Marco Polo Project – loneliness, entrepreneurship

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.

It’s a warm late afternoon of mid-January. I’m walking along the Yarra river, down from Crown Casino. I’ve lived in Australia for about a month, and I’m heading to dinner with friends of my partner. I don’t feel very connected with those people. There’s a certain cliquey narrow-mindedness, an emotional cool, that puts me off. My people are back home. I’ve got no one in Melbourne. The sadness rises inside my chest. There’s an Indian guy sitting on the steps, in the warm evening sunlight. He smiles to himself. For a moment, I start to fantasize. Maybe this guy will be my friend. The movie plays in my head. He stands up, our eyes meet, there’s a nod of recognition. Do you feel out of place here too? We smile, we laugh, we head off on a walk. I call my partner ‘hey, I won’t be going to that dinner tonight, I’m eating out with my new friend’. Indian guy stands up, but he doesn’t smile, or look my way. He walks straight inside the casino. And the fantasy comes to an end.

Migration is an exercise in loneliness. Friends and support networks are distant. Things don’t make sense. Well-meaning locals try to support you, but their emotional language doesn’t translate. That loneliness is professional too. Native cultural capital has no currency. The daily rules and routines of work are confusing. Jokes and allusions fall flat.

Migration is hard, for sure. It’s also liberating, like a jump into the unknown. You shed old rules and models, and you figure out new ones. A friend of mine likes to use the word ‘migrapreneur’ – he couldn’t find an engineering job, and made himself a gig advocating migrant entrepreneurship. I can relate. Since I had to learn new codes, I thought, I might as well go wild, and build something new, and crazy. Building an organization to better engage with China is how I tried to make sense of living in Australia. 

It paid off. I met new friends directly through Marco Polo Project, and many more indirectly. Running that organization took me to cool co-working spaces, endless networking events, and Nanjing on a scholarship. I presented at the Shanghai Maker’s fair in 2013 with an Italian designer who was on the committee for Shanghai’s maker space Xin Chejian. Then I got introduced to the founder of the first co-working space in Guangzhou. I contributed to trendy digital magazines in Australia and China, met a prospective PhD supervisor through those channels, and then got a scholarship. My research itself involved a range of interviews with people I met around the world through Marco Polo Project. Meanwhile, I gathered a number of the cool people I met through Marco Polo Project to join in the 2015 China Australia Millennial Project forum in Sydney. Through that gig, I got invited to join the THNK leadership program in Amsterdam, and later recruited to the Global Challenges Foundation in Stockholm. Good pick: for one of their publications, I was able to organize an interview with the Wunderkind of Chinese sci-fi Liu Cixin, through Marco Polo contacts. Eventually, I got awarded a Multicultural Honour Roll listing in Melbourne, and the title of New Australian of the Year. So, yes, the work certainly paid off.

I did what I could to give back. My experience of loneliness is not unique. Could Marco Polo Project somehow contribute to reducing the edge? Our events have brought people together, and offered them a chance to make meaning of their own lives and surroundings. Translation Club has birthed and cemented new multicultural friendships. Our interns have gotten jobs after supporting us. And people around the world, partners and supporters working on similarly whacky projects, got a little kick of ‘why not continue’ by watching us do what we do.

All this surely spells a success story. Yet the story comes with limits. How do you migrate well, if you don’t create a China-focused organization? I don’t have a clue. What I did requires a certain frame of mind, and a certain level of financial comfort as well – savings and a supportive partner with a full-time job. Not to mention, a lot of public resources went into my French education. I do my best to make the most of what I have been given, and it’s probably worthy, but it’s not easily replicable at scale. So, my capacity to serve as an example, or even empathise directly with the challenges of migrants, remains limited. It’s tempting to play role model, but as an outlier, I’m not sure that I qualify.  

Marco Polo Project – Language learning, translation, and self-awareness 

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.

Marco Polo Project offered an original take on language learning, inadvertently.  

In France, where I was educated, language learning is omnipresent, and widely understood to be about intellectual self-development. From Middle School onwards, I was trained in classical philology – or reflective translation exercises. I learned about the shape of my own brain by measuring the gap between my default French language categories, and those expressed in Greek, Latin, English and German texts I translated into French. Later, in my English Bachelor’s, translation – intended for the same purpose – was a solid percentage of the final mark.

I made a wrong assumption that this was universal. It was a major blind spot, to which I attribute much of our later struggles.

