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Life Musings

Epicurus, Gardening, and Eating with Others: A Recipe for Happiness?

A few weeks ago I had dinner with good friends. It was the end of summer and the evening was warm and we ate outside, in the garden.

To the sound of birds getting ready for bed, evening scents of jasmine and lavender hanging in the air, we dined on lentil salad with tomatoes they had grown themselves, grilled fish with lemon and wonderfully-perfumed basil from their herb garden, stuffed zucchini flowers from the plants which sprawled half-way across the veggie patch and finished up with figs and apricots, plucked fresh from the tree that afternoon.

It was a feast!

We had a delightful evening, sitting under the stars in their productive and gorgeous garden, enjoying the fruits (and veggies) of their labour, sharing our news, the funny and perplexing anecdotes of our lives.

And it made me think. It reminded me of Epicurus and his property in Athens which he shared with friends and grew fruits and vegetables which appeared on their dining table.

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A view of olive trees in the garden of the archaeology museum at Cimiez, Nice, France

Epicurus was a philosopher who lived from 341 to 270 BC and like many philosophers, he was concerned with what makes a good or happy life. He set up a school of philosophy, known as ‘The Garden’ because it met in the garden of his home, which he shared with his friends. It had few students, both men and women, but they were devoted to him and his teachings.

We are so distanced from the origins of our food. We go to the supermarket and buy things in packets, open them and zap them in the microwave and eat them from plastic trays. Well, sometimes we do. They’re called convenience foods and while they may be convenient, I wonder whether they are actually food.

Oh sure, tinned foods and frozen foods are handy and I can understand why you’d have them in the pantry. I used to have many more than I do now because having adopted the Mediterranean Diet several years ago, I know it actually doesn’t take that long to prepare meals from real, raw foods. After all, people have been doing it all the way back to Epicurus’ time. It does, however, require a commitment to preparation…

But getting back to the origins of our food - hunting and gathering and farming – these are time-consuming tasks but can you imagine the joy of finally eating a juicy steak of whatever it was you caught or sinking your teeth into the first apples of the season?

Do you eat mindfully? I never did, not years ago. I would eat on the run, often in my car, or at my desk. I was already thinking about the next thing I had to do. Sometimes I couldn’t even remember what I’d eaten that day.

How sad, when eating is one of the great pleasures of life.

I bet when the wild boar is roasting on the open fire at the hunter’s camp or the chicken is coming out of the oven in the farmer’s kitchen, there is a real sense of anticipation.

Why? Because so much effort has gone into catching or raising that food.

Growing your own food is very satisfying. It’s satisfying because it’s an accomplishment, it’s rewarding and things that are rewarding make you feel good.

 ‘These are my carrots’ you say to yourself proudly. ‘I nurtured them through the work of my hands and they’re going to taste fantastic!’

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There’s something visceral about connecting with your food. Burying the seed in the earth, watering it, watching and waiting for the seedlings to appear. Searching the sky for rain, nurturing the young plants and finally harvesting. It’s work that connects us with the earth and the food it produces.

It’s slow work, farming. There are no instant results. You have to watch over the plants and the animals, ensuring they get what they need to stay healthy. Weeks or months (sometimes even years) later, the harvest is brought in or the animals are taken to market.

Growing your own food, even creating a small herb garden, can be a real mood-lifter in a number of ways. It is a gentle way of focussing on life, in the midst of sadness, or grief.

First, it is a mindful task that requires your attention. While your attention is focussed on your plants, it gives the mind a break from the worries that can often take over. Working on your garden means there is no space for rumination. Focus on the earth in your hands, look at it, feel it, smell it.

Shut your eyes and meditate mindfully for a few moments on the experience of being in the garden.

What can you feel? Is it a warm day, a windy day? Are you sitting on grass or crouching over the path? How does that feel in your legs, your knees?

What can you smell? Are there fragrant flowers? Something earthy in the compost? Something a bit unpleasant coming from the rubbish bin? Don’t make any judgements about it. Just focus on the smells.

What can you hear? Are there birds in the trees around you? The rustle of the breeze in the leaves of the trees? Cars on the nearby roads? Children shouting or laughing? An argument at the neighbours? Again, just sit with the sounds, letting all worrying thoughts pass by.

Now open your eyes and finish your gardening. Have you watered your plants? Pruned any dead bits away? Put a little mulch through?

