My unexpected fascination with papyrus

Yesterday I spent six hours in the south-eastern Sicilian city of Syracuse. It is the important centre of politics and culture in ancient times that Cicero described at ‘the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all’.

The vast numbers of school students and tourists and buses put me off the large archaeological site I headed for in the morning. But later I was walking around the waterfront area and came across the papyrus museum, the Museo del Papiro of the Istituto Internazionale del Papiro. I was the only visitor at the time, and I found it unexpectedly engaging.

papyrus

Papyrus is the thick paper-like plant material that was used as a writing surface from ancient times. It was the medium of choice for Vatican documents until the 11th century, and was also used for baskets, ropes, boats and other artefacts, most notably among the ancient Egyptians. The museum depicts its use in African cultures until recent times.

The displays are essentially the story of the work of the local scholar and adventurer Corrado Basile, who has been to Africa many times since the 1960s to study the use of papyrus. They include three papyrus boats that he brought back from different parts of the continent and numerous other artefacts.

Its relevance to Sicily is that, aside from Africa, it is the only location in the world where papyrus grows. The most significant presence of papyrus is along the banks of the Ciane River, just a few kilometres from Syracuse. It is also an indication of the physical proximity of Sicily to Africa, where papyrus grows throughout the continent.

I’ve long had an interest in the history of publishing and media. What most fascinates me about papyrus is that it was the only medium used for the dissemination and preservation of the work of the philosophers and poets of ancient times. Without papyrus, there is so much that would be lost to us. We can compare its usefulness and influence, and perhaps notoriety, to other media such as the printing press, radio waves and the internet.

After 20 years, I've finally made it to Ragusa

Late on Saturday I arrived in the inland Sicilian city of Ragusa. With about 73,000 inhabitants, it is built on a limestone hill between two deep valleys. It is one of eight cities in Sicily’s south-east that is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When UNESCO put the towns on its list in 2002, it described them as ‘representing the culmination and final flowering of Baroque art in Europe’. 

IMG_20180408_133730

That is because they were destroyed by a large earthquake in 1693 and subsequently rebuilt in the baroque and renaissance style that was current at the time. A bit like Napier in New Zealand, which was razed by an earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt with Art Deco architecture.

Why did I choose Ragusa over the other cities, which are undoubtedly all beautiful? It’s because I’ve had it in my mind for 20 years that I wanted to visit Ragusa one day. It is the home town of a former colleague, and also a couple that I was friendly with when I lived in Rome in 1997-98.

They would talk about Ragusa with love and affection, although it was clear that they preferred to live in the big city. It seems my airbnb host Giuseppe is much the same. 

Giuseppe lives and works in Milan and his plan is to have his parents help with looking after guests. Nevertheless he was at the local bus station with his parents when they came to pick me up after I’d taken the 90 minute journey from Catania Airport on Saturday evening. I am his first airbnb guest and it seems he is determined to get things right.

IMG_20180408_162944

As expected, I’ve noticed many older people and not so many young people about the streets. There are empty shops, but clearly the residents have a sense of pride in their city, which is well-maintained and gradually being discovered by tourists. 

My gauge of a tourist location is how easy it is to manage in English. In Paris, I’ll ask for something in broken French and they will answer me in English. Here they are answering me in Italian. Fortunately the patchy Italian I learned many years ago has come out of hibernation after my 19 year absence from the country. 

After my ten kilometre walk around the older section of the town - mostly up and down steps - I went to the railway station to book my ticket for tomorrow’s journey to Catania, where I will spend four days. 

The train takes the scenic route, and the travelling time is over four hours. The station was deserted and slightly derelict, as I guess most locals would favour the 90 minute bus trip.

My daily demi-baguette

In Australia, one of my secrets to avoiding weight gain is no bread. When I’m in Paris, I don’t even try to stay away from baguettes. 

They are so much a part of life here. There’s always a boulangerie around the corner, and you constantly see baguettes poking out of people’s bags as they walk around the streets.

