I’m sitting on the terrace of WeWork, on Elizabeth Street. It’s a hollow space in the middle of the buildings. On the terrace, chairs and tables create further hollows. Members come and go, alone or in small groups, using those chairs and tables for focus and connection.
Facilitators talk about ‘containers’. We create and hold a hollow space, so that new thoughts can manifest, or new groups of people bond. This requires a certain lay out of the room – chairs, tables, whiteboards. It also requires a structuring of the time spent together. Instructions, like a game, and time boundaries. It requires physical presence, keeping the boundaries to contain the flow.
Tool making comes in two forms. We sharpen the knife and the spear, true – but we also shape hollows, by molding the clay, bending the wood, or weaving the thread. Shields and walls define a safe internal space, where we can evolve. Birds know that, who weave nests. The home is a primordial tool, before the sword and arrow. This is where new life emerges.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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?
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 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.
This morning, for the third time in a week, I spent a couple of hours in the back room of Gil’s Alley Diner. It is a large square room with tall ceilings, industrial deco style. The room has a mix of round and square wooden tables. A large metal-frame window visually connects the dining room with the kitchen. They make excellent bombolone – small Italian style doughnuts filled with a thick custard.
Today was my third time in a week, and I’m beginning to feel like a regular now. I certainly behave like one: same coffee order – long black – same seat if it’s available – a little round table close to the wall in the main room. I think I got a look of recognition today from the waitress.
With regular status comes a sense of obligation. Tomorrow, I should go back, and certainly not somewhere else. I should keep the same order, maybe vary the choice of pastry, but not go for just a coffee. When I think about it more, I sense an odd feeling that the place is now counting on me for its bottom line regularity, and for the social fabric of the day – little as I contribute, I have become part of that small community.
This feeling bothers me. I have experienced it before with other places, and each time it came creeping in, I stopped going. Worse – I felt a sense of guilt associated with the place, and after not going for a week, would feel incapable of ever going back.
I wonder where that feeling came from. Maybe the fear of dependence? Maybe the guilt of staying there for so long? Maybe resentment that, when they prepare the tables for lunch service, I’m not welcome to stay – unless I order food. I hope I can get over these feelings this time – I would like to keep going to Gil’s diner. It’s a beautiful place to work and think, and they make excellent bombolone.
It is difficult to wander aimless. After a long day working on a theatre project, I felt a need for rest in the evening. It was a bodily need – I spent the day in all sorts of postures, standing, sitting, lying, but never moving quite enough. It was a mental need – I spent the day exploring, testing, detecting and exploring situations, tensions, patterns and rhythms, but never quite stood on stable ground.
Evening strolls are a treat, and one of the joys of living in the Melbourne CBD. I can walk by the boutiques and theatres of Collins Street, by the souvenir shops and sushi joints of Swanston street, among the bustle of Chinatown, or past sophisticated bars and designer shops in the laneways. I’m a few minutes away from the riverbank, and not much further from three gardens, Carlton, Fitzroy, or Alexandra.
Yet somehow, getting out of the house can be difficult. After six years, novelty’s worn off. Simply walking around is not enough. I need a goal. The goal does not impose itself. Landmarks are too many. There is no lighthouse calling, no city walls to circle, no Belvedere to climb. Daily life is so pleasant that I miss neither nature, nor people.
So, to get myself out, I revert to more primal states. Hunt and gather. I went out, looking at restaurants offering Chinese hot pot and Japanese ramen. Past cocktail bars and dingy bottle shops. Past 7/11 and Asian cake shops. Then stopped at the nearby Woolworths Metro supermarket, and bought a pack of ice cream, on special.
When I left Australia, I wrote on my facebook page ‘Good bye Melbourne, where things work and people smile’. I have indeed experienced my stay in China as, largely, one of things not working and people not smiling.
