Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Aunt Betty

Kate's great-aunt Betty passed away on Sunday morning.

Betty was the younger sister of Mavis Jean, my wife's beloved grandmother who passed away in February. For Kate's family, Betty was the last of her generation.

We went to Bendigo this afternoon for Betty's funeral. It was just a small family affair, short and simple. No fuss. Just as Betty wanted it.

From a child in Echuca, to a lady about town in Melbourne, to a farmer's wife in Marong, to an amusingly sarcastic senior citizen (you know . . . one of those cool old people we all hope we get to be), Betty always lived life to the full. It sounds twee to say it, but with Betty it was really true.

Her husband Jack died in 1989, and she spent the last years of her life in her little house in Kangaroo Flat, looking after her garden and her dogs. It was somewhere you could always go for a nice cup of tea and a chat.

(Actually, Betty and I bonded over our love of a nice cup of tea. And Betty's wedding present when Kate and I were married in March . . . was a genuine 50s anodised teapot. We use it every single day.)

Betty would sometimes drop in when we were visiting with Mavis. It was beautiful seeing the two sisters together. They would tell stories about being young ladies in Melbourne during the war. They worked together in a cake factory during the week, and came into the city every Friday night for the dance at the Town Hall. They would spend their shillings on new dresses, and their dance cards would always be full.

When Mavis died earlier this year, Betty didn't come to the funeral. But everyone understood this. She would do her grieving in private, thank you very much.

And last Tuesday she had a massive stroke in her home. When they got her to the hospital, it was clear that she wasn't going to recover.

In her final hours her family stayed by her side. She passed away peacefully on Sunday morning.

We'll miss you Betty.

I Believe

I believe that religion is the greatest evil to ever befall this Earth. No other single thing has caused so much death and suffering.

I believe that religion is used as a tool by the powerful to exploit the powerless.

I believe that religion suppresses thought, knowledge, and ultimately wisdom.

I believe that there is no reliable objective evidence to support any religion. I believe all we ever have is the subjective word of the faithful.

I believe the philosophies of the Bible and the Koran have been irreparably corrupted by those who claim to believe in them.

And I believe that in a thousand years what we know as Christianity, Islam and Judaism will be as irrelevant and quaint as the ancient Gods of Greece and Rome are today.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Daniel Kitson in C-90

Last night we saw Daniel Kitson perform his show C-90 at the Fairfax theatre in the city.

I can say quite unashamedly that I love Daniel Kitson. At his Comedy Festival gig back in April, I was blown away by his combination of self-deprecating, almost daggy, persona combined with an amazingly surreal outlook on life. That and the fact that I laughed so much I was slightly sore the next day.

C-90 is not really stand-up, being a fully scripted one-man show. But it's not really a play either. It's more like an extended storytelling session with a set and some basic but effective lighting.

The story of C-90 is simple and beautiful. Henry works alone in an office cataloguing and filing discarded mix tapes. He's lost his passion for the work, but on his last day in the office, he receives a tape personally addressed to him. It's a 90-minute tape; a C-90. He listens to it, and it is a revelation. It rekindles his passion for his work. And starts him on a quest to find who sent it. But it's his last day, so he doesn't have much time.

And that's it. The beauty of the show is in the detail. Like the fact that it's Henry's last day because business in the mix-tape cataloguing business has inexplicably dropped off.

And the fact that Henry has never listened to any of the mix tapes he's filed, but can tell you in great detail about each one's manufacture, the type of paper used for the inlay card, and the gender of the person who owned it by the way the it smells. The only reason he's able to listen to the tape he's sent is that it's been sent along with a tape player.

I just can't say enough nice things about this show. It's funny, clever, poignant, sad, surreal, well-written, well-told and heartfelt.

Last night was Kitson's final ever performance of the show, which he has been doing on-and-off in between stand-up gigs, for the last eighteen months.

It's a beautiful piece of work. I only hope it gets a new life through some sort of recording.

Even if it's only on C-90 tape. I'd buy a tape recorder for that.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Widening the Western

On Wednesday Kevin Rudd announced that if elected, he will provide $1 billion in funding to widen the Western Ring Road and strengthen the Westgate Bridge.

