Saturday 24 May 2008


“Tell me whom you love and I will tell you who you are.” – Arsène Houssaye

“L' Incoronazione di Poppea” (SV 308, The Coronation of Poppaea, ≈1641-2) is a three-act opera in by Claudio Monteverdi to an Italian libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello. It was first performed in the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, in 1642. The opera is based on historical incidents as described by the Roman historian Tacitus.

Poppaea Sabina, the second wife of the Roman Emperor Nero, is the heroine (or anti-heroine?) of the plot. It begins with a prologue in which a conversation between Fortune, Virtue and Love as driving forces in Poppaea’s life affirms the power of love and promises Poppaea her heart’s desire – to become empress of Rome. The plot is full of irony and even though Nero and Poppaea are shown to be in love, Poppaea’s scheming and ambitious self-interest has been portrayed in a masterly way by both libretto and music.

Two pieces from the opera, for Music Saturday. The first is a triumphant aria by Poppaea after she learns that Seneca (the philosopher and objector to her liaison with Nero) has committed suicide after being ordered to kill himself by Nero. She now remarks joyfully that with Seneca dead, nothing will stop her from becoming Nero’s wife and empress.

The second aria is Arnalta’s lullaby. Arnalta is the old nurse and confidante of Poppaea, who sings this beautiful litlting melody as Poppaea falls asleep. In admiration, Arnalta praises Poppaea’s eyes. “If when closed they steal the viewer’s heart, imagine what they can do when they are open!” – she sings.

Enjoy your weekend!

Friday 23 May 2008


"After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one's own relations." – Oscar Wilde

Do you often go out to dine at a restaurant? And I mean a proper restaurant not something like the fast food, “family restaurants”, a high class restaurant with tablecloths on tables, fresh flowers and candles, waiters that wait on you with consummate skill, where the food is delicious and the occasion is made perfect and special for that wonderful someone you are accompanying? Well, we sometimes make a special night of it and we go out to such a restaurant – not too often, but when we do, we wish everything to go right and the night to be truly memorable and special – and it mostly is!

Sometimes, however, the experience is tainted with all the things that could ever possibly go wrong, and as Murphy would have it, they do go wrong spectacularly! This blog is triggered by a recent experience at a restaurant, which reminded me of several other occasions (thankfully rather unusual in a clutch of usually excellent ones!), where to dine out has become a terrible ordeal rather than the culinary delight it should have been.

Firstly, when you arrive at the restaurant (on time!) and you give details of your booking to the Maitre D’ there is no record of your reservation. The restaurant is busy and almost every table is occupied. Finally after much arguing and to-ing and fro-ing, a table is got for you in a poky little corner in front of the door that leads into the kitchen. There is a constant sound of pots and pans clanking, dishes rattling and agitated conversations between the chef and several sous-chefs.

After an inordinately long time, the waiter comes to take your order. While you are ordering, his mobile phone rings (!!!!!!!!!!) and he goes off to answer it. He comes back, takes your order and almost immediately returns to tell you that what you have ordered is no longer available. After a new order, the drinks waiter brings the wine list and recommends a wine that is overpriced and which you know tastes like cat’s pee. You order the cocktails and wine which is definitely not the recommended one (but still overpriced!) and then you wait. And wait, and wait, and wait… There is much activity next to you as seemingly thousands of waiters go back and forth through the kitchen doors laden with platters of hot steaming food, but nothing turns up at your table.

You try to catch your waiter’s eye, but he manages to ignore you most adroitly. You try to catch any waiter’s eye, but they are all so busy and you are waved to, have reassuring things whispered to you as they rush by and generally, well… you are ignored! By this stage your stomach is making loud rumbling noises and your patience has been exhausted. Just as you are about to go to the Maitre D’ and complain most vehemently, your waiter comes to your table and ceremoniously takes your napkin, unfolds it, waves it about and plops it on your lap. I don’t know about you, but I hate that. Some bread rolls materialise and they are decidedly the frozen variety that should be put in the oven before serving. These have been baked in some previous incarnation, but they are wan and cold and their centre remains decidedly doughy.

