Archive | November, 2011

Retail therapy – by Tabitha

30 Nov

In Vietnam, there’s not very much for us to buy. We buy food and drinks, and flowers for the house, and toiletries, and that’s about it.

We can’t fit into most clothes here, so clothes shopping is out. We don’t want to amass too many knick-knacks or household items which we’d just have to get rid of, or ship, so we don’t buy these either. The post is too unreliable, so we can’t buy online. We spend money on travel, and eating (and at the moment, the wedding), but we just don’t really buy stuff.

When we pass through a city that has malls, we try to stock up on clothes and books and shoes. While malls certainly hold more appeal to me now – through sheer novelty – than they did two years ago, it’s not very fun going shopping because you have to and buying only the things you need.

I used to be a firm believer in retail therapy. Browsing shops on King Street was a regular pastime of mine, not from a need for new things, but because I really enjoyed poking around, seeing what’s in store, and buying things I liked. Now that this option doesn’t exist, I don’t really miss it, and yet I am 100% sure that I’ll return to retail therapy with a vengeance as soon as it becomes available to me again.

This is infuriating. Buying stuff just because it’s there is the sort of mindless consumerism which I’ve always loved to loathe, but it turns out that’s exactly what I do. I always thought that because I bought mostly nice, hand-made things from local shops, that I was somehow a cut above the consumers who buy brand-name handbags and jeans so expensive they’re chained to the rack. But it’s all the same mentality: whether it’s a Hermes bag or a hand-knitted scarf, you wouldn’t buy them – you already have more than enough bags and scarves – if they weren’t dangled before your eyes by window-dressers or Esty store-owners who know exactly how to lure you in.

I don’t know what the conclusion of all this is. That I doubt I’ll change as a result of my retail-free stint in Vietnam, but will instead just be filled with self-loathing every time I buy a new skirt? I think I also need to accept that I get around Hanoi looking like a massive dag most of the time, so my fashion “needs” here are significantly less than in Australia. All I know is that when I read about Australian consumer spending, I blanch at the thought of going home.

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Retail by Beth

28 Nov

I’m tired, so I’ll make this brief.

I’m partly tired because I keep staying up late every night working on two books that I finally finished last night. They are relevant to today’s topic of retail because the possibility of making your own professional-looking version of anything you want is, I think, the best thing to have happened to retail in my lifetime.

I’ve made them both pre-viewable so you can have a look. First one is called Who’s Afraid of the Dark? and it’s a book my mum wrote years ago and got my grandmother to illustrate. It’s never been printed before (we just had the original watercolours, so it’s been pretty exciting to play with her images and my mum’s text). Felt like having a conversation between the three of us even though my grandmother died almost 20 years ago.

Second one is an ABC book for Leo. It’s full of in-jokes and all the stuff he’s into.

This is how the living room looked after the final shoot for the back pages with all the objects.

I also feel compelled to mention that between Jeff and I we do a hell of a lot of online shopping. I order our fruit and vegies online and I “win” a lot of stuff on eBay. Jeff disagrees that this is an accurate representation of the transaction seeing as I still have to pay money to the person I “win” the item off. Etsy is a guilty pleasure, and the other day I couldn’t get to the Made590 sale (it’s a suburb away), so I ordered stuff online from them. I am officially their biggest fan. We also seem to single handedly keep Better World Books in business.

Fermented Identity – by Justyna

26 Nov

Hi my name is Kazek and I am two and a bit years old. I love Vegemite. Fermented yeast extract. Rich in vitamin B. Makes my skin smooth. When my mum is not looking I stick my hands into the jar and just gobble great bits of it, not bothering with the toast and butter. When she is looking I ask for a spoon. I usually eat it on Polish bread (toasted of course), which is sourdough, so I have a whole load of fermentation from the moment I wake up and sit at the table.

