The Oxford Dictionary of English defines the word ‘napkin’ as follows:

a square piece of cloth or paper used at a meal to wipe the fingers or lips and to protect garments.

The most important word here is the verb ‘wipe’. When one wipes something, one intends to clean that very thing. In order to achieve this objective, the napkin itself must be free of detritus. If a napkin has been soiled prior to its intended use, then it would perform the task of wiping very poorly indeed.

For quite some time, I have been observing what I consider to be utter nonsense in cafés. Observe an example below.

The brownie looks delicious and has been presented beautifully. The napkin, on the other hand, has been placed underneath the brownie, thereby soiling the napkin. The reason for this is unclear; a wooden board has already been used to support the brownie, so why must a napkin be placed beneath it? Surely the napkin could have been folded and placed neatly to the side instead. Would that have been so offensive?

Whenever I’m confronted by this super-first-world predicament, I have no choice but to use the soiled napkin, which compromises its ability to clean my fingers. In addition, attempting to unfold the napkin to use its cleaner (inner) surface area presents other problems, such as the spilling of crumbs off the edge of the board or plate.

Furthermore, I could request or find another napkin, however this would lead to the unnecessary waste of additional napkins over time.

Don’t even get me started on the idea of protecting one’s garments with such a napkin, as is suggested in the definition. Would you put this napkin on your lap? I think not.

I implore café owners to reconsider their presentation of napkins with food, so that we all may use them as they were designed to be used.

Thank you.

Wollongong in Transformation

For some time, the city of Wollongong has been changing… and for the better. We’ve always had gorgeous beaches and a picturesque escarpment but elements of our city have needed updating.

The most notable shifts in recent years have been improvements to the Blue Mile coastal areas and old tramway, the refurbished Crown Street Mall, new GPT shopping developments and the annual breath of life that is the Wonderwalls Festival of street art. Not to mention, the city council has undertaken the massive task of overhauling the streetscape, with new footpaths bringing greater consistency into the place. I applaud them for this.

There has always been disagreement, like how how the mall should function. I disagree with the idea that it should have reverted to allowing traffic and am glad that it remained as a pedestrian strip. Around the world, we’re seeing a shift back to pedestrian-friendly areas that enable safer movement, outdoor activities and events such as markets. That’s why when you visit countries like Italy and Germany, you come back with romantic memories of their amazing respective piazze and Fußgängerzonen. These open spaces allow the creation of culture, with locals with visitors mixing and mingling. Cities are for people, not cars.

The thing that does puzzle me about the mall, however, is the lack of eateries on the strip, particularly those that can provide al fresco dining. At night-time (other than on Thursdays with the Eat Street Market), the place is dead. The insistence on having almost entirely daytime retail is strange and totally cuts off the bustling Keira Street restaurant strip from the similar setup on Corrimal Street. We basically have two entirely different nightlife zones.

Recently, I’ve been wondering about another development that was completed farther down Corrimal Street, on the old Dwyers site. The fantastic decision was made to keep the footpath very wide, enabling improved pedestrian access and avoiding the creation of a huge wind tunnel with the new Oxford development that stands across the road.

Except the only issue is, nothing is happening here. It’s dead space. Sure, the Coffee Club has just moved in up the road on the corner, but other than a few chairs outside, everything is indoors and behind glass. One restaurant has already failed and other spaces are offices or have remained for lease since construction was completed.

Sometimes I wonder if there’s actually a long-term vision that drives all of this. Cities should feel lively and inviting; this area, unless there’s some future plan of which I am unaware, does not display those characteristics. Why not add a coffee cart? How about news or fresh produce stands, like in Sydney? How about a place for street artists? The same can be said of Civic Plaza in front of the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, which is often empty unless the Spiegeltent is in town.

As unpopular as this suggestion may be, what about something like the sandstone and palm tree art installation in the mall? Whilst some people hate that design, at least it’s distinctive and children can be seen climbing and jumping from sandstone block to sandstone block. It’s a great combination of form and function, as the blocks function as family seating during the markets and also break up the greyness of the mall. Remember, Parisians hated the Eiffel Tower when it went up and now it’s an icon. I’m not saying that the palm tree is our Eiffel Tower but at least it’s unique, memorable and makes you stop to observe your surroundings.

Wollongong is a beautiful place that’s full of diverse, interesting people. Fortunately, as a regional centre, we don’t suffer the same level of congestion and air and noise pollution that Sydney has. In many ways, we have it really easy here. I’m so proud of the improvements that have been made over the last decade but occasionally you see something like this and wonder… ‘Why?’. I want to see Wollongong CBD become an altogether exciting place, not a mish-mash of food and retail.

If anyone has any clue about the intention for this dead space, I’d love to know about it.

Passing the Newspaper

Society is full of little niceties and customs that we don’t always consider.

Earlier this morning, I was sitting at one of my favourite cafés, reading an article on my iPad Pro whilst I waited for my wife to arrive at the table. There was a father-daughter couple enjoying breakfast at the table next me, before she had to go to school. Although I was already browsing the Web and obviously using a digital device, the father kindly turned to me as he and his daughter were getting up and offered me his newspaper.

I thanked him for the offer but declined politely. He said, ‘No problem’, then they left.

The fact that he was reading a newspaper is probably a generational thing, however, I find this gesture to be quintessentially Australian. That’s certainly not to say that friendliness doesn’t exist elsewhere around the world, but the custom of moving on from one’s table and offering a newspaper to another patron is something that I have only ever seen at home… never overseas. (Please correct me if I’m wrong!) What amused me was that this was such a learned, ingrained behaviour that he did it even though I was visibly reading online news on my device.

No doubt, this kind of custom must be the result of Australia’s enduring ‘Britishness’. Having worked with Germans in the past, they often questioned me (as the only Australian-born staff member in the office) why Australians felt the need to engage in constant social niceties and small talk. ‘It’s simply inefficient!’, they would say, particularly when a queue of people is behind you at the local supermarket checkout. That’s probably why they fling your groceries down the end of the line… there’s no time for chit-chat once the venerable barcode scanner is in action.

Whilst I would argue that the very specific offer of a newspaper is on its way to being completely antiquated, I value these moments and increasingly take notice of them in everyday life. As we all bury our faces in our devices, it’s important to look up, acknowledge and say ‘hello’ to strangers. This fixed attention to devices is something that I have noticed particularly on public transport.

Whilst it may sound corny, small talk and everyday acknowledgements are the glue that keep civil society together. Always take the time simply to say ‘hello’ or make an offer. It makes a difference.