If it’s the right time of year, choose something to eat today, from your garden.

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It’s very satisfying to cook with your own produce.

I don’t have a garden, but I have a small courtyard and in that courtyard I have a little herb garden: basil, coriander, mint, parsley and rosemary. I hope to add others very soon. I’m planning to try my hand at strawberries and chillies and perhaps even a tiny lime tree.

I love going to my little herb garden and choosing some leaves to add to a salad or soup. It feels really good.

All over the city community gardens have popped up. People who live in apartments without much space for growing their own produce can now rent or purchase a couple of plots. There’s one right in the heart of my city, over a carpark, near the main train station. A little oasis of green in the concrete jungle.

Nowadays, fruits and vegetables are available all year round. I think that’s a bit sad because we’ve lost the thrill of ‘nectarine season’ or ‘avocado season’. Produce is kept in cold storage or flown in from overseas. Does anyone preserve, bottle or dry foods any more?

Yes, I’m sure they do. But not as often as in our grandmother’s generation. Imagine opening a bottle of preserved tomato sauce or summer fruits in the middle of winter! Today we expect everything to be available all the time.

No wonder the slow food movement is so popular. Many people have grown tired of the instant, 3 minute, fast food lifestyle.

Why is cooking with your own produce, or at least, seasonal, well-cared-for produce better for your health and emotional well-being?

Omega 3 for one thing.

And other nutrients.

When hunters bring home the wild bacon, it’s been feasting on wild grasses and plants, not force-fed grains. Wild plants contain Omega 3 fatty acids, which are important for brain health. Many meat animals today do not roam freely across the plains enjoying a healthy supply of wild-grown plant foods, so their meat does not give us the nutrients it would have supplied to our hunting forebears.

Fresh, seasonal, organic vegetables and fruits are available at regular farmer’s markets throughout my city. Look for them in yours too.

Enjoying a Mediterranean Diet, ingredients for which you can grow yourself, can really help when you’re feeling a bit down.  Even if you don’t feel like eating much, one good meal a day can go a long way to helping you feel brighter. Snack on yoghurt, dried fruits and nuts and wholegrain bread if you don’t feel like cooking often.

The food-mood connection is well known now. The diet enjoyed by villagers on the island of Crete in the 1940s has many benefits for your physical as well as your emotional wellbeing. Full of fish, fresh vegetables, seeds nuts and fruits, the Mediterranean Diet has been shown to be effective in improving the health of brain.

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You can grow all sorts of fruits, veggies and herbs which are consumed in high quantities in the Mediterranean Diet.

You know who else enjoyed a Mediterranean Diet?

Epicurus.

Well, he had to really, being Greek.

Epicurus was keen on self-sufficiency as a key component of happiness, and while it may be difficult to live an entirely self-sufficient lifestyle in today’s world, growing some of your own foodstuff certainly can bring a smile to your face.

What else did Epicurus claim as the cause of happiness?

Eating with other people is very pleasant

Epicurus and his friends lived together in a large house on the outskirts of Athens. They had a productive garden, with fruit trees and vegetables and created and ate their meals together.

Friendship was one of the keys to happiness because friends provide each other with security, support and help when required. But Epicurus believed friendship was important for its own sake, that friends are more than just the bringers of benefits, but that real friendship makes the other person part of ourselves.

Diffuse communities were the Epicurean norm, rather than small, tightly knit nuclear family structures. A village if you like. Communities of like-minded individuals, supporting one another in many ways including the production of food for communal sustenance and enjoyment.

Eating with others is also part of the Mediterranean Diet. It should really be called the Mediterranean Lifestyle. Those post-war Cretans on whose way of eating the Americanised ‘Mediterranean Diet’ is based, lived a hard life, eking out a living from the hilly, stony landscape. It must have been backbreaking work. But it made them fit and hardy people, and I can imagine weddings and other social occasions were the highlights of the year.

I can also imagine food having an important role in such occasions. Sharing a feast together is binding; it makes us feel that we are part of a group. It connect us with a shared experience.

Perhaps we should take a leaf out of Epicurus’ book.

Go on. Go to the nursery and get yourself some seedlings. Some basil, some parsley, some oregano. Take them home and nurture them. Harvest a few leaves. Make a soup, a salad or a stew. Invite a neighbour or someone who has been going through a bit of a hard time recently. Invite them over and nourish them with the food you have grown and created. Sit outside if you can.

