When in Rome

My October trip to Greece included a three-night sojourn in Rome, which came about when my original travel plans changed. I had planned to meet a dear friend from the States and spend a week with her in Positano on the Amalfi coast. When these plans fell through I was left with a return flight from Athens to Rome and a question mark as to what to do next.

I didn’t want to be in Positano without my friend, but I love Italy and I didn’t want to just cancel the trip altogether. I sat on the decision of what to do with this flight to Rome till a couple of weeks before I flew out to Europe. In the end it was the accommodation that persuaded me. I found an absolutely delightful boutique hotel near the Spanish Steps called the Relais Donna Lucrezia. I booked three nights there – the perfect amount of time for a little get-away.

The last time I was in Rome was in 1991 when I was 21. I was young and naïve, and I was on a very tight budget. I barely had money for food, let alone things like tours. I travelled everywhere on public transport and crammed in as many touristy activities (that were free) as I could in five days, often rushing from one famous location to another.

the author at the Vatican in 1991

At the Vatican, 1991

I visited the Colosseum for no more than twenty minutes in 1991 as I was pressed for time. Yes – it seems ridiculous to me too! This time I spent two hours inside and took an audio tour (as the guides were booked out). The Colosseum is one of those places that people know about even if they’ve never stepped a foot in Italy or studied ancient history. But to actually be there and contemplate the reality of people being brutally murdered there for entertainment was quite an emotional experience.


The Colosseum – busy even in late October

St Peters Basilica exterior

St. Peter’s Basilica

St Peters Basilica interior

St. Peter’s Basilica interior

I also visited St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel when I was 21 and was awed by both. It was a no-brainer to visit again, but this time I took a guided tour of both the Vatican museums and the Basilica – and it was great. Our guide was fantastic, combining history with fascinating stories, saucy rumours and funny anecdotes. It was a three-hour tour in very, very crowded circumstances but our guide kept us constantly engaged with the art around us.

When we got to the Sistine Chapel it was standing room only, with very solemn guards instructing people to not take photos and to be silent. Despite this there was a constant hum of people talking – to be expected in a crowd of several hundred people crammed in together. Twenty-six years ago, however, the crowd was so sparse that I was able to get a seat on one of the benches along the wall and I remember sitting there in quiet contemplation for nearly an hour.

Of course, the Sistine Chapel had yet to undergo its restoration back then, so this time the colours of the frescoes were significantly brighter and the images more striking. Despite all the differences, the one constant is that the Delphic Sybil is still my favourite part of the chapel ceiling. I couldn’t take my eyes off her!


Detail of Sistine Chapel ceiling – the Delphic Sybil

When I was still planning my side trip to Rome, I found a fabulous website called Romewise, run by an American now living in Rome. It has a heap of practical advice for visitors and through it I not only found a couple of really good restaurants but also some great ideas for what to do.

For example, taking a food tour. There were different types to choose from but I booked a three-hour street-food tour through Private Guides of Rome. It was affordable and looked like a great way to get to know the old part of the city. I was blessed with a small group and a wonderful guide. We not only tried delicious food we learnt about its history. Our guide talked about the different locations we walked through, such as the Campo de’ Fiori and the Pantheon (which is actually my favourite place in Rome). He also pointed out how much of Roman incidental architecture is created from a mish-mash of materials taken from other buildings, transgressing time periods. An ancient column from here, some medieval bricks from there, and voila – a new building. We joked that Romans were the originators of the re-use and recycle sustainability motto.

street food tour salamis and wine

A selection of salamis served with red wine

street food tour Roman Jewish artichokes

Roman Jewish artichokes (deep fried whole artichokes)

street food tour Il Forno Roscioli

Roscioli bakery

street food tour gelateria Punto Gelato

Punto Gelato serves delicious gelati in lots of different flavours

Another Romewise suggestion was to go to the opera. By sheer luck my favourite opera, Puccini’s Tosca, was playing at the Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma on my last night in Rome. I decided to spring for a good seat and booked my ticket. It was expensive but so worth it! I actually gasped when I was ushered into my little booth and saw my view of the stage. I felt like royalty. The music was breathtakingly beautiful and the performances fantastic. I got so carried away by the emotional power of the music that I wept – three separate times! The whole experience was magnificent – the best thing I’ve done when travelling.

Teatro dell Opera di Roma

The view from my booth at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

All up my little side-trip to Rome was a huge success. I was exhausted by the end of it – I calculated that I’d done nearly 20 hours of walking in three days – but also on a massive travel high. My short trip to Rome may have been a consolation prize for missing out on the planned trip to Positano, but I came away from it feeling like a winner.