The reason given (apart from the usual rhetoric about "investing in the future") is that it will reduce congestion. Pardon my cynicism, but a couple of important points need to be made here.

First, any first-year civil engineering student knows that you don't reduce congestion by widening roads. You just get more cars, and you're back where you started within five years. (In fact, anyone twelve-year-old who's played Sim City knows this.)

Second, why strengthen the Westgate bridge? It's not old enough to be needing that sort of maintenance yet. Unless you're expecting substantially more vehicles.

Or substanitally heavier vehicles. Which leads me to my third point: the imminent dredging of Port Phillip Bay.

Dredging and deepening the bay will allow more (and bigger) container ships into Melbourne's ports, which will mean a lot more trucks running through Melbourne's western suburbs. (This was the subject of many a scare campaign during the recent Williamstown by-election).

And that's what this is really all about.

The road is being widened and the bridge strengthened to allow for all the extra truck traffic. And actually, that's fine, and a perfectly valid reason for widening the road and strengthening the bridge, so why not be upfront about it?

Obviously, because it won't be popular. Promising to put extra trucks on the roads is just not sexy, and now's not the time to be pissing off voters in the safe-ish ALP seats of Gorton and Lalor. Much better to say it's all about giving you, dear voter, an easier run into work.

Political spin aside, the lack of vision this displays is extraordinary. Suburbs in the west are going through an unprecedented residential boom. With all the extra trucks expected, it will soon become clear that the road simply cannot be made wide enough.

But it's not necessarily Mr Rudd's fault. He's just stumping up the funding. It's the Victorian government that's in charge of the roads. They're the ones that have made the call on what they want.

Of course, if they were serious about congestion on the Western Ring Road, they'd put a train line out to Caroline Springs and extend the Werribee line to Wyndham Vale or Tarneit. Alternatively, they could run a new satellite train line along the length of the Western Ring Road, and connect the Werribee Line to Broadmeadows via Tullamarine airport.

(Having just spent some time in European cities where a train to the airport is standard, I find it a little embarrassing that we don't have one).

Now that would reduce traffic.

And they're going to be compulsorily acquiring land anyway, so why not put it to good use?

Thursday, 25 October 2007


One of the reinsurance companies we deal with at work is based in Germany, and every year they invite us, their clients, to celebrate Oktoberfest.

The part was last night, which is about a week after the Oktoberfest celebrations finish in the Fatherland . . . I'm not sure why this is. It may be because it affords their MC the opportunity to tell amusing stories about Australians at (the real) Oktoberfest.

Being a roomful of Finance nerds, these amusing stories mainly took the form of recounted statistics, such as the fact that of the 600 passports reported lost, 150 of them were Australian. And of the 100 babies breastfed in the rooms provided, none of them were Australian (the obvious conclusion being that Australians had fed their kids on beer).

A bewildering array of other further statistics were offered, some humorous, some not. It soon got to the point where I was having flashbacks to our company actuarial dinner earlier in the year.

Fortunately, we had been handed a 500ml stein on arrival and pointed to the bar where they had DÄB on tap. That went quite some way towards making the whole thing a little more bearable.

Anyway, once the speeches were done and the band had started up, the rest of the evening was made up of the typical sort of small talk that goes on at this type of thing. It wasn't all bad, though. I did get to catch up with a few people who've moved on to other companies and that I haven't seen in a while.

The food was also excellent, but oh-so-German. It was all bratwurst, sauerkraut, sausages as thick as your wrist and bread that would leave a hefty dint in the floor if you dropped it. Dessert was strudel and black forest cake and jam doughnuts.

So full. So so full.

All in all, it was fun. But of course, there was something of an ulterior motive beyond the free food and beer.

In previous years this particular company has generously provided tickets to the Australian Open Tennis. So over the course of the evening there was a certain amount of talking to and smiling at the right people. And when I got to work this morning, I sent an email thanking them kindly for the invitation.

I'll let you know how that turns out.

Sunday, 21 October 2007


We left Brussells early on Wednesday morning. Still can't shake the feeling that Brussells is just Amsterdam without the sense of humour. The feeling remained as we headed back to Amsterdam (briefly) to catch a short flight to Copenhagen.

