just draw

When I drew as a child it was just to illustrate my writing. I wrote books when I was little. With cardboard covers. The writing was what mattered. I didn’t think I could draw but I thought the pages needed some colour.
Some children draw prolifically. They fill scribble pads and cover walls and verandahs and use chalk in the driveway. I didn’t think I could draw. So I didn’t.
And Drawing can be one of those things we grow out of. As soon as we become self-conscious and decide our drawing is not as good as other people’s drawing. Or our drawing doesn’t look like the thing it was supposed to look like.
We all learn handwriting in the same way. We have lines in our books and we copy and learn about shapes and directions of lines. But our handwriting all turns out differently. We learn the rules then we make it our own.
Why can’t we see drawing the same way?
Amandine Thomas is an illustrator. She is also passionate about getting grown ups to rediscover the joy and freedom of expression of art.
In a one-off workshop, she led us through a series of exercises that allowed us to unlock the flow and just draw.
About thirty people sat around the huge trestle table with silver birch legs and covered with rolls of blank paper in the White House in St Kilda. We drew portraits of the people around us.  Firstly with our left hands, then without looking at the paper, but just looking at our subject. Next we used a single line and without lifting the pen from the paper, we transposed what we saw onto the paper in front of us. Then we closed our eyes and drew from memory, trying to be aware of the pen and the space on the paper without looking. Finally we used someone else’s hand and guided the pen over the paper, combining trust and mechanics to create an intimate expression and experience.
After each exercise, we were asked to reflect on what we liked about our drawing and write that next to it. We did a round of the table to see what other people had done. And, like the handwriting, everyone had a different approach and result.
The drawings were quick and intuitive. We were present in the moment. Observing and appreciating without over-thinking.
I thought I couldn’t draw. And I love what I produced.


