What’s the minimum distance required to call it travelling, anyway?

The more I travel, the more at risk I am of becoming one of those terrible stereotypes who declares of every new city that this is the one they just LOVE above all the others. When I went to Venice in February, I adored it. When I went to Belgium in March, I thought it was great. Drinking with my friend in Barcelona in April was amazing. And now, London in June seemed utterly splendid – apparently I was too busy to go anywhere  foreign in May. What a shame. I’m sure I’d have loved wherever I’d gone.

 

It’s a pretty common phenomenon to feel like each new place you visit is, impossibly, the best place to be, and I suppose the apparent excellence of each new city is based on a few things – largely on the novelty, but also on the fact that each offers something different. Even in the cities where I did roughly the same thing, that is, tramp around sightseeing alone or with a friend, the sights and culture are always different enough that it’s a new experience. And really, in hindsight, I can’t necessarily say that drinking super-strong beer at 5pm in Belgium was better nor worse than the cheap sangria I was drinking at midnight in Barcelona, and similarly, I can’t compare either evening to eating fritelle by myself on the vaporetto taking me back to my hostel in Italy. They’re too different, and I can’t say which was better – it’s like being asked to choose whether you prefer hot chips or brownies. Both are delicious, but even when you have a sweet tooth like me, sometimes you’d much rather hot, chicken-salted chips to the rich, sugary chocolate.

 

This leads me on to an important point, being that no one place is inherently better than another. Of course, there may be particular things you want to visit – historical sites, certain climates, places you can ski or swim or hike through jungles – but everywhere you go will have its own charm, so that you can equally enjoy trekking through a rainforest in the tropics or spending all day round a crackling fire in the Alps. Because I’m headed back to  Australia in a matter of hours and know that I’ll be unlikely to be travelling abroad again in the too-near future, and will be sighing over everyone’s holidays photos of Greece, Croatia, India, wherever they may be, this is something I’m trying very hard to remember right now.

Thankfully, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the time spent here in France, it’s that you can still enjoy yourself without travelling too far. It’s a cliché, but it’s true – sometimes hopping on a train for 2 hours will get you somewhere quite new and fascinating, and while you don’t get the social-media points for having gotten to a new country, that doesn’t mean you should enjoy yourself any less.

I can’t count the amount of people I’ve met who know Australia better than me because when they visit it, they go looking for the best parts to see, the best things to do  – whereas those of us who live there tend to stay in our neighbourhood, only venturing forth to select holiday destinations. But because I know my time in France is limited, in 6 months I’ve been to visit five nearby countries and half a dozen towns or palaces within 2 hours train ride of Paris, trying to fit as much in as possible. In Australia, in 6 months, the furthest afield I went was going to Canberra to visit my grandmother. No wonder I feel like Europe is more interesting, when it’s in Europe that I actually bother to get out and do things.

So, to make up for all the foreign cities I won’t be visiting for the next six months, year, or however long it takes for me to get myself on a plane again, I’ll be doing my darnedest to appreciate what I can find a bit closer to home. It might be daytripping somewhere an hour away, or trying to go to Melbourne for a weekend. Regardless of where I go, I’ll be doing my best to enjoy it – and that’ll make half the difference.

 

I wish I was vegan (but instead, I do my best)

Shouldn’t we all be vegans? If we really think about it? After all, the huge industry of livestock farming is wildly damaging to the environment, and of course, involves terrible cruelty to animals. We all know and lament this, but the majority of us continue to eat meat and animal products regardless. Even if you don’t think keeping livestock to eat or for its products is inherently cruel, and opt for only free-range, ‘cruelty-free’ options, we can’t deny that eating red meat in abundance can be harmful to our health. So why the hell do we all cling to our steaks and hamburgers? (Or, in my case, to my schnitzels and gulasch?)

Of course, the answer to that is complex. A lot can be attributed to nothing but a lack of willpower, with many of us wishing we could go vegetarian or vegan in the same way we know we should really cycle to work every day instead of driving, and be content with bananas for dessert instead of banana splits. But banana splits are delicious, and cars are damn convenient, so the effort versus payoff doesn’t seem worth it to us.

