendary Wooster group, who lived up to expectations perfectly. Then a far, far less impressive local production that i thought was going to be my taste of young Hong Kong theatre, but turned out to be a school-holiday-shopping-centre musical. A spot of Baroque opera later and i was in a colonial cathedral listening to the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir rock out with some Arvo Pärt and Mendelssohn. On Friday night, Shostakovich snuck his head in with a bawdy proletarian opera set in Mtsensk. It featured some fleshy groping and one of the heartiest brass sections I’ve ever heard, but a dozen French horns make for some seriously disturbing coital accompaniment, so unless your sexual fantasies involve trebuchets and Stalin I wouldn’t go there. Now I’ve just got some Bach cello sonatas and a dance duet between Akram Khan and Juliette Binoche(!) left before i fly out.

My travel joys have been of the gastronomic variety. Sea urchin, sea snail, dim sum, double boiled chicken and more pork than an election-year budget. The local street markets in Mongkok have also been inspiring with everything from dried oysters to live toads on offer to the local cooks. But I wussed out and bought some mangoes and a pair of plimsoles.

I’ve done it in Turkey, i’ve done it in New York and now i’ve done it in Honkers. Whether you call it a sauna, a bastu, a shvitz or a hamam, as long as it’s a dry 58 degrees in there, i’m happy. The gym that our accommodation gives us access to is the very well-appointed invite-only Pacific Club. And so, having wandered past the cadre of naked old Hong Kong millionaire businessmen doing callisthenics in front of the mirrors, i’ve been sweating it out like the hairy little gweilo I am. Yep, I’ll leave you with that image rattling in your id.

From the heart of Bangla Town in so-hot-right-now East London, crammed between Shoreditch twats and Bank district suits, comes a postcard of indefatigable nonsense and misplaced perspicacity.

I’ve never before had quite so long to explore one city, so it’s been an indulgent affair of aimless wanderings, suburban jogs, swims at London Fields and naps on Hyde Park benches. The Tate Modern, being free, will see me enter and exit several times this fortnight with each visit adding just a few more rooms. An underwhelming staging of a potentially great fable by Marius von Mayenburg at the Royal Court has been the extent of my theatre-going, but I’m booked in for a “radical” Chekhov adaptation at the Gate tonight. Went to a club with Seb and Izi for a grime/dubstep night and got the full frisk and metal-detector job on the door. Ate an awesomely meaty mustard-slathered salt beef bagel on Brick Lane and ploughed into some hypercoloured Bangladeshi sweets. Might get to Daniel Kitson next week, might do the National Gallery, might go to Hampstead Heath … there’s still plenty of time.

Sundays are for markets in this neck of the woods. At the renovated Spitalfields markets its all artisan bread, watercolours and beads. Along Brick Lane its sheets on the pavement with dodgy DVDs, crappy furniture and cheap plimsoles, so one goes for the people-watching, not the substance. A short walk further north comes the Columbia Road flower markets, where deeply tanned East Enders and Turks shirtlessly plug their petunias and daphnes. In a highlight of the morning, a West Indian spruiker with a delectably camp Cockney twang held up a pot and hollered “Qu’est ce que c’est?” Then, with no response forthcoming, he sniffed the shrub and announced with glee “C’est LAVENDER!”

Saturday night in Spitalfields and a gang of us head to the uber-chic Story Deli where a friend, Sarah, makes organic pizzas on paper-thin crusts. The Deli is on Dray Walk, the epicentre of the Brick Lane cool factory where a polyglot parade of hipsters and scenesters spill out of bars and restaurants to sit and sip cider on the pavement. English accents are in the minority here. The skinny jeans and white-rim sunglasses belong to Swedes, Italians, Spaniards and Czechs. They flirt and ogle, drink and giggle and exist in a fashionably migratory vacuum that has nothing in common with the history of urgent migration that fills the rest of East London. Having said that, I know this milieu all too well … this could be The Exeter, or St Jerome’s, or any other such local lynchpin.

The pizzas devoured and the sky dark, we’re called away to a houseparty in Shoreditch, only a brief amble away. We don’t know anything about the party, but being the fashionably migratory knob-ends that we are, we heed the call. At the back of an off-licence, we find a door and walk up some stairs past a bedroom, up some more stairs, through a living room and kitchen, up more stairs to another bedroom, then up yet another flight to a rooftop. On the way up I noticed vast bowls of potato salad and trays of strawberries … odd. But before I can think about it too much we’re jostling to get through a sea of horn-rimmed glasses and vintage dresses. Staking out a corner of the rooftop, our gang of Kiwi musicians and Aussie groupies, settle in to the night. Downstairs, underneath a muted wall-projection of “The Wizard of Oz” there’s a 100 litre drum full of mojito, a map for guests to pin their home town on and a band kit lies dormant in a corner of the living room. Sometime close to midnight, a bespectacled gent with hooded eyes, a dapper blond wave of neatly parted hair and an unmistakable air of diplomacy approaches our little enclave of dagginess and informs us that “My sister’s band will start playing in around 5 minutes”. Our host is Swedish. Of course, the mountains of potato salad make so much more sense now. He is the epitome of the Swede in London. A man that has studiously applied the rules of chic to his life (and to this party) without necessarily enjoying any of it. He could have been presiding at peace talks in Chechnya… actually, he probably should have been. Nevertheless, his sister’s band bucked the current Swedish musical trend by being rubbish.

As the night, for us, grew to a close, a vampish Swedish girl and a dandy London lad squeezed themselves in beside me to get away from the madding crowds. Her opening line, which contextualised the entire evening for me, was simple enough: “I’m confident in my shallowness”. But the British boy, an architect, felt it necessary to lecture her on the engineering wonder of the glazing in the British Museum. He, it seemed, was insecure in his depth.

Mabul Island

Fellow travellers, vicarious eavesdroppers and others foolhardy enough to give me their email address, here comes another prolix postcard to warm the cockles and stroke your id. Once more, the winter that blights Melbourne has sent me scurrying for warmer climes and the chance to tiptoe through the excrement of other backpackers.

Why Borneo? Well, it’s the mystique innit — the jungles, the headhunters, the orangutans. But there’s also the fact that Sabah, which means “land below the wind”, and Sarawak, which are both part of Malaysia, don’t suffer the same monsoonal tempests that beset most of South East Asia in these months. I have just under 4 weeks to traverse the northern coast of the island, the last three of which will be shared wth that Dutch delight, Sander Fleuren. My first couple of days were spent at the orangutan rehabilitation sanctuary at Sepilok. Dumped my bags in the dorm and headed into the jungle via a boardwalk. The public area of the sanctuary is really just a freerange zoo (the nursery, where all the adorable orphan babies hang out is strictly quarantined) and there is no guarantee of a sighting but, as i wandered under the canopy and around a bend, there right in front of me was a young male gracefully meandering along the balustrade. I followed slowly, at a respectful distance but he slowed too, letting me approach nearer until side-by-side we walked like a Darwinian diagram (though the drection of evolution is debatable in this instance). Following his lustrous gaze upwards, i noticed another orangutan perched within the leafy camouflage. These moments of quiet intimacy, of spatial union, were apparently a rare exceptionto the rule and on the next two visits, the only things i could get intimate with was Japanese telephoto lenses and some rutting macaques that turned every tourist into a casual pornographer as flashes and videophones caught the female as she used the rhythm method of contraception — Catholic onlookers nodded with approval.

Leaving my hairy friends behind, i boarded a bus headed to Semporna, the gateway to some of the world’s top diving spots. The 6 hour journey was made even longer by the in-bus-video showing concert clips by Air Supply and Westlife along with local Sabah ballads — the equivalent of being stabbed repeatedly in the ears with knitting needles. But the realtragedy was not the foppish boy band pouts and poses, it was the view outside. We passed not a trace of natural vegetation but rather grid after grid of palm plantations with sinisterly auspicious names like “Prolific Yield Palm Oil”. At least i had Joseph Conrad to get me through it.

