A Clinical Lesson – Part I

One year of my nursing journey has somehow already passed, and unsurprisingly, the last three weeks have been the most significant thus far. My first clinical placement experience was an important milestone – I needed to test my strengths and weaknesses and bring all of the knowledge taken in throughout the year into the real world. Just how real it was is where the experience became a critical one.

There were many moments over the three weeks that will remain in my mind as I reflect on my interactions, but three moments in particular had what I feel will be a lasting impact. As in all accounts of a medical and personal nature, no real names are used in these stories that follow.

PART I

In the days leading up to the start of my clinical placement, I was thinking about the challenges that lay ahead. One challenge that I knew I would be tested on was my ability to separate the emotional attachment from the task of caring for a person in need. Little did I know that this test would present itself in the very first week.

We were each assigned one resident to assist, and it would be a “simple” resident for now – one that did not require a high level of care with their daily activities (or ADLs, Activities of Daily Living, as we like to call it). I was assigned a friendly but reserved gentleman, who just one month on from his 94th birthday, had found himself admitted into residential care due to a complication with his eye sight after suffering a three-month pneumonia battle. He was otherwise mobile and independent, even though he used a walking aide. I only needed to assist with the trickier parts of a shower, and keeping an eye on a sore he had on one of his toes. Otherwise, I found my main assistance to him was just being there for a chat and we had a rapport right from the start. He was still processing the fact that he was now a resident in a care facility, something that was both unexpected and a little uncomfortable for him. It was the little things that were making a big difference to his transition, such as the lack of honey that was available at breakfast time for his toast (and of course, I set about trying to stash some honey away for him once I learned this).

After the second day, he said we made a good team, and that gave me a sense of satisfaction I’ve rarely felt in any work I’ve ever done. I was genuinely enjoying our chats – learning about his history as a merchant shipper, and the many fascinating places he had sailed to. I learned about his wife, who had passed two years earlier, and of the way he would spend his time down at the local stores with his neighbours. He told me of his three daughters and how proud he was of them. I had the pleasure of meeting one of them and I could see why he was a proud father.

Then, on the Friday, I knocked on his door as I always did and entered his room. I saw him sitting on his bed, quietly staring out the window, with all of his belongings packed beside him. This startled me, and it was almost like he read my reaction, as he started to tell me what was happening before I even had a chance to ask. He was being transferred to another facility, as this was only supposed to be for respite care. He wasn’t sure when he was leaving, but I said I would be there to say a proper goodbye. I thanked him for the opportunity to assist him and I told him how much I enjoyed our very brief time together learning about his story. I had some other tasks to attend to and then went back to his room about an hour later.

Clinical 1

The room was empty. My heart sank. My throat felt heavy. He was gone and I wasn’t there like I said I would be. I instantly felt like I had let him down and I was so disappointed in myself.

I went back to our meeting room that we used to debrief and told my educator and fellow placement buddies what had just happened. My educator had a look on her face, almost like she knew this was coming. I had mentioned to her at the start of placement that I thought I might struggle with the emotional side of things and here we were – on day five, already facing this test. But they rallied around me (something that I hope will continue to happen throughout my nursing journey) and reminded me of the reality of the situation – yes, I said I would be there to say goodbye, but this isn’t always possible. I was there when he needed me throughout the week, and then he needed to move to his next phase. I suggested that I would go visit him in his new facility, to say a proper goodbye, but my educator stepped up again: “Are you doing this for him, or are you doing this for you?” It was a powerful question, one that instantly highlighted to me that I had become too emotionally attached to the first resident I interacted with and proved this would be a real challenge for me to work on. People in need will come and go and I won’t always be there to say goodbye – things will rarely be that perfect or organised. There is a fine line between being the empathetic, caring nurse and the nurse that doesn’t protect themselves emotionally. I was already too close to this line and I had to back away.

Parts II and III to follow.

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An unequal, still

Those that know me well, know that I wear my heart on my sleeve. I find it difficult to hide my emotions, whether it is a good feeling or otherwise. This can be both a blessing and a curse.

Sleep is evading me tonight. My mind is far too active, even though my eyes are feeling as heavy as my heart. I can rarely pinpoint the cause of this, and trying to resolve that query only serves to extend the sleeplessness. Thoughts of the previous day are at the forefront, but so too are those moments from other days where unresolved matters play out in many different scenarios. It seems wearing your heart on your sleeve also means an over-active mind at the most unpredictable of times.

But, one event from yesterday is clearly troubling me. Yet another opportunity presented itself for Australia to join the many other developed nations of the world in treating a minority with respect and dignity. Once again, a fearful and ignorant few stood in the way of any progress.

Fairness, equality and compassion stand at the very centre of my being, and the continued toxic nature of the marriage equality debacle is taking a toll. I have previously written of the shockingly disproportionate mental health statistics of the LGBTIQ community, yet is it at all surprising when we continue to be told that we are not equal? Why is our love subject to an often hateful discourse, when heterosexual couples can merely go about their daily lives unquestioned, both in marriage and divorce? What impact does our love even have on anyone else’s? The world hasn’t imploded in any of the countries that have moved to protect the rights of all of its citizens, as opposed to just those that meet a religious criteria.

Some of these aforementioned statistics bear repeating:

  • Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14 times higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers
  • Up to 50% of trans people have actually attempted suicide at least once in their lives
  • LGBTIQ people have the highest rates of suicidality of any population in Australia – 20% of trans Australians and 15.7% of lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians report current suicidal ideation (thoughts)
  • Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high/very high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers (18.2% v. 9.2%). This makes them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems
  • The average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years – often before ‘coming out’

Source: Rosenstreich, G. (2013) LGBTI People Mental Health and Suicide. Revised 2nd Edition. National LGBTI Health Alliance. Sydney, p 5.

Are we so short-sighted now that we can’t see the impact that this toxic discourse is having on the LGBTIQ community? Particularly those that are younger and still trying to figure out how to make their way through an already difficult time. The last thing any of us need is yet more ill-informed people preaching on a topic they know nothing about. How powerful a statement would it be to those who are currently unequal in the eyes of the government, to finally be treated as equal?