Eating ethically is especially difficult because the results are so hard to see. Sure, you know logically that by not eating beef you’re saving the life of one cow, ten cows, a thousand – but you’re not actually seeing those cows escape the butcher’s knife. You just have to trust that your decisions changed what happened. To make things worse, in many cases, your choice might not make any difference – if you refuse the sausage offered to you at a BBQ, you’re not making any impact on the meat industry, because the cow’s already dead and the sausage already made.

One of the hardest parts of vegetarianism or veganism, though, is its absolutism. As Nell Frizzell explains, it’s ‘seen as a black-and-white deal. You either are or you aren’t.’ If you declare yourself a vegan, woe betide you if you eat a single Iced Vovo. Those contain milk, you know. A tiny, tiny amount of it, but milk from a cow nonetheless, and even if you didn’t realise, you’ve just broken the only rule of veganism and have lost your right to the title.

Obviously, most vegans wouldn’t actually judge you too harshly for such a tiny slip-up, but the idea that you are forever banned from so many different foods still remains. Being told we can’t have something usually only has the effect of making us want it more, and most diet plans are aware of this. Instead of forbidding all sugar and sweets, they suggest the less harmful options, or advise tiny portions, knowing that we are more likely to obey a plan that limits us to one square of chocolate a day than to ‘No chocolate again, ever.’

This is precisely why the Reducetarian movement, or specifically, the concept fuelling it, is so appealing. It suggests that instead of making the dramatic decision to become a vegan or vegetarian, you decide to simply reduce the amount of meat and animal products you’re eating – whether to the extent that you eat non-vegan fare only if it’s served to you at someone else’s place, or that you have one meat-free day a week. Perhaps you’ll go vegan, but still eat baked goods made with butter and eggs. There’s no rules about when it is or is not appropriate to ‘cheat’, because there’s no rules about what you’re forbidden from eating, which is what makes it so much more practical and easier to achieve than strict veganism or vegetarianism.

To me, food is important not just as a form of nourishment, but as part of culture and a form of enjoyment. When I travel, tasting the food of different cultures is one of my favourite parts of the holiday, and much of that would be impossible if I were vegan or vegetarian. How are you supposed to eat eclairs when you visit France, or traditional gelato in Italy, if you avoid all animal products? While it’s true that vegan or vegetarian versions exist of almost everything now, these alternatives lack one of the main things I seek in foreign food – authenticity. They may be delicious, but they’re not the traditional fare I’ve read about.

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Strict veganism would forbid me from pretty much all French pastries like this and that would be make me extremely sad

 

Similarly, certain foods can hold nostalgic, cultural or even religious significance. I’m less likely to make a decision that in one fell swoop forbids me from my grandmother’s cake recipe, the schnitzel restaurant I’ve been going to since my childhood and the vast majority of the food cooked up for a Christmas feast with my extended family. Depriving myself of all these foods feels like depriving myself of part of my culture and personal history, and I am utterly loathe to commit myself to that.

But just as I moderate my consumption of my grandmother’s cake or Christmas gingerbread houses because I know that eating too much sugar isn’t good for my health, I can choose to moderate my consumption of these dishes and delicacies without giving them up entirely. Therein lies all of the appeal of a ‘reducetarian’ diet, as it allows you the flexibility to make your diet work to fit in what’s important in your life. You can make the changes that you find easiest, like having almond milk for your cereal but still taking coffee with cow’s milk because you don’t like plant-milk coffee. It’s less intimidating to make minor amendments like this than to suddenly radically change your diet, and thus a reducetarian movement is easier to promote and sustain than trying to go cold turkey on your Christmas turkey (and everything else). And as such, it’s more likely you’ll be able to convince other people to join you, rather than copping eye rolls or defensive explanations from your friends about why veganism totally isn’t that great. In the end, isn’t it better to spread the good word – albeit in diluted form – to as many people as possible rather than scaring off potential candidates with your absolutism?

