Walkabout in Geneva

Geneva, Switzerland

Café de Paris; Hotel Cristal; Genѐve-Cornavin Railway Station; a little girl on crutches chasing after the chocolate wrapper; a man with a huge bag carrying the stories from the night before; a woman smiling into her mobile twirling her black hair; the Holy Mother sculpted from granite is interceding for me; her Only-Begotten carved from fine wood afloat in mid-air; a homeless angel with a yellow scarf sleeping beneath the pew; not long from now one of us will be dead; I was here three decades ago when I would consume Him; let go, Michael, let go; you hear me, let go, Jeremiah, let go; who is eating the flowers; Edelweiss; leaflets in the shape of stars; beware of the pickpockets; lost and found; an angel searching for his wings; an old woman ferrying a broken pram with a blue wedding dress; please, I am still waiting; Pauline always replies even as she orbits the earth; Tchaikovsky’s letters from fevered rooms and anticipating cities; “Once I was seven years old” (Lukas Graham); happy birthday dear Father beneath the earth; Fauré’s Requiem in D minor; a man with an umbrella hanging from his back is riding a scooter; a young man with big eyes is arguing with the mischievous Cupid; Lac Léman is undulating like Rilke beneath the surface of things; will they be interested in what I have to say; they will not stop that which is soon to come; the second death as unexpected as a spider’s web around your left ear; it is getting dark and pieces of water are starting to break; two silver bicycles tied to a light post; “Bicycle Thieves” (Vittorio De Sica); “Seven Samurai” (Akira Kurosawa); “A movie as rich as a buttered steak topped with grilled eel” (a discerning critic); a man and a woman outside are exchanging photos which will prove them wrong in the morning; Harry Chapin and Bob Dylan; story tellers and word painters; a little bird nested on my laptop; Icarus flew too close to the truth; the flying trapeze tricks and catches; 1234, 12, 1234, 12…; OCD the disease of the prophets reminding us of the return; Arrivée; Départ; Place de Cornavin; Rue des Alpes; a bald Chinaman; a blackbird resting on the balcony; a bouncy girl with bumped up ponytails is on the look-out for the old woman with the pram; Thomas Aquinas the simplicity of God; Beethoven loved poets; Irina Ratushinskaya’s old parrot wanted “to swear in every language known to man”; TinTin was here; more homeless angels with baseball caps; “Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom” (Siddhartha, H.H.); John Calvin; Karl Barth; Hans Küng; the sounds of a didjeridu; music will remain free but there will be a cost to water; seventy-three of the Psalms are attributed to King David; equality and upward mobility the great paradox; save the middle-class; it is very cold and the nose is running; stories written on shivering skins; I should buy a scarf this morning; the great trees of Notre Dame; Hermann Hesse and Patrick White venerated trees; “Giant Trees of Switzerland” (Michel Brunner); every day twenty two thousand children day from preventable pathologies; quantum mechanics and the smallest unit of time; the age of irreversible innovation; Famous Fresh Baguettes; EdelWeiss Shop; Swiss Watches; booming sales of advertising; Facebook profits surge; Google air balloon Wi-Fi hot spots over parched land; A Father walking with his Son who has a bent back; Jean Dubuffet Métamorphoses du paysage; a woman on the corner waiting for a book; I saw you many years ago in Zermatt outside the bakery; a little boy with winter gloves drinking hot chocolate; “Old man look at me now I’m a lot like you were” (Neil Young); did anyone enjoy the Joe Cocker post; the prophetic insights of Pink Floyd; Sachin Tendulkar does not like Greg Chappell; the umpire’s finger will eventually go up; howzattt; your love dripping down my right shoulder like scalding water; yes, Katina, tear open the envelope; it probably has to do with the little stories from Saigon; Jorge Luis Borges is waiting; tronc pour les fleurs; Ave Maria; La basilique Notre-Dame; I have to go to the post office; Rue du Mont-Blanc; Victorinox is everywhere; I