poetics of life, travel notes

Brussels.

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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, travel notes

The question of home.

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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.

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Such an interesting feel, this city. At times I think, it seems to have picked up the most lovely aspects of Latin and of Northern Europe; of Catholicism and Protestantism. It has the elegance, charm and that slightly creative chaos of France, and then also the simple, humble practicality of Flanders or Germany. But it is so much more beautiful than Germany, because Germany is rarely ever truly beautiful.

But here it is, in no particular order: a particular combination of light blue and light brown; a particular combination of dark blue and dark red; straight lines (sometimes); floral curves (at other times); rectangles that are almost squares, but aren’t; eclectic combinations of texture and material; and every so often, an unusual and unexpected touch of Tokyo.

spatial poetics, travel notes

The poetics of a city: Brussels style.

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travel notes

Croatia & Slovenia, June-July 2011.

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spatial poetics, travel notes

A Small Collection of Obnoxious Public Writing

In 2011, I started taking photos of public writing around Australia that I noticed was characterized by a particular TONE of overt, dictatorial nastiness. Of overstatement. Of non-negotiation. I was reminded of this project recently, while reading this post on Copenhagenize.com. Mikael wrote:

When I was in Australia last summer I was surprised, daily, at the tone of the signage. I’ve never seen such strict, nanny-like texts on warning signs. Sure, in the States there are warnings on everything but in most cases they are just “Coffee is extemely hot” kind of stuff. In Melbourne, the Authorities are keen to play headmaster, it seems. But thank god they have signs explaining in detail how to operate a pedestrian crossings. Because people are too stupid to figure that out for themselves. I got a kick out of all these warning signs in restaurants and bars. Penalty: Intoxication! $13,000!

Trying to define what sets the tone of this writing apart from what one might get in other countries, here is a tentative list:

1. THEY ARE ORDERS. They are not, technically speaking, warning. There is no appeal to common sense, individual judgement, or assessment of risk, and there is no discretionary element to your decision. ‘Heavy traffic. Cross with care’ is a warning. ‘Crossing tracks is strictly prohibited’ is an order.

2. THEY DON’T EXPLAIN THEMSELVES. When they do, it is simply to say that something is ‘AN OFFENSE’ or ‘AGAINST THE LAW’ or that ‘PENALTIES APPLY.’

3. THEY ADVERTISE A LAW, NOT GOOD CITIZENSHIP. And because of that, they don’t explain themselves, there is no argument behind these regulations other than ‘this and that is illegal.’ ‘IT IS IN BREACH OF HEALTH AND SAFETY REGULATIONS TO PARK YOUR BIKES HERE’, rather than ‘don’t inconvenience your co-workers’. When rules of conduct are advertised in Berlin, they tend to be little illustrations of why you should behave in certain ways: ‘Don’t make other people have to listen to your private phone conversations’ or ‘don’t make your heavy luggage other people’s problem.’ In Melbourne, the equivalent is ‘NO FEET ON SEATS. PENALTIES APPLY.’ Why? ‘IT IS AN OFFENSE TO BE…’

4. THEY ARE LEGAL ICEBERGS: there is often much more to the law than is said. For example, the invisible nine tenths of ‘NO FEET ON SEATS’ is that ‘anything other than the floor’ classifies as ‘seats’ for the Melbourne transport system. You would never know that from the sign. Let me speak here as an employee of a Faculty of Architecture and say that ‘anything but the floor’ is NOT a common-sense definition of a seat. But these signs do not explain themselves. Indeed, demanding they do is often seen as extremely disrespectful attitude. One issue arising from the hidden 9/10 is that one often feels defeated in advance.

5. THEY ARE OFTEN UNNECESSARILY BROAD. Sometimes it’s unclear how you could live without breaking some of these regulations. ‘Intoxication: Penalty $13,000’ is an example. Is one always guilty when drunk? Are you guilty if you haven’t been fined? Is one guilty everywhere, or only in some places and at some times? Whom to ask? Is it disrespectful to ask?

6. THEY ARE OFTEN VERY PETTY, BUT IN OMINOUS LANGUAGE. For example, ‘HOLD THE RAIL’ on public transport. Or the signs telling you how to use a zebra crossing, or how to leave a bus. Is that necessary? Is that a law? Can I be fined? Am I allowed to choose?

7. THERE IS NEVER, EVER AN APOLOGY. I have never seen a ‘WE APOLOGISE FOR THE DELAY’ sign on a train schedule screen, or ‘WE APOLOGISE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE’ on a sign blocking off a footpath.

