Friday, July 25, 2014

Vezelay: A teenaged moment of clarity

Maybe it's the winter chill; maybe it's the busy, split-brain feeling from doing three jobs; maybe it's parenting a child that never stops talking; maybe it's the mounting piles of laundry and dishes. But I've found myself looking through my old travel photos. The really old ones, the ones I had to scan in from *gasp* printed photographs, the ones taken with a far from digital camera. I think I've been chasing some of that movement and light-heartedness and possibility I felt when I took these pictures.

I think I've been chasing the exact feeling I had in the photo above, a moment of clarity and calm. Instead of sitting for my trial HSC exams, I was off adventuring in France, meandering through the Louvre, climbing the steps of the Tour Eiffel and up to the Sacre Coeur, shivering in the half light of the Catacombs, creaking through the gilded rooms of the Palais de Versailles, wine tasting at the Nuit St Georges vineyard, breaking my fall with a hand on Monet's Water Lillies... you know... normal tourist stuff. I turned seventeen on the banks of the Seine, lingering over fresh baguettes with Swiss Army Knife cut wedges of cheese.

And on a freezing cold morning, not long after my birthday, we boarded a bus and drove through the frost-covered fields to Vezelay. The regions we passed through from Paris were spectacular. The vines had all been cropped to the trunks for the cold, and the bare earth sparkled with frost.

And then it was there, the Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine (Mary Magdalen), a crown on a tiny hilltop town, rising above the flat plains. We hiked the curving path up around the mountain on foot, and the wind on that bared track was bitterly cold. And then after rounding the final line of trees, there it was, this strange church, with its mixture of Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture. Around the doorways were arch after arch of saints and sinners.

We had a guided tour through the church, our guide one of the monks that live on the mountain along with a group of nuns. He was the most intriguing man I had ever met up to that point. He was softly spoken with a strangely accented English, so different from the French around us. He would talk about the history with a great passion but shyly, looking you in the eye briefly before turning his gaze back to his sandal and sock covered feet.

The Basilica (then an Abbey) was a preaching and marshaling point for the second and third crusades (around 1140-1190) and a pilgrimage destination in its own right with a claim to relics of Mary Mag. History upon history upon history. It was the 1946 Crusade for Peace really got me, held on the 800th anniversary of the Crusade of Bernard. Almost 40000 pilgrims came from across Europe, with a person from each nation bearing a cross made from the wood of their homeland. In the kerfuffle of 40000 folks, mostly on foot, Germany was forgotten or ignored and at the last moment German POWs still remaining in the area asked to participate. They came offering up a cross they'd made from the roof beams of a house burnt out by their compatriots, a symbol of reconciliation after a long and bloody war. Their cross with the word 'Allemagne' sits in a small niche behind the pulpit.

After midday, I snuck into the Basilica again, following the sounds of the monks and nuns singing for their service. Dressed all in white, they sung and it echoed around the near empty church. And leading up the aisle was a path of splashed light, a feature of the building's design and alignment with the sun making it a vessel of stone and light.

I didn't find God in their voices or their history or their light. But felt a Samuel L Jackson/Pulp Fiction moment of clarity where everything in the whole world was peace and quiet and beautiful. I think maybe that's the feeling I've been missing recently - that sense that all is right with the world. I've found it in the small moments, in the sigh of a sleeping toddler in the darkness of his bedroom, of a text message that makes me smile, in a job well done, in the solution to a knotty little problem, in the brief weight of Lovely Husband's hand on my head. But I'm missing that broader feeling that everything is okay with the world.

How have you been doing lately? 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Meatless Monday: Beetroot and apple soup with horseradish yoghurt

That photo doesn't really do justice to the pinky-purple visual delight of this soup. I admit, quite a lot of the food I make is ugly, just not really very photogenic at all. This beauty though is a feast for the visual sense as well. It's also easy-as.

