Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia (la Nouvelle Calédonie) is situated at the southern-most tip of the main island, directly east of Australia. It has a similar history to Sydney, as It was set up as a penal colony for (French) prisoners. The indigenous inhabitants are Melanesian.
Same reason for being in Oxford—the Oxford Dysfluency Conference that my partner helped organise—same train trip from London; same College for accommodation. But this trip, instead of visiting university landmarks and museums, I spent the time with a niece and her boyfriend punting on the Isis River, which is the Thames in Oxford. Other activities included eating and drinking in taverns, and browsing in bookshops, of which there are many excellent ones in Oxford. I returned to the Turf Tavern several times for lunch.
This post contribution is from my Randwick Writers colleague Garth Alperstein, originally from South Africa, but obviously a citizen of the world now, who delights in other places, faces and cultures.
Garth says: When I travel, I have of late written short poems, in an attempt to encapsulate the essence of a place, an experience or a memory.
On the day of Kurban Bayrami
The Imam’s piercing chant cannot mask
Bleeting cries of sacrificial death
(On this day animals are sacrificed in the streets in certain parts of Istanbul)
Pale green hills
Moonscape rocks erect
I see planet Earth at the end of time
Breakfast on the terrace
The mists reveal mountains and minorettes
The call to prayer, the smell of Turkish coffee
We caught a plane to Dublin from London. Here we had our toughest passage through Customs yet. Admittedly Heathrow is difficult; it’s being renovated and we had to catch several buses to reach our terminal. Also, the Customs woman seemed to think I was on a false passport and fired questions at me: “Do you know anyone in Dublin?” “Yes, my girlfriend is studying writing there at the moment.” “Are you staying with her?” “No, at the Fleet Street Hotel.” “When’s your birthday?” “19th November.” “How old are you?” “69” (Looking at my terrible passport photo) “You don’t look that old”. I felt like being rude, but I’ve made it a rule never to argue with a Customs officer. And I was too tired by this stage: really feeling my age after the long queues and exhaustive bag searches.
To make things worse, an American woman with her hen-pecked husband was saying in a loud voice; “It’s all the Muzzlems’ fault, you know!” Once allowed to pass through, we muttered something quickly and hurried in order to put distance between us and the Americans. Luckily, the plane trip was not very long, highlighting the closeness between this tiny country and its one-time nemesis, Great Britain. It’s even smaller than Tasmania.
Kay, my friend from Australia, was there waiting for us. We three hugged and kissed, then caught a taxi to our hotel. Fleet Street Hotel is very central, a block away from the Liffey River and surrounded by pubs with patrons flowing out onto the city streets. Our hotel room was small and plain, with a view onto an eighteen century looking roof area that looked like works had been called off due to lack of funds. We found a pub restaurant with expensive food that was not very good: bacon is on all the menus, but it’s more like bully beef or boiled meat.
Kay invited us for dinner the next evening at her spacious apartment in a Georgian building near St Stephens’ Green area. This is the most attractive area of Dublin with vines spreading out over the facades of the buildings and beautiful gardens and open spaces. Many of the other Anglo type buildings were torn down after the republic was born.
One of the highlights of our visit was being able to see the Book of Kells, which was on show at Trinity College, opposite our Hotel. We were very lucky not to have to line up, since one of Mark’s colleague acquaintances works at the university there. We felt priviliged to be able to see these amazing ancient texts. Also, we were able to visit the medieval library with its fascinating articles hearking back to classical times and before. Mark’s friend told him that all public servants, lecturers and teachers included, have to take a thirty percent pay cut because of the bail-out by Germany. I also noticed more beggars in Ireland than in any other European country we visited. The anti-abortion laws are medieval, and women often have large families. And yet, the country is open to gay marriage, according to my friend: just one of the many contradictions in Ireland.
A must when you’re in Dublin is visit Kilmainham Gaol. It’s where the Easter Rising rebels were executed in 1916, which led to Ireland becoming a republic. I felt terribly depressed afterwards. Like all gaols, even though it’s a museum, it’s depressing, but this one more so because of the executions that took place here. The pretty blond guide dramatised the events,and brought home to us the magnitude of what happened here, but it’s the only way to really understand the “Irishness” of the country’s people. The British leaders at the time, stupidly started to execute the leaders of the Rising. By the time they’d got to twenty, the dye was cast, and the people rose up: the Republic of Ireland was born.
