Matera- Spectacle and Chocolate Pizza – March 2011

Matera- The old city overlooking the gorge

After an impressive week in and around Naples I decide to spend some time off the beaten track.  I am to realise very quickly that ‘off the beaten track’ in Southern Italy can become logistically nightmarish.

I first heard about Matera in my guide book and was intrigued instantly.  Lonely planet refers to it in such words as, ‘you’ll feel like you’re in another world.’

It does say more than that of course, basically the quick history of the place is; the collection of ancient caves has been inhabited since prehistory, whilst in slightly more recent history, the city of Matera has sprung up on an opposite cliff overlooking the caves.

The caves were not abandoned until the Italian government deemed the 50% infant mortality rate (yes you read that right) as an international embarrassment and moved the people out less than fifty years ago.

The people were living as a family with farm animals and all in remarkably small areas, (hence the health problems).

This made the caves the longest continuously inhabited part of the world.

Now maybe you can see the rational for me heading five hours out of my little hub of Naples to check the area out.

My guide book tells me of a wonderful little hostel in the old city, carved into the mountain.

Fantastic!

I go online….. hmmm problem, the Hotel doesn’t do hostel beds anymore, the cheapest bed is now about 30 euro a night.  At this stage, 30 euro is my entire day’s budget, not going to happen.

I can’t find any budget accommodation anywhere near the area…. What to do, what to do?

Through the most glorious of websites ‘Couch surfing.org’, I not only get some free accommodation in the area, but I also get a great opportunity to meet some more locals.

There is a connecting bus to Matera that will get me in Saturday night at 19:00 hours.  I’m on it!

One thing strikes me as soon as the bus heads away from the west coast.  The terrain gets barren, quickly and the towns get smaller and smaller as time and distance move you along.

By the time I get to Matera I feel like I’m in some middle of nowhere town somehow scraping an existence despite its isolation.

I make the fatal mistake of not recording my host’s mobile number and when I am standing in the pitch black little bus stop (as compared to proper bus station) freezing away in the middle of nowhere, I have the realisation that perhaps I should be a little bit more organised.

What to do, what to do?

I decide that my host’s number recorded on my Hotmail account would be rather handy right now.

I look left down one very dark deserted street, I look right down another equally dark and deserted street.

‘Does anyone know where an internet café is?’  The stray dog walking past looks at me and shrugs its shoulders before scurrying along.

*sigh*

I send a few expensive text messages back to the UK hoping that some of my friends will have access to the internet and can access my e-mails to give me the phone number which will enable me to call my host and find out where she is! (gasp).

I’m in the middle of texting frantically with frozen fingers when a car horn alerts me to the arrival of one young Italian woman with a rather warm and comfortable spare seat.

‘Hello, I’m Katia, so sorry I’m late!’ She says.

Ah, my host!

I apologise for not getting her phone number and causing such a fuss as she hurriedly explains that she was waiting at the wrong bus stop (apparently there are three and the one where I was disgorged was the smallest and most isolated of the three).

Oh well, all is good as Katia takes me to the city centre to show me around.  She is shocked by my tiny pack upon hearing that my 30L day pack is my only luggage for a seven week trip.

Likewise she is shocked by my now red, frozen toes that are sticking awkwardly out the top of my thongs/flip flops/ jandels.

I tell her that I’m used to the cold on my feet and it’s time to explore!

Katia takes me to the city centre which is stunning under evening light.  A centre multi-coloured water fountain shoots off its display like a kaleidoscope as the stunning architecture of theatres, universities, churches and other nameless buildings beam down on top of me.

I am instantly stunned by Katia’s home town.

‘Wait until you see the Sassi,’ she smiles at me (Sassi= ruins/old town etc).

She’s right, I ain’t seen anything yet.

We gain just a little altitude as we grab an eye full of the spectacle of the old city.

I don’t know if words can describe it, and sadly my camera is woefully inadequate at picking up such beauty, particularly at night.

Basically, it’s like looking into the past (I know, you’ve heard that one before).  But it’s like a small ancient city has been sitting in the one spot untouched just for me to view at this moment.

It is breathtaking. Winding narrow streets, small stone ‘hut’ like houses.  The only thing missing is the markets with donkeys and maybe a Disney style monkey blowing raspberries at the local vendors.

I have decided within a half hour of being in Matera (minus the nervous time waiting at the bus stop) that the trip was well worth it!

Tomorrow will bring a good exploration of the old town as well as the caves and general panorama.

View from the caves back to the old city

For the evening there is a chance to meet some of Katia’s friends and family.

