Brand new day

I’m on my way home from work. A mentally-ill man stalks the train. He fluctuates between distracted muttering and jagged bouts of shouting reminiscent of machine gun fusillade: “Strathfield. Strathfield. I hate Strathfield. MALCOLM LIVES AT STRATHFIELD. Malcolm is the devil.”

He leans close into the face of the man sitting beside me. His eyes bulge like plums. His face is mottled red. Spittle explodes from his mouth like catherine wheels. “Malcolm. Malcolm is the devil and he lives at Strathfield. Malcolm is the devil and his girlfriend Jessica is THE DEVIL’S CONCUBINE.”

Strathfield station comes. The man doesn’t get off. I sense the other passengers shifting anxiously behind me. The man beside me looks fixedly ahead, trying not to make eye contact. His Adam’s apple slides up and down. His fingers knit and unknit compulsively in his lap.

“Malcolm is the devil. Malcolm. Malcolm is the devil and he lives at Strathfield. Malcolm comes to my house in a WHITE TOYOTA HILUX. Malcolm. Malcolm. I hate Malcolm. Also Strathfield.” I look down at my book, not reading, planning what I will do if the man moves on to me. I mentally note his every word, simultaneously hoping he will leave and stay.

“Malcolm. Malcolm lives at Strathfield…”

It’s tempting to craft this episode into a more cohesive piece about mental illness, draw some type of ultimate meaning from it, attach a neat moral to the end. It is just something I saw though, one thing among thousands of others, and I’m not really sure what significance it has or what it amounts to – even to me. The world is big and there is so much in it. What are we to do?

I think – be kind. Be brave. Find joy in the lovely and ridiculous. Strive for your own happiness. Try to understand others. Do the best you can.

Happy new year.


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Cooking with Jamie

The other day a friend and I got talking about Jamie Oliver. She admired his simple, nutritious fare and found his raffish cockney charm endearing. I admired his simple, nutritious fare and found his inability to use verbs or adjectives in any meaningful way irritating. I was particularly galled by his habit of describing pretty much every dish in his repertoire as either “cheeky” or “pukka”, depending on its grammatical gender. What’s so impudent about a jar of chutney, for heaven’s sake? Why in god’s name was he forever “smashing” up avocado and “bashing” bits of garlic? Couldn’t he just chop them up with a knife like a normal person? Not to mention all the irrelevant banging on about mandolins and other musical instruments…

We couldn’t come to an agreement on Jamie Oliver so began to argue about mussels instead. She maintained that they were delicious but incredibly complex and fiddly to prepare. I maintained that they were delicious and that cooking them was a relatively quick and simple task. She demanded to know if I’d ever actually done such a thing myself. I said that, yes, in fact I had. She demanded to know how. So I sent her this recipe.

Insouciant Mussels, Jamie Oliver Style*

Serves 2


Jamie Oliver gets hand horribly mangled in fan after attempting to throw javelin during 2010 TED talk. (No, not really.) Image by Suzie Katz, available at Image available under a CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.

Jamie Oliver gets hand horribly mangled in fan after attempting to throw javelin during 2010 TED talk. (No, not really.)
Image by Suzie Katz, available at  and used under a CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.

  • dry white wine (if you don’t have a dry white, a wet one will do)
  • olive oil
  • 1 large onion (preferably of noble mien and with an upright, unimpeachable character; also organic, if possible)
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • salt and pepper
  • (optional) pinch of dried chili flakes or 1 small fresh chili, finely minaretted
  • 1 400g tin of diced tomatoes
  • 1kg of cleaned mussels (clams or pippis also work)
  • a handful of fresh basil leaves


  1. Finely dice the wine.
  2. Heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a deep saucepan. If you want to use more oil then do so – you’re an independent adult and can make that call.
  3. Hack up the onion with a knife, or better yet, a hacksaw. If you have a really cutting sense of humour, use this instead and reduce washing up. The pieces should be roughly one-eighth of the size of a Russian kopeck.
  4. Bludgeon the garlic a few times with a pestle. If you don’t have a pestle, try a brick, baseball bat or whatever weapon you happen to have handy. Check that it’s unconscious then slice it with a cello or other stringed instrument.
  5. Toss the onion and garlic into the saucepan. If you’re using the chili, hurl that in too. Flavour with salt and pepper to taste, but bear in mind that mussels are naturally salty so you don’t want to go overboard.
  6. Mollycoddle over low heat until softened – this should take around 5-10 minutes. Stir continually to ensure it doesn’t burn.
  7. Add a few glugs of wine. If it’s not gluggy enough, add more – ideally you want to use about a cup. Let it roil and brood for a few minutes until the alcohol has worn off and it’s OK to drive.
  8. Dump your tomatoes in the pan. (Don’t feel guilty about dumping them; they’ll meet someone else soon – someone better than you too, most likely.)
  9. Heave the mussels into the pan as if they were the corpses of pirates wrapped in sailcloth. As soon as they open (this should only take a few minutes) pick them out of the pan with tongs, pliers or one of those contraptions public transport officers use to pick up rubbish left on the train.  Set them aside in your serving bowls. (NB. You can also delegate this task to a trained budgerigar or other bird with a suitable beak. Not a flamingo under any circumstances though – they are not to be trusted.)
    Make your own call about any unopened mussels – generally though, if they smell fine, they’re OK to eat.
  10. Cook the sauce for a few minutes longer until it thickens. If it’s not thick enough, show it back to back episodes of “The Bachelorette”. When you’re happy with it, slosh it over the mussels in the manner of a vengeful (yet simultaneously just, merciful and loving) god unleashing a deluge upon the earth.
  11. Tear the basil to pieces like a pack of wolves descending upon a starving peasant. Strew it about with reckless abandon and a complete lack of decorum. (NB. strew mainly on the mussels rather than the room at large.)
  12. Serve with crusty bread and a cheeky glass of chardonnay, insolent sauv blanc or refreshingly courteous riesling. Easy-peasy!**
The finished product

The finished product, badly photographed.