So if you feel bad about supporting the livestock industry but can’t figure out how to practically introduce veganism into your life, don’t give up hope – just make the changes that you can, by reducing your animal product intake rather than eradicating it altogether, and trying to source only cruelty-free food when you do eat animal products, or swap beef for the lower-polluting alternatives of pork and poultry. It’s exactly the same as trying to be healthier by eating more fruit and less cake – you don’t have to hate yourself for having the cake occasionally, but having fruit instead is better in the long run. And as a bonus, fruit is always vegan-friendly!

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Being informed will help you make more environmentally-friendly decisions without giving up on food you love. Cows and lambs are not as effective converters of grain to meat, and require much more energy and water to create the same volume of food, so just swapping beef mince for pork can make a difference to your carbon footprint.

On Productivity

Did you write anything today? Make anything? Do your homework or catch up on readings or study for a test? Practice piano?

If the answer to all those questions is no, and you’re anything like me, you feel guilty about it. After all, everyone knows how life works: if you want to get good things out of it – if you want to be able to play an instrument or speak a language or graduate with good marks or make money – you have to put the hours in. And god knows I want to be able to do all those things, preferably at the same time. At the same time, though, I don’t want to live under the burden of a hundred self-imposed and unrealistically expectations when I could – and probably should – be proud of what I can already do. That leaves us with the same timeworn issue that so often rears its ugly head – how do we find the right balance?

Obviously, there’s no tried-and-true, step-by-step guide to finding that equilibrium that works for anyone and everyone, or else, as the saying goes, we’d all be doing it.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a few tricks for figuring out whether you need to step down or step up, though.

The first is easy – ask. Look to the people you respect, people who you consider seem to be striking an alright balance themselves and who know you. It’s difficult to judge your own efforts, and particularly so when we’re so constantly inundated by other people’s results. Though everyone you know might only be doing one noteworthy thing – getting an award at uni, or a promotion, or just being really excellent at making their own dresses – the cumulative effect of seeing so many people’s sole achievement ends up making it seem like everyone can, and does, do everything better than you.

Asking the people around you whether or not you seem to be holding your own against the onslaught of Other People’s Achievements can help give you back some of the perspective you might be missing. Frequently, we underestimate ourselves by downplaying our own accomplishments – over time, they come to seem so naturally a part of you that you forget other people would find them impressive.

Consider your goals. In the end, we want achievements because we imagine they’ll make us happier. But the work involved to attain them can end up making us unhappier than the joy we gain from having them. Acknowledging that, no, you can’t do everything – and certainly not all at once – is vital, because you need to be able to consider the achievements you’re aiming for and whether the end-goal is, ultimately, worth the work. Not everything is, and the goals that matter most are different for everyone.

Some achievements, like graduating, might be reasonably necessary to your future. But if it’s something you’re doing only for the sake of being able to do it, well, don’t stress about not having practiced or studied if you were doing something else that brought you pleasure. Just ask yourself, every time: will you gain more enjoyment, in the long run, by being ‘productive’ for an hour or by procrastinating? After all, you can still enjoy your life to the full without a list of achievements as long as your arm – more so, even, than if you constantly torture yourself with remembering what you haven’t done.

Don’t waste your time. Often, when we do have to do something, we waste our time stalling and being distracted. Three hours at home rarely means three hours of uninterrupted leisure, let alone productive work. Instead of trying to get your work done in bite-size intervals, dedicate the necessary time to it – give yourself instant objectives, like finishing a book this week, practicing for a full half hour today, or not getting up till you’ve written 500 words, and stick to them. It really is easier to get things done if you give them your full attention, and it leaves you with more time to spend doing absolutely nothing productive, but with one important difference – you don’t have to feel guilty about it.


It will still never be easy to judge how well you’re doing. But if you’re content with the way you actually spend your days, and with how people see you, there’s no point worrying about amassing achievements to your name. Just try to consciously enjoy every moment that you can, and when you can’t escape the necessity of some boring or difficult work, keep in mind the reasons you’re doing it. Finding the balance will still be tricky, but at least you’ll be a little more aware of what you need to be weighing up.

 

On science, and why we should respect it

We’ve all sighed in resignation, spluttered in indignation or rolled our eyes in straight-out derision when someone reveals a belief we find ridiculous, like that chlorophyll supplements are re-energising or that wifi causes cancer. Our dismissal of their crazy notions feels righteous, because, after all, we have science on our side – only fools argue with facts. Science is the one institution that should be wholly trustworthy, based as it is on evidence, on only believing in results we can see and recreate.