My apartment’s been the focal point for this. A washing machine that doesn’t spin dry, a fridge-door that does not properly close; a night without electricity, five days with no running water; two floods. I’ve had similarly experiences outside. I yelled at an Apple customer service person for sternly refusing to help me book an appointment online. I yelled at a small China Unicom shop for selling me the wrong internet card and refusing to refund it. And I left without paying at a Shanghai cafe who tried poisoned me with mustard noodles – yelling at the waitress on the streets. I’ve also left a trail of ‘never again’ cafes in the neighbourhood – generally for drastically bad WIFI, and a ‘mei banfa’ shrug from the staff.
Now – isn’t it surprising that I can spit this list of complaints easily – and most of my facebook posts are similar complaints? Why am I not mentioning what does work – the fruit or fried noodles available at 11pm from three different shops, the reliable train and metro system, or the very lovely folks at the BanpoCun cafe? No, for some reason, my western brain is terribly distracted by these few things repeatedly not working.
For a large part of my stay, these ‘things not working’ have been a drain of mental energy. I was trying to focus on my studies of the language, and building networks, and running Marco Polo Project. Meanwhile I needed to factor in added layers of contingency: could I wash my clothes and dishes, or would there be no water? Could I expect to send emails, or would the WIFI stall dead. All sorts of daily routines I had adopted as natural – jump on the computer in the morning, watch a film online, skype with my partner back home – were no longer a given.
But more than the annoyance of contingency planning, what really got me was, each time, a sense of ‘having been deceived’. Whenever I got angry, outside, it was at a ‘Western style’ place, or a Western brand (Apple). At the small shops serving noodles on plastic tables for 2 dollars, I adapt. But at the loungy place with jazz charging four dollars for an espresso, I expect ‘Western’ standards of services. Yet there’s no deep logic to it. Even considering the bad service or low quality WIFI, these ‘western style’ places (which might also be ‘Japanese’ or ‘Korean’) do provide a more quiet atmosphere, and in a city with constant pressing and pushing, that is precious. Apple had horrible phone service, but at the Shanghai shop, they were nice and efficient. So things are not, altogether, terrible – and I think my anger may be fuelled, partly, by a sense of nostalgia. Or even colonial frustration. Why are these people not all speaking perfect English (why should they?)
Still – one thing stands out, which I’ve discussed also with locals: people in the Chinese service industry – particularly waiting staff – are paid remarkably low wages. They’re not happy with it. And the brightest people certainly look for other jobs – or make sure they work as little as they can. Meanwhile, as a side effect of the population figures, or through some cultural desire for ‘warm and noisy’ (热恼), these underpaid waiting staff come in large packs – standing and sitting around in fours and fives – but not smiling much. And not making things work any better.
Am I the only one to feel this way? Or is there, at a deep level, a lack of care for efficiency, which is the most radically alienating thing in China?
‘No, my building is ground zero’, said a friend, ‘I’ve had jackhammers from six again this morning – so I just wake up and walk around – I can’t stay home anymore.’ Massive ‘Shigong’, or infrastructure works, have been going around Nanjing University since I arrived. I’ve had mud up to my ankles on the way back home, walked along a thin ledge of ground beside a moving excavator, and woke up to the pleasant sounds of jackhammers before 6am a few times. Yet I learnt I should count myself among the lucky ones: my jackhammers stopped after a while.
I left for Beijing ten days ago, and expected the Shigong outside my building to be finished when I came back. Indeed, I pulled my suitcase back along a freshly covered path, and the mounds of dirt had been swept clean – beside the thick layer of brown dust, nothing remained of the previous chaos. I put down my bags, and turned on a tap to get water for tea. Nothing came out – and nothing came out from the bathroom taps either. On the little path leading to my compound, I had noticed an unusual line of people queuing in front of a tap with empty water bottles and buckets. I picked up my empties from the kitchen – lazy man’s luck, I had a bunch of four-litre bottles I never bothered throwing away. ‘How long will the water be gone?’ I asked, hoping for quick respite. ‘Day after tomorrow’, replied a neighbour. Then added, philosophically ‘Lucky we got a tap working here, it would be really annoying otherwise’. I nodded. It’s been three days, and the water hasn’t come back. ‘Day after tomorrow’ seems to be short for ‘who knows?’