*ie. embellished with loads of distracting verbs and adjectives divorced from their actual meanings. Not a Jamie Oliver recipe or in any way endorsed by Jamie – though I’m sure he’d give it the double thumbs up if he tried it.

* *I was going to end with “lovely-jubbly!”, which is of course the more traditional Jamie Oliver sign-off, though it always makes me picture those wobbling plates of raspberry jelly so ubiquitous in Enid Blyton books; gleaming miniature castles more architectural marvel than dessert. “Lovely-jubbly” also seems to have vaguely lecherous undertones – the sort of thing that a plump and plodding English postman with a tendency to drool over the knees of primary school girls might say. “Easy-peasy” it is then.

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Everyday moments of grace

It’s a Saturday night. A friend and I make our way to Town Hall Station through the drunken, jeering, late-night throng. “The city’s so feral lately”, I complain. “Louts and hooligans everywhere.”

Then a man with a harp walks by.

That’s the thing I love most about life: that the loveliest, most joyful and ridiculous moments are all around you, smiling modestly and waiting for you to notice them. It’s the hilarious hidden beneath the ordinary, the delightfully absurd and incongruous, the quietly sublime.

And that’s why I love working in a library; the myriad people you encounter, the portal they provide into an infinitely rich and glowing world steeped in the radiant possibilities of everyday life.

how to be a woman

A cheerfully baffling library shelf label

Of course, being able to laugh at yourself helps too.

A few months ago at work I am told by one of our conversation class regulars, “Your hair is so pretty: you look like one of those dogs.” He delivers this statement with a proud and practised air, as if he’s spent a long time working on it. It remains one of my favourite compliments to date, and I often repeat it aloud to myself if I’m having a fat or ugly day, visualising a kingly cocker spaniel with languidly silky ears or a glossy red setter streaking across a bare hillside like a glowing tongue of flame. It never fails to cheer me up.

I see the man again a few weeks later after his morning class. “Your eyes are beautiful,” he tells me. “They are big and green like a sea-fish.” Then he asks me for the wifi password.

I speak to the conversation class teacher as he’s leaving the library. “The students seem to really be getting a lot out of the class. You’re not by any chance doing similes, are you?”

“Similes?” he repeats incredulously and sighs deeply, because clearly I know nothing at all about the teaching of English. He visibly adopts that long-suffering but infinitely patient demeanour generally reserved for those with acquired brain injuries. “Louise,” (this is not the name on my name badge but he calls me it all the same), “it’s a conversation class. Most of the students have been in Australia for only a few months and speak barely a word of English, so I hardly think that similes would be appropriate…”

“Of course, sorry, it was stupid of me…” I start to apologise.

“…We’re doing fiscal reform.”

“Oh right.” I wait hopefully to see if he is making an uncharacteristic joke. He isn’t.

“Fiscal reform. Wow. And do you… er… actually use the word ‘fiscal’”? I ask tentatively.

He gives me a wordless and withering stare, having now decided I’m too stupid to even expend language on, then leaves.

A few minutes later I am approached by an earnest Afghan man seeking information on “physical reform”. I tactfully divest him of the pile of body building books he’s been given by another librarian and lead him to the economics section.

“Your eyes are big and green like a sea-fish”, I tell myself in front of the mirror that night.

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No cause for alarm

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good emergency evacuation.

Well, possibly there are a few things – chocolate is perhaps slightly more enjoyable, and a nice glass of wine or a good pastry also ranks pretty highly. But emergency evacuations are certainly up there on the list.

A school I used to work in did fire drills on a fortnightly basis. Then, after yet another high school shooting in America, they decided to institute practice lockdowns as well. The only difference between the evacuation and lockdown alarms was that the latter was perhaps a decibel higher. We could never keep straight which was which, and each time we heard a siren, would be unsure whether to take cover under a desk or go and congregate in the middle of the oval. Often the teachers would have quite lengthy debates in the corridors about what action to take, while the students sat in the classrooms listening to their iPods or getting a head-start on their homework, and meanwhile, the simulated crisis passed.  I recall those days as a golden age.

"Micky Mouse" by Toby Oxborrow. Available at This image is used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

“Micky Mouse” by Toby Oxborrow. Available at This image is used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

I think of this today at work when the fire alarm goes off and we’re forced to evacuate. We stand in the street some fifty metres away, explaining to irate patrons that we’re sorry, but they can’t go into the library right now.

“Why?”, an elderly Japanese gentleman mimes. No-one around speaks Japanese, so my colleague decides to utilise her interpretive dance skills, flickering and darting her arms around in a manner intended to represent fire.