Getting off in Semporna i finally made contact with the only two other backpackers on the bus, Hannah and Madeleine, who were travelling together and also in town for the diving. We all jumped into the tray of a waiting ute and sped to the local office of Uncle Chang’s dive shop. I’d had Chang’s recommended to me by Avyi back in December because, unlike the other options, Chang’s allowed you to stay on one of the nearby islands, Mabul, without paying through the nose. I think the tag “Uncle” derives from the fact that, if Chang has had any kids, they aren’t legitimate enough to call him anything but “uncle”. His perennially bloodshot eyes, greasy long hair and brown teeth bespeak a life lived according the hours that booze and cigarettes dictate. Nevertheless, we signed up — me for my first ever scuba experience. We hopped into a skinny little speed boat for the hour-long trip to Mabul and made our way past the stilt villages that ring Semporna’s bay and paddle canoes replete with kids ecstatically waving at us, the passing whiteys.

The sun was beginning its lazy climb down the ladder of the sky as Pulau Mabul grew over the horizon from a tiny green clump into a not much bigger green clump. Fringed with blond beaches on all sides and stilt villages of vastly varying luxury, it looks back on the mountains of Sabah on one side and on the other, in the distance, lies the Phillipine archipelago, with its promise of contraband smugglers and the odd pirate party. Our arrival at Uncle Chang’s coincided with Uncle Chang himself and a case of Filipino rum that, unbeknownst to us, had been occupying the seat next to the pilot. So, while i’d like to think otherwise, i concede it was our boat companions and not ourselves that warranted the heraldry and alarums that sang over the water as we skimmed above the shallow reef waters. When i say heraldry, i mean a three-piece rock outfit spewing their amplified guitars and homemade drum kit straight out over the ocean. To a rock-out version of “Kingston Town” they substituted in the Chang theme song — a paean to Mabul, scuba and all who sail aboard. The band continued to play all night, with a rotating line-up of fashion-tousle-haired Phillipino grommets in vintage shirts and thongs. And, fuck, some of them could really play guitar — the Strokes, Killers, Guns n Roses, Rolling Stones, Oasis — if it held the chance for a quick-fingered solo, all the better.

After dinner, Hannah, Madeleine and I ventured out into the stilt village beyond Chang’s, wanting to see what the rest of the island held in store. No sooner had we exited the gate than we were joined with eccentric elan by a Canadian girl whose name eludes me but who became known as Cinderella thanks to her many lost slippers, her parasol and certain salacious rumours involving a jacuzzi and a man named Jeff. She seemed to know quite a few men on the island and she led us to where one of them was showing a video of underwater footage. Through the moonlit sand and plank walkways and alleys, past a small stall where the attendant had beautiful long hair and dwarfism, through a fence into the police compound, onto a beach, past a resort’s swimming pool, past a sub-machine gun toting sentry, through another set of makeshift wooden huts housing Filipino refugees, past mange-ridden dogs and onto a boardwalk that led to the salubrious Sipadan Water Village replete with obese Americans admiring their latest photos while resting their laptops on their swollen thighs. All within a 10 minute stroll.

In the resort, after meeting the “friend” and watching the video, we found ourselves involved in an unexpected “Baby Guiness train” at the behest of a pair of late-20s British merchant bankers who were hoping to enliven the staid lounge with some alcohol-derived bonhomie. Looking like a likely lad, i was asked to to lead the way as a giggly gaggle of Taiwanese and Japanese tourists were inculcated into the finer points of British drinking games.

No matter how nice iced Baileys and Tia Maria is on a tropical night, it was the other side of the island that drew me back on future nights. The Filipinos who have taken up their modest residency on Mabul are fleeing the fighting between their government and the Abu Sayyaf Islamist separatist group. Abu Sayyaf are best known in the West for kidnapping 21 divers and locals from the island of Sipadan 7 years ago … a 30 minute boat ride from Mabul and the location of my final three dives … no fear though, the Malaysian military patrol the waters these days. Anyway, the refugees are on Mabul without official legitimacy, so while they are allowed to reside there without the imminent risk of deportation, they are certainly not assisted either. Some of the huts are only tall enough to be sat in, others offer trinkets and lollies for sale. In the day time, i could turn my head towards open doors and be met by the haunting sight of several wizened, glistening eyes in the inky shadows. But out in the streets the kids would play, dance to Chuck Berry and (if they could affor it) go to school. At night, the alleys turned pitch dark and only a few lights twinkled behind loose planks thanks to the pop and throb of diesel generators. Most of the time, i wouldn’t take my camera … it seemed too complacent to take away only a digital image … so my presence was innocuous and fleeting but always met with nods or hellos from young and old.

Day one of my PADI open water scuba course and i’m up with the birds at 6.30am after a monsoon night. I was woken at 4am wth rain lashing across the dorm. My only roommate, a South African, had been on Chang’s paintstripper rum that evening and slept unstirred in that chalkline figur that best becomes the smashed. I could hear the splashes and calls of our neighbours as they lashed down their possessions and i too sprang into groggy action, jamming the window tight and dragging an empty bed across to prop the flapping door shut. With dawn, i noticed the mirror pond that had developed in the centre of the room like a poorly considered flurry of feng shui. Somehow every bag in the room was dry, so i grabbed my scuba books and went out into the slate-coloured dawn to cram.

I had two instructors, Chris and Joel. Chris, my theory instructor, looked like Smeagol with a tan (and did i mean impersonation too). A Filipino in his 40s, he once trained as an actor (to the dismay of his lawyer father), made his way in music and drug-addiction before becoming a diver. A man with impeccable English, a voracious intellect and enough dirty jokes and cynicism to balance the ascetic life of a vegetarian tee-totaller yogi. And in the great Filipino tradition, he’s worked throughout Asia for years without ever having a work permit. Joel, who took me out for the in-water training, was a no-nonsense Brit of grand proportions, who, did he not have a penchant for scuba, would be swilling lager and peanuts as some barfly on The Bill.

My first dive went like a dream. After 20 minutes of exercises at the sea floor, i still had plenty of air in the tank and so we went for a swim around one of Mabul’s reef. Frog fish, full grown cuttlefish showing its colours, crocodile fish, pipe fish, a ray … it was wonderful, amazing and so easy. Joel was impressed, and on our return to Chang’s proudly declared me a quote unquote natural which, for a geek who was scared of water most of his prepubescence, is like winning a fucking Oscar.

To someone new to diving there remains something fabulously unreal about the sensation. The technical aspects that absorb one’s attention, particularly the regularity of breath, make it a form of physical meditation but, every now and then, i’d pinch myself into consciousness and marvel at it all. Looking around at my fellow divers weightlessly drifting and twisting in the current, i was reminded of Werner Herzog’s fantasia Deep Blue Yonder that parallels divers with astronauts — both otherworldly, defying the limitations of humanity and exploring regions of infinite mystery … though Herzog would spew at such sentiments.

The crown jewel of islands here is Sipadan. The tiny island is the tip of a limestone pinnacle that rises 600m off the ocean floor, so that you swim above a rich and distant blue with a world of coral and sealife swarming along the walls at your side — yellow and red fish like a vortex of autumn leaves suspended. Across a day of dives you lose count of the turtles and sharks you glide beside and under and over, but when you spot a hammerhead, as we did, there are underwater high fives all round. I’m hooked, it’s clear.

Click here for the photos.

Stuart

We set off early saturday morning and Anne-Louise woke me with her arrival to pick me up. As i frantically got ready, she and Benedict zipped off to the Queen Vic markets for some spicy lamb boreks, which certainly suited my unkempt state. Picked up Stu and away we went to Wilson’s Promontory. It started raining on the way there, even though Melbourne’s forecast was “fine and 30”, but then i really should’ve checked the rural forecast. Anyway, the Prom’s national park looked amazing in the low clouds and drizzle … all heathy and scrubby and rugged and cretaceous like bits of Tasmania. Headed to Squeaky Beach, to meet Emily and Claire who had gone down to Yarram (Claire’s hometown nearby) the night before. The wind was lashing cold rain about the place when we got to the carpark but Claire’s aunt and uncle, sitting in parked car listening to radio, said the girls and Claire’s brothers were down at the beach swimming. Well i’ll be fucked if i was going to let a chance to swim slip by, so we all agreed to don togs and run down to the beach quick-smart before we froze (no point wearing clothes, it was bucketing down). Sooo teen-movie-dramatic with thick grey skies, epic boulders and hills, massive waves and a white-sand beach deserted bar us (we just needed a pumping Michael Nyman score and maybe a twist involving a dangerous rip). The water was almost warmer than the air but it was largely adrenaline and giggles that kept us alive. Much much fun. Salty hot chips afterwards too.

