Around the World With a Vagabond

Chinese Proverbs and Songs with Strangers March 17, 2011


I realized it was going to be another unpredictable and crazed night in the city when a man boarded the tram wearing no pants.


For the 10 minutes I remained seated, the man with no pants firmly gripped the handle bars piped along the tram’s ceiling.  He had with him a small, seemingly well-kept suitcase, which I could only assume packed no pants.  The man seemed a little agitated, but wasn’t bothering anyone.  He was clean-shaven, odorless (or not offensively unhygienic), so I don’t think he was homeless. Deranged? Possibly.  But he wasn’t very old.  Although he seemed a little too old to have been a user of any kind of drug – at least presently.


It’s possible he was victim of a very unkind prank, it being about 4 in the afternoon of a weekday teeming with commuters.


What the man’s circumstances actually were, I’ll never know. The crowded tram rolled along the rails, leaving me behind on the corner of Chinatown, amidst street chatter and red glowing lights.


Melbourne has been an incredible place to explore. But after nine months, I feel I have only circled the city, with a few sneak-peaks and toe-dips into some of the cafés, gigs, and showcasing promenades that make this city so vibrant.


A few days earlier, Chris and I had been wandering aimlessly down Swanston Street when we came across a few marquis set up for the Food and Wine Festival.  An “edible garden” was on display: baskets of vine-ripened tomatoes, jungles of chili peppers, and even a rustic old car from the 50’s or 60’s, its back seat piled high with gourds of all kinds, and its doors open and spilling leafy pumpkins and squash out onto the pavement in a beautiful display of autumn harvest.


Courtesy of Peter Lim

We sat for a bit, flipping through the guidebook to find out where the wine part of the festival was being held.


As we did, an older Chinese man sat next to us and asked Chris if he wouldn’t mind taking his picture. Chris, always obliging, set about adjusting the lens.  This simple gesture of politeness unleashed a whirlybird of unexpected conversation.


Peter Lim was a 71 year old Chinese man with quite a bit to say. For the next 20 minutes or so, Peter, laughing and eyes all a-twinkle, explained to us his wife’s three loves (her sister, roses, and thirdly, Peter himself). He told us about his life growing up in Malaya and how he had practiced playing violin since he was 5.


As we nodded and listened, Peter interrupted himself to tell Chris how very good looking Chris was, and that he should go to Hollywood and be a movie star.  Peter continued on again, and told us that he raised his children to understand that life is full of disappointments, and that it is very, very important to be positive.


To demonstrate to us just how important being positive is, Peter suddenly burst into song. The Italian opera poured out of his open mouth – Puccini – and Peter sang the verses, briefly, but with gusto, as the emotion rippled across his face with each crescendo. Peter explained that it was the last song Puccini sang on the day Puccini knew he was about to die.  Puccini had been an exceedingly positive person.


Away and away Peter chatted to us there, among the quiet vegetables and clamorous city street, and told us we seemed like very happy people.


He insisted on having a picture with us, and called over to a nearby child to snap the photo for us (“You, boy! Come here boy! Boy!”). The kid was gorgeous, and as Peter handed over his camera, he told the young boy how good looking the kid was, and that he should go to Hollywood and be a movie star.


In the Edible Garden with Peter Lim, courtesy of Peter Lim

Peter was lovely and charismatic, and pleasantly offered to send us his poetry and links to his songs.  I am glad he did, because I am sure my memory would eventually blur and I would forget bits of our conversation.  Meeting Peter reminded me of how alive a person could be, how quirky and funny, and serious all at once, for absolutely no reason, with perfect strangers.


But Peter isn’t the first stranger in Melbourne to burst into song without warning.


One Saturday morning I was weaving in and out of market-goers at Queen Victoria Market, heading towards the food court to meet a friend. As I entered the covered eating area, my ears were greeted with a rising hum.  Over the sea of heads, the hum became more of an “ahhh” – such as the “A” sound of a choir singing “A-men”, only this “ahhh” was being held a very long time.


The food hall was very busy, but nearly everyone was either sitting, or standing still, facing something just above to my left and singing “ahhhhh” and then louder “AHHHHHH”.


