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In addition to gearing up for our annual pilgrimage to the Stewart House in Nova Scotia, I’ve been attending to my wife’s birthday celebration.  She was happy enough to delay the actual purchase of a present until she found something that pleased her, but there was the card, the cake and fill in present to be found.  In deference to her feelings, I won’t mention which life marker just passed, but it was one she hadn’t expected quite so soon.

And we had a cat crisis to deal with.  I have written only once about our cat in this blog, and that was when we sent her on a very convoluted route from Florida to Melbourne, and then into the dreaded place called quarantine.  Unlike the tom next door, Tibbey is a very quiet, well-mannered Maine Coon cat.  Her principal focus seems to be grooming herself, something she takes very, very seriously.  She is an attractive cat and wants to stay that way.

Somehow she managed to slice open her pad.  We didn’t notice it until Saturday night, which meant that we had to take her to an emergency clinic.  Since then, we’ve been shuttling her back and forth to our regular vet on what seems to be a continuous basis.  Despite sporting an “Elizabethan” collar, (which looks much better on Cate Blanchett),  she has no difficulty shedding bandages that wrap all the way up her leg.  And then there are the pills.

Needless to say, I needed a diversion.  What could be better than Buddha’s day?  It is celebrated over the weekend of February 16 and 17 at Federation Square in the centre of Melbourne.  It marks the birthday of Prince Siddartha Gautama, who was to become Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.

Soon after his birth, nine heavenly dragons appeared and emitted two streams, one cool and one warm, and the purest fragrant rain fell to bathe the newborn Prince.  He immediately took seven steps and seven lotus flowers sprang from his feet.  Flowers drifted down from the heavens.  Not bad for a new baby.  He was born into a very wealthy family and not allowed to venture from the palace.  One day as a young man he ventured out and witnessed distressing sights that changed his life forever– people plagued by old age, disease, poverty and death.  Siddartha dedicated the rest of his life to finding a way to be free of earthly troubles, to put an end to suffering.

In Melbourne there are a number of nationalities with large Buddhist populations– Chinese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Japanese and Indonesian.  The event is sponsored by the Buddha’s Light International Association and Fo Guang Shan Melbourne, one of the largest Buddhist monasteries in the world.  In Australia, Buddhism is the fastest growing religion, the second largest religious group in every state.

There were a good number of activities and events spread out over the two days, from flower arranging to Tai Chi,  meditation to demonstrations of  vegetarian cooking.  There was an interfaith prayer for world peace, a baby blessing ceremony and the ritual bathing the Buddha.  According to Buddhists,  it is simple to wash away physical dirt, but much more difficult to cleanse one’s inner dirt of greed, anger and ignorance.

Buddhism is the only religion that has appealed to me since I cast off  my Christian upbringing.  It seems to encourage the practice of peace, not simply the preaching of it.  Have a joyful attitude and keep an open mind;  have courage and compassion for all things.

Our cat’s philosophy has a certain appeal as well.  Wash your paws, keep a clean coat and the rest will take care of itself.   With any luck, your keepers are reasonably intelligent, well-intentioned, and trainable.   Cheers.


The government of Victoria is going through a hand-wringing exercise about the devastation of the bush fires, particularly Black Saturday.  Thirty-four people died in the town of Marysville following the delivery of a report (prepared for Victoria’s Emergency Services Commissioner) declaring that everyone in the town was safe.

That the intensity of the bush fires took everyone by surprise is not at issue; the real questions are about the wisdom of the “stay or flee ” policy that is currently in favor and the CFA (Country Fire Authority) warnings that seem to have been seriously negligent in giving  residents at risk  timely warnings of the dangerous inferno.

A national review of disaster preparedness done three years ago found the states’ ability to warn its citizens inadequate to the task.  Most people here simply call 000 in the case of emergencies.  When the lines get overloaded, the calls get farmed out to centers that do not necessarily have adequate information to assess a risky situation for the caller.  In the case of the bush fires, neither the telephone or the internet was up to the task of saving citizens.

Even though the adjacent town of Narbethong was under ember attack hours before the blaze approached Marysville, there was no idication of that on the CFA website.  A map indicating that Marysville was in the path of an inferno was faxed to a nearby incident control center just one hour before the town was engulfed in flames.  The nearby town of Srathewen was not even mentioned in the warning. Twenty-seven people died there on February 7, the infamous day now known as “Black Saturday.”