How is, it, then, that even in the educated echelons of society, we’re still in constant disputes of how much we can trust science, or which science to trust?

It’s true that science is all about being willing to rewrite the accepted rules if any contrary evidence is found to disprove them, and that there’s been more than one occasion where science hadn’t advanced enough to recognise the dangers in something it touted as perfectly safe, like that time when we thought putting radium in chocolate and makeup was a wonderful idea.

But the idea of people outside the scientific community refusing to believe the testimony of experts is not only ridiculous, but dangerous. Yes, challenging ideas and questioning assumptions is important. Yes, further research may change currently accepted facts. That does not excuse the cherry-picking of what scientific truths you may or may not believe in, a phenomenon becoming all too common in a socio-political culture insistent on allowing everyone their ‘voice’, regardless of qualifications.

Of course, people are generally not consciously trying to promote ‘alternative facts’. Sometimes their misbeliefs are rooted in partially-understood concepts where context or disclaimers have been conveniently forgotten, or their information comes from a source with enough graphs and statistics paired with information written in professional-sounding terms to appear trustworthy, despite not necessarily following appropriate scientific method.

While this isn’t too much of an issue if it’s your neighbour warning you that drinking tea will make you anaemic (it won’t, not by itself) or a single housewife not buying GM food for her family, it can have much wider consequences and become a grave issue. On an individual level, extreme diets founded on inaccurate information, like the Paleo lifestyle, can be personally dangerous, not to mention expensive. GM food is vilified worldwide, potentially undermining the vital role it could play in managing famine and unpredictable harvests. Climate change obviously affects the future of literally every living being, and suffers hugely, just like Tinkerbell, from people not believing in it.

Problems like global warming urgently need to be addressed, and for that they to be acknowledged and funded. When significant proportions of the population, or even just individuals significant in decision-making, do not trust the science and facts laid out before them, these problems do not receive the attention and support necessary for them to be resolved.

Most of us have constant access, grace of the internet, to almost all the knowledge of the human race. Our actions, small though they may seem, can affect our health, the lives of the others, and even the fate of the planet. We need, perhaps now more than ever before, to be encouraging trust in experts and in science. We need to be criticising those who propagate information from unreliable sources or incomplete facts, even if it regards a relatively minor topic, because we cannot allow the belief of inaccurate ideas to become normal. Every time we ignore a qualified scientist so as to interpret information in a way more pleasing to our personal ideologies, we are making it that much easier for dangerous misinformation to become widely believed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Travelling Alone

I used to hate the idea of travelling alone. It seemed so boring, so lonely, and practically a waste of time – who wants to go do anything when you have no one to discuss it with? Where’s the point in looking at a famous church if you can’t inform the person beside you of your opinion on the décor?

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Snapchat helped me share my rage at this sign forbidding you from sitting down in a public square, even if you’re as depressed as the little figure looks

Now, though, I’ve been sightseeing alone in Paris for three months, and I’ve just spent three delightful days as a single traveller in Venice. As it turns out, travelling alone can be tonnes of fun, and even considerably better than travelling with other people. Why’s that? Well, in a word, it’s about freedom.

Plus, I have Snapchat these days, so I can always just broadcast my opinions via low-quality photos with witty* captions.

Even if you get on terribly well with your friend/partner/relative, you’re sure to have a few disagreements, however slight, on how to sightsee or properly enjoy a new place. That’s completely normal: we all have different opinions on what’s important to see or do, and no one can really say what the ‘right’ way to be a tourist is.

Money can be a major issue, whether because of differences in budget or just dispute over what’s worth spending money on – I, personally, love sampling the specialities of any new region, and I’m willing to pay a little more to have the traditional sarda in saor at an authentic, atmospheric cicchetti bar instead of just eating slices of pizza which, though cheap and delicious, can be obtained relatively easily where I live. There’s a million examples, though, like whether you prefer to spend your money on museum entry and go everywhere on foot, or would rather pay for the public transport but content yourself with glancing at the exterior of every famous monument. And how much is too much for accommodation?