8. EVERY SO OFTEN, THEY ARE PATRONIZING AND RUDE. For example, the ‘swap your stop and walk part of the way’ sign, apparently to prevent one’s risk of chronic illness. There is an incredible wealth of scientific evidence out there showing that people who regularly use public transport walk much more than those who don’t (because they walk to and from the stop). When I’m on a tram that’s running infrequently and is often late, I don’t want anyone to worry about whether I’m walking enough. I would much rather be reminded of the efforts to improve the public transport system. There is no possible excuse for that sign (or for that campaign).

So here is my growing collection.

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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.

Continue reading “At home in travel – Dancehouse Diary” »

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CITIES, policy & design, spatial poetics, things I have liked, travel notes

Rijeka, or on the meanings of architecture

Whoever is regularly in my vicinity, gets a certain amount of lecturing on how beauty is a function of proportion, not decoration. The building above is a fine example of what I mean by that, proportion, but it is also something else, something entirely more.

Being in Europe, and low-cost flights also being in Europe, it has now become possible for me to do the unthinkable-in-Australia: to fly back to my hometown for a two-day roam-around. And once I was there, it dawned on me immediately (it exploded upon me, even) that I need to do this more, that I need to do it regularly, because having access to Rijeka I have access to my own history. Those two days left me feeling grounded in a way indescribable: they have made me remember where I come from. Losing the sense of my own history is inevitable when I live in Melbourne, Australia, because Australia is the end of the world, far far away from Rijeka. But it takes so little, a few days, a few thorough walks through my hometown – because Rijeka is a distinct place. Very, very distinct.

I have had the good luck to live in some very particular cities: Rijeka; Venice; Berlin. Melbourne was the only place I lived in that could in any way be called normal, a city from which one can extrapolate conclusions that apply to one or more other places as well. But I come from Rijeka; and I don’t come from Venice, Melbourne, or Berlin. Generations of my family have lived in and around Rijeka, but that in and of itself means nothing – Rijeka is a distinct place, as I say. It marks you far faster. It is enough to arrive, get off the bus or train or car, and start walking up and down its steep streets and stairs, and it is as if I suddenly remember how to walk again. It is in this act of walking, in the distinct rhythm of steps that shapes one’s life in a place, and life-in-a-place always being life itself, that I remember who I am (where I have been walking, why I set off). Six years on another continent mean nothing. I have never felt like a stranger in Rijeka. I cannot imagine the number of years I would have to spend in another place (and I have, so far, spent 10 outside Rijeka) before I stopped being from Rijeka and became from somewhere else. Nothing like K, who stops being from Brisbane every so often and becomes from Melbourne – whether because of personal identification, for simplification purposes, or simply because of time invested elsewhere. The city of Rijeka, with its history, geography and culture, is like no other, and my own being-like-no-other starts sitting better within me the moment I start climbing its rocks and jumping over its creeks, cutting rubber soles of my trainers on the shards of limestone, running down its hills through private gardens and along historical staircases.

Rijeka was a part of six different countries only in the past 100 years or so, including a period of 18 months it spent as a self-governed, pirate-anarchist city-state. It has its own dialect, its two winds (bura, the northern mountain wind, bringing cold and dry weather, and jugo, the warm and humid sea wind); its karst landscape, with soft and poround limestone forming tall mountains and deep canyons; and its culture of extreme tolerance to difference, focus on one’s own affairs, and frankness which would be brutal, if it wasn’t so non-malicious.

The living landscape of Rijeka is one half Mediterranean urbanity, tight stone towns ranging from sizeable to small, built by the sea, between cliffs and gullies, connected with medieval roads that were even then a feat of engineering; and one half complete and utter wilderness, forests and mountain tops and islands and the Adriatic Sea. When our bus stops on the side of the road cutting through makija (or maquis, as it tends to be known in English, the low Mediterranean forest), to drop off a frail old woman seemingly in the middle of nowhere, on a cliff, K is incredulous and concerned. Where is the lady going? I point to the town at the bottom of the hill, hundreds of metres below us, by the sea. But how is she going to get there? There will be a road or a staircase, I say, but K’s good Australian heart is not at peace until he really sees the road, going down the hill at an angle of a ski slope.

This is a cityscape without suburbs. A city can sprawl unchecked and unplanned only on relatively flat land – not when urban growth requires feats of engineering. Among the many distinct topographical formations of the karst landscape, not one is flat. There are 200,000 people living in Rijeka, but one can start walking from the national theatre, with its opera ensemble, ballet ensemble and orchestra, and arrive to the forests in 15 minutes.

