poetics of life, travel notes


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As a person who often carry a backpack in public transportation or a luggage in airports it is my duty to condemn with the strongest words those who carried attacks in Brussels today, and to remind you we are not all like that.
… Sounds ridiculous ? Well, don’t ask Muslims or Arabs or anyone to do that.
– Timothée

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J’ai toujours aimé “L’Union fait la force”, pied-de-nez un peu absurde à la réalité d’un pays désuni. Mais ce n’est qu’aujourd’hui que j’en perçois vraiment la portée. Il y a dans cette devise nationale pas seulement un trait d’humour narquois, mais aussi une injonction fondamentale, un rappel que notre identité, à nous qui n’en avons pas, c’est précisément d’être ensemble, forts, même face au néant. “L’Union fait la force” nous dit qu’appartenir à ce pays c’est avant toute chose d’être là avec et pour les autres. Et elle nous annonce ainsi, avec presque deux siècles d’avance, qu’il n’y a pas de place pour l’islamophobie en Belgique.
– Caroline

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Today Brussels is in pain. A city that is my home and a city that I love. We are frightened and confused. A terrorist attack has hit another European capital, just as attacks inspired by an extreme misinterpretation of Islam struck London, Paris, Madrid…just as attacks have flashed and crackled across our continent and our world in the past decades – inspired by separatism, nationalism, leftist extremism and fascism, inflamed by exclusion and division. Today is a day for sadness, for holding our breath and holding each other. Tomorrow is a a day for asking why and hoping never again.
Unfortunately, the vilest segments of the British right (UKIP, Telegraph columists, etc) have already jumped on today’s events, on today’s corpses, to peddle their tired call for European disintegration. We are stronger together, as Belgians and as British, as christian, as atheist and as muslim, as Europeans.
The UK is not in Schengen. Its borders are not “open”. Yet Britain has also experienced terrible terrorist attacks, despite its “closed” borders. European cooperation and solidarity are vital to keep us as safe as we can possibly be. Brussels’ agony is no reason for Brexit. Now shut up and be sad with us.
Can’t believe we are having to say this today.
– Bryn

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I hadn’t cried all day, and now it transpires I am a sucker for the kitsch of violent nationalist symbols after all, because I have just seen a picture of the Belgian flag projected onto the Eiffel Tower and started crying. And then Bryn pointed out that they’ve got it the wrong way round, and so what’s on the tower has more in common with Germany. And now I feel much better. Fuck, this has been a terrible and strange day.
– Catherine

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That moment where sadness and mourning is starting to be replaced by anger, an anger for change and action. Not one filled with hate, but instead one that strives to bring people together, to wake people up out of their long sleep of media-indulged misconceptions, to share my own thoughts and experiences. Yesterday, to me, was a moment to realise that you can’t just sit down and watch it happen, because then the wrong people will take over. I’m a proud Brusseleir, but my identity is much more than that. I’m Brusseleir, Antwerpenaar, Tunisian, Belgian, European, Arab, Muslim, woman, queer and happy to be alive. I feel as much at home meditating in a mosque as I feel being in a packed bar drinking the best Belgian beers with friends and new faces. And no one is going to tell me I can’t. ‪#‎jesuissickofthisshit‬
– Sara

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poetics of life




He says, “Sometimes it’s OK to hate people.”
And I say, “I know. But I don’t hate anyone. I’m just not a hater, I don’t have it in me. I get angry, it lasts all of ten minutes, and then it’s gone.”
“But it’s OK,” he says.
“I know,” I repeat.

I happen to think anger is a good emotion. It moves us. Because what is anger, if not that surge of energy we need while we’re frantically trying to find a way to right something that isn’t right? It is only when we exhaust our options, when we run out of ideas, that we resign to sadness.

I don’t think anger is compatible with hate. I’m not sure that sadness is. Seething resentment, on the other hand – being nice – playing nice – politeness – depression-

Who knows.

It is Easter, and Easter means spring and rebirth. Since Easter means more in Croatia than in Australia (or Germany, or Belgium), Easter also means a touch-base for years of Jana bringing together everyone loved and important at that time, a temporary showdown of love, a mapping of affection. It is not playing nice, being nice. It is breaking bread; it is love.

The implied plea is (as is always with love), “please treat this gift kindly; don’t break it”. The implied risk is not that of hate, but of sadness. As per above.

poetics of life, travel notes

The question of home.


