On peace

1

On the painting, the Chinese emperor sits at the centre of the frame, calm and symmetrical. Behind, a dragon stretches in dynamic spiral, mouth and claws open, manifesting chaos.

2

Certain diseases spread with just one point of exposure. Most require multiple factors. The same applies to knowledge, and behaviour. The rule of thumb is that people attend an event if they’ve heard about it three times, and one of their friends is going. There is no simple causation. You need A + B + C for something to manifest.

3

You know the drill. Three types of networks. Beware central points of failure. Hail distributed resilience. Now quick, let’s embrace blockchain, open source, holocracy, or whatever latches onto the model.

This is probably the most widely shared image in ‘talks that make you feel smart’, since the rise of the Internet. Why should I abstain? Here’s my quick take on it. I see it as a way of understanding various forms of power, as exerted in a state, or in organisations. 

To the left, executive power. The capacity to get things done. When the crisis strikes, one person makes decisions, the rest obey. Flows of information gather on the one point. There’s one head of state. All group members recognise this one person as a shared figure of authority. All monitor their words and behaviour for guidance.

At the centre, judiciary power. Local conflicts and arbitration sorted through local courts and judges. But one central point monitors each of those for alignment. And if a matter cannot be solved locally, parties might see the Supreme Court, Top Judge, or whatever central entity keeps the system coordinated.  

To the right, legislative power. Each representative a separate node, forming a mesh. Parties and cliques make local clusters, as do regional affiliations, gender, religion, or all sorts of other bases for factional aggregation. Some nodes are more connected than others. But things remain fluid. Norms and information circulate peer to peer.

This model offers a different take on good old separation of power. Namely, that it’s not so much about having separate institutions for different functions. Rather, it’s choosing to structure a group through distinct overlapping networks of relationships.

4

Each of us holds multiple identities. Male. Female. Non-binary. French. Global. Australian. Suburban. Father. Grand-mother. Christian. Muslim. Atheist. Left-handed. Socialist. Conservative. Retired. Entrepreneur. Bike-rider. Car owner. Vegan. Fighter. Soprano. Bass. Cat person. Strong person. Gentle person. Dog person.

Each item in the list – and the list has no end – marks a different peer group. The difficulty lies in managing overlaps. How can I be part of the Melbourne community – with its extensive suburbs and cars – and a committed bike-rider? How can I be Christian and Gay? How can I be male and gentle?

Sometimes, we simplify. Melbourne is a green, progressive city. Car-owners don’t belong. Melbourne is an industrious, entrepreneurial city. Socialists don’t belong. Melbourne is a free-spirited city. Dog owners don’t belong. We cast a bridge here, we dig a moat there, and  before we know it, we’re up in arms to defend our precious sense of belonging.

War cements overlaps. Peace has tender boundaries.

5

Many westerners fear China. What would prevent their Supreme Leader from wreaking havoc around the world. There’s no rule of law. No separation of power.

I was talking with my friend Patrick, who coaches executives in Japan. Consulting companies headquartered in the US like to barge into the country to deploy their models, fire people and put process in place. Then they leave, and things collapse. The people were the glue.

Separation of power is a guardrail against excess. If a psychopath comes to rule, they’ll be kept in check. Add a layer of market ideology – greed is good, and people should do whatever they want if they can afford it – and you’ve created a situation where, indeed, we need a solid system to guard against all sorts of deranged appetites. 

So, with that friend, we ventured the following thought. What if limiting the rule of law, reducing process, and consolidating powers, created the conditions for more virtuous leadership? What if it was another type of guardrail against excess, one that must rely on internalized limits, and creates ideal conditions to cultivate restraint and moderation?

6

Clusterings of true believers have disproportionate influence. If 3% of a population hold firm, norms can shift. Canetti calls them crowd crystals. Stable groups with strong internal connections, shaping the culture, beliefs and behaviours of a much larger population.   

Much has been written about weak ties, connectors, and the spread of information. Social transformation, however, needs the strong ties of a close-knit group. Sound waves amplified in its echo chamber.

7

The Polynesian world expands over the open sea. We can learn from ancient navigation techniques. Set the vision, meet the team, consider anchors, anticipate islands along the way, and look to the flying birds that indicate land nearby. This is the wayfinding model proposed by New Zealander Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’I, to rethink innovation and development.

 Certainly, here is a wisdom tradition that we can learn from. It is, in fact, highly compatible with our Western world shaped by navigators, where future projects unfold on virgin islands beyond the ocean, waiting for humans to settle. This is a model for enlightened sea-steading, space colonisation – entrepreneurship even – predicated on there being more space, out there, unclaimed.

The model is useful, certainly, but incomplete without an Australian counterpart. One based in aboriginal wisdom, and continentality. One where slack lies not beyond the shores, but in the shifting patterns of a saturated world.

8

Multiculturalism embraces different communities sharing the same space. I wonder though, what would an intercultural society look like? What would it take to create a world where strong ties are not based on cultural similarity, shared origins, or mutual predictability, but open-ended delight in exploring subtle patterns of distinction and overlap.

9

The human brain differs from other species by the size of its frontal cortex. The key function of which is inhibition. 

Designing for love

1

I’m on top of Bellevue Hill, in Sydney. I’m looking for the perfect spot to sit and watch the harbour. There’s a young woman nearby. She’s in a good spot. It looks like the best spot. I’m annoyed. I’ll have to wait for her to stand up and leave. So that I can take her seat.  

Melbourne has more distributed beauty. It’s a grid on a swamp, with wide avenues and a few creeks. Bridges are functional, theatres part of our urban fabric. Instead of exclusive vantage points, it’s full of hollow spaces, generously sized. In most places, just a few more people would make things even better. It is, in other words, a city designed for love. 