Our first impressions of Copenhagen were that the airport was nice and clean and very well laid out. Continuing that thought, the trains to the city were new and efficient. The central train station was well-looked after and the roads a brilliant example of how to seamlessly integrate cars, buses and bikes. This is a town that definitely knows how to do public transport.

Going further, the buildings are cool (Danish design, don't you know), the people are friendly and the coffee is excellent. Basically, within half-an-hour of arriving, Kate had decided she wants to live there. I had to agree.

If Brussells is Amsterdam without the sense of humour, Copenhagen is Amsterdam with a better sense of style.

On Thursday morning we had breakfast at Meyer's Cafe, around the corner from the hotel. We just stumbled upon it, and later found that it was recommended by Wallpaper* magazine as the place to have breakfast if you're only in Copenhagen for one day. Yay us.

Next we took a cruise around the canals and the harbour to look at all the great architecture. This is a town where the arts are valued much more highly than sports. Therefore, the major capital works currently underway include a new theatre and opera house by the water. My kinda town. Finally, a quick visit to the Museum of Art in the botanical gardens (quick because we only had about 45 minutes before they closed).

Friday morning we enjoyed the free organic breakfast at the hotel (organic also was the shampoo in the room and the beer in the bar) before deciding to go to Sweden for lunch. As you do.

The train from Copenhagen to Malmo on the west coast of Sweden only takes about 40 minutes. Had some lunch, did some shopping (particularly at department store H&M - we need one of those in Australia) and headed back.

Friday night was "Culture Night" in Copenhagen. This is a once-a-year event where all the museums and a bunch of culturally important places are open free until midnight. We looked around the ruins under Christiansborg Palace, which has been repeatedly burnt/pulled down, and rebuilt, over the last few centuries. We also saw the Design Centre (where it is clearly established that every cool modern design you can think of is Danish) and the National Museum. The latter was a little dull, but the actors swanning around in period dress and 3-foot hairstyles were moderately entertaining.

Saturday was then all about doing the last few things we felt we must do before leaving. These were to visit a flea market in Fredriksborg (shades of the dodgy market in Brussells . . . see previous post), visit Christianshavn (supposedly an experimental free state, but more like a Little Amsterdam in the city) and finally a visit to the Museum of Erotica. The latter was interesting, particularly with its details on the sex lives of celebrities, and lots of very cool vintage images.

And that's it. We left on Sunday morning in definite agreement with Mr Andersen . . . Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen.

The remainder of the trip was just 35 hours transit back to Melbourne, including 7ish-hour layovers in Amsterdam (where we met up with Shannon again) and Kuala Lumpur. Details on the trip home vary between those that are too dull for discussion, and those that have been withheld to protect the innocent. Nuff said, really.

And now some photos.

Canals in Copenhagen

New Copenhagen Opera House

The Baltic Sea between Copenhagen and Malmo, taken from the train window. In the distance is a bank of wind turbines (Danish designed, of course). These contribute to the 19% of the nation's power that comes from wind, and to the city's plan to be carbon-neutral by 2025.

Awesome hairstyles on display in the National Museum. It brings to mind Jennifer Saunders' effort in the excellent Let Them Eat Cake. Except on Ms Saunders' ship the cannons actually fired.

Not as many bikes as Amsterdam, but still a good effort. Apparently only 20% of city residents actually drive to work.

Christianshavn streetscape.

Spiral tower in Christianshavn.

Fountain near the main shopping strip. No water restrictions in Denmark.

Finally, the layover in Amsterdam. Well you wouldn't just hang around the airport, would you?

And that's it. Arrived back home early on Tuesday morning, local time. Back to reality.

Hope you've enjoyed our travels.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Paris and Brussells

I've been back home for a few days, so the holiday diary now seems a little superfluous. However, I hate to leave it incomplete.

After leaving Tourtoirac, Kate, Shannon and I hopped a train to Paris. Sarah and Greg were staying in the south for a few more days, before heading off to Spain and Italy.

We arrived in Paris in the late afternoon on Sunday, and would be leaving early on Tuesday morning. So we would have only one full day, and a checklist of things to do. This was to see the three cathedrals: Notre Dame, Sacré Coeur and Sainte-Chapelle, go shopping in Place des Vosges and go to a cemetery. Not really important which one, but we did want to see at least one dead celebrity.