Bet you anything you’ll feel better for it.

Epicurus said so.

Written November 2017

Image acknowledgements

Henri Ollikainen from Pixabay:"> Carrots

  Jill Wellington  from Pixabay Herb gardening ">




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Syria, Uncategorized

Halima and the Embroidery

It’s time for tea at the Ahmeds’.

All is quiet in the Tell Ahmar excavation compound; the others are sleeping or reading.  It is three in the afternoon and the dust-filled heat of the day envelops me.  The air is heavy and dry, oppressing everything, even sound. For a moment I don’t hear the generators hammering nor the donkeys braying in their rather desparate way.  I hesitate in the heat, tempted to retreat to the cooler darkness of my mud-brick room.

At least the Ahmeds don’t live far, just a few minutes away, slightly further up the tell, where people have lived for millennia, creating an artificial hill. Their compound is well-cared for, swept daily. Coloured flowers add brightness to the otherwise drab mud-coloured buildings. 

The door is open and I tap gently, peering inside.  Yusef and his brother Ismael are sleeping on the floor. I hover uncertainly and am just about the sneak away when Ismael shifts and opens his eyes. 

‘Er…’ I begin.

Ismael scrambles to his feet, shaking Yusef awake and calling his sisters.

‘Sorry...’ I try again. ‘I thought Yusef said I should come for tea.  I’ll come another time’.

‘No, no, Vicki.  Tfaddali, come in.  Mona!  Vicki hown! Chai!’

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I step into the cool interior of the Ahmed’s reception room.  The mud brick walls are plastered and the lower half painted in cool mint green.  Leaving my shoes at the door I walk gratefully over the plastic woven mat and sink down on the strip of carpet which lines the walls, leaning on the hard cylindrical cushions in green, red and gold. 


Ismael and Yusef are washing their faces.  The twenty litre plastic container with a tap is filled each day from the stream which runs past the mosque.  The water is cold and clean, from deep underground.  Touch wood, I have not yet been ill from drinking tea in the village.

‘Keef halik, Vicki?  How are you?’ Yusef turns to me, water pouring off his face.

‘Al hamdu l’illah, well thank you’, I reply.  ‘And you?’

‘We are all well, and even better for having you in our home, welcome! Ahlan wa sahlan!’

‘Sorry to wake you up’.

‘No problem’. 

I smile at the phrase. 

Mona comes in holding a kettle and tiny glasses.  She is followed by Dina and Fatima with plates of biscuits and tiny, hard green fruits and a dish of salt.  The refreshments are set down on the floor and the girls leave.

‘Oh stay!’ I call out, glancing at the boys. 

They nod and gesture for the sisters to come and sit down with them.  Amina and Hoda, the littlest ones come tumbling in, followed by Mahmoud, the third brother.

‘What beautiful sisters you have, Yusef!’

‘Yes, they are our five stars!’ The girls giggle.  We smile and nod at each other.  They whisper behind their hands; their eyes never leaving my face.

I glance around the room.  Niches in the walls contain a small pile of books or some clothes. Windows are few and small and square.  Black and white photos of solemn young men, a calendar and a poster showing an Alpine scene adorn the walls. 

‘Ehhhh!’

An older woman with a cheerful face enters the room emitting a torrent of Arabic.

Clumsily I leap to my feet and clasp her hand.  Halima Ahmed shakes it vigorously, then she pulls me into a bear hug and kisses me firmly on both cheeks.  She waves for me to sit down again, the stream of words and warm smile filling the room. The little girls crawl contentedly onto their mother. Fresh tea is poured.  Then I utter the fateful words.

‘Who made the embroidery?’

With Yusef as translator, Halima explains that she made the embroidery when she was very young, a new bride pregnant with her first child, Dina. Before I realize, it is taken down and pushed into my hands. 

The white cotton is cool and smells musty. The words ‘In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful’ is embroidered in tiny grey stitches.  I hold it before me.  It is a wreath of flowers, with another floral design at the centre.  The flowers are odd, crablike, with robotic stems.  The colours are even more peculiar; fluorescent orange and blue with dull greys and greens. 

I tell her how lovely it is and hold it up so that they can replace it on the wall. Halima insists I take it. I protest but Halima refuses to take it back.