Every day I buy a half (or demi-) baguette in the late afternoon or early evening. I cut it in half and have one piece fresh with my evening meal around 8:30 and the other for breakfast, occasionally with Vegemite.

I’m careful to get it by 8:00 pm when the boulangeries close. If I miss that deadline, I will need to go to a supermarket, where the baguettes are a pale imitation of the real thing. 

The ‘real thing’ is always baked on the premises, and is often still warm when you buy it. In other countries, the word ‘artisanal’ can be slightly pretentious. But here it’s signposted outside a boulangerie as a statement of the fact that they bake on site.  

I’m lucky to live in an area where there are dozens of boulangeries. In one direction - Rue Saint Honoré - there is one about every 200 metres. I have tried most of them, and discovered that some are better than others. 

There is one that is part of a chain that makes a big deal of its Meilleure Baguette de Paris 2016 award. I prefer the next one along the street, which you need to Google to discover that it has won awards every few years since 1996.

For reasons of economy, I previously bought the basic baguette for around 50 euro cents. But one day they had only the baguette traditionnelle, which costs 10 cents more. It is not as white, has holes, and looks to be less processed are more wholesome than the cheaper one. It is certainly more satisfying, and now I always ask for the traditionnelle.

Part of my current ritual is to cut it in half with a proper bread knife, and then to break it as I consume it. I did not get a proper bread knife until last week, as I’d been trying to make do with a single chopping knife in my tiny kitchen space. But there is always room for the important things. 

The untidy workspace of the father of modern sculpture

Yesterday I went to the Pompidou Centre in the hope that the train strike would have restricted visitor numbers to the National Museum of Modern Art. 

But the queue snaked well into the large courtyard, and the rain. So instead I visited the museum’s annexe - the Brâncuși Studio - which tends to be overlooked by many tourists including myself.

Notwithstanding Rodin, Constantin Brâncuși (1867-1957) is often described as the father of modern sculpture. He grew up in his native Romania and travelled to Paris in 1903. He started work in Rodin’s studio, but left after two months, saying ‘nothing can grow under big trees’.

With characteristic single mindedness, he set up his studio in a room in the 15th arrondissement. Over the decades he extended it by acquiring the leases to a total of four adjoining rooms or workshops.

IMG_20180404_150520

He was insistent that certain sculptures belonged in the environment of his studio, with its particular light and spatial properties. 

So when he bequeathed the studio and its artworks to the French state, he imposed the condition that it must be reconstituted in its entirety, including ‘works, drafts, workbenches, tools, furniture’. The reconstitution was completed in 1997 by the original Pompidou Centre architect Renzo Piano.

I was reminded of the 2014 recreation of the ordered chaos of Australian painter Margaret Olley’s Paddington, Sydney, home inside the Tweed Regional Gallery in northern NSW. The Gallery’s director said at the time: ‘It was the layering that fascinated me, clearly everything had a place’.

The English translation of one of the explanatory panels in the Brâncuși Studio reads: ‘In the rather untidy place... the sculptor was taken unawares by the contiguity, juxtaposition and combination of forms’.

The sculptures blend with the context of the work benches and tools, as well as Brâncuși’s mezzanine bed space, his cooking utensils, and even the guitar that was used to create musical entertainment with his bohemian friends including composer Erik Satie.

IMG_20180404_160700

I sometimes think of the particular spatial properties of the rooms in which we live our own thoughtful and creative moments, including my own tiny five square metre room a few hundred metres from the Pompidou Centre. 

The ‘jerry-built’ fittings tell one story. There’s another in the particular natural light afforded by its situation on the top floor of the building. That gives it a gloss that is perhaps compatible with a creative existence. Together they give me an insight into the philosophy of existentialism.

  

The gloom of springtime in Paris

It’s springtime in Paris and I’ve been here a little over two weeks.  But although a sunny 21 degrees is expected on Saturday, being here at this time is not entirely enviable. 

I’d missed the floods and heavy rains that had made life miserable for Parisians earlier this year. But when I first arrived, there was snow cover at the airport and it was even snowing in my street in the first arrondissement. Temperatures were sub-zero, and they took some days to approach a level of relative comfort.