The gentleman looks alarmed. We realise retrospectively it looks more like a bomb exploding.

She amends her gestures to make them more vigorous and flame-like, adding bizarre crackling noises and periodically mopping her brow for extra effect.

After several minutes the gentleman nods in understanding, accepting that he can’t go into the library because there is a disco.

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'Wallona Aritta

‘Wallona Aritta”, one of Australia’s tattooed ladies, from State Library Victoria Collections. Available at This image is used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

“I like your tattoo,” a library patron says to me today at work.

“Huh? My ta…?” I realise he is looking at the reminder note I’ve scribbled hastily on my inner wrist. I don’t bother to correct him: it’s school holidays and kind of frantic. “Oh. Thanks,” I say instead.

“What is it? Some kind of quote?” he asks intrigued, leaning in to inspect it more closely. “TOP UP YOUR GODDAMN OPAL CARD!!!”, he reads.

A flicker of deep existential uncertainty crosses his face. “Er… cool,” he says at last.

I wonder if he will go home and get inked just like me.

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It’s like deja-vu all over again*

To those of you who are my Facebook friends, the below blog may sound familiar.

This not because I’m plagiarising, however – because good librarians don’t do that – but rather, because it’s been cobbled together from an assortment of my previous social media postings. You can look forward to more of this in the future as well.

On the surface, this type of shameless… repurposing… may strike you as an act of desperation from a creative well wrung dry, or perhaps just bone laziness.

But if you thought that, you’d be wrong.

Because I’m recycling. That’s right, recycling. And recycling’s great. Everyone loves recyclers. In fact, if you don’t assiduously separate your glass and paper waste from your ordinary trash each week, you’re basically the devil and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get pelted to death with carefully rinsed-out PET containers by Greens voters in yoga pants.

Essentially, then, I’m a sustainability crusader – an eco-warrior – a type of inspiring Boadicea-David Suzuki hybrid armed, not with a sword, but ready access to the “Ctrl C” and “Ctrl V” keys. Or something. Whatever.

Anyway, I wrote the below back when I was looking for a flat-sitter for my US trip. But that’s all in the past now, because I have not just a flat-sitter, but a fully-fledged flatmate. And he’s great – he even brushes the cat and repairs household objects I didn’t realise were broken. But that’s another story to be told another time. For now, let’s just wallow in the past a bit. With cat photos, of course.

2015-02-23 23.37.39May 2015

I’m meeting with a lady interested in flat/cat-sitting for me. It’s all going well – her references are impeccable, she’s used to looking after pets, and the absence of a TV doesn’t faze her – until we get to the inevitable awkward topic.

“So, you’re an animal person,” I begin, attempting a subtle segue. “How do you feel about, say, slugs?”

“Slugs?” she repeats blankly.

“Yes, slugs,” I say. “You don’t get squeamish or anything, do you? It’s just that the house has this…” I search for the right word… “… idiosyncrasy, I suppose. Basically, in the middle of the night, all of these giant slugs appear – I’m not quite sure where from. I think they crawl up through the floorboards or the cracks in the walls or something – it’s a bit like a science fiction film.” I sense she does not find this comparison reassuring. “They don’t, like, attack you or anything,” I hasten to add. “And they’re gone by morning. You just need to turn on a light if you’re going to the bathroom so you don’t step on them. And keep an eye on your water glass.”

She stares at me to see if I’m joking. I’m not.

“I don’t think you mentioned this in the ad,” she finally manages.

She’s correct. I didn’t. I had toyed with “charming inner west terrace infested with mutant nocturnal slugs” as a headline, but had eventually decided against it as I didn’t think it necessarily highlighted the house’s best features. “Do you know that slugs are actually a more evolved form than snails?” I instead say brightly. “They’ve basically gone beyond the need for a shell. I read this fascinating book about gastropods recently, “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.” They’re remarkable creatures…”

I don’t mention their radulas – long tubes inside their throats lined with rows of overlapping fangs which act like cheese graters and periodically replenish themselves. My instincts tell me that she would not find this information quirky or endearing.

“They don’t crawl over your face while you’re asleep, do they?” she asks with a visible shudder.

“No. Never. Absolutely not,” I say adamantly, although I have never actually considered it before and suppose it is theoretically possible.

“And how big are they exactly?”

I reach for my phone to show her a photo taken a few nights back, then decide against it, as the slug pictured is slimy and gelatinous, covered with gleaming, livery spots and about twice the size of one of those cigars that Castro was so fond of. It also seems to have red eyes (although I suspect this is just the flash) and if you look closely, you can almost see the edge of its first layer of fangs.

“Not that big, relatively speaking,” I say, without explaining relative to what. “Unfortunately I don’t have a photo to allay your fears with.”

“So you just kill them when you see them, then?” she asks.

“No,” I say, somewhat surprised by this kneejerk homicidal response in a self-professed lover of all creatures. “They’re gone by morning and don’t do any real harm. The only way you know they’ve even been there is all the silvery trails left on the rug. It’s quite pretty – fairy-like almost… Of course, if I see them on my herbs, it’s a different matter. I tend to use the forced relocation method then.” (By this, I mean that I take them across the road to repatriate them in the middle of the night when the neighbours are asleep.)