The entrée arrives. It is definitely not what you ordered. You complain to the waiter who looks at you suspiciously and then prepares to whisk the plates away with an exasperated look heavenwards, but a sobering thought hits you: It has taken 50 minutes to get this food, if it goes back into the kitchen who knows when the dish you ordered will arrive? Another 50 minutes? 70, 80, 90 minutes? Tomorrow morning? You hang on to your plate, after wresting from the waiter’s rapacious hands. He begins to argue with you, saying that if it is not what you ordered you should not eat it. You manage to hold onto the precious food and fend the waiter off, but only because his mobile phone rings again and he goes off to answer it.

The food is bland, unidentifiable and chewy in a way that seems to mimic bubble gum. It could be seafood, but maybe it is some kind of meat. Perhaps it is textured soy protein and hence organic and produced in an agriculturally sustainable manner – that would be the only excuse for its disgusting taste and texture. By this stage your drinks have not arrived yet. To your surprise the drinks waiter comes straight to your table when you wave to him. He is desolated and extremely apologetic about the drinks not having been dispatched to you yet. He rushes off to rectify the situation. You try to make pleasant conversation and look at your dining companion’s eyes, attempting to remedy the experience so far by immersing yourself in their double pools filled with love.

Some commotion in the kitchen with a particularly loud series of clangs seems to herald the arrival of your main course. Your waiter arrives and notices that the entrée dishes have not been taken away. Your main course disappears back into the kitchen and he comes out to retrieve your dirty plates. The wine still has not arrived. Five minutes tick away after your waiter goes into the kitchen with your plates. Ten minutes, 15, and when you decide to go into the kitchen and retrieve your meal yourself, your waiter appears and plops your main course in front of you. The food seems nice! It is what you ordered and there is just the right amount of everything on the plate, quite aesthetically arranged.

The waiter makes a big show of bringing to the table an enormous pepper grinder that is grotesquely carved. After you nod your assent to have some pepper freshly ground onto your food, he twists the top once and two grains of pepper fall out. The grinder is spirited away and you proceed to pick up your cutlery. However, at that stage the drinks arrive - all of your drinks, at the same time: The water, the cocktails and the wine. A great show is made of opening the wine and some poured to be tasted. The wine is white and warm. Very warm, as though it has been heated. There is no ice bucket in sight and you ask for one. The drinks waiter looks at you superciliously and mumbles something about the wine being at “cellar temperature” while going away in a huff.

The cocktails are too sugary when they should have been dry and the water is decidedly brackish. Nevertheless, you valiantly proceed! This meal will be enjoyed! The steak is too rare, in fact, you could have sworn it was barely cooked at all. And cold. Everything is cold. Have you ever tried to eat cold steak and icy mashed potatoes and gelid butter French beans? Not nice… But you are still hungry and you desperately try to make the best of it. Not that complaining would have done much good, had you found anyone to complain to – all the waiters and the Maitre D’ have disappeared in some unthinkably distant and utmostly secret place.

You look desperately at your dining companion and at each other’s plates and bravely try to cut through raw bleeding meat, attempt to demolish the stodge masquerading as mashed potato and to separate the congealed mass of icy cold, buttered French beans, all washed down with warm white wine. This will not do. You decide you’ve had enough and call for the bill.