Then on to Yarram and Won Wron, where Stu’s parents have a dairy farm set amongst hills and bushland. Had a quick tour, then a feast of a meal, barbecued snags, lamb chops, venison and rabbit, with apricot relish, tabouli and pasta salad. Finished off with great stories from Stu’s folks and a bowl of plum and apple crumble. It was still raining … we had brought it with us … but it was time for spotlighting.

So, on went the rain jackets and gumboots and out came the quad-bike and trailer. Three on the quad-bike, three standing on the trailer and we were off. Soon we’d spotted two magnificent wild deer, a bunch of wombats, some kangaroos, a koala, a flock of very funny ducks, a rabbit, a fox, a possum, a wallaby and a little frog. All seen while zooming about at unsafe speeds across paddocks, over hills and down motorbike tracks through dense bush. The laughter and balance required left my abdominals aching. Standing on the trailer was brilliant with the rain cutting our eyes and the mud from the quad-bike’s back wheels splattering our faces, eyes and mouths wirthout us even realising it.

Back at the ranch, so to speak, we warmed and desiccated ourselves in front of a log fire in the humble “music room” and eventually managed to squeeze in enough mattresses to sleep all of us in there. The whole weekend was like a joyously regressive leap back into childhood … having adults wait in the carpark while we swam, being fed a sumptuous meal, quad-bike mayhem, and now a slumber party. It even reminded me of bucolic childhood scenes in Sweden.

I was the only one to wake with Stu the next morning for the milking and boy am i glad i did. Though manual milking is clearly much more pastoral-romantic, i was perfectly happy to just glide on the suction cups and let the wonders of a vacuum do the work for me. 143 cows later (i did about 3, i didn’t want to get in the way too much) and it was time for brekky … more kid food, porridge and raisin toast, yeah!!! Cups of tea, more rain outside, more stories inside and then it was time to leave for a drive up into a temperate rainforest wonderland and a hill-top guest house for scones and pumpkin soup. Then down the other side, past a massive coal power station for a very different kind of grandeur and back to Melbsville, straight to my tutoring job.

See the photos.

Kabak

Having enjoyed two sensational nights in Faralya, we were reluctant to miss “mamma’s dinner” the next night, but another adventure called. We left our packs at George House and with nothing more than board shorts, towels, sleeping bags and the sound of Sander singing “How Deep is Your Love” we boarded a dolmus bound for the secluded beach of Kabak. After a short, serpentine, gravel-road trip we disembarked at the top of yet another amazing valley with a beach at the bottom. The walk down was a fair way, though not as steep as Butterfly Valley and on our way we passed numerous eco-friendly-lentil-loving-how’s-your-chakra treehouse villages with names like ‘Reflections’ and tag-lines like “treehouses, bungalows and dreams”. Well, give me a crystal and call me Sunshine, this was definitely an irony-free zone.

Having managed to evade the clawing grasp of yoga devotees, fluoro-pennant twirlers, henna tattooers, raiki healers and feng shui functionaries, we emerged from the carab scrub onto a beach — of sand. I’ve been to my fair share of beaches this trip and, let me tell you, good quality sand is a rarity. The previous day’s beach activity had been limited to reclining, walking and reclining some more, so it was about time that we cut loose with our inner child. With half a beach to ourselves, we played a bastardised petanque with pebbles, then had the inspired idea of a sandcastle. With glee and gusto we set about our task, to the bemusement of the too-cool-for-school treehouse dwellers. With no bucket and no spade we dug out a moat with our hands before i discovered that we had opposable thumbs and, after the necessary celebratory dance, started using aptly formed sticks and stones as reudimentary tools. A pyramid, tower, tunnel, balcony, flag, boulevard, arched gates, cave dwellings, forest, bridge and stone wall later and two geeks who obviously played with Lego as kids, had just spent two hours concocting a minor masterpiece. Right, time for a swim and a lie down.

Eluding the sun, i sought refuge under a loosely constructed wooden shelter standing on stilts behind the sand. It belonged to the local family whose farmhouse and vegetable garden backed on to the beach and they were perfectly happy to have a quiet stranger sit and muse as their children napped in a hammock or invented games of daring jumps and ventures. Sander, who’d been working on evening out his Arsenal uniform sunburn, soon joined me and we shared remembrances until a posse of Suzuki open-tops clattered down the tractor path and deposited a pink-and-blonde family of Brits. They’d just purchased some spear-fishing gear (as you do) and were struggling to get the shiny contraptions set up when they asked us for help. With no applicable experience and the image of rotating doner kebabs bright in my mind, i politely protested my ignorance and Sander and i made a brisk exit, stage left, to have lunch.

Up the valley at one the treehouse retreats, a worldbeat remix of Tuvan throat singing seemed to be on loop at the terrace restaurant. Enjoying the view and the slothful pace, a handful of guests, including ourselves, were taken aback when a flustered man with a speargun in hand arrived and announced in a thick Irish brogue: “feckin hell of a walk!” Then, to me, what could have been “can it get any hotter here?”. i said “pardon?” … “can ye get any HASH here?”. Sander piped in, “perhaps … the wild boar goulash tasted kinda funny.”

Back to the beach for sundown, we commandeered a kayak and a sail-less windsurfing board for a bit of splashy fun. The caedars on the mountains overflowed with colour. Then, with the last flicker of the red sun licked by the ocean, we were almost alone on the beach. We unrolled our sleeping bags and got ready for a night on the sand under the stars. Almost alone. Behind us, in the scrub, a pair of kombi-van-conceived girls were gurning and playing tambourines outside their tent. In front of us, on a small cliffy promontory, a flexible couple were in the thralls of a silhouetted communion of bodily fluids — an X-rated kabuki show with tambourine soundtrack. Can’t compete with that shit.

Show over (i had to restrain myself from applauding, Sander was apparently giving them a standing ovation), the encore was the onset of mosquitoes. Sander and I were reduced to solving the world’s problems with voices muffled by the suffocating enclosure of our sleeping bags. But the cool night breeze eventually cleared the pesky little fuckers away and the moon, only half full, shone like a floodlight across the beach. Waves rolled in and pulled at pebbles with the glassy sound of marbles in a jar. Talk and laughter. The moon swung in ana arc across the black until it approached the horizon looking like half an old coin — its proximity to the salt water enough to rust its delicate face. The moon submerged allowed the full starry blanket to turn itself up all the way to 11 and the Milky Way opened up to us.

Sleep ……. who’s talking to me? … talking? people! fuck! danger! Sit bolt upright, taking in the sight of figures at the water’s edge calling across the sea — bloody hippies almost gave me a heart attack. Sleep.

I awoke to a humming sound and, being fairly certain that Sander had neither a shaver nor any other electrical devices with him, i opened my eyes to the daylight out of curiosity. Then, almost instantly, i shut them again. There were about a dozen wasps circling my face. I haven’t been stung since i copped three in the back in Sweden when i was six, but the pain i recall was enough to halt my breath and make my head disappear into the protective shell of my travel sheet. Feeling safe, if a little trapped, i almost enjoyed seeing their shadows through the translucent silk as they stepped aimlessly across my blue shroud. Sander awoke and he too was being buzzed, but by only a couple of wasps, whereas i, less than a metre away, was attracting big crowds. Helpful and practical as always, Sander laughed at me, then ran away to save himself. After too many minutes of whimpering and growing paranoia, i burst free of my sheath and ran to the water — some wasps followed but the majority stayed swarming over my sleeping bag. Those of you biologically inclined will undoubtedly tell me what they are attracted to (smell, colour, wankers?) but i was mystified. I scrambled back to my belongings, bundled them up and, with my sleeping bag flapping behind me head like a flag, outran the wasps to the other side of the beach … unfortunately i was missing Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire” music but i did hear the faint tinkling of tambourines.

See photos.

Faralya

After a week with John on that special hunk of Mediterranean rock known as Symi, i bid my short, hairy father adieu and crossed a border that is undemanding in distance but perilous in political terms — the waters between Greece and Turkey.

