Back to School

Closeup of a copper rivet on blue jeans.Image via Wikipedia
Summer holidays have finally come to an end and I am teaching again. The difference in atmosphere between Australian schools and English schools hit me straight away. First of all was the lax dress standards. On my first day teaching in England I wanted to make a good impression on the new school and therefore came in a collared shirt - so much for my standards of looking presentable, I was “busted” for wearing jeans. Dress standards at my Hertfordshire school were strictly slacks and collared shirt, on top of that I noticed ties were more or less obligatory as well, judging by what all other male teachers were wearing.

I told a this story of my surprise to other members of staff when in England. Explaining that the only time I ever felt out of place for wearing jeans in an Australian school was when every other male member of staff were lounging around in t-shirts and shorts. Of course, I got the impression that English teachers just considered this a wild exaggeration of the notorious “she’ll be right”, “no worries” attitude of Australians. In fact, by the end of my year in Hertfordshire, I’d even begun to doubt the veracity of the story myself.

But sure enough, walking into the staffroom this morning, on a 36 degree day, what sight do you imagine met my eyes? Yes, shorts and t-shirts!

“Mate, you’re gonna have to lose the tie.”

Was the reception I got entering the staffroom. On the other hand, female members of staff complimented me on the collared shirt and tie and took jabs at the other men to follow suit. But the banter was playful and self deprecating throughout. I’m not sure whether to continue trying to maintain a good standard of dress code or to just cave in and go back to jeans and a polo (I was never really t-shirt and shorts material).
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Palazzo Tucci - residenza d'epoca

Image via Tom Häkkinen
The amply-proportioned "Wally" room in
the Palazzo Tucci.
I stayed here with my girlfriend for 3 days in September. Choosing to stay in Lucca instead of Florence, Pisa or Sienna was something of a gamble because this was the first time that either of us had ever visited Tuscany so our decision was based on second-hand information: our Rough Guide to Italy, the Internet and the comments from members of staff from the school I was working at in Hertfordshire. But I after our trip I would certainly conclude that it was a gamble that paid off and staying at the opulent Palazzo Tucci was no small part of that gamble!

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Waiting in the main hall of the Palazzo Tucci.

I would however like to make some points of clarification about the type of experience you may find in the Palazzo Tucci. Because not knowing what to expect was what gave us the most trepidation in deciding to choose to stay at this hotel.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
The procession of the patron saint of Lucca begins
 outside the Basilica di San Frediano.

So what is the Palazzo Tucci? The Palazzo Tucci is what is called a “Residenza d’epoca” - which I think translates into English roughly as historic residence or building of historic significance. The building itself is nothing if not impressive, using myself as a reference standing at the doorway to our room, my girlfriend and I both agreed that the ceiling must be at least 6 metres high! Basically you are staying in a restored historic home of an Italian aristocratic family of the type you’d imagine from a Shakespeare play or Stendhal novel. The ceilings in the main hall are covered in beautiful frescoes and the ceiling in our room had a kind of rococo motif on it. The previous TripAdvisor reviewer who commented that it is like staying in a palace was in no way exaggerating.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
A Violin-maker's craft at the medieval festival in Lucca.
But, I would also like to mention what the Palazzo Tucci is NOT. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will be staying at the Four Seasons Florence. The Palazzo Tucci is a “residenza d’epoca” not a five star hotel. This means that notwithstanding the magnificence of the actual building, the hotel service is not much more than what you should expect from a bed and breakfast. There is no 24-hour concierge for example, nor room service. In fact, the building isn’t even very clearly signposted outside - we got so lost looking for it that we had to ask at the Tourist Office! Also it can be quite noisy inside, the hallways and large rooms echo and the windows aren’t double-glazed so a lot of street noise comes into your room - including from a nearby restaurant where people dine late into the night. The TV in the room that we shared looked at least 10-years-old and the screen was probably no bigger than an A4 sheet of paper.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Calling towards my sweetheart at the
"Juliet"-style balcony of the Palazzo Tucci.
But bearing all of the above in mind, I would nevertheless recommend that you do stay at the Palazzo Tucci. Above all it is an outstanding experience, with a great atmosphere in a beautiful and authentic Italian city. The hotel has free wi-fi for example, shaming the many establishments that still charge for an internet connection, and making the question of the old TV a bit redundant (I just wish I knew the websites of Italian TV channels). Breakfast, included in the price, was great, ostensibly a continental breakfast, but being English we asked the lady serving us for scrambled eggs and she was happy to make some for us, plus the fruit and bread and cheeses were really delicious. I still wake up dreaming of the orange juice made from blood oranges that I had with my breakfasts there!
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Aboriginal Rock Carvings - Bondi