Euro Visions

A few weeks ago I found myself in Copenhagen for Eurovision with my friend Rachael.

Eurovision 2014 stage in background and green room with performers in foreground

We’re both big fans of Danish TV (shows like The Killing and Borgen), and we both love Eurovision. So when Denmark won Eurovision 2013, Rachael began petitioning me and, despite having no regular employment and no idea how I’d pay for the trip, after two months of lobbying on her part I said yes.

Eurovision is much-loved in Australia. Over three nights, but especially during the Grand Final, people have Eurovision parties, compete to have their #SBSEurovision tweets appear during the telecast, and indulge in drinking games (Smoke machine? Drink! Male artist takes his shirt off? Drink!).

Still from live act - Eurovision 2014 - men in colourful suits

Still from live act - Eurovision 2014 - red and white traditional Polish design

Still from live act - stage shows words "I wanna have a moustache"

That Australians should love Eurovision so much is perfectly understandable given our European migrant history and our love of all things daggy. We love to laugh at the costumes, the props, the songs and the whole over the top aesthetic. For us Eurovision is utterly foreign and utterly hilarious.

But going to Eurovision is a very different experience from watching it on telly.

Absolutely the fun is still there: the fans who dress up, the festival atmosphere in the host city, the general excitement of an event as massive as Eurovision is (as well as the three televised finals there are another three family rehearsals and three jury finals).

Fans in Spanish and British flags

Fans in pink suits and hats.

Fans wearing sequinned clothing

Fans in red and white with drawn on beards

What is different, however, is the realisation that for the European fans, Eurovision is still an important song contest. The artists and performers are not trying to be over the top, or kitsch, or weird. That’s just how they are. And the music is the music of Europe. That’s what they listen to over there.

There are still a lot of fun elements. Interval entertainment for the last couple of years has included a comedy piece, usually the host city or nation poking fun at itself self-deprecatingly.

Ironically, given we’re a nation that loves to laugh at Europe, when the second semi final interval entertainment included a piece that poked fun at many Australian stereotypes, a lot of Australians back home cringed. “But that’s not what we’re like!” was the refrain on social media. As if the act was a serious examination of Australia’s culture and diversity. We’re always happy to laugh at Europe, it seems, but not so comfortable if Europe laughs at us.

Still from live act at interval of Eurovision 2014 semi final 2 - shows Michaelangelo's God and Adam clinking beers

You also get a far better understanding of how Europe chooses its winners when you’re there. Yes, there are a lot of politics and block voting going on in Eurovision. But countries that win rarely do so because their block voted them through. And countries that are not in blocks have won in the past, too.

Conchita Wurst, singing for Austria, was not the favourite going into the semi-finals. It wasn’t clear whether Europe was ready for a bearded drag queen diva singing a song that sounds like the theme from the next James Bond film.

Silhouette of woman on stage

As it turns out, they were. Overwhelmingly so. There is a great post on My Blue Danube that examines some of the politics behind Austria’s win.

I have now watched Conchita’s performance twice live and several times on YouTube and television, and have heard (and sung along!) with her song many times. So this is my take on Austria’s win:

Conchita gave an outstanding performance, never faltering once, with no props or dancers or musicians on stage to distract from her. Mostly standing still, her only movement was to raise her arm dramatically at the chorus.

Woman in gold dress on stage, arm extended upwards

Which brings me to the song. Let’s just recap part of the lyrics:

Waking in the rubble

Walking over glass

Neighbors say we’re trouble

Well that time has passed

You wouldn’t know me at all today

From the fading light I fly

Rise like a phoenix

Out of the ashes

Seeking rather than vengeance


You were warned

Once I’m transformed

Once I’m reborn

You know I will rise like a phoenix

Conchita sang this song for all the LGBTI men and women like her who had been put down in life and told they weren’t normal. The people who believe, as she said in her winner’s speech, in peace and freedom. In unity.

But the song is bigger than one individual. As she sang, all underdogs saw themselves in Conchita’s song. And that included European underdog nations who are waiting to rise like a phoenix from the economic ashes they find themselves in.

How else to explain why Spain, Italy and Greece – known more for their macho, if not entirely homophobic, culture – all gave Austria 12 points?

Conchita Wurst singing for Austria captured the zeitgeist.