It’s obvious why it can feel stifling to holiday with someone with a different budget or just a different sense of value to you, because no one likes to pay for things they didn’t particularly want to do, or, conversely, to feel guilty about putting someone else in that situation. But that’s just one aspect of travelling, and perhaps you and your potential travel buddies are lucky enough to not worry about how much you’re spending. Even then, travelling with anybody else means making compromises between what you want to do, and what they want to do.

I woke up early and left my hostel early to make the most of the light, but some people would rather have slept in, or dawdled over their breakfast or doing their makeup. To me, that seems a waste of time, but they’d probably think the same of me happily getting lost in backstreets and retracing my steps to that pasticceria I saw last night which had such delectable pan del doge in its window.

Travelling alone, though, meant that I could do exactly that, and that I could choose to eat pastries for breakfast every day instead having, y’know, the vaguely healthy option of fruit and cereal and bread rolls that would have cost me the same as my beloved cannolo Sicialiano and espresso shot but wouldn’t have pleased me nearly as much.

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Eating pastries by the lagoon was literally what I came to Venice for, after all.

 

It meant that I could spend as long as I wanted trying to find the perfect postcard, and not worry about being judged for not spending enough time admiring the Tintoretto paintings I’d paid good money to see at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. It meant that I didn’t need to worry about whether my travel companion minded taking a detour to see this basilica I’d heard was kinda pretty, or, alternately, if they’d be awfully disappointed if I couldn’t be bothered going to see Torcello.

I delighted in being left to my own devices because I was the only one to bear the consequences of my

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Buying these, for instance, was definitely the right choice

decisions – that being, in this case, very sore feet after foregoing the expensive waterbuses in favour of walking everywhere and spending the money on obsessively consuming fritelle, a type of fried doughnut often filled with cream, chocolate or zabaglione which I frequently ate in lieu of real meals. They were divine, and I regret none of it. And that is the crux of the matter: I could make choices based entirely around my own impulses, without worrying about inconveniencing others. I had the freedom to do, quite simply, whatever I wanted. And it was wonderful.

 

*witty according to me, whose opinion I value most

 

 

 

On Feminism and Good Taste

My parents encouraged me to be egalitarian, to care about being kind and fair, and to stand up for what I believe in. These are all excellent qualities to pass on, and are the basis of my feminism today. And yet at the same time as they instilled these values in me, they warned me to not cause scenes, and not get angry at people if they’re doing something wrong. They wanted me to know whatever facts I needed to know about sex, but they didn’t want me to ever, god forbid, mention the topic. Their opinion on the LGBT* community was always simple: ‘I don’t care what anyone else does with their sex life but I don’t want to know about it – it’s just not right to discuss that kind of thing in public!’

I can completely understand why they taught me these rules of society, because they live in a world that considers good taste, politeness and breeding to be very important. I still think those things are important myself, it’s just that I’ve expanded my idea of good taste to include two of most vital components of feminism – unbiased discussion of sex, anatomy and sexuality, and a willingness to dispute the status quo and keep arguing even if it might upset someone.

I’ve never been shy about calling people out for doing something wrong, whether it’s speeding, littering or using offensive language. And yet it’s with feminist issues that people get most upset with me and tell me to ‘be nice’ and ‘not cause a fuss’ if I dare tell someone they’re being rude. It’s weird, really: I get accused of being mean when I’m asking someone to stop doing something that’s hurtful or offensive.

Unfortunately, there’s still this strange expectation that if you’re well-raised, you won’t maintain an argument with someone for fear of upsetting them, and it’s a really poisonous concept because it suggests that a single individual’s feelings are more important than the entire idea of social equality. Of course no one should be rude for the sake of it, or angry if they don’t have to be – but to be told you’re not acting appropriately because you’re standing your ground on issues you care about it is ridiculous.

The other issue with trying to be fiercely feminist while making sure you don’t disappoint your grandmother is, of course, that of polite language and taboo topics. Polite society, apparently, pretends that sex and sexuality doesn’t exist except as a means to make babies. I’m told that ‘you shouldn’t talk about vaginas in public’. I’m told it’s not what nice girls do. But I study biology, and vaginas are totally fascinating. Apart from my own interest, girls absolutely have a right to discuss their own body parts so that they can look after themselves better.