Suddenly you are surrounded by a host of obsequious waiters, all beaming at you asking you whether you enjoyed the meal, bowing and strutting, making a fuss of you while the extravagant bill arrives, which has listed on it together with what was ordered (and not consumed, in any case), several other dishes you did not order and which never appeared on your table, including a fruit and cheese platter and two special chocolate degustation desserts. After much negotiation the bill is settled and you walk out of the restaurant, stomach still rumbling and the sour taste of the warm wine still in your mouth. The waiters stare daggers into your back as you did not leave a tip…

As you drive out of the (outrageously expensive) car-parking establishment, you spy the twin golden arches beckoning to you from the gloom somewhere int eh distance. Yes, it’s a “family restaurant” coming up ahead and without even thinking about it you turn your indicator on, drive up and order two giant hamburgers (and yes, we’ll have fries with those, thanks!)…

Thursday 22 May 2008


“It is only the farmer who faithfully plants seeds in the Spring, who reaps a harvest in the Autumn.” - B. C. Forbes

biodiversity |ˌbīōdiˈvərsitē|noun
The variety of life in the world or in a particular habitat or ecosystem.
ORIGIN from Greek bios ‘(course of) human life.’ The sense is extended in modern scientific usage to mean [organic life.] and from Old French diversite, from Latin diversitas, from diversus ‘diverse,’ past participle of divertere ‘turn aside’ (see divert ).

Today is World Biodiversity Day and the theme for 2008 is “Biodiversity and Agriculture”. Agriculture is a key example of how human activities have profound impacts on the ecosystems of our planet. This year’s theme for Biodiversity Day seeks to highlight the importance of sustainable agriculture not only to preserve biodiversity, but also to ensure that we will be able to feed the world, maintain agricultural livelihoods, and enhance human well being into the 21st century and beyond.

Biodiversity is the root of this plenty: the variety of crops and food on which human civilizations have grown and depend is possible because of the tremendous variety of life on Earth. If the Earth’s population is to feed itself in the 21st century and beyond, humankind needs to preserve the biodiversity that grants us our own complex and diverse lives. But biodiversity is diminishing at unprecedented rates. Over the past few hundred years humans have increased the rate of species extinction. Human drivers of change, including habitat loss, climate change and overexploitation of resources, have increased the rate at which species are going extinct by as much as 1,000 times background rates typical of Earth’s history.

Perhaps this is a good time to mention also that 2008 is the International Year of the Potato. This celebrates the Potato and will raise awareness of the importance of the potato - and of agriculture in general - in addressing issues of global concern, including hunger, poverty and threats to the environment.

Biodiversity is the variety of life: the different plants, animals and micro-organisms, their genes and the ecosystems of which they are a part. Australia is one of the most diverse countries on the planet. It is home to more than one million species of plants and animals, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. We are very much aware of the threat our increasingly urbanized environment is placing on different species of our country. The modern agricultural methods and the use of selected monospecies in high yield agricultural systes is another way of threatening biodiversity, while the introduction of exotic species into Australia has also threatened the local fauna.

There are several initiatives in Australia, which try to limit the threats we pose on or environment and which will help to preserve biodiversity. The priority actions are to:

1. protect and restore native vegetation and terrestrial ecosystems
2. protect and restore freshwater ecosystems
3. protect and restore marine and estuarine ecosystems
4. control invasive species
5. mitigate dryland salinity
6. promote ecologically sustainable grazing
7. minimise impacts of climate change on biodiversity
8. maintain and record indigenous peoples’ ethnobiological knowledge
9. improve scientific knowledge and access to information
10. introduce institutional reform

Wednesday 21 May 2008


“Why love if losing hurts so much? We love to know that we are not alone.” – C.S. Lewis

Autumn Leaves

I wouldn’t write to you first, I decided,
And every day I checked the mailbox for your letter,
Having my answer to you already written.


Looking at the full moon tonight, I remember,
Nights that I spent outside your door awake all night –
Why are bitter remembrances the most persistent?


They told me someone had asked for me on the telephone today.
My heart skipped beats – could it have been you?
I clean forgot I had refused to give you my new number.


Come back to me, return, my fount has dried up.
Come and let the fountain flow clear water once more,
Come back and I shall not mind even if its water runs salty.


I saw you changed last night, repentant, sorry,
As if you’d suddenly realised what you had lost by leaving.
But all I felt right then was peace, a calm after the storm.


I thought that I had forgotten you, that you were indifferent to me,
But yesterday our common friends remembered you to me,
And I felt hatred – from hate to love a small step.