But before i regale you with startling stories featuring fezzed, monobrowed men flattening entire Cappadocian villages with giant boreks, let me give you a brief synopsis of my time in Symi.

Sleep. Wake. Think better of it and go back to sleep. Wake. Eat yoghurt, honey and fruit. “It’s so fucking hot”. Walk down to the rocks and jump in the water. Sit in the sun to get that Malden Sea Salt look around the eyebrows. “It’s so fucking hot”. Back in the water. Sit in the shade and read Patrick White’s “The Eye of the Storm”. Go home and make enormous horiatiki. Wash down with retsina. Nap. Watch the World Cup at a local bar with a beer. Indulge in dinner of mezes. Watch the World Cup at a local bar with ouzo. Feel overwhelmed by refereeing injustices, heat, alcohol and gluttony. Sleep.

Now for Turkey!

The wine-dark waters of the Mediterranean were swelled and white=capped as i set off for Fethiye. The hydrofoil i was on, The Flying Poseidon (sometimes spelt “Flaying Poseidon” to attract the S&M crowd, i suppose), initially tried to do its name justice but the choppy waters forced the captain to pull back the tricks and plough through the water like any regular boat. The cabin was filled with generously-proportioned Yorkshire couples (“me friends Mike and Doreen have just moved into one of those fixed caravan numbers, you know, to get away from the grandkiddies”) who could have been cast as bawdy innkeepers in an episode of Blackadder. Not being in the mood to chat about Sven-Goran and the tortures of penalties with members of a nation that has the same conversation every 4 years, i escaped to the back of the boat. As Greece slipped into the pale haze of distance, i watched the hypnotic plumes of broiling white water that flushed out from under the boat. Each wave we came to was invited in, considered by the propeller and then rejected until finally the Poseidon, grown weary with toil, came to a point of satisfaction in the calm marina of Fethiye. The sun, low on the horizon, brought out every wrinkle in the tiers of mountains that rose above the small town. And the mountains, in their vanity, blushed pink.

Reclaiming my land-legs, i waited with quiet anxiety in the passport line, hoping firstly that the 20 euros i had on me would indeed be enough for a visa and, secondly, that a cheery Dutch boy, my erstwhile VCA comrade Sander, would be waiting for me on the other side of the cyclone fencing. Poseidon was obviously smiling on me: i got my visa and Sander was waiting at an al fresco bar across the street with a cold beer for me. An auspicious beginning no?

After a pint, two silly boys walked into the Pamukkale office to book bus tickets. The very sweet and undoubtedly cute girl behind the desk spoke a “liddul” English and with Sander and having picked up a few Turkish words on his way to meet me, there proceeded a very endearing, very smiley exchange of flirtatious looks and a rudimentary mutual language lesson between all three of us. The success of this exchange is debatable — we got the right tickets, but i still left the office with Sander as my companion … “maybe she drives the bus as well” … “shut up”.

Nightfall was setting in as we took a pricier than expected (thanks Lonely Planet) taxi ride out to the mountainside village of Faralya. The lilac light of a warm Mediterranean night poked its way out from behind mountains big enough to create their own weather systems. Our little taxi putted its way up the slopes and around the bends, above the tourist centres on the coast and past the dull bells of goats teetering on the edge of a precipice. We’d organised to stay at George House, a family pension set on terraced farmland that clings with spectacular tenacity to the cliffs above Butterfly Valley.

On arrival, Hasan, the gently-voiced anglophone of the family, greeted us and took us for a quick tour. Apart from a few rooms in the house, there were two-mattress log huts and treehouses. We chose a treehouse. Nothing more than a plank floor, three cotton-sheet walls for privacy, an open view onto the valley and a grape vine laden with near-ripe fruit as a ceiling. Perfect.

After watching the World Cup with our hosts, we tucked ourselves in. Between the weighty grape clusters, the inky sky was dotted by stars. And sleep …………….. it’s still dark but somewhere in the valley a rooster hallucinates a sunrise and either the echo is astonishing or every other rooster in earshot just told him he got it wrong … back to sleep ………….. The sun’s actually up and, apart from the roosters who know a sunrise when they see it, the air is full of the whirr and rasp of a million crickets and cicadas warning that the cool mountain air is about to be burnt by the sun.

The slanting light of morning revealed the full extent of the hanging gardens we were amidst — oranges, pomegranates, melons, tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, olives, apricots) — all irrigated by the natural spring water that flows from the mountain and which provides us with the best free drinking water imaginable. The extended family, over a dozen siblings and partners, own around 14sqkm in this valley and adjoining ones, providing our breakfast and dinner with everything from goat’s milk yoghurt and fetta, to wild honey, to fresh bread, to wine from the grapes we slept under and so on. Absolute fucking heaven.

Having filled our bellies, Sander and i packed our bathers and began the the steep descent to Butterfly Valley along craggy paths and down rope ladders. On the even steeper cliff face opposite us, we could see the black shapes of goats finding their own hazardous way down. Sander’s Lonely Planet didn’t recommend the path because an Australian died after he “took a wrong turn” — we tried to work out where this could’ve been but the only way to take a wrong turn on a cliff path is to step off the edge, but when i lost my footing on a glass-smooth stone and arrested my fall in an elegant breakdance pose, the thought of looking down wasn’t appetising. Nevertheless, the trek was more exciting than scary and the bird’s-eye views of the valley were remarkable.

Down on the flat valley floor, the eponymous butterflies splashed red wings onto a green canvas of cultivated fields highlighted by sunflowers. Apart from a small local farming population, Butterfly Valley is home to an earnestly alternative clique of young Turks and tanned ex-pats who sleep in tents, doze in the shade, strum guitars, swim at the beach and hang out playing backgammon and picking the lice out of each other’s dreadlocks at a treehouse called the “loveshack”. The only thing to spoil this indolent Eden is the midday influx of day-trippers from the package hotels to the north. Not quite being earnest enough to join the clique, Sander and I satisfied ourselves with a lazy day in the water and in the sun, with a bit of Arundhati Roy and Patrick White thrown in for good literary measure. Though i’m sure the loveshack is the place to be at sunset, we had a cliff to climb.

So, bathed in sweat from the exertion and the shimmering heat, the soothing chill of of a shower and mountain air eased us into sunset. And what a sunset! Triteness is inevitable but sitting in landscape as emphatic as this with a red-faced sun slipping into distant water while paragliders are silhouetted against the sky is great stuff no matter what. The muezzin’s call to prayer was followed subtly, though certainly secularly, by the bell for dinner — and having not eaten since breakfast, i answered the right calling.

Dinner was served in the communal area — a shoeless domain of soft carpets and floor cushions that opened out onto a similarly padded balcony through large open windows. With our fellow guests (two Israeli families, a Belgian family, a Turkish couple and a pair of Dutch backpackers) we sat in a grand rectangle on the floor — our plates and forks hungry for food. And there it came, on enormous silver trays: a vegetarian feast of home-cooked, home-grown delights. Ocra, aubergine, potato, capsicum, ricotta, lentils and variations thereof cooked in tomato spiced with garlic, paprika, parsley, cummin and chilli. Salad and brown rice to go with it, dense spongy bread to mop it up and the spry home-made white wine to wash it down. Followed by rice porridge with apple, cinnamon semolina cake, yoghurt with honey for dessert. Oh God! One of the advantages of eating on the floor is that with an effortless pivot one can be prostrate and allow the metabolism to catch up with one’s Bacchanalian instincts.

Watch out! A small greco-swede from the antipodes is once again sitting at a far-flung keyboard and composing ‘postcards’ that are far too long for the myspace generation’s attention spans ……

Flying from the third-largest Greek city in the world (Melbourne) to the largest Greek city (Athens) was always going to be a woggy affair. My fellow Hellenics, linked by thousands of years of culture and the smell of garlicky sweat, were mainly in family groups. There sat the father, pot-belly stretching and distorting the zipper on his shiny leisure suit; there sat the mother, chin resting on chin as her down-turned lips twitched with every plait she made in her daughter’s hair; ah yes, there the sebaceous children, their brows shiny with the heat of oncoming puberty.