2

When the pandemic hit, AirBNB chose to let people go. ‘Fair enough’, you might say, financial constraints, etc. Yet they treated staff like family, using emotional bonding for productivity. People there lost more than a job.  

What is it like, when your ‘family’ treats you as expendable? I wonder if those laid-off staff saw The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and what kind of revenge they’re planning. 

3

In many languages, the mode of address depends on the relationship. In French, it’s the difference between polite and formal address, ‘tu’ or ‘vous’. Most languages have similar complexities. This feature has a radical implication. I’m not the same person in all contexts.

4

In our late capitalist world, companies and industry sectors have taken on the function of kin relationships, for members of the middle class at least. You’re a lawyer, an accountant, a teacher. This defines a set of expected behaviours, values, and relationships. It’s an identity.

5

Kierkegaard warns against the risk of living sub specie eternitatis:give in to the sirens of abstraction, and let existence pass by. I try to live in the first person. Which often leaves me confused. So many people refer to ‘the mainstream’, ‘general opinion’, or otherwise agreed rankings, with perfect assurance. I find it hard enough to know the shape of my own brain.

6

‘So, what do you do?’ I’ve always dreaded that question. I listen to people with complex ideas. I help them clarify their vision. I edit their texts. This is my craft and function. Expressing it is not that hard. But the system is diffuse. It’s a bunch of emerging projects. And that confuses people.

On the surface, the question is about craft or function. But often, it’s in fact about the surrounding system. Not what you do, but where you work. What collective is your primary place of professional belonging. What collective outcomes you support.   

For many people, there’s a simple overlap. My partner is head of English at Kilvington Grammar school. Function, location. Doctors, nurses, childcare workers, product designers, developers, project managers, hairdressers, lawyers, salespeople, and a whole lot of others are able to give similarly straightforward answers. They’ve got a recognizable function, within a recognizable collective – school, hospital, company, shop, or salon.

Not so for me. It’s often awkward, but it’s good for the brain too. For a while, I was coaching young business students. When they shared hesitation about their career direction – they all did – I would ask them an either/or question, variation of the following. ‘Would you rather work as accountant for a film production company, or in-house media for PWC?’ They studied business, and it was the first time anyone asked them the question. 

7

The good story matches plot with character. This is also the core of Ignatian spirituality. It’s virtue, leadership, ikigai. It’s all about telos. How will your existence manifest humanity?

For this, stories have the greatest importance. We learn from characters, never direct experience. Without the frameworks offered by stories, how could we discern any coherence in the shapeless chaos of ‘real life’?

All of us are immersed in storytelling, constantly. This is the fabric of our common morality. This is also where we can build character. By attentional effort, we choose a balance of stories, and through this, we shape the world we live in. Sometimes, we do this deliberately.

8

Are we, humans, like tigers, eagles, and killer whales, an apex predator ruling over our element? Or like chimpanzee, parrots and octopus, both predator and prey, capable yet vulnerable, somewhere in-between?

Marco Polo Project – The European dream

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

When you try to build something new, you’ll often be misunderstood. This is common wisdom, yet rarely presented when people share their sense of failure. I clearly remember how, on two distinct occasions, well-intentioned mentors took the wind off my sails. Those are among the bitterest memories of building Marco Polo Project. 

First scene. I’m sitting in my mentor’s office, bright sun outside, whale songs playing on the computer. They’re offering to send introductions for me, and ask ‘help me write this email. Why did you start Marco Polo Project?’ I pause for a while. I’m a reflective extravert and at the time, didn’t have enough questions of the sort. After a moment, I reply: ‘Well, ultimately, it’s about world peace’. I was hoping for a follow up question, a chance to clarify what I meant, and why everything had been so difficult. I get laughter instead. ‘Well, what about we say it’s about bringing Australia and Asia closer together’. I nod, embarrassed, and they send their email. That introduction fell flat. I never asked for that mentor’s advice again.

Second scene. I’m sitting at a café table with my mentor. They’ve been helping me build a business case. I followed their lead, and did my homework. But something was missing – a sense of scope and purpose. On the third meeting, this is where our conversation went. ‘So, what will your project bring to Australia?’ I reply ‘Well, to be honest, I don’t care about Australia.’ The French accent probably made it sound more callous than it was. Yet indeed – this was always a global project, incidentally benefiting Melbourne. This mentor and I never really spoke afterwards.

Looking back, I fell into the common trap of assuming others share my experience of life. I grew up in Strasbourg. The European dream has always been a personal matter of civic pride. When I fell in love with an Australian and chose to migrate, I decided I would carry that European dream to the southern hemisphere. On my first visit, I experienced Melbourne as the cultural capital of a globalised world, where the traditions of Europe and Asia, colonial and indigenous histories, could come together. It had just been appointed as a UNESCO city of Literature, it could be the epicentre of global cultural integration. Here was a place where the European dream of cultural and political harmony could extend to the rest of the world. Marco Polo Project was a vehicle for that vision.

The European Union was explicitly developed as a peace project, a reaction to the Second World War. One of its achievements has been cultural and linguistic integration – mutual linguistic and cultural understanding, a sense of shared history, and of common destiny, among countries that only recently were sending armies against each other. Marco Polo Project was directly guided by the spirit of Europe, which I breathed in from as far as I can remember. It carried an aspiration to extend this peace-building project beyond Europe, through collaborative translation and cultural dialogue, and weave together distinct histories and narrative threads across the continents. It was naïve to believe that the vision would be readily shared – even understood – by people whose worldview was rooted in remote Australia. 

Sometimes, though, we reach our goals in unexpected ways. In 2016, I got a message from an old friend. They were looking for an atypical profile to serve as Chief Editor with the Global Challenges Foundation, in Stockholm, to work on global catastrophic risk. ‘Would you like to help us avoid the end of the world?’ Marco Polo Project was the reason for seeking me out. The peace-making vision I carried from the start had been finally recognised.