A quick introduction to her mother and American Dad, Family Guy, Simpsons watching younger brother is followed by some dinner and a quick drive out to see some friends.

A quiet stroll and chat with the locals is completed by about 1am and a long day comes to a close.

The next day is a leisurely start that takes us back to the old city by late morning.

I find it looks just slightly less spectacular in the day light, but the view of the whole area makes up for it tenfold.

The old city looks over a massive gorge as some caves on the opposite cliff stare straight back.  The gorge snakes its way off into oblivion, following the length of the extensive city before disappearing around a corner.

The caves, Katia tells me, where the sight of Mel Gibson’s film ‘Passion of the Christ.’  I’ve not seen the film and am in no way impressed by Hollywood, hence why such a socially relevant fact had eluded me.

I can see why the sight was picked however.  Ignoring the few TV antennas, and as I said earlier, adding a few donkeys and market stalls and you would be instantly transported back two thousand years.

One of the numerous caves

A day of exploring throughout the more than impressive area is broken up nicely with a traditional Italian meal (pasta, salad and coffee… IN THAT ORDER).

As often happens the evening follows the day, and after the amazing absorbing history, it’s time for some more Italian food!

Desert is of keen interest.  Nutella pizza!  Surprisingly good!

We then head out for a birthday bash.  In the park just behind a local school, Katia and I find a group of revelling Italians.

Her friends are already well on their way.  Cartons of beer and bottles of Dutch courage are abound and merriment is aplenty.

Birthday party, Italian style

I manage to meet Katia’s friends, forget most of their names, learn some Italian, forget some Italian, all in less than three hours!

That must be a record for me.

The night comes to a close when the birthday cake is unceremoniously elbowed off its tedious perch, splattering its tasty innards all over the rather grotty ground.

Summer is officially upon us! Well at least the summer daylight saving time has begun.  It seems odd with the temperature at a chilling six degrees.  But the end result is that it is now 3 am, not 2 am, so it is time to leave!

I bid farewell to my new friends and leave them to their party goings on.  A decent sleep is followed by a quick drive to the next town to catch a train.

My next destination is Sicily.  What awaits me is one car trip, three train trips, one ferry and one more train before getting picked up in Sicily.

I am to find the trip even more difficult then I expect…

City of Death -Pompeii -March 2011

In the heart of Naples is the central station (Garibaldi), from there you can take the Sorrento train out to the Amalfi coast.  On the same train you can stop off only twenty minutes from the city at two impressive sights.

First sight to see is the ancient city, yes you all know it… Ercolana.  Wait, I meant to say Pompeii didn’t I?

Not quite, that’s to be visited later in the day.

Ercolana was another smaller city that was destroyed by the same volcanic eruption two thousand years ago.  Where the lava flowed straight down and wiped out Pompeii, the ash cloud slowly settled on Ercolana over the proceeding 24 hours.

The end result of all this is basically that where Pompeii is grand in nature, Ercolana is less damaged and paints a more complete and disturbing picture.

When you arrive at the ancient ruins, you are shown a picture of the ruins as they stand today. On top of that, layers are superimposed to show you what the city looked like before the disaster.

One thing strikes you quickly.  The superimposed layer is rather minimal.  What we see here is remarkably similar to what once stood two thousand years ago.

Ercolana
 

Walking through the ruins you can almost see the people meandering around conducting their business, playing with their children, family pets playfully chasing each other.

Some of the houses have their garden areas still intact, and the plants have at some point grown back and are now obviously tended by somebody.  This gives the place an ironically organic feel.

The place is alive, no doubt about it, but you can walk around it in only an hour without much trouble.  I guess that is why it doesn’t have the fame of Pompeii.  Ercolana has about 300 000 people visiting it each year, Pompeii has close to three million!

By the time I leave the area, I am in awe, little did I know the best is yet to come.

Returning to the train station you will find with signage lacking in subtlety the way to the tourist office.  From there, a quick drive up the volcano and a tour guide takes us to the top.

Mt Versouvious, the cause of so much death.

The last eruption was a huge one back in 1945, but the eruption we’re focusing on is the one that happened two thousand years ago.

The view into the crater of the volcano is grand and interesting.  Looking out the other way you can look back to the starting point of Naples, sprawled out as far as the eye can see, nervously looking over its collective shoulder at the behemoth of an angry giant looming over her.

View from the Volcano- Far left, Sorrento-gateway to Amalfi coast. Far right -Capri Island

Looking a little to the left, and with a trained eye you can spy the tiny dot that is the ruins of Ercolano.  A further twist of the head gives you the spectacular distant sight of Capri Island, the bay of Naples and Sorrento, the gateway to the Amalfi coast.