It starts with roasting beetroot, and a little bit of Lady McBeth peeling and chopping. Wear gloves if you're likely to get all 'out, damn'd spot' about stained hands. If you're time pressed, it can start with one of those vacuum-sealed packs of pre-cooked beetroot, but that's a lot less literary minded, don't you think?

Apart from the roasting beetroot, the soup starts in the way of most soups, with a well-chopped mirepoix of onion, celery and carrot, sauteeing in a little olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan on the stovetop.

When that's softened, I add two grated apples, skins and all because pffft, peeling off fruit and vegetable skins you can eat is not my scene. I used Granny Smiths, but any tart and non-floury variety will work.

Add the cooked and chopped beetroot (about 500g) and then a litre to 1.5 litres of vegetable stock, depending on how thick you want your soup. Drop in a big piece of star anise and then let simmer for 10-15 minutes.

While that's simmering away, mix together a teaspoon or two of horseradish sauce (or your own fresh grated horseradish) with a few tablespoons of natural yoghurt. Set aside.

Fish out the anise, season with salt and pepper and then puree the soup in a blender or with a hand-held one, being very careful not to stain the white grout of your tiled splashback (oops).

Service with chopped chives if you have them or chopped baby spinach if you don't as well as a liberal dollop of the horseradish yoghurt.

If you're after a vegan and dairy free version, substitute the natural yoghurt with a non-dairy alternative or cut it altogether. If you do cut it go steady on the horseradish sauce and add to taste as the yoghurt helps to tone down the flavour and keep it out of your sinuses.

This one was toddler approved as long as he had handfuls of crusty bread to dip into it. But just be warned about the post-soup nappy surprise.

Have you tried a beetroot soup before? If you're interested in other kinds, check out Lila's Beeting Heart soup, which comes with chestnuts. Yum.  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

We made biscuits, he and I.

These are the bikkies of my adolescence, the ones I made in a kitchen with a terracotta tile floor and pine-wood table. The ones I beat together from soft butter and sugar, with vanilla, an egg, flour, bicarb soda and choc chips; the ones from recipe book that falls open to this page; the ones that never turn out the same way twice - mine usually fat and dry and others flat and chewy. We made them, he and I.

We sat in front of the oven and sang songs while we waited for them to cook and then cool, him digging around the bowl with a wooden spoon and licking it clean. We ate two each and shared a cup of cold milk, passing it back and forth until he turned it upside down and the last drops fell onto the wooden floor.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Criminal Stories

"Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact." - Robert McKee.

I came across these mugshots and blogged about them in 2011, back when my images were tiny and ugly and didn't do any justice to the stories in these photographs, to the stories behind their eyes. I'm recycling the photos here again because during a trip through my photo files, I scrolled through them, bam, bam, bam, and was struck by those eyes, those smirks, those clothes, all over again. There are a million new stories in them that I didn't see before.

I met, interviewed and ran into Peter Doyle over and over again during a two year period some time ago. My interest in him was his work as a crime novelist. His reason for being out and about was putting together an exhibition on Sydney criminals. He spoke often of the many surprising stories and photographic treasures he'd unearthed and we saw glimspses of mugshots on powerpoint. Then he showed up in a doco, Recipe for Murder (ABC TV), talking about the now familiar rat-poison crime spree, where a rat plague turned many down-trodden, angry women into husband killers.

Peter wrote an article for SCAN: Journal of Media Arts Culture back in 2005, which is the credited source for these photographs (although they're supplied courtesy of Historic Houses Trust NSW and NSW Police Service). They're the most amazing collection of photographs, not just as historical documents, loaded with intriguing stories, but as works of art, as a strange contradiction between the official photographs taken by NSW Police and the gorgeous lighting, the harsh settings and the almost lovingly flattering framing. Between 1912 and 1930, these 'Special Photographs' are an aberration of police photography, straying from the traditional mugshot style that Australian police had been taking from the 1870s. There is background and context, full body shots and self-posing. There is nothing formal about them. What did Alfred 'Tiny' Ladewig do, who was he, that the police were happy for him to slump in his chair, hands stuffed in his pockets, while they documented him?