A real pleasure was walking around the city looking at the gardens and streets, often coming across statues and plaques devoted to famous writers and icons. Writers are revered in Dublin. Another must is to hop on a green bus and do the tour of the city, which includes a visit to the huge Guinness factory and various museums, including the Writers Centre.
I’d stayed in the Brisbane CBD previously, also in the south-eastern suburb of Morningside, when I used to visit my late brother in Georgina Hostel there. And I’d stayed in the southern suburb of St Lucia at the University of Queensland once. Never before in Toowong.
But my favourite place in Brisbane is South Bank Parklands, just across the river from the Central Business District. I love the fact that you can find a large beach for open air swimming just across the river in a city of more than 2 million people. The weather wasn’t good, but there were still people swimming in the pools there that range in depth from one metre in the children’s paddle areas, to more than two metres in sections watched over by a lifeguard. The Parklands also boast rainforest gardens, grassed areas, plazas, riverfront promenades, a Nepalese pagoda, restaurants, shops, fountains, and busy markets held on weekends. South Bank was opened to the public in 1992 on the site of the former World Expo 88 site.
While my partner was attending a conference south of Toowong, I caught a rivercat northwards along the Brisbane River, which turns like a snake north, south, north, south and north again until it reaches the ocean. I got out at New Farm and caught the next ferry–they come every fifteen minutes in either direction–back as far as South Bank.
After exploring South Bank, I took the rivercat back to the Regatta Ferry stop and had lunch at the grand-looking Regatta Hotel across the road. I’d made the mistake of thinking the weather would be warmer than in Sydney; after all, I’m originally from the New South Wales town of Grafton, 600 km north of Sydney and only 300 km south of Brisbane. It’d always been subtropically warm when I was a kid. So I’d underdressed for this trip.
It was cold out on the River; I was now hungry and thirsty; I ordered a XXXX beer on tap and a garlic pizza. It was amazingly good, although I could only eat half the pizza, and it was too smelly to cart back in my handbag to the less grand hotel. We were staying in the centre of the commercial precinct of Toowong.
When I got back, I read up on Toowong to discover that in 1965 two women, including a certain Merle Thornton, had chained themselves to the bar of the Regatta Hotel in protest at public bars in Queensland being restricted to men only. Merle is the mother of Australian actress, Sigrid Thornton. It threw me back into memories of Dad handing a drink to Mum through the window of the car, while he went back into the bar to drink with his mates.
Another interesting find in Toowong, was coming across a huge tropical fish tank in the Shopping Plaza that looked, apart from this, like any other Westfield shopping centre in Sydney.
I’d been reading about Baz Luhrmann in the newspaper, and the upcoming premiere of his movie ‘The Great Gatsby’. Looking at the fish in the tank reminded me of the scene in his ‘Romeo and Juliet‘ movie of the young lovers first catching sight of one another through the glass and water of a large fish tank with its creatures swimming past their faces seen through the water in the tank.
It seemed weird that I was the only person in the centre staring into the tank at the beautiful creatures and taking photographs of them.
1. The lion statue that features in the central courtyard of the Museum once sat at the top of a building and weighs 7 tons. It had a much fiercer look back then, with shining jewelled eyes and a fuller jaw. Its softer look appealed to me and reminded me of the lion in the Wizard of Oz.
2: I soon found myself before the famous Rosetta Stone from the Ptolemaic Period, 196 BC, with writing on it in two languages (Egyptian and Greek), using three scripts (hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek). It is one of the most important objects in the British Museum as it holds the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs—a script made up of small pictures that was used originally in ancient Egypt for religious texts. Hieroglyphic writing died out in Egypt in the fourth century C.E.
3: A two-handled amphora decorated with black figures was made by the celebrated Athenian vase-producer Execias, circa 540 BC. It depicts the death of an Amazon Queen, Penthesileia, at the hands of the Greek hero, Achilles, during the Trojan War. The tragedy of the scene represents the hero’s falling in love with her, at the very moment of Penthesileia’s death. This is captured skillfully by the artist.
