Monday, 6 February 2017

books that changed our lives


Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

At 15, I read a book called Into the Wild that changed my life in subtle but ultimately profound ways. It chronicles the true story of a young man who, disillusioned with what he perceived as a hypocritical, materialistic society, burned all his money and walked alone into the wild. When I first read Into the Wild, it sounded like a manual for living. Now, with a few more years of wisdom behind me, I've realised that humans are not that simple. If anything, I think that McCandless' story illuminated the complicated nature of life and living. He was one man searching for the right way to live when there really isn’t any ‘right’ way at all.

Off-hand Things I’ve Said That McCandless Has Actually Lived:
  • Fuck the Man
  • Fuck capitalism
  • Money is evil
  • Live minimally
  • Live off the fatta the lan' (DO IT FOR LENNIE SMALL)
McCandless took personal integrity to its logical extreme, which fascinated me. Just as Holden Caulfield railed against ‘phoniness’, McCandless’ thing was hypocrisy. He couldn’t abide hypocrisy, especially in his own parents, and this was a crime for which they were judged and punished much more harshly than they ever deserved. I think now that McCandless’ definition of hypocrisy is what other people call compromise. McCandless himself was forced to compromise throughout his journey, working at McDonald’s for a while to rustle up some funds before continuing on his great quest. In the most telling moment of the story, he had an epiphany, scribbling ‘Happiness Only Real When Shared’ in the margins of a Tolstoy as he lay alone in an abandoned bus in the backwoods of Alaska. Going solo like McCandless did and rejecting society is romantic, but it’s fiction. It’s romantic fiction because love and companionship are at the core of the human experience. McCandless was a natural at that – he had a big heart and made a lasting impression on those he met on the road – but he pushed away intimacy in search of purity.

McCandless made mistakes. That he was a real person who perished too soon is a tragedy. But in the end, it was his idealism that impressed me (and other fans of the book) the most. In a world where many of our thoughts and actions are driven by unconscious acceptance of the status quo, it’s refreshing when somebody takes a step back, analyses their lifestyle and bravely decides to follow their heart. What I admire about ‘crazy’ Chris McCandless is his drive to live a pure life as closely aligned as possible with his personal values. It was this book that helped me unearth the values I hold, on which I try to base all of actions today as a 21-year-old human bean.


Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling

I find it difficult to pinpoint a single book. As a child, I was always so jealous of my older sister because she knew how to read and I didn’t. When I finally learned to read by myself, I began devouring the Aussie Nibbles books at lunch, steadily working my way up to Aussie Bites and finally to Chomps. But I still wasn’t satisfied.

And then, Harry Potter entered my life. I was in Year 1 or 2 when my sister started to read them aloud to me. It was a daily event for which she would prepare in advance, perfecting dramatic pauses and refining character voices. At the time, the Goblet of Fire was the most recent instalment. I still remember the moment it dawned on me that Voldemort was truly back – coldness entered my heart and I had to remind myself that it was just a book.

But it wasn’t just a book. It was an entire world, rich with character and colour. Turning the pages was like stepping into my second home. Rowling’s prose grew to be so familiar to me that it was like listening to an old friend in my head. The first few times I read the series I loved it for the humour, characters and the fantasy. By the time the Deathly Hallows came out, I was 11, and I began to see the connections between Harry Potter and the outside world. The shrill reporting of the Daily Prophet was echoed in the Courier Mail. The ostracisation of Remus Lupin upon the discovery of his werewolf status was linked to real-world bullying and bigotry. As I re-read the series in high school I had great fun linking Voldemort’s aspirations to Hitler’s in my modern history class. Each time I read the series, I’ll notice a new jab at our current political and social welfare systems effortlessly stitched into the seams of its magical world.

These books began my true love of reading, which in turn led me to perform well in English at school and discover other great books. Life without Harry would most definitely have been a lesser one. An honourable mention has to go to Looking For Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta – protagonist Josephine Alibrandi is a 17-year-old Italian-Australian living in Melbourne, and her voice perfectly captured my conflicting pride and angst (oh, so much angst) of growing up as a migrant in Australia. If I were to make a Horcrux out of a book it would be this one.


The Bible

When I was going through my roughest time I listened to a song by Taya Smith called Gracious Tempest. Before she started singing, she read out a passage from the Bible – Psalms 116 – which reads,

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
    he heard my cry for mercy.
2 Because he turned his ear to me,
    I will call on him as long as I live.
3 The cords of death entangled me,
    the anguish of the grave came over me;
    I was overcome by distress and sorrow.
4 Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    “Lord, save me!”
5 The Lord is gracious and righteous;
    our God is full of compassion.
6 The Lord protects the unwary;
    when I was brought low, he saved me.
7 Return to your rest, my soul,
    for the Lord has been good to you.
8 For you, Lord, have delivered me from death,
    my eyes from tears,
    my feet from stumbling,
9 that I may walk before the Lord
    in the land of the living.