Travel makes so keenly apparent how tenuous are the binds that hold us together. Families holding onto each other with invisible strings made of nothing but care and blind tenacity, trying to stay still while everything else is changing. We are so naked while we transit: no address, no furniture, no proof of who we are and only a flimsy permit to be where we are, no web of people to say: yes, she is herself, we have gone to school together and her mother cooks good chicken. We are nothing but flesh and thoughts, a speck of life.

I have always loved to travel, and I had, over the years, learnt the craft of bringing out the most flavour from travel. There is a set of skills there: being in the moment, even when overwhelming, even when extremely slow; seeing people for who they are; responding to people as they are, without muffling them with your own narrative; taking in the heat and the cold; letting it all seep through you like moonlight. The art of travel is the art of letting go of yourself, letting your own rhythm and temperature and structure fade away, letting other rhythms take over you. Travel, like a good rave, is disappearance.

And I travelled too much in 2015. I became a very small speck.

There were some important conversations. Bea said: you are so much like Bruce Chatwin. I said: thank you (because I loved Bruce Chatwin). She said: I don’t mean it in a good way.

Ana couldn’t believe when I told her I’m very homey. She laughed. But I am, and I knew that even in that kitchen, which belonged to neither of us.

Home is what allows us to travel. One exists in contrast to the other: the movement and the stasis, the point of departure and arrival, and the path and time between. Not for nothing do the traditional nomads move along structured paths. They don’t wander aimlessly in all directions: they return and revisit the same places. Being able to return is important. Being able to rest is important. Small things, even: being able to buy something and put it down somewhere is important. I had too little home in 2015; I had frightfully too little home. Strings between me and everything were tearing, and I couldn’t stop them, I could just watch them go, with a slow accumulation of horror.

After a while, travel becomes an experiment in which home breaks down to single elements. What is home becomes a tangible question. Is home a bed, a tent, a chair placed in a square? If home is a roofed structure, how permanent must it be? Is home a family, a partner, a friend? One friend, three, five, ten, how old do these friendships need to be? Is home one’s books? Is home a washing machine and a laundry line? Is it possible, I wondered for a long time, that home is an equipped kitchen, and a dining table, around which these ten friends can sit while I cook a single meal?

I once said: home is where people are happy to see you return. This turns out to be incorrect: there were many places where people were happy to see me, and none were home. Someone said: home is wherever they cannot turn you away from, and this is more accurate, but not entirely true, because our right to squat is a sum of lines of inheritance and charity, and it is not the sum of inheritance and charity that makes home.

Home, I think now, may be whatever matter we weave around us (we have woven around ourselves, or has been woven around us) to feel like we are more than a speck of bare life. Because that truth is too hard to handle.

Home may be something we carry inside us, if we’re big and strong. I have been that home to others. But only so much. I think now that home, like peace, like rest, is a resource we need to constantly replenish, otherwise we run out of home, like we run out of breath.

Bruce Chatwin’s wife Elizabeth remained his home throughout, even as he gallivanted around the world, sleeping with men, catching AIDS – because how could she not? How could this perpetual traveller travel without her, not staying at home, but being the home? She took care of sheep, and was, by all accounts, happy. Unhappy people cannot be a home.

For me, for four long years, home was a person. And then, for a while, home was nothing more than a bottle of Marseille soap. And now I have a dining table again, and a kitchen equipped enough to cook for the friends that can sit around that table. How strange that that’s enough.


“This is incredible! She looks like a normal woman!” said Robin, who comes from Belgium.
“What do you mean, normal?” I asked.
“She wears no make-up and her clothes are normal!” Robin was very surprised. “Do men in Australia have no problem with having women on TV who look like that?”

I showed it to her trying to explain something about the feel of the city, though, of inner-city Melbourne.


The most extraordinary thing happened this weekend. Around 3am, we left the club to get some food. On the way back, in front of Alan’s Music Store on Bourke St, we came across a group of girls dancing in front of a busker. We sat nearby, to have a smoke, when three guys walked past and joined in. They seemed nice, and the song was good, so we joined in, too. As other people were walking by, the guys started motioning them to join. After a while, it became an organised move: someone would point and say: “Get them!” Or point outwards, saying: “Get more! Get more!”

At the height of it all, there were around 50 people, strangers to one another, dancing on the street, clapping their hands in the air, and singing along. There was a group of Middle Eastern men, some guys with medals on their chests, many girls in very high heels, two Frenchmen, some older people. The busker (Tony) played RHCP, Wonderwall, The Beatles, Australian hits I don’t know, and anything by request. We never returned to our club. We stayed there, dancing.

