13 Jan 2010

Living geography

I was at University when the board game Trivial Pursuit was released. I didn't like it. I was lousy at orange Sport, I was dreadful at pink Entertainment, and I was useless at yellow History. Goodness, I was a science boffin. My general knowledge was limited to the green Science pieces of pie. Full stop.

At the end of Uni, in common with many young Australians, I made a "Grand Tour' of Europe. Starting in Denmark, I travelled through Scandinavia, Great Britain, Continental Europe and Morocco in Northern Africa. I had a wonderful time. On my return home I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was now considerably better at Trivial Pursuit. Suddenly I had two topics of special interest - green Science and blue Geography. I was also considerably improved in yellow History and brown Literature. My year of travel had done for me what years of secondary school had failed to do: it had taught me European geography. That knowledge stuck too. For me geography had disappeared and the memories of a wonderful holiday had taken their place. I will never forget it.

Next weekend I will be reading Hans Christian Andersen's tale, The Metal Pig to Jemimah. It was written in 1842, and it begins like this:

In the city of Florence, not far from the Piazza del Granduca, runs a little street called Porta Rosa. In this street, just in front of the market-place where vegetables are sold, stands a pig, made of brass and curiously formed. The bright color has been changed by age to dark green; but clear, fresh water pours from the snout, which shines as if it had been polished, and so indeed it has, for hundreds of poor people and children seize it in their hands as they place their mouths close to the mouth of the animal, to drink. It is quite a picture to see a half-naked boy clasping the well-formed creature by the head, as he presses his rosy lips against its jaws. Every one who visits Florence can very quickly find the place; he has only to ask the first beggar he meets for the Metal Pig, and he will be told where it is.
When I read this to Jemimah and her Daddy, they will hear a fairy tale. I, on the other hand am transported instantly back to this magical city. I am 23 years old, and I am in love. I am standing in front of Il Porcellino in the Mercato Nuovo. Smiling into the eyes of the beautiful man by my side (who alas is not now my husband), I drop a coin into the grating at the boar's feet and laughingly rub his snout thus ensuring my return to Florence. It hasn't happened yet, but one day I will return to this exquisite city and rub il Porcellino's snout once more. This time it will be my wonderful husband by my side, and forever after the memory will be perfect.

That's what I will remember when I read The Metal Pig. I will tell my family that I too have rubbed the metal pig's nose, but they won't really take much notice. The story is a fairy tale.

Alas it is impossible to transport our children around to world to teach them geography. If we could then we wouldn't need to teach them at all, they would teach themselves. Jemimah has images of the Middle East and of Europe. She knows what it is like to climb in the Himalayas and what they eat in Thailand, Yemen, Bhutan, Scotland, France and Japan. She knows the Capital cities of these countries and their climates. She has seen their art and their architecture. She knows something of their peoples - their religion, traditions and languages. She knows that Bhutan is mountainous, Bangkok is humid and Wales is wet. Some of her memories will fade - she is young - but family stories will probably keep many of them alive. I suspect that she will always be reasonable at blue Geography.

It would be nice if Jemimah could learn all of her geography in this way. Sadly that isn't likely to happen. And so, like everyone else, we use books to learn about our world. Paddle to the Sea showed us the Great Lakes, Grace and her family took us around Australia in Are We There Yet? and Marco Polo will take us through Asia. Perhaps Jemimah will remember what she learns from these books; maybe she won't. I only know that she won't remember as much about the countries that she learns about in the pages of books as she knows about those she's seen with her own two eyes.

One of the things I love about Melbourne is the mix of cultures that inhabit this wonderfully multiculturally cosmopolitan city. Melbourne is the third largest Greek city in the world, Greece included. Only Athens and one other are bigger. In the area where we have our Melbourne home you will find Vietnamese, Greeks, Italians, Turkish, Lebanese and Chinese, all living together in harmony (apparently!) In our local market you will hear all these languages. You can buy Turkish gözleme kiymali from ladies dressed in bright headscarves signifying their moderate Muslim religion. You can purchase Vietnamese pork rolls full of coriander, fish sauce and hot chilli from women who speak barely a word of English but carry on a continual stream of Vietnamese assuming that if they speak loudly enough you will eventually understand them. You can eat delicious Sri Lankan Kukul Mas curry served with milky kiribath with a side dish of fiery hot lunumiris and then purchase the ingredients to make your own at the Sri Lankan grocer next door.

Today Jemimah and I made our way to Phở Dzũng in Richmond. We ate big bowls of delicious Phở bò tái garnished with Thai basil,coriander, onion, lemon, bean shoots and chilli, dipping the meat into little bowls of tuong (hoisin sauce) with our chopsticks. We sat in a restaurant where ours were the only white faces and not even the menu was English. The language, religion, sights and smells were Vietnamese. When you eat in a restaurant like this, you are transported instantly to Vietnam. You are no longer in Australia, you are in Asia. This is geography come to life without leaving home.

As Jemimah and I ate we found time to discuss the spirit house in the corner of the room. We looked at the offerings left for a god who cannot eat. We discussed the Romanised Vietnamese script, Quốc Ngữ,brought to Vietnam by Jesuit missionaries in the 1600s, listening to the people around us speaking. After Jemimah described them as singing the words we talked about tonal languages, and I taught her some of the few Vietnamese words I remember: Thank you - Cám ơn; Hi - chào; Cheers! - Chúc sức khoẻ! We practiced them on the waitress and received a charming giggle in return. We absorbed the atmosphere around us as we sat there enjoying our time together. Jemimah doesn't need to go to Vietnam to learn about Vietnam. Jemimah was in Vietnam in Richmond this afternoon.

