Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


This is what is written above our heads as we get out of the airport’s no-man’s-land. We’re the only ones in line for a taxi, and, this being a civilized country, for the five of us it means a van. There are cameras on top of it and on the doors is written that we will be photographed. Hmm, curious...The driver is quiet, but from time to time he shows us the surveillance cameras installed in different corners of the intersections. He explains that they don’t necessarily improve the quality of the traffic, but certainly help with paying fines for breaking the rules. Later, I will find them on the street, the bus (at least three, one for each section), the subway...I really don’t like all that surveillance, it makes me think of one of the science fiction books...
Our apartment is in an old building with cockroaches and windy windows, but it’s quiet (if you ignore the heavy steps from the upstairs neighbor or the phone calls from the side one). We’re here because we’re five minutes away from the famous Bondi Beach. 

Though it is fall (let’s say October for us), it is warm and there are plenty of people in the water, some with surf-boards, some with body-boards and others just swimming.

It is interesting to watch them: they walk on the fine sand, take out their jandals (flip-flops), find a spot, drop everything in a pile, and walk with no worries into the water. Upon returning, they either pick everything up and leave or they just stretch a towel and sit on it.  You’re supposed to swim between the flags, where there is a lifeguard with a surf board, not to play ball games or eat, but all these rules are broken.

The beach is a social place—you meet up with people, the regulars, your friends, someone from work, anybody.  It is a place where you can do your jogging, your calisthenics and, especially for men, show off your muscles. Men of all ages are so buff, they can’t walk with their hands close to their bodies! The social thing spills nearby, where you can find so many opportunities to gather: a coffee shop, a bar, a small restaurant in which the tables are half inside and half outside, so you can keep your dog next to you, and still eat. 

They seem to do this all day long (okay, not in the early morning) and night time too.

 They all dress up, with well-fitting clothes (I have yet to see pants belted under the hips), girls in short dresses and boots, and drink. By 11 pm they are in different stages of inebriety. Some will resist until 4 am, when they will pack their guitar, take some steps, find a new friend and discuss how to beat the trembling road.

I read in the Lonely Planet guide that in 2005 a group of intoxicated whites started a fight with some Middle Eastern people, that exploded in the days to follow in violently expressed racism and destroyed property. That explains why there are signs that forbid consuming alcohol in all public spaces. Suddenly all those surveillance cameras make sense. It seems that the people applied the ostrich stratagem, hiding their heads so they don’t have to confront the problem of racism. In the aftermath, they know they have a problem and they are addressing it. The lifeguards started offering lessons to the minority groups and they even had a girl in a Burkina (a swimsuit that covers all the parts required by the Islamic religious rules).
But even if I didn’t read, I would have realized the situation. Walking the downtown streets I had mixed feelings of childhood memories and that something is missing. I grew up in a country where everybody was like me. I was 15 when I met for the first time in my life a person with black skin. He was a foreign student at the Medical and Pharmaceutical University in Bucharest. The people in downtown Sydney where all white. Dressed up in suits, white collar, blue collar, but all white. I was wondering how come there are no Asians, no Indians, no Africans, only whites... But they’re there, I saw them in the subways and busses. They just don’t work dressed up in suits or downtown.

Our first visit was to the Opera House. The name suggests one thing, but it is much more than that. It is an art center. We took a guided tour and learned about it. The design was rejected in the beginning, because the drawing looked like squiggly lines. When it won, they didn’t know how to build it. Utzon, the architect, came with the solution, to cast the “shells” of the roof as sections of a sphere. 

They are supported by precast concrete ribs, visible in the halls area. 

There is an elevator without roof, so you can admire the beautiful concrete. The interiors are decorated for their purpose, with panels of wood that would enhance the sound.

 In the concert hall there are metal rods and crystal saucers above the orchestra that are lowered during a performance to reflect the sound. The Playhouse has the scene surrounded by chairs, you can view the performance around, if the director envisions it like this. 

None of the stages have a big backstage, because the whole scenery is taken with the elevator, pushed on rollers and in the basement. They have one of the biggest organs in the world (depending on which criteria) with 10,000 tubes, that required more than two years to be tuned up (they have one or two shows a year for it). 

And the view... Sydney Harbor and the Bridge, and the business district. 

It is just as beautiful on the outside too, with matte white and cream tiles on the roof shells, pink granite on the walls, glass and metal in the windows.

