tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:/posts MICHAEL MULLINS' TINY LETTER 2018-04-19T12:31:18Z tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1274552 2018-04-19T12:31:18Z 2018-04-19T12:31:18Z Bee emergency in Paris spring

I’ve failed to time my visits to Japan to coincide with the cherry blossoms that are out at the moment. But this week the chestnut blossoms depicted in the song April in Paris are charming both locals and visitors alike, with standing room only in the city’s parks and gardens.

Spring weather is of course variable, and this is the first week I’ve been able to cast aside the winter jacket for shorts and t-shirt. It was 28 degrees yesterday, with similar temperatures predicted until the middle of next week when it will dip ten degrees and we’ll once again be pulling our winter jackets from the wardrobe.  

Reading books in the park

It means a lot to me because I felt challenged by the sub zero temperatures and the snow in my neighbourhood on the day of my arrival on 18th March. Those who live here or visited earlier in the year had to endure floods, low temperatures and constant rain. Now it is possible to detect a definite upward swing in their spirits.

Yesterday I walked through a few parks in an effort to capture something of this mood. I’d wondered what Parisians do in springtime and thought I might see vigorous physical demonstrations of their love for each other.

But it turned out that it was the bees that were in springtime overdrive, seemingly upsetting public order by getting too excited by the blossoms. As I walked through the Luxembourg Gardens, I witnessed a bee emergency underway. 

Apiculteurs au travail

There was a large area roped off and teams of beekeepers in helmets and white baggy suits trying to bring the situation under control, whatever that involves. It had never occurred to me that blossoms could be the cause of such consternation.

Nevertheless visitors on the other side of the gardens near the Luxembourg Palace seemed unfazed. They were enjoying the weather chatting, reading and, of course, watching each other.

When you spend time in colder climates, you notice that the contrast of the seasons can be much more pronounced than it is in Sydney and parts of Australia further north. In my view, it’s something to be cherished.

Luxembourg Gardens

In Australia there are increasing attempts to beat seasonality, for example selling cherries imported from California in winter. I buy them although I don’t like what such availability represents.

I’ve noticed that the fruit and vegetables available in the shops in Paris tend to be those that are in season. At the moment the large white asparagus are everywhere. Next month it’s strawberries, eggplants, cucumbers, turnips and cauliflower. If you let it, seasonality brings variety in addition to the mood swings.

 

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1274150 2018-04-18T11:10:04Z 2018-04-18T11:10:04Z The art of making a spectacle of ourselves

I’d been wondering why many French cafés have lines of outdoor seats facing the street. I haven’t seen it elsewhere and it has seemed odd to me. 

Yesterday I realised that its purpose is to enable the café’s patrons to get a clear view of people walking along the street.

Paris caf chairs facing the street

In other cultures, people watching tends to be frowned upon. It’s seen as voyeurism, an invasion of another person’s space and privacy, or at least failing to mind your own business. But for the French, it’s celebrated as an important dimension of the interplay between human beings. 

You don’t have to have business to transact with a person in order to look at them. An active gaze at someone is a statement in response to the way that person has often deliberately projected a particular energy or visual aspect. It might lead to an exchange of words or more, but usually it’s just as fruitful if it doesn’t. 

It’s about performance and spectacle and etching yourself into the consciousness of others. To do that, something about your dress or accessories or movement needs to stand out from the crowd.

Instinctively I do the opposite, so that I blend into the crowd. It’s how I was brought up. I delude myself into thinking that I am not being people watched, and that that’s the way it should be. 

But yesterday I realised that nobody in the streets of a big city is anonymous, and that that’s a good thing. It was when a woman came up to me to express admiration of my Australian-designed Crumpler loose fabric draw string backpack. She had people watched me, and in this case it had led to a conversation, about how she might be able to buy one for herself.

Then in an art gallery, an older woman who was an attendant gazed at me. But not in a way that suggested a suspicion that I might damage or steal an artwork. There was a slight smile and a facial expression approaching awe. I interpreted it as a compliment. 

I had looked admiringly at the smart bright yellow shawl she was wearing, and perhaps she had noticed my notice of her and was reciprocating. I will never know. But it is an intriguing pleasure to wonder about it.

I think the lesson is that we don’t need to hold back when we find ourselves drawn to look at somebody who, in our estimation, stands out. They have made themselves up, precisely because they like to be looked at, and it is a source of satisfaction for them that another person has noticed them.

The French put great store in the quality of their presence in the street or at a public event. It’s almost sacramental. It’s about performance in a culture that esteems performers. 

They would not think much of parents in other cultures who admonish their children for ‘making a spectacle’ of themselves.

The act of making a spectacle of ourselves and being noticed is not an escape from reality. Instead it’s an embrace of the world, and indeed the perfect cure for melancholia, depression, and poor self-esteem.

 

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1273796 2018-04-17T10:48:34Z 2018-04-17T10:48:34Z The Paris district most like Sydney's Newtown

Recently my neighbour invited me to a party for his girlfriend’s birthday. He introduced me to a male friend who works on the Paris staff of an Australian based organisation. 

The friend had just returned from a visit to head office in Sydney and told me that my neighbourhood – Newtown – was the part of Sydney he most appreciated. He was even able to name the restaurant he’d dined at.

My neighbour asked him what locality in Paris is most like Newtown. The 11th arrondissement was his reply.

So I decided that I had to put the 11th arrondissement on my bucket list of places to visit before I return to Australia next month. 

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This up and coming district on the right bank is described as one of the most densely populated parts not only of Paris, but of any European city. It is known for its high concentration of fashionable cafés, restaurants and nightlife, as well as a range of boutiques and galleries. 

To most Australians, its most recognisable establishment would be – sadly – the Bataclan rock music venue, where 90 people were killed in the coordinated terrorist attack in November 2015.

I decided that yesterday was the day for my walk to the 11th arrondissement, which is 30 minutes from my room in the First arrondissement, essentially on the other side of the Marais. I set out around midday, and passed the Bataclan theatre on my way to rue de Charonne. 