Before my third season at Tell Ahmar I consulted a Muslim friend.  Could the cross-stitch be returned?  I treasured it, but felt that its rightful place was on the wall of the Ahmed family reception room. 


He advised me against trying to return it.  It was given to me because Halima wanted me to have it.  It would appear a rejection of her gift to attempt to return it.  I took a photo of the embroidery instead and took that with me.   Halima was delighted and laughed when she saw the photo.  As my friend had predicted, she insisted that the cross-stitch was mine. 

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Uncategorized

Ancient Figurines: How It All Began

I was an hour into the chemistry exam but it had been pretty clear from the first ten minutes that this was a big mistake. Florence popped in with a glass of cold lemonade.

‘How is it going?’

I shook my head and sighed. It was pretty grim actually. Taking on a semester of first year university level chemistry was a very bad idea. I hadn’t studied any stream of science since my middle secondary school years and chemistry has been particularly baffling, particularly in a dusty workroom, on a 38-degree day in a small village in North Syria.

I gulped the lemonade and my head pounded. Just get it done…


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It was my third season of excavation at Tell Ahmar and I was twenty-five years old. I had done my honours year and I’d had enough of research; I just wanted to excavate, to do archaeology. I’d found my bliss in an archaeological trench and all I wanted to do was dig. But with student diggers at two a penny, how could I show that I had skills every dig director needed?

The idea of object conservation had been on my periphery for a while and I’d already written, yes written (back in the day when writing meant pen and paper, and overseas mail meant stamps and a three week wait) to universities in the UK which offered conservation courses.

I’d even done a short stint of work experience at the National Gallery of Victoria, painstakingly describing the condition of an Egyptian mummy case. Object conservation seemed a good idea at the time. The chance to carefully clean, protect and perhaps even display ancient objects; skills that would let me build my dig resume.

But I’d not taken into consideration the need for some understanding of how substances react to one another, and despite my scientist cousin’s best efforts to tutor me, I just couldn’t get my head around the subject. I wrote essays instead of lab reports and the tutorials I was hoping might comprise sitting around a table discussing chemical issues were instead self-guided ‘learning modules’ done individually on computers. I hated them and regularly failed the tests at the end of each session.

I persevered and begged the department of chemistry to allow me to sit the end of semester exam at Tell Ahmar during the 1995 season of excavation. After all, this was the scenario in which my future skills would be used and there was an actual conservator as part of the team this year. Jacob, from a world-famous art museum in America, had chuckled when he saw my diagrams of chemical compounds and I was so ashamed of trying to be like him that I steered clear of his work and focused on the cataloguing of objects coming in from the field.

Dr B tapped at the open door.

‘Time to finish now’.

I sighed again and put my pen down, closed the question booklet and piled up my answer sheets. I knew I’d failed.

It was time to rethink this archaeological conservation idea.

I spent the rest of the year pondering what to do with my life. I’d finished my honours year and been overseas for eighteen months with money earned working for a year when I finished my degree and during that time had excavated twice at the University of Melbourne’s site of Tell Ahmar. I was tired of research and wanted to do lots of field work, figuring that a qualification in object conservation might be the way forward but now I wasn’t sure. Perhaps further research was the answer after all.

Some of the other members of the Tell Ahmar team were doing master’s degrees and were looking at objects found there; the pottery and the iron pieces and the Bronze Age graves were all subjects for postgraduate study. I began to wonder if this wasn’t the direction for me.

I made an appointment with Tell Ahmar’s dig director, Dr B.

‘Well, you could look at the tannurs…’

The ovens... Oh well, ovens are important. People have to eat. I was slightly doubtful about the potential of ovens for an entire master’s thesis but I was willing to give them a go.


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I went to the library to look for articles about Iron Age tannurs. They are squat cylinders of baked clay a couple of feet high. I’d excavated a few but never found anything particularly interesting, no old bread rolls or stew congealed at the bottom. I did try, really hard, for about three weeks to get excited about tannurs and then went back to Dr B.

‘I’m not sure about these tannurs…’

‘Ah! They don’t excite you.’

‘Not much….’

‘Well...there’s the figurines...’

‘Oh!’

Now I was excited. No, I was thrilled. The figurine collection comprised mostly lumpy bits of broken clay but I jumped at the idea and was just a little curious as to why no one else, including the co-directors of the dig, had not nabbed them for research and publication.