“Or you can freeze them, of course. That’s meant to be the most humane method. You just put them in a plastic takeaway container in the freezer for a few hours and apparently they just drift off peacefully…”

I realise belatedly that I sound like a psychopath. She also seems to have formed this impression.

So I don’t end up going with her – and I’m not sure she’s that disappointed, to be honest. And I find an excellent house-sitter just a few days later, and have no doubt at all that the delicate ecological balance in my home will remain undisturbed, and both Fina and all other creatures who inhabit it, will be in very safe hands while I’m away.

*Yogi Berra can take credit for this witticism.
*This pithy remark has been attributed to Yogi Berra.
*Legend has it that Yogi Berra coined this pithy aside.

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Eating New Orleans

I’ve always believed that one of the best ways to get to know a place is through its food, a convenient philosophy under which snacking becomes legitimate research and gluttony is elevated to the highest form of academic rigour. In keeping with this, in New Orleans I exhibit a scholastic zeal which would put a Harvard Professor to shame. Some days I study almost continually, burning the candle at both ends, because I am nothing if not thorough in my methods. It’s quite draining, if I’m honest. But when the getting of wisdom is at stake, you can’t afford to cut corners.

Shrimp po-boy

Shrimp po-boy

And so I eat. I eat remoulade and crawfish etouffe and fresh corn on the cob. I eat okra and red beans with rice. I eat gumbo and jumbalaya, despite the fact that I am a vegetarian and both dishes feature liberal quantities of smoked sausage. But when in Rome (or New Orleans)… I eat blackened catfish and fried green tomatoes. I eat bananas foster and bread pudding with whiskey. It ain’t healthy, that’s for sure – in fact, most of what I eat should probably be packaged up with a skull and crossbones symbol. My stomach is permanently bloated and my skin feels thick and oily. But it’s all novel and flavoursome, and of course, infinitely edifying. And so I keep eating.

I eat biscuits, as understood by Americans rather than Australians. In Australia, a biscuit is what Americans would call a cookie, but in New Orleans, biscuits are like hot, crumbly scones. Instead of having them for afternoon tea with jam and cream as we would be inclined to do, in New Orleans they simply plonk them on the plate with whatever they happen to be serving, whether it be sweet or savoury, whatever the time of day. I eat biscuits with scrambled eggs, soup, sauted vegies, even pancakes. This blanket approach is genius. I don’t know why we don’t adopt it.

Po-boys are another local specialty, the name a contraction of “poor boy”, because they were originally eaten by labourers and the down-at-heel. They are basically sandwiches on crunchy French bread dressed with lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise and pickles. Oysters, shrimp, catfish and sausage are traditional fillings. I approach the first with great cynicism: there seems something not only wasteful, but heretical, about frying up oysters with their delicate briny piquancy, smothering them with condiments and cramming them into a roll. I’m almost relieved when it doesn’t win me over. The oysters seem small, grey and slimy, with a faint aluminium taste, and when my teeth cleave through the batter and the liquid centres explode hot onto my palate, I can’t help thinking unpleasant thoughts about tiny ruptured spleens and people sneezing inside my mouth.

The sides are also somewhat unconventional. The menu informs me it comes with chips. “Would you like fries with that?” the waitress asks when I place my order. Somewhat taken aback, I decline, wondering why on earth I would need fries when there’s chips already. I understand when it arrives some ten minutes later, sidled up on the plate beside a neat pile of crenelated crisps.


Gene’s Po-Boy

The shrimp po-boy is more successful. I buy it from a grimy-looking diner imaginatively named “Gene’s Po-Boy” where the waitresses wear pink uniforms and take orders over the noisy sputter of a deep fat fryer. I get it take away, or “to go”, and eat it at my kitchen table to a backdrop of knobbly candle stubs and battered paintwork which seems oddly appropriate. It’s pretty industrial-looking – over a foot long, pasty and crumpled, wrapped in opalescent greaseproof paper and disgorging fragile ringlets of fried shrimp. Nonetheless, it seems one of the most delectable things I have ever eaten. Perversely, it’s almost exactly like a McDonald’s chicken burger, something I hadn’t realised I’d been craving until that moment – the combination of thick mayonnaise, dense lily pads of shredded lettuce and prawns which taste like tiny tender morsels of chicken. The bread is perhaps a touch stale but still I devour the whole delicious yard-stick of it, assiduously collecting every last entrail of lettuce and crisp crumb of salty batter. This is not the last po-boy I have, needless to say.


Beignet at Café Du Monde

I eat beignets. The place to go for them is Café Du Monde near the French Markets. Beignets are in fact the only food they serve, which makes ordering a simple affair. For $2.80, you get three of them – heavy, fried doughnuty chunks laden down with oil. They come served with about half a pack of icing sugar tipped unceremoniously over the top, so that you have to trawl about for them in the messes of powdery whiteness – a bit like unearthing bodies after an avalanche. When I finally disinter them, my first instinct is to look at them censoriously while internally deploring the American diet, and tell myself that no civilised person could possibly get through all that compressed cholesterol single-handedly – or single-mouthedly. I take a bite. They are warm and dense and soft and chewy and smell like cinnamon and grease. I take another bite, then keep on going, then before I know it have dispatched the whole plate and am contemplating ordering another.

