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Beached British Whales: Succumbing to Aussie Enthusiasm with Sand in My Knickers.

Great Expectations.

There is a strange phenomena that occurs throughout Australian adolescence which is perpetrated by none-other than their so-called “loving” parents. The tradition goes as follows: at 7 am on a Sunday morning the parents-in-question emerge from a red-wine hangover and wake up their gently slumbering progeny, force a super-speed breakfast, then hurtle them down to the local beach where they will be made to sprint, do push-ups, fake a drowning and save each other’s lives – and the sun has only begun to rise.

The Australian Surf Life-Saving program is – in theory – a fun way to keep kids active while teaching them vital life lessons. It also gives the parents an opportunity to network and socialize with other communities from their neighbourhood. In reality, it’s a gigantic pain in the arse. Here is my experience…

Growing up along the coast was sometimes a bit of a struggle for yours truly: I was a chubby, English kid who said things in a funny accent – an accent so funny that I was made to repeat myself whenever I mentioned ‘yoghurt’, ‘vitamins’, or ‘dancing’. I still don’t understand why my parents ever decided that signing me up to Surf Life-Saving was an ingenious idea: surely I could learn how to not-drown and be bored at the local swimming pool? Apparently not. As I mentioned earlier, my parents and I had to wake up at un-godly hours on a Sunday morning to hurry down to Mullaloo beach before all the parking spots where taken, which they normally were by 7.10 am. I had to squeeze my awkward, pre-pubescent figure into a humiliating bathing suit, while sticking a spandex-tight cap over my gigantic forehead. Because of my unusual tallness for my age and abundance of baby fat, (I’ve had breasts since I was, like, 9) I would innocently strut about the beach getting seedy looks from old, leathered men.

The day would begin with me being thrust into groups with sporty, superior Aussie kids who outright ignored my general presence, (bloody show-offs), while my parents stood in the shivering cold having forced conversation with the overly-enthusiastic, freckled-skinned adults. My dad would often slyly knick-off for a while to have a smoke, so my mum was forced to have surface-level chats with another mum who would list off the various accomplishments of her over-achieving children. I imagine it went something like this:

“Yeah, so, Jackson, Braydon and Ashton have all got their Bronze-Medallions, so they’re pretty much qualified to run the show, ya know? Then Tara, Storm and little Shelley are doin’ real good jobs so far so I reckon they’ll be followin’ in their brother’s footsteps, ya know?”

“That’s wonderful.”

“How’s Cass goin’?”

“Oh Cassie is doing fine. The other day she managed to sneak an entire packet of Mars Bars from the kitchen and ate them all under her desk.”

“Oh…true?”

Once we were split into groups and factions depending on age and what I’m convinced was prejudice against the “fat one”, we were made to jog up the beach, up a sand-dune, back down the beach, then swim about 100 metres out into the ocean. This was always terrifying for me as I had an allergic reaction to waves and the blue, spidery creatures that lingered in its nests. It was during these times in my childhood that I would learn of the classic Aussie motto for life: “Have a go!” These 3 words boil down to simple components of encouragement, embracing new opportunities and conquering your basic fears, however, when a small girl is quivering and crying over the fear of getting sucked into the expansive blue of the ocean, maybe we should let her be? I was to come across this tedious encouragement over and over again in school when I was forced to hold a poisonous snake or climb up a mountain or abseil into a cave or anything that wasn’t being alone in my room learning the dance routines of Britney Spears’ videos reading.

Eventually I would be coaxed into the water with a caring adult, where I would immediately get dumped by a gigantic wave and emerge a few seconds later with buckets of sand in my bathers, snot pouring out of my nose and my skin chicken-poxed with the stings from jellyfish. What marvellous fun!

Then there was the game called ‘Flags’. Any person who has ever been forced to play this game has probably just shuddered a little. ‘Flags’ begins with a row of, say, 10 kids lying face down in a line with their chins resting on their hands. After a suspense-period of around a minute, a starting gun would be shot and the kids would have to jump up and race for pieces of hose sticking out of the ground 100 metres away, to which there were 9 for the 10 kids. Whoever missed out was eliminated. I’ll give myself a small amount of credit here for genuinely trying the first couple of times – I tend to get super competitive even though I’m pretty much useless at everything – but my feeble legs simply couldn’t run fast enough, although I’m sure some kids actually let me win a couple of rounds which is another characteristic of an Aussie childhood – everyone deserves “a go”. It’s a nice thought but somewhat futile seeing as I saw what I was doing as a banal torture.