What a view!

Looking down the valley, much closer to the volcano shows the ruins of Pompeii.  It even looks big from this vast distance.

That is my next stop.

Returning to the bottom of the volcano, a quick trip back to the train station and then another twenty minute trip away from Naples to ‘station Pompeii’.  Unimaginative title, but it doesn’t tell a lie.

A short walk and the grand ruins are before me.

I am speechless.  The sheer scale of this once great city is daunting.  How many people were here when the volcano hit?

They say that Ercolana was a ‘normal city’ for its time, absolutely tiny by todays standards.  Pompeii however was a thriving, rich metropolis more than ten times the size.

It takes two hours of constant walking to get a grasp of everything here.  There are masses of ruined temples, numerous houses, even relatively intact amphitheatres.

‘The’ volcano overlooking the once impressive ruins of Pompeii

But the one thing that cannot be missed is ‘the gardens’.

A small area set aside for gardening at the back end of the area houses a glass cabinet.  In this glass cabinet is something that will send a shiver through your spine and make everything you have seen a reality.

You so far have walked through the ruins of houses and theatres and even a brothel! But what of the people.

In this glass cabinet are the bodies of about a dozen former Pompeii residents.  All curled up in deathly stillness.  Clay statues sentenced to an eternity of still life.

One pained, deformed sculpture of humanity is an adult coiling itself over a child, similarly contorted in death.

An adult trying to protect its child

There are three other children laying down, almost looking serene.  Death must have been quick for them.  Thank goodness.

Two things have stuck in my mind, burned to my brain.  Firstly, one face of an adult, whilst a shell of clay like all the others, somehow has been imprinted more than the others.  You can actually see the sockets and mouth of this person, seemingly crying out in pain in the final throws of death.

Why was this one person in pain, whilst the others lay sleeping soundly?

The other image is one of the before mentioned children.  This child is laying on its back as any child in a crib would.  Now after two thousand years, some life pokes through the clay shell.  The child’s thigh bone can be clearly seen where the clay had crumbled away.

Eternal sleep

You feel obliged to observe this sight in silence.

They match firmly with another body that is closer towards the main entrance of the ruins.  A person laying on the ground, frozen forever in the too familiar formation of prayer.

Perhaps this person was begging for their family to be saved, perhaps they were trying to absolve themselves of the sins in this life before continuing on to the next?

We will never know.

Upon leaving the ruins of Pompeii and returning to the Naples, quiet reflection will come over you.  The beauty and spectacle of the sights from the top of the Volcano, sharply contrasted with the real life horrors the people faced two thousand years ago.

No matter how you reflect upon this, it is a day that will move you.  It is a day very much worthwhile.

If you choose to go, don’t miss Ercolana, and give the city and previous residents of both cities the time they deserve.

The home of Pizza- Naples -March 2011

My guide book warned me about Naples.  From memory it said something like, ‘you feel quite alive, but that’s probably because you’re always so close to death.’

This is an apt description I think.  The place is rampant with intense traffic, where rules don’t seem to count for anything. (I learn this quickly when I foolishly walk across a Zebra crossing just because I had a flashing green man giving me the say so, the bus decided that he had right of way.  I actually had to put my hand out to stop the bus and push myself out of harm’s way.)

My hostel owner warns me not to take anything out with me when exploring.  I know what he means.  I feel the pic pockets looming around me.  When I go I take only just enough money with me to get what I need, my camera firmly in hand and nothing else.  Not even my passport in my hidden wallet.

I spend four days in Naples and on my own I find it nearly impossible to crack the outer shell of culture that is Naples.  I often refer to an ‘outer shell’.  I use this description when referring to the degree of difficulty in getting to know a people.  Some people have a ‘soft shell’, meaning that it is easy to get to know them without having to be friends of friends and the like.  Eastern Europeans are one great example.

Cathedral time
 

Nepalese people however have a very tough shell.  I do my best by talking to my hostel owner and also the guests at the hostel.

Here are some of their impressions:

Giovanni (hostel owner): ‘The people are friendly, hard to get to know but they are very helpful if they are not trying to steal from you… do you have any vegemite?’ (an Italian addicted to vegemite is a funny thing).

American tourist #1 (she is a young student studying in Florence): ‘I love it here, it may not be that safe, but the people are very nice, the people of Florence are really racist by comparison’

American tourist #2 (on a trip around the world, this is the last city of his tour): ‘I hate this place, it is so boring, there is no night life, the streets are tiny and confusing, the traffic is crazy and the people would sooner steal from you then help you.’

