C is for Chevy: Cruising in the Yarra Valley

In these times of heightened uncertainty due to that other C-word, it’s important to remember that there is still joy and brightness in the world. This is not to deny or diminish the seriousness of the Covid-19 virus, the global disruption, the economic fall-out, the fear, panic, loss of livelihoods and lives and ensuing grief, the enormous stress on medical and social service professionals, and those who are vulnerable, disabled and disadvantaged.

So, to share a fun and cheerful story, last Friday my brother and I had a special day out, just ahead of all the cancellations and shut-downs. Tim turned 60 in January, and I decided to give him an experience as a present, rather than something gift-wrapped. When I read about d’Luxe Classic Car Tours in the Sunday Age travel section back in January, I knew I had found the perfect way to mark his milestone birthday.

I didn’t tell him what we were doing but he knew it involved some form of transport and a trip outside Melbourne. I’d seen pictures of the 1956 Chevrolet on the d’Luxe website but nothing prepared me for the razzle dazzle of the real thing. Purchased in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and brought back to Australia via a 2,000-mile road trip from Seattle to Los Angeles by John Frostell and his sons, Lois is a sight to behold: shining chrome fenders; spotless white wall tyres; and the body of the car – a four-door pillar-less hardtop sedan –  resplendent in two shades of glorious green, turquoise and a darker sea green, with pointy fins at the ‘trunk’ end.

Within minutes Tim and John were talking cars – Tim ran a very successful consultancy in the automotive industry and knows his stuff. As we set off from the CBD towards the Yarra Valley, we relaxed into the gentle purr of the V-8 (eight-cylinder) engine, its burbling rumble a feature, so John told us, of the special muffler (part of the exhaust system), a modification by the original owner. Winding down the windows there’s uninterrupted space – that’s where the lack of pillars comes in – and when the windows are up, the expanse of glass affords 360-degree views. It was a temperate day so we didn’t need the so-called ‘4/40 Air Conditioning’ – four windows down and forty miles per hour!

Inside, the roof, dashboard and seats are all turquoise, and the front bench seat (long enough for three) reminded us of a Ford Zephyr our father drove in the ’60s. The scallop shape of the speedometer and radio is echoed by the crescent shape made by the back windows when wound down. They really knew how to make things in those days, with every detail beautifully crafted, from the shining stainless-steel trims and the green push down door locks (remember those?) to the 18-inch green steering wheel. One simply had to pose in the driving seat!

Our route was via Wonga Park and we were soon in the leafy environs of the Yarra Valley amid farms, paddocks, fruit farms and vineyards. Our first stop was the Yarra Valley Dairy, which is housed in an old farm with a corrugated roof. We tasted four cheeses, a mix of cow’s and goat’s, and we particularly loved the Saffy, a cow’s milk cheese marinated in saffron, lemon rind, cumin seeds, garlic and olive oil, and the mature goats cheese log – the Black Savourine.

From there we headed up to Medhurst Winery, where arty sculptures dot the landscape and the cellar door and restaurant are on a hill with views over the estate.   We tasted our way through six or more wines including an excellent 2019 Rosé  (we both purchased some), the outstanding Sauvignon Blanc, much more subtle than some of the overly floral NZ numbers, and several reds, our favourite the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon. Medhurst was also our lunch stop, and we shared a plate of glorious cured salmon, smoked chicken croquettes, crisp on the outside and gooey on the inside, followed by tempura eggplant dusted with harissa.

By then our time was pretty much up but we snuck in a trip to Alchemy Distillery in Healesville. With former incarnations as a wood-fired bakery and an antique shop, the place is full of character, a stuffed deer looking like Diana Ross with black hair, leather skirt and boots sits surrounded by barrels and artfully arranged piles of antlers, while in another room there’s a majestic stag’s head and a surviving Small & Shattell cast iron oven set into a niche in the wall. If spirits are your thing, Alchemy make chamomile gin and citrus vodka – I tried the latter, its sharp lemony notes would make it a glorious summer drink. Eagerly awaited is their single malt whisky – we saw the barrels in the tasting room – which is due in 2021 after three years’ maturation.

