Our family

A summer in Oxford

So fast our summer sabbatical in Oxford is over. Weeks flew by filled with interesting meetings, lazy hours in our little garden, long walks along the canals, the occasional beer in an English pub, and visits by the best friends you could imagine. We celebrated some major milestones, 10 years married and Hayden's 6th birthday. We got to re-indulge in pleasures of our youth, with Oxford surprising us with its familiarity to Australian eyes, while encountering new pleasures of today. Even a trip to the hospital was an occasion to smile with a visit from a volunteer clown. A magical couple of months to be treasured.





Dunkirk and Brussels

I saw Dunkirk today. For a WWII movie, it was surprisingly low-violence, nothing like Saving Private Ryan, the opening scene of which so movingly illustrated the pointless slaughter of war. Yet in another way, the first few seconds of Dunkirk was more disturbing. We are used to WWII movies set on the bombed out ruins of shattered cities, but the Battle of Dunkirk was right at the start of the war. There is something just profoundly disturbing about seeing soliders flee machine guns in a charming European city, no different from the Belgian sea-side towns of today.

My first thought was revulsion, I hope to never see the military occupying my beloved home cities. My second thought, following rapidly, was anger - I do see military vehicles and machine-gun wielding soliders on a daily basis. For the last 18 months, Brussels has been living under military occupation. This cowardly and repressive action does nothing for our safety; it is designed to bolster fear and feed upon that fear for short-term political gain. 18 months in, this seems like the new reality, with the government too gutless to admit it was wrong to respond to a criminal situation with tanks instead of police and social workers. I love Belgium, but I hate, and will always hate, living in an occupied city, where my 6 year old son doesn't blink twice at casually seeing machine guns.


Claymation with Aardman 

As part of the Oxford Festival of the Arts, I took Hayden to a claymation workshop run by one of the clay modellers who works at Aardman. He made the models for Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and many other Aardman productions, and today he taught us!


The international language

Travelling around central Asia, Hayden always had a keen eye out for a playground. Given the nod, he would run in, start climbing around, jump into games with the children. Whether it was playing leap-frog in a fancy mall in Kazakhstan or chasing each other around inside a yurt in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, all children speak an international language. The international language being, of course, Dinosaur. It typically only took a few minutes together before they were all roaring like dinosaurs and taking turns at eating or being eaten. There is probably an object lesson in there, like all kids share a common humanity, or perhaps all kids sharing a common desire to be a massive flesh-eating killing machine. Definitely one of those two.



Alamedin gorge

We hiked up through the gorgeous Alamedin gorge in Kyrgyzstan. The mountains were simply breathtaking and the weather was perfect for a hike. Hayden happily skipped up along the mountain path, following our gentle guide who stopped to move any flowers that had fallen along the path (she loved flowers, and was sad to think of other people standing on them). Near the top it was a struggle, and the view we had been hanging out for (a waterfall) was fairly dissapointing compared to the nice views down below. Fortunately our guide just laughed and told us about a field of wildflowers and marmots just a little further on, which was simply enchanting. Our day was rounded out by skipping tea in a yurt while Hayden made new friends with the local kids. Really one of my most perfect moments.


Korgaldzhyn nature reserve


World Fair 2017



Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. An ultra-modern city of skyscrapers built in the central Asian desert - it brought back memories of Ashgabat in Turkmenistan. But Astana felt more real, full of people, so in a lot of ways it was more like Dubai. It was a city putting on a show, for the World Fair, but it felt like a city that was always putting on a show, and certainly always welcoming to guests. If Astana is a city of the future, that future will be friendly and fun.

Astana means "capital" in Kazakh, which is widely considered to be a placeholder for "Nursultan", named after President Nazarbayev (the first and likely lifetime holder of the Presidency). The President is humbly delaying the namechange until after he dies, but parliament supports the change. President Nazarbayev is widely popular in Astana, providing good support to students and pensioners, and balancing the nationalists and the regionalists adroitly. It makes you wonder why he bothers rigging elections - he would pretty clearly win in a fully democratic vote. I was told this anecdote in Kazakhstan: 

President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan is so good at "winning" elections that during the American election, Trump asked Nazarbayev for help. Nazarbayev checked with Putin, and then gladly sent his top election men to Trump.

After the US election, the team returned to Kazakhstan and the President asked: "How did Trump do?"

"Oh", his election men said, "Trump did great, he came in second"

"What!", Nazarbayev said, "You let the Democrats win?!"

"Oh no, they came third."

"Then who won?"

"You did, Mr President"



Ian Gooding and Moana

One of the highlights of the crusie for us was a lecture series by Ian Gooding, the production designer on Moana/Vaiana*.

He gave a series of five lectures on the making of the movie which made me love an already amazing movie more. There were many technical aspects that are cutting edge - Moana's hair was modelling at the level of single strands, all interacting with each other and the level of moisture to create the natural bounces and movements. But the really impressive part was the attention to getting things right. A six second clip of Moana dancing involved a research team investigating the cloth types, patterns and colours that were available 2000 years ago in the south Pacific, plus cultural teams working on the dance style, the cultural context, the music - everything. A real dedication to getting every last detail right, not just to make the product look good, but to make the product a homage to the people they were depicting. One example that stuck with me was the night sky you see in Moana - it could have just been random dots, and few people would have noticed. But instead they asked an observatory to run a simulation of the night sky 2000 years ago above Samoa - I doubt anyone would ever notice the difference between modern Samoan stars and 2000 years ago Samoan stars, but they wanted to get it right.

I really respect that level of attention to detail, that much passion for your job. Even if we don't pick up all of the details, the love and respect the movie was built with really shines through in the final production. Congratulations to Ian and his team!


* In Europe the movie name was changed to Vaiana due to "trademark restrictions" (probably actually about potential confusion with a famous porn star). 


Alternative Copenhagen

We had an interesting day exploring the other side of Copenhagen. While most of the city is stylish Danish design, Christiania is an anarchist haven that declared independence from Denmark in 1971. The ~850 citizens of Christiania are a mix of hippies, druggies and anarchists (or a mixture of each), and the occupation of prime real-estate in the centre of Copenhagen causes controversy. Overall though, it is an interesting community to walk through, serves as a haven for those with no place in society and is surely a major improvement over the homelessness and social isolation that this population is forced into in other cities. I'm sure that Christiania actually saves the government a lot of money through crime reduction and social benefits.

A wishing tree installed by Yoko Ono. Most of the wishes were for world peace or such, but this guy just wanted a really big yacht.

A fantastic twist on street food, with an old warehouse converted to house food trucks.