Sunday, September 27, 2009

A public transport dream

I read an interesting article in the SMH the other day about public transport. Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London, was in Sydney to give a public address on how to fix our public transport system. What interested me was not so much the congestion charge that he was famous for introducing in London, but the fact that he managed to change public perception from the "Thatcherian" view that anyone who catches the bus beyond the age of 26 is a failure, to one where so-called "failures" with Oxbridge accents were regularly found on buses and the tube.

In Australia, there is a real car culture that needs to be changed. People not only commute to work by car, but use their cars to drive to the gym and even to take their bicycles to the park. We take pride in the size, make and newness of our cars. Certainly we can learn from the examples of other, less petrol-guzzling countries.

In addition to London, there are many European cities that are shining examples of public transport success. In Geneva, high profile diplomats and dignatories are frequently found on the trams, bicycles and trains. In Amsterdam everybody gets around by bicycle and in Belgium's city of Hasselt use of public transport has increased expinentially since it became free in 1996.

So, while I am constantly reminded that I can't change other people, I would like to challenge norms in Sydney such as commuting by car to work, and the notion of car as status symbol. You see, I have a dream. I'd love to live in a city where a person is judged not by the make of their car, but by the strength of their commitment to public transport.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Getting totally sustainable, man

This weekend was pretty inspiring for me. Sunday was sustainable house day all around Australia. A whole bunch of houses that had either been retrofitted with sustainable design or designed from scratch were open to the public. We managed to slot in to our busy schedule two inner west houses and it was pretty awesome to see what they had achieved. One had built an entirely new living structure out of recycled timbers factoring in north facing windows with deciduous trees to provide shade in summer and allow direct sun in winter. The other had actually added windows to a north facing wall that had no windows previously to increase light and warmth. It's quite surprising that passive solar design has only recently become a focus in a land of so much sun.

This outing confirmed for me just how important it is to choose or design a dwelling with warm, sun-lit living areas. Of course, if you're renting as we are, then there's a limited amount of changes you can make to your abode. But, don't give up, as I'm learning that there is still an aweful lot you can do. For example, we hardly need the lights on because of the natural light coming in to our apartment. We also manage to "bucket" that first 30 seconds of cold water before the shower heats up, and that's enough to feed our small balcony garden, which incidently does provide us with a few vegies and herbs. We do wonder whether our climbing peas and beans will one day meet with the disapproval of the body corporate, but it's our small rebellion against the "not items hanging on the balcony" rule.

Talking of our own vegies, on Saturday morning Pete and I went to a free No Dig Gardening workshop and learnt all about the correct way to prepare a vegie garden bed, and about getting the right balance of carbon and nitrogen in the soil. At the end of the workshop everyone got to take home a new little garden with its own seedlings. We are now the proud owners of a bucket containing silverbeet and asian greens. We got so inspired that we retrofitted an existing pot with a new summer crop based upon no dig principles. The purple flower, which my mum gave me for colour, isn't coping with the wind in this photo, or perhaps it is just dancing with joy!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A winter growth spurt

Adolescence can be a painful time. While everyone else's voices go down an octive practically overnight, the late developers are still singing boy soprano. Well, that's what it's been like for my broccoli.

I was visiting a friend's house the other day when reality hit. There it was in her garden - an early flowering broccoli plant - sitting there mocking me. "Oh, that" my friend said casually, "it's been like that for weeks". It's not fair. For 4 months I had been patiently watching and watering my plants with no results.

I am sure that for the parent of any slow-developing teenager, there is the temptation to imagine the worst. I began to despair that they would ever reach maturity. I wondered whether I had deprived them of sun, or whether my natural worm wee fertiliser was not enough. What had we done to deserve this?

Then, one day when I had almost given up all hope, my broccoli plants began to flower - all of their own accord. Of course, they still have a bit more growing to do, but I'm pleased to say that my gardening confidence has had it's own little growth spurt too. After all, there's nothing wrong with being a late bloomer, is there?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Our big fat gay wedding

Marriage is a wonderful thing - if you happen to be straight, that is. If not, well, you're simply "not allowed". I don't understand why straight people hold the monopoly on marriage, given that 1 in 3 of our nuptials end in divorce. So I was pleased to hear that Sydney's gay community is gearing up for a mass illegal gay wedding on 1st August to protest these laws.

Making a stand against injustice is what people of conviction have been doing for centuries, and what gives me hope is that, slowly but surely, they have been successful in changing public opinion and government policy. In the 1700s slavery was taken for granted, but following the persistent advocacy of John Woolman and others, a bill was pass in England in 1807 abolishing the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

In the 1800s women advocated for the vote, and in 1902 most of them in Australia got it. Aboriginal women (and Aboriginal men) waited a further 65 years until they were recognised as citizens in Australia. Now we all accept that women have a right to vote, and are ashamed that Aboriginal people were so recently categorised as "flora and fauna".