However the real gloom in the air was created by the strikes in the public sector. The unions released a calendar of train strikes that will take place three days a week between now and the end of June. Air France had two strike days last week and there will be another two next week. In addition, the public electricity utility EDF is also expected to be subject to strike action.

On my flight to Paris, I was sitting next to the mayor of a small town in the Loire Valley. He explained that it was about resistance to President Macron’s agenda to curb the cushy conditions that are an obstacle to France’s economic competitiveness in the modern world.

In my experience, strike action is often a mix of idealism and worker self-interest, with self-interest often dressed up as idealism. 

When I worked at the ABC in the 90s, it was creeping commercialism eroding the values of public sector broadcasting. That was real. But it seemed those values were inseparable from upholding a longstanding and arguably unrealistic high standard of working conditions that I never enjoyed in my post-ABC employment.

According to survey results reported on the nightly television news on France 2, about half the general population is broadly supportive of the strike action. I suspect there’s an element of nostalgia for the past and skepticism about globalism and its purported benefits for the those who don’t belong to the economic elite. Not too dissimilar to the sentiment in the UK that led to the Brexit vote.

The nightly news tends to focus on the gloom of those waiting on train platforms for the approximately 20 per cent of trains that are still running using what we might call ‘scab labour’. But I think there are also those who are able to dodge the worst effects by working from home or travelling outside the peak. 

My Air France flight to Sicily next week was booked for what became a planned strike day. Luckily I was able to bring my departure ahead three days. My Sicilian holiday is extended and I will avoid both the Air France strike and the two successive days of train strikes that could have prevented me from travelling to the airport. 

Yesterday a friend observed that the transport paralysis seemed to have reduced the number of tourists in circulation, suggesting that today - another strike day - might be a good day to visit one of the usually crowded museums. That is my plan for the afternoon.

Coming late to style

Today I had lunch with an old friend and work colleague I first met 30 years ago. 

She recalled two other female colleagues taking me on as a 'project' to try to give me a sense of style. 

I was very much lacking in that aspect, partly because I was still a Jesuit. We proudly regarded ourselves as counter-cultural. 

Most of us were from comfortable middle class backgrounds. But we sought to 'identify with the poor'. I remember my mother buying me an expensive suit that I was too embarrassed to wear. 

We dressed down, grew beards when they were out of fashion, and gave each other rough haircuts. Overweight was OK, and working out in the gym to build a beautiful body would be to worship an alien god. Our style was to eschew style. 

But in effect we were making a virtue of sloppiness. Eventually I worked it out that sloppy does little to enhance the dignity of the poor. Whoever the poor were, I hope they did not pay too much attention to the well-intentioned standard we set.

Thirty years down the track, my colleagues' wish for me has been fulfilled. 

I try to be mindful of my dress and grooming. I also pay attention to how others present themselves. 

I sometimes find articles of interest in GQ men's fashion magazine, although my current favourite is the Men in This Town blog that pays homage to men who express their personality in the clothes they wear.

A visit to the gym each morning has taken the place of daily Mass. It can centre me as a human being or it can be boring. But my better body shape, and attention to dress and grooming, contribute to a greater sense of well-being.

The real scandal is Joyce's schooling

One of the friends I caught up with at the weekend is a therapist who has just published a book titled Kind Man, Strong Man. 

I bought it for my Kindle and read much of it last night. It is about violence in men towards their intimate female partners. The author – Eric Hudson – worked for five years providing emotional support at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

From my reading, his book is about attitudes and values that contribute to a society in which women are not respected or treated as equals. The question of physical violence is often irrelevant.

Hudson says: ‘I remember so clearly the moment when a woman said to me, “You know, he has never hit me, never laid a hand on me, but there are some times when I wish he would hit me! Because then I would have the bruises on the outside where they can be seen, not on the inside where no-one can see them.”’

The recent commentary about Barnaby Joyce that has resonated most with me has centred around the words ‘power imbalance’. It suggests – rightly or wrongly – that we are dealing with male abuse. In other words, the circumstances in a man’s life where all the women are not respected or treated as equals to men.