I said yes. Beyond personal validation I got precious experience, a good income, new networks, and prestige from this role. Yet for Marco Polo Project, a period of tension started. I would not be capable of taking on the new role, and continue to carry the organisation forward. We sought – and found – a new CEO to take over. With this handover, strategic clarity was crucial. I could no longer rely on my third eye to drive decision-making. Yet the direction was unclear. Should we accept that Australia was not ready for a natively global organisation, and focus on local matters – leaving Europe to look after the state of the world? Or should we take it as a sign that our global ambition was, in fact, at the core of our mission, and never to be compromised?

We didn’t give a proper answer to those questions. Rather, we skirted around. We focused our projects on Melbourne, more narrowly, as a space of experiment, and the direct environment where we would seek impact. Meanwhile, we welcomed opportunities to trial global partnerships – Translation Clubs in Mexico, Japan and Oregon, for instance – and kept our narrative global. We’re still misunderstood, often, but we’re more able to find allies, and ignore the rest.

values cards project – respect

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: OK, I’ll start with that. I like to think of respect as a kind of mutual distancing, a power equilibrium if you want. It’s about finding stability, and it always involves, yes, distance between individuals.

B: Well, for me, respect has to do with authority. So, I have this impression that respect implies an unequal relationship, a power relationship. And it’s not about natural authority, like when you join a movement, because there’s a charismatic leader, but authority within an existing hierarchy. That’s what respect is about for me. Also, it’s the same when you think about filial respect, my impression is, it’s got to do with authority, with a relationship that’s clearly unequal.

A: I wonder how the two relate. I can’t, every time I think about respect… you know the commandment that says ‘respect your mother and father’. I had a conversation with a friend, it was a long time ago, when I was at university, but it stayed with me. They were studying Arabic, and said, based on the etymology, the words of this commandment said something like ‘far your mother, far your father’. Keep your parents at a respectful distance. That’s what it’s about, not a kind of emotional worship, or submission, but it’s about keeping your distance with them. Don’t get caught up in their affairs. Keep them at arm’s length.

B: I don’t know, when I think of respect… There’s two words in Japanese, ‘sonjo’ and ‘sonke’. The first is universal, unconditional respect, the kind of respect you should have for any human being. Even a jerk, they deserve that minimal level respect, sonjo. The other, sonke, it’s closer to what we would call esteem. It’s conditional. You don’t have to esteem everyone, or anyone. Esteem is based on a quality that someone has, whether it’s a certain ethical trait, or a technical skill, or a craft. But that’s not for everyone, not necessarily.

A: So, that makes me think of conversations I’ve had often about work and payment. With writers and artists, or with young people. That they feel a professional lack of respect, when they’re expected to work for free, talk for free, even when it’s an unpaid internship. It’s very strong in the arts, and the community sector, because there’s so many people there who don’t get paid, or not properly, and then after a while it breeds resentment, and it’s experienced, yes, as a lack of respect.

B: Maybe we’re touching something then, something about respect, youth, and anger. You know the figure of angry young men – angry young people in general – they’re angry because they want respect, and they’re not getting it. There’s an expectation there, from them, but it’s a confused expectation. Part of it is that unconditional human respect, and maybe that has to do with adulthood, they want to receive what any other human is receiving. But another part has to do with what we’re calling esteem, conditional respect. Only the two get mingled, it’s not quite clear what they want, so they feel frustrated, and angry.

A: We’ve got this way of thinking about unconditional respect, professionally when we say that ‘tout travel mérite salaire’. Because you do have the case of interns, who don’t get paid. And here, well, true, power relationships are not in their favour, they feel maybe, that they need to work for nothing, and they’re not respected in that sense. But then, it’s not necessarily the case that they should have esteem for what they do, many, they’re starting, it’s good that they’re out there, but they’re not doing wonderful work, they’re still learning. And so yes, the two things get mingled, and everybody’s angry.

B: So, maybe yes, there is a confusion between what we feel is our right to respect, unconditionally, and then this idea that you get respect on the basis of achievement, success. And the result is what you see sometimes, people who feel they have a right to be successful, and they get angry when they’re not, but that’s just because we messed up with the categories. It’s like, everybody wants to work in the sexy industries, like working for the arts or in graphic design or start ups, or whatever. But they won’t accept not to be paid for it. And that creates a power relationship that’s not favorable to the workers. And then, the personal desire for success, as the basis for respect, it becomes a problem for the whole community.

A: We had this thing, in Australia, a big movement to ‘pay the writer’. And I always found there was confusion in what people were asking for. It was surprising even, that writers, intellectuals, were confusing categories. I mean, they were looking for ways that writers would live with more dignity, and get their bills and rent paid, and that’s very fair. But then they were also – it was like, there was a right to be paid, for whatever you wrote, and the desire to be paid for their writing, not in another way – because that would somehow validate their status. It was messy, it still is, I find.

B: Well, we all have a need for recognition I think, but the question is, how is this recognition materialized, how is it generated socially, and how is it perceived? I mean, one characteristic of a neoliberal society is that we’ve commodified everything. And so, recognition goes through money. If you can’t get money for it, it has no value. So; the writers want to be paid for their writing because otherwise – it has no value, and they won’t be respected for it.

A: You’re right. There’s a need for recognition – esteem, for craft and effort – and there’s a need for food and shelter, but people conflate both, and they turn that into the need to be paid for their art, and so they can’t think about it creatively.

B: I wonder, if it’s the same for the young people you were talking about. They’ve got a need for some esteem, and that’s about identity, finding out who they are and where they can excel. It’s even, maybe, to help with their decision making. And then there’s a different aspect, that’s material needs to be met. And we’ve got a problem when we can’t find a way to separate those two.