What almost spoiled it was that this is enforceably illegal in Australia, because any group behaviour on the street here can be classified by the police as one of many kinds of nuisance that the police has the right to intervene in. And there was a palpable sense of potential illegality in the crowd. But, although there were 6 police vans just a block away (there had been a fight), and although two police cars passed by very slowly, strangely, miraculously, they ignored us.

It was the first time I saw a crowd of Australians self-regulate, especially on a Saturday night, and I was amazed at how good-natured it remained, how lovely. Even when the (inevitable) rowdy men went past screaming or shouting, they were neutralised quickly by people smiling, waving at them and shouting: “Join us!”

It was very beautiful, and extremely moving. It made me think of Europe, particularly of Berlin, where such incidents are relatively commonplace. It made me realise that, were there less regulatory intwrvention into every aspect of life, miraculously beautiful things would happen in Australia all the time, because people here clearly have every ability to self-organise, self-regulate.

The party lasted about 2 hours, beginning to end. Tony played Under the Bridge and Wonderwall twice. (Towards the end, a man walked past shouting: “Chilli Peppers!” The crowd shouted bqck: “Duh! Where have you BEEN?”

In the end, Tony played Here Comes The Sun, and Norwegian Wood. We all said goodbye, and went home, talking all the way about how this was the best party ever, still amazed at how the police never came.

poetics of life

The most extraordinary thing.

poetics of life

Sei Shonagon’s Lists

Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book is one of the strangest and most delightful works of literature in the entire human history.

Shonagon (966-1017) was a Lady-In-Waiting serving the Japanese empress Sadako in the peaceful Heian era. She authored the Pillow Book, a “collection of lists, gossip, poetry, observations, complaints and anything else she found of interest during her years in the court.” In other words, while the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet was creating Beowulf, Shonagon was writing a blog. Pillow books (Makura no Soshi) were a genre of personal writing of the time, and it wasn’t unusual for court ladies to swap and read them: the one that survives to our time is the one that was most fun to read.

And it is fun to read; and not just compared to OTHER 1,000-year-old books. Shonagon describes the trivial, everyday minutiae of a world extremely alien to us, that of a totally secluded Heian court: one in which people rarely walk, but rather crawl; in which women blacken their teeth; in which polygamy is normal, but men and women hardly ever see each other’s faces; in which professional posts are obtained through poetry contests; and in which referring to a woman by name was considered so rude, and thus so thoroughly avoided, that nobody knows what Sei Shonagon’s actual name was. You read Pillow Book, and you really get a sense of who these people were, these people who lived a thousand years ago: what other book does that?

And you can very quickly become immersed into the spatiality and the temporality of their life: the seasons, the festivals, how people’s careers progress, what to wear when, what to never wear, how to find a husband, what is uncool, what happens to the dead, the spatiality of flirting and romance, the spatiality of old age and abandonment. And I suppose that’s why I love it so much: for the way it is eschews grand themes. Everyday life is an incredibly under-appreciated thing. How it works, why it works, why it fails, why we’re happy or miserable living it. As Chris Marker said, “I’ve been around the world several times, and only banality still interests me.”

The most famous thing about Pillow Book is Sei Shonagon’s lists. Here are some:

16. Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster

Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies are playing. To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt. To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy. To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival. To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.

It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of raindrops, which the wind blows against the shatters.

17. Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past

Dried hollyhock. The objects used during the Display of Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-colored material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.

It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.

Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.

25. Infuriating things
A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages. If it’s someone you don’t have much respect for, you can simply send them away and tell them to come back later, but if it’s a person with whom you feel you must stand on ceremony, it’s an infuriating situation.
A hair has got on to your inkstone and you find yourself grinding it in with the inkstick. Also, the grating sound when a bit of stone gets ground in with the ink.
A very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on.
A baby who cries when you’re trying to hear something. A flock of crows clamoring raucously, all flying around chaotically with noisily flapping wings. A dog that discovers a clandestine lover as he comes creeping in, and barks.
I hate it when, either at home or at the palace, someone comes calling whom you’d rather not see and you pretend to be asleep, but then a well-meaning member of the household comes along and shakes you awake with a look of disapproval at how you’ve dozed off.
Some newcomer steps in and starts interfering and lecturing the old hands as if she knows it all. This is quite infuriating.
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how the world works, poetics of life

What Brunetti can teach us about social class

Brunetti, the cake institution of the Italian community around Lygon St in Melbourne, has moved from its large and beautiful premises on Faraday St to its historical premises right at the centre of Lygon St. The resulting make-over, if anything, makes Brunetti more Brunetti-like: larger, blinkier, more marbled, more noisy, more over-the-top and Italo-glammy, more resembling of a train station, and more confusing. Cakes, coffees and food are still ordered and picked up at different places, and coffees still lose their patrons – but there’s now a greater bar surface on which lost coffees will accumulate.