The voting score board at Eurovision 2014 and a woman wearing a fake beard on screen

Many of the fans we met at Eurovision asked us if this was “our first Eurovision”; they had all been to several. I can understand the addiction, though of course it’s much easier when you don’t have to travel from the other side of the world to get there.

I found Eurovision exhilarating but exhausting, too. Going to all three televised shows was pretty full-on.

On the other hand, now that I’m home and some time has past, I find myself thinking about Eurovision 2015. After all, I’ve always wanted to see Vienna….!


Chance Encounters of the Inspiring Kind

Remember the movie Sliding Doors? It centred on the idea that a tiny difference in timing could be life-changing. Someone who changes your life and becomes a central figure in it, could be someone who, but for a few seconds, you might have missed completely. Make the train and meet them, or miss the train and miss out.

In terms of this sort of thing playing out in my own life, I can only really think of one example on a similar scale. When I was travelling to Positano in 2007 it was by sheer luck that I shared the bus into town from Sorrento with a woman named Donna, who was from the States. Not only did Donna help me get off at the right bus stop but her warm, friendly nature broke through my natural barrier of introverted shyness and we went on to form a friendship on that trip that is still going strong seven years later. In fact, it was with Donna that I travelled to Spain early last year.

I’m also very aware that tiny little examples of the Sliding Doors scenario (for want of a better description) are happening all the time.

There has been a remarkable number of interactions, conversations or simply things I’ve seen while walking down the street, stuck in traffic, or sitting on a train that have stayed with me for a long time because they moved me, or taught me something, or simply reminded me of the joyful, simple beauty of life.

Things I would’ve missed if I’d walked on the other side of the street, made the green light, or caught an earlier or later train.

It could be a conversation overheard on the train between two friends. Or a look exchanged between a dog and their walker.

The young man I met on the street late last year, who’d sung to me so unexpectedly and so beautifully, was a recent example.

And this morning it happened again. I was in the car for five minutes driving from the local shopping centre back to my house and I happened to have the radio on, tuned to 3RRR. “Aural Text” was on, a show dedicated to all things literary.

One of the presenters mentioned a spoken word artist, the poet Maggie Estep, who had recently died at age 50, and then played two pieces by her: “I’m an Emotional Idiot” and “Happy”.

The poems spoke to me. They were witty, clever and ironic. They made me laugh at the same time that I was nodding my head in recognition. I know people that are like that, I thought. Hell, at times I have been like that! As the saying goes, “It’s funny because it’s true.”

I had to know more. When I got home I Googled Maggie Estep and found her obituary, first, and then her blog. I looked her up on YouTube and found her there, too. I found her fascinating: a very intelligent writer who’d led a hugely interesting, albeit short, life. I can’t wait to discover more of her work.

What kills me is that a number of random factors had to be synchronised for me to not only hear about Maggie Estep but to hear her performing her poetry on the radio. I’d been delayed at the shops because I’d decided to shop for a gift – I had originally only planned to pick up some groceries. I had ummed and aahed over what I bought for a few minutes and the saleswoman had struggled for a few minutes with wrapping the gift for me (the ribbon wasn’t behaving itself).

Had I not been delayed to the extent that I was, I would’ve been in the car at least five minutes earlier and missed the whole thing. But as it turned out, everything synchronised perfectly, and I was introduced to this incredible artist whose work I find exhilarating and inspirational.

I couldn’t have timed it more perfectly if I’d tried.


Postscript on an Artist

“The Web does not just connect machines, it connects people.” – Tim Berners-Lee

Some months ago I wrote a post on the artist’s voice which mentioned two women that had inspired me: blogger Vy Chazen, and artist Joyce Meier.

Vy follows my blog (as I do hers) and commented on my post almost straight away. I never expected to hear from Joyce Meier, however, as I’d only read about her online.

So you can imagine what a very big and pleasant surprise it was when her daughter, Sue Lovitt, contacted me a couple of weeks ago after coming across my blog.

We corresponded very briefly by email. I was incredibly touched to learn that Sue had read to Joyce what I’d written about her.

Sue also told me that as a result of the article in The Age, the Bridget McDonnell Gallery in Carlton would be holding a solo exhibition for Joyce Meier and she invited me along to the opening, which was on Sunday, 10 November. After participating in many, many group exhibitions, this was to be Joyce’s first solo show… at age 96!

At first I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it. 10 November is the date my father passed away and I wasn’t sure that I should be out and about on the anniversary of his passing. But as the day drew closer I knew I would always regret not going and missing out on the opportunity to meet both Joyce and Sue.