 We will come back to see That Scottish Play, “Macbeth”, and to admire once again the building in the lime light.

Another visit was to the Australian Museum, where they had a show with Aboriginal culture. They shared with us songs on didjeridus, songs in one of the native languages, and danced like birds. It was very interesting, and the children present there were eager to join the dance. 

Then we went to visit the Aboriginal section. It had a little sign stating that inside there are photographs and names of deceased people that some Aboriginal and Thorres Strait people could find disturbing (they don’t talk about people who died). The exhibition had a little of everything, presenting the native people who have different names, but just the Aboriginal ones caught. Knowing that we are going to Uluru, where we will learn about it in a different way, I kind of sailed through it. 

Aboriginal art with Rainbow Snake

I stopped to read about being separated from their families, growing in missions camps, having no rights, no land, no nothing, but expected to learn and behave the white way, and be thankful. The Rabbit Fence is a good movie portraying the situation. As usual, the white man, in his false superiority, failed. Around 1970s, pressed by the social movements for the rights of the “traditional owners”, they changed their politics from assimilation to self-determination. From the moment an Aboriginal group submitted the paper to have their lands returned, in some cases almost 30 years passed before having it approved, holding the paper in their hands, and the enforcement of that decision.  Also the efforts of reconciling the two parts, the involving of the Aboriginal communities in the rehabilitation of the youth who are troubled and don’t know how to behave in any of those two worlds: the white one and the traditional one. In 2008 the prime minister apologized for the wrong doing.

In the museum, there were other sections: skeletons of every living and extinct creature, insects, rocks (now they can trace the origin of the precious stones: they take an itsy-bitsy amount, burn it, illuminate it with a special light and that’s how they know if it comes from Africa or some other part of the world; this is good to really put a stop on blood diamonds). They even had rocks that reacted to UV light.

 At the top floor they had an open space with computers, stuffed animals that you could touch (my first platypus), puzzles, books, trays with forest dirt to look for insect eggs (they had a paper showing you what to look for; after sorting them they put them in an insectarium, where they will hatch and grow between leaves and sticks). 
As usual, we left at closing time, but this was the first museum that left us tired, all of us.
The Aquarium was a work in progress. They are currently expanding some spaces, but the tanks were small and crowded, not an easy flow of visitors and the platypus was not swimming, it wasn’t even in the tank. But we saw wonderful sea dragons and big sharks swam above our heads.

The visit that we enjoyed most was to the Apple Store. We had a portable device to have internet access from anywhere in Australia, but it took forever. To upload the blog posts... ugh! But in the store, with their wifi... bliss.