I started crying on the bus – I was so thankful that God had stayed with me the entire time. Even the best of our friends can't understand what we're going through, even when they're right there witnessing all of it. But this doesn't mean that our individual struggles aren’t legitimate. Likewise, faith is incomprehensible, because it's different for everyone. A boy forgiving his drunkard of a father, or a girl forgiving her cheating boyfriend, or a mother forgiving her rapist child – none of it's logical, but love and faith isn't about logic. And yes, there are absolutely horrible things in the Old Testament before Jesus comes; but you can’t pick out how violent the father was to his son, or how badly the boyfriend cheated the girl, or how deceitful the child was to his mother and say that’s the whole story. God allowed the Old Testament to be maintained throughout history to serve as a backdrop of what faith is: salvation through the forgiveness of Christ.

I guess, to be concise, the Bible taught me that God gives to the undeserving. And when you know that you've received forgiveness and the opportunity to start a new life, you just can't live the same way ever again. There have been many verses, but this was the first one that was personal. At first it all sounds like it's about someone else out there in the world … until you realise you've always been and always will be included in the story.


Zigzag Street by Nick Earls

I have a very short attention span. If things are going to change my life, they better get to it within the first three pages. That said, Zigzag Street isn’t a particularly fast-moving story. It isn’t even a particularly moving story. There is just something a little too relatable about Richard Derrington, a twenty-something year old corporate lawyer who is feeling crap after being dumped by his long-term girlfriend, and his relentless parade of dysfunction. I first read Zigzag Street in high school when I still had braces and didn’t really know what being dumped felt like. I have since re-read the book a number of times. A particularly poignant re-read occurred when I moved back to Melbourne after being dumped by a long-term partner; I was suddenly Rick. Earls lets us into Rick’s post-relationship head in present tense, first person, which is a huge asset in being able to relate to the lead character. Zigzag Street has been my escape to Brisbane during times of homesickness and self doubt. On my bookshelf, it serves as a neat reminder that I’m not the only sub-par adult out there.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

love letter to vienna

by Chi

Vienna has topped the Mercer Quality of Living Survey seven years in a row. That means it’s officially one of the most livable cities in the world, taking into account factors such as the political, social and economic climates, medical care, education, infrastructure and environmental conditions. I was blessed enough to be able to spend a semester abroad there, straddling the divide between 'Western' and 'Eastern' Europe, from January to June 2016. Slowly, over the course of those six months, the majestic old city grew on me. Some nights when I close my eyes I see those imperial snow-white buildings on the back of my eyelids and I realise that, despite my exchange-student loneliness and alienation, I miss Vienna. Where some people found boredom, I found Gemütlichkeit – a sense of cosiness and leisureliness that perfectly defines the city.

Dear Vienna,

You gave me some pretty bad neck cramps during those first few weeks. I couldn’t stop craning to look at all your grand imperial buildings, and when I laid eyes upon the one that was meant to be my host university, I thought you were pulling my leg. I didn’t realise I’d be studying in a palace. I can’t get over the mix of ornateness and warmth that’s present in your Jugendstil architecture and your ubiquitous churches – some Gothic, some baroque, all of them beautiful.

Your citizens fit elegantly into this landscape like pieces in a puzzle. Vienna, I appreciate your old men in their wool vests and old-man hats and your old ladies with canes and big coats. I didn’t see a single pair of thongs for months. When I wore mine out to the supermarket one warm day, they flapped obscenely on the pavement. In a way, it made me feel more conspicuously Australian (or maybe just bogan), though I did feel like a piece of home was on my feet. People here are demure, and the animals too. Unlike in Australia, dogs accompany their humans into restaurants, cafés and banks. They even come along to work because “8 hours at home alone is way too long”, according to my Austrian friend. There is a palpable sense of serenity and contentment in the way people stroll companionably beside their pets along riverbanks and through parks.

People who prefer the chaos of Berlin (graffiti-splattered, techno-music-pumping, full of counterculture types) might be put off by you. Vienna, to me you’re calming. I love the dignified charm with which people do things and I love the way Viennese couples will get up and start waltzing or jiving to live music, which is the happy result of compulsory ballroom dancing classes in high school. You’re a city “lavish with civilities”, in the words of Leon Trotsky, who lived a life of “beautiful uselessness” in Vienna from 1907 to 1914.

Vienna, I take offence at how everything I wear is bound to absorb the stench of cigarette smoke. But Vienna, I appreciate how like a black-and-white film your coffeehouses look when people are huddled around circular tables, sipping on a Wiener Melange in between drags or hands of cards. I love the languid coffeehouse culture and the old-timey Heuriger (wine taverns). I love being surrounded by art and music, art that was considered avant garde at the turn of the century. Vienna, you taught me what Expressionist art was when you introduced me to that twisted young genius Egon Schiele, whose visceral self-portraits kept me holed up in the Leopold Museum for hours.