What. was. going. on?


The entire lunching crowd were being lead by what looked like “Gandolf” in casual surf wear.  Or perhaps it was Einstein.  Either way, the conductor had the whole long white-shaggy-hair-and-beard look going on and he pulled it off quite well.


His voice was the loudest, and no doubt he was the leader of this spontaneous choir.  He lifted the “ahhhHHHHH”s, and then dropped the “AHHHhhhhhhhhhh”s deeply with his smile, his voice and his gestures, and the people’s voices followed like happy puppies.


Their vocals echoed in unison as rising and dropping “ahhhhs” filled the hall, lifted to the rafters, and floated out onto the market square, where an un-singing crowd was quickly drawing closer.


“What’s this about?” I asked my bemused friend as I sat down at his table. Cameras flashed around us.


“I don’t know. He just started singing,” nodding at Gandolf, “and then everyone else started to sing too.”


I looked around at the smiling, surprised, spontaneous singers at the Saturday morning market, who were “ahhh-ing” still, and glancing grins at each other as they sang.


The lunch hall, usually a din of chatter, had transformed into song. Something about it was soulfully uplifting.  It made my day.


In fact, Gandolf (whose real name also happens to be Peter) has made the days of quite a few people. This clip isn’t quite the same as my experience at Victoria Market, but if you replace the trees with roofed market stalls, and the hand-holding hippies with families carrying bags of produce, then you’ll get the idea. Gandolf is in the rainbow jumper.


Back in Chinatown, the man on the tram without pants had escaped my thoughts. I was now with friends and unpredictably erupting with our own songs. We moved through the evening, the last of the summer nights, dining (gorging) on dumplings and singing (shouting) the lyrics to “Eternal Flame” and karaoke-ing way past our abilities and our bedtime.


Ironically, this same night ended hours later with my friends and I stumbling home, still singing, and parading an extra pair of pants that had inexplicably found its way amongst our bags.


I remember briefly thinking back to earlier that day and the awkwardly undressed man on the tram who certainly needed pants.  He wouldn’t have fit into the tiny women’s pair of Hurley’s now draped over my friend’s shoulders, but it was still a strange coincidence.


Such has life been in Melbourne; people flittering across my path unexpectedly in the most remarkable and memorable ways. Whether singing over dumplings in Chinatown, or being sung to in street-side gardens by  Chinese men, or as an audience for Gandolf leading crowds into chorus, this city has me captivated.


Compensation: A Lesson in Cooking March 5, 2011

Filed under: Compensate: A Lesson in Cooking,Stories For My Brother — christynichols @ 11:33 am
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This is a “How Not To” post in cooking. Usually, when I cook, it’s either because I am trying to please someone else or I am avoiding other tasks.


Some cookbooks or websites offer wanna-be bakers and cooks like me (kinda) possible ways to compensate if one key ingredient from a recipe is missing from the cupboard.  For instance, what to do if a recipe calls for eggs, and there are none in the fridge.


Unfortunately for my food, and those I who I intend to feed, I usually forget to research this when I am short an ingredient, and so I make it up as I go along.  I compensate.


A few years ago, I wanted to reward my brother for changing the oil in my car.  So I made him no-bake cookies, a tasty combination of peanut butter, chocolate, and oats – his favorite!


This should have been fail-safe, as the name of the cookie indicates – no baking is needed: Mix. Set. Serve. Easy.


Except for on this day, I happened to not have as much peanut butter as the recipe called for, so I just doubled up (tripled-up?) up on using regular butter. I compensated.


I remember being in the doorway, my brother walking from the driveway towards the front door, a little greasy and tired, and probably looking forward to a treat.  I was ready with my cookies, very proud to have accomplished another kitchen feat, and that we could come to such a friendly agreement.


Have you ever had a mouthful of butter with oats? Neither had my brother.  He projectile-spat the homemade thank-you cookies all over my mother’s front porch and lawn, while I stood there, the plate of cookies in my hand and dismay on my face.


I don’t know that we’ve ever had the same kind of agreement since.