Humans are social creatures. Most of us crave love – some of us spend an awful lot of time thinking about love, both in its positive and not-so-positive forms. Marriage is one way that we express our love for another, and when a segment of the population continually get excluded from this, for no good reason other than tradition or religion, it really is no surprise that mental health issues swing wildly towards the LGBTIQ community. I am sick of having to justify my right to equality and I am sick of having to listen to hate and ignorance as an excuse for it. How dare some people think they have a right to vote on who I can choose to spend the rest of my life with! Did I get a vote on their choice?! The world needs so much more love, and yet, too many people are focussed on anything but love.

As tends to happen with these kind of things, important facts are ignored when they don’t suit the argument. When the Marriage Act was changed in 2004 by the then Prime Minister (to the current day definition of marriage being between a man and a woman only), it was simply done by an act of parliament – no plebiscite, no vicious hate campaigns, no fuss. It just happened. Apparently the same course of action to change it back simply cannot be done the same way, for the opponents are crying foul play, and that only a public vote should decide this – not an act of parliament. Trying to have it both ways without reference to facts that are inconvenient to their flaky argument.

In the meantime, I’ll just prepare myself for another round of bemusing (and probably hateful) commentary around why I’m not worthy of equality. I started wearing the “Live Proud” rainbow band on my wrist many years ago as a reminder to myself that I am equal, and I promised myself that I would wear it every day until I am an equal under the law. It appears we still have a very long way to go…

Live Proud band pic

 

In the Wrong Place

As I grow older, one thing is becoming more clear – I need to travel. The benefits of travel are too numerous to mention, but the happiness I feel while abroad is unmatched in my current home life. That might sound really obvious – something that isn’t routine is more enjoyable than something that is. But there’s more to it than that.

Travel has allowed me to grow as a person. I’ve had to fend for myself in unfamiliar situations, sometimes in foreign languages. I’ve met wonderful people by chance and had very memorable experiences listening to their stories. There’s been the odd scare or two as well, but that is part of the journey and it’s also something that my own city provides every now and then too.

There is one thing that my recent travel has shown me though – that I am in the wrong place. There has been an uneasy feeling over me for some years and my time in Canada has highlighted this further. I don’t feel I belong in Melbourne anymore, and if I’m brutally honest with myself, I’ve probably been feeling this for at least the last six years. Not previously having the courage to act on it meant that I festered away and went through the motions. Something inside me is not allowing this to happen anymore, and so I went exploring.

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Toronto Pride, June 2017

Canada has always been a country of interest for me. I was offered an exchange when I was 20 to do one semester of university at McGill in Montréal. I didn’t take it, as I didn’t want to leave my Mum here on her own (she was going through some rough times, and my brother was also away travelling). Oh how I would do things differently now! Maybe it’s missed moments like these that fuel my desires to explore and not think of the reasons why I can’t do something. It’s more about why would I not do it?

So it comes as no surprise to me that my last two trips to Canada (luckily for me, these two trips have been in the last eight months) have had a profound effect. My time there has been overwhelmingly positive – stunning landscapes and cities, genuinely friendly people, a relaxed but proud attitude, a strong belief in diversity and acceptance – these are among the reasons that I feel I am in the wrong place.

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Credit: Zack Singer. Stunning sunset at Wreck Beach, Vancouver, BC, Canada. July 2017

It’s also why it was so difficult to leave Canada on both of these occasions. As my first time in Canada was ending, I cried uncontrollably as I approached the airport. I tried to wipe away my tears before they were visible, but the sadness washing over me could not be contained. I was genuinely upset that I had to leave and make the long trek back “home”. I did not know when I would be able to return, and the prospect of returning to my lonely existence back in Melbourne was something I was not ready for. There were other issues at play at this time, only serving to compound my sadness about having to leave. These inevitably made the transition back to routine a very difficult one – in fact, the few months after returning to Melbourne have been the most challenging of my life thus far. I was lost and feeling hopeless about all of the major aspects of my life, so it should not come as a surprise that I found myself at the dreaded door of depression and anxiety. I would not wish these few months of my life on anyone – there are few feelings worse than feeling like there is no hope. Every day. Every night. It all becomes too hard and it is so much better to hide away, rather than risk someone you know or love seeing you like this. Then the worst part happens – all this alone time compounds all of the negativity. The voices in your head take over every moment, always reminding you of the failures and never letting up. Sleep becomes more difficult each night – the mind does not rest, forcing the body into this same restlessness. A tired mind only conjures further negative thought, adding more turbulence to an already bumpy ride. All of this makes it even more difficult to see a way out. To ask for help, or to feel comfortable enough to open up to someone seems far too risky. What will they think? Will they laugh at me and tell me to suck it up? Will they not even care? Will they use this information to their advantage somehow? All irrational thoughts find their way to become rational when your mind is so clouded by overwhelming hopelessness.

I got lucky. A few friends noticed my changed demeanour and offered their support. I cannot underestimate the importance of being present for someone suffering through their own mental demons. For me, being able to talk about it without fear of ridicule made an enormous difference. I also sought professional help – something not everyone is either able to do, or feel comfortable to do. But I knew I needed help to get through this. It had become too big for me to handle on my own. Each time I would start to rise back up, the slightest setback would send me straight back to bed. There were days when I just could not face the prospect of getting up. I knew I was bad company, so what was the point in going outside and participating in the world around me? Spontaneous bursts of tears further added to the risk of going outside – what if I just started bawling at the supermarket checkout? I could not risk it, so I stayed indoors most days.

Then, I got lucky again. The opportunity to study in a field that I’ve long admired presented itself and after speaking with some friends, I took this opportunity. I had something to be hopeful for, something to show me that I had a purpose. All did not feel lost now. It may have been a distraction to everything else, but it felt like things were changing. I wasn’t feeling sad all the time anymore. There were still ups and downs, but the ups seemed to be outweighing the downs now. Having a sense of purpose again was a fundamental shift in attitude and it was helping me recover.