Yet, here we are in 2009, and gay couples are not treated as equals. Haven't we learnt that freeing slaves didn't collapse the economy, giving women the vote didn't send democracy into mayhem and giving gay people the right to marry won't make a mockery of the sanctity of marriage? I hope that August's big fat gay wedding leads to a change of opinion and policy that lasts longer than the average straight marriage. ;)

Photo is with kind permission from Lydia Marcus

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The new veg restaurant on the block

I love it when a new vegetarian restaurant is born. And it's even more exciting when that new dining venue is a hop, skip and a jump from my home. So, one Wednesday at lunchtime I skipped over to Loving Eden in Glebe, and gave it a try.

I have to admit that it is a dining experience not dis-similar to being at your grandma's place, as recipes do not follow any rule book or even the menu for that matter, the ingredients are practically picked from the garden, and if you don't know what to order, the chef comes out and makes up your mind for you.

Having first sat down at one of the non-descript front of shop tables, we soon discovered the large outdoor dining area and relocated. Outside it's easier to see why they named the place "Loving Eden". It's quite spacious, there are a number of plants and Buddhas around the perimeter, and soon a vine will cover the pergola. The outdoor chairs and tables are a bit "cafeteria-like", but the atmosphere of the place will probably pick up over time. The waiter, who is also one of the owners, told us that they have plans to introduce live music of a calm, spiritual nature.

While the prices are particularly affordable (entrees are $5, main dishes are $9) they haven't compromised on quality. I'm told that the tofu is made fresh daily. We were given a quick explanation of which types of noodles are in which soups and how the flavours differ, which was helpful as titles such as "Wonder noodle soup" had not left us any wiser. Typically, the noodle soups are not filled with loads of vegetables, as the flavours and noodles themselves are supposed to be the main ingredients.

We began with the crispy rolls as an entree, which were delicious and quite unusual. The rolls were filled with mushroom, eggplant and tofu, wrapped in rice paper, and fried in breadcrumbs. They are served with a small side salad and sweet chili sauce for dipping.

For mains I decided to order the Wonder Noodle Soup, which was a non-spicy dish, and it arrived with a side of ingredients that I was free to add to the soup according to my taste: basil, lemon, home-made soy flavouring and sprouts. I liked having that level of involvement in creating my meal. My companion ordered the satay tofu rice, which was a surprise in that the satay recipe had almost no peanuts in it, but was nevertheless a lovely dish.

Although the current menu is completely vegan and offers a number of gluten free choices, we departed with the promise that the full menu (yet to be printed) will include a delicious selection of vegan cakes and ice creams, as well as the option of gluten-free alternatives to almost any dish. So, I guess we have to eat there again when the new menu is in place. Who wants to join us?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Creating your own worm community

One of the things I decided to do while Pete was away was to build my own worm farm, or rather - my own worm community. While I am very grateful that there are two large compost bins and two worm farms within our unit block, I had become weary of carrying my compost downstairs every week or so, and then making an additional trip downstairs to my neighbour's worm farm to collect the all-important worm wee for my garden. It was time to get my own worms.
Not satisfied with buying a plastic box complete with its own worms, I had decided to put two of my white styrofoam boxes to good use and make my own. Having helped my brother set up his worm farm not long ago, I felt that this was a project I could manage. There's lots of information on the web about worm farms, but if you're interested, here's how I did it:

Step 1: Doing the research. I enrolled in a free evening course on worm farming through my local council (The Watershed in Newtown). This was completely unexpected, as while I was googling instructions I happened to find out about this course on the same day, and it was really informative. They tell you what worms eat and don't eat, how to care for them, and how long before you can expect to be harvesting worm wee. Then you all crowd around a worm farm and see how it workds. This was when I began to see the worms as real animals, rather than slightly squirmy things.

Step 2: Collecting all the materials. I already had two styrofoam boxes (which we picked up free from the supermarket), and I also collected a milk crate to stand it on (a few bricks will do the trick) a tap (constructed from a small bottle with a long narrow neck), some newspaper, soil, worker's tape, a skewer (or anything to pierce small holes) and some worms (I took my worms from the neighbour's worm farm, but ideally you need about 1,000 of them which you can buy online or from the Watershed).

Step 3: Construction begins. I chose one box to be the ground floor box and the other to be the first floor box. The ground floor box is where the worm wee will collect. The first floor box is their playground. I punched small 1mm holes about 1cm apart in the bottom and in the lid of the first floor box for ventilation, then one larger hole (about the size of the bottle neck) in the ground floor box for the tap and tape the tap in securely so that no water can escape. I then wrote "Aletia's Worm Community" in bright colours on the box, because I wanted it to be a happy place where the worms were valued and comfortable.