My mother loathes Polish television so we don’t watch telly at all and I’m not up on all the ads and sing songs. But she has made an exception for Aussie jingles. I know most of the words to ‘happy little Vegemites’. She sings it to me before I fall asleep. I’m a consumer for life. It’s weird, since she was never a ‘little Vegemite’ herself. In fact from what I can gather Tabitha introduced her to the proper way of eating it when my mum was 19. Right amount of butter, toast essential, hey presto and you have deliciousness in your mouth. From that moment on my mother was born-again. I think she uses Vegemite on a daily basis as a way of clinging to her Ausiness. The other day after breakfast she gave me a small Australian flag to play with and then took photos. It was a ridiculous juxtaposition. I was wearing my leather ‘kierpce’ at the time (typical Polish folky highlander slipper-type shoes). 

It’s funny because my mum looks Polish, sounds Polish and my dad says she even has a Polish ‘soul’. At the same time she also sounds Australian, often behaves like and Aussie and understands the world in a very different way to the people here. Really she’s just a wog all over again except this time in her motherland. Must be tiresome being split in half all the time. Hope she doesn’t ever make me immigrate or impose too much of her Australian ways on me. I don’t want to be all torn up and split down the middle like she is for all eternity. Neither here nor there. Must be frustrating.

Fermenting on the fringe – by Karen

24 Nov

In traditional societies, fermenting food is considered an entirely normal procedure, part of the hygiene of daily life.

In the modern West, fermenting your own food is almost never done. This means that those people who do ferment food are, by virtue of that fact, unusual. Lo and behold, I have discovered that an interest in fermentation is usually not their only unusual trait.

A jar of kefir, with the "grains" visible at the top. These are strained out before consumption and used again, like a sourdough starter.

I’ve recently dipped my toe into the world of kefir (toes AND fermenting milk in one sentence, NICE!). Kefir is a fermented, usually dairy-based drink, similar to yogurt but containing a wider variety of microorganisms. First World kefir is dominated by a handful of characters, as far as my Google searches can discern. In apparent ascending order of dominance, allow me to introduce some.

The first is this lady, who secures my fascination by belonging to one of those non-muslim religions where you wear a headscarf, and professedly being 28 years old but looking 16. Perhaps it’s the kefir. Her site, Tammy’s Recipes, contains such gems as this:

“If you are a Christian and are interested in being featured, contact me. I will need at least one high-quality photo of your food (the picture has to be of food you made yourself!), your recipe(s), and whatever information you wish to share about yourself, your recipes, and your cooking style.” Non-Christian recipes will not be entertained.

Secondly, we have this crew:

While watching this video, I speculated furiously about the family dynamics, the lifestyle of this teenager, her worldview, her parents’ opinions of her worldview’s congruence with their worldview, her gentle, mature tone (acceptance? resignation? quiet pride?) and so on. I then had to watch again to actually learn about the making of kefir.

Finally, any casual Googler of kefir will inevitably come across a reference to the granddaddy of kefir, Dom. Dom is an Australian gentleman who maintains what I would consider a highly curatable gem of a website – note with a nostalgic sigh the tilde in the URL – where pages go down and down, jazzed up by blinking gifs and 20+ font colours and studded with gems of incongruous wisdom and capitalisation. “A PERFECT MARRIAGE… is to persevere and continue without a full stop. May WE bathe in the fountain of Life, Love, Health, Joy and showered with Prosperity of KEFIR GRAINS,” reads the front page (just scroll down about 24 screens).

Dom, who may well be the kind of Dom to follow his website’s referrals and find this entry, is also just the kind of Internet weirdo I like. I know Dom will take being called a weirdo with grace. He has spent years of his life refining… no, perhaps not refining… expanding upon a body of knowledge on a subject that is obscure, yet to him, is captivating. And so it is to me, to a lesser extent. He shares his knowledge freely and unreservedly, just like all people did on the internet in days of yore.