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Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) – 375 years old this year. Montreal, Quebec, Canada, June 2017

 

The opportunity to travel back to Canada appeared and I seized it. It would be my reward of sorts for making it through my first challenging semester of nursing. And what a reward it was – my second visit to this beautiful country could not have been a more positive experience. Each city I visited had compelling reasons for me to stay, helped by the fact that I now have friends in these cities. But this has also led to the inevitable fall that I am currently feeling. I have been back “home” for three days and I am feeling more alone than ever. I was again very sad to leave Canada (no uncontrollable tears this time, but I got close while sitting at the airport) – partly because I am unsure when I will be able to go back for another visit, but more so, because I feel like I need to be there. I felt so happy, comfortable and so welcome in Canada, and I do not feel that here in Melbourne. It’s hard to explain the exact reasons, but it feels like I’m in the wrong place. And that is a strange feeling, especially when the prospect of being able to leave is years away. I am too old to move on a working holiday visa, and studying abroad is too cost-prohibitive, so my only option appears to be completing my studies in Melbourne and relocating with my new qualification. That is a three-year prospect. I don’t want to wish time away, but three years seems a long time to live somewhere when you don’t feel you belong. I know I need to find a way to make this work, but those voices of hopelessness are starting to nudge their way back in.

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The Inukshak at another golden sunset, Vancouver, July 2017

I write this both as a coping mechanism and as a call out – life is feeling complicated and challenging again and I need to find a way to rise above it. For three years. If any of this is resonating with you, I hope these words can give you the strength to speak up, but more importantly, know that you are not alone. You might feel alone, like I do at times, but there are many others fighting these same battles. Some have been fighting them for a very long time, others are relatively new to the fight, but the more we talk about these issues, the more we can support each other through them. We are social beings and we are so much stronger when we are together. We are also better when we know we are valued, when we are seen, when we are heard. When we are relevant. When we are loved.

The Pursuit of Happiness Isn’t For Sale

“Love people and use things. Cos the opposite never works” – Joshua Fields Millburn, The Minimalists

 

I’ve been searching for a fulfilling career path from my first day working as an accountant. I knew through University that this wasn’t going to be for me, but for some reason, I persisted with it. I also gave it a good 12 years professionally in five different organisations, but each time, the initial challenge of learning new processes and meeting new people would fade after six months and the mundane routine would set in.

I decided to pursue a career change – one that many advised me against. The health and fitness industry seemed a perfect fit and I was passionately immersed in it for 18 months. Until the lack of financial stability finally took its toll. So I went back to a career that I knew I had no passion for, yet, felt the need to return to so I could get some financial freedom back.

Money is an interesting concept – I can say with total confidence that it simply does not make you happy, but not having enough to sustain a life you want is a recipe for unhappiness too. So, where’s the line between living for a bank balance and living for a passion?

This question has been in my head for years and I’m not sure I have the answer yet. Through these 12 years working in accounting and finance-related jobs, I pretty much hated them all, but persisted with them for various reasons – lack of acceptable or viable options, money (or so I thought), lifestyle (or so I thought), it came easy to me and people told me I was good at it. I worked with people that enjoyed what they did, and good on them. I worked with people that admitted they just did it for the money, or for their family, or for the mortgage. I worked with people that hated what they did, but didn’t see a way out, so they just kept grinding away. I saw myself slipping into that latter group and it was a scary prospect. There’s few feelings that I’ve encountered in my time that scare me more than the feeling of being trapped.

My first career change almost came about by accident, but it taught me many lessons. I discovered that I had other talents and that I did have the confidence to get in front of large groups and lead others. It also started to highlight to me the true value of stuff. I’m using this non-descript word purposely – “stuff”. The more I earned in accounting jobs, it seemed the more I spent. And I can’t say I have much to show for that spending either. I just accumulated stuff, and got into substantial debt at the same time. Maybe I was constantly buying things to make me feel better about being in a profession I had no connection with, or maybe I just liked having things.

When the income was substantially reduced with my move to health and fitness work, my lifestyle had to adjust. I simply couldn’t afford the same luxuries and certainly didn’t have the means to pay the credit card debt either. But this wasn’t just a job – this was a privilege where I got to help people improve their fitness and their life, while having some fun at the same time. I can’t adequately describe the feeling of having someone approach you and tell you that you made a positive difference to their day, to their outlook on life. Sadly, as a society, we don’t reward these types of jobs with appropriate pay, and after 18 months in this uplifting world of group fitness, I had to make the brutal decision to go back to accounting. I just couldn’t pay my bills and I was too embarrassed to ask another person for some money. Surprisingly, it was really tough to get back into accounting after a break – apparently it’s frowned upon to step away from your career to see what else is out there. Your commitment to the cause is questioned and you need someone to give you a chance. What a load of bullshit! Someone did eventually give me that chance, but it’s ridiculous that it is this way.

I knew I wouldn’t last in accounting when I went back. Particularly my last role, which I won’t name here, where I was absolutely overpaid and underworked, was a time where things got really bleak. But I can see now that it was a blessing. It was what I needed to know again – that money truly is not the catalyst for happiness, and that this industry simply wasn’t for me. Most people I spoke to said to stick it out, take the cash and start studying in your spare time, then quit. But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t continue taking that salary that I didn’t deserve, all while working in a job that I truly hated. So, I quit and took the chance of going back to study while working part-time at a gym again to help ends meet. I started a Writing and Publishing Masters and was absolutely loving it, before another job opportunity presented itself. This time, it wasn’t accounting, but my knowledge from those roles would come in handy. The part-time work was becoming a factor too, as my hours were inconsistent and budgeting for things was proving difficult. There were also other factors to taking this new opportunity, so I jumped in with both feet.

another-door

When I’m absolutely honest with myself, I know that I will need to leave this role too. Simply, I’m most content when I am giving back, when I am contributing to society in a positive and meaningful way. I know this now, but putting it into action is proving to be the hurdle. When I was helping others improve their fitness and outlook on life, I was truly happy and satisfied with work. When I write, I am happy, as expressing myself in this form is a release. It doesn’t always carry the same notion of giving back, but it does allow me the opportunity to communicate thoughts such as these, which may give at least one other person the confidence to interrupt their status quo and seek what truly makes them shine. I’m probably a socialist and I am completely comfortable with that. I see no issue with wanting everyone to have equality in all forms and with helping those that haven’t had the same opportunities to succeed that I have. So it follows that I don’t believe in capitalism, and most things that it stands for. The pursuit of money does not bring the best out of people and it certainly doesn’t allocate it fairly.