A: That’s what I like about the idea of a universal basic income. It actually dissociates those two. You’ve got unconditional respect, on the basis of human dignity, and you get food and shelter. But then you’ve got esteem, and that depends on your achievements – and when you’ve got a universal basic income, that might be monetized or not, it no longer matters so much. I think, that need to monetise everything, it’s a problem for society. We push people to selfishness. While with all moral codes, they’re all about pushing people to be less selfish.

B: Maybe then it is about courage, and virtue. Because – there’s a lot of mediocrity. Generally speaking, we’re all rather mediocre. And we can move away from mediocrity, just a little, when we’re in the right environment. And if you’re in a setting that allows you to be less mediocre by default, then you don’t need so much courage to do things – but then do you deserve more respect? That’s what I wonder.

A: It’s like, international development, should you think of it as a form of justice, or charity? And if you’re simply doing the right thing, should you be praised for it? I mean, there’s this image in the Gospel of the widow who gives a little coin to the temple, but Jesus says she deserves most respect, because she had so little to start with.

B: It’s the same thing in Buddhism. If you give an offering of something you don’t need, it doesn’t count. You must give from the things you need, and then you will get merit.

A: Something I wonder, are we so decadent that we praise people for doing something like giving up what they don’t need. It’s a little depressing.

B: It is a little depressing. It’s, I mean it’s hypocrisy too, and I don’t know that it’s a new thing. I mean, there are many people who just want to look good, but then the cynicism comes through. Their way to gain respect is by moralizing others and judging them, but then they don’t apply the same criteria to themselves, and those people, I mean they deserve fundamental respect, yes, but not our esteem.

A: So, do you think, social, where we direct our esteem is fundamental question, and a fundamental mechanism, to promote certain behaviors?

B: Well, yes – and so, we might wonder then, what could we do, to give conditional respect in a way that promotes more prosocial behavior? Like, maybe we need not just universal basic income, but also more recognition for the most socially useful jobs, and then that will get us somewhere?

The wog is always further south

As a migrant to Australia, I discovered a new word: ‘wog’. The word, I learned, refers to “Southern Europeans” or “south eastern Europeans”. In Australia, that’s Italians and Greeks mainly, and potentially the Lebanese, Spaniards, Croatians, Serbians and Macedonians.

On the Wikipedia page about wogs, there is an English quote saying, “The wogs begin at Calais”. The border of civilisation ends with us. I noted the same thing through my early years.

People in northern France, where I grew up, thought of the Southern French as lazy oily garlicky dark-skinned sloths who parade around in convertible cars.

My father’s family comes from this oily southern France, but civilisation, in their eyes, ends just a bit further. They’re reliable, but the Italians, though pleasant, are unreliable, lazy, flashy, etc.

My grandmother, on my mother’s, is from northern Italy. Emilia-Romagna: fat, rich, middle-class Italy, where they put egg in the pasta, and pork in everything. I remember telling her I was going to Naples, and she would say “oh, Naples, oh, this is different. This is a different place altogether. We’re from Parma.” She was the daughter of a metal worker, cast away from Italy for his involvement in anarchist movement. But she had an extreme snobbism and superiority, towards the South Italian ‘wogs’

One of my dearest friends in Paris is Herakles, from the island of Zakinthos or Zante. This was a Venetian seaport, like Corfu, and never a part of the Ottoman Empire. One day, we were walking along the port, and pointing out at the sea, he would tell me: this is Peloponnesus, they were Turkish out there. He went to Athens for university, and his friend from the island, they would call the locals “barbarians”, and mock their Turkish sounding music.

So prejudice will make us perceive whoever lives across the border as somehow the first barbarians – and ‘us’ as the bulwarks of civilisation.

The Essence of St Kilda (from the archive)

From as long as I can remember, my dream has been to live by the sea. So, it’s not surprising that my first home in Melbourne was in St Kilda. A few weeks after settling on Loch Street, fresh of the boat, I picked up a leaflet for an essay competition: ‘the essence of St Kilda’. I thought – what is there to lose, and took part. As it happens, I got a ‘special mention’. Now that Covid-19 is putting us all in self-isolation, I have been going through my drafts and folders, putting some order into them. I thought I might share this relic from early 2009, a recent migrant’s take on St Kilda. 

What is the essence of St Kilda? The competition leaflet invites me to “tell us your story” – but I’m a Frenchman, and I need clearer guidelines. I’m not satisfied with anything so vague. A story is not an essence. A story will have characters involved in a plot, and therefore time passing, and change. Essence, on the other hand, involves a stable intellectual object, open to manipulation, exchange, diffusion. I will therefore not engage in a digressive personal narration. I will use my logic instead. I shall articulate, clarify, and establish intellectual boundaries. I want sharp naming; anything looser is boredom. As far as writing is concerned, I hate frills and blurs. I will distinguish categories, and sieve my experience through them.

As an overture, I reach for my beloved partner, the French-language dictionary. Yes, I like understanding the world with help of a reference book. I try “St Kilda,” but it does not appear in the proper nouns section – it’s a French dictionary, no wonder – but then I think, if it’s about the “essence” of St Kilda, should I maybe look up “essence” in the list of entries, and seek inspiration among the common nouns?

Under “essence” I read: “Essence: ce qui constitue la nature d’un être,” that which constitutes the nature of a being. Synonym: nature, substance. So is it nature, then? The opposite of culture? If essence is not cultural, then what is St Kilda, naturally? Should I mention the hill, how steep it is, how high it rises above sea-level? Or should I focus on the soil, the mineral truth of the place – clay, stone, sand? On the complex relationship of hill and swamp, on the cycle of water running down into the sea, digging long beds into the ground? Or maybe my essay should focus on ecosystems, identifying the border fencing the domain of the lorikeet inland, and that of the seagull beachwards; or try and understand, interviewing volunteers and specialists, how penguins and water rats interdependently share the rocks of the breakwater?