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The figurines! Little clay men and women and little horses and goodness knows what else.  They seemed like golden treasures among the finds from Tell Ahmar, far more interesting than boring pot sherds and shapeless blobs of rusty iron.


Sometimes in the afternoons when the field work was over for the day, I would go into the workroom at Tell Ahmar and hold the little round pots.  Their bases fit neatly into the palm of my hand and for me the experience connected me immediately with those who had made them. Some 2500 years ago a person, like me, had held this pot in their palm.

For me, archaeology has always been about people, and archaeologists have the chance to come ‘face-to-face’ with ancient people through human images such as figurines. Archaeology offers not only the artefactual remnants of ancient lives, but chance to enter directly into those lives, if we choose to and what better way than through miniature clay figurines.

Dr B gave me copies of small computer disks with the data about the figurines; description, dimensions, find spots. I still couldn’t quite believe it, but I was certain I’d been offered the opportunity of a lifetime.

I got 50% for my chemistry exam, quit the course and threw myself into figurine studies.

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Uncategorized

The First Signs

January 2009

We seemed to find the restaurant all right; it was the getting home that was the trouble.

We headed for the blackened sky; a sky that took me back over thirty years to the Ash Wednesday Bush fires. Then, we sat in the science lab of my eastern suburbs school and watched the topsoil and ash come rolling in from the Mallee. It had been a bad bush fire summer. Our fear was at arm’s length, fascinating and exciting in that way scary things are when you don’t really believe you’re going to be part of it. We wondered if it would roll right over the school and on to the city.

Now it was happening again. It was Black Friday, that wave of ash from bush fires darkening the sky; a thick band of black, like a burned destruction layer in an archaeological excavation. We drove towards it. As long as the dark horizon was in front of us we were heading in the right direction. We resolutely headed east to the Chinese restaurant where we were meeting the rest of the family for dinner to celebrate my cousin’s wedding.

The ceremony was lovely, the bride look gorgeous in red, the happy couple danced for us and the food was wonderful. Then we started for home.

I sat in the back seat, where children usually sit, Mum next to Dad in the front passenger seat as is normal and right. It was when we were driving over the eastern arterial road instead of entering it that I knew something was wrong.

‘Dad…I think we’re meant to be on that road down there…’ I started.

It’s funny because at that moment I was eight years old, ten years old, perhaps fifteen years old. You don’t tell your Dad where to go when you’re that age. Dad had been driving all his life. He knew the city like the back of his hand.

But suddenly my Dad didn’t know and aged thirty-eight going on fourteen, and filled with unexpected foreboding, I had to tell him. Using the road map of the city I guided him onto the arterial and then he knew the rest of the way home, the blackened sky now all around us.

About eight months after my cousin’s wedding, I moved to China to be an English teacher.

China was not a country I’d had much interest in previously but jobs seemed plentiful and it would a new experience, a clean slate and a new start. I began reading job discussion boards for teachers who had taught in China and quickly learned the good, bad and ugly of applying for and working for Chinese schools and universities. In the end I opened the atlas and shutting my eyes, twirled my finger above the page, dropping it down randomly. It landed in Inner Mongolia.

I had two magical years in the capital city of the Autonomous Province of Inner Mongolia, Huhahaote. The campus was on the outskirts of the city and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The summer was hot but the winter bitterly cold and ridiculously long. I wore a duck-down coat with fur around the hood and layer upon layer beneath. It was 25 degrees below zero and walking to the teaching building the dribbles from your nose froze into tiny icicles. I vowed I would not do another winter in Inner Mongolia and in February 2011, went home for a holiday in the Australian sun. It was the coolest summer on record.

 It had been nearly a year and half since I had seen my parents. While I was in Melbourne I went to an eye specialist to see about the pterygium that had started to develop in my eye and to organise a return visit in August that year to have it removed. During those to visits, February and August 2011, Dad’s ‘mild cognitive impairment’ seemed to be turning into something else


February 2011

During my February visit, I spent a short time with my brother in Central Australia. The airport is right in the desert; the red earth inches its way towards the airport terminal. This time I had told Dad I would take the airport shuttle bus to the city and a local train from there, which I did.

A few days later I had an appointment in the city. I took the train to and from the CBD. I tramped down the ramp from the platform and pressed my ticket to the turnstile. Walking through, I saw Dad waiting in the arcade which led to the street.

