A New Year Ode

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The years, they come and they seemingly go,
Where that is, we don’t quite know.
As 2015 comes to its inevitable conclusion,
Let there be absolutely no illusion,
That it’s time to wish this year goodbye,
And look forward to the new things that you can try.
One thing is always true for ever more,
Don’t wait to knock, just open that door.
Do all of the things that will make you see,
Just how happy you can truly be,
When you do what it is that you want to do,
Not what others have in store for you.
Let go of what you no longer need,
Try each day to plant that seed.
Be you, be true, love and really live,
And whenever you can, remember to give.
Who knows what the new year will offer and bring,
But it’s surely time to let the next chapter begin!

 

The Social Experiment

I’m not the type that does New Year resolutions, but if I was going to focus on something for 2016, it would be to support social enterprise at every possible opportunity. If you don’t know much about what social enterprise even means, please read on.

There are a few definitions of social enterprise. Essentially, it is an organisation that exists to foster positive social impact (both human and environmental), as opposed to lining the pockets of its shareholders. Or, as Social Traders puts it:

“Social enterprises use the power of the market place to solve the most pressing societal problems. They are businesses that exist primarily to benefit the public and the community, rather than their shareholders and owners. Social enterprises are commercially viable businesses with a purpose of generating social impact”.

Generally, this means that a social enterprise will use the majority, or all of its profits to work towards a social cause and derive its income from trade, not from donations. It could also be set up to benefit an environmental, cultural or economic cause. There are various forms that this can take, and as I am discovering on an almost daily basis, there are a growing number of businesses that subscribe to this inspiring model.

My first exposure to the concept of social enterprise was from purchasing a humble muesli bar. This bar from a company based here in Melbourne called Thank You has started me on a journey of discovery. Not only do they make these delicious muesli bars (I like the cranberry & coconut variety pictured below), but they also sell bottled water, breakfast cereals, as well as hand and body care products. The best part of Thank You’s offering is that each purchase goes directly to impacting social change. For example, purchasing one pack of their cereal provides one week’s access to food aid for someone in need. Or, purchasing a bottle of their water provides access to safe drinking water to someone who doesn’t otherwise have this. Even better, they provide a tracking ID number on each package so you can go to their website and see the direct impact that your purchase is making. A local business working to make change on a global scale is definitely something I can get behind, especially when it’s as simple as buying a pack of cereal.

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Another local example of social enterprise is a cafe at Melbourne Central called Streat. It turns out that this cafe is only one part of their package, as they also run a catering company and a coffee roastery. What better way to get Melburnians’ attention than to serve great coffee? The Streat cafe works to stop youth homelessness and disadvantage. A simple yet critical mission. Not only do they have a loyalty program that provides a free coffee to someone experiencing homelessness, instead of you receiving your tenth coffee free, they also provide employment and training opportunities to youth in need of a helping hand. This (from their website) sums it up:

“We’re determined that our young people should gain the transferable employability skills that will stand them in good stead in any industry…but of even greater importance to us, is that our young people learn how deeply we care for them, and how much they really matter to us. We want them to know that not just our cafe doors – but also our hearts – will forever remain open to them, no matter what”.

That might sound a little over the top, but it goes to the heart of what social enterprise is all about (pun intended). It really is about community benefit by helping those that need it and those that do not have what we are lucky enough to have (and let’s face it, most of us are just so incredibly lucky in this country). Sounds like a simple way to make a difference too – simply change some of your current purchasing methods and your money will go to assisting positive social change, as opposed to even greater profits to the many multinational organisations in business (who incidentally don’t appear to be paying their fair share of tax either, but that’s another story).

