“Travel at Home” by hearing old favourites in new languages.
“Travel at Home” by hearing old favourites in new languages.
I receive daily requests for new costumes* and due to the volume of ideas and the high turnover of identities that my kids want to inhabit, I regularly suggest we make masks. I knew that The Carnevale, which is currently taking place in Venice, Italy, would spark their imaginations.
(As a sad sort of aside: we were very struck by the death of David Bowie a fortnight ago, and while we played his music loudly and watched Labyrinth many times in the days following, it is his influence as a theatrical, costumed, fluid character that has the most impact in our house. This article about the history of masks in Venice talks about the freedom from social restrictions that they provided to Venetians and obviously Bowie also well understood this power of a “mask”. The ability to change your appearance at will is very appealing to my four-year-olds, perhaps as part of forming their own identities, and so for a day or two after Bowie died they became Ziggy Stardust).
When it comes to the masquerade in Venice, the children were familiar with this poem that I learned at school and can recite very quickly like a tongue-twister for laughs. We recalled the fact that Venice has water instead of roads, which is fascinating, of course, and difficult to get your head around when you first learn of it!
We looked at many photographs of traditional masks and characters from Commedia Del’Arte and naturally the creepiest ones were the favourites. We created Brighella the villain in dastardly yellow (his ugly wrinkles have been painted over but nevermind).
The other mask has a beak-like nose that resembles the costumes of the “Medico Della Peste” or Plague Doctors that filled their pointy masks wish sweet-smelling herbs to avoid breathing in the deadly vapours of their patients. I spent much of the afternoon pretending to be afraid and shocked when the pointy nose of this mask revealed itself around corners before its cackling owner.
(A basic template for how to make this mask, which was so satisfying to make and wear, can be seen below. We make most of our masks from cereal or muesli bar boxes).
Whether the children are taking on new identities for a masquerade on the other side of the world or emulating a beloved pop hero, the lesson is clear: be whoever you want to be.
*”Mum, can you make me a costume? I wanna be Puss in Boots. No, no, no, The Hulk. Or Iron Man. Actually, an ogre… make it Shrek. Or how about a baddy from Star Wars! Yeah, yeah, a Storm Trooper. Definitely a dragon. A Leopard or a pelican or a meerkat. A Gorilla! I love gorillas! A knight. For sure this time. Yes, I wanna be a knight. Why are you taking so long to make my costume, mum?”
Christmas in Australia is a Travel at Home experience, because almost all of the traditions surrounding the holiday have been transplanted from elsewhere. Roast dinners, images of snow-men and reindeer, songs about a “White Christmas” — all of these are incongruous to our experience of a sweltering, summertime, Christmas Down Under.
So it was in this spirit of doing something outside our normal reality that we decided to visit a Christmas Tree Farm in the lead-up to December 25.
The plantation was located on a bush road about 20 minutes from us, and it was immediately clear that the field of young pine trees did not match the towering, grey gums surrounding it.
We observed our surroundings and these differences together and set off to choose a tree under the scorching sun.
The farmer let the kids climb onto his ride-on mower and even hold the chain-saw. They watched, fixated, as he cut down our chosen tree.
It wasn’t especially big and we were relieved to discover that it fit into the back of the car. The tree immediately infused the vehicle with its fresh fragrance, and in the heat we knew it was imperative to get it into water before it “got dead” as the children so eloquently stated.
While driving home I admitted that I didn’t really know why people brought trees into their houses at Christmas time. Some research later revealed that the tradition has many different roots (so to speak!) and that many of them have nothing to do with Christmas.
Our outing was a fun diversion which got the kids thinking about cultural traditions, particularly since we undertook this activity the day after Chanukkah ended.
It was also a great chance to discuss similarities and differences, and be reminded about what plants need.
(The kids also took the opportunity to kick up a dust storm, and they drenched themselves while attempting to water the tree; full disclosure).
Our efforts to erect and decorate a traditional Christmas Tree were not immediately successful.
But as a way to engage curious kids in the world around them, it was a super undertaking.
My children are fascinated with the imagery of ancient Egypt, and one afternoon they asked if they could be Pharaohs. They seemed a bit surprised when I responded with a bright “yes!” and immediately set them to work making masks.
We started with an image search, an activity which has become a regular starting point when we have questions about the world. It was great to gain some shape and colour inspiration, but I didn’t see any need to provide complicated explanations about mummification or ancient history. Pharaohs are the “kings” of the pyramids in Egypt and that’s enough for three-year-olds, I think.