My research had suggested that rue de Charonne would remind me of King Street Newtown, and it did. It’s a long street, gentrified at one end with the feel of grunge at the other. 

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There were the expected restaurants and cafés and clothes shops. But what struck me most was the number of what we call ‘old wares’ shops. They’re the businesses that sell secondhand items to people wising to give their often nondescript apartment spaces the ambience of a particular past era they like to romanticise. Romance is of course very important to Parisians.

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What topped off my comparison was rue de Charonne’s location in the vicinity of a remarkable cemetery, Le Cimetière du Père Lachaise. King Street Newtown is a few hundred metres from the historic Camperdown Cemetery, which is listed by the state Heritage Council.

The Père Lachaise, which was named after Louis XIV’s Jesuit confessor, is the largest and most visited cemetery in Paris. It is home to the graves of many famous people. In the short time I had before my return walk, I looked at the tombs of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison.

 

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1273332 2018-04-16T10:16:15Z 2018-04-16T10:16:15Z On the edge of my linguistic comfort zone

On Saturday I returned to Paris after my week in Sicily. 

I thought I would avoid the frustration of waiting up to 25 minutes for an airport bus by walking to Catania airport, which should be not much more than an hour from the city on foot. However Google Maps failed me and I found myself outside a remote and sleepy corner of the airport far from Departures, even though I had selected the ‘Departures’ option it had given me.

Luckily there was some passing traffic and I was able to attract the attention of a kind local, who drove me to Departures in good time for the boarding call.

During that moment of panic, I found myself speaking what seemed fluent Italian, to explain my situation to my new best friend and express my gratitude to him for saving me from missing my flight. 

He appeared to understand exactly what I was saying, as did others I’d had dealings with in Italian during my time in Sicily. When I arrived at the airport at the beginning of the week, the bus ticket vendor I approached for my ticket to Ragusa pointed to another booth that was not attended. 

Non c’e nessuno! was my spontaneous reaction to him (there’s nobody there).

I was proud of the language skill I did not realise I had. Like most Australians with a tenuous grip on a foreign language, I usually construct my thoughts in English before translating them into the other language.

It reminded me of my long history with the Italian language. In Year 9 at school, Father Ferruccio Romanin offered lunchtime Italian classes. I think he was the one who planted non c’e nessuno in my unconscious, where it has remained for more than 40 years.  

He gave me a good grasp of the basics, which I was able to build on later when I did a year’s Italian language at university and then a crash course much later when I went to work for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome at the beginning of 1997.

However despite all the effort, I never grasped the language in any serious sense. My Italian was regarded - affectionately - as a joke among my work colleagues and my fellow volunteers at the refugee hospitality centre. My tendency to translate Australian and other English idioms literally would both baffle and amuse them.

Now, in Paris, I find myself having to suppress the tendency for Italian words and phrases to come up like weeds and strangle my attempts to respond to people in French. 

Almost daily, the receptionist at the gym will greet me with ‘Ça va?’ (How’s it going?) I will either utter the Italian response ‘Bene grazie’, or spend all my mental energy trying to suppress it and not be able to find the words to respond in French.

Recently I have started to comfort myself with the existentialist thought that my grasp of language, and limited ability to acquire new language skills at my age, is what it is. In other words, it’s part of my character and personality as an Australian with good English skills venturing outside my linguistic comfort zone to explore life in foreign cultures.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1271836 2018-04-12T15:22:04Z 2018-04-12T15:22:04Z Enjoying Sicilian street food

I’m with my sister and brother in law in Catania, the largest city on the east coast of Sicily. They’ve come here from their home in England’s south-east. 

She enjoys cooking, and her idea of a holiday is to take a serviced apartment near an interesting food market and use the kitchen to prepare a nice meal herself, rather than rely exclusively on restaurants.

What caught her attention at the market yesterday were the wedge clams. They’re a species of small shellfish native to the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of western Europe. They’re known here as telline, and are similar to pippies in Australia.

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She cooked them in a pan with garlic and olive oil and we enjoyed the dish as an entree with a glass of Sicilian rose. She was trying to reproduce part of a sensational meal we enjoyed last May at the home of a former Australian work colleague of mine outside Nîmes in the south of France. 

After returning from the market, my sister had thought she’d bought too many of the wedge clams. She was proved wrong.

These past days I’ve had in my mind the phrase ’Sicilian street food’. It’s because of a tiny cafe called Ballaro that opened late last year in King Street, Newtown, not far from my home in Sydney. The cafe describes its offering as ‘authentic Sicilian street food’. 

This includes snacks such as arancine, the deep-friend rice balls with various succulent fillings that I see everywhere around here. There are also the tubular cannoli pastries. The filling is ricotta cheese, with a generous quantity of sugar. The one I enjoyed in Ragusa had ground pistachio nuts at each end.

Perhaps the most vivid food memory I will take away with me is also the simplest. When I first arrived, I was provided with a large bowl of oranges and lemons from the garden of the parents of my airbnb host.

As I wasn’t planning to do any cooking, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the four or five lemons. I thought I’d squeeze a glass of orange and lemon juice, and accidentally learned that Sicilian lemons - these ones at least - are sweet enough to eat in the way we’re accustomed to consuming oranges. 

So for breakfast this morning, I bought a lemon and two oranges from a vendor in a small truck parked outside the apartment building. The oranges turned out to be blood oranges, which are currently in season. 

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This afternoon I returned and bought a bag of six of the blood oranges for a euro. Almost immediately, I sat down to eat one read about them online. They’re of the ‘tarocco’ variety that are famed for their sweetness and juiciness. As a bonus, they have the highest vitamin C content of any orange variety grown in the world, mainly on account of the fertile soil surrounding Mt Etna.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1271288 2018-04-11T07:02:54Z 2018-04-11T07:02:54Z 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.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1270562 2018-04-09T11:15:52Z 2018-04-09T11:15:52Z 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’. 