I don’t think it is helpful to judge Barnaby, especially in the way the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull did on Thursday. It’s better to focus on a critique of the culture. 

We can hope that Barnaby and other influential men will see the reality of how they treat women and act for change. There’s no point in provoking them to try to defend the indefensible.

It is true that Barnaby’s personal choices appear to have caused immense suffering in the lives of the women in his life. But because he is the product of a culture that has little respect for women, the odds are that his actions will reflect that. 

I would say that it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that he was schooled to treat women as second class citizens. 

It was the same for me. He was a country kid in an all male Jesuit boarding school, St Ignatius College Riverview in Sydney. Just a few years earlier, I was a country kid in another all male Jesuit boarding school, Xavier in Melbourne. For months at a time, we did not have girls around us to relate to as fellow human beings and equals. 

Girls were always on our minds, as sex objects. It is not surprising that boys from similar schools graduate to institutions like the infamous St John’s College at the University of Sydney, where the ritual humiliation and abuse of women and less macho men was not questioned until recently. That is the real scandal.

Joyce’s leadership of the Nationals may be no longer tenable, and the Nationals are having to deal with that. But the best thing our political class can do for the long term is to make laws that foster respect for women.


LINK: Kind Man, Strong Man

The mission of a bank nerd

I think I'm what you would call a bank nerd. I count the number of accounts I have rather than the amount of money they contain. There's no doubt that the accounts count produces a more remarkable figure.

I have accounts with twelve banks in Australia and one in France. I am proud of the fact that I avoid fees in all but my French account and that I have the best ongoing savings interest rates on the market.

It's something I learned from my father. I remember he shopped around for the best deals and switched his business from the Bank of NSW (now Westpac) to CBC (NAB) at a time when most families were loyal to the one bank for generations.

He encouraged us to save our pocket money and to invest in a quasi-bank that was known as a Permanent Building Society, which offered seven per cent interest. Then he got us to switch to another that offered nine.

I'm thinking about this because yesterday one of my banks - ING - informed its customers that we would need to make at least five transactions per month on our debit cards in order to keep our currently high 2.79 per cent interest rate.

I exercised my mind and found a solution to that one. But I'm still coming to terms with the ethics and practical challenges posed by Citibank's changes to its credit card rewards program.

Citi's rewards now direct its clients towards its 'partner' merchants. Before the changes, certain cards earned one point for every dollar spent anywhere. Now there's one point if they shop at Coles or Woolworths and zero points if they shop at IGA.

I sometimes wonder whether such nerd - or maven - behaviour enhances the personal wellbeing of the nerd, or of society in general.

I think it does. Because some of us are more demanding of businesses, they are kept on their toes and are less likely to exploit the non-nerds. If everybody was a bank nerd, the banking royal commission would not be necessary.

I have been trying to convince a friend to stop paying ANZ the $5 a month fee for a basic account and switch to an account elsewhere that offers interest and no fee. But he just laughs and tells me to get a life.

The problem is that dismissing the need to be more engaged in our consumer behaviour plays into the hands of greedy businesses, especially those that are prepared to behave unscrupulously.

Many banking customers get a much worse deal than my friend when the self-interest of their trusted financial advisors causes them to accept bad advice that is destined to cause them financial pain down the track and diminish their personal wellbeing.

I know what it's like to be overwhelmed by all the choices we have as consumers. I have no interest in studying the detail of either home and contents or health insurance products. As a result, I pay a lot of money for insurance that undoubtedly serves the needs of the companies much better than it does mine.

What happened to my Australian accent

I spent the summer of 1983-84 in the Philippines. During this time I fell in love with the Philippines and its people and felt ashamed to be Australian.

I can't remember exactly why I was ashamed, but I think it had something to do with Australia's misplaced sense of superiority in South East Asia. It was the era in which Singapore's prime minister Lee Kuan Yew felt he had to warn Australians that we were in danger of becoming the 'white trash' of Asia.

I decided that I did not like the Australian accent because it reflected this ugliness, which we ourselves did not seem to be aware of.