I can’t help but sigh at the craziness of a situation where people accuse me of not being ‘well-raised’ because I’m happy to discuss sex and happy to do battle against sexism. Being well-raised has nothing to do with whether you talk about penises and vaginas or not. As with so many things, it’s about how you do it. Is it conversation based on common interest, on exchanging facts and opinions with each other, or are you just making cruel comments or sexualised suggestions? Are you sharing information, or just perpetuating sexist myths?

In the same way, being-well raised doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be angry at people. It means you should know the right times to be angry. Is the person you’re arguing making a choice that harms others? Or are you just upset over something that isn’t their fault? As long as it’s the former, feel free to keep arguing as much as you’d like.

I find it funny, because I’ve always been a huge supporter of ‘good taste’. I hate to imagine that someone would consider me badly brought up – I want to immediately point out my wide reading, my travels, my good works, my broad perspective. To think that someone would dismiss the positive values and wide experience that govern my life because of something as inane as me using the word vulva makes me first laugh, then sigh when I remember that that’s what does happen. Nonetheless, regardless of whether it makes some people think worse of me, I’m convinced of one thing: being well-raised should never mean you can’t talk about the things important to you, especially if acquiescing to the demands of politeness means perpetuating injustice against yourself or others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Refugees and how we see them

In France, the question of refugees has become truly pressing only in the last years thanks to the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ affecting Europe. Their issues are vastly different to our own decades-long struggle in many ways, including the nature of the refugees, the sudden increase and France’s own cultural and socio-political differences, but the situations are alike in the most vital details: each country is currently dealing with large numbers of genuine asylum seekers who we expect our government to aid according to the human rights convention.

Australia’s island state has prevented us from seeing the same sudden arrival of so many asylum-seekers, as the difficulties of the ocean voyage leads to most refugees being detained and sent to off-shore detention centres for processing before they reach the mainland. In comparison, the most popular tourist destination in the entire world – Paris – is also a makeshift home for up to 3000 refugees. There are the lucky ones, in organised camps, but walking through the city still means walking past whole families tucked onto a doorstep with plastic shopping bags spread over their few belongings to keep off the autumn rain. At Saint-Lazare, one of Paris’ largest stations, the repetitive melody of the metro announcements mingles with the haunting tones of the refugees who wait at the top of the escalators, begging for sympathy from the commuters.

Yet the vast majority of commuters treat these refugees as little different than any of the usual beggars, rarely stopping to toss them a few coins. The most common reason stated for not giving money to beggars on the street is that the would-be giver fears their donation will be wasted on alcohol or illicit substances, as they assume these are the reasons for the beggar’s current state. But with refugees, there’s no evidence to suggest they have any issues apart from being cruelly mistreated by chance and other humans’ selfish actions, and as such, no reason to withhold your spare change. Sadly, though, it is human nature that when confronted with mass suffering, aware we cannot give to everyone in need, we tend to give nothing – justifying it by telling ourselves we can’t save them all.

These are heartbreaking scenes, and unlike what we see in Australia, even though the deplorable conditions of our detention camps and the seemingly endless time periods required for processing prompts many Australians to consider the government’s policies an aberration of human rights. Yet there remains one silver lining in this dark cloud, and that is our maintained interest in the welfare of these displaced peoples. Thanks to our outrage at our government’s policies, there are constant lobbies and protests, and the media continues to report on the conditions. We stay invested in these people kept out of sight on far-away islands in a way that would likely not occur if the same people were lining our city streets with their handwritten cardboard signs.

Gerda Lerner, famous feminist scholar, once noted that it took ‘long periods of organised effort to accomplish any advance in social policy’, and her point is, sadly, very apt. Change of any kind comes gradually, and only when we refuse to give up – and our outrage at human rights violations is exactly what fuels such determination. As much as our government policies may displease us, we can be glad that they have kept us angry, and in doing so, kept us resolved to change the current state of affairs instead of turning away for fear that because we can only make a small difference, it is not worth trying to make a difference at all.