This finally brings me to an inspiring documentary movie I recently watched on Netflix, Minimalism – “a documentary about the important things”. It speaks of everything I have discussed here, as well as detailing a movement of de-cluttering your life of worthless possessions and simply taking what you need. They explain that although we have more things at our disposal now than we could possibly have imagined (or ever needed), we are also suffering more unhappiness and depression. We think that adding more material possessions will make us happy – that latest phone, or the newest trend in fashion. Even that bigger house that we can’t afford, or don’t actually need. Yet, it traps people into a routine of Monday to Friday melancholy and programs them into thinking they’ll be OK once (or if) that pay rise comes in.

I know that some of you reading this are probably thinking I’m overstating the impact of putting up with a meaningless career, but if you’re truly happy with your career, or the job you just happen to be in right now, then this isn’t aimed at you. This is for people that used to think like I did while wasting away in a career path that I had no passion for. Don’t think that you have no choice, or that you’re trapped. You may need to alter a few things about your lifestyle, but if it means you can be passionate about something again, then it’s surely worth it. I’m still searching for that elusive career path that will make me happy with myself again – it’ll look something like a social or community-based organisation, a not-for-profit or even a health-oriented role. I’m lucky – I know I have options, and although most future paths for me will inevitably mean returning to study, I just know I have to do it. And by getting rid of all the unnecessary stuff around me, I’ll be freer to continue exploring my options, and the world around me.

Why Going Vegetarian Isn’t Just About Animals – It’s About the Planet

From the day I visited a dairy farm in Year 8, I felt uneasy about eating meat. This day, I discovered what veal was and promptly decided that it wasn’t for me – it didn’t seem fair to me that a young calf barely got the chance to live a few weeks before ending up on a plate for us. This annoyed my Mum a little as she liked to cook with veal sometimes, but as I’d always been a fussy eater, this was just another hurdle for her to deal with.

I admit to the contradiction here of only eliminating veal – there is no difference to lamb, and chickens hardly get a chance to enjoy themselves either. But it wasn’t presented to me the way veal was – I didn’t see it at a farm, so it wasn’t real. I blissfully went about eating lamb and chicken through those years, but still to this day, have not knowingly eaten a single piece of veal since that farm visit.

I tried to go vegetarian some years ago and struggled through two arduous weeks before succumbing to a dodgy chicken roll from a fast-food chain. What an inglorious ending! I clearly wasn’t ready for it at that time and reconciled the theory that we needed the protein from meat to get adequate nutrition to avoid the guilt I felt about cutting out veal, but no other forms of meat.

Things started to click when I happened to stumble on a conference on food sustainability in late 2015 (Festival 21 – learn more at http://festival21.com.au/ if you’re interested). I sat there listening to various speakers all detailing the pressing need for us to think more about where our food is coming from and more critically, what it takes to produce it. Put simply, the way most food production currently occurs is not sustainable for years to come and is having such a significant impact on the environment, that animal agriculture is now said to be more of a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (18%) than all forms of transportation (13%). Yes, more pollution from producing meat than planes, trains and automobiles produce. That fact astounded me and drove me to learn more.

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Some wandering cows I encountered on a road trip around the South Island of New Zealand

I found more compelling evidence from the documentary movies Cowspiracy and later on from Food Choices – both currently available on Netflix, while Food Choices is also available online at http://www.foodchoicesmovie.com/.

Cowspiracy is a confronting, but fully-researched presentation of the many reasons why the current process in animal agriculture can’t continue without consequence. Some of the most surprising facts (to me) are (note: all of the following facts can be verified from http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/ with full citations of the studies used. Further facts are listed at the end of this post):

  • Livestock is responsible for 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas with 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, and which stays in the atmosphere for 150 years.
  • 2,500 gallons (9,463 litres) of water are needed to produce 1 pound (453 grams) of beef.
  • Animal agriculture is responsible for 20%-33% of all fresh water consumption in the world today.
  • Livestock covers 45% of the earth’s total land.
  • 75% of the world’s fisheries are exploited or depleted.
  • Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon destruction.
  • World population in 1812: 1 billion; 1912: 1.5 billion; 2012: 7 billion. We are currently growing enough food to feed 10 billion people.
  • 70 billion farmed animals are reared annually worldwide. More than 6 million animals are killed for food every hour.
  • Worldwide, at least 50% of grain is fed to livestock.
  • 82% of starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals, and the animals are eaten by western countries.
  • Land required to feed 1 person for 1 year: Vegan: 1/6th acre; Vegetarian: 3x as much as a vegan; Meat Eater: 18x as much as a vegan.

Now, that’s a lot to digest (yes, the pun is intended). Each one of these facts is a significant issue in its own right, but when combined, it paints a troubling picture. I would strongly question why we need to be growing enough food for 10 billion people when the current global population is 7 billion (and it’s growing at an alarming rate compared to the previous 100 years). I’m also highly troubled by the fact that there are starving children in countries where food that could be fed to them is instead given to animals being produced for western consumption. The sheer waste of our most precious resource – water – is astounding to say the least. The destruction of land and rainforests to clear the way for yet more livestock is totally unnecessary, as is the fact that there are people on this planet who don’t have enough food to eat while we produce enough food for 3 billion more people that don’t actually exist.

So, I’ve gone vegetarian. I’m lucky that I love legumes, beans, chick peas and quinoa – all protein and fibre-rich foods. These are my meat replacements, along with increasing the types of vegetables I eat (it’s time to truly test my fussiness!). The transition will require some organisation and seeking out new recipes, while also getting a little creative with leftovers (like turning a lentil soup into veggie burgers for the next day). Protein shakes before the gym are also helping provide that extra push while my body transitions through this change.