Image via Tom Häkkinen
A rock carving of a shark
I should probably preface this article with a short address of some racist attitudes held in Australia. Ancient Aboriginal historical sites, like those in Sydney, have long been under-appreciated and dismissed, largely because of the ideological view, stemming from Terra Nullius, that Aboriginal people “never did anything with the land”. Comments, like the then Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock’s in the year 2000 to the Washington Post that described Aboriginal disadvantage by referring to them not having “agriculture” or developing “the wheel” just demonstrate how widespread this ideological view still is. Of course, Anglo-Saxons have been forcing other people off of their land for a lot longer than they have been able to justify such evictions with reference to their contributions to human technology. The Britain of the Britons already had cities, roads and farms, already had London in fact! According to Tim Flannery, agriculture developed independently in five different regions on Earth and you will find included in his list neither Europe nor Australia.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
The rock carvings are situated on a site with good natural
architecture for ceremonial rituals.
Which is all to say that visiting different countries’ historical sites shouldn’t be about comparing cultures, but rather about marvelling at human ingenuity in the face of an often cruel and unforgiving Mother Nature. So I invite my readers to engage their imaginations when appreciating these photos of Aboriginal rock carvings and try to imagine an ancient ceremonial site, where people gathered from miles around, at a certain time of the year, to celebrate a now long forgotten ritual and in the days of that celebration feed off of the bounty of the sea, relaxing at nearby Bondi beach and performing ritual dances and storytelling in the balmy night of a hot Sydney summer.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
You can see miles of coastline from this site. Conversely,
the site is visible from miles away.
So first of all, for a travelblog, how do you find the place? The fact that I’ve lived in the Eastern Suburbs region of Sydney for most of my life and only discovered these rock carvings' very existence last week, provides at least anecdotal evidence as to how little these ancient rock carvings are appreciated in Sydney, and subsequently how unlikely you are to just stumble upon them. In fact, not a single sign attests to the existence of these rock carvings along the entire length of the coastal cliff-top walk or in fact anywhere in North Bondi. Even when you finally find the rock carvings, the only official acknowledgement of their existence is a sign erected by Waverley Municipal council in testament to their careless attempt at preservation when they regrooved the carvings in 1964. They are however, listed as an “item of archeaological significance” on the NSW State Heritage Register.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Rock carving of a dolphin.
To find the rock carvings, first you must navigate towards the junction of Military Rd. and Blair St., use as a guide to your destination the giant “ventilation tower” of the “Bondi Sewage Treatment Works”. What’s this you say? “Sewage Treatment Works?” Yes, unfortunately this ancient historical site is right next to a Sewage Treatment Works, which in fact makes the place smell like Rotorua in New Zealand, but without the excuse of volcanic activity! However, it doesn’t seem to bother the golfers, the site is actually situated in the middle of the Bondi Golf Club. Accustomed as I am to the fenced off and exclusive Royal Sydney Golf Club in nearby Rose Bay, it was with some trepidation that I first entered the site. Fortunately the Bondi Golf Club isn’t that sort of golf club, other non-golfers I found were a women sun-baking on a rocky outcrop over the ocean and in the early morning a man walking his two dogs through the golf course. Although I didn’t actually ask anyone, the maintenance staff of the golf club didn’t seem at all bothered by me taking photos of the rock carvings, so in conclusion, I think the site is quite open to the public.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
At the corner of Military rd. and Blair st. cross over to the
golf course and walk-up to footpath to the ventilation tower.
Back to the directions: when you’ve reached the corner of Military Rd. and Blair St. cross into the golf course and follow the gravely path up to the ventilation tower, just after you’ve passed the ventilation tower you will find the rock carvings a little off to the right. If you plan on taking photographs it’s best to go either early in the morning or late in the evening, probably within 2 hours of sunrise or sunset, so that the sun is at a good enough angle to show the outlines of the rock carvings. Of the two, I found evening to be slightly better in terms of visibility, it was a little hazy on the morning I climbed-up to them, but morning has the added advantage of allowing you to watch the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean, which is a site to see in its own right.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
A carving of two fish and a boomerang.
From what I can gather from research on the internet, these rock carvings would have been the site of an “increase ritual”. That is a ritual to increase the yields of their fishing expeditions along the coast. Some of the rock carvings are probably as much as 2000 years old, whilst there is evidence to suggest that the Sydney basin has been inhabited for at least 10 000 years and probably 20 000.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
The morning surf clashing against the cliff-face.
When taking these photos I also tried to incorporate the surrounding area. It is important when looking at palaeolithic rock carvings to observe them in the context of the environment, and to regard the entire site, ocean, cliffs and sky as a ceremonial place. Which is what I’ve tried to do with these photos. The site is at the top of a cliff jutting out into the ocean just north of Bondi Beach. It’s a place visible for miles along the coast, just looking at the site you can imagine how a whispy plume of smoke and buzzing human activity would make it a distinct landmark in itself.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Aboriginal Rock carvings in the foreground. Bondi Beach is
just visible in the background to the right, followed by
Tamarama beach, Bronte beach and Coogee beach.
In terms of further reading, so far all of my research has been done on the net, but the most useful website I’ve found pointed me to A Field Guide to Aboriginal Rock Engravings by Peter Stanbury and John Clegg which is at my local library - obviously it's next on my reading list!