As you betrayed me, saying goodbye, you told me
“Wait, for good things come to those who wait…”
And as I wait I lose more and more each day.


I found a note of yours yellowing, forgotten in a dusty drawer.
I was dismayed seeing on paper old heartbeats jotted down.
And even worse because I thought all of your letters were long since burnt.


You friend, who see her often, tell me:
Does she still listen to that song?
The song that we listened to together and I could hardly restrain my tears?


I left, my head held high, my tears swallowed,
My only gain, my pride intact.
I hope that in the long years of loneliness ahead, pride is good company.


The hours of night, grow smaller, the sky rotates,
Each minute draws out longer than the one before.
Sleep eludes the one who loves too much.


My heart is healed, I do not let my tears flow in the evenings.
I can bear to look at the full moon unflinchingly,
There is no risk of losing the keys that open my soul’s door.


And the old captain stares at the horizon,
Scanning the milky depths to find the magic island
Once glimpsed and nevermore to see again…

Tuesday 20 May 2008


“May all that have life be delivered from suffering.” - Buddha

Today is Wesak (or Vesak), also known as Buddha Day, which celebrates the Buddha’s birthday, enlightenment and death. It is the most important day in the Buddhist calendar. During Wesak, Buddhists celebrate the life of the Buddha and his teachings. They remember the night of his enlightenment and his insights into his previous lives, as well as his revelations about the nature of death, karma and rebirth, suffering and desire.

Wesak is celebrated with great joy and vivid colours. Homes are cleaned and decorated in preparation. Celebrations begin before dawn, when devotees throng the temples early in the morning to meditate and take the Five Precepts. Sutras are chanted by monks. Celebrations vary from one country to another. ‘The Bathing of the Buddha’ often takes place. Water is poured over the shoulders of statues of the Buddha as a reminder of the need to purify the heart and mind. Offerings are made to the monks and the temples, and may be laid on the altar as a sign of respect for the Buddha and his teachings.

In China, traditional elements from Chinese culture, such as dancing dragons, are incorporated into celebrations. In Indonesia, Wesak lanterns are made from paper and wood. Another popular custom in some countries is the release of caged birds, symbolising letting go of troubles and wishing that all beings be well and happy. Buddhists in some parts of the world make origami paper cranes which are used as decorations or sometimes floated down rivers to symbolise the same thing.

Many Buddhist temples serve vegetarian food (as many Buddhists avoid eating meat). Special lectures on the teachings of the Buddha are given, and candle lit processions take place through the streets. Observers are made welcome, both in processions and at temples. Giving to others is an important part of Buddhist tradition. Gifts may be exchanged as part of the festivities on Wesak. There is also emphasis on giving to the needy. Devotees may visit orphanages, welfare homes, homes for the aged or charitable institutions, distributing cash donations and gifts. Some youth groups organise mass blood donation to hospitals. Donations are also made to monks and nuns.

The Five Moral Precepts of Buddhism are especially important to remember and practice during Wesak, and these are refraining from:
- Harming living things
- Taking what is not given
- Sexual misconduct
- Lying or gossip
- Taking intoxicating substances e.g. drugs or drink

Samaneras (novice Buddhist monks) live by ten precepts, while Buddhist monks actually keep 227 rules of the order. The Ten Precepts are the five precepts plus refraining from the following:
- Taking substantial food after midday (from noon to dawn)
- Dancing, singing and music
- Use of garlands, perfumes and personal adornment like jewellery
- Use of luxurious beds and seats
- Accepting and holding money, gold or silver

Therefore on celebration days, Buddhists will often eat vegetarian food and will not drink alcohol. Gifts will be simple, especially those given to monks. Monks in particular will not dress up, and people will not eat to excess. However, Buddhist celebrations are also very joyful, colourful occasions. Wesak is celebrated on different days each year, because the lunar calendar is used to define when dates of festivals should take place. Dates when there is a full moon are used often.

Happy Wesak!