Doubtful, I read on: “ce qui fait qu’une chose est ce qu’elle est et ce sans quoi elle ne serait pas,” that which makes a thing what it is, in the absence of which it wouldn’t be. That one’s a bit fuzzy, isn’t it? Is the essence of St Kilda about a view of the receding shadows of the coastline, or the Melbourne skyline towering over the north-western horizon? Is it the hookers and syringes of Grey street, or the mansions with their grand Palladian architecture? Is it the kitsch face of Luna Park, or the gaudy tiles on the benches of Acland street? Maybe the place-name itself holds a clue. No “Kilda” patron saint encloses our part of the world in the warm embrace of its benevolence. The ship depicted in bas-relief on the railway bridge at Balaclava station – siren at the prow, thrusting her opulent throat at passers-by – is where the title comes from, although the ship the Lady of St Kilda was herself baptised after a group of islands off the coast of Scotland – and there was no kilt-wearing holy man there, answering calls of “Kilda, Kilda.” St Kilda, whether a deformation of Dutch or Danish, tells a water story, “sweet well,” “reliable spring,” or “place of many waters.” In short, the tritest of all place-names.

Will my dictionary’s third definition yield anything less fuzzy? “Type idéal,” ideal type. Antonym: “accident, appearance.” What then in St Kilda is appearance, accident? What is the real, the true, the core? Is it an intrinsically genteel and worthy part of town, accidentally covered in sleaze? Or is it the other way around? Unless we try a more radical approach, and consider the buildings accidental, arbitrary, and search for essence in the realm of the myth, in Dreamtime older than memory. Then St Kilda could be a resting-place of the whale ancestor, seagull, penguin, some other species. Who knows? Under the Junction corroboree tree, no voices gather, and I fear that the song of the land has been lost.

I read further, unfolding the garland of meanings: “substance odorante volatile produite par certaines plantes et pouvant être extraite sous forme de liquide,” volatile smelly substance, produced by certain plants, that can be extracted in liquid form. The raw material of perfume. So should I identify the smell of St Kilda, like food and wine writers try to encapsulate a complex intimate experience of nose and mouth? Is it eucalyptus and laurel on the streets of the leafy west? Or souvlaki, chips and oil along the stalls of Acland and Fitzroy streets? Is it the smell of continental cakes, a mix of sugar, butter, apple, nut and caramel, or the bitter smell of beer and wine from the pubs? Or is it the salty wafts along the seaside – unless, wait a minute, I can smell undertones of coconut-flavoured sunscreen there, as well.

Back to the dictionary. I skip a definition that identifies “essence” as “species,” and read on to the last one in the list: “hydrocarbure, produit de la distillation du pétrole brut, liquide très volatil, odorant, inflammable,” a product of petrol distillation, volatile liquid, odiferous, inflammable. That sounds promising. They give the following quote: “l’essence est employée comme carburant et comme solvant,” essence is used as a fuel and a solvent. Giving energy, generating movement. What is it that makes St Kilda go around? Is it the slow regular tide of water moving in and out as the moon tightens or loosens its magnetic web? Or the constant ebb and flow of human desire, bringing in daily loads of the young and the old, searching for sex and drugs or the more innocent pleasures of an ice-cream, a restaurant or a concert.

I sit and ponder. Did I actually find anything that I could pinpoint as the very essence of St Kilda? Of course, I could play the existentialist – it’s always easy, being French. I grab a cigarette, pull a long face, and quote a local philosopher. Sartre: “existence precedes essence.” And I see that we’re back at the first definition – a perfect hermeneutic circle! Now we can hop along the meanings, invoke the radical impossibility of ever delineating or defining a living reality without killing it first. And thus, I undermine my initial statement of intent. Heave a sigh, meditate on the weakness of the mind. But then I can proudly stand up to my responsibility: “St Kilda is alive, it’s a historical being. I can’t define its essence, because it’s free to evolve, free to change. St Kilda is not defined by its essence!” (Imagine a serious face here.) I rave on: “I’m a part of it, I define its essence, which my choices and actions will determine. St Kilda is what you want it to be.” How moving! But isn’t all of this a series of dull rhetorical somersaults? In the end, I’ve said nothing specific. Nothing there about St Kilda distinguishes it from Prahran, Caulfield, or even Fitzroy North. And if everything you can say about St Kilda also applies to Fitzroy North, then you probably haven’t understood much about the place.

I ditch the dictionary. I explore another path. I adopt Aristotelian style, defining things by specific difference and genre. St Kilda is (genre) a suburb. It is the terminus of tram-lines 96 and 112. No line ends in the centre of the CBD. There is nothing beyond St Kilda. But it’s not a self-standing urban community. It is situated within a continuous built environment. It is part of a metropolis – named after its original central hub, Melbourne. St Kilda differs from other suburbs in the world, by belonging to unique Melbourne – four seasons in a day, multiculturalism, lorikeets and cafe culture, etc. But what distinguishes it from other suburbs in Melbourne? What makes it not Albert Park, Footscray, Prahran or Box Hill? Does it serve a unique role in the metropolis or is it generic – distinguished only by accidents of history, identifiable only by administrative boundaries?

In terms of urban planning it stands out. None of its streets are straight, they’re all diagonal. St Kilda is not aligned with any other suburb, it refuses the sprawling symmetry. While the north expands towards the open desert of the dry continent, the streets of St Kilda all end at other streets. There is no perspective here towards anything but the bay. The city blocks the suburb on all sides. And yet, it’s not a seaport, either. It is not a place where goods are exchanged, where the riches of the land embark on their international journey, converting into cash, where docker muscle hauls heavy bags of exotic products to the ground. Oh no, the naked bodies on this beach are gym-fit, and the boats harboured along the jetty are yachts. There’s no warehouse here, no machinery, cranes or towboats. Not even a fishing fleet: just a lonely ferry crossing over to Williamstown, loading and unloading gaggles of leisure-weary travellers.