Running water is such a part of my daily life I hardly notice how much I rely on it every day – whether I quickly wash my hands or clean a cup, running water allows for my daily purification rituals. My dirty laundry took two journeys to the tap – and I collected the used water for my flush. I experienced something, and I’ve grown a deeper appreciation for the daily comforts of life in a developed urban environment. But it surely wasn’t fun or particularly pleasant. So for the last few days, I’ve been just a little bit grumpy, just a little bit frustrated I couldn’t wash properly – body, tea-cup or underwear – and couldn’t get a cup of tea whenever I felt like it without planning ahead.
By global standards, I am still in a privileged environment. A walk down the stairs will take me to the nearest tap, and I won’t have to queue for long. The water there may not have the cleanest taste, but if I boil it properly, I can drink it without immediate harm to my body. And I can get as much as I need for free. By relative standards, however, I am experiencing hardship: ‘if this was a shantytown, I would understand’, commented my father. ‘In a Chinese metropolis, it’s surely not normal’. I live in a rather wealthy central district of Nanjing, the capital of China’s second richest province, and an aspiring global metropolis. Yet as I discover, it’s not simple operating as a fully-connected citizen of the globo-sphere when practical details of your water recycling management require so much attention. And it’s that little bit harder to plan international skype meetings and visits to local innovation communities when you’re not sure you can get a shower, or boil yourself a cup of tea.
‘Not knowing is the worst’, right: this applies to Chinese infrastructure. It’s actually quite good when it works – but you cannot rely on it. I’ve experienced it with internet access, I’ve experienced it with transport, and now I’m experiencing it with running water. 没办法’, there’s no way, say some of the locals, resigned. Others pester with annoyance. The service is gone, the cause isn’t clear, and nobody knows when or if things are gonna work again. In other words, basic infrastructure cannot be trusted – and people treat basic service provision in the same way they deal with major weather events.
This lack of trust in basic infrastructure affects the whole society. If anything might break at any moment without sign of warning, long-term planning and risk management become laughable pursuits. Why build solid, if nothing is assured –cheap, fast and low quality makes more sense among such levels of contingency. Expected standards of service also drop accordingly: my cashier/waiter/doctor/ teacher/manager might have no running water today, no wonder they’re in a bad mood. Maybe this transaction cannot be completed on time, because some part of the system has collapsed. Let’s try it anyway – but if it seems too hard, we should give up: surely something must be wrong somewhere, or we’re just out of luck. And this attitude, in turn, breeds further chaos.
If you’ve ever wondered what happens on a sunny afternoon in a Chinese city – this video will show you. Two days ago, I went out for a walk with two friends around the ‘Gu Gong’ area – ruins of a Ming dynasty palace in the centre of Nanjing. Locals were enjoying life, dancing and playing music under 14th century stone arches, bringing memories of Rome, Aigues Mortes, Athens and other places I love along the coast of the Mediterranean.
I’ve been in Australia for three years now, and recently received my permanent residency. To celebrate my integration, and reflect on this new life environment, I will develop an observation blog called ‘Australian Aesthetics’. I want to try and capture the shape of Australian urban life, as I experience it, through text and images. There is a certain beauty, a certain aesthetic quality to Australian cities – isn’t Melbourne ‘the most livable city in the world’? – yet I don’t often see it represented: travel books will show either the glitzy towers, graffitied laneways, a misty river scene, or expenses of roaring ocean. These sights are truly Australian, but they are somewhat exceptional. What I want to capture is, on the contrary, the everyday, the banal, what people see when they get out their front door, walk to the station, or have a stroll around on the week-end.
I will write this blog in French and English. This will be an exercise in multilingual text production, and the occasion to experiment with inspiration – what does each language invite me to tell, how do I react to my anticipated audiences? But I still need to figure out the technicalities.