My Year Abroad

Excerpt

The Muslim call to prayer is “one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset”. ~ Barack Obama

The wet heat of Bali evaporated into a dry mirage of Dubai: My maiden voyage to the United Arab Emirates and the Middle East. The limousine driver stood expectantly holding my name. I smiled in recognition: “Welcome to Dubai, Dianne.” He took my bag and we walked to the exit, hit by a wall of heat that roused me from my fatigue. Blessedly the car was in close proximity and I slid into its cool, leather embrace.

The landscape revealed herself as we wound through a man-made enclave to the Old City. The flaxen earth glistened in the heat like gold. Miles of concrete and glass stretched skywards; a ceaseless, proud testament to commerce and opulence. Men floated on flushed paths, white linen trailing like apparitions, save for black beards and sunglasses. Date palms watched in fertile, verdant silence, mocking the sun.

The driver pulled into the hotel reception as I slid across the seat to open the door. Simultaneously, a strikingly tall man, his keffiyeh framing kohl eyes, smiled broadly as he opened the door: “Welcome Miss Monnier.” His ivory robe shifted effortlessly around his frame which seemed carved out of onyx. “Thank you,” I said returning his Cheshire grin, trying not to stare in open appreciation.

Glass doors opened onto a marble portico framed by wood panelled walls. Brass lanterns rested against a jali — an ornamental, pierced stone screen of Arabic geometric patterns reminiscent of The Alhambra — under the luminesce of cylindrical stalactites that hung like an oblique waterfall.

The portico revealed a reception and lounge area, dotted with high-backed taupe lounge chairs, promising respite around low, hexagonal tables. A side table hosted culinary pleasures, taunting under glass cloches: orange stuffed dates, pistachio baklava, basbousa semolina cake. Rose and saffron; honey and cardamon infused the air and senses. A crystal tumbler of iced mint tea arrived, my morning ablution as I sunk into the sofa.

The porter gestured at my suitcase and we ascended the elevator to my room. I walked to the window and opened the curtains, revealing the Burj Khalifa — a steel monolith that dwarfed all in its reflection — impossible to contain in a single glance. The bed resembled a billowy cloud, enticing me into her velvet embrace. Travel and heat conspired as I surrendered to cotton, feathers and the sweet, smoky aroma of apple tobacco.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The sun’s decline roused me from dreamless sleep. The heat lost its fervour so I grabbed my sarong and bikini. The pool was located a level above the main courtyard, providing a bird’s eye view of proceedings below. A pool boy greeted me with an alabaster smile and matching towels. I arranged the towels on the deck bed and gingerly tip-toed to the water’s edge. My limbs descended into tepid water as the city embraced dusk.

The call to prayer rose from mosques across the city, a harmonious endearment that vibrated through me. It felt strangely familiar. And maybe, on some unconscious, cellular level it is. Genetic testing revealed my matrilineal line originated from the Arabian Peninsula. I swam to the side of the pool, resting my head on stacked hands, silently absorbing the invocation.

Sated by the swim, I sunk into the daybed. The hint of a breeze, teased and tantalised until a grin formed on my lips. Salt and chlorine dried in patches like disparate snowflakes, revealing their unique identities. The courtyard below began to buzz with people, music and tobacco. The sticky scent of molasses-infused shisha spiralled upwards towards the pool. Hunger finally prodded my exit.

Later, I descended in a long, black dress and crimson scarf. Candles danced across tables and plants that revelled in their fecundity. I wove my way around chairs and hookah pipes until I found a small table in a discreet corner of the courtyard. From here, I could observe my fellow diners with inconspicuous delight.

Arabic found no cognisance as I listened to its guttural gait — reminiscent of my parents’ native Dutch — save for two words I shall never forget: Keefik(hello) and meeheh (good). Following my parent’s divorce, my brother and I had before and after-school care with a Lebanese family: the Dahdahs. I remember the particular way of correctly pronouncing their name. And my joy when they praised my linguistic aptitude. 


It was 1977. Civil war had brought many Lebanese refugees to Australia. Even at the age of eleven, I sensed and witnessed discrimination and marginalisation. And it raised my ire, as it still does today. I loved everything about this family. They left an indelible impression as I clearly recall my short time with them.

One particularly fond memory was arriving one morning before school. Large, round, flatbread was sliced in half and used as a wrap. I sat in the kitchen and watched Mrs Dahdah whisk eggs in oil, arrange bread, and lower a bowl of tabbouleh on the table. She sliced the bread, filled it with scrambled eggs and herbs; wrapped it up like a pancake and presented it to me.

I slowly picked it up with my hands — unsure of how to eat this new dish — and she smiled reassuringly. It was a wonderful culinary experience, so far removed from cereal with milk; toast and honey. I savoured every morsel. I ate tabbouleh with relish — much to her delight as her own children were less enthusiastic.

Meanwhile, Mr Dahdah was on the porch, brewing coffee in a brass rakweh. This wasn’t simply a case of putting on the kettle. There was care, ritual. And now, as I reflect upon my time with them, ritual permeated their lives on myriad levels. Their familial bonds and loving respect for each other touched something deep, especially at a time when I felt so alone and unsettled. The rhythm and routine soothed me.