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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.

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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.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1269532 2018-04-06T11:20:09Z 2018-04-06T11:20:09Z 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. 

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1269128 2018-04-05T10:54:48Z 2018-04-05T10:54:48Z 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.

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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.

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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.

  

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1268790 2018-04-04T10:35:03Z 2018-04-04T10:35:03Z 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.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1260132 2018-03-12T07:26:18Z 2018-03-12T07:26:18Z 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.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1249670 2018-02-18T22:25:07Z 2018-02-18T22:25:07Z 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

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1241175 2018-02-01T03:48:46Z 2018-02-01T08:50:18Z 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.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1238055 2018-01-26T01:51:13Z 2018-01-26T01:51:13Z 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.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1233466 2018-01-17T19:58:45Z 2018-01-17T19:58:46Z 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.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1218590 2017-12-18T20:43:29Z 2017-12-18T20:43:30Z Who really killed confession?

Amidst the negative publicity the Sacrament of Confession received after last Friday's release of the Child Abuse Royal Commission final report, one positive moment stood out for me.

It was the religious broadcaster Noel Debien making a personal allusion on Friday evening on ABCTV's The Drum discussion panel. He 'outed' himself as a practising Catholic who goes to Confession.

He was suggesting that his practice of the faith, including Confession, was a means of enrichment in his life. That struck a chord with me and I felt that I too would like to go to Confession when the opportunity presents itself. But on my own terms.

I think that most Catholics have stayed away from Confession for decades because the thought of it has made them feel small and unworthy. Good on them.

It's not dissimilar to the dynamic of sexual abuse, which made its victims feel small. It is part of what critics of the Church see as a power play that is designed to tighten the screws of the institution's psychological grip on its faithful.

But it needn't be the Church at its worst. Confession can offer a pathway to wholeness and growth. 'I can and want to be a better person.' Who does not have that aspiration in their life?

The good news is that ethical and moral virtue is within our grasp.

I felt this yesterday during a phone call with a friend who is a spiritual mentor in another context of my life. We were discussing the Royal Commission report and Confession and my sense of how cathartic it can be when done right.

As if to demonstrate my point, I mentioned some of my actions from last week that I wasn't particularly proud of. I manifest them to him and owned them. Then, right on cue, I felt I'd taken a step up the ladder towards virtue nirvana. I'd become more whole as a person.

I questioned why the Church cannot seem to give us that experience.

After Vatican II, it was on the right track when it renamed Confession the 'Sacrament of Reconciliation'. It was as if it was offering us our own personal truth and reconciliation commission. The kind of thing they have when they want to right wrongs and make a fresh start in countries where there have been human rights abuses.

Then came the pullback of the John Paul II and Benedict XVI papacies. It reverted to Confession and the rhetoric once again implied the play in which the Church and its officials make us feel small and that this is somehow for our own good. They killed it.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1217272 2017-12-15T20:33:42Z 2017-12-16T06:47:02Z When church teaching says Confession should be killed off

As a junior bishop during the Church's World Youth Day in 2008, the now Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher angered many when he suggested that raising historic cases of child sexual abuse amounted to 'dwelling crankily ... on old wounds'.

Nine and a half years later, he's made another statement that is memorable for the wrong reasons. At his media conference following yesterday's release of the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, he said that 'killing off confession is not going to help anybody'.

He was responding to the Commission's recommendation that a new law be passed to require priests to report cases of child sexual abuse that they learn about while administering the sacrament of confession. Such a law would conflict with the 'seal of confession' of the Church's own canon law.

Archbishop Fisher fears it would 'kill' confession. But Melbourne canon lawyer Ian Waters suggested last night to viewers of ABCTV's The Drum that priests hearing confession have infinite room to move pastorally and that there are means of ensuring abuse is reported to police without necessarily breaking the seal. Where there's a will there's a way was his message.

If a priest did find himself breaking the seal, he would easily find reassurance from Pope Francis himself. Francis has become well known for his insistence that the imposition of church law and doctrine must be qualified by a demonstration of love and mercy towards those who are most vulnerable.

Ten years before Francis became Pope in 2013, the leader of the Australian Jesuits Father Mark Raper made clear to viewers of the ABC's 7.30 Report his view that the Church as an institution is less important than the people it cares for.

Responding to the suggestion that rejecting legal advice by apologising to a child sex abuse victim would be costly to the Church in terms of financial compensation, he said: 'Well, the assets are not as important as the people that we seek to serve. What is the point of doing what we're doing if that's not the case?'

Yesterday my thoughts turned to the principle of 'subsidiarity', which is the bottom line of Catholic social teaching. Subsidiarity, which is most commonly applied to workers' rights, insists that any regulation of economic and social affairs must give priority to the dignity and rights of individual persons.

The principle of subsidiarity is not usually mentioned in the context of sacramental theology. But for me, it's enough to give confidence that 'killing off confession' is justified if the dignity and rights of sex abuse victims are at stake.


Links: Waters | Raper | Subsidiarity

 

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1216862 2017-12-14T20:33:49Z 2017-12-14T20:33:49Z Mothballing the clerical collar will help prevent clergy sexual abuse

About 15 years ago, I was editing the Catholic Church's online news service CathNews when stories about clerical sexual abuse were beginning to appear in significant numbers.

It was usually difficult to find a photograph or other visual image to illustrate the abuse stories. But eventually I settled on one generic image that I felt would suit all of them. It was a plain and simple graphic depicting a priest's clerical collar.

I recall that we stopped using it following representations from more than one bishop.

The first was a gentle plea. We were tarnishing the good name of the clergy and damaging the reputation of the Church. Then came the more heavy handed 'cease and desist' order that gave us no choice.

There had been no protracted deliberation involved in my choice of the image. Like a lot of decisions editors made on the run, it was intuitive. But in hindsight - as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse wraps up - it seems prescient.

