Monday, September 15, 2014


 The original version of this piece first appeared in the Albany Advertiser 21/8/2014

This column was going to concentrate on Paris but after three days in rural France I decided there was much to be learnt from those who lived without ready access to the Champs-Elysée.

Le Langon is a small village in the Vendee, home to 1000 people and three high schools. How could that be? Well, the locals have taken advantage of their central position in the region and have made themselves an educational Mecca.

What's more, the people of this commune get together and put on a range of festivals for their fellow citizens and we were lucky enough to be in town for the Gresant, an annual school fete. This included a two hour performance by the entire school of 42 students, a guess the goose's weight, darts competition and a display of old maps found in a storage room.

As you would expect at a similar Australian event in a town this size, the outdoor bar was surrounded by men, with occasional visits from brave and thirsty women. Two men nearby were engaged full time on feeding the fire below two pigs on a spit.

It should be noted that a French commune is not some socialist leftover but simply the French version of local government.

Near Le Langon is a 6000 hectare forest reserve, dotted with small timber huts for picnickers. The park is deemed public property and residents are entitled to camp in it, ride bikes and horses through it and even build cubby houses in it.

This remarkable arrangement occurs because people of the region take responsibility for their privileges and when I asked our host what would happen if someone broke the rules, he said: "Someone would probably speak quite firmly to them and in a severe case the gendarmerie would step in."

The other sweet thing about this rural community was that every year it allows a travelling circus, owned and operated by a family of Romany Gypsies, to camp on public ground for eight weeks and replenish, refurbish and regenerate. At no cost. Albany, did you read that, no cost? (Albany recently lost a circus too soon because it put the oval rates up.)

While the circus is in town, of course, money flows - they have to buy food, water, services, and the children are sent to school for a fee.

When they arrive, their main marquee goes up and becomes a land mark and they add colour and life to the small community.

But what about Paris?

It too has held on to it's old stuff and it would seem that most of it is being renovated. To be fair, it seems most of Europe is being renovated.

Like all previous cities visited, it too had the open top double-decker buses with the multi-language descriptions. These buses are an ideal way to view an historic city. You buy tickets to last for two days and you have the ability to alight at your favoured site and climb back on when the bus returns.

In Paris every road and street sign seems to hold a memory, a story, an historical event or incident. It was like walking through the pages of a history book. Do we do this already in our towns? Not enough, as we tend to name streets and roads after people, members of parliament, mayors, local councillors, not events.

If the ANZAC legend is so important to Albany what about a suburb called Gallipoli with all streets named after the ships that took the troops to Egypt.

Once again the French do food and service well, although expensive, but I must admit, on average, the short blacks were better in Albany.

People have often mentioned French arrogance but I found restaurant staff, for the most part, friendly and very willing to speak a language not theirs.

Because I arrived in Paris via Barcelona and Rome I sometimes ordered coffee in Italian and sometimes Spanish. I was always greeted with the correct response in whatever language I offered. It might be a bit much to ask waiting staff to be multi lingual, but it might help if they learnt a few offerings in the languages of our most numerous visitors.

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Paris streets were mainly filthy and dogs did their thing and no-one picked up.

See what I mean about the street names?

 Outside of La Langon there was a farmer who really knew his onions.

 Highlight of La Langon? Meeting the namesake. Could not meet a nicer Jon Doust.

Monday, September 08, 2014


Much of this first piece originally appeared in the Albany Advertiser7/8/2014

As the plane flew in low over Rome the Coliseum showed itself on the right, out the window between the Russian couple, or were they Polish, hard to tell with a screaming jet engine in your ears.

The landing was not comfortable and when the plane found a place to rest the passengers broke into loud applause. Things got worse.

Inside the terminal, we stood around for over forty five minutes while the baggage collectors scraped our luggage of the walls of the hold. The passengers applauded again as the first item showed itself, a pram, which was never claimed and continued to circulate as cases accumulated around it.

Bags collected, we found the terminal entrance blocked with our fellow travellers, no longer applauding, now laughing at the rain pouring down on a steaming road.

Taxi drivers everywhere, not a brolly in sight, until we got into the city and then the world was full of brollies, ponchos, hats, scarves, all hanging on the arms of economic refugees from the Indian sub-continent.

What is also clear from an ancient and still alive city like Rome is that selling makes everything tick and if you don't know how to sell then learn how to park cars. The streets are full of folk doing both, mostly from Bangladesh.

In conversation with one articulate Bangladeshi we learnt that there were two types: “There’s me, I’m here with a job and permanent residency. Then there’s the others, those you see selling trinkets and sleeping in the parks, they are here illegally, mainly because their original visa has expired but they don’t want to go home.”

And what did Rome inform us that might help Albany?

First and foremost, you can have too many sellers on a street, but, most importantly, hang onto your old hat and any other old stuff, because it's the old stuff that makes you unique. You may not have noticed but most of the new stuff looks the same wherever you go.

Here in the Great Southern we can go back at least 20,000 before Rome and although that history is not full of conquest, plunder and pillage, it does have it's profound and gentle meanings that could benefit a world now in another period of turmoil and madness.

The older the artifacts the better and there are not many creative mobs older than the Menang Noongars who built the fish traps on the northern side of Oyster Harbour.

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I woke early and walked the 1k to the impressive circular centre. It rose up before me and almost immediately water began oozing into my vision and then the rest of me followed with small jerks of emotion. This surprised me but then I remembered that the Colosseo (Italian) was built on the bodies of dead Jews.

When Vespasian and Titus had finished destroying Jerusalem, the Jewish temple and what was left of Judea (70AD), they decided to spend all their treasures on a brand new entertainment complex.

The rain I mentioned earlier continued for four days, with the sky chucking down an ocean of water, washing away any accumulated heat and piles of tourist debris. One major benefit was that the rain lightened many a mood, and many, both local and tourist, engaged in casual conversations while huddled in doorways with complete strangers.

Only one sour note: one prissy goose in a museum doorway told me to move away from her because my poncho was wet. Doh!

Things I noticed about Rome: thousands of Eritreans; the Termini (train station) was packed with scammers, pickpockets and bag snatchers; thousands of Bangladeshi, some were aggressive and intrusive, but most were good humoured and fun; the busking gladiators around the Colosseo didn’t look like they could fight their way out of a plastic bag full of holes; Rome is filthy.

It should be a condition, we decided, of having a stall, or a busking position at a major venue, that you clean up your immediate surrounds.

Finally, Rome reminded us clearly of the massive refugee problem the world is facing. The streets were full of Eritreans, other Africans and Bangladeshi, and The International New York times informed us that over 50,000 Africans have arrived in Italy up to the end of July, more than the entire previous year, 2013.

This chap turned out to be an Israeli, busking at the site build by two emperors who
annihilated his people, scattered the rest and forced them to wander the earth for 2000 years - they found their way back, and he found his way here.

Well, they didn't quite finish the Jews in 70AD, because Hadrian had to come back and finish the job, in 130AD, when Judea rose again. This is Hadrian's Tomb but even he wasn't left in peace and it was claimed by Christians and now it's a museum. Every day thousands of curious and ignorant tourists clamber over his remains.