Pralines are another popular treat, as well as a hotly divisive topic of debate. Their pronunciation in particular tends to polarise discussion: while locals opt for the more genteel-sounding ‘prah-leen’, other Americans and ignorant plebs like myself tend to go for ‘PRAY-leens’. (Don’t even go down the ‘PE-can’/’pe-CAHN’ praline road. That way barn-burnings lie.) Pralines taste like condensed milk, like soft caramel, and can be either chewy and elastic or delicate and bone-brittle, breaking into sickly-sweet powdery shards. If you find yourself craving a sugar fix in the afternoon, simply walk down any main street of the tourist district – Royal or Chartres or Decatur for instance – and sample a fragment in every shop that sells them. By the time you’ve reached the end of the street, you’ll have consumed a good three or four pralines in total and will find yourself well and truly sated.

One thing to note, however, is that while delicious, they don’t tend to look that great, and unless you’ve encountered one freshly baked, lured in by the rich, sugary aroma, it’s unlikely you’ll be tempted to give them a go. I bring a good dozen or so individually wrapped pralines home in my suitcase, thinking they’ll make perfect little souvenirs. When I hand them over to uniformly reluctant-looking friends, I realise they resemble nothing so much as smushed manhole covers or glossy toffee-coloured cowpats and will so remain largely uneaten – a shame given how good they are.

But then everything’s good really, especially the stuff that’s the worst for you, and I don’t even come near to sampling the full spectrum of it. “Did you have a mimosa with brunch?” a friend asks when I return. I confess that I didn’t, a shocking oversight. “What about a Sazerac while you were in a jazz bar?” Once again, I have to admit that I didn’t. In fact, I realise that I had forgotten about drinks altogether, sticking to my usual flat whites in the morning and red wines at night, and entirely neglecting hurricanes and mint juleps and the infinitely classy daiquiri slushies

Clearly I have no other option but to go back then – all for the pursuit of knowledge of course. Socrates would have it no other way.

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Impressions of New Orleans

I admit that sometimes I’m a little slow. Not slow in the sense that the children in New Jersey are slow (at least according to this street sign, 20150522_105512which may have been the highlight of my final week in the US.) But slow in a temporal sense. Unrushed. Plodding. Leaden-footed. Which is why tonight I’m writing my observations of New Orleans, despite having left there some three weeks ago. I imagine little has changed over the time though…

In New Orleans, the days are thick and humid with those flat, grey deceptive skies which make you think it’s not that hot until you realise you’re lathered in sweat 5 metres from your doorstep at 9am. Nights are balmy with air laden with the fragrance of gardenias and jasmine.

The defining character of the city is a type of battered, dilapidated charm. If it were a person, it would be a nattily-dressed tubercular trumpet-player with a diamond in his tooth swearing that you’re the very finest woman he’s ever damn laid eyes on, then asking if you can lend him $5. You’d give it to him too.

In New Orleans, “Ma’am” and “baby” are equally polite forms of address. This is in marked contrast to Australia, where the only situations in which you would call a stranger “baby” would be if you were a male chauvinist pig or were soliciting on the street.

Houses are narrow and bony-shouldered; painted lavender, candy pink, baby blue, buttercup, turquoise, mint green, terracotta. Presumably there is some type of civic law against monochrome. Even the freshly painted houses have a fetching air of shabbiness, offset by gaudy touches of flamboyance and theatricality. Many of them have gargoyles or gilt lions out the front, jaws bared, claws unfurled, snarling vampishly at passers-by. 20150514_090758Each day I walk by a mansion with an elaborate stucco fountain filled with a fleet of canary-yellow rubber ducks: ducks in sunglasses, tuxedos, Hawaiian shirts – naked ducks – bobbing cocky and gay amongst the crisp green pondweed.

Nature is ornamented as well. In the pallid sunlight, skeins of bright, metallic beads glint among the treetops, flung from the floats during carnival and left hanging from the branches like adders. The state flower of Louisiana is the magnolia, and these too have a surreal, larger-than-life quality – possibly because they are about four times as large as those back home. Huge and creamy, they float like cake boxes half ajar, lodged in the branches of a tree. On sultry days, they unleash a lush, blowsy scent, conjuring up images of women in crinolines, laughing gaily with white necks bared as they sip mint juleps on the porch. And then there are the gnarled cypresses and oaks with their sheaths of 20150512_145625Spanish moss, like shawls draped around the shoulders of faded ballerinas. There’s something about them – their spectral, gothic charm – which captivates me, and again seems quintessentially New Orleans, because if ever there was a city where life and death coexist comfortably side by side, then this would be it.

Little wonder then, that in New Orleans they bury above ground. I am told this piece of information by a surprising number and variety of people, including tour guides, bartenders, people begging for money and morning dog walkers. It seems to be a point of pride with them. The official reason for this tradition is that because the earth is so soft and muddy, if you attempted to inter a coffin in it, come a few days, it would just 20150510_122305push it right back up again. (Notice how I’ve slipped inevitably into a kind of Louisiana cadence there?) I guess it makes things easier for the vampires too.

I also learn that, like the Victorians, 19th century Creoles were tremendously concerned about being buried alive, hence the common practice of tying a length of rope attached to a bell to either the toe or index finger of a corpse. If one were to find themselves the unfortunate victim of live burial, then, summoning a watchman (employed for that express purpose, somewhat disturbingly) was a relatively simple task. Interestingly, this is where the phrase “saved by the bell” originated.