(We ended up going to Montmartre cemetery, because this was the closest to our hotel. Celebrity spotting was limited to Alexandre Dumas and Hector Berlioz. Hmmm. Might try the one with Jim Morrison next time.)

We actually did manage to do all of these things, as well as fit in some overpriced coffee, a nice lunch and a nice dinner. The dinner would have been better if we hadn't been accosted by some obnoxious Aussie tourists who insisted on talking to us about the way Parisians treat their pets, but still.

The cathedrals were all appropriately spectacular, particularly the stained-glass windows in Sainte-Chapelle.

Tuesday morning we took the train north to Brussells, where we farewelled our travelling companion Shannon, who was off to explore Rotterdam and then Berlin.

Brussells was not really what we expected. Being the capital of Europe (apparently) and the home of the UN, I was expecting something like Canberra, or at least The Hague. What we saw was more like Footscray expanded out to an entire city.

This is not necessarily a problem, as I happen to like Footscray. It's just not what I was expecting.

We would be in Brussells for less than 24 hours. The aim (well, my aim) was to bask in all things Tintin as much as possible. Kate had heard about a street market near our hotel, so that seemed like a good place to start.

Once we found it, it turned out to be a combination of people selling very cool vintage furniture and objêts, and others flogging utter unmitigated junk. Seriously, some of the stalls looked like someone had upended their third-drawer-down on a blanket. Not much Tintin, sadly.

But nearby was a Tintin merchandise shop, where we could admire a €3,000 signed poster, cels from the 1980s TV show, and various sketches and whatnot from Studio Hergé. Inspired by this, and receiving directions from the store owner, I then headed out to the comic book museum. (Kate respectfully declined to join me.)

And it was simply fantastic. Comprehensive histories of Belgian and other international cartoonists (lots on Hergé, natch), their creations, and more detail than you might care to know about the development of comic styles over time. Budge, you would have loved it.

When I got back to the hotel, Kate and I went for a wander through the backstreets, as we tend to do. We found Katje's Kitchen, a great little restaurant run by an expat Dutch guy. Great food, great atmosphere. If you find yourself in Brussells, drop in.

Left the next morning for Copenhagen, which will be covered in the next exiting instalment.

And now some photos . . .

Drinks in Paris.

Paris red-light district, featuring the Moulin Rouge. The queue outside goes for blocks.

Saints outside Notre Dame. The fifth from the left looks like my father-in-law Russell. No, really.

Outside Sainte-Chapelle cathedral.

Stained-glass windows inside Sainte-Chapelle.

The view over Paris from the front steps of Sacré Coeur.

My personal shrine. Tintin mural at Brussells Midi train station.

Brussells streetscape.

Dinner at Katje's Kitchen.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Photos from Tourtoirac

Back online after a bit of a break. Since the last post we've been through Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen, and back to Amsterdam (briefly). Right now I'm sitting in Kuala Lumpur airport waiting for the final leg of the flight home to Melbourne.

Lots of updates to make, but I figured I'd start where I left off.

Not a lot happened during the rest of the stay in Tourtoirac. Activities mainly consisted of visiting other small towns, markets and Cathedrals, and playing cards by the pool.

The chateau in Hautefort was a definite highlight (see previous post) as was the medical museum in Hautefort. The medical museum presented a decidedly creepy history of European medicine over the last 400 years or so, in a building that had variously been used as a hospice for plague patients, and orphanage and a nunnery.

We also visited the caves of Lascaux, which feature an astonishing array of (approximately) 17,000-year old Cro-Magnon cave paintings. They were accidentally discovered in 1940 when a dog being walked through the forest fell into the caves through a hole in the ground. The caves were opened as a tourist attraction a few years later, but closed in the 1960s as exposure to humans has led to a fungus or some such growing on the paintings and destroying them.

Not being keen to let all those tourist dollars disappear, the operators have meticulously recreated the caves and the paintings (known as Lascaux II) and run guided tours through them. It's sterling work, and if they didn't tell you they were recreations you wouldn't necessarily pick it.

