La Delizia: My Story (sort of)

Every year, around Christmas, I make panforte. In a bowl I stir together flour; cocoa powder; toasted almonds, walnuts, and macadamias; nutmeg; cinnamon; ginger; chilli powder; and pepper. Then in one pan I melt chocolate, whilst in another I make syrup from sugar and honey. When both pots begin to bubble, I scrape them into the bowl and then it’s a race against time to mix it all together before the liquids turn back into solids. As the biscuit cake bakes in the oven and the smell of spices and roasted nuts and chocolate fill the kitchen, I think of Nonna. Not my Nonna, but: Nonna.

Nonna was my next door neighbour’s Nonna when I was growing up. Nonna – perpetually aproned – spoke always in rapid Italian (no doubt hoping her grand-daughter would pick it up better than her mother had) and moved in a cloud of faint flour dust that rose and fell with every gesticulation of her hands.

She also made the most magnificent food you have ever tasted. Her second-eldest grandson would go on to open a trendy cafe in the inner-city in her honour. In all of his press releases he would tell the story of how his Nonna taught him to cook. Reading about his hard-earned success from the other side of the world, I couldn’t resist a smug smile and the whispered thought; ‘yeah, same though.’ (And by the way, my pastas are also the stuff of legend).

I have no doubt that my memory of Nonna is romanticised. She was not my family, and she was also not a regular character in my childhood – it was rare that I would be at my neighbour’s house playing when Nonna was over; generally that was reserved for family time. In my more self-critical moments, I am fearful that I have simply amalgamated her from a series of Italian women who began making an appearance in Australian popular culture in the early- to mid-90s: Josie’s Nonna in Looking for Alibrandi probably would have made a heavy-handed appearance in my source material. But, at the same time, I also have no doubt that my memory of Nonna is genuine.

Nonna may not have been a regular character in my up-bringing, but she was nevertheless an incredibly important one. That smug, self-satisfied grin on the other side of the world was based in a deeply-personal truth: Nonna taught me to cook.

I come from a long line of women who couldn’t make a decent dish to save their life (and talent, ingenuity, and sheer dumb luck has meant they’ve never really had to either). My Yiayia was never the cook of her household. That honour went to her husband who – born in KL when it was still a British colony – would spend hours of a Sunday slow-cooking curries and kneading rotis. When it became necessary for Yiayia to cook, such delights were immediately replaced with over-boiled carrots (a dish that will still set me gagging at its mere thought) and hammer-and-chisel-tough strips of meat. For my mother – who lived through both the throwing off of the shackles of ‘women’s work’ that was the 70s feminist revolution and, less productively, the era of the ‘microwave dinner party’ – cooking was a much-dreaded chore frequently accompanied by ominous crashes and severe language warnings.

But in Nonna’s kitchen the crafting of a meal became an art form in which the simplest and easiest to manage processes churned out at the other end some brand new delight. She showed us how to prepare the vegetables; slicing them to different thicknesses to show us how surface area impacts cooking time, taste, and texture. She taught us how to balance simplicity with subtlety; never over-doing the number of ingredients, but always adding something extra – spice or salt or crunch – that could not be immediately discerned from looking at the plate. She taught us how to plan our order of battle; how to make sure that everything – from stews to pasta to salad – would be ready at the same time. She taught us how to balance the delights of flavour with the importance of being full, and watching her and her family delight in the eating of the food they had all prepared together, I realised that there is no ‘bad’ food.

Nonna taught me to cook, because she taught me to eat.

It wasn’t clear-sailing, and it still took me a long time to be confident in my cooking instincts; to not see food as a chore; and to realise that panforte is not ‘junk’ food: that it is love and family and sharing coated in honey and chocolate and nuts.

And so this year – as every other year – I will go to the spice shop around the corner and find the freshest ingredients I can. And then I will mix and melt and re-make them into my favourite Italian Christmas food. And then, once the cake has cooled and its exterior hardened, I will take a knife and run it through its middle. Then I will cut it in half again. And then I will find the middle points between those two cuts and I will slice two more times until I have my 8 slices of panforte. And then I will wrap them in cloth and ribbon and love, and I will distribute them to my friends and family. And together we will eat and live in joy.