As The Guardian reported back in July, the social enterprise cafe model is growing strongly in Australia, particularly here in Melbourne. There are currently 13 cafes, with more in the pipeline. There’s the well known Feast of Merit in Richmond, run by YGAP, where profits fund youth education and youth leadership projects in Australia and in parts of Asia and Africa. There’s the Fitzroy cafe, Charcoal Lane, that provides hospitality training for Indigenous students, as well as the Social Studio in Collingwood, which offers disadvantaged youth opportunities to work (as Streat does). One particular cafe in Richmond also extends their support to newly arrived refugees (who have been granted asylum, as those on temporary visas are forbidden to work). Long Street Coffee in Richmond has partnered with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre to offer employment opportunities to our new members of the community, as they struggle to find that initial chance to get into the workforce and make their contribution. What a novel concept – actually trying to help refugees, rather than imprison or dehumanise them.

These all appear to be very straight forward ways of making a positive impact to someone who could use some help. As the festive season approaches, it is often a time of reflection of the year gone by and what we aspire to be in the new year. It seems a perfect time to consider how a small change for you might just make a significant change for someone in need.

Seasons Greetings and thanks for reading. I wish you all a wonderful Christmas and look forward to positive change in 2016. Peace.

86H

Meet The Family

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October 28, 2015

Facebook has its good and its not so good side. This is definitely a story of its good side. While on my recent trip to Europe, which included a few stops around Italy, I was able to meet some of my extended family that live there, and it was all made possible from one seemingly simple photo being tagged on my Facebook wall.

I celebrated my birthday the week before my European adventure was to commence. While having brunch with my mother, my brother, my aunt and one of my cousins, the obligatory family picture was taken. As I usually do, I uploaded the picture to my Facebook wall and tagged those of us that exist in the social media world (I still have’t been able to convince my Mum why she should have a Facebook account. She has Instagram though, so I’ll take that as a win). The next few hours would lead me through a series of events that I never contemplated, nor thought possible.

As I was doing this trip on my own, and due to my basic Italian speaking abilities (I know words and can read street signs and menus, but don’t get me in a conversation as it’ll be mostly one way), I was not factoring in an opportunity to travel to my Mum’s home town of San Severo, a town in the beautiful province of Puglia, which is in the south-east corner of Italy (pretty much the area that makes up the heel of Italy, if you think Italy looks like a boot). I also wasn’t factoring in a chance to meet family there. However, after tagging my aunt in this photo, the family that she is friends with promptly starting adding me as a friend, and then the (Italian) conversations started to flow on Messenger. They consisted of brief but incredibly warm and friendly greetings and introductions to each other. I could understand some of the messages, but to be sure, I utilised the wonderful resource that is Google Translate to navigate my way through these unexpected yet fantastic conversations. I didn’t mention that I was about to travel to Italy, as I didn’t think it would work for me to go visit them without being able to speak fluent Italian, but I knew that once they saw that I was in Europe, they would want to meet at some stage. As I later discovered, English is relatively common in parts of Italy, but south of Rome does not appear to be one of those parts.

When I did arrive in Rome one week later, I received a message from my cousin in Italy, and as expected, she wanted to meet. I was heading north to Venice the next day, but had the final four days of the trip planned for Rome. I suggested we meet when I returned to Rome in a few weeks time and we made plans to do so. In the meantime, I pondered how I was going to manage this, however, any doubt was quickly consumed by the excitement of being able to visit my Mum’s home town and of course, meet some of the family.

When I returned to Rome at the back end of my trip, I decided to make a day trip out of the journey to San Severo, as it is close to a three-hour train ride from Rome. I worked out that I was able to get a train first thing in the morning and arrive in San Severo around 11am. I would get about six hours there before having to board the last train back to Rome that night, and while it wasn’t ideal to only have part of the day to spend with them, it was better than not going at all. You just never know when you’ll be able to go back, so I knew I had to take this opportunity.

When I arrived in San Severo, I looked around for the face that I’d only seen in pictures on Facebook. Suddenly, I hear an excited “Stefano!” from behind, and there she was – my cugina (cousin) Soccorsa and her partner Luigi, there to pick me up and take me to my Nonna’s brother’s house for lunch (of course) and to meet the rest of the family. There was no awkwardness – only hugs, kisses, smiles and laughing. Sure, there was some silence as they figured out pretty quickly that my Italian wasn’t exactly up to scratch, but we didn’t need words in this moment – we had the universal language of smiles and hugs. We walked to their car with some feeble attempts from me to string a sentence together, before we were on our way.

