Finding Home, Going Home – Anton Veenstra

I live in Sydney, Australia, a city of five million people, crowded around the best harbour in the world. For fifteen years I worked in the urban rail system as a sign on clerk. Train drivers and guards signed on at the start of their shift and were given their mail and any special instructions for that day’s traffic conditions. We were in a last-century sandstone building that was being excavated to make room for the international crowds expected for the 2000 Olympic Games. We talked about the convict cemetery rumoured to have been unearthed by the jackhammer. After midnight on the dogwatch, I wondered about the sleepers, rudely awakened.

My colleagues were a hard-talking, hard-drinking bunch. New regulations forbade alcohol on the job, and political correctness tried to discourage the thousand colourful ways they invented to bring to my attention the fact that I was gay. There was always a floating population that drifted through the office. The guards were a little insecure, often non-English speakers, feeling their way in an environment as flinty and unyielding as train wheels on their tracks. The Anglo guards quickly became drivers, the elite workers, kings of the road. Only a couple of women as yet had made that grade.

The train drivers were angels, philosopher cowboys, out on the range all day inside their train cabins with the blue of distance in their eyes. They were prone to putting the weight on; mostly they were quiet spoken, aware, considerate. By contrast the clerks were mean homophobes, stuck in the office, watching the clock, accountable to prickly bosses.

One summer the national cricket team was playing England at a nearby sports ground. My colleagues met at work to go to the match; they wore solemn expressions and their best clothes, as if on their way to church. For the first time I saw a sacred detail of their identity, I felt they’d suddenly changed completely, in front of my very eyes.

Office arguments, palpitations, time off work. I was diagnosed with “cardiac disease” and had heart surgery. As post-operative rehabilitation I went back to university to do a Master’s degree. Apart from research and studio work, I needed to attend one tutorial a fortnight. I was researching my family history: how my parents had come to the new world after World War Two ended. Dad had joined the Dutch army to fight the war of independence in Indonesia and was demobilised in Darwin, the northernmost large town in Australia.

Mum had been born in northern Yugoslavia, a pocket of land wedged between Austria and Hungary. She was caught up in the tide of people displaced across central Europe after the defeat of the Third Reich. She got into trouble, had to leave home; the International Refugee Organisation shipped her to Australia. The ship was stuck in Fremantle harbour, a southwestern port, for a fortnight because of a smallpox epidemic onboard ship. She was sent by train to a migrant camp called Cowra where I was born. Cowra is the first-nation word for hill of rocks. Alluvial boulders lie clumped in the botanical garden.

Dad’s background was more familiar. He spoke English and fitted into his new country from day one. Mum had more trouble with the strangeness of here. I figured my difference sprang at least partly from her. So I needed to know about this culture of hers, Slovenian. The country had broken away from the corrupt rule of Milošević in 1992. The year my mum died. A decade later I flew there to check out the place.

First Vienna, the hub of all central European air travel. The airport already had a milling crowd of displaced folk, as if from the Tower of Babel. The shops sold Sound of Music tourist kitsch: a goatherd, an alpine girl in costume. The airport cops, thin and snooty, looked like crime sitcom extras. I took the connecting flight to Ljubljana, the capitol of Slovenia. A half hour’s flight across hills and fields increasingly more wooded. I found out later that Slovenia has some of the largest remaining forests in Europe.

I was staying a little out of town in a dormitory room at a boarding school. Empty of students for the summer holiday, it accepted tourists like myself. I had the three-bunk room to myself. On top of a clothes cupboard I found a rolled up poster about AIDS. The poster person was lyrical, punk, androgynous. Out of one window I could see the lush growth of the garden and park. Flowers everywhere. It could have been a country meadow. I remember my mother singing folk songs to me as a child, about gifts of flowers and love. All around me was the raw material.

I met Daria in the local sauna, set in the Tivoli Park, a short walk from city centre. Saunas are a central European tradition. Here men and women sunbathe nude without a second thought. Daria was impatient of the gay men who filled the sauna that afternoon, strolling, looking at newcomers, exchanging greetings, covertly grouping, perving. We talked about life, her job as a primary school teacher, her previous boyfriend who, like me had his aortic valve replaced. Daria said she could hear mine ticking in the silence of the steam room.