Step 4: Preparing the bed. I lined the first floor box with shredded wet newspaper, followed by soil up to a height of about 10cm (or a third of the box). Then I placed the worms on this bedding. When they were ready for bed, I tucked them in. (No, seriously, you have to put about 5-10 layers of wet newspaper as a blanket over the whole bed, as worms don't like sunlight.) It was suggested to me that I wait 2 days before giving them any food, as the newspaper provides them with nutrients while they settle in, but I gave them a few bits of food and then increased it a few days later.

Now they're on a full diet, and I have even noticed baby worms appearing. It is such a delight! I just hope I don't smother them too much - I must let them grow up without interferring in their development.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Following in our grandfather's footsteps

My brother and I are training for the City to Surf this year. In addition to raising money for charity, we will also proudly carry on a family tradition. You see, my grandfather ran it a few years ago and got onto the evening news for being one of the oldest competitors. He was so chuffed he decided to run again the following year. Sadly he won't be competing this year - he just turned 89 and has gotten a bit more frail, but he's really pleased that some of his descendants will follow in his footsteps, quite literally.

My grandfather has given us quite a legacy to live up to. He's an eccentric, is as stubborn as anything, and has a strong sense of adventure. He has a mind for the mathematical, an eye for mechanics and a nose for a good bargain. Well into his 80's he was still playing tennis, managing his own home, metal detecting (a funny habit where you take a magnetised device to children's playgrounds and beaches searching for lost coins), fixing everyone's clocks and, much to my mother's angst, travelling around the world. So running in the city to surf was just another little challenge to keep himself amused.

I can see my grandfather's qualities in my cousins and siblings. For some, the mathematical mind has found an outlet working as an engineer and for others it is in music. Some have fulfilled their sense of adventure and challenge by travelling the world and others have chosen to manage farms or classrooms of children. More than a few of us have been labelled eccentrics at one time or another.

As we plan for the race, my brother and I egg each other on with that Jack Percival thing of mathematical planning, obsession with time and sense of adventure. We'll aim to finish in 100 minutes, we say, calculating that to equal 7.142857 (approximately) minutes per kilometre. We'll buy running clothes from second hand shops and trade in our relaxed lunchtime catch-ups for daily training sessions around the park. It should be fun.

Better run... see ya!

Friday, July 03, 2009

Black or white

When the news broke that Michael Jackson was dead, I was eating breakfast at a small town café in the middle of nowhere. Or, perhaps I should say that my head and heart were in the middle of nowhere. My body was halfway between the Aboriginal community I had been visiting in rural Queensland, and my home in Sydney. I was literally between two worlds, and feeling overwhelmed by the challenge of reconciliation.
On the one hand, the experience of being amongst a remote or rural community is so beautiful and “real”. I was sleeping under the stars, sharing a breakfast billy tea by the campfire, and getting to know incredibly courageous people who have survived so much. On the other hand I witnessed so much pain. Everyday life is fraught with street violence, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, dire health problems, incarceration and suicide.
As I return to the “reality” of my laptop, hot running water, superannuation, private health insurance, and a postgraduate education, I begin to feel torn between conflicting notions of what it means to be Australian, and to belong. I realise that my own sense of displacement must be nothing compared with the experiences of thousands of Aboriginal people who manage to live simultaneously in two such different cultures every day.
And as for Michael Jackson, I suspect he was even more confused than any of us. While his lyrics indicate that “it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white”, his own transformation from a black boy into a white man tells a different story. I grieve - not only for a life snatched away, but also for a talented young African-American boy who lost his identity, and for children everywhere who are robbed of their parents, land, culture and sense of place in the world.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why fake meat is such a treat

While faux fish, sweet and sour tofu “chicken” and vegetarian Peking duck might sound like an odd choice for somebody who has sworn off meat, I am one of those vegetarians who enjoy the variety of dishes that a pretend meat menu has to offer.

So here I am, staring at the menu without knowing quite where to begin. It’s difficult to choose between the fish, sweet and sour chicken and the Peking duck, and to be honest, I’m not used to this much choice. You see, I normally get to choose between the stir fried vegetables with tofu or the stir fried vegetables with cashew nuts.

I order the Peking Duck with the self-conscious excitement of a teenager ordering their first beer. The truth is – I had never seen Peking Duck before, and was keen to be involved in the unique process involved in its preparation and consumption.

I got involved in the not-meat dining experience a few years ago when I worked near a Thai vegetarian lunch cafe. It began as a bit of a laugh – doing lunch with my brother and ordering the “chicken” or “fish” with a rebellious delight. I liked the fact that I suddenly had the same range as anyone else in a restaurant. It felt luxurious, and a bit naughty to be able to order anything I wanted.