And so I went. The gallery, in an old, narrow, multi-story, building in Carlton, was absolutely packed. Despite the crowd I immediately spotted Joyce, seated and looking radiant, and standing next to her, her daughter Sue. Both were beaming with pride.

I introduced myself to Sue and she warmly clasped my hand and told Joyce who I was. Joyce looked up at me and said, “Well, what do you know!” I could’ve fainted with delight.

As so many of Joyce’s paintings depict children (either as part of broader scenes of everyday life, or as groups playing traditional games), June Factor, author of many children’s books and researcher of children’s play and folklore, was invited to open the exhibition.

June spoke about Joyce’s life and about her art, noting that overwhelmingly Joyce’s art displays a “warm and affectionate embrace” of everyday life.

I couldn’t agree more. As someone who loves writing about the common place and the everyday, what I especially loved about Joyce Meier’s work is her eye for the small details of life. The arch of a back, just so, in The Doorway, capturing perfectly the body of a young girl straining to see. Or the dogs saying a tentative hello to each other in the foreground of Winter, Powlett Reserve.

Painting depicting five young girls, four of whom are standing at a doorway, looking in, their backs to the viewer

Many of the paintings in the exhibition were large group scenes but there were also portraits that captured intimately the relevant detail of their sitter. The focussed, deeply engrossed face of The Surgeon, Atherton, for example.

portrait of a man in military uniform (bust size)

While the portraits are characterised, as most portraits are, by their stillness, the group scenes are mostly action shots: beautifully capturing the movement of life. There is the playful movement of children jumping under a skipping rope, climbing a tree, contesting a mark in a game of football or riding their bicycles. But there is also agitated, urgent movement, most evident in the rally captured in Study for Confrontation and in Confrontation itself.

painting depicting a rally with protestors in foreground waving banner, and police on horses in the background

Joyce Meier is an artist who has loved both the movement and the stillness of life and has painted with her love on her sleeve.

Eventually it was time to go, though not without asking first if I could get a photo with Sue and Joyce, who gratefully obliged me. My friend Joi at the ready with my camera, the photos were taken.

When I look at these photos now I can’t help but think I look a little starstruck. Which is fair enough, too. To be honest, I still can’t believe my luck, to write about an artist who inspires me, and through that writing meet her.


Boogie Fever

“Dance is the body at its maximum.” – George Balanchine

Before I started writing compulsively, before I wanted to be a paperback writer, there was dance. Dance was my first love.

I was about five or six when my mum took me along to ballet classes. I was enthralled. It was like learning a secret language that your entire body could speak. It totally captured my imagination.

young girl in bright blue leotard and headband posing with arms out

I can’t tell you how long I attended but I know it wasn’t too long. We moved house to a suburb far away and I was so shy that the idea of having to make new friends not only at school but also at ballet terrified me. When Mum asked me if I wanted to take it up again in our new suburb I said no.

It wasn’t the end of dance in my life though. I was already growing up with dance in my home. My parents had music on all the time and it was not unusual for us to break into dance – whether Greek or otherwise – at any point in the day. My mum could be cooking and a song would come on and she’d down tools and start dancing, grabbing me along the way. Dad was the same.

I absolutely adored musicals, not for the singing but for the dancing. Gene Kelly was the love of my life; I was sure I was going to marry him when I grew up. Singin’ in the Rain was my favourite film until I was in my early 20s and it’s still in my top five. It’s funny, it’s romantic and the dancing is spectacular.

Movie poster from the film Singin in the Rain - two men and a woman in yellow mackintosh raincoats and with umbrellas

These days I listen to a lot of music and no matter what I’m listening to and where I am, I’ll dance. I often dance around the house with the music blaring when I’m cleaning, cooking or even ironing. If I’m in my car, my fingers will tap, my head will nod. I just can’t help it.

I hang out for opportunities to dance with friends and family, be they New Year’s Eve parties, weddings, milestone birthdays or anything else.

One of my favourite TV shows is So You Think You Can Dance. What I love about it is that it exemplifies, in popular format, but not without art and grace, the power of dance to tell a story or express emotion, whether sorrow, passion or pure joy. And the dancers themselves inspire me. Dancers are everything you admire about elite athletes but with art thrown in.

As with other TV talent shows there is always the possibility of an unforgettable moment on each episode. The first one that really took my breath away was a short jazz routine of exquisite artistry choreographed by Wade Robson in Season 3. Two amateur dancers symbolising a hummingbird and a flower dance to perfect music in a piece that both delighted and moved me. Since then I have been delighted and moved many, many times.