the angels’ share

The first time I tasted whisky was in the Highlands. I was on a Highland Fling. This sounds a lot more exciting than the reality. The fast-paced tour of the Highlands in a mini-bus was tantalisingly called a highland fling and by the end of the four days I did feel as though I had been flung from Edinburgh to Glen Coe to Culoddin to Sterling. I loved it and had some sort of nostalgic feeling of belonging to this country my parents were born in.
Anyway. The whisky. When we crossed the line into the highlands, our tour leader pulled off the road with, I seem to recall, a skid. She pulled out a bottle of Dalwhinnie seemingly from nowhere, filled glasses and made us all salute the Highlands.
Dalwhinnie is a highland single malt and tastes like the moors. Well, the moors on a rare sunny day where the scent of warm honeyed flowers is in the air. It is floral and light and, to me on that first tasting, like golden nectar.
Whisky has many faces and reputations attached to it. It can be top-shelf or cheap and paper baggish. The kind of whisky I’m talking about is single malt and, therefore tending to the top shelf, although I can’t really afford the very top shelf of whiskies. Some of the ‘best’ whiskies have been in storage for decades. A decanter of Macallan 1946 went for  $460,000 in 2010. Glenfiddich had a barrel of whisky that had been ageing since New Year’s Eve  1955. When Janet Sheed Roberts, the granddaughter of Glenfiddich’s founder William Grant, died at the age of 110, the company decided to honour her by making 15 bottles from the aforementioned barrel. An American whisky connoisseur bought a bottle for $94,000.
So these kinds of prices are way too fancy pants for me. Clearly. But why are some whiskies more expensive than others and where does the ‘e’ come into it?
Whisky is from Scotland. Whiskey is Irish. And then there’s Bourbon. All bourbon is whisky but not all whisky is bourbon. Tricky, isn’t it. Whisk(e)y can be made anywhere in the word with differing degrees of success and acclaim and price tags. Bourbon can only be made in the US. The US got all French about the appellation of Bourbon, attaching a rigid set of rules to what can be labelled Bourbon. Firstly, Bourbon has to contain at least 51% corn (as opposed to whisky whisky nancy whisky  which can be made with any combination of grains), bourbon must be produced at no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume vs. less than 190 proof for whisky), bottled at no more than 80% alcohol by volume (whisky is no less than 40%) and bourbon must be stored in NEW oak containers whereas whisky doesn’t mind hijacking the flavours of other alcohol. In fact, most Scottish whisky distillers will use American bourbon casks for the first 12 years of single malt maturation before transferring them to French oak for the finishing touch.
So there you go. Fascinating.
But where did all this talk and wondering about whisky come from?
A whisky tasting.
I like knowing about stuff, finding out more. Stretching my mind and my experience. We’ve established I loved the whisky I saluted the highlands with. And I didn’t stop there, I drink whisky. I like it. A lot. Some people question that. Whisky can seem harsh and inaccessible. I think it’s just about knowledge.
Knowledge abounded at the Whisky and Alement tasting. It was a rainy, cold Melbourne evening and the cosy bar with a wall of whisky was cosy and inviting. I felt as though I had teleported into Scotland. To add to this slightly skewiff feeling before I had even started sampling the drink, was the fact that the person leading us through the tasting was Scottish.
Laura Hay is fresh off the boat from Scotland. She is the perfect person to be the Glenlivet/Chivas ambassador in Australia. Laura loves whisky. I mean really loves it. With an ardour far exceeding moderation. Laura lived three doors down from the Glenlivet distillery. She has been involved with whisky since she can remember. Laura doesn’t make snowmen, she makes snow bottles of whisky. Loves. It.
So, despite the fact that Laura has talked about whisky many times to many assembled groups of people, her enthusiasm was infectious and it felt as though we were her first collective, the first set of people she wanted to share the love with.
The Glenlivet distillery was founded in 1824 and has operated almost continuously since then. It draws water from Josie’s Well. The barley comes from Crisp Malthings, Portgordon. Glenlivet’s stills are lantern shaped with long narrow necks and this combination of ingredients and tools, creates a light tasting spirit, not the ashy, peaty flavours of other single malts.
The whisky is matured in either casks which have been used for bourbon or those which were used for sherry and port. This also has a bearing on the matured flavour.
The science happens in the distillery, the magic happens in the cask.
Glenlivet is categorised as a Speyside distillery. This is the area around the Rivery Spey in northeastern Scotland. Speyside whiskies are generally classified as light and grassy, which the Glenlivert are, or rich and sweet, as some other distilleries in the area are.
A distiller may make several different versions of their whiskies available, perhaps different age statements or with different finishes. Each of these will be known as an expression, which sounds very poetic to me.
The tasting.
1.     12 year old
Bright and lively gold. Smells like tropical fruits, maybe pineapple.
NOTE. Nosing the whisky. Single malt whisky is the most complex whisky in the world. Put your nose in the glass and inhale. It’s best to have your mouth slightly open so that you are not overwhelmed by the alcohol content. Ethanol can be a shock to the system.  The idea is to appreciate the aromas. Take your nose away from the glass, then return to breathe again. Get to know the whisky. Then drink. The initial flavours are fruity: fresh peaches and pears, vanilla (probably from the bourbon cask). But there are nuts there…almonds, marzipan, hazelnuts.
2.     15 year old
The whisky is in American oak casks for the first 13-14 years and then transferred to new French oak casks for the last year. Limousin oak provides a vanillin flavour.
Deeper gold.
Rich with creamy toffee. Orange peel. Still the nuts. Toasted this time.
George Smith was the founder of the distillery. Whisky distilleries had been around for centuries but during prohibition, may went underground. The women made the whisky and the men smuggled it.
When King George IV visited Scotland for the first time in 1832, he demanded that some of George Smith’s whisky be brought to him in Edinburgh , so endorsing the illegal drink.
3.     Nadurra
16 years in cask. Nadurra is the purest expression of whisky. Almost as it would have been drunk, straight from the cask as they did in the old days. It’s name means natural in gaelic and the distillers refrain from chill filtering it, leaving it at barrel-strength. The alcohol content is enhanced, as is the experience.
Floral and sweet spice.
Smooth and silky. Honeyed.
Adding a little water enhances the flavour, brings out the ginger.
4.     18 year old
Golden autumn.
Elegant and complex. Rich and sweet.
Smooth with bursts of spice and oranges.
The angels’ share is the 2% of volume which evaporates each year the whisky matures. I like that the angels take their share. I hope they enjoy it.