I’m not going to demand that you stop eating meat, cheese and eggs, or that you stop drinking cow’s milk. These are choices you need to be comfortable with. Full disclosure here – I’m not about to give up milk or eggs just yet until I can satisfy myself that I’ll have adequate amounts of protein to maintain my current training regime without these two forms of animal protein. I’m fully aware that the process used to get cow’s milk is highly questionable from a moral standpoint and the confusion around what “free range” actually means in relation to eggs is a concern too, but unless you’re fully committed to eliminating foods from your diet, it won’t work. I wasn’t ready for vegetarianism all those years ago, but I’ve now gone three weeks without meat of any kind and feel driven to continue this momentum. I’ve been at two BBQs in this time, and also sat across from a friend eating what looked like an incredibly delicious chicken parma at the pub a few days ago, and I didn’t give in at any of these times. But I’m also not going to be silly enough to suggest that I’ll never eat meat again (seriously, that chicken parma looked so good!), so I think it’s important to allow yourself the flexibility to listen to your body if you decide to try this and don’t punish yourself for having some meat one day here and there, especially at a family gathering like a Christmas lunch. Any reduction you make to the global demand for meat can only be a good thing for our sustainability.

I feel ready to be a vegetarian now and I feel compelled to do this – both from a moral view and an environmental sustainability view. Morals are personal, so you really need to want to do this for it to work long-term. I understand that this isn’t for everyone, but if this makes you at least think about your food and its impact on the planet, and you maybe cut back one piece of meat each week, it’s a small win.

 

Further facts from Cowspiracy:

  • Emissions for agriculture are projected to increase 80% by 2050, while energy related emissions are expected to increase 20% by 2040.
  • Californians use 1,500 gallons (5,678 litres) of water per person per day. Close to half is associated with meat and dairy products.
  • 477 gallons (1,805 litres) of water are required to produce 1 pound (453 grams) of eggs.
  • Almost 900 gallons (3,407 litres) of water are needed for 1 pound of cheese.
  • 1,000 gallons (3,785 litres) of water are required to produce 1 gallon (3.79 litres) of milk.
  • 5% of water consumed in the US is by private homes. 55% of water consumed in the US is for animal agriculture.
  • For every 1 pound (453 grams) of fish caught, up to 5 pounds (2,268 grams) of unintended marine species are caught and discarded as by-kill.
  • As many as 40% (63 billion pounds) of fish caught globally every year are discarded.
  • Scientists estimate as many as 650,000 whales, dolphins and seals are killed every year by fishing vessels.
  • 1-2 acres of rainforest are cleared every second. The leading causes of rainforest destruction are livestock and feed crops.
  • 5 acres can produce 37,000 pounds (16,783 kg) of plant-based food.
  • 5 acres can produce 375 pounds (170 kg) of meat.
  • A person who follows a vegan diet produces the equivalent of 50% less carbon dioxide, uses 1/11th oil, 1/13th water, and 1/18th land compared to a meat-lover for their food.

2016, or the year I travelled

pdx-rainbow

Another year is drawing to its conclusion, and with it, comes the inevitable review of the year that was. It seems each year goes by faster than the one before it, but this year was so different.

If anyone suggested to me the path that my 2016 was going to take, I’m not sure what my reaction would have been. I smiled, I laughed, I got upset, I cried, I loved, I lost love, I had moments of unbridled joy and moments of inconsolable pain. I experienced completely new things and saw parts of the world I’d either wanted to see for years, or parts of the world that just happened to present themselves to me by chance.

The year started innocently enough at a local gay bar where I enjoyed a tacky, but hilarious drag show to ring in the new year. This new year also heralded a return to formal study for the first time in some years. I’d somehow managed to make the cut to the prestigious Masters of Writing and Publishing at RMIT University, and this brought with it many mixed emotions – I was excited, I was nervous, I felt inadequate and at times, I felt old (most of my class were much younger, not that it matters really). I was finally doing something I truly had a passion for and had made what some saw as a risky decision to do so, walking away from a senior role that paid me much more than I deserved, or needed. But I hated that job, so it was an easy decision to make.

While I’ve only completed one semester thus far, it was an incredibly positive and re-affirming experience. I was surrounded by equally passionate and talented individuals, all here for various reasons but for a common goal – to express a love of the written word, or maybe even the graphic kind. We worked on exciting projects and published books, zines and even a 10-day periodical for the Emerging Writers’ Festival. I greatly miss the people I shared these moments with and hope to be able to find the time to get back into this course in the coming years.

The Masters took a pause as a very unexpected job opportunity presented itself about half way through the year. Going back to Uni meant working part-time at a fitness centre (another passion that sadly doesn’t really pay the bills on its own), so it was fair to say that the opportunity of full-time work appealed, as did the amazing presence I was feeling from the team through the various interviews and challenges I was asked to complete. We say at my workplace that we are a family, and it truly feels that way sometimes. Maybe because we spend a lot of time together (more time than I do with my actual family, which maybe isn’t a great thing), but there’s a strong support that I’ve not felt in many other workplaces and I’ve been incredibly lucky to have met so many wonderful new friends there this year.

Travel was a theme of 2016. I was lucky enough to experience Thailand for the first time, the USA twice, and also to a country I’ve dreamed of visiting for more than 15 years – Canada. My trips to the USA took me to San Francisco twice and to Portland on the second trip. Both cities have their charms and like most cities, have their issues too. I fell in deep love with SF on my first trip there – a 6-week odyssey of discovery, mostly work-related but also of the personal and tourist kind on weekends. It just happened that some friends had already planned trips while I was there too, so it was really wonderful to see familiar faces on the opposite side of the world while I was away for an extended period (to date, my longest time spent away from Melbourne).

It surprised me how my SF love affair vanished so promptly on the second trip. The glamour I saw everywhere the first trip had become more troubling – or, maybe I just noticed all of SF’s issues this time. The great divide between the haves and have-nots is so evident there – a city seemingly thriving on the tech money machine, while simultaneously spitting out the ones left behind. The homelessness in SF is hard to comprehend. A city so friendly and welcoming in a lot of aspects, just leaves a significant group of its residents to the side of the street. Melbourne’s struggle with homelessness pales in comparison with that of SF and there’s some guilt that I play a part in that. I don’t have an answer – only a hope that it will somehow work itself out, but that hope is an ever-fading reality.