I say this after seeing this week's issue of the email newsletter from Francis Sullivan of the Church's Truth Justice and Healing Council. One of its headlines was extracted from a story published in the National Catholic Reporter in the US: 'Australian bishop urges end to clericalism'.

The article features the views of Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta based on a talk he gave in August that was published in the December issue of the National Council of Priests newsletter The Swag. It points to the culture of clericalism as a major cause of sexual abuse.

'In my testimony at the Royal Commission I maintained that we need to dismantle the pyramid model...which promotes the superiority of the ordained. ... Abuse in the area of sex is a form of abuse of power. I believe that we cannot address the issue of clerical sexual abuse without examining the clerical culture in which unhealthy attitudes and behaviours are fostered.'

It is often possible to know a priest's views about power and privilege in the Church simply by looking to see if he is wearing a clerical collar. In many circumstances, priests will make a deliberate choice whether or not to wear the collar, knowing its symbolic power.

I remember being a Jesuit novice in the late 1970s and the intense speculation about which of us would choose to wear a clerical collar rather than a suit, when we took our first vows at the end of the two year noviceship.

In retrospect, I think it was the most powerful statement we could make concerning whether we believed we were entering a life of power and privilege or one of service.

Indeed I can now suggest with confidence that an attitude of superiority on the part of a priest or other religious functionary carries with it the distinct possibility that they will abuse their position by taking sexual advantage of someone less powerful. On the other hand, if they genuinely think of themselves as servants, sexual abuse is most unlikely.

I think it's now time for the Church to consider mothballing the clerical collar. This would be a fitting follow up to Bishop Vincent Long's suggestion that 'we cannot address the issue of clerical sexual abuse without examining the clerical culture ... of power and control that has been our cultural captivity'.


Link: newsletter]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1215362 2017-12-12T05:09:01Z 2017-12-12T05:09:01Z Tribalism and Australian marriage equality

This morning I was listening to a podcast from US National Public Radio on the topic 'word of the year'. The commentator Geoff Nunberg chose 'tribalism' as his word of the year and focused his explanation on the politics of identity.

I've been thinking a lot about tribalism this year, trying to decide whether it's a good or bad thing. Nunberg says people often 'use "tribal" to obliterate the differences between solidarity and blind group loyalty' and that this can lead society to become 'fragmented into factions that deny one another's legitimacy'.

At various moments of the debate on same sex marriage in Australia, I could see this kind of 'we are right you are wrong' attitude on both sides. So I was heartened that the 'yes' case supporters in the public gallery of Parliament House chose 'I am Australian' when they broke into song after the vote was passed last Thursday.

The song's refrain - 'we are one, but we are many' - specifically recognises the legitimacy of tribes beyond our own. It implicitly affirms identities that are centred around many commonalities including gender and sexual preference. Thursday's cause for celebration was the successful passage of the bill that meant our nation's marriage law would now include identities it had previously excluded.

In the lead up to the postal survey, I found it interesting to read an article in The Conversation identifying tribes within the GLBTI community that were notably unenthusiastic about voting 'yes'.

These groups were composed of predominantly older GLBTI people who were proudly countercultural. They feared that marriage 'would become the gold standard for same-sex relationships and other relationship styles would be regarded as less worthy'.

As I understood it, these groups were not denying the legitimacy of GLBTI people wanting to get married. They just hoped that equal marriage supporters would return the favour and recognise the legitimacy of their rejection of marriage as a lifestyle choice. I believe that they got their wish, at least to the extent that they did not suffer criticism from the 'yes' supporters.

With regard to the Catholic Church, it has to be argued that the majority of bishops supported a position that exemplifies the negative characterisation I quoted above. That is a non-recognition of the distinction between solidarity and blind loyalty that leads to a denial of the legitimacy of those with opposing views.

It was therefore gratifying that so many Catholics followed the lead of the few bishops who advocated a vote according to conscience on what they insisted was in any case a secular matter. This turned out to be a demonstration of the good that can exist in tribalism - solidarity and qualified loyalty.


Links: Nunberg | The Conversation]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1208359 2017-11-26T18:56:22Z 2017-11-26T18:56:22Z Parisian attitude that is nurturing

It's time to return to Sydney after being in Paris for most of October and November. Somebody asked me if I felt I could stay longer or if it was time to move on.

I said that I was looking forward to being back in Australia but pleased that I am coming back here in three or four months time. I went on to explain that life for me is not complete in Sydney and neither is it complete here in Paris. But between the two cities it is.

Tuilleries

I'm very aware of how fortunate I am to be able to establish myself in two cities. I believe it's important that we all use our imagination and resources to seize the opportunities and challenges that our circumstances offer.

I think it's about finding an equilibrium in my state of being, which is something we all need. The term sure-footed comes to mind. I feel that I am excessively sure-footed in Sydney and not at all sure-footed in Paris.

Lego ptisserie at Les Halles

People face this kind of challenge in various ways. Some establish themselves in their professions and social circles, and then they welcome children into their lives even though they know it will upturn their established order. Others don't have children and look to extend themselves in different ways.

I find it easiest to write these letters when I feel there is order in my life. That is why they've been few and far between during these two months.

Here my energies are focused on tasks such as getting the right pieces of paper that will allow me to establish accounts with the electricity utility and the bank. My bank account works but I still have to jump through one more hoop before the debit card they sent me will work in ATMs and supermarkets.

Performance art exhibition at Richelieu Library

Years ago I used to hear it said that the French are rude and unhelpful. My experience has been the opposite. I have found them nurturing.

I remember telling a shop assistant that I did not need a bag. I said 'pas sac', and he corrected me by indicating that 'pas de sac' is how it's said. His tone was nurturing, not a put down. That experience was repeated multiple times, most recently when the woman at the Bastille Market told me I wanted 'une carotte', not 'un carotte', which is how I'd put my request.

I feel affirmed by these exchanges, and each is a small step towards becoming more sure-footed in my new surrounds.