To explain, #2 is not a ‘whinging know it all Yank’, far from it, in his own words he is ‘very jaded after so much travel.’

I tend to draw some parallels to myself in that last statement, but there is no time for self-analysis right now!

Alternative street art of Naples, a bare hint at the creative flare on the streets

I can see each point of view in my time here so far, but I finally make a breakthrough on my last night in Naples.

Through the wonderful, wonderful! Website ‘couchsurfing.org’ I manage to meet a local woman for drinks and dinner.

Her name is Emanuella, a striking woman with long hazel hair, sharp eyes and a warm smile.  She has been in Naples most of her life and she offers me some rare insight.

She takes me around a different area, away from my hostel where it is much nicer and easier to navigate.

She apologises for not knowing more history of the city.  That’s far from necessary, she offers me insight into the ‘now’ of the city, not the ‘then’.

As I always say, a history full of amazing stories and architecture is nothing without the people of today being interesting as well.  Otherwise you just have a big tourist city without a soul.

Naples has a soul, I can sense it, I just can’t find it.

Emanuella helps me see the ‘soul’ of the city in the few quick hours we have together.

So what is the ‘soul’ of a city?

It can manifest itself in many ways.  What do people do on a Friday night, what do they have for breakfast, how do they get to work?

Menial things that all add up to paint a picture.

For the Napalese the answers are:  cosy, trendy wine bars followed by discos, Espresso and sweet pastry (usually with a few cigarettes) and metro and scooter.

As we walk through a wine bar district of Naples, Emanuella points out the small bars with well-dressed Italians, not a hair out of place and cigarettes dangling from their fingers just so.  The people are friendly and talkative creatures, the same the world over.

We go to a restaurant where for four Euros I have on a table with a tablecloth (I broke my number one rule!) possibly the nicest pizza I’ve ever eaten.  How can some pizza base, tomato paste and a few herbs taste so good?  No idea, but remember Naples is the birthplace of pizza!

Don’t waste your time or money on pizza in the North, save it for Naples, trust me!

As we dine, I get the usual stares from the self-conscious locals.  The Italians seem to be more focused on appearance than any other people I’ve come across.

Often in my travels, as I walk the streets in my shorts and thongs (flip flops for my American friends… you can stop giggling now!) I find an Italian walking next to me staring intently at my legs and feet.  Not like the English (as referred to in my blog ‘hot leg’s) who are amazed at what people possess below the knee, but rather in a way that says ‘OHHHH MYYYY GOD, WHAT ARE YOU WEARING?’

My response is to typically stare back until they meet my eyes, they then look away awkwardly before I say something like ‘they’re called thongs mate.’  I get a confused look in response, my friends tend to get a good laugh from it though.

Remember, never take a backward step or apologise for who you are people!!

Emanuela asks me how I perceive the difference between Australian men and Italian men.

I diplomatically tell her that perhaps Italian men should spend less time in front of the mirror.

She laughs in firm agreement.

‘Are Australian men shy?’ She asks.

I think for a moment.  Are we? I’ve not thought about it much.  Italian men are so, dare I say over confident that we may appear so.

I answer thusly:

‘No, we may appear quieter, but our confidence is in the fact that we don’t need to plaster it on ourselves wherever we go.  We don’t shout across a room to a good looking woman (usually), we don’t spend a small fortune on clothes and spend an hour getting ready.   Our confidence is in that we can go out like ‘this’ (referring to my typically average backpacking get up) and not care.  We talk to people without a problem, we make friends easily, so shyness is not an issue.’

Emanuella nods in response.  She learns from me as I learn from her.   This is the cultural exchange I have been seeking.

I leave Naples the next day with a new view of it.  I look forward to coming back, my time barely scratched the historical and cultural surface of this place, but I sense there was something there and my persistence paid off.

I will delve deeper next time and see what I find.  I urge others to give the city the time it deserves.

Triumphant returns, new adventures (March2011)

London – Rome.

Upon my departure from London back to Australia some three months ago, I found myself asking, ‘what will my return to Europe bring, will it be a triumphant return or something else entirely?’

I gratefully answered the question before I even hoped on my flight back to the UK.  I had an amazing summer in Melbourne, I met some great people, and expanded my cultural understanding of the world around me.  There is no doubt it was time well spent, so far from being apprehensive about returning to Europe, I feel revitalised and excited.