Vienna, I love how friendly you are to me late at night. There’s nothing more soothing than walking your clean, quiet streets after dark where the only thing I’m likely to be assaulted by is a squirrel leaping across the sidewalk, or phantom catcallers that my memory conjures up from walks past bus stops in Brisbane. Never real ones, though.

Vienna, I love it when you give me the D (Vitamin). The sunlight is like a shot to my veins sending fizzy thrills through my body. The first breath of summer draws me outside, envelopes every Austrian in a blanket of languor. People attribute the stereotypical grumpiness and pessimism of Austrians to the weather, particularly the bleakness of winter. It's true that when I arrived in March, sunny days were the exception rather than the rule. Rain in the city is this constant drizzle, neither like the sweet summer rain that we get at home nor the thundering deluge that pours down and leaves the world sparkling and renewed. No. Viennese rain greyscales everything and leaves the city soggy.

But, oh, when the sun comes out, there is a smile on everyone’s mind. It feels almost like a crime to stay indoors. We are little animals waking up again after a long hibernation, crawling out of our burrows and into the Eisdiele at Schwedenplatz (which remains closed during winter) for ice cream. We congregate along the Donaukanal on balmy summer nights, a sweating beer in hand, to watch the lights on the water, the graffiti on the belly of the footbridge and whatever broadcasted football game is playing behind the bar (Austria always loses, so the fans’ enthusiasm is instead channelled into hating Germany and supporting whatever team is playing Germany).

We freeze half to death trying to go swimming in the Dechantlacke (Dechant Lake) in early spring, because public pools aren’t open until May. It’s full of half melted ice that the sun hasn’t yet penetrated. We're also surprised by a nude man rollerblading casually down the path and discover that the Dechantlacke is one of the homes of Freikörperkultur (Free Body Culture). Mere weeks later, the sun’s fully come into her own and we get sunburnt doing yoga by the Danube. I feel a queer sense of joy when I look out my window one late spring day to see a blanket of vines draping the wall of the building next to my dorm – greenly, jungly. They were dead and withered when I first moved in.

To escape the confines of my shared room, I take walks around the neighbourhood and that always lifts my spirits. I’ll take my journal or history readings to a patch of grass in one of the cosy parks dotted throughout Vienna – to the quiet stateliness of the Stadtpark, with its gilded statue of Johann Strauss, or perhaps to the mind-boggling grandeur of Schloss Schönbrunn, which is fiery in autumn and absolutely beautiful in summer when the hedge mazes burst into greenery and the flowerbeds bloom. I love sitting on the hill that overlooks Schönbrunn. I could sit there for hours with a bottle of wine and be rewarded with the setting of the sun over the spread of the city at nine, ten pm.

Vienna, from the mouth of an Australian, I bloody love ya. But don’t take it personally because I think I would have loved any place that took me in, a clueless little exchange student who’s never known complete independence in her whole life, and spat me out much the same but different somehow. Vienna, you just happened to be my chosen city and you will always hold a special place in meinem Herz.


Vienna is considered the epicentre of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ Europe*. It benefited enormously from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, becoming the gateway to ‘Eastern’ European countries that have historic ties to the former Austro-Hungarian empire.

For an interesting portrait of Habsburg-era Vienna on the eve of World War I, check out Thunder At Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 by Frederic Morton – a social history that lavishly narrates the lives of characters such as Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky, Lenin, Freud, Jung, Tito and members of the Viennese court.

For way more magical pictures of Vienna than mine, stalk @natalie_wien on Instagram. Feeding my nostalgia one square at a time ...

* I put ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ in quotation marks because, despite being a useful geopolitical marker, there is some academic argument that the dichotomy is an artificial cultural construct that glorifies Western Europe. I love the professor who told me that, though I haven’t had time to read more about it.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

love letter to the sea

by Chi

This is the first time I’ve lived in a country that’s landlocked. Not that you notice it in every day life (Brisbane ist ja nicht direkt am Meer – my hometown of Brisbane is still a bit of a drive away from the ocean), but the idea is strange. Even though I'm now a vegetarian, I often find myself missing those typical Australian seafood lunches – prawns on the barbie, fish and chips ...

Austria is a land of lakes and mountains. When I visited the lake district near Salzburg it took my breath away. I was with a group of lovely travellers from India and South Asia then and we all came from places where the landscape couldn’t be more different. It was enchanting; we spent the hours in a constant state of wonderment, eyes wide, not wanting to blink. (Wistful sigh the moment we all had to go back to Salzburg to catch our respective trains).

Impassive peaks peek
At tiny sailboats gliding
Down their blue skirt folds.

Extract from Vienna diary, 2016.