After a full summer of early Sunday mornings, forced enthusiasm and a dash of trauma, I finally graduated to green caps division for the under 12s, this meant getting a 3-metre foam surfboard which was inevitably going to live in the shed as a crooked home for spiders and cockroaches. When the next summer began I was finally confident with the ocean: I would happily ride the waves to shore or dive under the bigger ones with poise and ease, and I was even contemplating surfing lessons. However, my parents pulled me out that summer after a mere couple of weeks when there were a few shark sightings and a couple of attacks. Apparently mum wasn’t willing to compromise my life over the opportunity to “have a go!”

I had always wanted to grow up and become like the older girls at the surf club; they were tall, tanned, fit and beautiful. They were fearless and ran into the ocean cutting the waves with their powerful yet elegant legs and diving through the deep abyss with confidence and ease. Well, I’m sorry childhood-self, but that’s not who you are today, although you aren’t that scared of waves anymore. Okay…maybe a little. I still like to call myself a bit of a beach bum though, despite the fact that when it’s warm enough for beach-weather, I lie on the sand slowly roasting while reading a magazine. So, I’m still a little awkward, I still opt for “yoghurt” over “yoiiighurt” and I still recoil around rough oceans, but I can honestly say that if it weren’t for my Aussie peers encouraging me to push myself, I wouldn’t have grown into the confident, fearless person I am today, and to that I say bloody-fair-dinkum-gumnut-emu-wallaby-streuth-n-farkin’ THANKS!

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A Nostalgic Review: Stasiland by Anna Funder

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I miss Germany. I miss Berlin and my family, the cobbled streets, the miserable looking people with funny accents, the cold and the damp. I miss the culture, the tainted history and the anxiety of adventure.

I first picked up a copy of Stasiland by Anna Funder when I’d just settled back into normal life at home after three months of back packing around Europe. The book was unbelievable, and I connected with it on so many levels: my admiration of Anna Funder living in East Berlin, speaking the language and tracing people’s lives; the streets and train stations I had only just been wandering through weeks before; and the shock of a history that is so close to my heart, and yet still so alien.

As a piece of creative non-fiction, the writer Anna Funder does a fantastic job of mixing the elements of story telling with a heavy-handed topic of German history, while using a deeply personal tone throughout. Every time I picked up the book, I would be transported back to the streets of Berlin, while learning the sad history that is almost never spoken about and completely unacknowledged. My family were lucky enough to be living in West Berlin when the wall came up, but they would always tell me stories of people doing all that they could, risking their lives, to go over the wall from East Berlin, over into the West. Stasiland is a grave, honest depiction of what life was like living in East Berlin before the wall came down: how there was no privacy, your lives would be tracked down to the finest tee. How even in a European culture, hundreds would be slaughtered or tortured for saying what was on their minds by the sheer dogmatism of the Stasi police, those involved who truly believed in the cause.

What makes this book so special, is how Funder manages to intersperse the lives of others and their stories, with her own personal journey of writing the book and researching into an abandoned past. On page 54, for example:

“The next day the phone calls start very early in the morning. I hadn’t thought it through – I hadn’t imagined what it would be like to have a series of military types, who had lost their power and lost their country call you up at home.” (Funder 2002. 54)

She makes the other people’s stories incredibly personal so that the reader is able to relate to the person and feel incredibly empathetic towards them. I found myself getting so caught up in the book, while also learning about a group of people, and a part of history I was ill informed about. That is a very powerful tool of creative non-fiction: to be able to tell a deeply enriching story while teaching the reader something new and important.

What I loved about the book was how much detail and honesty she allocated to each person’s story. She interviewed a range of people who lived in the Stasi state, from those who were captured for trying to escape, to those who perpetuated the ideologies of the government. I found it very brave of Funder to write about issues such as these, especially coming from a non-German perspective, as this kind of very recent history has somewhat been swept under the rug. My uncle Wolfgang once told me that Germany was in “very dark times” back then, and it still amazes me that Berlin and Germany was ever like that.

The entire time I was reading the book, I kept feeling so grateful to be living in a country where I am free to do as I please. Stasiland puts you in the heart of the Stasi state, and allows you to walk in the shoes of those under that kind of oppression. It made me speculate on how this kind of thing could happen, how easily a government will take military control over a nation of people under their misguided or warped ideals. Sarah Coleman, the associate editor of The Worldpress Review, conducted an interview with Funder in 2003. In response to a question about what moved her so much about the first story Funder uncovered – Miriam Webster, a teenage girl who was put in prison after she tried to escape, and later lost her husband to likely torture by the Stasi – Funder responded:

“I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time, but I think I can say now that I was looking for stories of courage. In a world that’s divided into Us and Them, it takes extreme courage to resist oppression—when you come across that kind of courage in a young woman like Miriam, it’s inspiring. I think I’m interested in it because I’m yellow-bellied myself—you’re always interested in what you don’t have.” (Funder, 2003)