These ladies are a wonderful story waiting to happen. As Doyle mentions in his article, it seems as though they've just popped by the cells for a visit before a trip into town. What a lark it seems to them. Compared to the women in the photo at the very top, Vera Crighton, they look like regulars, like sisters, like friends, like secret keepers and story tellers. C Hall, D Morgan and J Taylor walked after this photo was taken, with no charges recorded for them.

The people in these pictures are criminals and innocent bystanders, violent offenders and naive waifs. They demand attention and shrink from it. They are cocky and despairing, aggressive and ashamed. As Doyle puts it, they seem to "fully occupy the picture space, to powerfully declare itself in the medium, to ‘overwrite’ the frame."

Their stories overwrite the frame, leaking beyond it back into the streets of Sydney. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Meatless Monday: For the love of a toasted sandwich

Vegetarian toasted sandwich options // Lilybett and Boy

I love me a toasted sandwich for two reasons:
  1. I am a bread and cheese fan - together, apart, whatever, I love those guys; 
  2. Dear Boy eats them - my fussy little thing will munch through a whole sandwich with cheese and veggies with no complaints or stalling or wandering off. Magic. 
Toasted sandwiches used to be our weekend fare when I was younger. My mama had this standard sandwich based around grated cheese and carrot and pepper, with whatever extra veg were at hand. And man, that cheese/carrot/pepper combo has stuck with me. It's one of those transporting flavours, slamming me right back into 9 or 11 or 13 years old.

My new standard for my boy is a grated cheese and carrot combination with finely shredded baby spinach. Two veggies, one incredibly green, and I feel he's getting an okay meal. I've branched out from the standard though and love, love, love playing around with different flavour combos for myself.

My recent combinations:
  • Cheese and pickles (either mustard pickles or finely sliced cornichon/gherkin)
  • Cheese and sliced pear
  • Cheese and leftover roast veg and pesto
  • Cheese and whatever antipasto-type goodies we have in jars in the fridge
  • Cheese and smashed kidney beans, avocado and salsa (I'm currently using Aldi's green salsa - yum)
  • Cheese and disco munch salad (essentially a rainbow of grated veg)
I use whatever I have on hand for greasing the outside, including margarine, butter, softened coconut oil, olive oil or an oil spray. If you have a non-stick pan or sandwich maker, though, you don't really need anything. I'm a firm believer in a toasted sandwich maker (unless you're making quesadillas). Nothing beats the weird shaped and molded sandwich. We have a cheapo one, but it's been with us for a few years. 

I've done a little hunting around and have found a few more meatless toasted sandwich options that I'd like to try:

Savoury (I'm counting these fruity options as savoury):
Are you a traditional cheese sandwich person or do you have a favourite flavour combination? Have you ever tried a sweet toasted sandwich? 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How well do you know your mobile phone?

I've been at a conference the last few days, mingling with my fellow academics and rubbing shoulders with the folks that write the books on so much of what we talk about in Australian communication and media studies. It's been great to get amongst it and look into new areas of comms research that intertwine with my online life - research on instagram and facebook and twitter and blogging and purely online communities...

We use so many of these things in our every day lives but very rarely ever think about them in a critical way. That was brought to the front of my consciousness again this morning with a keynote by Jason Farman who researches mobile media. Of course, this isn't a new area. Since we first wrote on stone tablets and papyrus, we've had mobile media - but there's something about the mobile phone - our mobile phone - that is different. They're an incredible tool for community building and sharing yourself with the world but they are intensely personal interfaces with those worlds. Think about whether you'd happily swap your phone with someone else - most of us would be hesitant, to say the least.