Mr Dahdah emerged with a porcelain cup: “Enjoy,” he smiled. The smell was intoxicating. I cradled the tiny cup with something bordering on inquisitive reverence; observing the colour and crema. I carefully brought the cup to my lips and tasted coffee for the first time in my young life. That experience is perfectly described by an old Turkish proverb:

Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love.

Photo by Marco Secchi on Unsplash

The combination of bitter and sweet was one I would measure all future brews against — for the most part, unfavourably. I was now an eleven-year-old who screwed up her face at International Roast.

I learnt so much from the Dahdah family. Language and love; resilience and respect. Perhaps as a first generation Australian, with parents who had an accent — who looked and sounded different — I was naturally empathetic.

But for all our familial dysfunction we shared fundamental values: The importance of education; treating others as you want to be treated; and that everyone — irrespective of gender, sex, colour or creed — deserves a life of peace and prosperity. We’re all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.

Or, as in my case, a daughter of Lilith.

The White Mouse

Behold Nancy Wake, aka The White Mouse. My girl crush and a fucking boss of a woman.

“A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I’d pass their (German) posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me?’ God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was.”

Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Nancy was a foreign correspondent in France, documenting the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

Whilst on assignment in Vienna, she witnessed the barbarity of Gestapo officers whipping Jews tied to a large wheel. This was a seminal moment for her.

“I stood there and thought, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do about it, but if I can do anything one day, I’ll do it,’ And I always had that picture in my mind, all through the war.”

Top of the Gestapo’s ‘Most Wanted’ list – who codenamed her ‘The White Mouse’ owing to her evasive talents – she joined the French Resistance and did everything in her power to foil the Nazi machine.

For me, she’s a reminder that failure to acknowledge the past will hasten our demise to repeat it.

As writers, creatives and artists, we document the times in which we live. We have a responsibility to call out bigotry, hatred and discrimination wherever we see it … in our communities and the larger world.

We’ve never been more ‘connected’ via technology and yet, in many ways, we’ve never been more disconnected from our thoughts, feelings and values.

I hope that if forced to face a similar reality, I’d be as brave, brazen and unapologetic as Nancy.

.   .   .

Ironically, I’m now researching and documenting my families’ experiences as part of the Dutch Resistance during the Second World War. I look forward to sharing my stories. 

The Creative Dilemma

“2 am’s were made for poets. Lovers/writers. Visionaries. Photographers. Painters. Over-thinkers. Silent seekers. These are my favourite hours.” ~ Unknown

I love the wee hours of the morning, but I have a predilection for the evening. Dusk. Twilight. I’m an unapologetic night owl. That’s when I come alive, find my stride, unfurl. Words pour out of me. The foggy morning struggle lifts and the landscape is one of peace and clarity. I’m not distracted by mundane requests or daily obligations. I close the door to my sanctuary and invoke the Muse.

A sweet spiral of frankincense ascends from my humidifier. The hum of traffic slows as the ocean surges behind me. I hear the sea, as a child holds a conch. I open the sliding door, invite the saline breeze — the smell, the sound … It comforts me.

I look up from my mummified position on the lounge, notebook balanced on lap, and survey the domestic chaos: a Feng Shui purgatory. Dishes in the sink, an unmade bed, stray tissues, plastic takeaway containers clumsily stacked — my leaning tower of Pisa.

Normally, I’d attend to the task of tidying my environment before writing. Clear the space, establish order: a harmonious room in which to create. 

But not now. Not tonight.

In the past, I stacked the dishwasher, hung clothes, vacuumed tired carpet, wiped sticky fingerprints from glass tables … and then. Wrote. Nothing.

I was too tired.

Writing always came last.

I told myself I couldn’t write in a place that a resembled a bomb site. So my pristine environment remained devoid of words, syntax, verse. I promised myself I’d write in the morning … A morning that never came.

This evening, I drew a symbolic red cross through my mental To Do list. I made a commitment to write. And only write. My tidy sphere is an interesting metaphor: A symbol of procrastination and the uncomfortable truth that my creativity has always come last.

I can trace such origins to well-meaning platitudes: “It’s a hobby — not a serious career, you’ll never make any money, get a real job, there are too many other talented writers, you’re too young, old, inexperienced” … fill in the blank.

The rhetoric echoes through waves of time.

This is beautifully captured by Clarissa Pinkola Estés:

“I’ve seen women insist on cleaning everything in the house before they could sit down to write … and you know it’s a funny thing about housecleaning … it never comes to an end. Perfect way to stop a woman. A woman must be careful to not allow over-responsibility (or over-respectability) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She simply must put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she ‘should’ be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.”

On some level, I’ve absorbed these sentiments. Writing — or any creative endeavour — has sauntered across the finish line, collecting the wooden spoon. I’ve not made it a priority: “I’ll write when I’ve moved, renovated, lost ten pounds, travelled, finished my course, blah, fucking blah”. Now I see it. Or perhaps now I choose to see it: My complicity, fear, excuses.