There is an extraverted bias to language learning in Australia, and most English-speaking countries, as I discovered. You learn a language to ‘talk to people’, not understand others, let alone understand yourself. This is often presented as a self-evident need, and personal driver for language learning. In this paradigm, translation is pushed aside as irrelevant – even standing in the way of ‘thinking in the target language’, and performing adequately.

I have been known to say that I don’t speak to random people in French or English, so why would I suddenly want to do that in Chinese? Besides, with the progress of translation technology, mastering the art of smooth transactional interactions has become somewhat obsolete. While deep reflective self-knowledge has a value of its own, which it will retain, irrespective of technological developments.

This, of course, is a somewhat elitist view, showing my intellectual bias. And this bias coloured the direction we took. At some level, Marco Polo Project is, indeed, for the happy few. We cater to Chinese language nerds, who chose to pursue a difficult academic endeavour, and find joy in reading etymological dictionaries. It’s a narrow subculture, but an important one. Those language nerds make up the living tissue of global diplomatic engagement with China. If we can support greater self-awareness among this crowd, well, a lot of good is likely to ensue.

Yet Marco Polo Project is also an attempt at democratising self-awareness, and make the wisdom of classical philology more broadly accessible. From the start, the project has been not about ‘learning to speak Chinese’, but embracing hybrid identities at scale, and birthing a global world where China and Asia play a critical role. In this model, learning Chinese (or other languages) has never been about ‘engaging with China’, as if China was a stable, remote entity, existing sub specie aeternitatis. Rather, it is about becoming a global citizen in a world increasingly shaped by a rising and evolving China. It is more broadly about learning to navigate increasingly complex, ambiguous, and uncertain environments, where cultural assumptions and default categories must be challenged. This applies across all sorts of domains – whether migration, future of work and entrepreneurship, or adapting to the challenge of shifting our economies and societies to more ecologically-conscious paradigms.

This second ambition – to generalise self-awareness, and learn to deal with shifting and contradictory mental models – is not about a narrow subculture. It is about the future of education, and it needs to scale. So, we led systematic experiments in low-cost, context-independent models.

This combination of elitism and large-scale scalability has brought a measure of confusion, in our messaging and strategy. We’re targeting a niche group of intellectuals, yet also proposing a radical paradigm-shift in language education. We’re engaging a narrow subculture, yet hoping to be the seed of a new global community. Contradictions of the sort often trigger the richest creative questions, over the long-term. How to create a model dense enough that it can serve as a magnet for an elite of China nerds –  yet inherently open enough to scale globally? This is the challenge we’re working on. In the short-term though, this contradiction breeds confusion, and is certainly not conducive to a clear business models and other narrow measures of success.

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #3

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. 

16 december

Learning is change. I just wrote on a page of my new ‘Julien Leyre’ blog. As I did, I realizsd I learned a lot in the last five years – and as I learned, I changed.

I learned, at a very basic level, to operate entirely in English. I’m writing this piece in English now, and I’ve become more comfortable writing and thinking in English than French – although sometimes I miss the extreme clarity with which I wrote and understood French. I have changed, as a writer – but more fundamentally as a person – from being ‘Julien, francais’ to ‘Julien French-Australian’. The very pronunciation of my name changed, as I became ‘djoulian’.

Can people really change? It is a common philosophical question. Is character a given, determined through the mix of genetics and early childhood influences? Or are we plastic beings, engaged in a constant process of change and renewal? Based on my experience, in my case, the second seems to be true – my brain is now different, I have capacities I didn’t have – and I believe some fundamental assumptions about the world are no longer what they were ten years ago.

I changed language and nationalities, at the same time as I changed ‘profession’ and ‘cross-cultural identities’. I went from being a French linguist and writer to a French-Australian sinophile.

Asia – particularly China – entered my life at the same time as I moved to Australia. This change was, partly, the deliberate expansion of my own personal geography to integrate China – and of my linguistic understanding of the world to include Chinese. Then – or at the same time – came Spanish, through the reconnection with my mother, and a short trip to the Caribbean. And a growing interest for Africa, prompted partly through meetings in Australia. From a North-Atlantic mindset, I shifted to a global mindset. This was a change, too, in implicit perspective.

A large part of this change was the result of a deliberate attempt. I pushed myself to change – or pulled myself. I systematically walked through the streets of Melbourne. I spoke English and thought English. I looked at maps, exercised my worldview like you shift your eye focus at an optometrist’s. I wanted to become a ‘Pacific’ citizen. I wanted to become a sinophile Australian. I wanted to become a Melbourne writer. And I believe it’s happened. I have changed.