‘Oh hello Dad! Out for a walk are you?’ I greeted him.

‘Yes, did you have a nice time?’

‘Oh well, it was ok, just a boring appointment’.

‘Where’s your luggage?’ Dad asked.

‘Luggage?’ 

‘Yes, well, I came to help you with your suitcase’.

‘Oh Dad, I’ve just been to the city! I came back from Central Australia two days ago’. I was shocked that he could have forgotten this. ‘Not to worry!’ I said brightly, despairingly. ‘Let’s go home and pop the kettle on, shall we?’

And so it went. Dad making mistakes, me trying hard to hide my shock, me trying to make light of it and hoping it wouldn’t happen again.

August 2011

Dad drove back to the airport to see me off on my final year in China. I had moved to Xian, in the province immediately south of Inner Mongolia because I felt like a change and Xian was an ancient city, the eastern end of the Silk Route.

We had a cup of coffee and ate chocolate brownies at the airport. Dad looked so lost; he barely spoke. I don’t remember what we talked about; that silly, ‘trying to put a brave face on it’ type of conversation you have before doing the thing you don’t want to do, say goodbye.

I do recall a real sense of foreboding and looking at Dad with such dread in my heart. I remember thinking, ‘He’s so frail looking, so scared somehow. I’m worried about him. My dear old Dad’.

I remember walking through the big automatic doors to clear security and looking back at them. Standing there side by side. My parents. My old-looking parents. Bravely waving and smiling. I wanted to rush back to them, to tell them it was going to be all right. 

August 2012

Its late summer in Xian. The students have been doing their washing and have hung their towels and bedsheets on the shrubs around the dormitory building to ‘bask’. There’s a knock at my door.

‘Hiya!’ I greet Tammy, the teacher from New Mexico, the one who is still speaking to me.

‘Hey!’ She replied. ‘I have gin, do you have any tonic?’ She wiggles the bottle at me. Her round freckled face is covered with a broad smile.

‘Ahh…’ I open the fridge. ‘Yep, one tonic. I also have orange juice?’

‘Ok, bring that too…’

It’s fun in her apartment immediately across the hallway from mine. Her window overlooks the basking towels and sheets. That’s what the students called it; not drying, basking. I feel like basking in the late summer sunshine too. I saw the sun so rarely during that twelve months in Xian.

Tammy prepares strong G and Ts and we settle in for a chat. We’ve known each other for just a few months but during this conversation she tells me about her childhood in New Mexico, her family and how she got this job. She casually mentions that her teaching certificate is a fake and she has no teaching experience. Tiddly with gin, I giggle. Later, this annoys me, this faking of certificates and experience, but that evening it just seemed amusing.

‘Let’s try gin and orange!’ She bounces off the couch and grabs my glass. There’s music playing. I think its salsa.

I don’t know where the second gin goes but suddenly we’re drinking gin and cranberry juice from her fridge. We’re up and dancing. I’m spinning around the room, drunk and happy. Until I start crying. The tears are torrential, uncontrollable. I excuse myself and rush back to my apartment, falling into bed fully clothed.

I wake the next day with a massive headache and small smear of vomit on my pillow. I drag myself up and realise I’ve left my flip-flops in Tammy’s apartment. I knock on the door and she looks as dreadful as I feel.

‘Think I left my flip-flops here…’ There’s a pause. ‘I cried a bit last night, didn’t I?  Was it about my Dad?’

She nods.

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China, Travel

Sain uu Genghis! Arriving in Hohhot, September 2009

I pulled out the atlas, found the map of China, shut my eyes and made circles over the page with my finger, finally letting it drop wherever it would.

It fell on Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.

I was excited. Hohhot might be on the Silk Route. It sounded so romantic, to be teaching on the Silk Route.

It’s not.

Hohhot is the capital city of the Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia, Nei Monggu, the province immediately to the north of Shaanxi, whose own capital, Xian, is thought to be the easterly starting point of the Silk Route. Still, I wasn’t far off and not only that, there I discovered there were grasslands close by. Instead of camel caravans, I’d be teaching where Mongol hordes had raced over the grassy steppe lead by Genghis Khan on his own valiant steed.

Getting an English teaching certificate seemed like the perfect way to fund my longing to see more of the world. I had a little teaching experience, working with newly arrived refugees as a volunteer in-home tutor through the Adult Multicultural Education Service and also as a teacher’s aide in the classroom, and with my tertiary degrees and a newly obtained Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, the only thing left to do was find a job.