But what do we really know about these phones, these things that sit next to our bodies all day long and most likely sit next to our sleeping forms? We know their functions (or most of them), we know what they look like, we know the brand, we might know some of the specs.

One of the things Farman asks his students is to go and research their phones... really research them.

Have you ever looked at your phone as a material object made of components, components that someone put together, components that were created from various resources? It's a sobering thought, and one tied into how we consume and all manner of other tricksy human behaviours.

Materiality of mobile phones // Lilybett and Boy

I have a Samsung phone, made in either one of South Korea's multiple factories or in the super-mega factory in Vietnam (the largest mobile phone factory in the world). If it was made in South Korea, it was most likely made by a young woman, probably one straight out of high-school. According to this article by PCWorld, these women work in 'cell systems' of four, rather than traditional assembly lines.

Samsung has an okay record for environmentally conscious components. You can read their Greenpeace Guide To Greener Electronics reportcard if you're curious. All of their phones produced from 2010 onwards, for example, are free from PVC and brominated flame retardants. In other areas, yay for being open about and active towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not so yay for the Leukemia cluster in the Gi-Heung or On-Yang semiconductor plants (193 and rising). It wasn't until just last month that Samsung offered these people an apology but the fight for improved conditions and compensation is ongoing.

And what about coltan (and its derivative tantalum)? That evil stuff that is in all mobile phones and most consumer electronics that is primarily sourced from the Congo and is the primary cause of massive civil conflict and environmental strife? Well, Samsung say they're trying really hard to not use Congolese coltan. Although when you read their statement, it's a little hazy around the edges:

  • "We do not purchase coltan directly from the Congo nor from any other source in the form of raw material. A limited number of our component vendors do supply us with tantalum-based components. In the cases when Samsung does use tantal-based components, the company requires suppliers to take appropriate measures in order to avoid using tantalum sourced from the Congo region. We request that all vendors refrain from purchasing tantalum powder mined in the Congo and we regularly audit vendors to ensure compliance. Our component vendors inform us that they obtain tantalum powder from the U.S.A, Russia and Thailand, not from the Congo. We are making efforts to use substitutes for tantalum based components where possible."

There are so many bits in these phones it's hard to really get an idea of its complete story, its history. Part of that is that I think we've gotten very good at ignoring those kinds of things. That's how documentaries like Blood, Sweat and T-shirts, and The Story of Stuff are so successful - because they shock us with everyday truths we don't see. Even those who make an effort to consume ethically, to be environmentally conscious, don't always see these issues.

When you don't think about all this stuff, it's much easier to upgrade to the newer model, it's much easier to chuck out the old handset and not think about what's going to happen to its battery. That's how 426 000 phones are retired every day in the US alone. That's how there are literally billions of them in the world, more than there are television sets.

My phone's a few years old now and I've been wanting to upgrade for a while, but now I'm less keen. How often do you upgrade? Are there any Apple fans brave enough to check out their own phone's history? What facts and stats did you find out about that thing in your pocket or your bag or even in your hand right now? 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Intentional Play: Making Roads

For this month's construction and machine intentional play theme, we borrowed Sutton and Lovelock's most excellent Roadworks from the library. From planning and marking the road out on a map to tarring and shouting hooray, the book's a great how-to guide for a road building activity.

With book in hand, we read and clang and crunched and cracked, using his construction trucks to 'clear the path', tip the stones and pack it down. Then we stretched out a long strip of freshly made black play dough (I used a cake-decorator's icing colour to get it really black). We steam-rolled the 'tar' with a rolling pin and then stopped for lunch.

After our non-smoking smoko, we marked the road with bright yellow playdough strips, installed the road signs we had from our railway set, lit the road with carols by candelight candles, planted trees and cleaned everything away.

Then, of course, it was open for all the trucks and cars, zooming up and down our homemade freeway.

If you're interested in other construction activities or craft, take a look at our Intentional Play Pinterest board where I've been collected ideas for each theme. 


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