Monday 19 May 2008


“The person who can bring the spirit of laughter into a room is indeed blessed.” - Bennett Cerf

At the weekend we watched a film that reminded me of my childhood. It was a French farce of the 1960s with the French comedian par excellence of those times, Louis de Funès (1914-1983). If you have never heard of him or seen him, something closer to home perhaps, the character "Skinner" in the animated film “Ratatouille” (2007) was loosely based on him. He is a very funny man, M. de Funès and the film we watched was one well-suited to his talents. I had not seen this film before, but had watched several others of his when growing up in Greece in the 60s. When I found this DVD, needless to say I bought it and have not regretted it, as it was full of laughs.

The movie is “Oscar” (1967) and is from the play by Claude Magnier. It is typical farce, an exaggerated comedy, full of coincidences, extremes, zany characters, non-stop action and overacting. It is conventional and not so original, but it works. It works because all the actors play well, but the gem of the show is Louis de Funès. He plays M. Bertrand Barnier, a successful and rich real estate agent who lives with his wife, daughter, maid, butler and chauffeur in a very new, very expensive house in the lap of luxury. Out of the blue, one of his junior employees, Christian Martin (played by Claude Rich) comes to his house early one morning and has the gall to blackmail him. It turns out that Christian wants to marry his boss’s daughter. But that’s not all, he also discloses that he has diddled M. Barnier out of 60 million francs, which he has used to buy a collection of magnificent jewellery, which he keeps in an innocuous-looking black valise.

M. Barnier’s dismay, surprise and discomfiture turn to something more threatening for his mental health when his daughter reveals that she is pregnant, but not to Christian. Rather, it is Oscar, M. Barnier’s chauffeur who is her true love. Add to this mayhem an unflappable and scatty wife (excellently played by Claude Gensac), a dim masseur, an ever-suffering butler and a social climbing maid. Oh, and did I mention another two black valises identical to the one containing the jewels? Well yes, but one of them contains 60 million in cash and another contains the maid’s clothing and underwear. That and several more surprises including Jacqueline and a mystery woman who applies for the vacant maid’s position. The pace is frenetic, the French word-plays funny and the situations amusing and constantly evolving comedically.

The film is available on DVD with English subtitles and well worth a look if you come across it.

Sunday 18 May 2008


“Shouldn't a great museum foster serious seeing before all else?” - Mark Stevens

International Museum Day is celebrated every year around the world on the 18th of May. Quite apt today for Art Sunday! International Museum Day has been celebrated since 1977. Each year, a theme is decided on by the Advisory Committee. This year the theme is "Museums as agents of social change and development". The celebration provides the opportunity for museum professionals to meet the public and alert them to the challenges that museums face if they are to be (as in the International Council of Museums definition of a museum) "an institution in the service of society and of its development".

Many events are organised on this day in more than 45 countries around the world, in the spirit of the motto: “Museums are an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, co-operation and peace among peoples”. Museums, by definition, exist to serve society & its development. Museums can stay open 24 hours a day, offer free entry, and create new areas for social gatherings and events with community organisations and associations in light of this year’s theme for an all night debate on social change & development. For example, see what France is doing this year.

Most people think of a museum as a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited. The word in English was used from the early 17th century, and taken directly from the Greek where the word was used to denote a university building, specifically one erected at Alexandria by Ptolemy Soter. In Greek, “Μουσείον” (mouseion = ‘seat of the Muses),’ based on “Μούσα” (mousa = ‘muse’). The most famous museums around the world are to be found here. Here is a site with links to many famous museums in the USA. If you desire an even more inclusive list of world museums, go to his link.

Here in Melbourne, we are lucky as there are several museums and galleries, a couple of them world class! There is the Museum of Victoria, the Immigration Museum, the Ian Potter Centre, the Heide Museum of Modern Art, and the jewel in the crown the National Gallery of Victoria. As well as that we have several more and many small galleries and art spaces, justifying Melbourne’s pre-eminent position as the cultural capital of Australia.
Enjoy your Museum Day!