Portland (the pic above) had a very different feel. So friendly that it felt at times the residents had had lobotomies, yet, a familiar charm met me everywhere I went. Yes, it rains a lot in Portland, but if the weather is a city’s main drawback, it’s going pretty well. A welcoming, open city, with a thriving food-truck scene that mixes with great restaurants, cafes and independent stores. An easy-to-navigate downtown and central area with only a little of the big city noise. Yes, there’s homelessness there too, but for whatever reason, it didn’t seem as hopeless. Portland felt comfortable, but not in a dreary way.

Canada seemingly came out of nowhere. I had long dreamed of visiting since I was offered a chance to go study in Toronto for a semester at Uni all the way back in 2000. I regret not taking that chance, but that’s another story. I flew into Vancouver from Portland and was greeted by one of the stricter border control officers I’ve encountered (not the welcome I was expecting). Sadly, my stay in Vancouver was very brief – a few hours waiting for my flight to Montreal, and then my flight to Halifax. A city I needed to google when I first heard of it, situated in a beautiful part of the world along the Atlantic coastline of Canada. I was struck by the history and the rugged beauty of Halifax. I didn’t have any expectations – it’s hard to when you don’t really know anything about a city, but I was taken in by its charm and its friendliness (a general Canadian theme). I got to see actual snow fall from the sky for the first time and that sent me into a childish bliss – until I had to walk in it! Halifax’s food is comparable to Melbourne – no shortage of options for dining of all kinds, and the experiences I had were all wonderful – from the cafes, to the pubs and even the fine dining. My time in Halifax is personal, but I will say that I very much look forward to going back there if the opportunity allows – the 39-hour return flight was well worth the experience there.

It has to be said that 2016 has been a year of upheaval. Personal and career challenges all colliding, the ending of a long-term relationship and moving home for the first time in six years bringing a general sense of unease. It’s probably no surprise that I find myself feeling the way I do. I don’t fit in my current circumstances, but I don’t see a way out. I continue to search for the elusive element that will give my life a higher purpose – one that is greater than just the day-to-day being in my own sphere and one that reaches out to people who aren’t as fortunate as I am. I truly believe that’s my calling (in a non-religious way of course) and it will present itself to me one day – I just hope it’s soon. It’s not a nice feeling when you don’t fit. I just want to be happy again.

Let’s Talk About Death

Let's talk about death blog pic

You’ve probably heard the saying: there’s two things in life you can’t avoid — death and taxes. For two things that can’t be avoided, we don’t seem to like talking about them. While it’s understandable that not too many people enjoy talking about taxes, I have been wondering why there’s a reluctance to talk about death. And it was in an unexpected arena recently where I was challenged to question my own reluctance to talk about death, but to also question my previous handling of it in a personal sense.

One of my teachers at university has a wonderful habit of starting each editing class with a general knowledge session (as editors, we need to have sound general knowledge so we are able to pick up on anomalies in manuscripts and check for factual inconsistencies). A few weeks ago, she asked that we research some terms that she had written on the whiteboard. There was a general theme in the terms — that of death and dying, mostly with a World War I/II reference. This laid the foundation for the extended discussion on death and dying that she so bravely approached in our most recent class.

Both of her parents succumbed to cancer in the last ten years. Some say time heals all wounds, but I question the validity of this when a close family member, or friend, or even family pet passes on. It might get easier to deal with over time, but the pain of losing someone close never goes away. Each time you’re reminded of this person (or pet), you might find a tear forming in your eye, or a choking feeling developing in your throat. My teacher did exactly this as she began to talk of the final weeks of her father’s life. Recounting how she and her sister sat by his side, trying to feed him when he didn’t want to eat (or couldn’t), when he didn’t want to drink, when he waited for the palliative care nurse to show up before he would relieve himself so that he didn’t have to make his daughters clean up after him. She choked back tears as she spoke of these things — obviously time has not healed the wounds of having to witness her father slowly waste away, but this did not stop her standing up in front of 20 or so postgrad students and expose the raw truth of what it is to embrace a situation that is clearly not in your control. I was so amazed at her strength — she has previously mentioned to me that she is an introvert and even with ten years’ worth of teaching experience, the fear of standing up in front of a class and teaching has not subsided; yet, here she was, opening up her rawest emotions in front of us, presumably to show us why death is to be embraced, rather than avoided.

It struck me instantly of how differently I handled my grandfather’s passing some years ago. While the circumstances were somewhat different to my teacher’s experience — my grandfather was a shell of himself after suffering through dementia, diabetes which affected his sight and a stroke which affected his independence — it still made me question my handling of the situation and why I acted in this way. As you watch someone close to you slowly fade away, you want nothing more than for them to jump out of bed and resume their previous activities. You know it’s not going to happen and that is part of the sadness. I visited my grandfather in the nursing home — where he was restrained to his bed to protect both himself and the nursing home staff. The dementia and stroke had made him violent; he was lashing out at the confusing place he had found himself in. He couldn’t remember me anymore and he would cry every now and again. I couldn’t see this — my once-strong, independent grandfather, who got on a boat from Italy all those years ago, by himself, to start a new life here in Melbourne and here he now was, breathing but not living. So, I stopped going to visit. I couldn’t handle this experience any longer. I regret that now.

As my teacher spoke of the beauty that she saw in caring for her father as he went through his final days, I thought about the way I shied away from it. I obviously wasn’t ready to deal with such a situation but I now wonder if my grandfather noticed that I (and maybe some others) stopped going to visit and whether he knew why, even though it was likely he wouldn’t remember any of that. I’m not even sure that the next time I’m faced with this situation that I’ll act any differently. I hope I will, but it’s one of those times in life that there’s surely no script for. How can you possibly prepare yourself for watching a loved one die? One thing is for sure though — we can’t be scared to talk about it and we can’t keep hoping that it won’t happen to us. The sad reality is that it will. I’m not suggesting it need be a daily topic of conversation, but it needs to be discussed at some point. Maybe talking about death before you’re faced with it makes you more ready to deal with it? I don’t know, but the awkwardness of not talking about it won’t make you ready to deal with it either.