A Rude Awakening: My Story

I have never been good with numbers. Maths; yes, but numbers as entities do not stick in my head. They float away before I can grasp them, and become muddled. When I used to work at the restaurant, closing the till on a late Saturday night required extra concentration, lest I fall into my old poor counting habits: 20, 40, 60, 80, 100 ; 20, 40, 60 80, 200 ; 20, 40, 60, 80, 300 ; … ; 20, 40, 60, 80, 700 ; 20, 40, 60, 80, 200 ; 20, 40, wait no… (2s and 8s have always felt the same to me).

I hate when people read phone numbers to me, always skipping too fast over the sequence, not pausing long enough for me to grasp what the number is and then re-formulate it; translate it from thought-image to written figure. I can do high-level mathematics, and working out budgets and savings or debt interest has never been an issue, but I avoid thinking of life in terms of numbers because it just gets too confusing.

And so – whilst I can tell the time – I find myself struggling with larger time-bound markers which are expressed in numerical form. I struggle with years, ages, and even months (did something happen in March or May ; June or July? The numbers are basically the same and their names too are similar).

And that’s basically how I lost my early twenties.

It started with the year of 21sts. Mine was at the beginning of the year; front-loading the celebrations and acting as a warm-up for the festivities to come. The rest of the year was a haze of work-days and uni assignments punctuated by weekends suffused with top-shelf booze, bizarre costumes, and nostalgic music. In what felt like the same year (but was really the following), I completed my final year of undergraduate and decided to move to Melbourne – a city which was strange to me, and in which I had no one: I shall be anonymous for at least a year, I thought. To justify what I thought would be my incredibly brief séjour to this ephemeral city I enrolled in an Honours degree, since it’s easier to meet people at a university (or so I believed at the time). For the first time in my life, I found that I had to buckle down and study hard and what with my studies and the distractions of a new town and new friends, that 9 months just flew by.

At the end of the Honours degree, I decided to take a brief break which somehow turned into 5 months back-packing in South America and a 3-month road trip through the USA and Niagra Falls/Montreal (it seems weird to say ‘Canada’ when I only went to two places).

Although I had sworn-off the academic life after the raging stress of Honours, this time travelling gave me enough space from it that I decided that undertaking a year-long Masters degree in Comparative Literature was just what the doctor ordered (spoiler alert: the same thing happened post-Masters, but I still ended up doing a PhD – can’t wait to see what I decide to do next…).

So in between the Americas and the Masters, I returned to what-is-now-home (Melbourne) where I met my partner’s extended family for the first time. They are truly wonderful people, and from the start we hit it off, finding shared interests in literature, philosophy, and a general approach to life. As the conversation turned towards the more personal, my partner’s cousin asked me:

‘How old are you?’

‘I’m 21.’ I told her, without needing to think about it.

There was an awkward pause as my partner turned to stare at me.

‘Kali,’ my partner said, with a look of genuine concern and confusion, ‘You’re 25.’

 

Horror Show – My Story

Growing up in Perth, one of my favourite times of year was when the Royal Show came to town. Traditionally a time for farmers to meet and sell their wares and animals, the Show has since evolved into a week-long carnival where city-folk can pat farm animals, watch a wood-chopping competition, sample fresh ice-cream, ride roller-coasters, and take home as many Showbags as they can carry.

My favourite part of the Show was always Sideshow Alley – a 2km stretch of screaming lights and flashing sounds; a cacophonous wonder of bustling bodies, terrifying rides, and rigged carnival games. Every year there was a new ride to discover. It was here that I tried my first roller-coaster, here that I learned ghost trains aren’t scary, here that I fell in love with the simplistic terror of the chair swing and chair drop. And it was here, in Sideshow Alley at the Perth Royal Show, that I learned that “Dodgem Cars” is a very misleading name for a game where one must actually hit things.

I had never heard of Dodgem Cars before, but there it suddenly was in sparkling red letters in front of me – a new addition to the Alley’s collection. On a level platform below the dazzling sign, chunky black cars stood ready to ride. It was new, and it looked fun, so, pocket money in-hand, I walked over to the ticket window.

Being a rather well-read but still quite literal child, I believed that I had grasped the object of the game from the name itself. Dodgem Cars: obviously one was meant to drive the car around the platform without bumping into anything. Clearly the difficulty – and the fun – of the game lay in the fact that the car was so big, this would be a near impossible feat to achieve.