4: The fierce figure of Yamāntaka Vajrabhairava, captivated me. I was drawn towards Buddhism at the time of my visit, which may explain why it fascinated me so very much. Made of gilded blue and red coloured bronze, its hands hold various symbols, and its feet rest on a human figure. Here he is shown embracing Vajravarahi, his wisdom partner, representing the spiritual passion for Enlightenment.It dates from the reign of the Chinese Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820).
5: The Gneiss Sphinx of Amenemhat IV is from the Twelfth Dynasty of Ammenemes IV, 1795 BC. The face was reworked during the Roman period. It rests on an integral plinth with a rounded end at the back. The face is damaged; it wears a lion mane in the form of a nemes headdress. It is inscribed on the chest with the prenomen of Amenemhat IV, beloved of Atum, Lord of Heliopolis.
6: The Gayer Anderson Cat, a hollow-cast bronze figure of a seated cat with incised detail, an inlaid silver sun-disc on the chest and golden earrings and nose-rings. It has been one of the most admired objects at the British Museum since its arrival in 1947, acquisitioned and donated by the British Army major, an avid antiquities collector, John Gayer Anderson.
7. One of my favourite artefacts: A statuette of a goat eating leaves in gold leaf and blue from ancient Mesopotamia, the area of the current Iraq.
We sped in a First Great Western train towards Oxford via Slough and Reading, passing through picturesque countryside, woolly green hills dotted with slate-roofed red brick houses; no water restrictions here; verdant pastures and flat crops under a vaulted cloud-filled sky. So different from drought-ravaged Australia.
We stayed at St Catherine’s student college and were surrounded by aqueous nature: geese, mallard ducks and water lilly ponds, which made up for the spartan lodgings. On our first day, I went with my American friend, Terri, on a walking tour of the city. The Italian tour guide showed us around some of the colleges, the Bodlielan Library, the Church and the quaint Turf Tavern where she was proud to point out the plaques celebrating Bob Hawke‘s drinking prowess, and Bill Clinton’s experiments with drugs. She also showed us the cross in the main street marking the spot where martyrs were burnt at the stake during the Reformation.
Conflict between town interests and those of the university has a long history in Oxford, and it still continues in some form up until the present time. The high walls built around the colleges are a symbol of this conflict, representing a need on the part of the colleges to protect themselves and their students from the world outside. In the past there were demonstrations and riots that led to deaths, but today the dissatisfactions are settled in court.
The Bodleian Library, from its beginnings in the fourteenth century, has become one of the great libraries of the world. It is also a copyright deposit library, able to claim any book published in the British Isles, and has continued to spread in size, taking over many adjacent ancient buildings.
The beautiful New College, Catholic, founded in the fifteenth century, so-called to distinguish it from another of the same name: Saint Mary’s. The three statues on the facade at the front withstood the destruction of the Reformation years, probably because of their elevated position. We wandered around the cloisters, the chapel and the gardens for a long time, breathing in the history and atmosphere. The huge tree was part of one of the Harry Potter movies.
Terri and I were inspired to return and explore some more the next day, especially the New College and the Ashmolean Museum.
In Australia, buildings that are 200 years’ old are considered ancient; even The New College here is from the fourteenth century!
The hanging baskets of flowers and the English-style gardens in the college grounds are indescribably beautiful. And even the fat bumblebees here are different from bees back home!
Tonight: Despite our best-laid plans, our travel was initially upset by the Qantas engineers’ “requirements” (strike). We were bused to the Ibis Hotel in Darling Harbour in Sydney to spend our first night, instead of in Singapore.
Once we got to Singapore, we managed to grab six hours’ “horizontal time” at the Traders’ Hotel, before getting on the Qantas flight for London at 2 am the next morning.
Flying over London at 7 am in fine weather was breathtaking. The first landmark that was pointed out to me on the edge of the Thames was “The London Eye,” as it has become known: the highest ferris wheel in the world. Then I saw the Tower Bridge and felt like I was really in London. Londoners believe it to be the most famous bridge in the world, and yet most outsiders don’t even know its name: “Isn’t it London Bridge?” they ask.