I gave myself a short week to catch up with my English friends (or my friends who are now in England), which was rushed but enjoyable.

My next run is out of Stanstead airport at 6am to Rome.  I decide to meet up with two of my English friends, grab a top curry in Brick Lane in the East End of London and then grab a midnight train and bus out to the airport.

I arrive nice and early, go through the ordeal of security and find my way to the gate without too much trouble.  Something is different this time though.  Something about going to Europe has me on edge a little.

When landing in London it felt surprisingly natural.  I feel like an old hand at UK travel now, even though I was only there for about two months.  England does have a feeling of home away from home which is comforting.

Now heading into Italy, a country where I don’t know anyone and can’t speak the language, has my rather fatigued mind ticking away.

The plan so far is to spend about two weeks on the mainland of Italy, starting at Rome and heading south to Naples, followed by a week in Sicily.  I have what I call an uncle in Sicily, he is in reality my Aunty’s second cousin, which makes us as related as chalk and cheese.  Friendly chalk and cheese, but chalk and cheese nevertheless.

My plan doesn’t extend beyond that at this stage.  All I know is that Southern Italy is supposed to be quite different from their northern cousins.  Indeed the southerners wear that difference as a badge, rather proudly.

Naples is within a stones’ throw of the Amalfi coast, famous in song and story, as well as the ancient ruins of Pompeii.

Firstly though, one day of recovery and one of sight seeing in Rome should help me get my groove back.

I track down my hostel without a drama, Rome isn’t as scary as it once was.  Even after getting lost from my Contiki group on my last visit, I feel very comfortable in this city.  The Metro system is world class, and signage is as clear as day.

Basilica beauty in Roma

I head to Termini, or central station, smack bang in the hub of Rome.  Yep it hasn’t change in six months.

I then grab a train and run it about twenty minutes out of the city to my destination.  A wonderful hostel that is smack bang in the middle of the university district.  That means, no tourists, just friendly locals going about their business.

If this were my first time to Rome, then the location would seem a wee bit too far away from the pulse of history, but being my second visit, it fits the bill nicely.

I grab some pasta for lunch, check out the local area and introduce myself to a local grocer.  An older cheery chap whose cough sounds of poor health.

The local Basilica is impressive, a quick tour is in order, but my fatigue gets the better of me and I retreat to the hostel with a pizza and beer in hand.

I fall back into old habits easily and make friends without a second thought.  Within a few hours I have a great contact in Argentina for future travels and have met people from about four different countries.

S. Maria Basillica, epic in Scale and grandeur

One of whom, an English chap regales me of his time in the Tibetan mountains.  Ten days of total silence and meditation in a monastery run by an Australian.  Now that’s random!

The next day is spent filling in the gaps of my last visit.  The Piazza Della Republica complete with S.Maria basilica is the main focus of the day.  The Basilica is Epic in scale, the Piazza no less awe inspiring.

Piazza Della Republica, one tiny sample of its spectacle

The statues of the centre piece fountain seem to look down on you and smile as they glisten in the sun.  They likewise provide some welcome shade to sit and enjoy an apple and absorb the surroundings.

The people of Rome seem to move around with their self assured confidence the way only Italians do.  There  is reason for their pride more so now then before.  It is to the day 150 years since the country was unified under one flag.

Prior to 1861 they were various provinces under the rule of Spanish, French, Austro-Hungarian etc etc.  Now they have held their own flag and restored Rome to its former glory after sitting in the background for about two Millennia.

I farewell my new friends, departing the next day for Naples.  It was another brief visit of Rome, I do feel however that with some alternative sight seeing I got a much better feel for the city.  There is a culture there past the immense history and beauty of the Roman architecture.  I must admit, I quite like it.

Rome was a good warm up, I’m back in my groove, now for the adventure to begin.  Now into the heart of ‘real Italy!’

Naples, the Home of Pizza!

The Macer Gang- Cultures Collide

One unexpected pleasure over the summer in Melbourne was experiencing the warm hospitality and friendship from a small pocket of the large group of Macedonians in Melbourne.

Greeks and Macedonians both immigrated in droves to Australia over the last fifty years or so.

Macedonia and Greece are in fact neighbours geographically, but uneasily so.

Essentially, when Yugoslavia was torn apart in the early nineties, a small pocket of that once large conglomerate of a country is now designated as Macedonia.

When Macedonia asked to join the UN in more recent years, Greece protested their inclusion due to one glaringly obvious unresolved issue.

The northern area, or province of Greece is known as Macedonia, and has been for a long, long time.  So Greece was always annoyed at a country right next door also being called Macedonia.