This extends to helping friends deal with loss too. I’ve had a few friends recently experience the loss of a loved one and I’m always unsure what I should say or what I should do. Again, I don’t think there’s a script for this, but ignoring the situation doesn’t help anyone. While I’m conscious of not sounding generic when sending messages of hope or support, I need to remind myself that this situation isn’t about me, and that any act of compassion or support is probably greatly appreciated. My teacher spoke of taking food to the person looking after their loved one in their final days — even pet food if they have pets. They still need to eat and probably aren’t thinking of their next trip to the supermarket. Any little act of kindness surely goes a long way to that person who is obviously so preoccupied with the care of their loved one.

Feel free to continue to avoid talking about taxes, but let’s talk about death. Let’s try to help each other deal with an unavoidable grief and sense of helplessness, while hopefully reassuring the person who is passing that their final days will be as fulfilling as their strong days. Try to cherish each day that they are still here, don’t shy away from it. You won’t get a second go at it.

Born This Way

It was just an ordinary day, which meant that one of Australia’s mainstream newspapers was due for some good old-fashioned hysteria, scare-mongering and lies. It’s usually an attempt to demonise a minority or just have some fun at the expense of those that cannot defend themselves. A few days ago, this unashamedly unethical ragtag decided it was time to attack the LGBTI community again. However, this time, they went for the lowest of lows – they went for the youth.

An article at the top of the front page of Wednesday’s edition – an exclusive by the way – was so ineloquently titled “Activists push taxpayer-funded gay manual in schools”. Presumably being in this prominent position meant that it was the most important story of the day, but I’ll leave you to decide whether there were more pressing issues on this Wednesday (I can think of at least one more important issue that involves 267 people about to be sent back to a life of abuse and mental torment, but maybe I just have a different perspective of the world). I’ve actively decided not to link the article here (nor name this shameful excuse of journalism) for two reasons – it’s behind a pay-wall and I really don’t want you to give them any money to read it. It’s also just so farcical from top to bottom, so I don’t want to waste your time. I do however want to draw attention to how damaging this kind of “reporting” is, and will continue to be, if it is left unchecked and unquestioned. Though the “taxpayer-funded” part is quite hilarious – I’m not sure what their point is, but is this a good time to remind them that their beloved church that they so vehemently defend at all times does not pay any tax, while also receiving large sums of funding from the government?

To be clear, there is no “gay manual”. What would a “gay manual” even do, or attempt to do? This strikes at one of the most hurtful aspects of what homophobes believe – that being gay is a choice. Who would choose this? Why would you bring all of this unwanted attention and subsequent disadvantage to yourself if you didn’t have to? I’ll never forget one of the first things my Mum said to me when I finally had the nerve to come out to her (at age 28 by the way) – she was really concerned that I was going to miss out on opportunities, or be treated differently, simply because of my sexuality. And here I was worried about her getting upset at not getting any grandchildren from me. The fact that it took me so long to officially come out to my Mother is a direct statement of the way I felt scared and anxious for the real me to be out there. The prime of my life was spent hiding away for the fear of being found out. I had no boyfriends and I didn’t go out much all those years, simply because I was so scared of being found out. Why did I feel like this? Well, that’s what twelve years of Catholic education will do to you. I’m not upset that my parents felt it necessary for me to go to a religious school, but I do greatly resent the education I received of a narrative of the world in which I was a freak while growing up and discovering myself, while they go through scandal after scandal of sexual abuse of children in their care without any attempts to correct the many wrongs they have committed.

It was during my high school years that I first began to feel attracted to another guy. To say that was a terrifying and utterly confusing experience would be one of the greatest understatements I’ve ever made. I only wish there was something reassuring available to me at the time that explained some of the possibilities of what I was thinking and experiencing. This is no “gay manual”. Labelling it this way implies that you can teach someone to be gay. That would be as effective as gay conversion therapy, which is hopefully and finally about to be made illegal in Victoria. This is a teaching aide that forms part of the Safe Schools Coalition. It is an anti-bullying document designed to help children – all children – understand the differences that make us our own unique individual, and that there’s simply no reason to pick on someone, or exclude someone who might not fit into some main category. I don’t see anything wrong with that, especially as 80 per cent of homophobic bullying involving LGBTI young people occurs at school and has a profound impact on their well-being and education (Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Private Lives 2: The second national survey of the health and wellbeing of GLBT Australians (2012) p 39). I like to be positive though and it gives me hope that LGBTI young people at schools where protective policies are in place are more likely to feel safe compared with those in schools without similar policies (75 per cent compared with 45 per cent). They are almost 50 per cent less likely to be physically abused at school, less likely to suffer other forms of homophobic abuse, less likely to self-harm and less likely to attempt suicide (T Jones and Western Australian Equal Opportunity Commission, A report about discrimination and bullying on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in Western Australian education (2012), p 11). I would think that having this resource available in schools can only have a positive impact, as it appears to be doing, and it certainly isn’t doing what this article is trying to suggest.

With the lack of such a resource in those times, I sought the advice of a teacher (who was also presumably gay, but I’ll never know for sure) who I felt comfortable enough with to share the thoughts I was having. He did help me understand that while I was probably having different thoughts to most of the other boys at school, there was nothing wrong with the thoughts I was having. I am very lucky to have had someone give me this reassurance at a time of need so I didn’t go down the path that sadly too many LGBTI youth go down.

The statistics glaringly show the disparity of mental health, self-harm and suicide in the LGBTI community to that of heterosexuals:

  • Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high/very high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers (18.2% v. 9.2%). This makes them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems
  • The younger the age group, the starker the differences: 55% of LGBT women aged between 16 and 24 compared with 18% in the nation as a whole and 40% of LGBT men aged 16-24 compared with 7%
  • LGBTI people have the highest rates of suicidality of any population in Australia – 20% of trans Australians and 15.7% of lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians report current suicidal ideation (thoughts)
  • A UK study reported 84% of trans participants having thought about ending their lives at some point
  • Up to 50% of trans people have actually attempted suicide at least once in their lives
  • Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14 times higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers
  • Rates are 6 times higher for same-sex attracted young people (20-42% cf. 7-13%)
  • The average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years – often before ‘coming out’ Source: Rosenstreich, G. (2013) LGBTI People Mental Health and Suicide. Revised 2nd Edition. National LGBTI Health Alliance. Sydney, p 5.