laughter yoga

Today I laughed so hard I had tears in my eyes and my abs hurt. That doesn’t say much for my abs. I was laughing out loud, alone in my office. The door was even open but I didn’t care. Ok, I sort of cared when I couldn’t help making those kind of involuntary more high-pitched groan kind of laughs, but, by then it was too late. I was loving it. The cause of this absolutely out-of-control and yet blissful laughter was a website, dontpkethebear.com who had listed ‘the funniest auto-corrects fails’.
I know. Pretty lowest common denominator stuff. And I, like you, would far rather it had been because I was reading an erudite and yet cleverly hilarious farce which highlighted the problems of western civilisation and somehow managed to provide solutions while maintaining a whimsical and comedic iambic pentameter style.
Sorry, noFunny iphone autocorrects.
I may have just been desperate to laugh. Really laugh. And make that weird noise.
I wondered when I had last laughed in that breathtaking way. It was in Vietnam. We were lucky to have dinner with a Vietnamese family in Hue and once we had eaten, the children sang some songs for us. The star of the performance was the 18 month old who had all the moves to gangnam style, which his brothers, sisters and cousins were singing. Gold.

Laughter. I really don’t want to say it’s the best medicine. But sometimes sayings get to be sayings for a reason.
When I was in Hanoi (like how I just slipped that in? Just adding an international woman of mystery flavour…although, two things…one, not much of a mystery that I was in Hanoi, given I blogged about it and, two, I think any kind of mysterious woman aura was blown when I described my groan-laugh…) I went to a Laughter Yoga session.
Since it began in India in 1995 the laughter yoga movement has spread to more than 3,000 clubs worldwide. 
The Laughter Club in Hanoi, launched in 2011, now boasts of being the world’s largest daily Laughter Club with about 200 people. About a hundred people, generally older Vietnamese women, meet at 6 a.m. every morning in a large square in Hanoi to spend an hour laughing.

The idea of laughter clubs is to gain the benefits of laughter by laughing for no reason. It’s not about telling. Hearty, roaring, silent and humming laughter, giggling, chuckling and smiling – at a laughter club, laughter is practised until it becomes more natural.

Our teacher was a tall, gangly young Vietnamese man with an elastic face. When he laughed, he really laughed. He led us through a series of stretches and laughter exercises and some fairly aggressive Vietnamese massage-type backslapping. For the newcomer, it is hard to get into initially. Self-consciousness is a stumbling block. But by half way through, I couldn’t help myself, I was laughing.
I’m not sure it is something I would rush off every morning to, but for these women, it is an important part of their day and their community. And it can’t be bad starting every day with an hour of laughter.

new hood

I have a new neighbourhood. The Elwood chapter is over and the Abbotsford chapter is beginning. Elwood welcomed me to Melbourne and I am grateful for her leafy avenued, seaside community. Melbourne has a south vs. north thing going on. One side of the river against the other. I’m not really sure what that’s about. But I have crossed the river. And I am embracing it.

Abbotsford was historically an industrial area. You can still see remnants of factories and mills, but they have mostly become hipster cafes and apartments.

Gentrification. Depending on who is telling the story this is either a good thing or a bad thing. For real estate agents, it’s fantastic. Because when the bohemian bourgeois take over a suburb, and the rough edges are embraced and incorporated into latte environments, the prices go up. For the people who were just always here doing their thing, it can be annoying.