This change took a large amount of effort, energy, and time. Whether that was a waste, or the best decision I ever made, it’s too early to know. What I know is that, as a writer, I have developed maturity from this change. What I know is that, as a person, this change has also made me more mature.

What I tend to forget though, is that not everyone has undergone such a massive experience of deliberate change in the middle of their lives. We generally grow up, and change as we do, but then start taking a shape in our early twenties, and don’t vary too much from it. I have had a very long period of growth, experimentation, and taking shape. Or maybe, I have just retained high plasticity, because I enjoy it.

There is something deeply exhilarating about the possibility to change as I have. To be now in Nanjing, under a red quilt, enjoying the warm-ish air blown from my aircon, having come back from a day-trip to Shanghai – on Australian government money – when ten years ago, I didn’t know the first thing about Australia, Nanjing or Shanghai: that’s a bit of a change, and a happy one. I achieved a lot in these last five years – an exhibition, a film, a language, an apartment, a charity, three blogs, a new public profile, many friends, happy memories. I did things in my early thirties, even as I changed.

Soon another major change will take place: I will officially speak, understand, read and write Chinese. Not very well, maybe, but enough that I can take a book off the shelf, and follow it – or write an email to someone, and convey the information I need – or engage in a conversation pretty much anywhere. Europeans call that a B2 level. Fluency threshold. I am no longer a real ‘Chinese learner’. I no longer need vocabulary books, vocabulary lists, or grammar books. I have one more exam to pass, next year in September, maybe – HSK 6 – to seal it off. But I can basically start reading my own books, blogs, or conversation threads. Study days are over for Chinese. I’m now enjoying it. This big part of my life has become a proper source of joy – even as I keep progressing. And that’s so much more energy for the rest. Just as happened when English became no longer a drain, but something I was 100% confident operating in. Things are getting easier. And I’ve done so much, while I learned, and changed. I can just rely on some of that impetus in the coming years – and see what I can bring to life, if I’m changing less.

Looking back on my 35 year-old self – #1

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. 

14 december

Three years ago, I left Hong Kong for Melbourne, at the end of a three-week scholarship in Tianjin that was going to profoundly change my life. In Tianjin, during a night of insomnia, I dreamt of building a website inviting learners to collaborate on the translation of new writing from China. Many details were clear in my mind’s eye – not the design, but the navigation, the shape of the community, who would come, what they would be able to do. I took a notebook in the dark, so that I wouldn’t wake up my roommate, and wrote the details in it.

Three years ago, Marco Polo Project was just a name and an idea. Now it’s my profession.

Why is this the first thing that came to mind when I decided to write this piece? I wasn’t starting with my professional career in mind. It’s 17 days to the end of the year, and I wanted to launch a project: every day, write a short reflexive piece about myself – where I’m going, where I’ve been. I’m hoping to gain some insight and energy from these reflections. I just read through the front pages of my five-year diary. I was full of confidence last year – I had become a social entrepreneur, I was being recognized as an expert on China, I made contacts, I raised three thousand dollars on pozible. I’m objectively further ahead this year – I got thirty eight thousand dollars in grants, I’m organizing an international literature festival and taking a delegation of social entrepreneurs to China – hey, I’m doing well. But, strangely, my confidence is much lower than it was last year.

Last year, I was accepted in established worlds. Last year, in 2012 – that’s almost two years ago now – my contact with the Department of Primary Industries was finishing, and I was over the moon at the prospect of, maybe, working as a communications person for Philip Kingston. I’ve got many contacts with him now – and with other, equally important people – Rick Chen, Liu Yan. If everything else failed, I could probably work for them, and it would be much better. So why am I feeling this way, as if I had wasted my time – why the doubt? Professionally, I am in a better position to get a great job now than I was two years ago.

Or am I? I got older. I’m not in my twenties anymore, and I’m heading towards forty. These two years were a burst of youth – trying things and taking risks – but hey – I can’t start over forever. I’m turning thirty-six – I’m twice eighteen in less than a month. Twice eighteen. That sense of doubt may be the cycle starting again. Twice eighteen, four times nine. Where was I at twenty-seven? I broke up with my five-year partner. At eighteen – I left the town where I grew up. What major change will happen in my thirty sixth year? What stable aspect of my life will shift? These two major changes I could foresee – but I don’t really know which one will come next.