All our senses fully sated, we cruised back to Melbourne to a soundtrack of Latin America jazz, Nina Simone and other mellow numbers. To find out more go to: www.dluxeclassiccartours.com

 

 

 

 

Steeped in history: from Malta to Queen Mary’s Mansion in Yorkshire

When I studied history at school it was often delivered parrot fashion – reciting dates, battles, Kings and Queens – or from musty-smelling books wrapped in brown paper. There were occasional highlights such as making a book about the Romans and their customs (I still have my little cardboard effort somewhere) but, on the whole, it was one-dimensional and flat. But now I can’t get enough of it. Piecing together, and making sense of, the present through studying who and what went before is endlessly fascinating.

Visiting the island of Malta in November I was captivated by a timeline in the museum of archaeology in the capital, Valletta. That morning I had visited a 6000-year-old underground burial chamber at the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Only discovered by chance in 1902 by construction workers, scientists estimate that more than 6000 people were buried here. And, to put it in perspective, the tombs pre-date Stonehenge, the Acropolis and the Colosseum.

For three days I became a timeline obsessive, immersed in the multi-layered history of this rocky Mediterranean island, each of the many occupiers leaving their mark on the culture, language and architecture from the Romans to the Carthaginians, the Arabs, Italians, Sicilians, the Knights of St John, who arrived from Rhodes in 1530, the French (during the Napoleonic occupation) and, of course, the British. It was a British colony from 1814 to 1964, and served as a strategic military base in the Second World War.

Malta was love at first sight for me. As  the taxi from the airport negotiated Valletta’s labyrinth of narrow streets near my hotel, I was enchanted by the painted wooden box-frame balconies, like mini greenhouses, on the sides of buildings, the retro shopfronts, the many churches, statues of saints seemingly on every street corner and the plethora of plaster saints adorning doors along with brass door knockers designed variously as dolphins, lions, mythical figures or in the shape of the Maltese Cross.

One of my favourite places was the Casa Rocca Piccola, a privately owned palace that has been in the de Piro family for nine generations. Full of treasures including an 18th Century sedan chair, a Venetian glass chandelier, a cabinet of fans, a  private chapel,  a portable chapel (the kind the aristocracy took to their summer residences), silverware,  several Maltese clocks – these were only owned by the aristocracy who had staff to wind them several times a day –  and the ‘summer’ dining room laid up for a banquet with fine lacework mats, silverware, candelabras and cut glass.

From there it was an orgy of Baroque gold at St John’s Co-Cathedral with its frescoed barrel vault ceiling and marble tombs underfoot, each one commemorating a Knight of the Order.  I got a bit bogged with the audio guide meaning I took too long working out which side chapel was which. By the time I got to the Oratory with the two Caravaggio paintings it was closing time. No sympathy from the guard who suggested I took photos of the paintings with my phone, presumably so I could enjoy them over my dinner for one later! Damn!

In Mdina, once the capital of Malta, and derived from the Arabic word Medina, I skipped the Cathedral – no more audio guides – and instead sat for ten minutes in the Carmelite church admiring the stained-glass windows and relaxing into the pealing of the midday bells. Then, by chance, I discovered Palazzo Falson, a private museum housing the collection of Frederick Golcher OBE (1889-1962), a philanthropist, artist and researcher of Swedish descent, educated in Britain. I marvelled at the collection of Bohemian glass including a double-ended Victorian scent bottle (perfume one end and smelling salts the other), the snuff boxes, fob watches, model ships, Dutch still life paintings, table top cabinets inlaid with marquetry, and closer to home in the UK, Staffordshire figures.

One room at the Palazzo Falson was given over to weapons and armour, but nothing compares to the Palace Armoury in Valletta which ranks among the world’s greatest arms collections, and spans the reign of the Knights from the 15th Century till the arrival of Napoleon in 1798. Fashions changed, and as designs got more sophisticated suits of armour allowed for greater movement. Actual armour and weapons used in the Great Siege (against the Turks) in 1565 sit alongside shields, swords and muskets captured from the Ottomans. Fascinating stuff.

Every time I return to Britain, I wallow in history and often visit a castle or historic building – it’s kind of de rigueur! This time, I got to stay in a Grade II early 17th Century stately home in Yorkshire. Goldsborough Hall gets a mention in the recent Downton Abbey film; HRH Princess Mary, the Queen’s cousin, lived here in the 1920s.  I was there for the wedding of my niece Anna to Simon. The service was in the delightful adjoining church of St Mary the Virgin, where, regal, relaxed and radiant, my niece swept in to Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major.