On the plane, I was treated to not one, not two but four of these petulant pre-pubescent petals sitting around me at every compass point. The child of the South obviously struggled to fit his 4-foot frame into the cramped seating and found it necessary to kick my chair as though he were dancing like Anthony Quinn. Anyway, strong winds across the centre of Australia soon reduced my four friends to a mass of vomitous self-pity. And i did pity them … not even the sound of my southward torturer spitting out the last bile could bring a sadistic smile to my face. After all, it’s hard to take pleasure in other people’s suffering — especially when the smell of their suffering is creeping into one’s nose. Having niftily switched seats after Singapore, I found myself next to some temazepam-popping wasps who let me sleep all the way to Dubai.

I arrive in Athens in the early afternoon, giving me enough time to dump my pack at the hostel, step out into the scorching heat, wander through the laneways of Plaka and do the ubiquitous trip up to the Acropolis before settling down in front of a big TV with drunk Aussies to watch our boys get beaten by an underwhelming Brazilian team. Eh, what can you do?

Athens is a hot, polluted, stinky kind of a town in summer but i managed to check off most of the touristy necessities without strain. But i ask you, once you’ve seen one doric, have you seen them all? Ruins … schmuins. “Philistine!” i hear you cry. Well … whatevsona (yeah, cop that bilingual pun). So, before falling into Ancient Greek ennui, I decide to make haste for the island of Lefkada.

I wake at 5am, anticipating my alarm clock, and after a shower and a re-pack, i hoist my belongings onto my shoulders and step out into the tepid grey light of morning. The Plaka reclaims some sense of reality at this hour. Gone are the tourists, gone are the multilingual-charm-your-pants-off spruikers, gone is the delirious hubbub of a benign simulacrum. In its place, homeless men taking shelter on cereal packaging outside a jewellery shop, stray dogs with ragged coats and limps that give them the deadened look of returned soldiers, and handfuls of young Greeks returning home after a night of clubbing.

… over Syntagma square, down to the Metro, two stops, Omonia square, round the corner, Bus 51 arrives …

The woman at the hostel suggested taking a taxi to get to Bus Terminal A, but (a) I’m cheap and (b) public transport is so much more stimulating. Bus 51 seems to be going through a Minoan labyrinth of streets and i briefly wonder whether i shouldn’t unstitch my t-shirt and let the cotton unravel me a safe path back from whence i came. However, given that the driver is Athenian, we’re going around corners, through lights and down alleys so fast that we get to the Terminal before i can get my sewing kit out.

I find the ticket office for the bus to Lefkada and dutifully line up only to be told that the bus is full (it’s 6.15am and the next bus is at 1pm) but the man puts my name on a list, so i figure there’s still a chance and dutifully sit to ponder a Plan B. Hmmm, Plan B aint looking so crash hot … no booking in Athens and all the youth hostels are full, 1pm bus gets me to Lefkada at 7pm, which doesn’t give me much chance of sorting things out there. Blah blah. I shouldn’t have worried because while i’m worrying the ticket guy is calling out names and handing out the last seats on the bus. Springing into action, i bludgeoned my way past the Mongolian man in a strange leather vest selling massage seat covers by forcibly rubbing them against people, past the toothless “yiayia” selling Kleenex travel packs, past the bling-laden Greek-American woman talking loudly about real estate in Manhattan and into the view of the ticket guy, who, after some earnest hand-waving and pantomime on my part, issued me with a ticket.

Lefkada is an island to the west of Athens, in the Ionians, that is connected to the mainland by a narrow landbridge that was once a natural isthmus before those naughty Corinthians dug it out. Its centre is mountainous and green, its coastline spectacular and the west is fringed with beaches of incredible beauty and seclusion. It hasn’t given way entirely to the hordes from the north but come summer and there’s plenty of lobster-coloured blonde tourists paying their 3 euros for a sunbed on the east coast. Like the good contrarian that i am, i spurn the comfortable, warm waters of the east and seek out the west coast — open to the full brunt of the Mediterranean.

The west coast has only a handful of villages and getting to the beaches requires a bit of effort. So, in a rather indulgent move, I hired a car — a small, bright green Kia Picanto — an indulgence qualified by the fact that i planned to also use the car as accommodation, washing line, storage locker and companion (indeed, the quasi-Iberian “Picanto” suggested something of a Don Quixote-Sancho Panza relation). Anyway, Sancho and i got ready to fight those dastardly windmills by quickly reminding ourselves how to drive a car, how to drive a manual and how to do it all on the other side of the road. Got there eventually and, 10 minutes later, I’d managed to park around the corner from the rental office at a supermarket to stock up on water, water and more water. I then proceeded to get lost, as i’d planned to i might add, because i thought it best to get used to the car in the main town before venturing too far. For a moment i considered spending the next four days closely exploring just the block of Lefkada where i rented the car but soon i was on my way up into the hills to the small village of Karya, where i lunched out on the plateia shaded by plane trees, overlooking a verdant valley. Not a bad start.

From Karya, Sancho and I wound our way down a stack of hairpins to a beach on the west coast called Megali Petra. The water was a lustrous turquoise, the pebbles a smooth white and the land and sea tussled with each other over limestone boulders that must have been tossed down from the mountains by an angry Titan some millenia ago. Only a handful of bathers were in attendance and as the sun dropped further and further i was left by myself. Floating in between the rocks, the sunset swell gently lolled me up and down and, as the sun’s warmth faded behind the haze, i rested in a nook of rock which exuded the day’s heat back into me. With darkness came the mosquitoes and i made my bed in the car’s busy interior before watching the lights of the ferries plying the Adriatic cross the horizon in apparent stillness.

I woke at dawn, ate the juiciest peach ever, took to the beach before anyone had a chance to join me and felt all the luckier for it. As the sun rose higher and the old bronzed French nudist couples began dotting the beach, Sancho and I left for further adventures in the cooler climes of the mountains. Stopping at a little taverna further down the coast, i briefly fooled the owners into thinking i was Greek (obviously my pronunciation isn’t as bad i thought) and they expressed their gratefulness for a Greek (“enas ellinas”) amongst the usual foreigners (“xenous”) but after managing to pick out those words, i got lost in a cascade of consonants and had to fess up.
Having shaded myself from the harsh zenith of the sun, i arrived at Porto Katsiki (the comical and rather suggestive translation being “Goat Port”). Alas, there was nary a goat or naughty sailor to be seen. However, there was the most spectacular and blissful beach i’ve ever set eyes on. Vertical cliffs rise up from a wine-glass bay of gently lapping water. The pebbles are gentle and white and, as one paddles through the crystal clear water, one can look back at the cliffs and see small seabirds swirling about the nests perched on the slightest crag in the rock face. Just too good.

I spent two nights parked atop the cliffs at Porto Katsiki and continued my daytime drives around the island. My driving got very good with practice and i quite enjoyed the hair-raising, single-lane, cliff-top snake-bends that tended to scare the day-tripping tourists. I did wish that i had a CD or two with me because, whether i was picking up Greek or Italian radio, it was largely europop trash that i had to listen to and i found myself deliriously re-wording Enrique Iglesias songs with nonsensical choruses (who would have thought that “Bailamos” could become an ode to Spartacus). I also developed an allergy to Belgian drivers and they drove me to consider that equivocal country’s place or misplace in the world. Are they kind of French, or are they kind of German? They don’t know, and neither do we. Chocolate they’re good at, sure, but i can’t think of a single decent eurovision entrant from Belgium in the two decades i’ve been following it. That’s right, they’re flying under the international radar with their neutrality and their fancy beers and i’ve had enough!

Right, back to it. After four days of beaches, villages, sun, salt and nothing to eat except fruit, local wood-fire bread and horiatiki (greek salad) on Lefkada i had to say goodbye to this little idyll and once more do the six hours of bus trip back to the capital. This time on the bus i was seated next to an elderly Greek woman who’s eyesight was obviously still very keen because she could spot a church, monastery or wayside shrine some kilometres in the distance and cross herself twice before i even got a chance to see it. As the hours went by and my restlessness increased, i began to play a kind of “where’s wally?” game of trying to spot the orthodox institutions before she started to cross herself and, as we approached Athens, i was actually subtly nudging her and pointing them out with my eyebrows to make sure she got to cross herself for every one of them … I mean, He/She is watching us everywhere right? Nothing makes a bus trip go fast quite like playing with the pious. Naughty.