As a compromise, Macedonia (the country, not the province.. YIKES) changed its name to *DEEP BREATH* The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.  Thus placating the Greeks to a small degree (already a member of the UN) and also entering into the small club of countries whose title is an acronym. Jealous! 

The tension is still tangible today.

I even discussed the issue of Greece and Macedonia with an Irishmen, who was half Greek.  He’d never lived in Greece and was as Irish as Guinness.  Yet he got quite heated without any prodding from me.  The conversation ended with me calling him a ranga (that’s a red head for non-Aussie readers).  He got much crankier after that, but at least we stopped talking politics!

Anyway, I think if you talk to the average Macedonian today, they will tell you they are perhaps a little perplexed at Greece’s firey response, they just want to live their lives.  The country is worlds away from the Western European economic powerhouses like Germany.  So the locals spend more time talking about things like standard of living rather than being too pedantic about splitting hairs over name changes.

Anyway, back to my story.  There is now a large immigrant population in Australia of Greeks and Macedonians.  DO NOT GET THE TWO CONFUSED.

Indeed, when I was in Macedonia I was stopped on the street over and over again and upon telling them of my Aussie origins I was regaled with story after story of, ‘oh my uncle lived in Australia,’ or ‘I lived there in the 60s’ or more commonly, ‘I have family in Sydney, are you near there?’.

Small world.

So when I found my way to Melbourne for the summer I was by way of befriending a Macedonian born Aussie (Tom) allowed into this not so secret society.

Tom would introduce me to his friends proudly proclaiming that I had ‘been to Macer and loved it!’ Indeed I did, and it was a great place.

This seemed to act as a rather potent ice breaker as I think Macedonian Australians were unused to people saying, ‘yeah I travelled through Europe and went to Macedonia.’ It’s not the tourist hub of Paris or Barcelona

Hot BBQ weekend, with the crew!

Throughout the summer I was invited to various events big and small by my new Macedonian friends.  The biggest of which was perhaps the HOT BBQ weekend mentioned in a previous blog.

The other would no doubt be the New Year’s Eve party at Tom’s house.  This was a big deal as I have explained already, as I’ve always worked New Year’s Eve since turning 18.

Me, Tom and the Mrs! New Years Eve-Melbourne

This was a great chance to see life in the suburbs of Melbourne whilst meeting new people and having a cracking time in the process.

My impressions of the Macedonian crew:

This is more for non-Aussies this section, as I think even if you are a Northerner like me, you know at least a little about the lives of our ethnic brothers and sisters of the south.

I believe the culture in Melbourne is like the Macedonians in their home country.  It can be a tough nut to crack.  If you just walk up to them and say, ‘hi there, can I hang around you and learn about your people,’ they are a little reserved at first.

I was very lucky and am very grateful to have met Tom in my travels as he was my key to cracking the culture in both the home country and in Melbourne.

For once you are in the circle, you are warmly welcomed.

These people are fantastically over the top and generous in almost every aspect of life.  They seem to have combined the best of both cultures into one, and likewise proudly embrace both with fervour.

The generous family based culture of the Mediterranean/Balkan upbringing combined with the honest easy going nature of Australia gives you this fantastic combination of, ‘come in, have a beer, try our cooking, meet my family.  But if you act like a tool I’ll tell you so and send you marching.’

It’s a fantastic expansion on life in Australia, kind of like a just left of centre upbringing compared to ‘pure bred Aussies.’ Whether it’s better or worse is up to personal opinion, but I must confess I love it!

In a way, I feel that this culture, this group of wonderful people are more Australian then I am.  If you read my blog ‘what is being Australian?’ Then you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say that.

The idea of absorbing culture and taking the best of both worlds kind of thing.  That to me is what it is to be Aussie, and my Macer crew of friends seem to have perfected it!

To summarise, as I said, they can be a hard group to crack.  Indeed, if I’d not gone ALLLLLLL the way to Europe, met one of them, travelled into Macer itself, I may not have made the transition so easily.  For most Aussies living in Melbourne, you may well think ‘bugger it, that’s too much effort.’  It is a long way to go!

But it’s not so black and white, they will give you a fair go (another Aussie trait 🙂 ), and if you get a chance, maybe an invite to a BBQ, or drinks with friends, take it!  You will find the rewards endless, in the forms of great hospitality and great friends for life!

What it is to be Australian: A guide for all and sundry

This is my take on Australian culture, for anyone outside looking in wondering; ‘How the hell did that all come about?’ And also, perhaps for my Australian and Kiwi friends, this may give you a renewed view on what we’re all about.

