Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Yes We Canberra

 I hadn't planned to blog at all this trip, given that it was chiefly business, and I thought I covered everything last year. Fortunately, I snuck in enough adventures to justify a post.
 Working a full day Friday meant that I'd spend a long summer Shabbat in Canberra, back with the community that welcomed me so warmly on my last trip. This time was kicked up a notch - a strong minyan Friday night with a brisk davening followed up with a rollicking meal at the Rabbi's home. It reminded me so much of a meal we would have had at Kesher twenty years ago... a full table of mid-20s government employees, at various levels of observance, all thrilled to be sharing a delicious meal (Indian, and with home-brewed beer, no less) with vibrant conversation on topics ranging from Australian politics to American primary results to Jewish thought to preferred vacation spots. Topped off with some time doing puzzles with the Rabbi's 3 year old daughter, it felt very much like home.
 Shabbat morning was packed. Whereas last time we had to wait for a minyan, this time we had one by Borchu, and when the Tot Shabbat arrived from the next room, the number of people in attendance doubled again. By kiddush, there were probably 80 people of all ages. At lunch, I was the youngest attendee instead of the oldest, but had no less fun, as this tight knit group of community stalwarts immediately welcomed me and another foreign guest into their circle of friendly jibes and loving insults - just my kind of crowd. I didn't expect the fondness for economic policy and Coen brothers films which kept the conversation rolling long after we had eaten our fill.

Pictures taken before Shabbat :)

 Rather than just head back to the hotel and squander an out-of-season summer Shabbat, I went with my regular habit - walking. I walked to the Parliament House, where I knew there was a free afternoon tour. En route, I could already hear the raised voices of a protest on the lawn outside the building. A phalanx of day-glo clad police stood at attention in front of a few hundred protesters, many of whom were wearing the Australian flag as a cape, some of whom wear wearing it as a hat, and at least one woman who was wearing it as a bikini. There were more flags than people, which was not particularly troubling until I realized that in some instances the Union Jack in the top left corner had been replaced with a Crusader's cross... not a hopeful sign. Fears were confirmed when I heard the rhetoric. It turns out that this was the first (!) of a worldwide series of anti-Muslim rallies scheduled for that day. The speaker I heard gave a profanity laced diatribe against Islam,  calling on his Christian brothers to preserve Australia by converting all of the Moslems in the country. (He apologized to the atheists in the crowd saying "they won't go for that".) I won't replay the naked racism displayed as the crowd loudly endorsed his deplorable strategies for ridding the country of Islam. It was dismaying.
 I escaped inside for the tour. The docent emphasized how the architecture was designed to demonstrate transparency and equality. All of the chambers were equipped with video cameras for broadcast when they were built in 1988. There are soundproof viewing galleries for visiting school groups in both houses. The press facilities are vast. The prime minister's office on the first floor is arrayed so that were all the doors to be opened at once, he would stare directly into the front of the Australian War Memorial. It was so essential that the parliamentarians not feel elevated above the people they serve that they literally cut the top off of Capitol Hill and buried the Parliament House inside. A copy of the Magna Carta is on display in the lobby. The Great Hall is regularly rented out for weddings, Senior Proms and an annual ping ping tournament. The juxtaposition with the ruffians outside was stark.
 Parliament was also an amusing amalgam of British and American traditions. The Senate, House of Representatives, Speaker of the House, composition, terms of service and legislative structure all ape the US. Their pomp is all British - the coloration of the chambers, the vestigial governor general, question time, the prominent portrait of the Queen, and most of all, the enormous gaudy golden mace indicating the party in power which rests on the center table during debating sessions. The marble patterns and modern art dated the construction firmly and accurately in the late 80s. More striking than the color of the decor was the content. Underneath the outstretched cyborg arms holding the enormous national flag aloft, in the main chamber, there are four displays of historic documents presented. One shows the Queen's approval of Australia's constitution. The other three are apologies. I'm not making this up. There is, at least, an official governmental apology for treatment of the aborigines, another for the use of land and another for forced adoptions. I cannot think of a similar phenomenon in the western world.
 After Parliament, I walked down to the National Portrait Gallery. I only got in a few minutes of browsing before a guard came to usher me out for closing time. As we reached the exit, he asked me "You are a Jew?" (Apparently, kippot in Canberra are quite rare.) I confirmed, and he said, "I am a Muslim", grinned broadly and extended his hand, which I shook and replied "Very nice to meet you." As I walked out, he shouted after me "You should come back tomorrow!"

 I walked by the High Court, and through the Peace Path, an outdoor version of the Hall of Nations at the Kennedy Center. Realizing that it was now after 5 and Canberra was closed up tight, I strolled down to Lake Burley Griffin, the man made pond at the architectural center of this underpopulated capital. The handful of bikers and joggers going by weren't enough to inhibit me from lying down and taking a nap lakeside.
 With the help of the local church bells, I was able to make it back in time to shul for a rare Canberra treat - Shabbat mincha! That was followed by a lovely seudah shlishit back at the Rabbi's house and finally Havdalah. There was even minyan Sunday morning - the Rabbi was deservedly kvelling.
 Hope to see you in six months...

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Almost home

I don't usually have need for an air sickness bag, but seeing a grown man watching back to back episodes of Keeping up with the Kardashians was almost enough.

Unfortunate name

The name of tonight's hotel concierge, no joke, Candy Yam.