wish I didn’t have to do this; I can’t speak without notes anymore; I only want to collect words and images; “We drilled with wooden rifles” (W.H. Auden); the Venus of Brassempouy; on the tusks of elephants an infallible biography; demand for ivory for piano keys; sucre.cannelle; nutella.banane; Grand Marnier; an angel with long hair and a leather jacket recognizes me and points to the post office; he gives me my ticket; I am writing postcards; keep walking else you will get lost; next to me two friends sharing a joke; a man with a groomed moustache enjoying a beer; a teenage runaway missing two fingers is filling his pockets with milk and sugar; rises in quarterly revenue people dying of hunger; slavery on the rise in the supply chain; human rights versus computer rights; 1234 12 1234 12…; nose bleed last night; dear Jesus how did I get here; the Panopticon; George Orwell; Uberveillance; a man far away from home is playing the harp; a woman lost on the streets nearby is brushing her hair and screaming; a blind man stops to listen; Agnus Dei choral music; help us all dear God; convection another name for thunder storms; Läderdach chocolates; I skipped breakfast this morning; the food industry; “Death in Venice” (Thomas Mann); “Death by Internet” (Joe Cavalko); death by degrees; Michael Eldred introducing Plato to the Blues; B.B. King buried with Lucille; Ray Charles swinging the ivory like on a trapeze; Billy Holliday Ripe Fruit; Consuelo Velasquez Bésame Mucho; Dalida Je suis malade; a man speaking with his mouth agape; an old man with a white ponytail and beard pointing to his walking stick; a couple with their little daughter in the shopping trolley next to the detergents; two women carrying shopping bags see me transcribing them into history; nothing is insignificant all acts touch upon the eternal; “Sonata Mulattica: A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play” (Rita Frances Dove); tomorrow I leave for the Inter Continental; conferences will not change the world; love and destruction change the world; the Apocalypse of John; thanks for the adaptor Charlie; the remote control never works the first time; the body sinks into the bath where for a minute it must drown; “Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky...” (Prufrock, T.S. Eliot); a tall man with an ill-fitting suit smiles at me; I catch a glimpse of myself on the glass where the colourful balls are; where have I been all these years; like the “five star” squatters in Mozambique; the four men next to me discussing the ‘miracle’ of Leicester have left; the tall man with ill-fitting suit has returned with a young child to buy a red and blue ball; a woman opposite me has fitted her star-studded sunglasses into her hair; a quarter of a century ago she would have cast a furtive glance my way; “I want to eat the sunbeams flaring in your beauty” (Pablo Neruda); I will never get this talk down to three minutes; but I can get it down to three words; surveillance kills context; I miss you Father; old men are as prone to clichés as the hair growing out of their ears; “When you are old and grey and full of sleep, And nodding by the fire…” (When You are Old, W.B. Yeats); the tooth hurts poison seeping into the jaw; another nose bleed; all pain is childbirth; a young woman carrying flowers and apples; Saint Catherine of Siena Giovanni Battista Tiepolo; hullo Katherine Albrecht all will be well; Palais des Nations; the Broken Chair; Cathédrale Saint-Pierre; Jardin Anglais; Avenue Giuseppe Motta; Rue du Rhone; Quai Wilson; Bongo Joe Records; Bon Génie; ICT Discovery; The Art and History Museum; 1234 12 1234 12…; Aleppo cries tonight; baby girl rescued in Kenya from beneath the rubble; authoritarian populism on the rise in America; Pindar already speaks of animated figures; “they appear to breathe in stone” and “move their marble feet”; see Michael Crichton’s Westworld “where nothing possibly can go wrong”; “Car 54, Where Are You”; the great late Fred Gwynne; The Munsters; Bus No. 5; where did the hours ago; packing almost done; airports; cemeteries; the late evening resurrection; Flight EK 414L; Seat 61D; home sweet home.