Jewelled slippers

Years ago I remember feeling small after an offhand remark from a guide at the United Nations building in New York City.

'Is this where you get to see how the UN works?', I asked, stating the obvious because that's what came into my head. 'That's the general idea' was his put down response, which reflected the kind of attitude that I'd grown up expecting to get from the French.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1203601 2017-11-06T11:35:33Z 2017-11-06T11:35:33Z The value of intransigence in Paris fairyland

This morning a Facebook alert welcomed me to Paris, four weeks to the day since my arrival.

I've easily engaged with the fairyland version of Paris that the tourists come to see. I have come to see that as well.

Paris market venue Place of the Innocents

But on Saturday, I walked past the shopfront of the Parti Socialiste and was reminded that the main reality is something else. The rough sleepers and other disadvantaged people visible on the streets are part of a society increasingly divided into haves and have nots. Just like Australia.

I can't understand much about French politics when I watch the news on TV, as I imagine the French scratch their heads when they hear about the possible fall of Australia's government because some of its members are dual citizens of another country.

Sign in the window of Parti Socialiste Paris

But I did get a sense of it when my vendor put me in touch with a young Ukrainian-Russian immigrant who was passionate about politics. I enjoyed the conversations we had when we visited bars on two occasions before he returned to his family in a village near Lyon.

In our discussions, we discovered that we shared a lot of common ground. We bemoaned the fact that nations across Europe - and also Russia - were becoming increasingly divided because their governents were catering more for entrenched elites than the good of the whole.

From the Louvre - Louis Lopold Boilly 1761-1845 People Entering to See a Free Show at the Ambigu-Comique Theatre
But I didn't like what I heard when I asked him who he supported in this year's French election and he said Marine Le Pen.

When I spent my first weekend in Lille, I admired my Australian friend for choosing an immigrant neighbourhood to buy an apartment for his part-time residence in France, even though I did not feel safe walking the streets.

He could have opted for something smaller in a more salubrious part of Paris. Like me. But I assume he was following the principles of the Catholic workers movement that he has been involved in and is the subject of his academic study.

Wall in Rue Foyatier Monmartre

My contact with reality has more to do with getting connected to the utilities and services that will allow me to live here part-time. On Friday I walked 40 minutes to the nearest shop of the majority state owned electricity company EDF. But they were closed, having had Thursday and Friday added to Wednesday's All Saints Day public holiday to make a five day long weekend.

I was consoled when it reminded me of then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's 'old Europe' insult when France refused to sign up for the Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq in 2003. It was a sign that America had not completely exported its 'can do' culture to France.

Be Loud Be Proud wall art Paris

I think that, despite the frustrations, there is something to like about intransigence that weakens productivity but upholds the rights and conditions of the ordinary people whose efforts achieve it.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1201048 2017-10-26T08:01:23Z 2017-10-26T08:01:24Z Liberté, égalité, fraternité and inferior coffee

A friend referred to the image of Parisians 'smoking Gauloises and reading Le Monde with their coffee and croissant'. I've always been fascinated by the portrayals of Parisian cafe culture, especially in the French New Wave movies of the 1960s, which are more concerned with atmosphere than story.

But the reality is now different. In 2017 you don't see Gauloises packets because French cigarettes now come with olive green plain packaging like Australia's, and Parisians look at smartphones rather than newspapers just like people everywhere.

Night time crowd around Fountain of the Innocents

I'm reluctant to make too many observations, as they will be superficial and inconclusive because of the short time I've been here. I've also been consumed by mundane activities such as getting a bank account and an insurance policy. However it's arguable that consumer norms and practices tell you more about a country than just about anything else.

However I do notice signs that there are values worth noting and prizing. Among the magazine posters on the sides of the kiosks in public places, the more prominent are promoting specialist titles on subjects including philosophy, psychology and sophisticated political satire (Charlie Hebdo).

There is obviously a market for these things, or the posters wouldn't be there. They have equal billing with sport and gossip that are more dominant in other countries. It's probably true that Parisians sitting together in cafes are more likely to be discussing philosophy than Australians. But I'd suggest that most don't, and that it's effectively confined to a niche, albeit a much larger one than in Australia.

Square in front of Sorbonne University

One of my favourite places to loiter is the square in front of the Sorbonne University (pictured), with its philosophy bookshops and cafes. Twice when I've been there I've noticed film crews recording interviews with learned professor types probably discussing philosophy.

There are certain things we want to believe that are not entirely true. Philosophy is in fact discussed in cafes around universities in Australia, and the cafe culture in Sydney and Melbourne is also vibrant. It also has to be said that the coffee is far superior to that in Paris, which is notably underwhelming.

But I like it that learning and human rights and open discussion seem to be a valued, along with good food and dress.

Libert galit fraternit on public building

The words Liberté, égalité, fraternité adorn French public buildings in the way references to the monarchy are attached to public institutions in the UK and Australia (in Sydney I live near the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital).

When buying my property here, my vendor said to me a few times 'French people don't stand for this kind of thing. They are aware of their rights'. An awareness that could come from philosophy being more in public consciousness.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1200478 2017-10-24T06:11:40Z 2017-10-25T16:40:25Z The good life in Paris might be sustainable

Yesterday was the two week anniversary of my new part-time life in Paris.

I've been absorbed with making my small five square metre room my own. For me that means throwing things out rather than acquiring them. It had most of what I needed but was full of excess bedding and crockery and other space fillers that didn't fit my minimalist aspirations.

Michael in his Paris room

I think the most important thing to do when you're in new surroundings for any length of time is to establish a routine to frame your life and give it some continuity and purpose. To this end, my early morning in-bed activity is to spend about half an hour doing French language exercises with the Duolingo app on my smartphone.

Unfortunately it has displaced writing this letter. But I hope that is temporary and the language work will find some other time slot in my day. The app's 'nag' feature to get users to do the daily exercises is too effective.

I am quite relaxed in my approach to learning the French language, which is really building on the grounding I got at school. Duolingo says I'm 59 per cent of the way there, but I don't think there is a point in which I will be able to say I have acquired French.