I didn’t use to fear aging. I don’t think I do yet. But I have financial anxieties. What about my retirement? What if I can’t ever have a proper income? What if I am suddenly sick? I’m also worried for my health. My strange toenail fungus. My bizarre dizzy spells of the last week. But then I’ve always had health anxieties, and none of them were ever founded.

I think what I want is to find a road ahead. When I arrived in Australia, almost five years ago, everything was a ‘to do’ – make friends, discover my environment, become proficient in English, find a way to get income. I did all that – so what comes next? The moment I became a citizen, I fled the country for China. But I’m back in a month. What then? What’s my second Australian five-year plan?


What projects have I not yet brought to life, that I carried with me, and started:

  • a documentary film about ghosts
  • a photographic journey through suburban church architecture
  • a series of reflexive interviews with sellers of religious object
  • the Lesbian sequel of Honey Pot

What old projects are still in me that I might revive?

  • collective nouns in English and Chinese
  • the copy-shop – memories of Paris in the naughties
  • Saint Just
  • Voyage aux Antipodes et considerations sur la revolution francaise – a French-Australian moralist

What is coming over the horizon, that I didn’t anticipate five years ago

  • African connections
  • Social enterprise and international third sector partnerships
  • China seen by the Chinese – Chinese diversity
  • Chinese mental health and well-being.

The most important, maybe, to acknowledge, is that not everybody carries a list of twelve projects in their head, that they would really like to bring to life. If I’m feeling tired – that may be normal. But I should think of these – I do want to bring as many of them as I can to life – and for that, I need energy, joy – health will help – balance and focus. So no more anxious hesitation! I don’t know what I’ll bring to life in 2014, but something will happen. And if Marco Polo collapses, if other projects collapse – I have more to do.

I’ll be alright – mate.

Values cards project – dignity

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: There’s this idiom we use, we speak about ‘human dignity’, but it’s just a set phrase. In Japanese, there’s two different terms. There’s ‘son-ke’, which is respect for whatever is above you, and it implies a hierarchy, it’s tied to the notion of a status. And there’s ‘son-cho’, which is about universal respect, and that’s tied to that concept of human dignity. What son-cho’s about is that every person deserves a certain form of respect, there are things you just can’t do to them. Like you can’t lynch a criminal.

B: So there’s something about dignity that’s unconditional?

A: Yes. It’s also connected to the word ‘respect’. ‘Le respect de la dignité’, it’s a set phrase in France. But then, when you hear the way that it’s used, often the person who’s asking for that dignity to be respected, I’m getting the impression that they’re asking for conditional respect, not unconditional. I mean, they seem to want respect in for a competence they don’t have. Like, they’re smart, or they deserve something, when that’s just not the case. So, it’s associated with a kind of entitlement.

B: Well, that reminds me of this thing that happened to me. There’s an organisation here called Leadership ***, and they run programs for migrant community leaders. I saw that pop up in my feed one day, and thought I might apply. I got shortlisted and went to their session for shortlisted appliances. And then I had a shock. I was the only white person in the room, and there was this woman talking to us, and she was saying things like, ‘so, there’s 45 of you shortlisted, but we only have 30 places in the programs, so you must understand that not everyone will get in. Duh. But if you’re from Africa, we’ve got a program that’s for African community leaders, so you might also get into that.’ And she was using – I don’t know, there was a tone, and the way she was talking to us, it was like we were complete idiots. And I was thinking, wow, we’ve been selected as community leaders, and that’s how they’re treating us. I actually, I almost ran off. They needed you to be there at certain dates for the program, and they said ‘and we expect you to be there at all those dates’, and I raised my hand and said I was travelling on those dates for my work, so was it worth me doing the second interview? And she seemed annoyed, but said, then probably not. And after I left, I realised, it was the first time in my life I got condescended to. As a middle class white man, it never happened to me before. And that time I understood what it feels like, and I told all my women friends and my Chinese friends, it’s horrible! But so yes, I guess that’s what condescension is about, it’s refusing a certain unconditional dignity. It’s saying, if you want a relationship, it’s gonna be based on a strict hierarchy, and you’re starting on a lower rung.

A: Wow, that sounds tough. I mean, when I hear that, I wonder if dignity is actually about unconditional equality? One thing we might look at is how each culture handles its minorities. When you look at France, we have a hierarchical relationship with black people from Africa, and for Muslim populations, it’s rejection. In Japan, there’s a hierarchy where white people are at the top, but you might still be rejected as a foreigner. It’s a rejection on principle. It’s like you’re excluded from a club, and you won’t ever get in, no matter what you do. That’s actually what racism is about. It’s a hierarchy that’s based just on status, not actions. While dignity, that’s about the capacity to develop a relationship on the basis of radical equality. And so, when you there’s somebody that gives you this unconditional dignity, but they still disagree with your actions, then that disagreement has a real weight.