But I should make it quite clear that I may sound unkind, but I LOVE Brunetti to tiny bits. Multiple visits ensued, as did some vigorous discussion between Carl N-P and me, centred around a very simple issue: we love Brunetti, quite unironically, and we can feel the disdain it earns us from our more Aussie, less woggy, hipster friends. This hipster disdain is real, and its judgement clear-eyed: Brunetti is too large, too un-intimate, too train stationy, too mediocre in its offer, to really have a heart. There’s nothing exclusive about it. It’s for tourists and suburban visitors with no taste.

But we know from Pierre Bourdieu that all taste questions are class questions, and no taste question is more loaded with class than the choice of food in Melbourne today. And what’s really interesting about Brunetti is that it doesn’t fit with the Australian notion of class (which is an essentially British notion of class, transplanted). Brunetti is profoundly Italian in its general business functioning, and thus fundamentally a product of the Mediterranean class system.

The two are quite different. The British upper classes have always been imported into the country, and so have the products they consumed. As one rises up the class system, one has a greater ability to travel, to import ingredients and cooks and expertise, and this knowledge, which is hard to access, validates their class position. The Mediterranean (although perhaps I am also speaking of European societies with a deeper democratic tradition) has been fundamentally peasant for a longer time (mass urbanisation only occurred in the 1950s), and its peasantry and artisans have always produced all or most of its food. (This, it may be worth saying, is much more common than the British way, which is globally exceptional.) And, if the lower classes are growing, killing, preparing and cooking the food of the upper classes, they need to have very fine specialist knowledge of this food if it is to be any good. So no specialist knowledge could possibly be assumed. Indeed, the opposite: the lowly peasant and artisan are specialists in their field.

The British/Australian class system assumes that, as you rise progress from the lower to the higher classes, you consume totally different products – you move from spam to leg ham to jamon iberico – because, in this system, class is understood as marked by taste, which is fundamentally related to access to imported goods, and the change of taste which occurs as you travel through society is understood as a progressively higher level of civilization. So, as trends trickle down, good taste (which is to say, civilisation) needs to find rarer goods: as previously unavailable foods spread downwards, they lose their currency as markers of civilisation, and become tainted with plebeian tastes. Just look at the short-lived glory of sundried tomatoes.

The Mediterranean class system is not related to civilisation at all, because there, taste is not related to access: because all produce, good and bad, is commonly grown local plants. As you progress through the classes of the Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Croatian or Greek society, there is no fundamental difference in WHAT people eat. They eat the same things, but people with more money eat slightly better versions or larger quantities. Whereas the poor man might buy 100g of cured ham and make carbonara, the rich man will buy a kilo and bake it. The differences in classes, therefore, are largely defined simply by income, not by access. What there is of taste is related to the ability to appreciate and recognise quality, not the product itself. And the relationship between class and civilisation is nowhere near as unambiguous because, as said before, the peasant and the artisan will know more about food than the wealthy eater at the end of the process. To return to those sundried tomatoes, an educated Mediterranean person would quite impatiently point out by now that there are sundried tomatoes, and then there are sundried tomatoes – because the ability to tell the good ones from the bad ones carries much civilisational baggage. (*)

* To understand better this nexus between income and quality of ordinary things, here’s an example. A few years ago, in Vogue Italia I read one of those short-form generic questionnaires with creme de la creme of the Italian fashion industry, about their summer holidays. One question, I remember, was ‘what is luxury for you’. A large percentage of answers (from the likes of Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, Rosita Missoni, etc) was ‘linen bedsheets’. I remember this to this day, because linen bedsheets seemed eminently achievable, and still do, whenever I forget about how much they cost.

I would argue that this unity of taste prevents the creation of entire closed-off worlds, stratified by income, as social classes are in Britain. It permits to see them much more clearly for what they fundamentally are, which is income brackets, unrelated to moral or civilizational outcomes. It also puts a brake on the constant trend-chasing that characterises the British popular taste – also because definitions of quality don’t change all that much. What was good in 1970s is still good today.