Looking from Chatelet towards Eiffel Tower

I get a small thrill when I say something in French and am understood. I like to watch TV with the French subtitles intended for the hearing impaired turned on. More and more I can understand what's going on. They are my 'trainer wheels' and eventually I hope to be able to turn them off.

The other thing that's important to me is the food and the culture.

The front door of my building is less than a minute's walk to the square around the Fountain of the Innocents. Currently it's the location of a two week exposition and market of food from various French regions. On Sunday evening I took the opportunity to sample a dozen snails, which is something I'd always wanted to do.

For me the intensity of the sensation was equal to that of good oysters. I especially like to wrestle with food to get the taste. They give you a small plastic fork for this purpose. One end has a single prong to extract the snail from the shell, while the other has three for eating.

Snails

Every day I go to a patisserie and ask for a 'demi-' (half) baguette. Before coming here, I'd not eaten bread regularly for more than a year. Being white bread, baguettes have almost no nutritional value and too many calories. But I can't resist them - and a cake - each day at the patisserie and boulangerie.

I like to think that this enjoyment of the good life is sustainable, which is why the other part of my routine consists of an ambitious goal of 20,000 steps each day and an hour at the gym in the late afternoon.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1197573 2017-10-11T13:55:01Z 2017-10-24T06:12:44Z My tiny room in the centre of Paris

Years ago I remember a friend telling me that he'd just bought a house in a NSW country town for the price of a car. I've just done something similar with my purchase of a tiny room in the centre of Paris for less than the price of a car parking space in Sydney.

At the end of April, I spent three days staying in an airbnb maid's room near the Luxembourg Gardens. I'd just arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport and I was headed to England to spend a month with my sister.

I thought to myself that I would like to own a room like this. I mentioned that in conversation with a friend in Lille who once worked selling real estate in Sydney. He's bought and sold several apartments in France, and he told me that it was easier than I imagined.

So with his help, I found online a five square metre room on the sixth floor of a building without a lift, for sale for 65,000 euros. It's in Châtelet in the First Arrondissement, a few minutes walk from either the Louvre or the Pompidou Centre. One of Paris's priciest locations.

I had my offer accepted in late June and signed the final papers and received the key at the notaires' office in Paris on Monday.

The room has a single bed, a shower, a toilet, a kitchen sink, a fridge, a wardrobe, and not much else. Just about all I need.

Five square metres is about the size of the bathroom in most Australian houses. I've stayed in capsule hotels in Japan in the past, and the room I lived in when I spent five weeks in Tokyo around August measured exactly five square metres.

Most buyers would probably classify the property as a renovators' delight. I could spend tens of thousands of euros gutting the room and engaging professionals to transform it into a designer showpiece. But I like it the way it is, at least for now.

It's too small to rent legally, and the low purchase price means I don't have to earn an income from it. I will just spend a few months here each year getting to know Paris, and offer it to friends who don't mind simple accommodation for one person in a ramshackle building.

The notaire was intrigued and described the purchase as 'interesting', the same word an Australian lawyer friend used a couple of months ago. Before I signed, he also warned me of some of the things that could go wrong. For example the Marais - the Paris City Council - could decide that it is too small for human habitation and force me to rent it as a storage room.

It seems it's not wired to make it easy to connect to fast internet. So until I find a better solution than my current 3G mobile phone data plan, my online life will be in the slow lane. Which doesn't have to be a bad thing.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1196728 2017-10-08T05:53:03Z 2017-10-08T05:53:03Z Visiting a Flemish region that speaks French

On Friday I found myself arriving at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport after a flight from Sydney, for the second time in six months. I have a commitment in Paris on Monday and decided to spend the weekend visiting an Australian friend who lives in Lille, an easy 55 minute journey north from the airport on the TGV fast train.

GranPlus main square Lille

I'd had the impression of Lille as an uninteresting industrial hub. But a few months ago a friend surprised and intrigued me by describing it as a 'handsome' city. He was right.

The most interesting fact I learned about Lille is that it was once part of Belgium. Flanders to be precise. Long before Belgium was created. It was annexed by Louis XIV of France in 1668, a year after the Siege of Lille by his army.

As a result, aspects of Flemish culture remain. Most visible to me is the Flemish (or Dutch) gable at the top of the facade of many of the older buildings.

IMG_20171007_103019

Because Lille is only 16 kilometres from the Belgian border, I was interested in crossing that border and exploring a Belgian city. We decided to take the half hour regional train journey to Tournai, one of the oldest and most culturally significant cities in the country.

Language and ethnic identity are very complex in the artificial and much unloved administrative construction that is Belgium. I marvelled at the contradictory reality that Tournai is a French-speaking Flemish city. It is located just within Wallonia, the southern half of Belgium that is aligned to French culture.

There was a lot to do there. It is a beautiful city that could be made even more beautiful and spoiled at the same time if they decided to put it on the tourist map like Bruges.

IMG_20171007_103131

On our walk from the station, we came across a busy Saturday morning farmers' market, where my eyes first gravitated towards the strings of hanging garlic, some of which was smoked.

On the walk through town, I was struck by the number of patisseries. It was like towns in Australia and elsewhere that had a pub on just about every corner. There were also charcuteries, selling prepared meat and other products. Vol-au-vents, which appeared to be a local specialty were plentiful in both the patisseries and charcuteries.

Vol-au-vents in Tournai

I read afterwards that in France, vol-au-vents are served as an appetiser, whereas they're larger and a common main dish in Belgium. I saw both in Tournai. I wanted to buy one for lunch but the woman in the charcuterie insisted that it had to be eaten after heating in the oven at home, and it was not an option for me to buy and eat on the run.

But the main highlight of Tournai was the huge Cathedral, which we were able to enter even though it was under serious large-scale renovation. It is still a place of worship, and indeed adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was taking place in a side chapel while we were there.