That all makes for very sobering reading. It also highlights just how critical it is for young people to be supported throughout their journey into adulthood, not to have some elitist set blast false headlines and news stories across their front pages suggesting otherwise. It’s because of continued homophobic examples like this that almost half of all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people hide their sexual orientation or gender identity in public for fear of violence or discrimination (Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, note 7, p 46). It’s also why a large number of LGBTI people hide their sexuality or gender identity when accessing services (34 per cent), at social and community events (42 per cent) and at work (39 per cent). Young people aged 16 to 24 years are most likely to hide their sexuality or gender identity (Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Private Lives 2: The second national survey of the health and wellbeing of GLBT Australians (2012) pp 45-46). I wonder why that is.

I am a part of those statistics. Countless times, I have hidden my sexuality from friends, work colleagues, family, Barry next door – you name it. I have encountered discrimination based on my sexuality. A previous boss of mine commented to someone else at this workplace (after I had left that workplace) that he would not have hired me had he known I was gay. I am scared to hold the hand of another man in public for fear of being abused – something I have seen happen in Melbourne before. The number of conversations I have had where I actively used words to avoid questions of why I did not have a girlfriend all those years, or where I faked an interest in “blokey” conversations to keep the charade going. This was all due to the world around me – a world that still tells me I’m not equal. That my love for another man is not the same as the love between a man and a woman. Yes, it’s 2016 and we’re supposedly advancing, but the simple fact is that I am still discriminated against, simply for the love I have for someone of the same sex. So, if there is a teaching aide in our schools reaffirming that we are all the same even though we have our unique identifiers, and that those differences are to be embraced rather than shamed, I am all for that. I am hopeful that the youth of today have more confidence to be themselves and not hide their true identity for as many years as I felt I had to. But as long as mainstream media continues to peddle this hysterical and utterly damaging sensationalism, we still have a long way to go. LGBTI young people report experiencing verbal homophobic abuse (61 per cent), physical homophobic abuse (18 per cent) and other types of homophobia (9 per cent), including cyberbullying, graffiti, social exclusion and humiliation (Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Private Lives 2: The second national survey of the health and wellbeing of GLBT Australians (2012) pp 45-46). These headlines just perpetuate these experiences and the people that write them ought to be held accountable for these actions.

1Rainbow Pic

Your Personal Legend

“To realise one’s Personal Legend is a person’s only real obligation. All things are one.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve just started reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, even though I actually purchased this book about four years ago. It sat on my bookshelf all those years, but something recently made me go find it and read it. Not knowing exactly what this book was about, I just felt like it was something that was worth reading. Within the first twenty pages, you find the above line. It’s closely followed by this passage:

“What’s the world’s greatest lie?”

“It’s this: that a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie”.

“Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is. At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realise their Personal Legend”.

You might be wondering what is meant by “Personal Legend” – it is what you have always wanted to accomplish. This book is a work of fiction, but its message is surely not. It is a story told through this message, and the importance of this message cannot be underestimated.

Before I started reading The Alchemist a few days ago, I had already written the words that follow. Things really do work in wonderful ways sometimes.

IMG_0384 (Relax pic)

I am having a “me” day today and I am not afraid to admit that. I think somehow the notion of taking time out for yourself, just doing the things that you want to do, on your own, has been given a bad name. You might think it’s selfish to be doing this, but I see it as the opposite. I see it as time spent reminding yourself about how important you are, and that this time is critical to your own personal fulfilment.

Most of us spend far too much time in each day doing things for other people, or worse, doing things we think that other people want us to do, but why have we forgotten to do the things that make us happy too? I’m not suggesting that you should do this all day every day, after all, life is about balance. There will inevitably be some things that you will need to do that you do not necessarily want to do, but when this becomes a daily habit, you’ll probably find yourself becoming unhappy and unfulfilled. It doesn’t even need to be a full day of “me” time either, so don’t think that you don’t have time for this – even spending a few hours a day for yourself is better than no hours at all.

I’ve read numerous quotes that ask a simple question – how can you love others if you don’t first love yourself? It might sound fluffy, but it is true. You need to know yourself and need to know what makes you happy. Then you can work on sharing that with others, whether it be with friends or a partner. Having regular “me” time will help you remember about the things that make you happy and might even lead you to some new ideas or hobbies that you can take up. It’s not selfish at all to take time for yourself – it’s just as important as other aspects of your health, both mental and physical. Personal time can be used to think about where you are, where you are going, or simply just to switch off and relax (something we all need to do more of too!). Listen to music, read a book, go for a walk or a run if you’re that way inclined. Go sit in a cafe and people watch. If you have children, it might be more difficult to find some personal time, but you owe it to yourself and your family to at least try. Even if it’s just one hour, I truly believe this will help you be a better person overall, someone that is more positive and caring. If you’re unhappy with yourself, you’ll find it difficult to be happy with others.

Personal time is even more important if you find yourself in an employment situation that doesn’t fulfil you and there’s no obvious way out of it (and I think most of us have been here at some point). I understand that it’s too simplistic to suggest that everyone can just throw in their job that they hate without any kind of backup plan, but personal time may help you deal with your less than fulfilling work a little better, or at the very least, remind you why put up with your job, so that you can do those other things in life that you want to do. It will help give you clarity on your other options too – don’t ever think that you don’t have another option. You might need to make changes to your lifestyle for this other option to be feasible, but if you truly want it, those changes will be a blessing.

The point is, just find a way to spend some time with yourself and make it a habit. Start small and build on it. Whatever start you make is a move in a different direction and you don’t know where that might take you. If you don’t make this time, you’ll still be in that same place in another year, and I’m pretty sure how that will make you feel.

Don’t allow that mysterious force to convince you that you can’t realise your Personal Legend. It might not be visible right now, or it might be quite a way down the track, but keep looking for it and keep putting in place whatever it is you need to do to make it happen. You are still in control of what is happening in your life, and you always will be. You owe it to yourself to keep going.

 

Meet The Family

1San Severo 1.1

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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