Moreover, there are no banking headquarters, industrial zones, or even a customs house. Nothing is manufactured or imported, here; there’s no-one to conduct wholesale transactions. It’s not a place of trading or legislating. It is not even a retail hub! Acland is not Chapel street. It has only a few shops, and most of them have cakes instead of clothes in the window. When I moved to St Kilda, arriving fresh off the boat, wanting furniture, a fridge and a pressure-cooker, I drove up to Windsor, Prahran and Richmond. After that I came back, unloaded everything into the house, and headed to Fitzroy street, enjoying a well-deserved alfresco dinner, and watching passersby. People come to St Kilda in search of entertainment. At night or during the day, all they want is a drink, food and terraces. Relax, enjoy, experience. It’s a place of pure spending. Ultimate consumption, of which only memories remain, a souvenir restaurant card, a receipt in the wallet. A glimmer in the eye, a shiver; nothing tangible, stackable, hoardable.

Now at last a pattern appears, a recurring key-signature that orders the polyphony of meanings. Is not entertainment the specific difference of St Kilda? This is not where people come to work, rest, or gather, but relax, enjoy and spend. When I told a friend I was moving here he said, amused: “oh, the Bohemian place!” But the same adjective applies to suburbs in the north, and there are other places for entertainment. People go to Chapel and Lygon street. What makes St Kilda not a Fitzroy or a Northcote? One thing is clearly different, and initially drew me to the suburb: collective housing, apartments. And thus no worm-farms, compost or home-grown veggies, no heaps of messy uselessness in sheds. In the same way as the north is earthy, grounded, and dreams of autonomous valley-style growing communities, recycling everything, and not daring to discard, St Kilda is open to the sea, bringing in riches from elsewhere, and throwing away the old, used and worn. The riches produced in the whole state come and mingle in Melbourne in order to be exported and alchemically transmuted into gold in the mysterious operations of harbour cities. In the process, a part of the wealth is diverted along St Kilda road, and as it reaches the pleasurely south-eastern hill it flies off, in a bonfire of sheer loss, invested in the sweet bottomless well of women, drugs, and alcohol, or in the lighter vanities of Luna Park and restaurants.

St Kilda relies on excess, on cash-burning, on idle spending. It relies on the abundant riches that are offered and sacrificed here. St Kilda makes a necessity of the superfluous, acknowledging it as essential to mental balance. One can’t constantly recycle and re-use, because man is not only born of earth and toiling and drought; we also depend on salty waves, irregular flows and miraculous catches. But with excess comes risk and potential destruction. Which applies here, in St Kilda: people will tell you: be careful, muggings at night, Irish backpackers, booze and fights, I wouldn’t live there, broken bottles on the pavement; and what about kids, you know, syringes. Hence the thrill, but it has a toll. Erring along Fitzroy street, asking for drug money, shouting at each other in front of the Gatwick, are the shipwrecked victims of the pleasure cruise. Distracted out of their way – whether drink has softened their brains or sleaze has tainted their souls. But these alcoholics and druggies are welcome here, somehow, part of the landscape; even if every cent they beg is burnt on something mind-numbing, they’re still supported, forgiven. Forgiven much, because they love much.

Is it a Christian place, then, our beloved suburb? A place of gospel-driven transformation of water into wine, and the pouring of perfume over our head? Excessive, abundant, out of control. Preaching “you’re alive, so live – love is all that matters!” Grey street has it all, the short-skirted ladies making a business of love, and the green statue of Christ on the church of the Sacred Heart, extending his all-embracing arms over the hill, offering love as generously and simply as the prostitutes beneath. I saw them marching down Fitzroy street after the gay waterpolo team in the Pride march, banners above them saying “St Kilda Sex Workers: an essential part of our community.” An young boy among them – hot body, gorgeous face – was wearing a t-shirt that read: “why be poor?” Why indeed? After all, who knows, a messiah may well multiply fish and bread for us. And if we count our pennies, sourly restricting ourselves, who knows if a resenting god won’t punish our lack of trust, spoil our hoarded manna, leave us destitute of bread and money – with no memories of pleasure to relish and heaps of rotten fruit on our shelves?

Here, then, lies the essence of St Kilda: it’s a suburb of Melbourne directed towards sheer consumption and excess of life. And that’s a satisfying achievement, a workable definition of its essence. A bit dry, though. So what if – final somersault – we returned to other definitions of essence? What if the essence of St Kilda was just a volatile, flammable liquid, a subtle perfume that fills you with energy and dissolves your pain? As water tossed by waves on the shore dissolves into bubbles of foam, then lifts itself, delicate, through the air on the seaside, a gentle caress on passing faces. It sticks to the skin, a patch of iodine and dreams, quickly evaporating. Nothing left behind, only the taste of the possible. Only the phantom of a sea-something – serpent, seagull or siren – mouthing “you bear my mark now, I’m the goddess of beauty, foam-like, and my touch has made you the salt of the earth.”

Girt by sea

Last night, I was awarded the title of New Australian of the Year by the Australia Day Council Victoria. I was invited to make a speech on that occasion, and chose to reflect on the traditions of hospitality that made my own migration possible. I never write speeches beforehand, but wanted to share it here – the version below is reconstructed from memory. 