To be honest, I had never really been particularly interested in China or Chinese culture.

My first choice was the Middle East. I even had an interview with the British Council in Cairo. The interview was held late one evening by phone.

‘Please tell us about your reasons for choosing Egypt and the British Council’.

I managed to put something reasonable coherent together.

‘Please tell us about a time when you delivered a lesson that successfully held the full attention of every student.’

Does any teacher ever have this experience?

With my limited classroom experience I found it difficult to answer but managed to stammer something out.

‘Please tell us about a time when you successfully managed a conflict in the classroom’.

This I couldn’t answer.

‘Please tell us about a time when you supported a failing student to apply themselves to their studies’.

I mean, I’d only done volunteer teaching to this point. The students were keen.

My dream of teaching in the land of the pharaohs was disappearing fast.

‘Please tell us about a time – any time in your life – when you managed to diffuse a challenging situation’.

I didn’t like the idea of this job. I didn’t like what the questions implied. Perhaps I’d lived a sheltered life. Perhaps I liked to maintain harmony with others. Maybe teaching teenagers in Cairo was full of drama.

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Mongolian themed restaurant, Hohhot

I thanked the British Council for their time and entered the minefield that is searching for ESL jobs in China. Confusion increased with every google search. Reading teacher discussion forums, the good, the bad and the very, very ugly stories about not getting visas in time or getting the wrong visa, schools not living up to their promises, dodgy contracts, disappointments of all kinds, horrid work and living conditions, scary students, teachers doing a midnight flit.

“Forget the terms and conditions, I’ll just choose a place and go there”, I thought. ‘I’ve worked on a dig in Syria, lived in a mudbrick hut for weeks on end, with an agent of the secret police watching on. I can deal with whatever the school dishes out.’

I finger fell on Hohhot. A few months later I packed my bags and headed for Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport.

I spent a few dollars having my backpack wrapped in glad-wrap. My backpack looks like an alien child on the edge of breaking out of its chrysalis. But I felt confident as I put it on the conveyor belt at the check-in.

‘That flight left twenty-four hours ago’.

‘Sorry?’

‘It’s gone. Early Sunday morning, just after midnight’.


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Building in 'Mongolian-style', Hohhot

I gathered up the Alien Child and the other pieces of luggage and we went up to the Malaysian Airlines office where we found a number of other people who were unable to tell the time. For $200 extra I was put on another flight; early the following afternoon.

It was touch and go whether my visa for teaching in China would even come through in time for the flight. I flew on Sunday night having received the visa from the Chinese Embassy the previous Friday. The college I was headed for had delayed their paperwork and despite the ESL forums telling me that the Embassy would not accept emailed versions of the work contract, the nice, smiley young man behind the counter did and without any extra financial outlay on my part.

As we took off I thought wistfully of the Middle East and hoped that somehow I might be on my way to Jordan or Morocco but the plane pointed it’s nose north and I ended up in Beijing. After three days in the capital I took another flight to the small provincial capital of Inner Mongolia, called Huhahaote.  I had thought it was pronounced Hoo-hey-how-day, but luckily most people, Chinese and foreign alike, usually referred to it as Hohhot. Or as my mother liked to say, Hothot. 

Hohhot sits in a bowl, surrounded by mountains.  The capital of the province of Inner Mongolia, it’s a small city by Chinese standards with a population of around twelve million with streets signs in both Mandarin and the Mongolian’s Arabic-like script.  The city centre is set roughly on a grid pattern with some streets named about cities of the province, such as Hulunbeir Street and Haier Avenue. Looking along any of these streets will reveal glimpses of the mountains.

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Streetscape, Hohhot

I was collected at the airport by Mr Qu who asked me if I was hungry. He took me to the Best Tasting Porridge café. We had dumplings and porridge with something floating in it. As promised, it was quite tasty.



I was then taken to the teachers’ residential building and shown my apartment. Mr Qu gave me his mobile number, put the Alien Child on a chair said the number 63 bus went to the city. Sitting on the apartment floor, putting my things away, I was seized with a moment of bliss. I’d experienced such moments in Syria. That must be a good sign. The sun was hot, the sky was blue, the college campus was a construction zone, sure, but I was in the land of Genghis Khan.

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