Lakes are stunning, but they have a way different vibe to beaches, and I think the ocean will always have my heart. Glacial lakes are majestic, but they’re also cold and indifferent. They’re calming and almost hypnotically tranquil, but they make you feel very small. In Australia, at least, the ocean is warm and salty and the golden arms of its sands embrace humans of every shape and colour. The sea is so alive; it’s like it converses with you –  you run to meet it at the same time as it rushes toward you, lapping at your feet like an eager puppy before catching you up in its snarling jaws and hurling you to the ground in a fury of waves and froth. I love that feeling, the feeling of being immersed in pure energy – even if it’s the kind of energy that can rip the breath from your lungs and roll you head over heels. It reminds me that for all our pretences, we are in Nature’s dominion – a place less explored than the surface of the moon.

Taken by Elena on a gorgeous April day in 2015

The sea is dynamic, mysterious, calm on the surface but pulsing with life beneath. The sea is a symbol of my childhood. It’s where I spent every summer holiday growing up. Being near the saltwater conjures up for me a plethora of precious memories and emotions, like pearls on the necklace of my life. It’s a faded vintagey reel of Tasmania-shaped coral, jellyfish beached on the sand, pruned and wrinkled skin, diamonds shimmering out by the horizon. It’s the smell of sunscreen and brine. It’s a soundtrack of rushing between your ear and the pink walls of a seashell, of seagulls screeching and the throbbing silence that engulfs you when you’re weightless beneath the waves. And it’s this feeling of absolute freedom – frolicking long hours in the surf 'til the sun went down, walking home to binge-watch Nickelodeon, and finally snuggling up with the sweet, sweet anticipation of doing it all over again the next day.

On a bittersweet note, my summery years by the sea also shot through me a painful reminder of how transient childhood is, killing the assumption that I’d always be the same person, enjoying the same things. The beach was where the breach between me and my adult relatives attained a visual clarity. As they sat fanning themselves under beach umbrellas, ignoring my pleas for them to join me in the surf, one of my aunties explained to me: “Adults don’t like the beach, sweetie.” My little eight-year-old mouth popped open. Why? “It’s sandy. Dirty. Wet.” I was immediately terrified. Was I obliged to give up this feeling (a feeling that I recognised even then, with my child’s perspective, as being as close to bliss as I was going to get in this lifetime) just by growing up? Would there be anything in the adult world to replace it? (Sitting under a beach umbrella fanning myself seemed like a dreary alternative).

I couldn’t believe that I would ever, ever get sick of paradise, no matter how old I got. How much I enjoyed myself swimming at the beach and how icky I got about sand and salt became an unconscious gauge of my age and the years passing. I’ve learnt to fear less the changing of other interests and tastes as I transition into adulthood, but the piece of my soul that I’ve given to the ocean will surely die if ever I turn my back on it. That’s what I’m afraid of. It is what I was thinking of when I got my first little tattoo.

For now, this hasn’t happened. At the age of 21, it is still my place of bliss. I can see myself in ten or so years building sandcastles with my kids and piggy-backing them across a foamy expanse. In sixty or so years I see myself as a wrinkled old lady, perhaps without the energy to tackle waves, but nonetheless indulging in the pleasure of sinking my toes into the sand and closing my eyes and simply listening.

Sometime in the middle of those endless childhood summers, I remember making a solemn eight-year-old’s promise – to love the ocean, forever and always.

Somethin' special. Ten o'clock ocean sunsets in Spain. Back home, the sun rises over the water.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

thoughts on urban life

by Chi and Elena

Regardless of whatever TV drama you’re hooked on, it is usually the case that urban life is portrayed as the pinnacle of Western development. Cool things happen to cool people living in big cities, and those who were not born cool inevitably have coolness thrust upon them when they make the move to the Big Smoke. Cities offer an exciting, modern way of living, with adventures waiting behind every door (especially behind doors of blue police call boxes in London). Growing up in the sunny city of Brisbane, however, I often found myself trying to flee the sleepy silence of the suburbs, only to find that the monotonous cycle of Brisbane life continued in the CBD only with more steel and concrete. Why is society on the constant lookout for neverending forms of cultural stimulation? Could it be that our current situation leaves us wanting more?


The most urban (and I’m basing my definition of ‘urban’ on the glorious reputations of the world’s more-admired cities) it gets here is the lazy Sharpie scrawl in public toilets promising a ‘good time’ if you call a certain number. In any city of the world locals are sure to have their favourite haunts or hang-outs. In Brisbane, your local haunt is everybody else’s local haunt. The square outside Hungry Jack’s is the universal meeting place of every teenager in Brisbane, north and south. “Meet me in the city!” you’d say to your friend, and they wouldn’t even need to ask where. Familiarity abounds – even our damn buskers are familiar. Just mention the blind sax guy and everyone will know who he is. Or the steel drums guy – “oh my God I love that guy!” – outside our beloved Treasury Casino that signals party time when the sun goes down with its snazzy neon tourist-trap lights flashing out over the river.