Back in Athens, i stayed at a hostel further out from the tourist spots, which gave me and the Arizonan girls i met a chance to watch the World Cup and hang out with the local kids and Balkan migrants at some untouristy haunts over a glass of Mythos. The next day, i managed to sneak into see the Parthenon for free just for the sake of doing something before heading off to the island of Rodos to meet me old man, John.

That’s where i’m at now. Surrounded by more tanned and toned Scandinavians than you can find on the shelves of an adult bookstore — it’s most disconcerting. Ahem … having seen Australia ejected from the Cup after a criminal case of refereeing, we just ate and drank away our sorrows with retsina, ouzo, and fresh seafood. Tough life eh? Tomorrow, it’s off to the ancestral island home of the Polias dynasty, Symi — the island where my Greek grandparents were born, and given that my grandfather (Vasilios, “Bill”, “Frog”) passed away only last week, the timing couldn’t be more fitting. After a week in Symi, it’ll be off to Turkey for a week with my favourite Dutchman, after which i might just grace your inboxes with another epistle.

The Commonwealth Games here in Melbourne brought thousands of athletes and officials to town. It also brought a bevy of pin-wearing, aqua-clad volunteers who over-eagerly pointed people in random directions and man-handled them into trams and buses. Lanyards became the hottest accessory, with the fashion-conscious finding ways to wear them like a rifle slung over the shoulder. With something like $15 million in funding, the arts festival that coincided with the Games brought endless amounts of FREE music, dance, circus and theatre. Getting to see the shows involved lining up for hours for the limited seats, so alas, the time-poor comme moi, had to make do with tastes of street-art brilliance (Five Angry Men doing “The Bells” was a highlight).

Coinciding with all this was the Next Wave festival for emerging artists, which also received some Games funding. Going along to the opening of one of the centrepieces of Next Wave, The Container Village, was initially as much about the prospect of meeting fashionista artists and drinking free beer as it was about artistic integrity. The Village was a disused warehouse in the old docklands filled with a two-level agglomeration of around 50 empty shipping containers, each given over to the use of a particular artist or group. The opening was packed with black-clad chics but the feeling was of excitement, friendliness and warmth … maybe it was the cask wine talking. In any case, I found out that one of the containers was vacant in the second week of the festival. After about two seconds of careful consideration, I decided that this was a criminal case of lost opportunity and so i approached one of the associate producers and said “We’ll use it!”. By “we”, I meant the band of five friends from VCA who I’d managed to convince in the preceding ten seconds. What would we do? We’d improvise. Using the non-verbal, non-literal method of improvisation called Pulse, that we’d worked on last year, we’d create four 1-hour-long pieces of theatre. The shipping container, open on one side, had a thrust stage with rudimentary lighting and a PA and our improvised pieces would be like installations that people could watch for a bit and then move on and come back to. There was no seating for the audience, we would just be another exhibit in a warehouse full of installations.

There followed the most ridiculously exhausting and exhilarating weekend of my recent memory. Hot weather and a tin shed make for sweaty work, especially when you’re doing improvised physical theatre for an hour at a time. We allowed the Games’ spirit to infect our clothing … sweat bands and sports gear … and just as well, see the photos for the glistening sheen of perspiration. It was all worth it. We came up with some great stuff, especially in the last session (when we’d really got in sync), I found muscles i’d forgotten i had and we had people standing or sitting on the asphalt for forty minutes watching us, which was a great surprise. The organisers were thrilled with us. So, yes, a good thing.

A recipe for adventure:

Take one small Carl Nilsson-Polias, add a pinch of Anna and Ross Kingston, simmer for fifteen minutes slowly stirring in a cup of Robin Tatlow-Lord and serve with an eye-catching garnish of Alexis Buxton-Collins.

What do you get? A hiking party in Tasmania’s wilderness. And, no, I didn’t pilfer those names from a Noel Coward play or a Jane Austen novel, there actually were that many hyphens in the group … and such well-bred, sophisticated hyphens at that … apart from that first one which reeks of ethnicity!

Yes, Tasmania, that suggestively shaped island to the south which is the brunt of too many jokes about cousinly love and Mars bar wrappers used as prophylactics. A state in which, up until even my all-too-recent childhood, politicians were frothing at the mouth about the manifold evils of legalising “buggery” in parliament (ambiguous syntax entirely intended). An apparently backward and reactionary population and yet 18% voted for the Greens at the last ballot. But i wasn’t in town to give a sociology lecture, I was there to climb up a mountain. Specifically, Frenchman’s Cap in the World Heritage-listed Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park (more hyphens!).

Alexis and I both worked at that den of culinary depravity, the Adelaide University Refectory, and there is a special kind of bond that develops between people as they stand side-by-side ladling glutinous gravy over damp chips to spotty first years. In any case, Alexis invited me along on the hike one warm December evening while on the set of a short film we were acting in. Now, that isn’t just a frivolous plug for my thesping ways but an attempt at a neat segue. For, you see, amongst our little camping cabal were a dancer, a visual artist, a musician, a writer and me with my combustible dramatic urges. Quite the little Renaissance team … maybe I’ll pitch it to Mattel as a new set of action figures.

All of us were in Melbourne for a couple of days before heading across the Bass strait, and while I was zipping about on my scooter from house inspection to house inspection (growing more and more disillusioned), Anna was out all night with her dance troupe touring the nightspots and doing impromptu performances … (grumble, grumble) which would you prefer? Alexis and I had the same flight to Launceston so we met at the A1 Bakery beforehand for a much savoured spinach and cheese triangle and zataar, the perfect traveller’s feast.

Launceston has a gorge. It’s a rather pretty town with some great old weatherboard houses but really, it has a great big gorge where the kids can jump off the rocks into the water or swim (and we did) and apart from that there’s not much else. Though small towns have their charms, like Launceston’s airport, which does away with the luggage conveyor belt, opting instead for that little golf-buggy-with-trailer to just drive on up to the terminal so everyone can just go and pick off their bag, which means there’s none of that annoying “my bag’s on the other side of the belt, do I wait patiently or walk around and get it and risk missing it” stuff to deal with.

We were sleeping on the floor of Anna’s friend’s house and I had a restless night of insomnia. Being in travel mode, I thought “fuck sleep” and at 5am I decided I probably wasn’t going to get any anyway, so I crept pass my slumbering accomplices and went out into the brisk twilight. Having arrived only the previous night I hadn’t seen anything of Launceston in daylight, and due to the fact that Alexis and I didn’t realize JetStar didn’t have reserved seating we ended up down the back with no window to look out of, which meant we had the eerie experience of knowing that we travelled somewhere but nothing more, kind of like being locked in a car boot. But, yeah, I was fairly confident it was Launceston I was stepping out to meet. There were some other dawn-risers out in their tights and sneakers and I figured they’d know a good scenic place to walk, so I thought about following one of them from a distance, but then a small old man with talc-white hair and hiking boots crossed my path. Him! So, like a timid Alice, I followed my little white rabbit in a “I’m not following you, you walk this way too? what a coincidence” kind of way. Half-way through some suburban scrubland I lost him, maybe he found a warren, but he did indeed lead me to a nice spot where the high grass danced in the golden sunlight and other such saccharine delights.

Later that day, down in the gorge, Alexis, Robin and I went for a swim in the basin. It was a hot day for Tassie (mid 30s) and all the cool fourteen year-old boys were parading their Industrie polos and the girls their Roxy bottoms. On the water, Robin and I met Emily, who was 10 and whose parents had left her and her brother at the gorge while they “looked at fences”. Now, maybe they were doing some renovations but I did wonder whether that wasn’t possibly the most innocuous subterfuge for a dirty day without the kids ever! Anyway, Emily had this great big tree trunk that she was paddling about on and Robin and I asked if we could join in. Soon we had quite the little circus act going on, balancing this way, diving off that way etc. (Nostalgic note: reminded me of being in Parnu with Anna and bashing into lots of little Russian kids on the water slide, yeah). So we did that for an hour or two and then thought we better get some supplies for the hike …

I was the only one out of the lot of us with a driver’s license, so I had the great honour of driving our hire-car (cheaper than the bus!) across the Great Western Tiers down to the trail head near Frenchman’s Cap. The first part of the hike took us across the Franklin River and up through dense forest, gaining several hundred metres in altitude very quickly. Then we got to go downhill for a while but that’s only fun until you realize it means you’ve just got more uphill to go. The fact is, describing walking through nature with a 20kg backpack is a pedestrian affair. Nothing I can write can properly communicate the experience. The very point of hiking is to do it. Travel books can be entertaining in their own right for their cultural curios but hiking books are dull, functional pieces whose attempts at literary merit seem unnecessary folly. “Unnecessary folly” … that could be my motto.