Abbotsford has a lot going on. A steady stream of migration since the 80s has made Abbotsford home to a large Vietnamese community and as a consequence a lots of vietnamese food down Victoria Street.  I can get my pho fix whenever I feel the need.

And then there’s the Abbotsford Convent, the former Convent of the Good Shepherd. Nowadays the extensive and beautiful buildings positioned at the bend in the Yarra house artists, practitioners and creative communities. Land at this bend in the river has been used for farming since the first land sales in 1838. The Collingwood Children’s farm continues this tradition and is probably the oldest freehold farm land in Victoria. The land that runs down from the convent through the farm is a green and calm valley which hosts the monthly farmers market and is home to an extensive variety of animals from earthworms to peacocks to goats, horses, ducks and guinea pigs.

It feels good to be in Abbotsford.

Sa Pa: the landscape, the people

Sa Pa is an overnight train ride from Ha Noi. And a world apart. 
Arriving in Lao Cai train station, we were driven to Sa Pa in the mountains. As soon as the bus pulled into the village square there was a clamouring of voices coming from the indigo-clad women lining the street: “You buy from me?”, “Shopping, madame?” And these were the phrases which peppered the three days I spent in the area.

The landscape is stunning but challenging. Terraced rice paddies reflect the tenacity of the people who tend them. The fact that they are persistent enough to produce two crops of rice a year on these tiny layered fields, explains a lot about their persistence in trying to get tourists to buy their bags, wristbands and clothing.

The traditional indigo fabric the area is renowned for starts off as hemp. The women can often be seen walking around working sheaths of hemp as they go, stripping off the outside layers and producing threads of textile. These are then bleached and then dyed in large vats of indigo dye.

Indigo dye is extracted form the leaves of the indigo plants which grow around their houses. A paste or powder is produced by fermenting the leaves and is then boiled with rice wine, lye or, interestingly, boys’ urine. The hemp is immersed in the dye for about half an hour and then hung up to oxidise.

There are five tribes living in the mountains around Sa Pa: the Hmong, Tay, Dao, Giay and Pho Lu. They live very closely to one another but there are subtle differences in dress and they each have their own language that the other tribes don’t speak. Vietnamese is the common language.

Tourism is a relatively new source of income for the mountain people.  Tourists really only started visiting the region in 1995. And the people are capitalising on it, learning English, guiding treks, selling their wares.

Life in the villages is still fairly traditional. Despite the arrival of mobile phones and excellent cellular reception. Walking up a muddy track, passing water buffalo, the indigo-clad woman in front of me answered her pink phone and had an animated conversation. I couldn’t quite marry that with the stories our guide, Chai, told us about about the importance of the Sunday market for meeting a prospective husband or wife. The girls marry young here. Getting married at 16 or 17 is still common. The marriages are often arranged by the parents. In this case, the couple may not have actually met before the proposal. But they may have glimpsed each other across a basket of chickens…or morning glory (water spinach). The girl can say No in answer to a proposal, but it doesn’t pay to say no too often. Unmarried women are not only considered very odd in the mountains, they have no one to look after them once their parents die.

Sons are still the be all and end all, the awaited child. Some families keep trying, we were told, and end up with 11 daughters.

There is domestic violence amongst the hill tribes. The stories of husbands beating wives seemed common. Chai told us that she refused to allow her parents to choose a husband for her. She wanted to marry someone that she loved and who would not beat her. She and her husband are hard workers, capitalising on the opportunities provided through the influx of visitors. He manages and cooks in a beautiful restaurant in Sa Pa, specialising in food from the region. Her English is excellent and she works as a guide on the treks and also as a translator and interpreter, often with film companies. They have a three year old son and they want him to go to University.