I still try to cook to please, though.


My roommates have grown gigantasaurus zucchinisaurs in their garden.  So tonight, left all alone, I decided to chop and grate one of the beasts into a yummy, homemade, garden zucchini soup for all of us to enjoy.


Because the zucchini were so large, I tripled the recipe.  Took me a lifetime to grate just one of them.  Then, I added the garlic, and 6 or so cups of stock and waited for the boil.  While I waited, I realized that I had forgotten that with soups, if the recipe is doubled, the amount of stock water isn’t.   Too much water = horrible watery soups.


I looked at the boiling, spattering pot of green.  It was a bubbling swamp – a very watery, bubbling swamp.


I had added far too much water to my grated zucchini.




Instead of boiling for the suggested 7 minutes, I decided that the more it boiled, the thicker the soup would get, so I let the pot boil and plop all over the stove top for 25 minutes while I trawled through Facebook.


What happened after boiling for all that time?   It was still watery. And the flavor seemed to have vaporized.


If I had thick cream, I would have added it to the pot; however, all I had to compensate for the cream was yogurt, and . . . . . I don’t know.  I just didn’t want to do that to my yogurt.


So, scoop by scoop, I added the boiled zucchini to a food processer and spun it into oblivion. I tried to drain the water from the scoops of green as I did so.   I took one of those big spoons that have the holes in them so I could scoop, drain, spin, scoop drain, spin.


This also was taking a lifetime, so I tried to just drain the whole pot into the sink at once so I could get through the scooping and spinning part faster. Instead of using a colander, I used the lid of the pot as I tipped the batch into the sink to drain out the excess water.


It was kind of heavy, but it held . . . . . .it held . . . . . . .. it held . . . . . .and then it slipped.  About half of the remaining batch splashed and spattered down the sink, transforming the sink into steaming green.


I didn’t even care at this point.


A few more scoops and spins of the rest of the boiled garden veg, and  . .tada! I had a hot soupy pot of flavorless green.




To compensate for the flavor that I had boiled out to compensate for the excess stock water I had poured too much of, I then took from the spice rack something labeled “Mixed Herbs”.


I don’t know what herbs are mixed in there, but I added about  . .1/2 cup?  I don’t know. I just opened the cap, and dumped the flavor into my swamp-in-a-pot.


Then, I spooned myself a bowl, and, tada again!!! Zucchini Soup!!!


Tastes just like watery herbs. Dinner?


A before and after picture of my garden zucchini.



The Other Side of the Stars March 1, 2011

Filed under: The Other Side of the Stars,What Happened in Australia — christynichols @ 12:35 pm
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One of my earliest little-kid memories is looking out the window from my strawberry shortcake bed to a night sky full of stars. This was when I lived in Nashville, and a bright and glittery sky was not uncommon.  I knew nothing of the stars then, except for maybe that “Twinkle Twinkle Little” song . .  . .what were the words?


On California nights, I could see Orion beaming through clusters of blinking stars that crowded out the Heavens.  The best was during camping trips, when the desert sky was so alight that it took some time to find Orion hidden amongst them.


When I moved to London, half a world away, I could still find Orion. Whenever I was homesick, I would think about how my family back in California, camping without me, could also see that same constellation, even if their nighttime was different from mine.

Maybe it’s silly; the same could be said of the moon as of the stars, but still. Orion made me feel better.


Moving to Australia, I realized the sky would be a differently lit sky. Down here, the celestial view glimmers with a new cast of stars.  One dark Melbourne night I watched as the hunter and his belt crept over the horizon. It’s a good feeling to have a familiar in a foreign place, but I was surprised and didn’t quite understand how this could be.  I thought I had moved too far away this time.


Then a friend, who is far more knowledgeable about the astronomical lighting than I, pointed out that, yes, Orion is visible in the Southern Hemisphere, only it’s inverted and appears tipped on its side.

All those nights of stargazing, and I hadn’t noticed this difference.


I had never before thought about looking at the stars from the other side of them. This is pretty darn cool, and it makes me feel a little better on those days when I miss my people. They’re out there .  . . . . just on the other side of the stars.