So I jumped into my very own Dodgem and, smug in my inferred understanding, released my competitive spirit: I would be the very best Dodger there. An alarm sounded and the cars whirred to life. We were off!

I did a few laps of the platform, sharply twisting the wheel on a few occasions when I came too close to another vehicle.

And then, all of a sudden, something rammed into the back of my Dodgem and threw me against the rubber-enforced perimeter. It was amazing to me that another driver could have been so lax in their driving that they hit me that hard. Somewhat startled, I turned behind me to see a Dodgem driven by a basket-ball capped teenage boy. I gesticulated my confusion at him: ‘How did you not see me there?’ I demanded. He smirked to himself and then drove off.

Unperturbed, I continued my exquisite dodging, wondering if there was a prize for the driver who hit the least number of obstacles – most of the other drivers seemed to be having difficulty with their steering wheels.

But then it happened again! I was hit by two cars – one from either side! It was that same boy again, but this time he had a friend with him and they had come at me from opposite sides. Obviously they had been watching each other rather than where they were going.

Then they reversed and rammed into me again!

‘Hello!’ I yelled at them, confused why they had not noticed me.

One of them manoeuvred his Dodgem in front of mine, and between them they pushed my Dodgem – bumping all the way – into the wall at the other end of the platform. I tried explaining to them that they weren’t meant to be hitting the car, but they couldn’t hear me over their cackling.

Suddenly, the ride was stopped and two of the operators walked onto the platform to remove the two boys. I shrugged at them sympathetically – sad for them that they hadn’t understood the game and had thus been disqualified. The ride started again, and off I drove in my obstacle-less circles.

At the end of the ride I walked triumphantly down the stairs to where mum stood.

‘Those boys were horrible.’ She said to me, ‘You did well to not let their bullying get to you.’

I looked at her in confusion, then looked back to where a new round of Dodgem Cars had begun behind me. Everyone was bashing into each other.

And then I realised.

The object of the game was to hit as many people as you could! The boys had been ejected not because they misunderstood the rules, but because they had ganged up together to bully me. The humiliation was too much to bare. I spent the rest of the day moping trough Sideshow Alley, tears streaming down my face.

An Eye For An Eye – My Uncle’s Story

Across my uncle’s three-decade career as an academic, he has supervised many a graduate student. Some of these students he has kept in touch with after they have graduated and gone on to do other things. Sometimes these students are international students, and when he finds himself in their home city for work, he will look them up.

And so it was that my uncle, whilst on a work trip to Singapore, found himself invited to a formal dinner with an ex-student and his family. Dinner was a banquet – an endless succession of intricate delicacies and local favourites. Then, as the meal reached its climax, the main event was brought to the table – a whole fish.

In Singaporean culture, it is apparently tradition to show respect to the guest of honour by allowing them to eat the juiciest, most delicious, most delicate part of the fish: its eyes. (Perhaps it’s also just a fun way to mess with friends who are new to the city.)

POP! went the eyes as they were scooped out of their sockets and placed on my uncle’s plate.

And so my uncle – who will devour cow tongue with a relish bordering on grotesque and yet who is surprisingly squeamish about other body parts – found himself staring at his plate whilst the rest of the table sat smiling encouragingly at him.

I think he might have just swallowed them whole.

Better Than Chocolates

Just a short post from me today.

Last year my uncle headed over to San Francisco for work and opted to stay in a small B&B-style place at the Grant St entrance to Chinatown. His email to me from his trip reads:

“Each night when I came back, there was an arrangement of a towel on the bed. Attached are photos. Have to say it was quite wonderful and in all my years of travelling I have never seen anything like it.”

Enjoy the photos below. (My favourite is the elephant.)

An Australian Diner in Paris

The title of, and setting for this blog post may seem odd given last week’s post was on San Sebastián. Since last week’s post was inspired by preparations for my own birthday, this week’s was inspired by another’s. Enjoy!

***

While my mother’s approach to travel was an open-ended one-way trip to London, my uncle’s was to remain based in Perth – where he was gainfully employed as an academic – and take short trips to new destinations each year. Being the 1970s, their primary means of communication was letter writing.