Drinking ‘happy water’ (rice wine) with a local family who did not wear the traditional costume and who had built their house to accommodate tourists, I was struck by the fact that we are all just the same. The husband of the family may have cooked our chicken and beef over the coals of an open fire in the kitchen, but these people, like most people, are doing the best they can for themselves and their children. They like a good time. They were eager to know whether we enjoyed their cooking and even more eager to toast our appreciation of the food with even more rice wine. 

Noj tsis noj kuj tuav diav
Luag tsis luag kuj ntxi hniav.
Whether you eat or not, at least hold a spoon
Whether you laugh or not, at least smile
Hmong Proverb

embraced by water

Ha Noi, capital city of Viet Nam. The city lies on the right bank of the Red River and is embraced by about 100 kilometres of Red River deltas.

As the capital of Vietnam for almost a thousand years (October 2010 marked 1000 years since the establishment of the city), Hanoi is considered one of the main cultural centres of Vietnam, where most Vietnamese dynasties have left their imprint. Even though some relics have not survived through wars and time, there are still plenty of interesting cultural and historic monuments to take in: the Temple of Literature, the One Pillar Pagoda, Museum of Ethnology and the Women’s museum, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – as a sign of their great love for Uncle Ho, the people ignored his request to be cremated and instead embalmed him. They continue to send him off to Russia once a year to top up the embalming process, and so is with his people always.

Even when the nation’s capital moved to Huế under the Nguyễn Dynasty in 1802, the city of Hanoi continued to flourish, especially after the French took control in 1888 and modeled the city’s architecture to their tastes, lending an important aesthetic to the city’s rich stylistic heritage.

I think I expected Ha Noi to be more French. But apart from the architecture and the french bread, a lot of the frenchiness has disappeared. This is probably a good thing. Setting to one side my own desperado desires for all things French, the French approach to colonising left a lot to be desired and Ha Noi is right to reclaim its own flavour and cultural heritage.

năm giác quan

I am not a shining light in my experiencing Vietnam through all five senses. This concept is old news.

Vietnamese food, in particular, consciously appeals to each of the five senses. Obviously there’s taste, then there is the way it is arranged on the plate; the colours, textures, shapes are visually appealing. The herbs provide stimulation for our sense of smell. The crunchiness of crisp nems or fresh vegetables is an audible element and a lot of Vietnamese food needs to be picked up, touched, broken apart.

Five is the key number here and the power of five seems far-reaching. Coincidentally, perhaps, the star on Vietnam’s flag has five points. In Chinese and derivative cultures, the five-pointed golden star has strong associations with military power and strength.

But I digress.

Five. Intuitively we know, and can taste the careful balance in Vietnamese food, but what we perhaps vaguely sense about the food is a carefully calculated and philosophical approach. Vietnamese dishes are conceived through the balance of five elements; the fundamental taste senses: spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet. I wondered how best to describe the sensation of bitter as opposed to sour, for example. But if you think wood for sour and fire for bitter, it makes more sense. And these taste notes correspond to the five organs: gall bladder, small intestine, large intestine, stomach and urinary bladder. 

Intriguing, no?

Vietnamese dishes also include five types of nutrients. The plot gets thicker. Powder, water or liquid, mineral elements, protein and fat. And as if that wasn’t enough, Vietnamese cooks try to have five colours, which again correspond to the five elements: white/metal, green/wood, yellow/Earth, red (fire) and black (water).

And who amongst you thought it was just a matter of stir-frying some veges in the wok and garnishing with coriander?

Apart from all the eating I did in Vietnam, one of the most impressive experiences of Vietnamese food came through the cooking class with Mr Hung in Hoi An.

The class began with a visit to the market.

Once back at the cooking school, we donned our aprons and chefs’ hats, no less, and with a beer in hand, the lesson was underway.

We began with Hoi An pancakes, rice flour batter with chopped spring onion, sizzled pork and prawn and eaten with lettuce and herbs inside rice paper.

 Then we prepared the fish grilled in banana leaf and stuffed with a heady filling of garlic, chilli, ginger, red onion and rum.