The town was much bigger and busier than I had pictured. There’s a story of my Mum having two birthdays and no birth certificate because of being born in a small town (and it taking four days for them to reach the birth registration office, which resulted in the two birthdays – the actual birthday, and the official birthday), but San Severo was bustling. Old streets and older buildings took centre stage, as did some very questionable driving from the locals, although this seems to be the norm in Italy – no order on the roads, but it somehow works. “La citta grande” (the city is big) was my best attempt at trying to convey my surprise at the larger than expected city I was being driven through. The roads were quite rough, pot holes were common. I got the feeling that affluence wasn’t synonymous with this part of Italy, but that’s what gives this area its charm. Many a story from my childhood involved upbringings where things were tough, and you made the most of what you had. Food was never wasted, and there was always a meal to be made by whatever ingredients you could get your hands on – something my Mum managed to do really well at home too. These parts don’t need polish – they have what’s most important to them already – family.

About 15 minutes from the train station, we arrived at our destination. Vladimiro, my Nonna’s brother, was standing on the porch as I got out of the car. He had lived in Australia for three years, but returned to Italy in 1965. Surprisingly, he can still speak some English, and this was much appreciated at times when I wasn’t able to get any conversation going. I went to greet him in the usual Italian way, but he seemed hesitant. My cousin explained who I was and suddenly, a big smile appeared on his face, followed by a swift tour around his house. I found it amazing that a mere 20 or so minutes later, the kitchen was a hive of activity and a steady flow of new arrivals continued to walk through the door. I was seeing first-hand what an actual Italian family feast looked like, and I somehow was a part of it all. As each family member would walk through the door, they’d approach me with the same warmth and affection as the person before them did, and they’d speak to me until they either realised the only reply they were going to get from me was a smile and a nervous nod, or someone else would let them know that I didn’t speak Italian, and they’d just laugh and hug me anyway. To top it off, they were cooking one of my all-time favourites – orecchiette (a local style of pasta, which as kids, we called “little hats” given its hat-like appearance – a picture of it is at the end of the story). I tried to help with the cooking, but was promptly told to return to my seat. I knew that would probably happen, but I felt I had to show some attempt to help anyway.

As we all sat down to eat lunch, I was struck by the moment. Here I was, in San Severo, travelling alone, but now finding myself surrounded by family that I had just met. Welcomed into their home and given an incredible meal to celebrate. The language barrier was gone – we were just enjoying each other’s company, and you don’t always need to speak to do that. There was robust discussion about various news stories that were on the TV and I tried to follow along with them. The vino rosso (red wine) was flowing freely too – it was a local drop, of course. When it came time to clean up, I again tried to help. Again, I was promptly told to return to my seat. The traditions are still very strong here, but there doesn’t seem to be any discontent on the way things are.

The final part of our day together was a delight – they took me out for a gelato! I probably had enough gelati on this trip, but when you’re in the presence of a food at its best, you indulge. I made my usual selection of Nutella gelato in a waffle cone (and yes, it was amazing!), and we walked the cobbled street back to the car. Almost as quickly as the events had unfolded, they were about to end. It truly was a whirlwind day, but it was an amazingly surreal experience. From the first sight of my cugina at the train station, to the energetic celebration around lunch, and to all the thoughts I was having about what life would be like here, this was a phenomenal experience – one that I am truly grateful for having the privilege to have had. There really is something so incredibly humbling about seeing where you’ve come from, even if it’s a distant connection. It certainly gives me an urge to ensure these wonderful traditions are maintained too. It might just be time to rekindle the sauce making, as well as the wine making. Even if it doesn’t taste all that good, it’ll be an excuse to get the family together, just like we did on this day that will be a fond memory for a long time. The simple things in life often are the best.

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Pictures: Top – a sneaky snap at San Severo train station as I was about to meet my cousin. Above – the action in the kitchen was just getting started before the family arrived for lunch. Of course, the vino rosso is ready to go. And more chairs were about to be added to the table as well.