From there – dodging the rain – it was back to the hall for drinks in the Library complete with oak panelling, stag heads, Chesterfield sofas and copies of Country Life dotted around. After much feasting, drinking, dancing and merrymaking, we ascended the oak staircase framed by stained glass windows to our various rooms. My bedroom was named The Duke of York, thankfully not after the current Duke of York, he of Pizza Express in Woking notoriety, but after Albert (aka Bertie), second son of George V, who later became George V1, the king with the stammer featured in the film The King’s Speech. Luckily my brother, Charlie, had no such problems and delivered a masterfully crafted Father of the Bride speech; clever, moving and funny.

The next morning it was wonderful to wake up to views over parklands and grounds laid out in the style of Capability Brown during the 1750s.  A right royal occasion indeed, and suitably historic on all levels.

What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” (Henry David Thoreau)

The other day as I was walking in my local suburb with the dog child, I noticed that yet another house had been bulldozed to the ground to make way for yet another new build. But this was no ordinary house and certainly not a tumbledown. Well-maintained, it was an elegant and gracious Victorian-style home enclosed by a bluestone wall with a polished brass number plate. In fact, it was smart enough to have statues in the garden. Like Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl – albeit in a Southern Hemisphere setting – I used to peek through the fence, admiring the porch with the tiled floor, the wrap-around veranda and the ornate cornices on the roof. This is the kind of house I would buy if I won the Lottery, I told myself.

I was aghast seeing it demolished and furious at the waste of materials – those lovely long sash windows – and the senselessness of it.  And this during the summer that Australia has been experiencing the worst bush fire season in its recorded history, with over 2000 homes destroyed. One the hand greedy developers and fickle homeowners and, on the other, individuals and families powerless to save their homes from being razed to the ground by ferocious fires.

Whatever your views about climate change and its impact on our environment, one thing is indisputable. The way we are living on planet Earth is not sustainable. We rape, pillage, plunder, pump out pesticides and plastic, spend, acquire, amass, throw away and then start over again. And we don’t learn from the past or heed the warnings. Think of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring published in 1962, considered to be the book that kick-started the global grassroots environmental movement.

And I’ve just read – and very much enjoyed – John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. In 1960 Steinbeck set off in a truck converted to a camper van on an epic journey across America with his standard poodle, Charley, a colourful character in his own right.  It’s a wonderful tale full of rich and lyrical observations of the natural world – especially the giant redwoods in southern Oregon, amusing anecdotes about the different states he passes through, and chats over coffee and whisky with a cast of quirky characters he meets on the way. But it’s also deeply reflective and the themes he raises are still relevant today.He laments the amount of waste (including wrecked and rusting cars) in American cities, and the amount of packaging used in every day life: “I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness – chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea.”  He talks of towns encroaching on villages and the countryside, supermarkets edging out ‘cracker-barrel’ stores. “The new American finds his challenge and his love in traffic-choked streets, skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry.” And he encounters political apathy – life seems to revolve more around baseball and hunting than discussions about the respective merits of Kennedy versus Nixon in an election year.  Sound familiar?

Steinbeck died in 1968, just eight years after writing this book, at the age of 66. I wonder what he would have made of the digital era. I suspect he might not have been much of a fan. “No region can hold out for long against the highway, the high-tension line and the national television.” And he rails against trailer homes, a tax efficient form of property ownership with an inbuilt form of one-upmanship as owners constantly upgrade to a better model. Overall, he comes away disenchanted.

“We have in the past been forced into reluctant change by weather, calamity, and plague. Now the pressure comes from our biologic success as a species. We have overcome all enemies but ourselves.”

How prescient, and how uncomfortable, especially given the recent outbreak of Coronavirus. Let’s face it, humans are the problem. Planet Earth can do without us, and most likely will cast us aside – as insignificant specks of dust – unless we learn to live in harmony with the ecosystems that support all life, giving us clean soils, air and water.

Rather than getting depressed and defeated, however, it’s vital that we use the current level of global discontent to campaign and advocate for change to policies and practices that reduce emissions and promote sustainability. And as we do that, let’s not lose sight of the many positive initiatives being undertaken by changemakers, entrepreneurs, inventors and scientists to tackle social and environmental challenges.  It’s not all bad: just this week I read that one of Britain’s largest builders, Bovis Homes, is incorporating “hedgehog highways’ into existing and future housing – hedgehogs walk more than a mile each night foraging for food, but numbers have dropped significantly due to habitat loss and pesticide use. A nice win for biodiversity!