Not entirely tongue in cheek, I worked to modify my spoken English. I wanted a neutral accent that would ensure I was not immediately recognisable as Australian. When overseas these days, I still get told that I don't sound Australian.

After three and a half decades, my shame is not what it was. But I am keenly aware that every week there are new reasons for me to feel even more ashamed. A few days ago it was news of the planned overhaul of Australia's national security laws that could lead to journalists being jailed for doing their jobs.

Indeed if there is such a thing as an international shame index, Australia would have to be much more prominent today than it was in the 1980s. We are punching below our weight in so many areas. Examples include the promotion of human rights and acting to mitigate the effects of climate change.

I tell myself that Australia is a work in progress and that for every step backwards there is arguably a step forward.

We had Paul Keating's 1994 Redfern speech on the treatment of Indigenous Australians, which was broadly accepted by the general population. It gave us a lasting sense of national contrition that led to the 2008 Apology.

Now we have genuine and widespread criticism of the Australia Day celebration as inappropriate because it represents invasion and the beginning of annihilation for the first Australians. The celebration is on the nose to the extent that the online advertising and marketing website Mumbrella is warning brands that they should not risk damage by endorsing Australia Day.

I'm not against Australia Day, as long as it evolves to include an element of contrition alongside the self-congratulation. Shame is not a bad thing, to the extent that it acts as a reality check. And it could even bring the nation together.

Actual slow travel is better than watching a long train journey on TV

In recent weeks we've seen the surprising success of SBS TV's experimentation with the Slow TV genre. They've screened three and 17 hour versions of their documentary on The Ghan rail journey from Adelaide to Darwin.

The three hour 'director's cut'  was the station's highest rating program for the past year. The popularity of the three hours was such that they broadcast the 17 hour version the following weekend. Perhaps they will even try for 54 hours, which is the actual length of the journey.

But it's one thing to watch a long slow train journey on TV, and another to actually do it.

About this time last year, I was at Strathfield station in Sydney and saw an ad for NSW Trains Discovery Pass. I bought one the next day.

For $550 first class and $420 economy, the ticket allows six months travel on NSW country trains and buses that travel north to Brisbane, west to Broken Hill and south as far as Melbourne. I did one trip from Sydney to Brisbane, one from Sydney to the Gold Coast hinterland, one to Albury, and about four day trips to Canberra.

Friends thought I was a bit odd. Most people write off long distance rail travel in Australia because it's 'too slow'. But for me, slow is the best way to go if I can make the time to do it.

I think most people can if they really want to and make it a priority. Those who say they don't have the time to do such things probably pack too much into their busy lives and can't see the wood for the trees. They're the people who don't have the time to read novels.

Those who only have time for travel by air, or fast trains overseas, will never get to take in the meditative experience of the gradual change of landscape and vegetation over many hours and days. For me it is the equivalent of a religious retreat, and Australia's lack of enterprise in not building fast trains can be construed as a virtue.

Slow travel can also take the form of a long drive.

I discovered that it awakened something deep inside of me in 2003 when I drove from the east to the west coast of Australia. I had always wanted to do it because it's a thing many Australians 'must' do once in their life, just as Muslims go to Mecca.

The drive across Australia was such a peak experience for me that six months later I was off on a driving holiday through the wide open spaces of the USA.

I flew into San Jose and drove through the California Desert and along the old Route 66 to the Texas pan handle. I then went north towards Wyoming and Montana before returning to San Jose from Washington state close to the west coast. Around 9000 kilometres.

I also enjoy very long distance slow bus trips. In 2015, I took a bus for 25 hours through the windswept terrain in southern Peru between Lima and the Chilean border town of Arica. Then a day or so later I travelled in another bus for around 32 hours, through the Atacama desert - the world's driest - to the city of Valparaiso, not far from the capital Santiago.

Of course I do 'drop in' travel as well. But there's nothing like taking lots of time to reach a destination. Or not having a destination at all, which was actually the case when I set out from Albury for my 2003 road trip that ended up taking me as far as Meekatharra in Western Australia.