We had much fun on the first day trying to get through the infamous Sodden Loddons, a stretch of floodplains whose saturated soil creates blanket areas of sticky, thick, black, plashy peat. It’s impossible not to get muddy even in the dry summer months (in winter it can resemble a black river) so we had a running tally of how many times we lost an entire leg to the mud. After the bog, our boots squelching satisfactorily in time with one another, we decided to keep walking until we got to the first hut, thereby guaranteeing a dry night. So, as the light waned, we climbed through temperate rainforest complete with mossy trees, babbling brooks and any other Romantic fixation found in Keats et alia. We got to the hut just as the last light was creeping through the trees and quickly changed into dry thermals and got the Trangias blazing. We’d decided to be gourmet on the first night, so out came the shitake and the ginger and the soy and the sweet chilli and the snow peas and the mushrooms and the ……. well, we got it ready pretty quickly but a couple of the other (older) hikers in the hut wanted an early morning and began shushing us as we whispered conversation to each other (at the unhiking time of 9:30pm). We agreed that whispering is pretty annoying when you want to sleep so instead they had to listen to our jaws clench, our teeth grind and our lips smack as we devoured our dinner … which we agreed would be even more annoying.

Day two was big. Something about the landscape kept reminding me of Klaus Kinski in “Fitzcarraldo”, and I was glad I wasn’t an insane German trying to pull a steamboat over a mountain in the Amazon … but sometimes it felt like I was. The photos I took can’t do justice to the literally breathtaking extremity of the landscape. The climbs are at times almost vertical and the descents destroy your knee caps as you clang down with the pack’s added weight. From the hut at Lake Vera we ascended for two straight hours or so up to Barron Pass where we got our first clear look at Frenchman’s and the surrounding peaks, valleys and lakes. A few hours later, we left our packs at Lake Tahune and began the final clambering ascent up to the peak. Totally worth it. Suddenly we could see from the tip of Lake Gordon to the south to Mt Ossa in the north. We’d been blessed with blue skies for the entire hike and the rubble of quartzite at the top of the Cap was white as snow in the unfettered sunlight. We cracked open some ginger nut biscuits and soaked up the Nature of it all. Brilliant.

Day three. Everyone’s thoroughly sick of scroggin (the slang for dried fruit and nuts) and we’ve all decided that apricot is a daggy fruit. The log book in the huts can make for entertaining reading and we’ve all been given a totem animal in keeping with the back-to-nature-Rousseauian bent that hiking tends to promulgate … I’m an ocelot. Totes. We end up walking all the way from Lake Tahune to the car. That’s about 18km of difficult terrain with packs. In an unspoken consensus, we go at our own pace through the thickest of the rainforest, each getting a chance to feel alone amongst the ferns and birdcalls. Bliss.

We get to the Franklin River, set up our Trangias, drop in some 2-minute Mie Goreng and get devoured by mosquitoes as we demolish the MSG. It’s dark by the time we get to the car, we’ve been walking for 11 hours … and I still have to steer us back to Hobart. Baile funk, Apricot Delights and great conversation make for a safe and effortless drive. We hit one possum but saw about a dozen wallabies. Past a hydroelectric plant (aka the Dalek factory), past the evil corporate Scandinavian greed of Norske Skog, through towns where the only sound is the broken hum of an old fluoro tube at a truck stop, to Hobart and the floor of Ross’ apartment. My legs felt like springs that had been coiled so long they’d forgotten how to loosen but I got to wash for the first time in three days, which was nice. And then to sleep. 2am.

An enormous electric storm blew across Tasmania later in the night so I was definitely glad we didn’t bust open the tents (which “may be waterproof”). Hobart was great. Alexis and I found a laidback youth hostel to stay at, then I had a wander down to Salamanca. Robin soon joined me and we checked out the waterfront. We reached the Centre for the Arts where some hip young things were milling, so we sauntered into the crowd to find we were at some kind of exhibition launch where there was free beer, wine and Turkish bread with hommus. Art, libations and hommus, I couldn’t have dreamt up a more perfect situation! Amazingly, Ross and Anna were there as well, though they actually intended to be there because Ross knew some of the art students. Lots of uber-cool trans-Bass kids (in other words, Tasmanians who’ve become chiced-up by Melbourne) were sitting around in fedoras and pirate outfits swilling the grog and contemplating the cocaine-inspired artwork. Cocaine? Well, one of the exhibits was installation pieces based on wool and salt that had a distinctly white-powder aesthetic. And another exhibit was a set of (frankly awful) portraits of girls using fluoro-pop-fauvist colouring where the only theme seemed to be dilated pupils. But, hey, everyone kept half-jokingly telling me that, as a young person in Tasmania, you either move to the mainland or move onto mainlining. After the impromptu art-ingestion, we made our way back to Salamanca for “Rektango”, an open-air-courtyard music-dance-and-drink event that happens every Friday for a few hours in the evening. Kind of like a mini-mini-Womad where the music is danceable and barefoot hippy toddlers dance alongside trendy yuppies.

The next morning I woke up in a youth hostel dorm only half remembering where I was but was quickly reminded by the chorus of European snores and the plastic-cuteness of my Japanese neighbour’s toiletry bag (“Hellooo Kitty!”). Got to say that staying in a youth hostel did momentarily make me want to ditch my flight and keep living out of a backpack, wearing the same two shirts for the next six months. Saturday morning means Salamanca Markets and, sure enough, the strip of paving where last night I’d eaten cheap Vietnamese takeaway was now abuzz with stalls of limited interest and tourists of limited interest. I did buy a second-hand Nabokov book and a jar of raspberry jam to go with my sourdough baguette, but underwhelmed would be a good word for it. That’s OK, though, the markets were only a brief distraction from the day’s main task, Freycinet National Park and its main attraction, Wineglass Bay.

The weather was odd, it was supposed to be about 37 degrees in Hobart and the drive up was hot but Wineglass Bay itself had remarkably low clouds that embraced the hills surrounding the crescent beach. Sun or cloud, the water was still turquoise and I couldn’t help but swim even though it was so cold my nipples were aching from it. It was a great way to finish off my Tasmanian experience — a swim at “one of the top ten beaches in the world”.

See all the photos.

The first semester of my little acting course has come and gone and I’m now enjoying the wondrous novelty of a holiday … in Brisbane.

More specifically, in the West End of Brisbane because, let’s face it, “Bris Vegas”, as it’s known, is really just an oversized resort town. Never mind, i get enough big-city arts and culture in Melbourne thank you very much and i’m quite happy to laze about in a backyard with a book and the sun on my face.

Went for a road trip down to Byron Bay yesterday. Some of my companions decided that Tropical Fruit World sounded like a good spot to rest at on the way down. Marked on the highway by an enormous avocado, Tropical Fruit World is all that Tropical Fruit World could be. It has a bevy of golf-carts from which Amex-waving tourists can view the orchards without scuffing their Salvatore Ferragamo loafers. It has an artificial lake with row boats. It has a museum of sorts and 40 minute fruit tastings at $10 a head. But, with entry priced at $29.50, i was forced to view all this from the wrong side of the mango-coloured main gates. We did, however, get to wander through the Tropical Fruit World tropical fruit stand, their nod to the common gift shop, i suppose, where we bought a big bucket-load of avocados for $5 and grabbed a rather delish custard apple.

The man at the Tropical Fruit World gift shop noted that “Asians always try filling the avocado buckets too high”. This was one of three defamatory references to “Asians” i’d heard within 24 hours … geographical conflation of bigotry or a national tendency? Responses are welcomed by the Moresby Institute of Social Studies.