It is a city without suburbs. What looks like suburbs, technically is just a lot of edge: city here, nature there. The insistence of Melburnians of all kinds that they are ‘just a suburban boy/girl/family’ is something I cannot relate to, because to me all suburbs look and feel like pitiful wasteland of both nature and culture, and Rijeka has never had any. In our teenage years, we have been known to go hiking on the hills outside the city for hours, then bush-bash our way down the hill and proceed straight to a punk concert or theatre performance. To have to walk, on flat suburban wasteland of houses and petrol stations, for 30 minutes just to get a carton of milk, is to me a personal, non-generalisable tragedy – not so much because it clashes with my values, but because it confuses my sense of walking.

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But I wanted to talk about something else – about architecture and beauty.

We walked up and down hills, through the city centre, and arrived at this building, the so-called Mali neboder, ‘Little Skyscraper’. With its 10 1/2 storeys it is hardly a skyscraper, but it was a tall building when it was built, and so the name stuck. I am generally a fan of early modernism in architecture, buildings built not in cookie-cutter repetition, but as thought-through one-offs. The promise of modernism exists in them still: buildings as a promise of the more efficient future, signals for how to make things rationally and intelligently, lighthouses of technological enlightenment, of engineering which makes life better for everyone.

There are many such buildings in Rijeka. They fit in with the Mediterranean sense of beauty (on which hopefully more later), they are unadorned and simple and truthful to their materials. ‘Mali neboder’ is a building made for its location: it respects the curvilinear street and the slope of the hill it sits on; its balconies open up to the view of the bay and the city centre; its colours are muted, and its windows have (FFS) the kind of blinds that buildings in hot climates need. It is a good building in every sense of the word: high-quality, honest, unpretentious, sensitive to the environment, modest. It did not demand changes of context – it was designed to slot in nicely, and yet it has a beauty of form that is distinct, unrepeatable. It is just that bit higher than other buildings on the street to say, hey, this is what human species can do now, let’s discuss where to go from here!. It neither pretends to come from a time before industry, not does it insist on ignoring the entire city before its time. It doesn’t pretend to be in Paris or New York. It simply makes as much New York on that corner as Rijeka can honestly work with. The story goes that the owner built it as tall as he could sell apartments: the building was finished when the market demand ran dry.

Stendhal said nicely: “Beauty is the promise of happiness.” The promise of this building, in 1939, was of a future that would be different, and perhaps better, without pretending to forget the past. There are many such buildings in Rijeka, and there has never been any discontent with modernist architecture there. The people of Rijeka never blew up any buildings on the grounds of ugliness. Today, they don’t build medieval-looking houses for a comfortable fantasy of a better past. It is an honesty which could be brutal, if it wasn’t so non-malicious.

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CITIES, travel notes

Stray cats of Malaysia

The kittens of St Paul’s Church in Melaka were two; both completely black, tiny and underfed. Stroking them, I could feel all of their little ribs. They were both very still. One looked asleep on its feet, perhaps enjoying the cuddle, perhaps about to die.

One never sees abandoned kittens on Australian streets, and is thus spared from having to think too often about the cruel, simple indifference of the universe in the face of life (what is there to do? Take all stray cats home, the whole billion of them?).

Stroking the little thing, I started wondering about whether cats have emotional responses in any way analogue to humans. Does a stray cat, when cuddled, feel anything like, any feline equivalent of, the frightened and blissful warmth of rare intimacy? Does it enjoy it as a special treat, without planning to get used to it, for experience tells it all intimacy is short-lived, its promise of security ultimately deceiving? Cats don’t think, of course, but they too learn from experience. Does a cat also find a bittersweet, lonely joy, or at least some sort of existential contentment, in total freedom? Stuff like that.

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A Queensland house is called a Queenslander.

CITIES, spatial poetics, travel notes

Moving houses of Queensland

According to my boyfriend, Queensland houses, timber-framed and built on stilts, can be moved as desired. It is not unusual for whole houses to be moved. They can be pushed forward, pulled back, or raised up if they sink, or to be built in underneath.

There are special cranes to move it, although more often there are special trucks, with big arms that come out of the side, to lift up one side of the house. That way, the stilts can be replaced one side at a time. This is called ‘restumping’.

It is not unusual on a freeway to get stuck behind a house. Or half a house, because sometimes they get cut into two pieces to fit on the truck.

Boyfriend maintains that none of this is unusual. He once lived in a house that got lifted with such a special truck, because it was sinking into the ground.

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