Dom comes across as more of a folksy hippy than a sheltered biblical literalist. Kefir Googling will also thrust you into the orbit of Crossfitting libertarian paleo eating yuppies, vegan Wholefoods parking lot warriors, and dedicated carers for the chronically ill. A figure in the broader fermentation scene, Sandor Ellix Katz, author of Wild Fermentation, links home fermentation to a spirit of self-empowerment, punk, DIY and zine culture, squatting, activism and dumpster diving. Review pages for his book are a perfect microcosm of the fermentation scene, where one reviewer bemoans his endorsement of and unashamed digressions on his “gay lifestyle”, while the next raves in excitement about liberation from what Katz calls the “cult of expertise”, that would otherwise send them rushing fearfully to the sterile prison of chemically controlled foods.

The mysterious and ancient Caucasian matrix of bacteria and yeast that is the kefir grain has mushroomed across the internet. As a social meme, it now ferments at a paradoxical intersection of diametric fringes. Drink up.

Some thoughts on yoghurt – by Tabitha

23 Nov

When I received the email from Karen on Monday saying this week’s topic was “fermentation”, I was eating yoghurt with mango for breakfast. And yesterday, when I realised that Tuesday was almost over and I hadn’t written my post about fermentation, I was drinking a Vietnamese yoghurt coffee. It seems that in my life, as in my mind, fermentation is inextricably associated with yoghurt.

So here are some thoughts about yoghurt.

Good, thick, full-fat, sugar-free yoghurt is really difficult to find in Hanoi. The French influence here has resulted in a surplus of awful, sugary, fat-free, flavoured yoghurts, which the French love for some reason, and which also probably transport very easily, since their sugar content means they can never go off. The refrigerated aisle of individual “dairy desserts” (like, little crème caramels and rice puddings) is one of the largest in a French supermarket. Surprising, non? It certainly was to me, with my Australian reverence of “European-style yoghurt”.

There is one café here which makes its own yoghurt, which is famous for being Catherine Deneuve’s favourite haunt while she was filming Indochine, one of my most loathed French movies. Apparently she loved the yoghurt, but I find it strangely gelatinous.

But also thanks to the French influence, you can actually get fromage blanc here, which is one of my most favourite foods, and like yoghurt, but better. We buy the one with 7% fat, and it tastes like cream sent from the gods.

In summary, the yoghurt situation in Hanoi is complex, much like my relationship with the French.

Another thing about yoghurt: a friend of ours told us how she had chronic thrush and the old yoghurt trick just wasn’t cutting it, so she investigated other, baseless, miracle cures, including a recommendation for garlic. As instructed, she inserted a garlic clove right up her moot. It did not cure the thrush. Instead, it got completely stuck there for many days and resulted in her entire body emanating a garlic odour, and her mouth tasting like garlic. Isn’t the human body an amazing thing? Who knew that a taste could travel backwards up into your mouth like that? Thank goodness other downstairs odours don’t do the same.

And that is my post on fermentation.

Fermention of the brain by Beth

21 Nov

One of the perks of being married (or having a longterm partner) is getting to observe someone close up who was brought up differently, with different genetics and different early experiences. It’s fascinating. Jeff and I are very similar in many ways. Similar taste in music, TV, movies, people. Similar beliefs. No doubt we’ve also influenced a lot having known each other for 20 years. (Wow, I only just realised that!)

Anyway, the one thing that is VERY different about us is the speed with which we write an email. Doesn’t matter if it’s a very important, formal email or a quick “hey”, Jeff will sit on the task for what I consider to be an inordinate amount of time. I sometimes sit perched next to him after he’s run an email wording past me chanting “send, send, send” like a wifely banshee. I annoy even myself! But he is patient and doesn’t hesitate to leave the draft that bit longer and send it when he’s ready.