The joy of dance can be contagious. One of my favourite clips on YouTube is the Sound of Music mob dance that was performed at Antwerp Central Station in 2009. The expressions on the faces of the onlookers are priceless, as is the reaction of some people who, despite not actually being part of the organised ‘mob’, begin to dance along as well. Dance is like that. It draws you in.

(And if you have any doubts about whether dance can make you laugh, check out the “Stavros Flatley” routine from a past series of Britain’s Got Talent.)

The other day I was stopped at lights in my car. Across the road from me a young man in a t-shirt, shorts and runners was waiting to cross. He had his headphones on and was dancing as he waited – and I don’t just mean nodding his head or swaying his hips a little. I’m talking about full on, out there dancing. He was clearly in a disco wonderland of one, clearly not self-conscious and utterly oblivious to anyone else around him.

I couldn’t help but smile as I caught his very obvious joy. I turned to see if the driver in the car next to me had also noticed him but the young woman I saw at the steering wheel was in her own disco wonderland, not only singing along to whatever music she was listening to but also swaying her head vigorously and gesturing with her hands in what I can only describe as a Saturday Night Fever way.

What can I say? I turned the music up loud and began to dance. Boogie fever had a hold on me.

Man in white suit on dance floor striking dance pose


The Artist’s Voice Cannot Be Silenced

Earlier this year I submitted some poetry for consideration in response to a call for submissions by publisher Inkerman & Blunt, who were planning to publish an anthology called Australian Love Poems 2013. It was the first time in over 12 years that I’d submitted poetry – or anything for that matter – to a publisher in the hope of being published. The call was for poems that covered all aspects of love: being in love, losing it, dealing with heartache. I have poems about love up to the wazoo, so to speak, so I chose three of my best and submitted them by email.

And then I waited. It wasn’t till early June that I found out whether any of my poems had made the cut or not. As the date approached I found myself thinking about what it would mean to me if the poems were accepted; what it might mean if they weren’t.

Would being published validate my work? Would it validate me? Would it mean I was a real writer? A real poet? If my poems weren’t published would that mean they were inferior? Mediocre? Would it make me less of a poet?

How much of my confidence as a writer – how much of my belief in my self as a writer – was reliant on having something, anything, published?

Last Friday there was an article in The Age online about the artist Joyce Meier, who, Dewi Cooke writes, laboured “for the sake of love, of painting every day and everywhere just because she couldn’t imagine doing anything else, even without the encouragement of mainstream recognition.”

There is a quote from Joyce Meier herself, aged 96 now: ”There was nothing much else to do, was there? I just did, I don’t know, I just did it. That’s all.”

The photos accompanying the article tell a story of a life lived dedicated to painting, to expressing herself through her art. Of painting nonstop.

I found the story of Joyce Meier utterly inspirational. She had gone to war; she’d gotten married and had a family. She had lived a full life. She had not become famous. But you couldn’t stop her from painting. And despite never having become famous, she was still an artist. She had always been one and would always be one, even though, the article notes, she has now stopped painting.

The other woman who has inspired me recently is Vietnamese American blogger Vy Chazen, who wrote a wonderfully passionate argument for having her voice on the bookshelves on her blog, The Letter Vy. She points out that more often than not accepted literary depictions of her cultural heritage are clichéd and stereotypical: they’re about the war, or tragedy, or feature old people who speak in proverbs, or they cover stories of assimilation.

All very important stories, sure, but they all position Vietnamese Americans as other.

In her post – I’m Asian-American and I Want a Voice on the Shelves! – Vy writes: “I want a book about us today. That’s why I’m writing one.” And in her comment back to me, she states that what she wants is “the recognition that, “hey, I belong in this society too. I bring something to the table and I’m worth being heard.””

We all want to recognise ourselves in the stories we read, the films we see, the songs we sing along to. This is why stories, films and songs about universal themes do so well.

On 3 June I received a very lovely, gentle email from Inkerman & Blunt advising me that I was one of 600 poets who’d submitted 1,501 poems but unfortunately… well, you can guess. My poems didn’t make the cut.

Vy Chazen has helped me understand why it is that I will continue to seek to be published despite this knockback and the ones I’ve received in the past and the ones I will receive in the future (and there are bound to be): I, too, want my voice on the shelves.

Joyce Meier has taught me that even if I’m never published I will continue to write because I am a writer and I can’t do anything else but write.

And together these two very different women have shown me that the artist’s voice cannot be silenced; it will always strive to express itself.