I also liked the fact that the restaurant had vegetarian “propaganda” on the walls – quoting from Gandhi and Einstein as to the health and ethical merits of a vegetarian diet. I managed to bring a number of friends and colleagues to that cafe over the years that I worked in the city, and perhaps a part of me was hoping to win them over.

But I’ve got a lot of criticism for frequenting these types of places. “Why would a real vegetarian want to eat something that resembles meat?” they ask me. The truth is that I don’t like the smell or taste of meat, but these fake meats are different enough in smell and taste to be pleasant, but similar enough that I feel “involved” in the mainstream dining experience. I get the best of both worlds.

Photo: With permission from

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


It's getting colder now. Time for winter pyjamas, doonas and the heater. People have told me that the change of season makes feelings of grief stronger, and now I understand why. The onset of Autumn this time last year coincided with my friend David's death, and I have found that the cold weather has brought back some of the strange feelings of helplessness, shock and confusion that I felt last year.

But this is a different autumn, and while I am reminded of last year, I can also use the passing of time to measure the ways that we've all managed to cope and how each person affected has begun to heal. The onset of winter also brings happy memories of times spent with David - many bushwalking trips in the Blue Mountains, evenings of chit chat and movies at the Turramurra house, and a snow fight in Geneva. Here are some pictures of David the way I'd like to remember him - enthusiastic, thoughtful, cheeky and gentle.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On ya bike

The bicycle may have been around for centuries, but as a popular means of transport it is starting to stand on its own two, um, wheels. As petrol prices sky-rocket and commuters are increasingly finding themselves in frustrating traffic jams, it seems that in the battle for survival of the fittest, cyclists are finding themselves streets ahead. So I have decided to take the path less travelled and find out why bikes are so great.

As I strap on my helmet and unhook my bicycle lock, I notice one of my neighbours across the courtyard. He is also preparing his “vehicle” for the daily commute. We exchange pleasantries. His bike is a true relic from the 1970s. He tells me with confidence that a dodgy looking bike is far less likely to be stolen. That is a truism I now know from bitter experience. When I bought my second bike (may the first one rest in peace) I was thrilled when it was labelled “un-steal-able”. With clunky gears, an uncool frame and the “wrong” kind of handlebars, the two of us were a match made in heaven. Just to make absolutely sure, I have dressed it with embarrassingly alternative bumper stickers that will hopefully cause any self-respecting thief to think twice.

Once I have my pants tucked into my socks in a truly stylish manner I wobble as I wave to my neighbour and away I go. The first hurdle is the intersection at the corner shops where one must cycle uphill before passing the bus stop. Huffing and puffing is definitely not cool, as there is invariably an audience of bus commuters politely lining up. For the sake of the cycling movement, I must pass this point with grace and ease, ideally leaving the bus commuters with the distinct impression that cycling is fun, safe and speedy.

Having gotten a head start on the bus, I cruise confidently through the backstreets of Glebe. It’s around this time that my neighbour sails past me – a reminder that “speedy” is relative. But hey, I wave, wobble and keep peddling away. Usually the bus with its commuter cargo catches me up around the intersection of Parramatta road and I smile smugly to myself as its occupants again have a chance to admire the brilliance of the bicycle as a superior means of transport.

While I have noticed an increase in cyclists around town, Sydney has been slow on the whole to take up the bicycle path. Amsterdam, well known for its bicycle lined streets, is where I was advised that the best option is to have a really cheap bike with a really solid lock. In Geneva, where diplomats can be seen arriving for United Nations meetings by bicycle with their trouser pants tucked into their socks and women carry their baguette home in the basket on front, I realised that cycling can be part of everyday life. In Kakamega town in western Kenya, where bicycle taxis are in abundance, I learnt how to hop smoothly onto the back of a bike without looking too awkward.

As I leave the commuters behind and head for the park, I am reminded of how good bicycles are for mental and physical wellbeing. As the pressures of high powered jobs take their toll on us all, we are becoming more sedentary, more stressed and less happy. There are higher incidents of people with heart conditions, mental health concerns and vitamin D deficiency. Regular exercise and sunlight are an excellent remedy. Riding to work seems to me the perfect solution. With bicycles, the ironic habit of driving to the gym will become a thing of the past. When I cycle to work and back, I get my exercise while I commute – an excellent use of time in a time-poor society.

There’s nothing better than gliding down that final hill at full speed while other pedestrians fade into the horizon behind. When larger vehicles are caught in a nasty traffic jam and their drivers are wondering if they will make it to work on time, we cyclists are calmly weaving between the other cars, or simply cutting across a park nearby. As I approach the gate of my workplace, I see a resident departing. He is taking is son to playgroup on the back of his bike. The two-year old, who is completely at ease in his little bicycle high chair, gets very excited when he sees me. “Bike”, he declares happily and I am satisfied. With just one word, he has confirmed for me that two wheels, not four, are the choice of the next generation and the way of the future.