Le Cabinet du Docteur Caligari Cathedral projection

But like the rest of Europe, its congregation is obviously ageing and much diminished. It is good that large renovation and maintenance of cathedrals are being funded by bodies such as the European Union.

Increasingly in these post-Christian times, they are also being used for other cultural activities. I noted that the main coming event is not religious, but a projection of the 1920 German silent a horror film Le Cabinet du Docteur Caligari with accompaniment from the cathedral organ.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1192163 2017-09-19T02:19:31Z 2017-09-19T02:19:31Z The pros and cons of screens in bed

It occurs to me that I don't really organise my day. Instead one or two particular circumstances give it a shape, and that may or may not help me to achieve goals for a given 24 hour period.

During my recent five week stay in Tokyo, my bed was a thin foam mattress on the floor. It was comfortable for sleep, but not to sit up and look at the screens of my tablet and phone.

So when I climbed into bed, I fell asleep almost immediately. When I woke up, I got up and went for a healthy eight kilometre power walk around the lake. I avoided the discomfort of being before a screen and so did not read and write in bed.

That was good, especially if there's truth in what they say about looking at screens in bed being detrimental to our general health and wellbeing.

sleep weekly overview pre-Tokyo

The sleep data in my Fitbit app showed that I was getting up to an hour's more sleep than when I'd been in my screen friendly bed at home. Comparing the 'before' and 'after' graphs (above and below) shows that staying away from screens in bed puts me on the cusp of being in the blue 'recommended' zone for my age group.

But it was not entirely good. What I'd done previously when I woke up was to research and write my blog. Doing the blog was no longer a natural wake up activity and instead became something of a chore. I'd have to choose to write later in the day and it would compete with other enjoyable activities such as sightseeing.

sleep weekly overview post-Tokyo

Nevertheless when I returned home to Sydney, I made a new rule for myself. No screens in bed. As a result, I've maintained my improved sleep patterns. Instead of walking around the lake in the morning, I've been exercising at the gym, something that had fallen away in the winter months before I went to Tokyo.

The blog writing is having to compete with other activities during the day proper. But I take the view that it is something I need to nurture like a plant that has been moved from one part of the garden to another.

But whatever happens, it will then be shaken up once more, when I transplant my life to another city for two months from early October.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1191081 2017-09-14T01:52:39Z 2017-09-14T01:52:39Z Aung San Suu Kyi commodification hides nasty reality

In the news today is the decision of Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi to cancel her scheduled trip to the United Nations General Assembly.

The explanation is that she's having to deal with the crisis that has forced about 400,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh. Obviously she also wants to avoid being called to account for her failure to protect the Rohingya from what the UN's top human rights official Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein has described as 'a textbook example of ethnic cleansing'.

Aung San Suu Kyi

For some time she has faced criticism for her silence on the increasingly violent oppression of the Rohingya. As friends of mine became impatient with her during the course of the past year, my instinct was not to judge.

I told myself that she's a politician not a saint, and her continued leadership of the country depends upon her willingness to act according to the wishes and prejudices of the country's Buddhist majority, however odious they may seem to us. Her masters are the people of Myanmar - who democratically elected her - not the former colonial powers who gave moral support to her elevation to the leadership.

Yesterday my view was well articulated by commentators Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens on their ABC radio podcast The Minefield. Aly said:

'The Aung San Suu Kyi who was sold to the world, the crusader for human rights... was a creation of western human rights subcultures, of the culture of celebrity that surrounds a political prisoner.'

But in the end their guest - the Australian Catholic University's 'bitterly bitterly disappointed' Catherine Renshaw - was more convincing in maintaining that a rhetorical gesture from Suu Kyi in support of the Rohingya would 'have incredible power'.

Instead, Renshaw said, Suu Kyi's rhetoric is working in service of the ethnic cleansing. The 'disinformation' put out by her Department of Information about the Rohingya burning their own villages is 'so reminiscent of the oppression and the state apparatus of fear and silencing that characterised SLORC, the regime that kept her under house arrest for 18 years'.

The time is coming for international powers to act to avoid a proper genocide as happened in Rwanda two decades ago. Back then they dithered until it was too late. This time it's likely there will also be procrastination. But worse. Back in the 90s there was a consensus of moral leadership among western powers. But now that nationalism has taken root in so many countries, there's little support for action from powers beyond Germany and a handful of other European countries.


Link: podcast]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1190590 2017-09-12T06:08:33Z 2017-09-15T15:34:15Z Civil and religious marriage are best kept separate

While I was living in Europe a few decades ago, I remember a Belgian friend going home to get married. I recall being very surprised when I learned that he would have two weddings.

One was according to the laws of the state and the other followed the ritual of the Church. The two marriages were separated by several weeks. They were conducted by different celebrants, at separate venues. Each had its own guest list and reception afterwards.

After a while I realised that it was normal to have two weddings in such European countries. And it made sense. One was to satisfy the law of the land and the other was a sacrament of the Church. Two distinct means to achieve separate purposes.

In Australia, we don't properly appreciate this distinction. As a result, we tend to conflate the two. That is despite the fact that the way we conduct marriage is actually not that much different to the Europeans.

What happens for Australian couples opting for a church wedding is that the priest or minister facilitates both the legal and sacramental marriages. He or she is separately licensed by the state and the Church, and the tasks performed for each of these bodies are almost mutually exclusive.

But by conflating the civil law with religious ritual, we create confusion that makes it easy for the Church to claim authority that rightfully belongs to the state. In other words, the Church makes demands regarding sacramental marriage, which of course is OK. But it often weighs in on civil marriage as well, which is different.

Therefore I think it is problematic for religious leaders to be urging a no vote in the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey. The Survey has nothing to do with their domain of sacramental marriage, and they are being disingenuous if they act as if it does.

If the state weighed in on sacramental marriage and required church celebrants to marry same sex couples, the Church would cry foul. In any event, this would not happen because the Church is protected by existing religious freedom legislation that allows it to discriminate against same sex couples.