On the Friday we went canoeing down the river Auvezere, which runs through Tourtoirac. The water was low, in fact never more than about a metre deep, so the life jackets we were wearing seemed a little superfluous. A couple of times we actually had to get out and drag the canoes around as we were getting caught on rocks.

Our final night, Saturday, was celebrated with our lovely host Jo, her husband John, and a gaggle of ex-pat Australians, some of whom had settled locally and some that were just passing through. Great night, and a fitting end to a lovely stay.

Here's some photos from Tourtoirac and surrounds.

Lunch at the Medieval Cafe in Hautefort. From left: Russell, the top of Sarah's head, Jill, me, the back of Greg's head, and Shannon.

The beautifully named Bastard's Walk in Hautefort. Named after the Baron and Baroness de Bastard who lived there. I'm not making this up.

The eponymous chateau at Hautefort, location of the film Ever After. (Note: that's Sarah, not Drew Barrymore)

Gardens at Hautefort chateau. This is actually a contraband shot, as cameras were verboten. I'm going to hell.

Monastery at Brantome, location of unseemly activities by the monks.

Bridges in Brantome. (Note the smoke on the water behind the bridge. Bauw bauw bauw . . . bauw-bauw bauw-bauw . . . etc)

Cathedral at Brantome.

Thousand-year-old cathedral in the village of St. Jean de Cole.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007


Well, that's it for Amsterdam. After three days we'd pretty much seen all there was to see (it's not very big after all) and on Thursday Kate and Shannon and I took the train to Rotterdam.

Being Holland's major port, Rotterdam was almost bombed out of existence in WW2, and so has been almost entirely rebuilt in the last 60 years. We took a cruise around the city ports, looking at the buildings and architecture, including the very few that had survived.

On Saturday morning we left Amsterdam early to catch a sequence of trains to Thiviers in the south of France. The first was a Eurail to Paris, the second a Paris metro, the third a regional train to Limoges and the last a very regional train to Thiviers.

Given we had a few delays, it's astonishing that at the end of the day we were a grand total of five minutes late. The main issue was queuing for tickets at the Paris metro, which meant we made the train to Limoges with only three minutes to spare. That was close. Then the train to Limoges was stopped for about twenty minutes outside what looked like an army barracks. (The popular theory was that some miscreant was being hauled off to be shot. Whatever . . . we kept playing cards). Fortunately, the train to Thiviers was also delayed, and then sped the rest of the way, so we ended up being more or less on time.

From Thiviers we were driven in style (well, in a rented 4WD crammed in with all our luggage) to Tourtoirac. Here we're all staying in a converted barn, which is actually a lot nicer than it sounds, with Kate's parents.

The days since arriving have consisted of visiting pretty little French villages like Brantome and Hautefort, eating baguettes and croissants, wearing berets and striped t-shirts and playing the accordion. You know the type of thing.

The most interesting bit so far has been Hautefort, which is the site of a 12th century fortress that's been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times over the centuries. It's all very fairy-tale-looking, and so was used as the set for the movie Ever After. After visiting the castle we went back to the house to watch the movie, going oooh look that's the topiary etc. Ah, holidays.

Not a lot to report from here, really. This is the kickin-back part of the journey. On Sunday we'll be heading off for Paris for a few nights, followed by Copenhagen.

Photos from Amsterdam

Very early morning arrival in Amsterdam Schipol airport.

Early morning in the streets of Amsterdam. The slight lean on the buildings is not an optical illusion and not due to the camera angle. Amsterdam is all built on marshy ground and as far as I can see, subject to imminent collapse into the mud.

Waiting outside the apartment for the agent. Ours is the one to the right of the red doors. Note all the bikes.

One of many canals. Pronounced "cay-nells" or alternatively (if they're not nearby) "far canals". That's hilarious after a few days in Amsterdam.

One of many windmills.

One of many coffeeshop visits. Note the name of the shop behind the window. You know you're in Amsterdam when.

Amsterdam tram. Pretty much the same as the Melbourne variety, but a little more reliable.

Building site near the Van Gogh museum. The crane is dropping part of the new building's foundation, which is a steel girder about 5 storeys high. This is what it takes to get buildings on a solid footing.