One day, after she had been away from home for a number of years, my mother received a letter from my uncle informing her that he was planning a trip to Europe and – since she had been absent for a number of consecutive birthdays and Christmases, and since he had unfortunately missed a few travel opportunities – he would be using his bourgeoning savings to treat her to a rather extravagant gift: a culinary tour of three of the finest Michelin-star restaurants Paris had to offer. Although it’s entirely likely that my uncle’s altruism was in fact motivated by a desire to not dine alone, my mother – who had hitherto flitted between jobs as a bar tender, cleaner, and shop assistant, and who often found herself pinching pennies to pay for coffee – found it within her to magnanimously accept the gift on the generous face-value terms in which it was offered.

My mother, along with some of her friends, organised a trip to Paris that coincided with the dates my uncle had given her. They travelled in the (still-trusty) combi-van and spent their nights in campsites and youth hostels, running to the ablutions block with their bathroom bags at first light to avoid the morning crush. They spent their days wandering the city, sharing small morsels of flakey pastry between the group. My uncle stayed in guesthouses and spent his days riding the metro between all the amazing sites that Paris has to offer.

At dinner time, my mother’s friends would drop her at the restaurant specified, making sure to park the combi van around the corner so that her exit was not noticed by the other diners. My mother had dressed in the best clothes she possessed – not an easy task for a professional traveller. It being a rather cold autumn, she was also forced to don her much-used, second-hand-when-she-bought-it, generally-left-at-the-bottom-of-the bag coat which had seen the worst of European winter. Bought for durability and comfort rather than style, it definitely drew attention.

At the first restaurant, my mother and uncle caught a glimpse of what was to follow at the next two. Whilst my uncle – in shirt, paints, and casual jacket (most likely his every-day work outfit) – had been greeted warmly, upon my mother’s entrance the Maître d’ gave a start:

“Are you lost, Madame?”

My mother explained she had a booking and gave the name. It wasn’t until my uncle – catching sight of her across the restaurant – gave a wave of recognition that they relented.

“Shall I take your…” he paused and my mother tried not to laugh, “…coat, Madame?”

He used a serviette.

Whilst my mother enjoyed the finest cuisine the city had to offer, her friends remained around the corner, huddled in the van with their simple cheese and baguette dinners, sharing jokes and carafe wine.

My mother would always try to sneak something of the meal back for them. At one restaurant the cheque was brought out with a bowl filled to the brim with house-made chocolates. One could, naturally, take as many as one wished, but given the surroundings and the considerable meal which had preceded them, it was understood that ‘as many as one wished’ would not be all that many.

When the waiter returned for my uncle to sign, he found the bowl bare save for the two empty chocolate wrappers from the pieces my mother and uncle had tasted. They had been divine. The rest were in my mother’s handbag. The waiter – though naturally, respectably, silent – was clearly not impressed. My mother’s friends – squealing with delight upon her triumphant return to the van – clearly were.

Mikri or: How My Mother Learned to Like Cats

I have previously posted stories linked to past posts by place and by culture. Today, I want to link by cats. Last week I posted about Kotor – a must-see city for any cat lover. So from that post comes the following family story: the story of Mikri.

My mother never really liked cats. She would never have said that she hated them, but – being a dog person – she would turn her nose up at even the idea or mention of a feline. It was, sadly, a bone of contention between her and her friend, London flatmate, and often travel companion Sally whose love of cats extended to the intake of strays.

My mother spent most of her time abroad in London and Tolon – a tiny town on the coast of Greece – where, until she was sufficiently able to speak the language, she worked as a cleaner. After many of her own travels, Sally landed in Greece and, as mum was able to get her a job and offer her a spare room to stay in, she decided to stay for a while.

One day, my mother came home from work to find Sally looking – in her own words – ‘suspicious as fuck.’

“What did you do?” my mother demanded to know.

“It followed me home” was Sally’s rather ambiguous reply.

The ‘it’, as it transpired, was a tiny white kitten – near dead – that Sally had found meowing in a wet sack by the water, the other members of its litter – not as strong as the little fighter – lying dead around it.

My mother pointed out that the suggestion the tiny thing – only a few days old and near-drowned – had the strength to ‘follow’ Sally home was probably not quite truthful but, being a cat-disliker rather than an animal torturer, she allowed Sally to keep it and nurse it. She was pretty sure that without its mother and given its ordeal it would be dead by the end of the week. Clearly, she underestimated both the cat and Sally.