Anyway, having left a trail of squashed mango, paw paw, pineapple, passion-fruit and several other suggestively shaped tropical fruits behind us on the road back to the highway, we continued on our way south. Arriving at Byron, we wasted no time in hitting the white sands and clear water that draw the chic and not-so-chic alike. It being the middle of winter and all, there were only a few dedicated surfers and red-faced Dutch tourists around but the off-season quality was undeserved. The entire celestial dome was a precious azure and the frequent waves rose as though they were the coastline’s vanity mirrors before crashing over the soft, rich sand banks, depositing their bubble-bath foam over the arms of we wading few. (Ha! i love writing crap like that) I caught up with Cameron, a class-mate from VCA, whose family lives just outside Byron and we discussed grand ideas while being pummelled by the surf.

I stayed at the beach for hours, leaving only to enjoy a treat of fish and chips and a cool beer. Come sunset and the cool winds that had been negated by the sun forced me to re-clothe my salt-encrusted self. Up by the rocks the hippies had come out to play to the setting sun. The polyrhythmic tones of African drums intermingled with the gentle invocations of the gurners who surrounded them. The tribalistic behaviour seemed called for as the enormous expanse of sky stretching south from the northern peak of Mt Danger showed a remarkable range of colours. Rust red ranged into yellow, green, then light pink and blue, mauve and indigo. It’s so nice to get out of the office.

See the photos.

“Sing to me O Muse …” That’s right people, your wandering Odysseus is back with another postcard from the edge of the world. Well, that’s a tad over-dramatic but I’ve never been frightened of injecting a hint of hyperbole or a dash of fantasy when it comes to keeping my near and dear up-to-date on travelling matters.

The setting: one wannabe actor and his hairy father drive 800km from Adelaide to Melbourne with a carload of clothes, unread books, 200 grams of garam masala and a song in their hearts (to which they don’t know the words).

Old Queen Adelaide gave me up with some reluctance. First it was a mysteriously cracked radiator hose in the car that kept us from leaving. Then, just to tug at the heart-strings, my “random” iPod playlist for the car trip started with Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye”. Before we even got out of South Australia, the looming clouds of smoke and ash from a bushfire near Keith had John momentarily concerned that we’d either get enveloped in a fireball, have to turn back or, worst of all, have to spend a night at Les and Doreen’s Roadside Motel and Diner (“where even the bagels are blessed by Jesus”). Then, having narrowly missed the purgatorial fires, we entered Victoria to the sight of a meteorologist’s wet dream … cumulus, cirrus, stratus, nimbus and the combinations thereof all in the sky at the same time. Soon enough, those fluffy white things we call clouds had developed sinister weight and we were treated to some spectacular and scary lightning. I hear you call: “Fire and then lightning, it must be symbolic”. Oh, the apocalyptic imagery had only just begun and I should know because I’ve studied “King Lear” three times now so i know a symbolic tempest when i see one. Well, as the lightning continued to light up the fields and mountains that wrapped themselves around our little red Corolla, the rain began to beat down as though Someone was trying to tell Noah to get back on his ark and head back home to Adelaide instead of making haste for Melbourne, the Mecca of iniquity. 100km later and the torrential downpour was just petering out when we went through a plague-like swarm of moths (or was it locusts?) that left the windscreen rather unhappy with itself. Looking through the newly acquired veneer of insect-matter, John suggested it looked like Jackson Pollock had just vomited on our car (after a typically hard night on the booze, presumably).

The word on the street is that Brunswick, where I’m living, has recently become a trendy locale. So far, I haven’t seen too much sign of that down my end (bar the fact that I’m here!). A trip to my local supermarket for lentils, rice and toilet paper (the three pillars on which the Nilsson-Polias lineage will stand) brought back memories of Rodos and Symi. There was a short, old, chubby Greek man pushing along a packet trolley loaded with halved watermelons. As he waddled by, I expected him to call out “Karpouzi! Karpouzi! Fresco karpouzi!”. It makes for a good cathartic expletive, doesn’t it? “Vre karpouzi!” Say that next time a Kappa-boy cuts you off in his Monaro and you’ll get some quizzical looks for sure. Oh, and it’s comforting to know that most of the legumes available at my local IGA are all supplied by Gaganis Bros. … that mainstay of Greek-Australian cuisine in Adelaide. So, next time you drive out to Hindmarsh to stock up on semolina, nostimini, vine leaves and garishly coloured religious icons, just remember to think of me. OK? … No? Well, sod ya, you big karpouzi!

Oi vey! I really need to work on my Greek … and my Yiddish.

The Aunt, the Blood, the Shrimp and his Tailor

On Sunday morning we went for a visit to our ‘Aunt’ Irene. A feisty character from a Kazantzakis novel if ever there was one, Irene is the same age as my grandmother and, only half-jokingly, claims that she married her husband purely so that she could have my grandmother as a sister-in-law. Irene: “If she had stayed on Rodos, people would think we were lesbians, we were that close.” My mum and I sat watching her speak, trying to glean as much understanding of the Greek as possible from her formidable expressiveness. However, thanks to Anna and John’s translations, I can now offer you a portrait of Irene with (more or less) her own words:

On George Bush: “Whenever I see him on TV, I make the screen filthy with my own spit!” (Irene pronounces the name Bush with such loathing and guttural intonation that his name sounds more like “Brrrrrrsh”)

On my not speaking Greek: “What?! Are you a Turk?”

On Turks: “If you make a Turk your friend, make sure you’re carrying a stick.” (‘friend’ and ‘stick’ rhyme in Greek)

At the age of 79, she still rides her bike to her job as a tea lady at the law courts. When Anna asked if she wore pants when she rode, Irene replied: “No. I wear a dress. It’s good air conditioning. Plus, I can show a bit of leg. My legs aren’t creased yet, you know.”

Anna’s favourite expression the last two weeks has been “My parents were born on Symi, my brother and I were born on Rodos … Their surnames are Polias and Diamantakis”. On Symi, in particular, these facts would often cause the black-dressed, toothless old women to do their best Derek Zoolander impersonation while trying to scrape together in their memory the remnants of long-distant friendships, acquaintances and dalliances. One fine day on Symi, we were sitting at a café with our metrio coffees and limonada when there appeared a woman with an uncanny resemblance to my yiayia (grandmother). She didn’t turn out to be related but she did have a cousin that was a Polias and she knew that the owner of the neighbouring newsagent was a Diamantakis. That’s the way it’s been … “There’s a Polias that builds boats here”, “My father was friends with a Diamantakis”, “Your surname is Polias? Then you must be from Symi, because that name comes from Symi”, “I knew you were from here because of your dialect” etc etc.

So, it was with no great surprise that, here on Rodos, we ended up dining at a restaurant run by a family from Symi that had moved to Rodos at around the same time as our family. We were attracted to it by its simple, unpretentious menu that didn’t have Scandinavian flags plastered all over it, or any pictures of the food (a rarity in the charter-tourism madhouse of Rodos). Like so many times before, as soon as Anna dropped in a smattering of Greek to speak to the owner there were questions about where we were from and the like. Hearing our name, he raced back to the kitchen and shortly afterwards there emerged a small man, shrunken on every axis apart from his soup-spoon-sized earlobes, who had a tuft of grey hair sprouting like bougainvillea from the top of his balding scalp. He knew my grandfather, he knew my grandmother and he remembered their kids. In 1966, when the Poliases had returned to Rodos from Mt Gambier for the year, this man worked as a tailor in a little shop ten steps from where his son now owned a restaurant in the Old Town. My grandfather worked as a cobbler across the alley from him. My father and the restaurateur were born in the same year and had played together on a number of occasions (fortunately, there were no grudges left over from laneway fights). The parallels between our families continued in that they had emigrated to New Jersey in 1968, one year after the Poliases returned to South Australia. However, unlike our family, theirs had returned to Rodos permanently twenty years later. The result, a family-run restaurant on an island where they are regarded and regard themselves as foreigners. It is a familiar migrant story: displacement, loss of belonging, torn identity. They were aliens in the States and they are now aliens in Greece. They wished they had stayed in America. Of course, if they had, we wouldn’t have been able to sample their exquisite cooking (or is that being selfish?). Mussels steamed in white wine, lightly floured calamari, the to-die-for Symi shrimp, perfectly grilled vegetables and more, all topped off by a complimentary shot of limoncello to cleanse the palate. We’ll be back there every night if possible.

See the photos