Belief in voodoo, zombies and ghosts is also commonplace in New Orleans – or is at least purported to be. On a whim, I visit the Voodoo Museum, a series of narrow, poky parlours bathed in a swampy reddish light presumably meant to create a hellish, subterranean atmosphere yet overall more suggestive of a Whitechapel brothel. The rooms are occupied by alligator and skull-headed effigies, many of whom wear top hats and waistcoats, lending them a general air of dapperness, at odds with their toothy rictuses and bulging 20150512_114020eyeballs. At their feet lie sacred piles of cigarettes, stale chocolate bars, lipsticks, feathers, rhinestones– cornucopias of tack. There is a hollow tree stump where you can write a wish on a piece of paper, place it within and knock nine times. (I’m not sure what happens if you lose count – nine seems an ambitious number to me.) Out front there is a gift shop selling voodoo dolls, love potions, gris-gris and kitchenware featuring famous voodoo queens. I don’t buy anything, because I have enough coasters already and there’s no-one I really want to curse at that particular point in time. Predictably, I think of a good three or four people as soon as I get home.

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She stoops to conquer: Finding my feet in New Orleans

For the last week I have been in New Orleans. I am trying very hard to say “New OR-leans” rather than “New Or- LEANS”, which comes more instinctively to me. I haven’t even bothered with “N’awlins” or “Nola”, because this would just sound naff and stupid.

20150510_113039As in New York, I feel I’ve done a lot and am still trying to pull it all into a coherent picture. I’ve visited the French Quarter, the Garden District, Lafaytette Cemetery, Aubadon Park, City Park, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Treme, the NOMA sculpture garden, Oak Alley Planation, the Voodoo Museum and the Bayou, where I held a tiny ‘gator. (I’ve adopted this last contraction for the sake of concision as much as local colour. “Alligator” is such a mouthful and he was an appealing little critter, like a mini velociraptor: five years old, so quite mature really, but still only the length of a ruler; light and agile with damp, pliant, elastic skin and claws like pine-nuts.) I have ridden a street car, sat by the Mississippi, watched a steamboat pull out, drunk wine on wrought-iron terraces, attended a southern cookery class and eaten po-boys, remoulade, gumbo, jambalaya, beignets, pralines and biscuits (oh, so many biscuits). I have heard a lot of jazz.

20150514_104144-1-1Somewhat predictably, my favourite place is the French Quarter, which is exactly what I hoped New Orleans would be: a honeycombed maze of gleaming shopfronts, restaurants with balconies overlooking the streets, gas lamps which flicker even during the day and hanging baskets of geraniums and petunias. It’s unashamedly touristy but all the better for it. Antiques shops, chocolate shops, jewellery shops, tacky gift shops, perfumiers and visitors’ centres nestle comfortably side by side. The streets all have that close, cosy, alley-like feel to them, and while they’re not actually cobbled, they manage to give the impression of being so. Patient horses clip-clop by, pulling covered wagons of tourists. Their manes (the horses’, that is) are threaded with plastic flowers, their heads bowed, their elongated faces sweet and stoic. It’s like walking through a historical film set, everything bathed in a golden glow and almost heart-wrenchingly quaint and rusticated.

It’s fun to watch the people too. Buxom women trip by in poodle skirts, cat-eye sunglasses and red lipstick. Buskers and beggars are everywhere. People carry plastic tumblers of beer 20150509_154324in the streets – conservative-looking couples from Kansas as well as crowds of stumbling frat boys – and think nothing of raising their glass to any passing policeman in a cheery “good evening” or “good morning officer” . It’s like one big never-ending music festival. Once it hits 4pm, on every street corner you see a long-haired tour guide in jeans and a black top hat regaling his gawping audience with lurid tales of murder, spectres, zombies and bad gris-gris: if you’re leading a ghost tour, looking like you’re off to a Marilyn Manson concert is apparently mandatory. The smell of caramel, garbage, greasy beignets, urine and the faint, muddy tang of the river hangs over everything.

I have chosen the place where I’m staying because it looked pleasantly ramshackle and bohemian in the photos and was advertised as being in the French Quarter. “It ain’t fancy”, the first line of the ad said, but I was prepared to take my chances.

20150513_210904The street is pretty and picturesque in a shabby, paint-peeling, down-at-heel kind of way, but it’s clear even to me that it’s on the wrong side of the tracks. There’re an awful lot of abandoned tyres lying around, for one thing, and vacant lots are common. Street signs typically hang askew and are covered with graffiti. There are lots of cars cruising about with loud, thumping music. And there are lots of people hanging out on stoops.

Please note that in normal circumstances I have no objection to hanging out on stoops: in fact, one of the chief pleasures of my daily routine at home is enjoying a cup of coffee on the back doorstep in the morning sun with the cat winding companionably around my ankles and occasionally sinking her teeth into my shins. But while I am a fervent advocate of the manifold delights of steps and stoops, the stoop you are sitting on should be your own.