To return to Brunetti: what it is, in all its train stationy splendour, is something very Italian, and very un-Australian: it’s medium. It might look big and brash (if you hate it), or bold and beautiful (if you love it), but it is very consciously medium: it offers consistent range and quality, it’s not too expensive, it’s not bad, it hardly ever changes, and it serves a standard range of products made with care, but without fetishing them. Sure, it is entirely made in marble and busier than a train station, but so is almost every bar and cafe in Italy. You can buy delicious, expensive cakes in Brunetti. You can have some very good pizza. But you can also buy freshly ground coffee and freshly baked bread – and I buy both, because Brunetti sells them at best value for money by far.

The ‘pure’, upper-class alternative would be Baker D. Chirico around the corner, whose bakery looks like a Bauhaus spaceship and whose bread retailed at something ridiculous even before the commodities boom. Or single-origin, $4 coffee at St Ali. But that’s exactly what Brunetti is NOT about. Brunetti is a happy medium: it has mass appeal, and its products are reliable. Its aesthetics seem nouveau riche, but that’s just because it’s Italian.

That’s why we Mediterranean people love going to Brunetti. It’s urban democracy in action. Brunetti is entirely class un-differentiated, thus immune to snobbery. One day you will sit next to the Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, and on another night next to a Lebanese gang. Your coffee will never be single-origin, but it will never be bad either: and you know you will be able to get the exact same short macchiato in 50 years’ time, by which time St Ali will have moved on to selling moon water.

And there is respect in that, we concluded after a long discussion, a respect for the taste of people on medium and below-medium income. If that seems like an ordinary thing, imagine had an Aussie bakery gained mass appeal in the 1970s, instead of Brunetti. Imagine what that bakery would be like now. It would have 10,000 franchises around the world, all the size of Bunnings warehouses, cakes would be made in Chinese factories out of corn syrup and dead cows, and there would be a buzzer on every table, to let you know when your thickshake is ready to pick up.

But Brunetti is Italian, Italian culture assumes that people on different incomes have attained the same level of civilisation, and it maximises its market appeal by aiming in the middle of what-it-perceives-as a taste continuum. And phew for that.


Kid’s Wear Magazine.

CITIES, poetics of life, spatial poetics

kid’s wear magazine, or why Europe is beautiful.

I was leafing through the magazines and my hairdresser’s, waiting to be called for hair-washing, my first pile of European fashion magazines in six years, when I found this treat. Kid’s wear magazine is one of those things made out of advertising; a good 95% of the magazine was fashion editorial. But between the images of children’s clothes, hidden in the middle, was a spread of perhaps 10 pages about the childhoods of a number of people, a few paragraphs for each person. Elfriede Jelinek, forced into music lessons from a young age, starting at the Conservatory as a very small child, the beginnings of her mental illnesses starting show by puberty. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s father who supported the arts, but not his children. Pina Bausch who, as a child of a bar owner, learned early how to play alone and amuse herself, and who was taken to dance classes by family friends, her own parents being too busy with the bar. Andy Warhol; Thomas Benrhard; Ian Curtis. Margot Tenenbaum.

I used to love magazines, when I was a European teenager, but then all but stop reading them as an adult in Australia, for the relentless shallowness, cruelty, tedious lack of substance.

What makes Europe beautiful is these small surprises, these moments of care, these stabs of realisation that people here think seriously, almost all the time.

CITIES, poetics of life, policy & design

On breaking no law – Berlin by bicycle

I have been writing about flash mobs, Erna Omarsdottir, and swingers’ clubs all of this weekend. It has been a particularly nice application of my knowledge of how cities work on the subject matter of theatre, may I say.

But then the publication of this article came through, for Assemble Papers, the first in a series planned about Berlin. Here you can see me employ my purely urbanist pen, and write about this wonderful city purely from the perspective of design, circulation, livability, human rights, and such mundane things.

The whole article is also available after the break, but I suggest you follow the link instead, because Assemble Papers pairs my text with some exquisite photographs by Henrik Kuerschner – and also is a treasure trove of good writing on cities, full stop.

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CITIES, poetics of life, travel notes

At home in travel – Dancehouse Diary

Corto Maltese by Norwood, a very talented artist whose work you can admire here.

A short message from a Berlin dancer reminded me that I wrote an essay for Dancehouse Diary, a publication for Dancehouse, independent dance’s home in Melbourne, earlier this year. It was one of the very last bits of work I did before leaving, it got published just after I left, and, in the general confusion of intercontinental travel, I never saw it in print, and completely forgot about it.

But here it is now, reprinted under the break. It’s about travel, a topic very close both to my heart and to my scholarship. Reading my own writing from the past, articles I have completely forgotten about, always feels like reading someone else’s writing, and this one, read from a distance of 6 months, touched me in a strange way. I hope you will also enjoy it.

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