I can confidently say that this book changed my world thinking as a writer. I was always so sure that I wanted to write about stories or issues in such a way that makes is appealing to the masses, something that people will want to read. This book made me lean more comfortably towards the path of creative non-fiction, whether I write a book of my own or continue with my blog posts and articles, I want to write something powerful and evoking. This book has made me want to write about topics that people either don’t know about, or have been forgotten, for example, those who are still struggling to savage a normal life after the horrors of the 1991 Bosnian war. As a writer, I want to give a voice to those women in Bosnia who were repeatedly raped during the war, or the children of those rape victims. I’ve recently gone through a stark shift in how I see the world, and Stasiland certainly sparked that shift. More than anything, it angers me that we don’t talk about these kinds of issues, and that’s something that I want changed in our thinking.

The atrocities of mankind can only plunder ever forward into yet more horrific realms, if we stand back and idly forget our past and do nothing. Anna Funder gave a voice to the voiceless, and has made me determined to do the same thing.

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Travel Tips Part 21: Zagreb, Croatia.

After a bus ride and a scary train, you’re finally in Zagreb at 7 o-clock in the evening in the pitch dark – this was in no way how you would have like to arrive in an Eastern European country. At the border of Slovenia a policeman threatens to fine you both 400 Euros each for not having stamps from the other countries you’ve visited. After you blatantly point out that this can’t be the case as no one else has asked for your passports, he simply walks off. Later on, Greg tells you that this guy was just a crook cop trying to score 800 Euros off naïve travellers. Despite your massive prejudice for Eastern Europe (wars, genocide, poor economics etc.) you’re surprise to find that everyone you come across is warm and friendly (apart from THAT guy). You manage to get lost on the way to the hostel only once, and when you eventually find the old building you’re greeted with a darling, black puppy! This easily puts Zagreb as the best welcome you’ve had on your trip.

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Travel Tips Part 20: Rome, Italy

Your personal ideas of Rome have all unfortunately been stemmed from watching too many cheesy, Hollywood movies: you picture streets lined with cafes inhabiting smoking Italians, couples kissing in front of pretty monuments, and a whole heap of history you’re yet to look into. These expectations are instantly fulfilled as you walk the streets to meet up with the gorgeous Alessia – a bubbly Italian girl you met in Norway who has graciously allowed you to stay in her flat. After almost getting scammed out of change at the manky subway station, you find Alessia’s flat is on the doorstep to the Vatican – convenient! You meet Alessia on the street and walk to her gorgeous apartment: each part of the flat is covered in books, sculptures and paintings instantly making you feel at home – or rather the home you’d like to have when you eventually move out.

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Travel Tips Part 19: Florence, Italy.

Anyone who’s ever spent time in Florence has had nothing but great stories of this beautiful town, so you’re excited to stay a couple of nights to explore. You arrive in the late morning, find your hostel, and are greeted by the lovely Jonathon – the owner of Dany House. He greets you with kisses and watered-down Tuscan wine – a fantastic way to start the next leg of your trip. After showing you places to go on the map, you put your gear in your rooms before setting off in search for a decent tattoo shop. Mik has a specific design she’s wanted to get for a while, and Florence has a good rep for tattoo artists. You find an address online, and with your trusty map you start hunting. Along the way towards the river, you’re blown away by the old architecture, the balconies and the smells emitting from the bakeries and cafes. Everything just looks so…Italian! (Funny that).

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Travel Tips Part 18: Bologna, Italy.

Bologna is a small town that you’re stopping by the on way to Roma. You picked the town by its recommendation from the Lonely Planet website: it’s one of the oldest cities in the world, and the culinary capital of Italy. Unfortunately, seeing as it’s such a small town, you were unable to find a cheap hostel close to the centre of town, so you instead booked a 2 star hotel 15 minutes out of town. This decision turns out to be exactly what you needed after the debacle in Milano: you have a private double room with your own bathroom, free breakfast and towels, and even a small gym downstairs! Of course you have no intention of going to the gym, but the idea is nice! After having a shower and throwing your clothes about the room (because you can), you take a bus into town in search for food. Bologna being one of the world’s oldest cities has buildings and cathedrals dating back to the medieval age. The cobblestoned streets grow more and more narrow, each holding a niche boutique or a dingy looking café. After purchasing some presents for friends back home, you walk in search for a specific restaurant recommended to you by the receptionist at the hotel.

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Travel Tips Part 17: Milano, Italy.

Note to the reader: I am unable to tell the entire story of our trip to Milano without first informing you of the previous 24 hours before we arrived. The story takes place in Barcelona…

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