Although Mikri – as his naming foretold – was forever small, he became the fastest, and cheekiest, cat in town. Being the only cat within his known world to have a home to return to, his favourite activity was to head out of a morning, wind all the vicious disease-ridden strays up to peak bloodlust and then dash home – with them in fast pursuit – only to pop through the tiny make-shift cat flap in the window of the front door and leave them howling blue murder outside.

He and my mother had an uneasy relationship. Cats seem to have a knack for knowing who in a room wants them to keep their distance, and using that to decide exactly whom they want to sit right next to. He would spend his evenings fighting with mum to sit on her lap and though she invariably relented, she remained resentful.

One day, when only my mother was at home, Mikri came running through the streets with a group of strays in hot pursuit. Mum could hear them from about three blocks away. They got closer, the yowling cries became louder, and she heard Mikri make his jump to his aperture. But then there was a weird sound, followed by a new kind of scream. Mum realised that, in his latest growth spurt, Mikri had become too big for his hole. He had rebounded off the door and was now stuck out there with the big bad tabbies. And that scream was him taking his first hit.

Without really thinking about what she was doing, mum grabbed a broom and ran out to Mikri’s rescue. This is not as simple as it sounds. Tolon’s stray cats – at least those around in the 1970s – aren’t all that fussed by humans. Most humans give them a wide berth; most humans are kind of scared of them. So the tomcats stood their ground and hissed as mum brandished the broomstick at them. It must have been quite the sight – apparently a few neighbours stopped to watch. When the cats became emboldened enough to take a swipe at mum, she got fed up and gave each of them enough of a whack with the broom to show she meant business. Non-plussed by the turn of events, the toms decided to cut their losses and head off. Mikri and mum were left on the stoop observing each other. From then on, Mikri did not stir up the neighbourhood watch, and mum sometimes let him lie on her lap in the evenings. An uneasy truce had been met.

After a few years, mum and Sally found the time had come for them to leave Greece; mum for Australia, Sally for a few more years in Britain. They were worried about leaving Mikri – a domesticated cat in a city without pets or pet owners. Before they left, a friend came to visit with his mother. She was older, a widower whose children had all left home. Whilst they were all standing in the kitchen, Mikri – who had spent the day outside – climbed up to the window and banged on it, then walked around to the front door to be let in. The friend’s mother was astounded that a cat could be so clever. She was charmed. Mikri had a new home.

A few years later, my mother and Sally returned to Tolon. Curious, they asked after the cat. The old woman dissolved into sobs. They were strongly advised to ask no more questions.

Mikri had lived a charmed life, but even cats only get nine.

Walking the Great Wall: My Uncle’s Story

Until now the family stories I have shared have been set in the same cities I have posted about. Today I wanted to do something slightly different, and offer a story echo based on region. Apart from myself, no one in my family has traveled extensively in Asia, meaning that I have no family tales to share about Taiwan. My uncle has, however, been to China – a country I have yet to visit.

*

When China opened its borders to the west in the early 1980s, my uncle packed his bags and headed over. Now a somewhat older and more experienced traveler, he delighted in the oddity he presented to the locals as a foreigner. The locals pointed, some took photos, some attempted to talk to him, some were obviously shy and gave him a wide berth and sideways glance.

His delight with China once again expressed itself in his relationship to local food practices. His interest in the tastes of the cuisine and the magnificently grand cooking techniques led to an examination question he posed to his engineering students in Perth the following year:

How would one could remove the entire skeleton from a dead duck, leaving both the carcass and the skeleton still in tact? 

An ancient technique, the record of the procedure can only be found in one English translation of an obscure medieval Chinese cookery pamphlet. His students called the question unfair. My uncle argued that research was an important skill for an engineer.

My uncle always looks happy when he speaks of his time in China and even potentially unpleasant experiences are told with a smile and a laugh.