I remember last year on a typical sluggish day in the city, my friend Elena and I decided to go exploring. Perhaps we wanted to uncover some seedy underworld layer beneath the banal safeness of Queen Street Mall. Anyway, ‘exploring’ in Brisbane City is pretty much a lost cause, but we were two idealistic teenagers back then with a lust for adventure in our young hearts. We picked the most mysterious building we could find, entered a mysteriously empty lobby (what could they be hiding here? Dead bodies? Three-eyed dogs and radioactive hamsters? THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE??) and rebelliously took the lift up to the highest floor. We emerged into a mysterious corridor lined with doors – CLOSED DOORS, behind which no doubt lurked the darkest of secrets. When we saw that the doors had nameplates saying things like ‘Michael Phillips, M.D. Orthopaedic Surgeon’ and ‘Dr Julie Lee, Family Dentist’ we knew it was too dangerous to continue. Just as well – we nearly lost our lives on the way back. The elevator jerked and stalled halfway between Levels 15 and 14 and we thought we were done for. Luckily it didn’t stall for too long because then I wouldn’t be here, writing this brilliant piece.

This brush with Brisbanality only fuelled my dreams of getting out of here. A few months ago I re-watched Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. When Belle sang “There must be more than this provincial liiiiife!”  I knew exactly what my fellow bookworm was on about. I found it hard to believe Belle’s conviction, however – how on earth could she be bored in la belle Françe? I had clung to the hope that Brisbane was the exception and not the rule to the yawn-inducing quality of urban life. Was it possible that Belle’s philosophy was applicable to urban life ALL OVER THE WORLD?  I began to panic. What if I never escaped? What if I was doomed forevermore to taking lifts up buildings and hanging outside of Hungry Jack’s? In the name of anthropological and sociological research, I sent my courageous friend Elena to the urban jungle of NYC – otherwise known as Noo Yawk – to test Belle’s hypothesis. Here’s what she had to say.


New York is a feast for the senses, but like a Hogwarts feast where food keeps appearing on your plate as soon as you finish each course – AND IT DOESN’T STOP. As soon as my Hoboken bus crawled its way out of the smog-ridden hole that is the Lincoln tunnel, I heard sirens. The screech of tyres followed by car horns. Shouts. Snippets of conversations in every which language. A steady dull roar that filled the moments in between. I was overwhelmed by the industrial symphony New York was performing, and soon my nose was similarly assaulted. That sensitive, sheltered organ was quickly overcome by the strong smell of hot dogs, pretzels, petrol, fragrances wafting out of shops and the pervasive scent of tobacco. My eyes drank in the fancy apartments, the ominous alleyways in between, the fancy shops juxtaposed against the filthy pavement shadowed by skycrapers that tickled the sky.

The simple act of walking down the footpath was exhilarating as I witnessed clichés from almost every American film I have ever seen. Couples holding hands iceskating, American flags in every window and doorway, Starbucks on every other corner, the impossible task of hailing a cab, rude vendors, bright lights casting their halos on the dark purple sky. These were all scenes which are not uncommon in Brisbane (minus the American flags), but against the postcard background of New York City they became in my mind vibrant snapshots of what life should be like. At last I’d found the elusive grass – you know, the kind that’s always greener on the other side – only it was on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, and this grass was grass. In other words, intoxicating stuff.

The joint was aglow with energy. It seemed that everyone and everything in the city was screaming for attention. From the girls wearing miniskirts in the freezing winter to the gangster swaggering through the streets covered in gold, whose bling was even overshadowed by buskers who dressed like Disney characters (probably to give an illusion of harmlessness) and who literally grabbed slow-witted tourists in order to demand donations from those bulging bum-bags. Ironically, in their efforts to gain moments in the limelight these people simply became extensions of the environment.

I was loving every minute of the madness. This was what city life was meant to be – opportunities for thrilling escapades and urban legends beckoning at every corner. I looked expectantly at the natives, expecting to see a city full of people happy that their lives were so enriched and exciting. Instead, I saw almost every person rush through Times Square with a scowl on their face, ignoring the activity, sidestepping the guy in a Spiderman costume who was trying to direct traffic, walking right past these daily prospects of adventure. To my dismay, I saw a city full of people frustrated that they were living the same day every day, tired of their monotonous urban lives.


It’s easy to conclude that no matter which city on Planet Earth you’ve living in, urban life sucks the soul out of every person. But that’s the easy way out. It doesn’t matter whether you’re running around Central Park in an Elmo costume or strutting your ripped-denim clad legs down Queen Street Mall – in the end, under all these pretty wrappings, we’re simply rats in a rat race, searching for fulfilment that we’ll never attain as long as we have that there-must-be-more-than-this-provincial-life mentality stuck in our minds. Instead of wallowing in our urbanality, we should take life by the horns – create our own adventures and don’t blame the city for the fact that our lives are not like Gossip Girl.