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The Coast Walk

Image via Tom Häkkinen
The beginning (or the end) of the Coastal Cliffwalk at
Diamond Bay in Vaucluse.
Along Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs coastline, between the South Head and Bondi Beach, rises a curtain wall of cliffs locked in eternal struggle with the Tasman Sea. It’s not a straight wall of cliffs, but one potted with bays and inlets, a curtain wall with bastions and bulwarks; faces, flanks and gorges. And since 2004, a coastal cliff-top walk where you can go for a wander and if you’re brave take a voyeuristic peep at the raging battle of the elements taking place down below.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
A long drop into the swirling maelstrom below.
When I prepared to leave the house yesterday, camera in hand, to go for a walk along the cliffs, it was a hot and sunny summer’s day (albeit uncomfortably humid). But by the time I’d made my way up to the cliff-walk, brooding and stormy clouds had rolled-in from the Pacific Ocean, perhaps colouring my impressions with the notion of a war between the elements: an unholy alliance of Wind and Water against the resolute and defiant Earth. Hence the fortification and war metaphors.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Brooding clouds overhead and raging
seas below.
I think that it would be reasonable to surmise that the suburb of Dover Heights gets its name from these lofty cliffs. Although, in all honesty, the comparison with the white cliffs of Dover seems a little insincere. The grey-brown cliffs of Sydney can be stunningly beautiful riddled as they are with vegetation clinging to the most unlikely of perches and especially on a sunny day when overlooking the serene calm of the blue waters that give the Pacific Ocean its name. But they don’t look like the chalk cliffs of Dover and I don’t think these cliffs gain anything by such a comparison. Still, the next suburb over is the pretentiously named Vaucluse, making it possible to walk from the coast of England to Provençal France in 15 minutes.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
A precarious staircase down to the base of the cliffs;
used by fisherman and lunatics.
When researching for this blog I also discovered that apparently there are some indigenous rock carvings amongst some of the cliffs. I wonder what names the Eora people gave to these cliffs - we can at least be sure their name wouldn’t have tried to draw a superficial comparison with Southern England or Provençe. In any case, I’ve determined that I’m going to have to go and investigate with my camera on the next sunny day.
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Hôtel l’Elysée - taken for a ride!

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Hôtel l'Elysee, Val d'Europe
This is the report that I shared on TripAdvisor about my stay last September in the Hôtel l’Elysée outside Paris, near Disneyland.

I stayed here with my girlfriend for 3 days in September. We chose to stay here because it was a great deal cheaper than the Disneyland “Sequoia Lodge” hotel, which would’ve been our first choice. I think from the pictures and the reviews on TripAdvisor, we’d managed to convince ourselves that although the price for the room was relatively cheap it wasn’t a “cheap hotel”. However, upon first entering the hotel we were quickly disabused of that particular illusion - the hotel smelt like the Ibis Stevenage. Furthermore, the wi-fi, although free, was tortuously slow and there were some unsightly looking marks on the toilet seat.

Which isn’t to say it was all bad. It was conveniently close to Disneyland with a free shuttle service to take us there and there was free wi-fi (albeit slow and buggy with page time-outs). But we had a fantastic time at Disneyland - I recommend going on the “Finding Nemo” rollercoaster which is great fun.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Not unlike the American Embassy, Disneyland Paris is a
little piece of the USA on French soil.
Basically you get what you pay for with this place.

There was one thing however, that really did irk me and which I think merits a complaint. We got terrible service when calling for a cab to take us to the station where we could catch the airport express shuttle. They didn’t call a regular taxi, but some shuttle service, with whom, I’m sure, they have some kind of arrangement. We were already pushing it with time, but we had to wait another 15 minutes for this shuttle service. When we finally were in the shuttle, he didn’t take us direct to our destination, but instead picked-up two other passengers, notwithstanding that we had told him what time we had to be at the station. The driver himself was a caricature of a sleazebag unscrupulous cab-driver, when I complained to him at the end of the trip for getting us to the destination later than we’d asked he tried to blame us for not departing early enough, and then to top it all off when I offered him 50EUR for the fare he pretended not to have any change! It wasn’t until I demanded his name that he finally produced four 10EUR notes. Slimey son of a …

Needless to say we missed our shuttle bus and had to pay another taxi to take us all the way to Charles de Gaulle. This time we found an honest cab-driver from the long cab-rank at the station. The fare ended-up costing 70EUR!

And I’ll leave the story about the easyJet flight and landing at Luton airport for another post!
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