My Brazilian house mate asked me once, what is it to be Australian?

‘I know what English is, the food, the culture, European, South American, North American.  What is Australian culture, I don’t know what it is after three months of living in your country?’ He asks of me, exasperated.

I answer him thusly:

‘My friend, Australian culture is not so tangible like any other.  We, from a white perspective have not been here long enough to create such a defined history and reflection of ourselves.  You know that when you are looking at Notre Dam in Paris eating a croissant, what French culture and history is.  You know that an espresso next to the Coliseum in Rome is Italian.  You know that a Guinness and pie at the pub is British.   A spicy rice dish followed by salsa dancing is South American, but Australia can not be defined by these ‘cultural yard sticks.’

Australia has been built relatively very recently on immigration.  The idea that we absorb other cultures is what it means to be Australian.

The multicultural concept is what it is to be Australian.  You ask, what is an Australian dish?

Well, a meat pie is one, but we got that from England, we just do it better (incidentally, it is theorised that the English got the pie from the middle east).  Spaghetti bolognaise is very common, no prizes for guessing where that came from.

Aussie rules footy is a major sport, it was Gallic in origin.

Our music is simple yet powerful rock music, in our own way.  Often political, it will make a point albeit a simple one.

None of these things are unique to Australia, but our brand of all these things is what makes it ours.

The way we take in people from all over the world and let it absorb into our way of life is what it means to be Australian.

And this house which I reside in. This house of misfits from every hemisphere and continent is the perfect example of that!

Not to mention the Greek Kebab joint down the road, the Macedonian Barber.  The Chinese restaurant one block over.  The sushi place on every damn corner of Melbourne.  The Belgian beer garden of St Kilda.  The Turkish restaurant just behind the Greeks’.

That’s what it is to be Australian.  It’s not that we copy, it’s that we take from other cultures and make it our own.

I’m proud to say this, and more proud to say that some of my best Australian friends weren’t even born here.

I’m proud to say that the best experience I’ve had in Australia in a long time was to share Australia day with representatives from the world over.

That my friend, is what it is to be Australian.’

I’m not sure he understood, not that he has a problem with English, in some ways it’s better than mine! But it is difficult for a non-Aussie to grasp such a concept.  I believe our New Zealand brothers and sisters are similar in their lives also.  They differ in one major way in that they have made more of an effort to go forth with the native people, where as in Australia we tend to conveniently forget about ours.

My view on Australia and what it is to be Australian only came to me this summer.  A culmination of my experiences overseas and a top summer here in Melbourne.  I feel a much stronger sense of what it is to be me, to be Aussie.

As I’ve always said, travel gives you the best perspective on life, that is why I love it so.   Sometimes you will be surprised that the perspective it gives you is not only of yourself, but of your own country.  It’s not to be judgemental of others, but to simply understand.

So go forth dear reader and experience and understand.  Whatever inspires you, make it so.

Melbourne summer: An exploration of ones self. November 2010-March 2011

I arrive in Melbourne, my first visit to our cultural centre.  It is 8pm, the sun is still up, it’s warm and it’s raining.

Much better then dark by 5, cold-as-cane-cutters-nuts England.

I hear that England is smashed by huge blizzards, airport closures and all only days after I leave.  Close one!

My friend from Contiki, Lee and his girlfriend Bethany arrive to pick me up.  I’d not seen them since Berlin about two months earlier.

Lee’s mate Tom (also from contiki, and the one I’d met again in Macedonia) arrive shortly thereafter and we have a good catch up.

My 48hour transit doesn’t hit me too hard and I start my job search for the summer within a couple of days.

The month of December is soon upon us and the festive season is rife with casual drinks, BBQs and meeting new people.

I find that the group I get along with the most is the ‘macer gang’.

Tom’s mates, mostly blokes all of around the same age are all either Macedonian born, or have visited their mother country being first generation Aussies.

I spend xmas and new years with my new friends and their families and have a total blast doing so.  It’s quite exciting as I’ve worked every single boxing day and new years eve since turning 18.  Hospitality is a harsh mistress.

The new year brings other joys.

I manage to find work managing an alternative little restaurant in Richmond.  As I’ve already found a place in Toorak (six minutes away on the train) it’s an ideal set up.

The weekend of Australia day is spent at the HOT BBQ music festival with my Macer friends.  I’m the only non-macer there, I do feel privileged at that fact.  The headlining rock act is Aussie legends Hoodoo gurus.  They manage to rock out exceeding my high expectations, before we must depart and track down one of our drunken friends… good times!