20150513_210938This sentiment is shared by the woman who owns the house that I’m staying in. I’ve never met her, but she leaves detailed instructions to help me settle in. Wine is a prominent theme in these instructions. She explicitly mentions that the food and cosmetics in the house should not be touched, however, guests should feel free to help themselves to booze. Several half empty bottles of wine are left in the fridge for this apparent purpose, which I feel is an extremely friendly and hospitable gesture and quite makes up for the fact that there is no extra toilet paper or bathmat, and the only towel provided looks like it’s been half-consumed by moths. I also like how she describes the kitchen as being “terrific for hanging out and drinking wine in”. If we ever meet, I’m sure we’d get on famously.

Returning to stoops, however, the other theme that comes through in the instructions is the importance of not allowing the neighbours to congregate on the stoop. This is reiterated some three or four times and usually in alarming-looking capital letters. My favourite paragraph (disturbingly included under the heading “Staying Safe”) goes like this: “If you ever see anybody hanging out on the front stoop, please tell them “you can’t sit here”. I once tried to be nice about it and it escalated into SOMETHING I DIDN’T WANT. So, be territorial about the house and parking spots please.” I find this both tantalising and mildly discomfiting.

I come to appreciate the importance of the stoop issue at around 5pm on the first day. I am drinking wine in the kitchen, as per my host’s instructions, when an almighty clamour starts up outside. For a while I try to ignore it, not being sure what is acceptable round there, but it soon reaches a level so extreme – almost as if the walls are being pelted endlessly with rocks – that I have to clamp my hands over my ears and consider taking cover in the wardrobe.

I tentatively open the door to see what all the commotion is – or rather, try to open it, but am unable to because three large black men are wedged against it. Another three people sit on the step below them, and a good half-dozen or so more sprawl on the footpath or lean against the house, all hollering, jeering, smoking, eating and creating a general racket. This isn’t just a congregation on the stoop – it’s an entire Billy Graham crusade.

I admit I feel vulnerable and intimidated. For a start, there is no back door so I am 20150513_091024physically barricaded in the house. I don’t know the town at all and have no idea what to do if I get into any trouble. I am also acutely aware of being a woman alone in a tiny house and of this being patently obvious to anyone outside.

I remember my host’s instructions: be firm, stand your ground, stake your territory. I am not someone who thrives on confrontation and my usual instinct would be to just retreat, try to ignore it and hope it stops. I wonder if there is some other approach I can take. Some local councils in Sydney have instituted the practice of playing uncool music in public spaces at night to deter groups of teenagers from loitering – piping Bing Crosby show tunes or “What a Wonderful World” into train station toilets, for instance. Possibly this would be a less confrontational method. Or possibly it would just get me stabbed (some would say justifiably).

But I’m no coward (I hope). And if I don’t summon up the backbone to say something now, I might have to put up with another six days of this cacophony – and I’m not sure I can take that.

Bracing myself, I push against the door with my full weight, take a deep breath and draw on the full measure of my power and stature as a children’s librarian: “Guys, I’m sorry, but you can’t sit there, OK?”, I say in a loud, clear voice. The use of the word “guys” is a calculated risk: I am a little concerned that it might sound patronisingly “ole’ buddy-ish”, or that the women in the group might see it as a slight against their femininity, but decide to stick with it on the grounds that it creates an atmosphere of friendliness and amelioration without making me come across as a pushover. Possibly I am overthinking my choice of vocabulary. I try to sound assertive rather than apologetic or pleading. I also try not to talk like an English nanny or an amateur thespian as I sense this might be enraging. “You can’t sit there,” I say again firmly.

The noise abruptly stops. A woman on the lower steps gets up and heaves herself around to look at me. She is about three times my weight. She isn’t smiling. “Oh, Ah’m sorry – you don’t want us all to sit here?” she says, her tone brash and challenging rather than apologetic, making me suspect that some uncomplimentary remark about my mama is forthcoming.

“It’s really noisy,” I say, hoping this is a reasonable justification to give. Maybe there is some other reason that would have worked better: an ancient territorial claim to the stoop for instance, or an invocation of some sort of civic bylaw about gatherings without a permit – but I stick with the querulous-sounding, “It’s really noisy”. And with that, they all get up and shuffle off, presumably to another stoop somewhere.

I go to bed oddly elated that night, but spend most of the night wide-awake and tense, expecting some type of retaliation: screamed threats, kids rattling the windows or really insulting handwritten poems pushed under the door. Nothing happens though and I eventually go to sleep.

Variations of this encounter are repeated several times more over the next few days. I come to think of it as the ritual “clearing of the stoop”. It is still intimidating, but becomes less so over time, and eventually it tapers off then stops altogether.

20150514_090423In the meantime, I nod and say “hey” to everyone I walk by on the street, and they nod back in return. The children call me “ma’am”, and on Sunday, all wish me a happy Mother’s Day. At the corner, a young man in a singlet sits slumped on a battered, rust-coloured couch pushed up against a rubble-filled dumpster. He is always there, whatever time of the day or night I pass. Each time, he wishes me a “good day”, his manner exquisitely polite, almost courtly.

I come to notice corn growing in the vacant lots and the screeching of roosters and chickens in the morning. I notice gaudy metallic beads strung defiantly on chainwire fences and the fragile beauty of fairy lights entwined in security grilles. I notice cracked mirrors arranged into mosaics on the footpath; a humble raising of the chin against greyness and ugliness. I could relate this to a broader theme about the character of the people here, their bravery and resilience and spirit in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but I’m not sure I know enough about it and suspect I would just be drawing a neat narrative arc for the sake of it. I notice that sometimes the tyres in the streets are painted like rainbows.