After our visit to Il Porcellino in the Mercato Nuovo, on that day many many years ago, my friend and I strolled into a nearby gelataria for a gelato. I ordered my favourite flavours - bacio, lampone and cioccolato fondente. To die for. I didn't need to pull out my trusty phrase book during the transaction either. Despite having never intentionally learned a word of Italian, I could communicate easily in this little shop. After all, my favourite gelataria in Lygon Street in Carlton communicates solely in Italian anyhow. I could have been back at home.

PS The wonderful photos of Phở Dzũng and its food are not mine. They're from the delicious looking KYspeaks.com. Yum. Our soup looked just like his though!


  1. lol Parts of Sydney are like that. Brisbane is not quite so cosmopolitian but it is certainly the way to learn geography. My girls can't believe I can use chopsticks faster than a fork & neither of them have mastered the sticks though Ditz badly wanted to. If we ever get to Singapore [hopefully July] it will save me hours of frustration trying to convince Ditz there really is a Northern hemisphere [no, dear, I haven't made it up] & people really do speak languages other than English. Not that I think she actually believes this but she likes to see how wild she can make me & one little trip would change all that.☺

  2. Jemimah started using choppies at two, greatly impressing her mother, as well as two elderly Chinese matrons sitting opposite her in the restaurant. She taught herself after playing with them as a baby.

  3. Hi Jeanne...this has been a very delightful post to read! You have really transported your readers to where you and Jemimah were, and I feel like I have had just a little taste of what you did.


  4. Lol Sarah! I thought I'd find you in Florence not Vietnam - knowing your predelection for all things Italian!

  5. Simply beautiful post!

    I am so thankful that we can visit wonderful places through our books. I was going to travel the world. I did cross it, but then I stayed put! Well, I have been to Hong Kong and Singapore, but that's it.

    I can see that you are determined to make me go to Melbourne. I love your descriptions of your wonderful corner of the world!

  6. Am I the only one to think this was actually a cruel form of torture in the thin guise of a blog post?!? Those photos were too much and -- to make matters worse -- the Vietnamese restaurant in town is currently closed for renovation.

    I am now well enough to comment having just returned from a trip to China via the buffet down the street.

  7. Richele, you didn't get Bali Belly after your virtual trip to China, did you? That's just too cruel! (Authentic though.) At least you avoided the jetlag bit.

  8. Can I just say that I love how you are and the way you write and that I wish you were my neighbor so that you constantly could enlighten our days with your beautiful cultured self?

    This sounds like a perfect day!

    Amy in Peru

  9. It's a secret from the family at present - so I have to answer here - they read my blog and facebook as it turns out - we're going to SA. :)
    It must remain a secret a while longer - no facebooking hints.. :)

  10. Don't forget us when you get to Vic!

  11. I have always thought that experience is the best way to learn. This post just confirms it.

  12. Homeschool at a Harvard level. Well done "Mum"....the food look soooooooooo good. Nothing like that here! Probably have to co to Cleveland or Chicago.....

  13. I loved this post! Learning geography is so much more than boring workbooks. Amen!

  14. Your geography posts are actually amongst my favorite ever in all of blog-land publishing.

    The pictures were painful only because I knew our lunch plans consisted of provolone on onion-bagels with a side of carrot sticks. A bit uninspired but serving the purpose for a day running errands in the car.

    The buffet was wonderful as they had my favorite - Tom rang muoi - salt and pepper shrimp. No Bali belly :)

    We'll have to compare Venice stories one day (though mine was what we call "rotic" - romantic without the man)!

    Max and Luca have experienced Italy in Amsterdam and NYC.

  15. Hopewell, I always think I 'go to America' when I read your posts - especially your menu planning posts. Your food souns sooooo delicious and yet so different from ours.

    Richele, Provolone on onion-bagels sounds pretty unusually interesting to me too! Nice boiled bagels are really hard to procure around here! 'Rotic' - chuckle! I have experienced rotic Paris!

    Amy, thank you! That is such a nice comment! I read it aloud to my beloved. His reply "Little does she know"!!! What does he know that you don't I wonder? It was a perfect day though.

  16. Hi Jeanne,
    It was wonderful to meet you and Jemimah in real life and experience Lygon St with your inside knowledge. That gelato was just amazing!
    You are an incredibly intelligent and capable person! and Jemimah was just delightful. Rebekah is still talking about her:)
    BTW, Rebekah is now slowly venturing into other cusines, in fact on our way back home we ate at a Thai place in Albury and now she likes some of the Thai food...so, we've been talking of taking her to a vietnamese place in Sydney that probably Ganeida alluded to before.
    I can't think of a better way to teach geography other than actually visiting those places!
    BTW, hope we were not too quiet for you - I did warn you some time ago I think:)

  17. Ha! Ask Ron if he thinks he was quiet! I totally loved re-living my Uni days with someone who was there the same time I was. I loved meeting you both!

    Thanks for your nice words. I look forward to catching up again next year. glad you liked my gelati store!

    PS The word verification is taciturn! What a co-incidence!

  18. it's making me hungry now!

  19. Yum! And how much more fun learning this way! :)

  20. More fattening though, Jamie :)

  21. What a beautiful post. Geography is certainly best learned with a suitcase stowed away somewhere (boat, plane, train, or bus), but books and maps will have to suffice for the areas we can't physically see.
    Australia is on our wishlist of places to see. Maybe one day...


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