At the end of his trek along a section of the Great Wall, my uncle spied a fruit stand. Being both hungry and thirsty he headed over. There were many fruits on offer, but my uncle’s eye was drawn to the big juicy oranges at the back of the stall. He had no Mandarin, the seller had no English, and so my uncle pointed at them and then held up his finger to indicate that he wanted only one. The seller seemed shocked and checked several times – by both holding up the orange and pointing at it – that this was the fruit my uncle wanted. My uncle, somewhat confused, nodded his head vigorously and assured the man that, yes, that was the fruit he would like. The seller nodded his understanding and then began to gift-wrap the orange in paper and sugar.

My uncle, now even more confused, figured that he was simply ignorant of local cultural practice and did not question the situation. The man handed over the orange and pointed to the note my uncle was to give him. My uncle handed it over with a smile, bowed his thank you and left. It was not until the next day when he converted the sum that he realised he had paid around $50 for the orange.

It had been incredibly juicy and delicious though.

Once Upon A Time In Munich: My Mother’s Story

As a 1970s traveller, my mother spent most of her time in campsites around Europe, and a combi van was her and her friends’ preferred mode of transport. This sounds like it would have been all very fun in spring and summer, but it seems they also attempted it in winter.

After a week in snow-covered Munich, the seven of them packed up their tents and rucksacks, cleaned up the travel stove, and hopped in the van to head to their next destination.

The engine revved, but it wouldn’t turn over. There was much discussion about what should be done: It needs to be warmed up! – No that won’t help, you just have to keep revving it. – What are you talking about? That will destroy the engine! Maybe leave it running for a bit. – Would some hot water help?

The stubborn van, aware that their traveling was almost at an end and that its passengers were en route back to their jobs and adopted lives in London, had simply given up. Obdurately, it sat on the edge of the campsite, goading kicks and profanities from the group.

Without another option, they were forced to push the van to town. Six of them pitched in to push while one lucky member got to be steerer. I’d always imagined the six of them pushing the van until it got a good roll going before gallantly sprinting to be level with the door and then vaulting into the safety of the steel interior. When I saw Little Miss Sunshine for the first time I pointed excitedly and asked my mother if that was what she had had to do in Munich. She looked at me like I was a bit dense; apparently combi vans are heavy and if the engine doesn’t tick over even with a running start it means you just push it the whole 2k to town. At a rate of about 0.5kph.

They made it to town, no doubt glowing with exertion and a sense of achievement, only to find that the repair was going to take a few days and the rest of their money. They begged a heater-less room for a trifle above a coffee shop and spent the next couple of days sharing a morning pastry and coffee between the seven of them in an attempt to both nourish and warm themselves. They didn’t really drink the coffee, they just held the mug for its warmth, passing it on to the next in the circle only when social convention deemed they were perhaps being greedy.

After an eternity of cold and hunger and sleepless nights, the van was ready to go. Or, at least, it was as ready as it was ever going to be. The mechanics were able to patch, but not fix, the problem meaning that the van was now only able to run at a top speed of about 50kph. Given that their route home included an Autobahn, this was worrying.

Over the next few days of driving, they got a crash-course in German expletives as enraged drivers sped past their sluggish combi. Puttering down the speed limit-free highway at a piddling 45kph, they didn’t make any friends and most likely almost caused a few accidents.

Almost at their destination – or at least the exit route which would enable them to get away from the Autobahn – they encountered road works and only a single open lane. With no choice but to continue on, they crossed their fingers and hoped for the best. But luck wasn’t on their side.

About 1k from where they could see the end of the road works they heard an ominous bellow, full and rich like a boat’s klaxon. In their rear-view mirror they saw a truck traveling at immense speed, and with less breaking space than would be needed to avoid catastrophe. I don’t know who was driving, but I do know they put pedal to floor – an act which only pushed the odometer up to about 47kph. The opened-up highway was getting closer, but so was the impending road train, and there wasn’t really anything they could do but hope. The truck’s horn blew again and again – like the clap of thunder heralding the approaching storm it got louder and louder with each pull.

The combi was straining, the driver’s leg aching, and every single muscle of every single passenger was clenched to the limit. The truck filled the rear-view mirror, and then the whole of the back window – they could see nothing else. And then, at the very last second, the roadblock barriers fell away and the driver ducked into the lane on the right. The truck, thankfully, kept to its linear path, its klaxon shouting back at them until it disappeared into the horizon forever.