The summer ends with a couple of highlights.

I manage to catch up with most of the people I met overseas (everyone seems to come from Melbourne!).

Some of the 12 Apostles

One weekend is a great drive through the Great Ocean Road courtesy Sylvia (My German speaking travel companion.. Hi Sylv, sorry your car died, maybe the ocean RD helped finish it off L… ).

The great Ocean road was a fantastic project to get returned servicemen into work after world war one.  It was put together by the RSL with some funding by the government.  The road spans from the south west of Melbourne to a fair chunk of the way towards Adelaide.  Smaller roads will take you the rest of the way to Adelaide of course.

Sights on the way include the ‘London bridge’ and ‘twelve apostles’.  Rather amazing rock formations!

By the end of the summer I’ve come to terms with the fact that whilst I missed out on a whole season in the UK, I have achieved so much exploring a fair chunk of my own country that it was definitely a good idea!

My work paid for my plane tickets and a little spare change to boot, so financially it wasn’t bad either.

But what about cultural experiences?  Can one achieve such a thing in one’s own country?

Yes indeed, and here’s how:

Step one: Live like a backpacker.

I found a share house in Toorak (ironically the most expensive suburb in Melbourne) on gumtree.com.au.  I shot straight over to the joint and signed the papers as soon as the ad came on one Sunday arvy!

Xmas at the craziest house in Melbourne

The share house was a small three bedroom place which I shared with two Swiss, one German, one Canadian and my roommate was a kiwi chap.

By Xmas the roll call had changed.

Only the kiwi and I remain, everyone has moved out but they are replaced with much efficiency.

The house now has two young Canadian chaps and a Brazilian couple.

The summer is spent in a most curious home environment.  It’s just like living in a hostel, stories are swapped, cultures exchanged, and fun is had by all.

The two great examples of this are firstly me taking the Canadians to a cricket match at the MCG.  They learn it, and in fact due in large to a great little park fifty metres from our house, one of the Canadians, Ryan and I play some backyard a few times a week for the next two months.

He in turn educates me on the wonders of ‘chew’.

Chewing Tobacco, ok it must be like the ‘snuff’ I had in Germany.

So I try a little bit, it’s quite nice.  Minty in fact.

Ryan and I are playing some cricket and suddenly I get light headed.

‘Oh yeah,’ he says, ‘for your first time it might make you a bit woozy.’

‘No s&%t’ I reply.

I have to lay down for about ten minutes.  My reflexes are shot, I get bowled and then when fielding the rock hard leather ball I miss it and get clonked on the leg. 

A dizzy head, sick stomach and corked leg is what I get for my troubles.  Not at all like the snuff from Germany.

Probably THE highlight for the summer would have to be Australia Day.

I encourage my housemates to make themselves available for a BBQ and some cricket in typical tradition.

I get home after work, within an hour or so the team is assembled.  Even the German housemate from before turns up.

We start to play cricket in the park with most of us having a beer in hand of course! ( I even tracked down some xxxx for the occasion! Queenslander ‘till I die.)

Ryan smashes a ball up in the air.  His Canadian mate runs for it, sadly so does the kiwi.  Bang. Collision!

I deduct five runs off the Canadian for being Un-Australian on the grounds that he spilt his beer.

The Brazilians and Germans seem to have the most difficulty with the concept, but everyone gives it a go.

We then retreat into the house for a bbq.  I cook up some Roo (that’s Kangaroo for non-Aussies) on the Barbie and all give it a go as well.

Again, the Brazilians have some trouble with this concept.

Australia Day backyard Cricket!

Some friends of friends turn up and the house is getting more packed by the minute.

After dinner we all sit around and knock back some more cold ones whilst the Brazilian couple use guitar and drums to sing some traditional Brazilian songs.

We all sing along in rather dodgy fashion but have a laugh doing so.

Triple J’s hottest one hundred strums along in the background.  Now that’s culture crossing for you!

We end up with a final roll call of thirteen people I think.

That rings a bell as I had to cut the chocolate cake (complete with Aussie flag) into thirteen pieces.

The roll call was something like this.

Aussies 3

Canadians 3

Kiwi 1

Macedonian 1

German 1

Brazilian 3

Hmmm Im missing somebody…

Anyway, you get the picture.

Never before have I felt such joy at sharing my national day.

This is what Travel is about. Despite being in my own country, such amazing cultural experiences can be achieved!

I’ve now no doubt that a Melbourne summer was a great idea indeed!

This is also the spirit under which Australia has been built.