DISCLAIMER: we do quite like Brisbane, despite its world-famous exorbitant parking fees (it costs more to park in Brisbane than in downtown Noo Yawk!) and the ridiculously expensive food. Perhaps its familiarity is the very reason it’s such a great place in which to grow up. That and the lack of gunmen running amok, and the silent sound of non-existent police sirens screaming after gangs in the dead of night.

Friday, 21 October 2016

thoughts on virginity

by Chi

So you finally lost your virginity. “Welcome to the club,” they tell you. Now, when you’re at a party where people are making out in the corners, or at the bus stop under a huge billboard featuring a woman with smoky eyes and pouting lips, or at the cinema to see the latest rom-com, you scope out the people around you, most of whom are probably also in The Club. You wear your sore vagina like a badge of honour or like club stripes, because you are one of them now. But apart from that vague discomfort down below, nothing’s really changed. The boundaries of your world are the same as they’ve always been. You’re still a weird-looking kid with too many pimples and small tits. You start to wonder, what did I actually lose? The integrity of my hymen? But wait – you can tear that by doing something as simple as playing sports. You did a lot of sports in high school. Gymnastics, cycling, touch footy. What does that leave – your innocence, your purity?

I’ve had a long-standing problem with the concept of ‘virginity’ – it’s divisive, ill-defined and fosters low self-esteem and judgment from one’s peers, no matter which way you spin it. “How permanent virginity feels, and then how inconsequential,” writes Lena Dunham in her memoir. This is what most people figure out when it finally happens. And when it finally happened for me? “Oh.” As Internet-based feminists and provocateurs Petra Collins and Karley Sciortino (alias Slutever) said on their sex podcast that one time I listened to it over my dinner, feeling sinful whenever my parents walked past – “oh.” That’s what ‘losing it’ was like. “Oh. That’s it?” If I hadn’t been raised in a culture that exalts sex (penetrative sex, mind you, between a monogamous man and woman, missionary position, soft focus lighting, everything in slow motion) as a hugely momentous occasion, the experience would have simply been another nameless milestone – like getting my first period, or flying for the first time, or going to my first sleepover. Why does getting laid merit a whole new label for who we are as a person?

“You’re a virgin who can’t drive,” snarls Tai in the movie Clueless, delivering the ultimate insult – emphasis on the virgin. With movies like Clueless, Drew Barrymore’s Never Been Kissed and the self-explanatory 40-Year-Old Virgin, and even that vapid TV show Beauty and the Geek – where sexual inexperience is synonymous with loserdom – no wonder virginity is still such a pervasive myth, and one that teenagers hungrily buy into as a label that will define them. I remember, in high school, keeping track of who had done what and with whom, asking each other “how far have they gone?” How far – with oral sex as second prize at best, a slutty thing to do at worst; intercourse sealing the deal; anal being pretty much unmentionable; and we were neither experienced nor mature enough to consider any other acts of intimacy. Teenaged me certainly wasn’t immune to the myth of virginity. You’d be hard pressed to find a teenager who doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time stressing about sex, especially when it’s so tied to their self-worth.

Maybe having sex fulfils an intrinsic desire to be desired. Maybe it makes you feel like you are worthy of being touched in a really intimate way, and your horrible, pasty (or hairy, or freckly, or flabby) nakedness did not send your partner screaming into the woods, blinded. Maybe that’s why people are sensitive about being a virgin – because they consider their level of sexual activity directly proportional to their attractiveness, loveable-ness and worth as a person. Did I personally need that sort of validation? Possibly – but not in the form of sex, as I found out. All the insecurities I used to have kind of melted away when he did little things like hold my hand. The first time he put his arm around me made me feel warm and fuzzy in a way that the first time we did it, didn’t (although it is still a memory that makes me feel happy and hence won’t be thrown out when my brain does its annual spring-clean and deletes everything I learnt at uni). Unlike walking or eating or peeing or sleeping, sex isn’t just a behaviour. It’s a language, says psychotherapist and relationship counsellor Esther Perel in her TED talk. It’s a place you go, a space you inhabit with yourself or with another person. The more experience you have, the more colourful and diverse and fulfilling this space becomes.

So what is it that you ‘lose’ by having sex for the first time? If anything at all, that something, I think, would have to be idealism. “Mourn for the idealism of inexperience,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review of The Virgin Suicides. “Mourn for the passing of everyone you knew and everyone you were in the last summer before sex. “ That, at least, is something precious – the beautiful idea of it, the legend of sex, manifested in nights spent wishing and wondering and fantasising, eating icecream and hugging your pillow in the blue light of some cheesy Ryan Gosling drama. In real life, says Ebert, sex attaches “plumbing, fluids, gropings, fumblings and pain.” Somehow, the movies leave out the laughing and cringing and needing to pee halfway through. But I’m glad they happen, because there’s something to be said for the awkwardness of a first time (and the many other times after that because, as we know, our bodies don’t always do what we want them to do).