There are some things that I’ll do on the spur of the moment and many that I too leave to ferment in my mind before acting. Such as eating healthier. This task takes many months of saying goodbye to every conceivable dessert a few times before I act. But with other things, such as deciding I wanted to create a solar system out of melted breadtags and have a solo exhibition at a certain gallery in Sydney. I came up with the idea on the spot when Jeff asked me what project I wanted to do next and then proceeded to do it over the next 6 months. Very satisfying.

Something that I always leave to ferment so long that it’s almost no use thinking of it at all is any idea for a documentary or a radio documentary. I can take a photo as fast as anything, but because I have a residual fear of failure from my film school days about creating docos, I can’t bloody act on an idea. It’s frustrating. Can you please be my witnesses that I must ferment no longer on this and need to just START one?

K thx bye.

Courage – by Justyna

19 Nov

My paternal Babcia (grandma) was the second oldest in a family of twelve kids. She was born in Ukraine to Polish parents who, although were not exactly landed gentry, had enough assets and dough to be sent off by the Bolsheviks to Siberia in 1940 and have their property ceased by the Reds. No one in my father’s family knows too much about the years spent in the prison camps because my Babcia and her siblings never liked talking about it. All that anyone knows was that they escaped through Russia and that the endeavour took a few years.

My Babcia was responsible for looking after her younger siblings, so much so that her youngest brother referred to her as ‘mum’. She also had the task to look for random jobs in small Russian towns during their escape back to Poland. She worked for a doctor who paid her in a pair of shoes and food. The shoes were confiscated by her own mother, who apparently was a nasty piece of work, had ‘airs’ (she spoke French and was tutored by a governess back in the pre WWII days) and wasn’t much of a mum to her twelve children. They reached Poland just as the War ended and were allocated a plot of land and a house in the west of Poland in a town called Debno. Debno was German before 1945 and became Poland after the Potsdam Agreement as part of the ‘recovered territories’ plan. The twelve kids were quickly put to work on the farm so that my great-grandfather Cezary could twist his curly mustache, drink loads of vodka and dance the cossack dance on tabletops. He kept all the family’s money in his hat that he wore daily, was a stingy bastard but liked to party.

My Babcia, to escape her family married at sixteen. My grandpa Stanislaw lived in a village a couple of kilometers from Debno and had served the Polish army during the War. He was a good but sickly kind of a guy. My dad was born in January in the coldest part of the winter. My Babcia had to walk to the hospital some 3ks when she thought she was ready to pop only to be turned back at the door by the nurses who told her the labour wouldn’t kick in for some hours yet. Bent over she walked back home in the knee deep snow, only to return some hours later trudging through the cold and the wet. Stanislaw died of heart failure some years later leaving my grandma a widow at the age of thirty-three and three kids behind. She worked two shifts in a jam factory to support her children, where she had a harrowing accident. Her legs were burnt when jars of hot fruit syrup exploded leaving her shins and veins scarred for life, causing her walking difficulties right into her old age. She never had the courage to re-marry. She thought it would not be right for the kids. Later as an old woman she told me that it was one of the biggest mistakes she ever made.

Her second biggest regret was living with her youngest daughter and her son-in-law, whom she hated. Babcia helped raise my two cousins and then sold off her apartment so that my aunt and uncle could buy a big house on the outskirts of town. In this three storey house my Babcia got a room and a bathroom on the second floor. When she turned completely gray she had a lot of trouble reaching her bedroom via the steep stairs because of her bad legs. So she would spend her entire days sitting in the kitchen looking out the window, hoping a visitor would pop in for a cup of tea. She never did learn how to read or write but she could draw quite nicely and cook tops Ukrainian dishes.

She died on my thirtieth birthday. She was not a happy person, smiled rarely and was in a lot of physical pain (her veins in her legs would often spontaneously burst leaving a bloody mess on the floor). She never saw the seaside or the mountains. She was resolved with knowing she had not made the best choices in life. She had awesome curly hair and a face that appeared to be completely free of wrinkles. I will remember her sitting on that kitchen stool, all courage zapped out of her body, waiting patiently to die.