If, on the other hand, the Church believes that it can insist on its definition of civil marriage because it has a stake in the 'moral order' of society, the Survey will provide an interesting test for the moral authority it retains in the wake of its conduct regarding the sexual abuse of children it was responsible for.

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tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1188655 2017-09-04T04:14:07Z 2017-09-16T04:16:49Z Japanese creativity and isolation

In Tokyo, Summer is over and there's already a slight chill in the air. It got as low as 16 degrees the other morning as I got up for my walk around the lake in nearby Inokashira Park.

Morning tai chi in Tokyos Inkoshira Park

I've been starting my day there, along with the large groups of people practising tai chi and others making a visit to the temple dedicated to the Japanese Buddhist goddess Benzaiten.

I was also in the park on Saturday afternoon to see the Ghibli Museum, the popular tourist attraction that showcases the work of one of Japan's most famous animation studios. It's mostly booked out months in advance but I was lucky to secure one of the handful of tickets that they release online on the 10th day of the preceding month.

Ghibli Museum rooftop exhibit

The museum is a tribute to the creative process. It goes from how the animation makers are inspired, to the screening in its cinema of a 16 minute sample of their finished work. On the lower level there was a large room of mechanical gadgets that reminded me of the steampunk museum I visited in Oamaru (NZ) in January, and also some of the exhibits at MONA in Hobart.

I went to museums most days last week. On Friday it was MOMAT - the National Museum of Modern Art - to see the exhibition The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945. I was pleased to find there an explanation for why most Japanese houses in the city appear as uninspiring concrete boxes.

Kazunari Sakamoto Machiya in Minase 1970 at The Japanese House Architecture and Life after 1945 at National Museum of Modern Art

According to the principle spelled out in the notes to one exhibit, houses are intended to harmonise with their surrounds. If that is urban, they are concrete ('Tough conditions make for a tough appearance'). But houses built for families of wealth and nobility are surrounded by parks and gardens and therefore more beautiful.

On Thursday I went to the extensive NHK Museum of Broadcasting (NHK is the equivalent of Australia's ABC). It included technology dating from the beginning of radio in the 1920s, and also personalities and programs familiar to Japanese audiences over the decades. Aside from my particular interest in the technology, I was fascinated by the intersection of war and broadcasting.

NHK Museum of Broadcasting

It presented another dimension of the story I'd gleaned from my visit to the Yasukuni War Museum a week or so earlier. I was interested in that because the Yasukuni museum led me to form an almost sympathetic understanding of the rationale for Japan's entry into World War II (it was to redress Western colonial exploitation in East Asia).

My impression was qualified a few days later when I read a blog just posted by John Menadue, who was Australia's Ambassador to Japan from 1977 to 1981. I worked with him a few hours a week for several years until a few months ago.

NHK Museum of Broadcasting

John wrote that 'the 200 years of Japan's isolation pre-Meiji (1868-1912) also meant that ultra-nationalism had become deeply entrenched in Japan with fear of foreigners and isolationist policies'. His point was that - in contrast to Germany - the US post-war occupation of Japan was superficial and did little to change Japan's pre-war isolationist mindset.

That explains why Japan is the most 'foreign' country I've travelled to. It doesn't 'get' globalisation. Arguably this makes it a poor global citizen, even though the isolation enables its culture to remain distinctive, ensuring that it is an interesting country for people like me to travel to.


Link: Menadue]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1186970 2017-08-28T02:45:16Z 2017-08-28T02:45:16Z The final stretch of my stay in Tokyo

I'm beginning my last full week in Tokyo, but far from ready to pack my bags for my departure for Sydney via Guangzhou on Thursday next week. I'm starting to fantasise about coming back here again next year.

I've become very familiar with the neighbourhood here in Kichijoji and a string of other neighbourhoods on what's known as the Chuo line that heads west from the world's busiest railway station Shinjuku.

Looking into an anime cafe in Asagaya Anime Street underneath Chuo railway tracks

Shinjuku also has the world's largest concentration of gay bars. I wandered around there yesterday afternoon, though I think all of them were closed. There were not even many people on the street.

I'd just spent a few hours at the nearby Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden which, judging from the crowds, was more the place to be early on a sunny Sunday afternoon. There is a very large greenhouse with a walking path through it. There are also paths through the gardens leading to attractions such as the traditional Japanese garden and the traditional Japanese tea house.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

Anything in the category 'traditional Japanese' seems to be contained within a larger structure such as a garden or a museum, such as the Shitamachi Museum, which I visited on Satuday. Even that was very small, not extending beyond two modest sized floors. It is surprising that what I believe is the main folk museum in the world's largest city is dwarfed by others in much smaller cities, such as the Otago Settlers Museum, which I visited in Dunedin, New Zealand, in January.

Shitamachi Museum Ueno

Old buildings are demolished, often to conform to fire regulations. But I think it is more to do with the different non-material way in which Japanese prefer to preserve their culture.

I spent yesterday morning with a Japanese Jesuit whom I'd met in Sydney last month. He showed me around the magnificent campus of the Jesuits' Sophia University and St Ignatius Church. The church complex includes everything that you'd imagine a church would need, including a giant crypt underneath where the parishioners are buried.

St Ignatius Church Yotsuya

It was built quite recently, in 1999. The historic church that it replaced was demolished. A few weeks ago I was disturbed to hear of the impending demolition of Harajuku Railway Station, which has a distinctive clock tower that dates from 1906 and survived World War II. It was one of the few railway stations I've been to that is not modern. But it seems that pragmatism is going to win the day.

Airbnb room Kichijoji

I was expecting that my airbnb room (above) would be in an uninspiring concrete block. But actually it's in a beautiful simple wooden building similar to the ones that are reconstructed inside the Shitamachi Museum. It doesn't have any architectural merit but it evokes a different era, even though it is probably only 50 years old. When I think about coming back here again, I wonder whether it won't have been demolished to make way for concrete.

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