For many, intercourse is exalted as a ‘true’ act of sex because it’s the method of procreation. Two humans coming together for a few minutes and a whole new human being created out of that mess is admittedly pretty miraculous. But nowadays, most people have sex for pleasure rather than procreation. We all know, thanks to Coach Carr, that if you get pregnant, you will die. And needless to say, sex between gays and lesbians is no less valid than hetero sex. When it comes to the bond that you form with someone through rubbing dangly bits with them, which I suppose is the main reason why people prefer to ‘lose it’ to someone they’re in a serious relationship with, I feel like my ‘bond’ with my partner came more from everything we did surrounding the having of sex, rather than the actual having it itself. Some might have had a different experience to me, and that is precisely the point. People have wildly differing views on the concepts of sex and purity.

The view of penetrative sex as the real deal, whereas other kinds of sex are just ‘bases’ on the way to a ‘home run’, is a construct that is far from universal. In some cultures, oral sex is seen as even more intimate than vaginal sex. For the French, la pipe is just as important as intercourse, something saved for further down the track or saved for someone you actually like. In other cultures, non-baby-making sex acts are seen as dirty and shameful – even degrading, as it involves a certain give and take as opposed to the mutual experience of ‘actual’ sex. But the fact that they’re not seen as ‘actual sex’ creates a loophole for horny teenagers who choose to be abstinent outside of marriage yet have no problem at all satisfying their rabid hormonal urges in other ways (in the backseat of a car … at the local lookout …).

Whatever your opinion of oral sex, it’s one partner completely devoting themselves to the other, which I don’t think is sinful or invalid at all (not to mention, it’s a pretty in-your-face way of getting intimate, so to speak). You know what is sinful? The way our culture treats sex. We’re constantly surrounded by pornography, lewd and heteronormative advertising and disturbing headlines (“grab them by the pussy”). Little wonder that young people absorb this toxic culture and associate sex and sexuality with negativity.

Sex carries with it a degree of responsibility, sure – physically and emotionally – and requires a great deal of maturity. That’s why sex laws and sex education are a thing. But, exercised responsibly, I would argue that sex is quite a pure and innocent act (and also literally good exercise). I think you lose your innocence slowly, not all at once with the undoing of a zipper and the ripping of a condom packet. I think that there are many ways in which young people can lose their innocence, and the idea that having sex is the foremost way you can destroy your sanctity is frankly ridiculous. You lose a little bit of your innocence when you see someone on the street yelling racist slurs at a stranger. You lose a little bit of your innocence when you lie for the first time. When your friend ditches you for the cool kids at school. Or when you hear about the latest shooting in the U.S. and you feel so extremely tired. When you realise that your parents don’t really know everything at all. And adults are just children in adult suits. So how can you assert, as you stand at the altar, having experienced just a fraction of the disillusionment the world has to offer, that you’re as pure as the white of your wedding gown? Just because you and your spouse-to-be haven’t yet touched special parts? How can giving and receiving pleasure be considered the antithesis of innocence?

The Blue Lagoon, a 1980 romantic adventure film which I love in spite of its hokiness, is about two teenagers marooned on a tropical island who spend their days swimming and eating fruit. The two are completely removed from society as they grow up – two suntanned kids as pure as pure can be: Brooke Shields with her wide green eyes and Christopher Atkins with those angelic blond curls. Beautiful and virile as they are, they explore their blooming sexuality and eventually discover intercourse. And no, Brooke Shields did not wake up the next day in a nest of soiled sheets and a world of regrets (OK, she did step on a stonefish and almost die, but that’s beside the point). They simply continued frolicking in their tropical paradise. Like most of us do, after making the 'irreversible' decision to ‘give it away’.

I remember reading that the ancient Egyptians had no word for virginity because sex was a natural, un-stigmatised part of life. Without cultural notions of morality surrounding sex, especially for females, there is no need for a concept like virginity. We are born and die sexual creatures and whether or not we are having sex at any point in time does not affect our intrinsic value as human beings. So, walk like an Egyptian – straight into the bedroom where you can do (or not do) whatever the hell you want.

thoughts on travel

by Chi

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets

We’re sitting on stools in a West End bar, sipping on beers and trying to guess the accent of a foreigner nearby making uproarious conversation with a bunch of similarly scruffy, tanned folk. The plastic Dymocks bag beside him holds a recently-purchased guide book that reveals plans to travel to the Philippines. We sat there, and I think we were both thinking about being boxed into Brisbane, and wanting break out of that box. My friend was raring to smash down the glass walls of his limited experience. In this day and age, you can see everything through those glass walls – all the way to Nepal, to Russia, to Guatemala. And what I think we both knew, but couldn’t grasp, is that that box was in our minds. Because those tourists were in the same place as we were, but they were seeing something we couldn’t see.