‘Bumping’ into Audrey Hepburn

In 1971 halfway through fourth class and enthusiastically exploring the limits of a ten year old’s “autonomy” my schooling was all of a sudden interrupted. It was the year two Australians were crowned Wimbledon champions and the United States landed a fourth crew on the Moon. I would not travel so far or so high, but take flight I would. Mother upon hearing from my old and irascible teacher Mr K. that I was “shocking” became visibly despondent and decided that if there was to be any hope for her errant son he needed to be “sent away”. Father for one, was none too happy with the idea that his “only begotten” would fly the coop a lot earlier than expected. I was to leave for Greece post-haste to live with my Aunt and Uncle and two older cousins, where I would continue with school during the latter part of the seven year Greek military junta.[1] My new home for the next twelve months would be in the port city of Piraeus made internationally famous by Manos Hadjidakis’ film score “Children of Piraeus” in Never on Sunday (1960).

The first few weeks were entirely miserable. I missed my home. I missed my parents. I missed my friends. And the little transistor radio I brought over with me, to listen to the doyen of rugby league callers, Frank Hyde on 2SM, was to my shock and horror not working! In spite of everything, not surprisingly perhaps given the resilience of a young child, I would slowly find myself getting used to this strikingly different environment. The little shop-front home that Aunt M. had refurbished to sell an odd assortment of school supplies (to make ends meet after Uncle N. was ‘decommissioned’ from his high naval post by the junta), was situated on a marvellously named street Aghiou Orous (Holy Mount). Providence would have that many years later I would spend long periods of time on the Holy Mountain itself, the famous monastic community in Northern Greece.[2]

Next door to our little home lived an old couple. One afternoon there was a commotion, a wailing of young and older female voices. A large crowd had gathered. The old man had passed away in the morning, “died suddenly in his sleep”, they said. I peered through the window and there he was in full view lying in wake. He was the first dead person I had ever seen and the first time I beheld that other, more terrifying, face of God. Up the road lived a gypsy family in a ramshackle of a place, the youngest daughter was a fiercely attractive rebel, she was two years older than me and I would be very happy to see her. A few streets down the famous (occasionally riotous) taverna with its big underbelly of Greek culture, which for a little kid, was a world unto its own. At my new school, no doubt on account of my ‘alien’ place of origin, I was made the class captain. During the weekdays we would salute the portraits of the Colonel’s and on Sundays in strict parallel lines marched to church.

Mother would come to Greece early in 1973 to bring me back and so together we would make a second return journey to Australia (ten years earlier we had voyaged to the old country on board the broken-down ocean liner Ellinis).[3] Along with our suitcases on this occasion, I can still remember, we also packed a large carton of books. The assorted collection included cookbooks, an encyclopaedic etiquette manual, and a variety of popular magazines. But what particularly caught my attention was the stack of beautiful looking hardcovers. These books were thick and bound in fine colourful cloth. In gold lettering on the front and spine were printed the title and name of the author. I rediscovered these treasures a few years later crammed in a wardrobe and it seemed to me, if the creases on the pages were any indication, they had been read or at least had been thumbed through. These finely crafted volumes were translations of classics into Modern Greek. Amongst the mix where Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Hugo’s Les Misérables, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays, an anthology of Plato’s writings, and Kathryn Hulme’s The Nun’s Story . This last title was made famous by Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of Sister Luke in the popular film directed by Fred Zinnemann (1959).  

And it was probably from this time onwards that my love for books can be traced.

I was proficient enough in my second language to make an attempt at these classics when I entered high school, for I have nowhere mentioned the riotous years spent in Greek afternoon school, and how unimaginably horrifying when the classes happened to fall on footy training days! Of course, the sheer thickness of these handsome books, not to mention their subject matter, quickly discouraged me but for one exception, The Nun’s Story [4]. It fascinated me for some reason which would be entirely inexplicable if not for the byzantine atmosphere which permeated our home. It also proved to be quite the omen given how my life would afterwards evolve. I skipped over the words I could not understand and in a short time had completed my first serious work of literature. And in Modern Greek to boot!

Hulme’s book was based on the real life story of a devout young Belgian named Marie Louise Habets, daughter of a famous surgeon. In 1926 she entered a religious order, the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary. Following in the footsteps of Habets, Sister Luke who in the novel similarly to her real life counterpart worked as a nurse in the Congo would also depart from the institutional religious life. Though at times thinking of themselves as “failures” neither lost their faith, nor assumed that giving up the habit meant ‘divorce’ from God. Would Maximilian Kolbe, for example, who volunteered to die in the place of a stranger at the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz, been any less of a divine soul if he had taken “off” his cassock the night before? In the novel Sister Luke confidently voices to her chaplain that God already knows the motives which drive us. “I have given too many cups of water in His name and He knows I would go on doing it, whether working for Him as a nun or as a war nurse.” Martin Edmond, the author of that deeply thoughtful contemplation of Collin McCahon’s temporary disappearance in Centennial Park,[5] would speak for most of us when he writes, “…in every life there is a mystery that can never wholly be divulged. We all take secrets with us to the grave and the most profound of those secrets is who we really are.”

We too often place a greater emphasis on the externals, choosing to forget: “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Matt. 7:2). Perhaps if this can be paraphrased in modern terms, I can think of nothing which comes closer than the words of Vikram Seth in the last paragraph of that magnificent memoir/ biography of his beloved Hindu Uncle Shanti and German Jewish Aunt Henny (Two Lives, 2005):[6] “May we see that we could have been born as each other.”


And so we returned and I would go straight into sixth class at my old primary school on King Street, which was directly across from the Reno.


[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/july/23/newsid_2515000/2515819.stm

[2] http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/454

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qVpV8_7thM

[4] http://www.amazon.com/Nuns-Story-Kathryn-Hulme/dp/0316381357/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1446369298&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Nun%27s+Story

[5] http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Night-Walking-Martin-Edmond/dp/1869404831

[6] http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2006/03/13/1590269.htm