 Vegetarian spring rolls filled with shredded carrot, taro, woodear mushroom, and green bean. Wrapped in rice paper, fried in oil and cut into small cigar rolls.

Green papaya and chicken salad with a salty, spicy, sour dressing.

Happiness is an empty plate and a full belly.

where the dragon descends to the sea

Ha Long Bay with its 2000 islands, 989 of which are named according to the imagination of the fishermen (Voi Islet (elephant), Ga Choi Islet (fighting cock)), is a world heritage site and last year was included in the seven wonders of the modern world. I don’t really know how to describe it adequately. Even the photos don’t do it justice. The bay with its limestone rock formations rising up out of the ocean like jagged teeth extends over 1553 km2. We visited Sung Sot, or Surprise Cave, one of the many caves in the area. Discovered in 1901,  the cave was used as a hideout by the Viet Cong during the ‘American War in Vietnam’. 

After an afternoon of kayaking around some of the smaller bays, watching monkeys scaling the cliffs and listening to birds of prey wheeling overhead, the boat set down its anchor overnight and we sat up on the top deck drinking beer and watching blue sky turn dusky pink, indigo then black.

the feeling

“We have road rules in Vietnam but we prefer to go with our gut feeling. If the light is red and there are no police, we just go.” Hai Pham, Intrepid Guide

Which is mesmerizing to watch when you’re sitting in a bar with a $2 beer and not actually amongst it. To the uninitiated it’s a little tricky to get a good sense of the feeling.

He who hesitates is lost has never been more true when crossing the road in Vietnam. There was a lot of paint wasted when they put in pedestrian crossings. They mean nothing. And as for the little green man as an indication it is safe to cross..? Forget it. You just have to throw yourself amongst the onslaught of motorbikes and attempt some sort of eurythmic approach to getting to the other side.

The same can be said for attempting to cycle in city traffic. I joined three cycle tours, two in cities, and I experienced some of the most hair-raising moments in my life. Especially in Hanoi. Hanoi has a population of 6.5 million with 3 million motorbikes. I think every last one of them was on the route we took. We had a guide who led the weaving and negotiating through the craziness. But there were some fairly fast heart beating moments there.

There are 85 million people and 26 million vehicles in Vietnam. 95% of these vehicles are motorbikes. For a long time, the Honda Dream was the big seller. Then it was the Dream II. Apparently, the nicer your motorbike the more attractive your girlfriend. So they say.

There is a story that relates Ho Chi Minh meeting Martin Luther King. When the leader of the Afro-American Civil Rights movement declared to the Communist revolutionary, Prime Minister and President that he had a dream, Ho Chi Minh is said to have sagely nodded his head and replied, I have a Dream II.

Viet Nam

Vietnam, or as the Vietnamese people write it, Viet Nam, the Viet people from the south. Where to begin? I have a lot of cliched phrases in my head…land of many contrasts, a thriving destination, multitude of colour and natural beauty. All these things are true.

Before I left for my first foray into south-east Asia, I was asked what I expected. And to be honest, I didn’t really have expectations for Vietnam. I surprisingly hung expectation on a hook in the hall cupboard and had a sense of wanting Vietnam or my experience of it to be revealed to me as it happened. I wanted to discover and see and smell and taste. When I thought of Vietnam before going, I did imagine all the clichés…a lot of colour and an assailing of the senses. And perhaps that’s what I expected…that my senses would be assailed in a way they hadn’t been before.

I knew it would be a whirlwind with just over in a day at each stop. A lot of places beginning with H and one that begins with S.

Ho Chi Minh City, still referred to as Saigon, by its inhabitants
Hoi An
Halong Bay

From the moment I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City two and a bit weeks ago, I had the impression of a sensory overload. Overload has negative connotations, so it is not so much that my senses were overloaded, but that each sense was appealed to, expanded, challenged, confronted and stroked.

I felt, tasted, heard, saw and breathed in Vietnam during every moment of my trip.