One night I came back from a boozy evening meal at the local taverna, schnitzel [crumbed, battered, deep fried pork] and rosti [roasted grated potato]. In my room I could hear waves of noise at rock-concert-decibel levels. Three blocks away, at the bus stop was the Olympic Stadium, designed by Slovenia’s genius architect, Jože Plečnik. It always looked a bit shabby and run down when I caught the bus outside. The facade was a row of softly shaped wooden pillars, quite Egyptian, clumped in pairs to form the curved outer wall of the sports arena.

So I walked there, nothing better to do, impossible to concentrate on reading against the background wash of crowd noise. There were couples and small groups of blokes outside. One guy who spoke English explained the event for me. It was a soccer match, nearly over, between the local team, the Green Dragons, and the Red Stars from Belgrade. The green dragon was Ljubljana’s official city emblem.

Of course the match had taken on national importance. Everyone’s pride was at stake. There were a lot of police outside, and my guide explained that a no-alcohol rule was in effect. The footpath was littered with bottles of all shapes, discarded by the crowd who drank them dry before being allowed inside. From time to time the large gates swung open and a very drunk, disheveled male was thrown out, to cheers from both inside and without. Suddenly it was all over, and the crowd poured out, noisy, unruly, but good humoured. Some youths wore green face paint as well as bunches of green ribbons tied round their foreheads, ninja style, and hanging down their backs. It took an hour to empty the place. Three large buses shuttled the people away.

Looking at those men, the comparison to back home was inevitable. Here, men seemed to play with life. Interactions could be softer without threatening their identities, their masculinity. Perhaps that comes of living in a traditional culture where people have their allotted places. The new world is after all still the wild west, the train drivers like cool cowboys, others meaner, ornery, struggling to fit together.

I tried to connect with my mum’s family here, but they were farmers in a very poor province of Slovenia. I had nothing to offer. Their world view was tight, local, with unanswerable questions like why was I a middle-aged man still unmarried. Daria, the woman I’d met in the sauna came from the same area. She warned me about the provincial mentality. She herself had escaped to the big city. But I went to the churchyard where my grandparents slept under a marble stone my mum had commissioned on a previous visit. She had always loved her dad, Stefan, who seemed uncritical in his love for her. I sat beside the stone and felt peaceful, comforted.

At the time, I was studying at the local Ethnographic Museum, looking at catalogues and exhibits. The museum was a newly renovated building set in an area that still looked like a battlefield. The suburb was called Metelkova. It had been notorious during the bloodless 1992 revolt that had led to Slovenian independence. Police and army had resisted Milošević call for Yugoslavia to remain united. During that time a coalition of punks, grunge kids, and artists of all descriptions took over the Metelkova area, a sizeable city block. They called on the city’s mayor to give them possession so they could form an arts collective. Some understanding was reached, but after peace was restored both parties disagreed on the terms of the agreement. The artists barricaded themselves inside Metelkova and resisted efforts by police to evict them. Thus the rubble everywhere.

Some buildings were squats where people still lived. I walked along, taking photos. The outside walls, in European fashion, were papered with poster manifestos by the arts community. However their good intentions and high ideals were being slowly being removed. Only in one corner down the length of an old porch pillar someone had written: “burek, pica, kalamari, skampi, losos, pecenka, [illegible], pomfrit, union.” These were dishes characteristic of each of the former Yugoslav republics: meat pastries, gherkins, squid, shellfish, pork fillet, potato chips, Union beer. I imagined an idealistic artist hungry during the siege, his dream of a multi-cultural banquet, taking place in harmony. Instead there was ethnic cleansing.

_______________________

Anton Veenstra is a tapestry designer/weaver whose work has been displayed widely across Australia, where he lives and works. His parents were working-class migrants to Australia after World War Two and he was born in the immigrant camp where they met. When he was college age, thanks to a visionary program by then-Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, who wanted the working class to get a free university education, he won a scholarship and studied in Townsville and Sydney, receiving a Bachelor’s degree and a teaching diploma. He was a conscientious objector when drafted for the Vietnam war and has spent most of his work life in “hippie jobs”: telephone operator, postal delivery, public service clerk, sugar cane cutter, cleaner, council road gang worker, all the while writing poetry and weaving tapestries.

Photo credit: Metelkova Grafitti. © Alain Pannetrat. Used courtesy of Creative Commons License.

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