Botanical Gardens and a sculpture of the Dreaming
We arrived in Sydney at the beginning of April. On April 15th we celebrated the Orthodox Christian Easter.
Before I explain what it means to be an Orthodox Christian I have to make a very short and oversimplified history summary. Jesus came bringing the message of love. The apostles spread out His words, wrote them down, discussed them. In that time the Roman Empire was strong and continued to expand, conquering new territories and plundering anything that could be transformed in gold or entertain the crowds. At some point it was so extended that it took too long for messages to reach Rome or the territories, and combined with some political reasons, they had four people to run it. The rulers started fighting each other. Death claimed some of them, but their children continued. And in 312 you have two generals fighting for the crown, Constantine and Maxentius. Christianity started as an unknown religion and spread like fire among the people that made the Roman Empire. Now  the Romans were tolerant of other’s religion but they noticed that the Christians were different: they were willing to die for their belief and not bring offerings to the Roman Gods. It started creating problems and setting bad examples, the rulers were unable to suppress it, no matter how many they were killing. It is said that Constantine had a vision or a dream in which an angel told him “In hoc signo vinceres,” “In this sign you will conquer” and so he had the sign of the cross on every shield. He won. Christianity became recognized as a religion. Constantine chose to distance himself from Rome and the people who wanted to overthrow him and ruled from Byzantium, a strategic city in present-day Turkey, and renamed it Constantinople (now Istanbul). He started building churches and gathered the priests to talk about religion. The Church grew strong in Byzantium, the Eastern part of the Empire. Rome continued to be important, as the seat of Peter the Apostle. Some hundreds of years pass by, the Western territories are changing shape and fight, the Eastern part transformed itself in the Byzantine Empire, but the two parts of the Church are still talking about religion and dogma, and can’t agree on small things. In 1054, after almost two hundred years of different opinions, the two heads of the Church, the East one and the West one, excommunicate reciprocally and that’s when you find for the first time the Catholic Church, centered at Rome, and the Orthodox Church, seated in Constantinople. They both revere the Mother of God, Mary, and pray to saints to intervene for us, but they also have their differences (Catholics believe that Mary had an Immaculate conception, Orthodox believe she was of normal birth, and in the Creed Catholics say that the Holy Spirit originates from the Father and the Son, but Orthodox say only from the Father). As history will have it, they influenced the countries that were close to them. For the Orthodox it was Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, Belarus, Cyprus, Georgia, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia and Ukraine. The Catholic church influenced France, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and through them and other empires two more continents, the North and South Americas.
Christmas is a widely known celebration. You can find Christmas trees in houses that are not Christian. Reasons vary from commercial to belonging. Not so for Easter. Though you will find merchandise, it doesn’t have the same echo as Christmas. 
Pascha is always celebrated on a Sunday, after the Spring Equinox. Always the first is the Jewish Passover, then is the Catholic Easter and then Orthodox Pascha. Sometimes, as in 2000, you have them all in the same Sunday, but how they calculate, based on what calendar, though I have read about it, I am not able to reproduce it.
The Church guidelines to prepare oneself for Pascha are clear: 42 days (six weeks) of lent, no dairy, no meat, no alcohol (you are allowed a little wine on week-end and feast days) restrain your eyes from worldly images, your ears from bad words, your mouth from idle talk, train your hands to work for others and your mind to pray. Some will follow these the first week, some for a few days, some will not follow at all, and some will follow every iota. After these comes the Holy Week, with daily evening services, and sometimes during the day. 
An Orthodox Church is built differently from the Catholic one, you can’t go around the altar or behind it. The altar is at the east end, separated from the rest with a wall covered in icons (images of Jesus, His Mother, the apostles, the saints, the last supper and so on) with three doors, the middle one opening only during the service.
On the Holy Thursday, twelve gospels are read, all describing the moments before and after the Crucifixion. The Holy Cross is taken out of the altar and brought in the middle of the church, while the bell rings mournfully. People revere it, cross themselves and kiss His feet or His wounded ribs. 
The majority of people come on the Holy Friday and bring flowers to put on His tomb. Then, with a lighted candle in their hands, sing the Lament, a beautiful chant in three parts with four melodies. When it is done, the priest takes upon his shoulders the Holy Air, a cloth on which is painted or embroidered the entombment of Christ, and circles the church while everybody follows him, sheltering their candles and chanting a very sad canticle. Then everybody reenters the church revering the holy objects and after a short conclusion of the service, we leave for home with flowers.
But for me the most beautiful part is the night of the Pascha. It has a little bit to do with the celebration, with dressing up and being free to eat again anything. We gather before midnight, bringing baskets with food that we prepared for these three feast days: red-dyed eggs, cheese, special dishes made with lamb, cakes that we only make for Pascha. The church, though full to the brim, is quiet. The lights are turned off, there is darkness everywhere... a flickering light and the priest comes out of the altar through the holy doors, carrying a white candle: “Come and receive the light!” 

Like a human wave, everybody comes closer, stretching their hands to light their candles, joy on their faces and in their eyes. They turn around and share their light with others and by the time the priest makes his way outside the church, the light is already there. 

The service will continue outside, a sea of lighted candles and faces, all quiet, waiting. The priest prays, the choir gives the answers and then... “Christ is Risen!” and as a thunder we all answer “Indeed He is Risen!” This is what we were all waiting for, what we knew, but wanted the confirmation. We will return inside the building and continue the service in the wee hours of the morning, then after the blessing of the baskets (remember them?) we gather in the social room and share what we brought. 

On the table you can see the baskets

The hard-boiled dyed eggs... Mihai will hold one in his hand with the pointed end free and facing downwards and I will hold it in the same fashion, but facing upwards. He will say, “Christ is Risen!”, I will answer “Indeed He is Risen!” and then he knocks my egg. The one that has the broken egg gives it to the one who broke it (and he has to eat it).

Pascha for us this year was different because we were on the road. There was no cleaning to do, no cooking, but we could go to the services. We had the fortune to be with the “St. Mary” community, that welcomed and adopted us in its midst. When we left the church that Sunday night, besides the traditional food, we were laden with joyous feelings.

Thank you for all that you have given us!

1 comment:

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