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I’d like to tell you about the place that I used to call home. Imagine a place in the South of France – a broad landscape of flat, salty marshland. If you turn to the right and look out towards the sea, you will see a lighthouse, and my great-great grandfather built this lighthouse. If you turn to the left, you will see white moutains of salt by a pink lake: these are Europe’s oldest salt marshes, where my uncle used to work. If you now look straight ahead, you’ll see an old medieval town with thick walls and rounded towers. And as we go through these walls by one of the doors, I’d like to ask you to stop for a moment and look at that door, because my great-grandfather was the locksmith of the town, and he used to have a key for every city door.

Now, I’d like us to turn left inside the wall, and walk a few steps until we reach a large green metal door, with a rose bush flowing over it, and I’d like us to get in – and I know that we can, because that door is always open. And as we enter the courtyard, you will see an old lady sitting at a table, humming a song. That’s my grandmother, and she’s the reason I’m here today.

Hospitality took me here, and hospitality was the most fundamental value that my family taught me. In my grandmother’s house, the door was always open, and people would constantly come in and out, family, neighbours, old friends, and new friends. And if you stay long enough with her, my grandmother will point at the corner of the yard and say, there used to be a well there, and in that well, she says, there was always water, even in the driest season, and everybody would come in and share from it. That’s what hospitality means to me – a door that’s always open, and a well that never dries up.

Hospitality took me here. I’d like to take you now to a different place. It’s a cold evening of February, 2006, and I’m getting off the train at York train station. I’m visiting northern England for the first time, on a holiday, and I’m looking for a man with a carnation in his hand. We met through Couch Surfing, a website where people offer each other hospitality. A few hours later, we’re sitting in his room, with music playing, and he asks me: ‘shall we make love?’ – ‘Make love,’ I reply, ‘why not?’ Eleven years later, he’s the reason I’m here.

Hospitality took me here, I didn’t plan migrating to Australia. But I was ready to go. The place I described as ‘home’, that’s not where I was born. I was born in a different place, a town in North-eastern France called Strasbourg, right on the German border, a place where it gets down to minus 13 in the winter, and the snow falls, and people close their doors against the cold. I was the son of Mediterranean parents, a father from Southern France, a mother from an Italian family. I was a wog boy living on the German border. And all my teenage year, my dream was to move South, somewhere warm, with palm trees and jasmine. When I first visited Melbourne in 2007, I thought, this might be it.

I never thought I would move that far South, but I saw that I could fit in this new place. There were Mediterranean migrants like myself, Greek, Italian, Lebanese, Croatian. Meanwhile, my partner comes from a lineage of Lutheran pastors, Barossa Germans: through them, not only could I stay connected to the traditions of my teenage years in Strasbourg, but I entered an Australian that was intrinsically diverse: here were founding fathers of a State, yet clearly not from the dominant anglo-celtic tradition.

I could have been comfortable simply carrying my European heritage here – but something else happened. In fact, Australia did something quite extraordinary: it made a French intellectual realise the depth of his own ignorance. When I first visited the country, Asia hit me in the face – and I how little I knew about it. The only way for me to make sense of this new country would to learn about Asia. Luckily, I was brought up to believe that ignorance is not destiny. So I educated myself. I started teaching myself Chinese, I migrated overland taking three months to travel from Paris to Singapore, and next I knew, I was enrolled as art director in a mid-length Vietnamese action movie set in the Western suburbs of Melbourne.

There were numerous other experiences, projects, and friendships in my early year. Then it crystallised into one thing. In 2011, three years after landing in Australia, I founded a nonprofit organisation called Marco Polo Project – acknowledging my own Italian heritage – which explored new ways of bringing Chinese voices to Western readers, through the Internet. That was a difficult journey – I had no background or experience in business, and now I found myself building and running an organisation from scratch. But it worked out – six years in, the organisation still exists, and has grown. From pure online presence, we started bringing people together offline. We’ve now run more than sixty events around the world, bringing together speakers of English and Mandarin. Through this work, other opportunities opened, leadership training, start up incubators, scholarships and international delegations, and now, among other projects, I work with a Swedish Philanthropic Foundation on issues of global governance.

But Australia taught me something else. This is not a country that says ‘more, more, more’, this is a country that asks you ‘who are you?’ Australia gave me shape. It didn’t matter how many projects I conducted, if there was no meaning to them. I spent a long time reflecting on this – and in the end, I think it’s a rather simple thing. All my work centres around cross-cultural understanding. How can you get people from different languages and cultures to better understand each other? And if all I accomplish in my life is help people realise and accept that their world is not exactly the same as the world of the people around them, then I’ll have done enough.

I think this is a very Australian pursuit. Australia gave me shape. And that’s what this award represents. It’s about not my achievements – it’s about celebrating country that embraces new citizens, and welcomes their contribution. I’d like to reflect on a verse in our national anthem, a line that says, ‘Our land is girt by sea’. What does it mean to live on an island-continent surround by water? To someone whose great-great grand-father built a lighthouse, to someone whose family comes from Europe’s oldest salt marshes, to a Mediterranean wog boy, this is what it means. The sea does not separate us from the world, it connects us. Australia girt by the sea is in direct contact with the entire world. This land is a meeting place for all.

And that’s what I found here, not just a warm place with jasmine and palm trees – I think I got cheated on the heat in Melbourne, actually – but a place of hospitality. A place where the door is always open, with a well that never dries, and where people from everywhere come together, share their stories, and find their own shape. And that’s what this cup represents, and that’s what we’re celebrating today.

Happy places

Twelve middle aged women in fuchsia tops are dancing in the middle of the street. Their chirpy music mingles with the lounge soundtrack of the Starbucks terrace.

I’m on Shamian Island, where colonial powers established their residence in old Guangzhou. Heavy European architecture, stucco, balustrades, pillars. If it wasn’t for the dancing ladies, the tropical heat and the dangling roots of the giant trees, I could imagine I was in Prag, Berlin or Budapest. But I can’t think away the heat, the trees, or the people. I’m in southern China, late summer, with a mild film of sweat over my face. I rolled up my jeans to let my legs breathe.