“My body is a spaceship that my mind travels the universe in.” Ruby Book

Needless to say, travelling is more than just a holiday on a tropical island – it’s a mindset, an internal shift, a lifestyle. It’s slipping into an ephemeral stream of experiences and being tasked, senses honed and sharpened, only with one job – to experience. The experiencing doesn’t happen in a vacuum: it makes you alive to the diversity in the human race and the enduring mystery of this planet and attunes you to the truth of the idea that there are multifarious but equally valid ways of interpreting the world. That is why most of us travel.

However, you don’t necessarily have to fly thousands of miles to reap the benefits. Plonking yourself in a far-flung corner of the world does bring out certain qualities in you because you're forced to be outside your net of familiarity, but deep down you’re always capable of changing your outlook on life. As Jonah Lehrer pointed out in his beautiful piece “Why We Travel”, the act itself is more important than the destination. It doesn’t really matter where you go.

Whenever you’re feeling tied up with work, ill health, a bank account balance in the negatives or are generally just pinned by your circumstances in a town that stifles and that chance alone has decreed your “home”, just remember – you have the capability to replicate that feeling you get when you travel and inhabit that bigger, brighter version of yourself, wherever you are. Pale as reality may seem. (Also remember – chance could have dealt you a way shittier hand. Think of the millions of refugees right now, suspended in a tented limbo on the borders of a hysterical and hostile Europe).

For many of us, reality is suburbia, which is the epitome of mundanity. It’s the height of unculturedness and conformity. Day by day, the sound of lawnmowers bores away at our souls and our drive and creativity. However, there’s a reason why suburbia has been explored in so many seminal pieces of pop culture, like American Beauty, The Virgin Suicides and Lorde’s Pure Heroine. There are nuances to not travelling, to staying put; subtler feelings, like nostalgia, that are best and most poetically conveyed through art (my favourite kind of art). You can make anything sound beautiful if you use the right words. If Lorde can fool me into falling in love with “these roads where the houses don’t change”, then there’s hope yet for the drudgery of our daily lives.

“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” Dagobert D Runes

There was a homeless man in Kathmandu who showed my friend around town. There was a man on a train in Thailand who waxed philosophical, to that same friend, about all he’d learned during his tumultuous life. These stories aren’t the stories of free spirits, released from the shackles of society and granted only to backpackers. They are human stories, and I guarantee everyone has them. My parents, the refugees, have them. The world would be a much different place if people taught themselves to be as open, curious, vulnerable and trusting as they are in hostels – wouldn’t it?

"We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic to creativity. When we get home, home is still the same, but something in our minds has changed, and that changes everything.” Jonah Lehrer, “Why We Travel”, Panorama Magazine, 2009

Although I’m not bemoaning the fact that, for the first time ever in human history, the world is digitally interconnected to an insane degree (I love my screensaver of bungalows in Tahiti and my handy online guide to avoiding social faux pas in Austria), it does mean that sightseeing loses a little of its allure. A lot of the time I find that the real thing, while still cool, doesn’t measure up to the hype and inflated expectations generated by Google Images. Many things are better when stored in the imagination, and the Eiffel Tower is no exception. And it seems to me that the tourist hordes who swing by some great monument just to snap a five-second selfie before getting back on the bus are proof of that.

As the Duffer brothers, creators of the show Stranger Things, somewhat nostalgically recalled in an interview with Vulture magazine, the 80s was a time where “it felt like you really could get lost on a grand adventure”, simply by going off with your friends – without cell phones or the Internet. That’s the charm, I guess, of not knowing everything. Imagine the magic of hearing only vague descriptions of the Sagrada Família without ever having seen a picture of it. The craziness of it would seriously blow you away. Point is, distance is all about perspective. And how you perceive your surroundings is all about perspective.

Everytime you’re under a new patch of sky, everytime you’re wooed by unfamiliar stars, you’re travelling. Even if it is just a three hour car’s ride away, it’s still a new part of the world, isn’t it? These sprawling coastlines map terrain your shoes have never touched; these wild beaches you’ve declared to be unbeatable throughout the world, after baking on and drinking mojitos on Spanish beaches dotted with tanned rears and tireless hawkers. Where you live is of incomparable beauty – travellers from abroad come from miles away to be awed by the shores you take for granted. Then again, maybe this shift in perspective – appreciating with fresh eyes the new in the old – is only possible once you’ve been away from home. Humans are such paradoxical creatures.

So, travel whenever you can or want to – just try to seal that accompanying sense of wonder and gratitude inside you. The world is a book, after all, and those who do not travel read only one page. But I’d rather read one page and take something really important out of it than skim them all and find, after I’ve closed the covers, that I’ve learned nothing at all.

“It's like people who believe they'll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn't work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book