Our supplies for the project were: stiff white cardboard saved from a box (because I am that kind of hoarder), poster paint, gold glitter glue and some hat elastic. Each child had his own requirements for his mask: one wanted peep-eyes only and the other wanted his whole face to show. I drew and cut out the mask outlines, we mixed some appropriate colours and then the kids had free rein to design their mask however they liked.
This project provided an example of why it is best to let go of control. It would have been easy for me to try and dictate how a pharaoh should look, particularly when one of the boys basically painted his mask black. I was itching to tell him to do this and add that… but once the paint was dry and he added the gold glitter glue, his mask looked incredible and I was so glad I held my tongue. He was also pretty proud of it.
The other kid often spends more time mixing colours, for the fun of the experiment, than he does painting. In this case, he ended up with gorgeous turquoisey-teals that were entirely in keeping with the colours of a jewel-encrusted sarcophagus.
This was a quick and easy activity but it provided heaps of fuel for conversations, and the outcomes were clearly satisfying for the kids because they achieved something lovely on their own terms.
Sometimes things are not what they appear, and traditions that may seem to have obvious origins may be deceptive. A closer look at the ostensibly Mexican festival of Cinco De Mayo provided me with a number of examples of traditions that have travelled.
My knowledge of Cinco De Mayo (Fifth of May) came from a Ween song that I enjoyed, back in the day. I figured it must be a Mexican holiday of some importance, given the “gravity” of the lyrics about murder and revenge (I think the delivery is less serious). The song popped into my head as the date approached and I wondered what the occasion was about, so I engaged the usual internet search machine.
Hang on a minute, Cinco De Mayo is barely a minor holiday in Mexico, and only in one area of the country. So what’s with all the drinking and street parties across America, Japan and increasingly, here in Australia?
It may have started as the patriotic response of expat Mexicans, who first celebrated the (unexpected) Mexican defeat of a French invasion that took place on May 5, the true origin of the celebratory date. It may have gained popularity because it took place at a convenient time of year for Mexican agriculture workers in the USA, who enjoyed the chance to partake of a fiesta but didn’t want to seem disloyal by partying too hard on Mexico’s official Independence Day, which is on September 16. And it seems to have spread because it seemed like another good opportunity to commercialise a holiday.
So Cinco De Mayo has become a sort of catch-all celebration of Mexican-ness. Which is what I thought I was doing (celebrating Mexico) when I made churros with chocolate-chilli sauce for a picnic in our yard.
But no, churros are Spanish, which I should have guessed. Possibly from a recipe brought back from China by the Portugese, just to complicate the story. They are named after an attractive and hardy variety of sheep — also from the Iberian Peninsula– because their curly, ridged forms are reminiscent of the rams’ horns. I was interested to discover that these sheep were imported to the Americas to feed and clothe the conquistadors and have been farmed there ever since.
So our colourful Mexican yo-yos shall provide our authentic link to Mexico, I thought, and we pulled them out for a play. They have “Mexico” stamped on them! But it seems that yo-yos have become a “traditional” toy only since the 1920s or so, partly because they are easily handmade. Yo-yos may have originated in ancient Greece or China, it’s not clear, but their popularity on the American continent can be attributed to the innovations of Filipino entrepreneur, Pedro Flores. He opened the first yo-yo factory in California in 1928 and the craze quickly spread south of the border.
Well. We added some craft to the mix for our celebration of Mexican culture, and I think we nailed it in the end (although the Internet offers few reliable sources of information in regards to “Eye of God” weavings so perhaps further research is required). Many of us have made paddle-pop-stick versions of these “Ojo De Dios” at kindergarten, without learning much about the customs behind them. Ojo De Dios weavings are apparently ancient, spiritual objects important to cultures indigenous to the Americas, including Mexico. They have various meanings and uses but I particularly love the idea of a father adding a new coloured band to the “eye” for each year of a child’s life, like the rings of a tree trunk.
We enjoyed a small Mexican picnic, and it was influenced by Spain, Portugal, perhaps China, Greece and the Phillipines. Our picnic marked an occasion that is barely a blip on Mexico’s radar but is huge in the USA and beyond.
Isn’t it incredible to discover, as you travel, how far cultures have travelled too.
We are quite hopeless at keeping up with holiday dates; my husband sent me a text this morning saying he thinks Purim started yesterday or today? Either way I was thrilled, because our car has gone off to the mechanic for a service and so the children and I must entertain ourselves at home. Purim is a joyous occasion that is all about having fun, and it immediately gave me some ideas for how we can occupy ourselves without leaving the house.
