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Foreign Fields

Monday, 10 August 2020  | Elaine Furniss

I have always given thanks for the gift of overseas travel and then the absolute gift of overseas study and work. There’s something about getting outside of yourself that is a wonderful teacher. I remember sitting around in a cross-country ski hut in the Canadian Rockies talking about life experiences with someone (still a great friend and reader of my Facebook page) whose dad was a German prisoner of war in Russia until 1949, someone else whose dad was in the Dutch resistance and someone, a Turkish Kurd, secretly. All of this was a bit of an eye-opener for a kangaroo from regional NSW and the sheltered world of education.

Fast forward to Vietnam, working with wonderfully energetic staff and a super-bright and encouraging boss who mandated our UNICEF work with a ‘two weeks in the office, two weeks in the field’ policy. I met people who had fought with General Giap in the North Vietnamese Army, imprisoned in a South Vietnamese prison with the scars to prove it or carried supplies for the North Vietnamese down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, often more riverbed than road. There was the academic who had trained with Piaget in Paris and the nutritionist who planned the food and its transportation for North Vietnamese soldiers fighting in the south. There was also the highly intelligent South Vietnamese driver from our office who was denied university entrance, even though the war was over years ago. In so many ways we find it hard to forget and forgive, in any country. Above all I loved the microfinance meetings with ethnic minority women in far away provinces, creating super-sensational small businesses while dealing with the family issues of health and education and sometimes domestic violence. I remember wise people who fought ignorance without having others lose face, and who led by example. I was truly blessed. And I had a wonderful house manager, still a great friend (and reader of my Facebook page), who could cook up a storm and have it ready for a dinner party on any given night in the space of an hour or two.

I learned in VietNam that good policy work is done through good relationships, with humour and good grace. It was also done in the back of a Land Cruiser on a bumpy 8-hour trip with government and NGO counterparts, with lots of sickly Vietnamese sweets, a bucket load of roadside longans or rambutan and the promise of a cold water shampoo in a roadside thợ cắt tóc on arrival.

So I’ve been walking in foreign fields outside the bounds of the Republic of 3 Stewart Street in my one-hour mandated exercise time each day in Victoria’s Stage 4 lockdown. I used to be able to stand in the shower and, while I washed my hair, look at a tall Canary Island palm behind the eastern boundary of the Republic but for several years I haven’t been able to work out where it’s gone. Yesterday I found the evidence. Cut off at the ankles in the laneway behind.

Not all the houses in the foreign countries on my borders are small and easily governed. Some are large with perfectly manicured gardens. The avenue of oaks in the next street, aptly named Grandview Grove, meets in the middle and provides massive shade during the increasingly hot summers. It’s good to admire the trees and houses beyond my Republican borders but I give thanks for my small garden workload. (Although I guess I don’t have the staff that some of the larger adjacent Republics obviously employ!)

I give thanks for my neighbours in adjacent principalities. I love the ingenuity of the kids on the corner who communicate with their neighbour kids at the apex of their elevation on the resident trampoline in each backyard. I give thanks for the cheese runs instituted by neighbours across the street during the first lockdown, and my neighbour next door who returns any borrowed thing with a bottle of yummy home-made shortbread. Then there’s the other neighbour across the street who, when my then husband and I were both freshly home from hospital years ago, seriously announced at the front door what she’d be doing Tuesday nights: cooking a meal for as long we needed. There’s the climate change schoolie across the laneway at the back, who years ago asked, ‘have you got any kids at your house?’, which I took as a major compliment; and the kids who organise the annual ice cream party, writing invitations and delivering them. All I have to do is seek out the weird flavours they request and they get themselves and their parents into my Republic. Simple. I don’t know the neighbours with the Stewart Street Library yet, but I do benefit from their generosity. I live in small Republic where foreign relations are simple, friendly and caring.

Today my joy is the memory of wonderful foreign adventures, overseas and around the block. What’s your joy today?

‘The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page’. (St Augustine)

Elaine Furniss is a retired UN officer. She lives in Melbourne and central Victoria. She wants to find joy in each day of Covid lockdown in Victoria. Stories are all about the Republic of her Melbourne address and beyond.


Behan McCullagh
August 19, 2020, 12:54PM
Thank you for reminding us to remember our blessings. 
Christine Gobius
August 23, 2020, 6:04PM
Elaine, I love your description of travel as a gift - so often it seems there is a sense of entitlement, it seems so self focused, entertainment almost. It is such a privilege to be a guest in someone else's 'country' and be shaped and stretched by their lives. As they say in SE Asia - 'same same but different' Like you I have had the privilege of coming alongside women and men and children living lives very different to me and I hope it has also gifted me with a contentment in whatever circumstances I find myself.

I also really appreciate your capturing in so few words such a rich picture of neighbourhood where we are and the opportunities for what enriches our lives in our world travels right next door as well. So often we miss that.

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