Kinglake fire devastation - Reuters/ Mike Tsikas

Kinglake fire devastation - Reuters/ Mike Tsikas

Ironically, a team of American fire fighters from California has been here recently studying the Australian example. They seem to have concluded that the spirit of volunteerism which makes the Australian policy of ‘fight or flee’ an option  is missing in the U.S.  The policy in California is based on a more authoritarian approach:  get people out whether they like it or not; worry about houses and property later.

I lived in L.A. for seven years, through bush fires, earthquakes and mudslides.  In terms of fatalities, nothing came close to the horror of Black Saturday.  I am not suggesting that my native land does these things better than Australia.  The response to the hurricanes in New Orleans gives the lie to that.  But in this particular case, reliance on peoples’ instincts for survival, mateship, rugged individualism and the myth of the brave Australian battler may have been carried just a little too far.  Fire doesn’t respect rugged individualism or mateship.

In terms of warnings, the most troubling example of late may have been the one that was blatantly ignored right before the devastating earthquake in Italy just a month ago.  The seismologist, Giampaolo Giuliani, drove through the town of L’Aquila in a van with a loudspeaker warning the public about an impending earthquake in March. He was accused of inciting panic and threatened with charges of public mischief.

The city government shut him down and Italy’s Major Risks Committee met in the town on March 31, playing down his disaster prediction, saying it was impossible to predict earthquakes with any accuracy.  The quake hit at 3:32 AM, six kilometers northeast of L’Aquila.  Over 200 people died.  Seismologists from around the world have dismissed the prediction as a fluke, insisting that such detailed predictions are impossible with current data.

But the fact is, he did offer fair warning to the good people of the town and he was roundly rebuked for his efforts.  Did anybody say I’m sorry?


You could be forgiven for thinking we don’t actually eat here.  With the exception of breakfast cereal, I have written virtually nothing about restaurants or local foods, such as kangaroo or Tiddley Oggies.  It is a serious omission.  We don’t dine out often, but we do eat, and I shop for groceries two or three times a week.

If you could rate people on some sort of sliding scale with carnivores at the top of the scale and vegans at the bottom, Australian males would be at the top or even over the top.  Since their post-aboriginal culinary heritage began in England, it is not surprising that part of the meat eaters’ consumption is associated with the bakery business– meat pies and sausage rolls. It is said that these date back to Egyptian times.

In Melbourne, there are two family names solidly linked to the bakery business– Ferguson and Plarre.  “Percy” Ferguson was born here in 1880; Otto Plare was born in Germany in 1882.  From the time Otto sailed for Melbourne and set up shop on Puckle Street in Moonee Ponds, these two men were rivals. Both men enlisted their family members in their bakeries; both families lived above their shops and both bakers found their best customers among the immigrant population.  They emphasized quality and good service.

The bakeries thrived when Melbourne boomed and struggled during the Depression.  Otto had traveled and worked in highly cultivated places before emigrating, so he had an advantage when it came to “fancy” cakes and pastries.  Ferguson had perfected very popular pies.  Their sons took an avid interest in baking.  Ray Plarre was actually caned for drawing pastry designs in school.

On a brief visit to Melbourne in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson’s Air Force One was met by Eileen Plarre’s  little green Prefect (car). There was a large crowd of people who had made a corridor to the plane, but instead of the President coming out, Eileen took advantage of the opening to deliver rum truffles, green frogs and other fancies directly to the President.  She had the perfect cover, a police escort right from the Puckle Street bakery.

In 1980, under ever-increasing competition from other bakeries, the two firms merged.  Their meat pies include country chicken, steak and onion, beef and cheese, sweet curry etc.  The company’s pasties got a name change when Ken and Pam Ferguson discovered that the original name for pasties (which has an entirely different connotation in North America), was “oggies.”  Tiddley means proper.  Pasties are stuffed with vegetables instead of meat.

According to Wikepedia, Australian meat pies were generally locally produced locally because of the lack of refrigeration in the early days of pie production.  One brand that began at a local bakery in Bendigo has been branded by its association with Australian Rules football– Four N Twenty.

A floater  is a an inverted meat pie, smothered in a plate of thick green pea soup.  It is typically covered with tomato sauce, often enlivened with mint sauce or malt vinegar. The Chiko roll consists of boned  mutton, celery, cabbage, barley, rice, carrot and spices in a tube of egg, flour and dough, which is then deep-fried.  The wrap was designed to be unusually thick so it will survive handling at football matches.

By this time in this post, you may be positively salivating, your taste buds overwhelmed with the idea of these delicacies.  I cannot claim responsibility for the stampede of gastronomic tourism that is surely about to begin, but if Australia wants to shower me with some of the  dollars they have left over from the “Australia” campaign, I won’t mind.  Not a tiddley bit.

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