I was in that exact same seat two years and a half ago. Back then, I was living in Nanjing – it was freezing winter up on the Yangtze, and for Christmas, I fled south. I stopped over in Changsha for a day, and arrived in Guangzhou on the night of Boxing Day. I still remember that feeling, getting out onto the street at FangCun subway station. The air was welcoming. I bought peanuts from a street seller, then bananas on LuJun Jie, where I walked among plastic tables where locals enjoyed late night barbecue. I walked along the Pearl River, sipping milk tea. Teenagers were out with skateboards. And I felt happy.

The next day, as I did this morning, I crossed the river on a ferry, looking out the window at the grey waters of the Pearl River. I walked along the stalls of the Fish Market, past piles of polystyrene boxes, mounds of seashells on the floor, among the strong smell of mud and water. I walked along the canal, under the dangling branches of evergreen tropical trees. I crossed a bridge, and arrived on Shamian Island. Then, I settled on the terrace of the Starbucks with a cup of espresso. I felt safe, home, happy.

Over the course of my travels, I have gathered the memories of a few such happy places.

There is a food court in the Singapore Chinatwon, where retirees gather after dark for cheap food and beer. In November 2014, after a difficult year running my first festival and applying for a PhD, I spent long hours there, finally resting, reading Watchmen and drinking addictive sweet coffee. This is the background image on my iPad.

There is another food court, in Penang, on the seafront. I sat there with Philip in early December 2008, eating curry, fried chicken, ice Kacang. We were getting to the end of our three month overland migration journey, and after exhausting times in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, we felt that in Penang, things became easy, we were getting close to our new home, and we could breathe.

There is a cafe in Chippendale, in Sydney, where I sat down after my first major talk on the Chinese Internet in 2014, and again, after finishing a major stretch of work recruiting candidates for the first round of CAMP. It’s a little hipster place with fancy muffins, light blue pat, second hand wooden chairs, across a park and a new residential development.

There is a Bench in Queenscliffe, overlooking Port Phillip Bay. In 2011, I took an emergency two-day off there, after incorporating Marco Polo Project. I walked along the ocean to Point Lonsdale and, halfway through the walk, felt dizzy. It was evening, I was alone, and thought I might simply collapse there, from sheer exhaustion. I pause, I breathed, I looked at the waves. I slowly wake de all the way to point Lonsdale, trying to leave the burden behind. I made it there. A bus took me back to Queenscliffe, where I sat on the bench, looking out onto the water.

There are other places, but these mostly come to mind. These are places I reache after a feat – a difficult and transformative experience. There, I felt I could pause, relax, and take the time to regain strength before I start again. Is is what I am doing today. I just completed my first report for the Global Challenges Foundation – this has been one of my most difficult, if rewarding, professional experiences. And before I start again, or move on to something else, I need to take some time in my happy place, to renew.

On soundscapes

I’m back at Gills Diner. Yesterday morning, I started working from my study, but felt eerily drawn to Gills, and so I went. It’s not only the bombolone. It’s something about the place, it’s the vibe. And when I reflected on it, wondering why I love working form that cafe so much, I realised: it’s the soundscape.

We live in a multi-sensorial environment, surrounded by sounds and smells; our body reacts to the cold wind on our legs or the presence of another person nearby. But – maybe distortion of our screen-mediated world – visual cues take credit for everything. A place, a person, a thing, look good, or doesn’t. Whether they feel, smell, sound good – it matters, but it’s not something we think about.

I’m an earthy guy, and experience the world through all senses. The touch of wood, the waft of bacon and coffee, the echoing voices of nearby conversations and clinging metal from the kitchen – they’re more important for my own sense of space and presence than just how things look.

There’s an old rivarly between Melbourne and Sydney. Once, coming back from the other city, as I stepped out of Spencer Street Station, I had a sudden flash of insight. Sure, Sydney pleases the eye – but Melbourne is sweeter on your ears. The tingle of trams, the clapping horses, the buzz of pedestrian lights, and the large echoes of its broad street, make the Melbourne CBD one of the most pleasant urban soundscapes in the world.

And since that moment, I realised – to discover whether a place feels right – I close my eyes, and listen.

On pedestrian traffic

On my way to the train station, I bumped into someone. I was in the Collins 231 Arcade, heading out towards Collins Street past the Dymocks Bookstore pit. There were two women walking ahead, at a slow pace. I went for a left side overtake just as one of them also swerved to the left, and I crashed into her jutting handbag. Her arm rose up in reflex, look of shock, vague apology, then both of resumed our walk on misaligned rhtyhms.

I take the shortcut through Collins 231 every time I go to Flinders Street Station. The back streets and alleys, Howey Place, Manchester Lane, Degraves Street, are more pleasant than crowded Swanston Street. They’re also more narrow, and traffic is more susceptible to the speed of other pedestrians.

Sidewalks have ambiguous status. People walk along them, alone or in small groups, going somewhere or wandering, at very different speeds. The fast walker faces all sorts of obstacles on their way: trees, terraces, kiosks; queues, window-shoppers, buskers and their audience; two-way traffic with no rules of priority; groups of gaping tourists, or couples leisurely strolling abreast of each other, with half a person’s empty space between them.

I often overtake. When the crowd is too dense, I walk on the road. Walking unimpeded brings a fundamental feeling of freedom that I’m not ready to give up. Others may see freedom as the right to walk slowly, stand on the sidewalk, or carry their extensive personal space with them even in dense urban centres.

We could all have it our way if there was just a bit more space. In fact, to the eye, there is; but hey – this beautiful broad stretch of road in the middle of the street, it’s not ours to use. Cars need their space too, don’t they.