Responsibility knocks on the door, inviting me to examine beliefs and behaviours – to scrutinise my ‘ability to respond’. There is innate freedom in knowing that, in any given moment, we have the power to choose how to respond: to a person, situation or circumstance.

The alchemy of transmuting passivity into agency.

Mon fils

A thousand paper cuts
Soft letters slice:
Hold my breath
Stealth sneak
Peak
Rips
Old scab

I crumple.

Cannot protect
Dissect
The past.

Guilt with your gin?

Chin wet from
Tears
Smear
away loss
End of 
Night
In sight
Hand in hand.

Long moist
Fingers of
Fear.

Breathe!

Seize this gift.
Shift your
Thoughts –
Ramshackle beasts.
Taste redemption.

Four more sleeps.

I know your
Spectre.
Played his
Dirge.
Made him
Tea in ’89.

London was cold.

You’re here.
I’m here.
Steady your
Vessel.
Trust your
Compass.
Make for
Land.

Our feet in sand.

Toes wriggle.
Joy of earth,
Solid.
Stolid.
Comforting.

No words necessary.

I’ll cook carbs
Pour wine and
Open windows
For peanut butter
Vape juice
To escape.

You’re home.





Venice #2

The next afternoon I got happily lost in the maze of meandering, cobblestoned streets. Each lane twisted and turned, revealing new delights. The heat shone off salty pavements and children dripped with gelato, unable to keep pace with the summer melt. I watched couples in gondolas and lamented my solo status. It seemed de rigueur to ride a gondola in Venice albeit expensive.

Photo by Josh Edgoose on Unsplash

Fortunately, a lady at the pensione told me I could ride a gondola across a canal for five euros, just as Venetians have done for years. So that’s exactly what I did. I walked down to an impressive market on the edge of a canal. It was a feast for the senses: Fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, olives, seafood and crusty bread.

And then I spotted a couple of old gondolas, going to and fro across the small stretch, ferrying residents with shopping bags and returning them home on the other side. I went across and back, like a child on a fairground ride, and ticked that off the bucket list.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I continued my walk, having sampled various delicacies, and stepped into a quaint Venetian mask shop. The hanging doorbell announced my failed attempt to enter quietly. The owner and I chatted for a while as I tried on various masks. He talked about the connection between one’s character and choice of mask. ‘The Tao of Venetian Masks,’ I mused.

He wrapped my mask and announced, “Let’s have a drink next door.”

“What about your shop?” I replied.

He flipped the ‘Aperto’ sign to ‘Chiuso’ and held the door smiling. We enjoyed a lazy Friday afternoon of conversation, Chianti and antipasti. English and Italian coalesced into hand gestures, laughter and bonhomie.

“When you’re back in Venice, come and stay,” he said, passing a business card to me.

I still have the mask. And whenever I look at it — the mute gaze from the wall — I’m transported to a time and place that will forever hold fond memories.

Venice

Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go. ~ Truman Capote

I arrived in Venice on a balmy afternoon by private water taxi. Visions of Othello, James Bond and gondolas had long since captured my imagination. The boat pulled up in the oblique shadow of Saint Mark’s Basilica.

Two stout men that smelled of the sea helped me and my bag off the boat. One man pointed an outstretched arm in the direction of my pensione, and I thanked him. “Preggo,” he gruffly nodded. The crowd lurched in the thick air as I navigated cobblestones, shiny from aeons of salt, sun and pedestrian traffic.

My bag reluctantly moved, a soft jack-hammer as I dragged it along the uneven surface. Within two minutes, I found my pensione neatly tucked down a side street that muted the low rabble.

I was shown to my room of soft furnishings and high ceilings. The bag fell on parquet floors as I launched myself on the bed, landing with an equally soft thud. There were museums and churches and galleries to explore.

But first on my list was pasta!

I found a charming osteria close to the pensione, humming with Venetian families. I entered and was greeted with warm animation: “Uno?” asked a lithe, middle-aged man. His slowly receding, raven hair gave him a hallowed appearance. “Si. Uno, per favore,” I smiled, thus sharing the full extent of my Italian vocabulary and praying the conversation would end forthwith.

Image: Pinterest

The wonderful thing about language is that so much is non-verbal: body language, tone of voice, eye contact. He found me a cosy table with some privacy yet close enough to others to avoid feeling isolated. “Acqua!” he announced, a statement not a question. I nodded in agreement. He handed me the menu as I fished my spectacles out of my bag.

Tagliatelle Con Ragu D’agnello Alle Erbe,” I said proudly. The waiter seemed genuinely pleased with my order. And I was genuinely pleased when he laid that divine dish of carbs, meat and herbs on my table. I can still recall the aromas and instant drool of my salivary glands.

It was delicious. Simple. Satisfying. Peppery olive oil soaked bread had the pleasing effect of catching in my throat. A glass of Sangiovese washed down the meal. I could taste the earth. Despite the waiter’s best efforts, I couldn’t stomach dessert. I promised to return for tiramisu and coffee.

“OK,” he acquiesced, as a glass of limoncello was ceremoniously placed on my table, thus sealing the deal.