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.”

On Wrath

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

Late on Tuesday, I found myself looking at Facebook. A friend had shared an article on a new proposal from our immigration minister, to give white South African farmers exposed to violence at home a fast-track to an Australian visa. The same minister had previously opposed increasing visa numbers because of the burden on Australia’s welfare system and the risk to Australia’s jobs. At 11h30, I shared the piece on Facebook with a flaming quote: “For a moment, I thought that our present government had something against refugees, and I felt ethically challenged. But as it turns out, I was wrong this whole time – they’ve got nothing against refugees, just brown people. Now that’s a government I can proudly stand behind!” At 1am, I still couldn’t sleep – I was excited by my act of righteous boldness, curious to see reactions, ready to go and overthrow the government. What happened in the end? Nothing more than a few likes and comments – I deprived myself of time I could have used more productively, literally burning it in the fires of wrath.

My first long piece of writing explored wrath: it was a verse tragedy called The Sirens about the death of Patroclus and the wrath of Achilles. The Illiad is the a cornerstone of the Western canon. Achilles, Greece’s foremost warrior, incensed by some internal slight with another general, is overtaken by wrath and refuses to fight. His lover Patroclus goes in his stead and is killed on the battlefield ,shifting Achilles wrath against the Trojans. The version I wrote opens and closes with Achilles’ mother, the sea-goddess Thetis, and her choir of sirens, calling her son to rejoin her in the shapeless ocean. At the beginning, Achilles, tired of the war, dreams of dissolving back into the maternal waters with his lover. The guile of Greek generals sends Patroclus to the battlefield – he’s not the son of a Goddess, and could only stand on equal footing with demi-God Achilles through the glory of heroic battle. The death of Patroclus prompts a change in Achilles: the only way that he now can unite with his lover is by rejecting murky death by water, and instead, join him on the funreal pyre of heroes.

Wrath is the fiery twin of depression. It is a form of moral perfectionism, an allergy to the corrupt world. It is a mask of strength hiding internal weakness. It is not a last resort resistance to evil, but violence let loose. Wrath is possession: alienated freedom. And so wrath is always a form of self-destruction. Every time we give in to wrath, we reproduce on a small scale the acts of a suicide bomber.

But wait – I hear you say – is not God himself wrathful? Here may be the crux of it. In wrath, all human doubt and frailty vanishes. We know what is right, and if we just let the powers of wrath take possession of our bodies and souls, we feel that we could bring order to the world. Is this not a sacrifice worth making? So wrath is ultimate temptation, inviting us to be like God: the most harmful and seductive form of hybris.

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. 


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.

On pop music

Yesterday, when I got back home after a long walk through Fitzroy and Carlton, the crepe place outside my building was playing an 80s French song. I hummed along as I walked into the elevator: ‘Partenaire particulier recherche partenaire particulière’. I was home.

One of the surprising difficulties of migration is that people in the new place don’t share your mental music library. Bars and cafes never play the songs of your childhood. There is no retro dance night where you can belt out the words of a familiar 1984 hit.

I have a precise memory of intense cultural alienation. It is 6pm on a Friday, and I’m at Papa Goose bar on Flinders Lane with colleagues. I had been living in Australia for two years and a half, and was working for the government, in a strategy team. We’d just finished a big conference, and went out to celebrate.

These moments also serve team bonding. The conversation soon drifted to pop-rock favourites. Titles and band names flew around, creating a sense of joint belonging beyond hierarchical divisions. Except, none of the names rung any bell for me. Some of those might have played on French radio, but I could not identify them.

I felt isolated, a bit stupid, very self-conscious, and angry. Didn’t they realise that the conversation alienated me? Couldn’t they be polite enough to find a more consensual topic – or, failing that, turn the focus on reflecting about pop-rock trends in France and Australia?

It wouldn’t happen. Lots of superficial office banter only serves to reassert pre-existing social connection. For that, people are expected to share the same web of references, pop music, pop cultures, values, models on how the world works. Migrants must catch up, or shut up.

To their credit, it is difficult to conceive that somebody close to you never boogied to the sounds of a favourite songs. Surely, they must know. I can’t really believe my partner never danced to ‘Partenaire Particulier’.