Also, I returned to the hotel at 5:45 and asked what stores might be available for some light shopping. She said they've all closed for the night. Sigh.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Syd Vicious

I only had one day to escape lovely, lame Canberra to Sydney, so I jumped in feet first. I hopped a 5 AM bus heading Northeast, and arrived in Sydney by morning. By foot over about 3 miles, and with some assistance from the fantastic I'm Free Walking Tour (http://www.imfree.com.au/), I was able to take in Hyde Park, QVB, Customs House, Rum Hospital, Barracks, St. Mary's, Australia Museum, War Memorial, George Street, the Rocks, Sydney Tower, Martin Place, Pitt Street, and of course Circular Quay, Harbor Bridge and Opera House.
That was in the morning.
Then I celebrated the presence of Uber with a lift over to Bondi for a delicious lunch at a lovely kosher bakery and outdoor cafe with a prime people-watching on Hall Street.
I spent my afternoon walking down 4 miles of eye-popping beaches, filled with surfers, volleyball players, bathers (sun and surf) and families despite the relatively cool winter season.
Back to Bondi for dinner - I did not restrain my gluttony since this is the only locale I'll be in all trip with kosher restaurants - and then back to the bus for a late night return to Canberra.
This makes a total of almost 35 miles I've walked over the course of the last few days. I'm done. Really done. Returning from work tomorrow directly to bed.

I {3 OU

Never thought I'd say it, but boy do I miss hashgachot. Shopping off a list - even an electronic list - is horrendous.
Forget the amount of extra time it takes. Ignore the stares of the people waiting behind you in the skinny aisles while you balance your phone in one hand and your mostly empty shopping cart in the other. And pay no attention to the brain freeze that sets in when you're trying to calculate currency conversion while simultaneously guessing which brand has the most kosher sounding name (which, for the record, is not a meaningful indicator).
Shopping off the list saps your will to eat.
When you decide "I want crackers", and you search one brand of crackers, then a second brand of crackers, then a third brand of crackers, coming up empty each time, you then think "Do I really want crackers? I don't really need crackers. Forget crackers." and move on to the next food item.
After you do this for 15 food items, and the only thing in your cart is bananas that are five times as expensive as they are at home because the minimum wage here is AUS$16.87/hour, you curse loudly, throw a bottle of water, a tin of chewing tobacco and a home decor magazine into your basket and storm out of there muttering "I'll eat AIR! OVERPRICED BANANAS and AIR!" under your breath.
God bless hashgachot in all of their greed, hypocrisy and illogic. I wouldn't want it any other way.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Trauma-less-ness in art

I was in no rush to return home from lunch on Saturday since Shabbat ended early (5:29 pm) and my electronic key prevented me from getting back into my room anyway without staff assistance. So, as I am wont to do, I meandered.
I passed the Australian National Archives, which a huge yellow sign out front proclaiming "Come in. We're open. It's free." I thought "you had me at free" and trotted on in. The lady at the front desk immediately asked me "are you here for the talk?" To which I responded, "I could be, what's the talk about." She: "It's about Trauma and Art and it starts in five minutes." Me: "Sold." She: "It's in the Menses Room down the hall to the left." Me: (silently) "That's gross." (aloud) "Thank you!"
Outside the horrifyingly named but otherwise nondescript Menses Room, a woman stood with a clipboard. She: "Are you here for the talk?" Me: "Why yes I am." She: "Well it's about to start. Did you register in advance?" Me: "I did no such thing. Is that a problem?" She: "We'll find a space for you. Give me your name and head inside." I then proceeded into a room empty of anyone except me, the speaker, and a photographer. Larf.
The talk didn't start for another 20 minutes, and another two dozen people showed up, but the Friday allowed me to read the catalog on their current special exhibition Without Consent an exhibit following the national apology for a series of forced and manipulated adoptions occurring over decades to prevent the shame of single, out-of-wedlock motherhood. (The comparative shame of government sanctioned, church executed cold hearted child abductions was apparently not weighed until years later.) It was a fascinating discussion of a scandalous open secret which went on for decades and whet my appetite for the presentation.
For while the talk was sponsored by the exhibition, instead of being an exploration of the pain and suffering those actions certainly caused, it was a snot nosed punk artiste who by his own admission "had a privileged life and never experienced any sort of trouble whatsoever" using his art to protest the fear instilled by the police state in Australia has become in the age of terrorism and memorializing the "pointless" deaths of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.
For the record, the only things to fear in Australia are crocodiles and ennui. The government is as benign as a butterfly. Their enduring shame is their treatment of the aborigines, and believe you me, if Native Americans were treated half as well as First Peoples are here, there would be a casino on every street corner, and we'd all live in places called Monnockkesey and Conshahocken. In order for this to be a police state, first they'd need to get some police. All deaths in war are tragic, but the loss of soldiers' lives do not condemn a war anymore than justify it. This kid had no right to invoke their deaths to make political point against policy he disagreed with, if he could even form that argument.

The Tasman Sea defeats me

After a lovely few miles walking from Bondi beach through Clovelly, Tamarama, and Bronte, I decided that I would end off at Coogee by dipping my toes into the Tasman Sea. Recognizing that I had no change of clothes and a three and a half hour bus ride back to Canberra waiting for me at the other end, I determined I would sacrifice what meager fashion sense I maintain and try to keep dry. I deposited my socks and shoes in my backpack, rolled my pants up to my ankles and bravely (if dorkily) approached the surf. At high tide, the waves are a bit unpredictable, but I played it safe, walking only along the edge of the damp sand, figuring that was the furthest the water had reached. Seeing a few kids frolicking in the foam emboldened me, and I took about three steps towards the crystal blue expanse. Mere seconds after doing so, the largest wave I had seen yet that day came crashing in, soaking me in sand and sea from head to toe.

Tasman Sea 1, Sloan 0.

A civilized end to a magnificent day

This is the way to wait for a bus...

Save your time...

I don't know why I bother blogging the trip... This video already says it all.


Mind you, it's the dead of winter here