Below – it wouldn’t be right not to include a picture of the first course of lunch. The very yummy orecchiette! If you think the serving size is huge, I had to ask them to stop adding more to it!

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Josef Himmelreich

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My recent trip to Europe resulted in many a museum visit (there’s just so many of them worth visiting), and there’s a reason that this one will keep a strong place in my mind. On October 19, I visited the Jewish Museum in Prague – a sobering collection of six venues clustered around the beautiful Jewish Quarter in the Old Town.

Two names are etched in my memory after this visit. Josef Himmelreich and Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. A visit to Europe for me usually means at least one trip to a WWII memorial. I’m not exactly sure why I’m drawn to the history of this unthinkable tragedy – one which I simply struggle to understand how it ever happened in the first place. (Having said this, it seems similar atrocities still occur today, albeit not at the scale of devastation seen in WWII, but you could debate this when you look at the current plight of Syria and its seemingly never-ending crisis). I think I want to understand what led to this war and how (or if) it can ever be avoided again. History has a habit of repeating, but this simply can’t repeat. It also strikes me that this isn’t some distant atrocity that can be put down to the Dark Ages – this occurred a mere 75 years ago. There are survivors who can tell harrowing stories to the rest of us, but I’d understand if they’d prefer to not revisit those stories. The impact of these times feels palatable when I visit a memorial such as the one I did this day in Prague.

The Jews began settling in the Prague area during the tenth century. There are numerous occurrences of mistreatment throughout their history in Prague (as in other parts of the World too), but it all pales into insignificance the moment you step into the Pinkas Synagogue.

There are three large rooms. 12 walls. Some of these walls are at least three metres high. On each wall, there are names inscribed in small text painted in black, surnames in red, with a gold star painted between each name. There are 77,297 names here. This is the number of Jews murdered during WWII from the Prague area. Entire families, young and old. Beside each name is their date of birth, followed by their date of death where known. The number of people in their twenties, thirties and forties really stands out. Initially sent to the Terezin ghettos, then sent onto those hell-on-earth camps.

As I solemnly make my way to each wall to read the names, the number of children start to get my emotions going. I was also feeling very sick in the stomach. Then, an uncontrollable grief takes over as I stand in front of one wall that has the name Josef Himmelreich on it. Born 8.IV.1942. Died 18.IV.1942. Josef lived ten days. Ten days. I find that incredibly difficult to comprehend. You might think that at least Josef didn’t really know what was going on and that he possibly didn’t suffer much, but Josef had as much right to live a fulfilling life as the rest of us do. I had to take a long pause here to collect my thoughts and ponder how the human race can be so unbelievably cruel to itself. I then remembered all the current examples where we continue to be cruel to each other and moved on to the next wall. I decided that it would be disrespectful to take photos inside this memorial, and I wish other visitors were doing the same. In fact, I think this Synagogue should enforce a rule to ban photography in there – it just doesn’t feel right. Thankfully though, there wasn’t a selfie stick in sight.

I then made my way upstairs to an exhibit of children’s paintings, all made possible by one amazing woman – Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. An artist and a school teacher, Friedl helped the children of the Terezin ghettos find an outlet of positivity and hope, in utterly unimaginable circumstances. Friedl gathered whatever materials she could find, any scraps of paper, paints, whatever could be used to allow the children to draw what they looked forward to. What they dreamed of. I find it incredible that children in this circumstance could ever think of something positive. Looking at their drawings was equally uplifting as it was totally devastating. Most of these children did not survive their experience in the camps, but thanks to Friedl who went to great lengths to conceal their work from those who would destroy it, we are able to visit this Synagogue and get an insight to their thoughts amidst the terror they must have seen on a daily basis.

It’s said that Prague remained relatively untouched by the horrors of WWII due to Hitler’s affection for it, but this obviously doesn’t apply to its citizens. The Jewish Quarter was to become a museum of a past people. I’m thankful that instead, it is a beautiful memorial that will forever tell the story of a people’s spirit that remained strong to the end, in utterly tragic times.