Santiago to Machu Picchu – My Uncle’s Story

When my uncle landed in Santiago, Chile in 1973 he was filled with the optimism of a young man on his first international adventure. Twenty years old, over-packed and under-supervised, he stepped off the plane with his whole life on his shoulders and breathed in the excitement he was sure this sparklingly exotic city would bring.

My uncle reveled in his new-found freedom. The academic success and favourite child of his family back in Perth, it must have been liberating for him to not have to worry about keeping up appearances – or grades. For the first time he could be himself and do as he pleased. He drank-in the city and its inhabitants. He stayed out late and got up early, only pausing to sleep in the late afternoon heat. He attempted local delicacies and cooking techniques, an attempt that was to spark a life-long love affair with cooking and, in particular, cooking meat, making it an eventual disappointment to him that his only niece chose to be a vegetarian. He tasted his first glass of Carmenère, an act which sparked another life-long love affair with wine and luckily bridged the gap of his niece’s culinary choices.

Santiago was good to my uncle. It welcomed him as both a comparatively rich westerner and as a shy young man attempting to construct an identity for himself away from his high grades and adoring mother. The old men who invited him to drink a late-morning coffee, the local girls who flirted with him – a first, no doubt for this bookworm – and the other backpackers who happily included him and invited him to the pub with no expectation for him to drink, and no judgment when he chose not to. I imagine my uncle at twenty, excited to have friends and to have attracted the interest of women for the first time. It fills me with a desperately sad sense of joy.

My uncle – still training to be the engineering academic with a penchant for deliciously difficult examination questions he would one day become – had a profound love of both trains and ancient architecture, meaning South America intrigued him from a very young age, and should have held him close. Although a situation of political unrest prevented him from visiting the magnificent train graveyard in Bolivia, he found himself in the now-enviable position of being able to trek to Machu Picchu on his own; sans both guide and complaining tour group.

His delight to see this mystical city in the clouds prompted him to leave Santiago rather early and to fly and then bus to Cusco, Peru from where he would begin his three day trek across lush valleys punctured with ruins.

My uncle is by no means a foolish person, but I do imagine him at that age to be slightly naïve and I imagine his excitement to soon see the ancient city would cloud his judgment, making him an obvious target for thieves. He ambled through the streets of Cusco looking for the same joy he found in Santiago, not realising that Cusco – more magnet for tourists and schemesters than Peruvian city – was not the happy, fun-loving place he had come to expect from the continent after experiencing only one of its nations. Standing in the city square he noticed the magnificent bank building. Built in the Spanish style, it still stands today; jutting out onto the pavement, allowing year-round shelter to the city’s homeless contingent. As he raised his camera to eye level a young local boy came running past and grabbed it from out his hands, dragging my uncle by the neck until the leather strap broke. My uncle called out, but the boy kept running, the onlookers seeming to not care to help. My uncle ran after the boy, yelling at him and the passersby, both angry and pleading, desperate to retrieve his memories of his time in Santiago. The boy continued running down a side street: my uncle made to follow him and then stopped. He took in his surroundings. He realised he was no longer in a well-populated part of town and the people in the alleyway stared at him with hostility. It was too dangerous to follow now.

With his photographs and memories of Santiago now lost to him forever, my uncle had no choice but to admit defeat, to turn away and return to his hotel room filled with both a crushing despair at having lost that which it had taken him so long to gain and a crushing sense of guilt that the loss had somehow been his fault.

My uncle has never returned to South America and today he remains hostile in his memories of the place. Having managed to find another camera – one which I’ve no doubt he paid through the nose for – he was still able to capture his trip to Machu Picchu. But his loss of the positive memories from the start of his trip meant that he somehow began to measure his vacation from the theft of the camera, rather than from the landing in Santiago. At the slightest mention of South America he recites to me the story of the theft, and clamps up when I try to push for more information of the continent beyond its capacity for crime. His overwhelming memories of the place now seem to be rooted in the violence he both experienced and saw, and the overwhelming levels of poverty and inequality which he witnessed.

As I look through his photo album, I am struck by how melancholy his pictures appear – a characteristic which has nothing to do with their monochromic nature.

‘This is an alpaca roaming the farming land a day’s walk from Machu Picchu,’ he tells me. I stare at that alpaca, solitary and cold on a misty mountain, tied to a stake in the earth, staring off into the horizon, and it makes me want to cry.