My knowledge of Purim (as with many things Jewish) comes from American popular culture, most notably the Christopher Guest film: “For Your Consideration“. I knew it involved dress-ups and noisemakers.
This holiday was made for my children.
We began by digging through our well-appointed dress-up basket, testing bunny ears, capes and vintage jackets. But the ideas started flowing and I realised it was time to let the kids create a costume from scratch, so we set about making masks.
We hunted around for something the size of the kids’ faces and used a pot to trace circles onto cardboard. Then we used a cylindrical building block for eyes. After tracing and cutting the mask forms, we painted them in the murky, watery colours that the children gleefully mixed together. Later, I’ll punch holes in the sides and attach elastic to the masks so they can be worn.
While the paint was drying we turned our attention to noisemakers. It’s a favourite pastime around here: hitting, smacking, banging any object with another to see what noise it makes. This morning an upturned bucket was a Chinese drum, yesterday some metal stair rails made a satisfying clang when kicked by small feet.
The traditional Purim noise-maker is a gragger or grogger, which consists of a central barrel with notches, around which a sort of cartridge is spun. The cartridge contains a narrow metal or wood plank that catches and clicks on each notch as it goes around. Or as my children laughed when we discussed this, it goes “gragger gragger gragger!”.
Sadly, our graggers are broken, which is why we were analysing the inner workings together. The basic concept of the flat piece catching on a turning wheel and making a sound reminded me of an old childhood way to “pimp your ride.”
Did you ever peg a playing card to your bike and pretend you were riding a motorbike? It didn’t work very well with our tricycles, even with two pegs, but it was fun to try.
We’re starting small with our children and Jewish customs but since Purim is such a light-hearted holiday, featuring lots of fun and theatrical traditions, I can see this becoming a memorable date on our yearly calendar.
Home decor is riding a Scandi- inspired minimalism wave at the moment and I love it, even if I struggle to live it. But I still often find myself drawn to the bold, colourful, graphic version of Scandinavian style.
There are plenty of online resources that provide eye-candy of this northern European variety, but finding them usually means navigating the web in other languages!
I really love the work of Supertrooper Studio (check out this Melbourne collection) and Lotta Jensdotter (here are some of her ideas for projects with fabric scraps). Blogs that have caught my eye include Mamamekko, Anna Weinreich, Marsipan og Smilefjes and Dos Family. You will need google translate if you want to read the words but you might find the images are enough.
For take-home inspiration, check out the book list by Editions Paumes, which includes “Nordic Deco Ideas for Kids’ Rooms”. These are in Japanese but again, the pictures are so gorgeous, who is reading the words anyway?
Meanwhile, since my kids enjoy colour so much, to the point where they will argue over whose favourite colour is what, I decided to bring some of this brightness into our home. I also wanted to make beanbags for them but I didn’t want those hideous polystyrene beads. So I invented a squishy, pyramid-shaped lounging article, filled with futon stuffing, that I have called a “squishion”. Squishions are very easy to make.
I collected my equipment: various bright fabrics (including some Marimekko and Ikea scraps, to ensure I was channelling a little bit of Sweden and Finland into my design), ruler, chalk, scissors, thread, stuffing and my sewing machine — which is not a Husqvarna.
Using the chalk, I marked a large triangle onto my biggest piece of fabric. I then used this as the template for all my other triangles. The size and shape of the original triangle will affect the finished product, of course, but I didn’t really fuss and I didn’t make a record of the dimensions. That’s one of the key things that makes this project really easy.
I used the colourful scraps to make 4 triangles of that same size, then I sewed the triangles together as shown below.
I stitched those two final edges together to complete the pyramid shape. Next, ensuring that the “right side” was up, I folded the points in towards the centre and pinned the edges together before sewing them in place. See the underside of a completed squishion, below, to see the effect that this creates. I made sure that I left an arm-sized hole in my seam so that I could stuff the squishion, before hand-sewing the gap shut.
And voila! Two squishy cushions which my boys enjoy rolling, jumping and lolling upon.
Although in all honesty, they have been most useful next to their (yes, Scandi) beds as a soft landing for those horrible moments in the night when they fall out… Which still happens quite a bit.
In the meantime I’m dreaming of one day visiting Northern Europe, where I’ll be happy to experience either the minimalist or maximalist version of their very stylish decor.