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Postscript to “On the benefits of being incapable of following a map”

A follow-on from my previous post:

So I didn’t meet the love of my life in the taxi rank, share a cab with a famous jazz musician or get showered with money upon leaving the airport. This was disappointing, as over the last few weeks I’d been making a conscious effort to moderate my expectations to better fit with reality and had genuinely thought I’d nailed it this time – but apparently not.

The cab driver I ended up with was a woman of around 50 with an affable moon-face, the sort of generous lap you could comfortably berth three toddlers in and a tendency to chuckle merrily despite the fact that nothing amusing (and in most cases, nothing at all) had been said. Obviously she had a rich interior life. The dashboard of her cab was decorated with Hawaiian leis, American flags and plastic turkeys with hinged necks that bobbled drunkenly as she drove. She seemed to have patriotic tendencies.

She asked me where I was from. I said Sydney and explained that this was my first time in New Orleans and that I’d always wanted to visit. “You’ll have a good time; there’s lots to do,” she said with sudden glumness, not elaborating in any way.

I asked if she was a local. She told me proudly that she was New Orleans born and bred and knew the city like the back of her hand. I gave her the address of a café, “The Ruby Slipper”, that I’d decided to relocate to as it was about five blocks from my accommodation. More importantly, however, the name seemed to serendipitously allude to The Wizard of Oz which I’d recently been discussing with a friend. (Yes, this is the sort of calculated and logical decision-making process I use.) I added that it was apparently somewhere in the French Quarter.

“Wheeer-yah?” she repeated incredulously, her jaw hinging open in astonishment. It seemed she had never, ever heard of the French Quarter before in her entire life.

I was unable to give more precise directions, not having been born and bred in the city, but said that I believed it was quite famous. Imagine getting into a taxi in Sydney, asking the driver to take you to the Opera House and being met with a blank and bewildered stare: this would be the equivalent experience.

She made me put the address into her GPS then spent a good 13 minutes studying the map, perplexed, crinkle-browed and breaking into occasional chuckles for no explicable reason. It was not reassuring.

After a number of false starts (five), we finally got to the general vicinity of where I wanted to be, but unfortunately she seemed constitutionally incapable of finding the exact street. While I’m certainly no master navigator, as my previous post will attest, her level of disorientation was something else altogether – you almost had to tip your hat at it. Not only did she get her lefts and rights and norths and souths confused, but on several occasions, she attempted to drive directly up into the air. The trip culminated with her insistently circling the same block (some ten or twelve times, please note), shaking her head in bafflement, chuckling and periodically exclaiming, “Oh lawdy!” (I know not why).

“There – that’s the street! You want to turn down that street!” I would cry out in an increasingly desperate tone each time she stolidly drove by the street I wanted,  but to no discernible effect. It was apparently all too strange and overwhelming for her. She was like a pilgrim just arrived in the new world. I found myself wanting to scalp her.

Finally I got fed up. We were near a café which looked nice and quiet and had the advantage of not being in a cab with a steadily-increasing meter. (I was starting to suspect my seemingly disingenuous driver was in fact a brilliant strategist and profiteer.)


Who Dat Cafe

“You know what, this is fine. I’m sure this is close – I’ll get out here,” I said, and did so, thrusting a handful of bills at her and subsequently giving her a tip directly inverse to her competence. (I didn’t worry too much about this though: I actually felt quite sorry for her, having decided she was blind, as this was the only possible explanation that made any sense.)

I immediately secured a table with an umbrella on the footpath where my suitcase could comfortably beach itself without obstructing passing foot traffic or major trade routes. The wait-staff were tattooed and straggly-haired in that familiar Newtown-y way, and the food was really good. I had shrimp remoulade and biscuits (the American kind) then a small cup of coffee roughly the volume of an oil tanker, and I wrote in my journal and eavesdropped on the conversations of the people around me, and all in all, spent an extremely pleasurable 2 hours. In fact, I resolved to come back another day to sample the fresh apple fritters and peanut butter and chocolate brownies. (The cafe was the Who Dat Coffee Cafe on Burgundy St, just in case you’re interested. Given my fondness for red wine, the street name is of course again tremendously significant.)

It eventually got late enough for me to me to set off for my accommodation, so I fixed up my cheque (note the fluent use of America idiom here) then heaved my unwieldy suitcase into the street, feeling like one of those Dorothea Lange portraits of refugees during the Great Depression, forced to leave their farm in Kansas and dragging all their worldly possessions behind them in a handcart. The walk was slightly longer than I’d anticipated – a good 50 minutes or so – and where the pavements weren’t buckled and broken, there were road works and elaborate detours and copious amounts of gravel. But on the way I passed “The Ruby Slipper”, the café I’d intended to go to – and you know what? – it was awful; some type of chain restaurant, touristy and crowded and loud and clanging with no room at all to store a suitcase roughly the dimensions of a small blue whale.
So it all turned out for the best then, just as I knew it would: not only did I have a great Louisiana breakfast, but I got a good story.


‘Smile’: graffiti on Touro Street

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