For the love of reading

I’ve taken a bit of a break from my blog for various reasons, one being that I’ve always been a bit iffy about social media, not only the public nature of it, but the busy-ness and noisiness of it, the fact it never sleeps but churns on and on keeping us in thinking and doing mode, and over-stimulated. Not to mention fake news, ‘deepfake’ videos, trolling, interference in elections and data mining.  I tune out of the whole circus more often than not, leaving those pages to scroll on without me.

Given my ambivalence around 24/7 digital connectedness I was interested to read that author Patrick deWitt screens out the world while writing: “Wi-Fi feels like the death of solitude, of solitary thought. It feels like you’re in a room with people all the time. And I think if you’re going to write, you should have some quality time to yourself, daily.”

So the return to my blog is on my terms – I may not get round to reading many other blogs and posting likes and comments. And for now, my aim is not to boost my ‘traffic’ or attempt to generate income. I invite those that enjoy it to read it at their leisure. And I will write it as and when, perhaps in a more flow-y way.

One consistent anchor and pleasure throughout 2019 – when I took a chunk of time out from career and work to spend extended time with my family, particularly my elderly mother, and friends in the UK – was the luxury of having more time to read. Reading is a gentle, quiet pleasure that engages our heart, mind and imagination in a way no other medium does. Even if we choose to listen to an audio book, it’s less demanding than a Podcast or other streaming service.

I enjoyed resisting the pull of FOMO-tinged new releases and got down to some  classics. As a German language graduate, I was thrilled to finally read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks – albeit in translation. Written in 1901 but set in the mid to late 1800s, it’s about four generations of a wealthy north German merchant family, and their eventual decline amid a changing world. It explores tensions between head and heart, business versus the arts, old and new, with exquisitely drawn characters reminding me of Dickens. When it came to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, described by Martin Amis and Julian Barnes as ‘the greatest novel in the English language, I cheated and listened to a wonderful dramatized adaption on BBC Radio 4. It proved the perfect bedtime accompaniment when I returned from my second UK trip at the end of the year when I was still suspended between worlds, half of me still in Mum’s kitchen, and half of me back here in Melbourne. What a relief when the caustic Reverend Edward Casaubon dies!

A few literary memoirs provided fascinating insights into how writers choose their subjects and the kind of world they inhabit. The best was Claire Tomalin’s A life of My Own. She has written outstanding biographies of subjects as varied as Mary Wollstonecraft, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy but is very sparing in the details of her own day to day life, exercises self-restraint around her emotional life and lacks self-pity. I found that so refreshing in the me-me-me era. The daughter of a French intellectual and a musical mother, her first husband, a journalist, is killed by a Syrian missile in Israel, one of her daughters, Susanna, a brilliantly gifted girl, commits suicide, and her son, Tom, is born with spina bifida. What she does describe are her dealings with the literary great and the good – including an affair with Martin Amis – and her work as literary editor of the New Statesman and The Sunday Times.

Another non-fiction highlight was historian Annabel Venning’s At War with the Walkers, an enthralling account of her family’s experience of World War II. Meticulously researched, it’s the saga of her grandfather Walter and his five siblings: Harold was a surgeon in London and his sister Ruth a nurse when the Blitz started; Peter is captured in the fall of Singapore, Edward fights the Germans in Italy, Bee marries an American airman and Walter battles the Japanese in Burma. I learnt so much, not just about the war (particularly in the Far East) but the rich social detail from the  escalating price of horses in 1939  due to petrol rationing to the extraordinarily rigid social hierarchy in the Indian Army: “Even if only one officer was dining in the mess at night, the regimental brass band had to turn out and play while the solitary diner had to wear full military regalia and observe all the mess customs…”

It’s many years since I read a Daphne du Maurier. The Parasites written in 1949 about three half siblings and their theatrical parents is as relevant as a study of human nature as it was then. Julie Myerson, in her 2005 introduction, sums it up brilliantly as: “a strange ambiguous love story set in a world of dark, Lutyens house, Morny soap (I remember that brand so well, French Fern and Lavender etc!) and brittle, fading theatrical glamour.”

My most recent read was SNAP by crime fiction author Belinda Bauer, a Christmas present from my dear friend Monica. Not my usual choice of genre, I loved this romp of a thriller set in Devon. It starts on the M5 when a mother of three children leaves them in the car on the hard shoulder while she goes to the emergency phone to report a breakdown. She never returns… Curmudgeonly detectives, eccentric neighbours and characters living in the shadows made this a perfect bit of escapism.

I can’t finish without including another treasured Christmas present: The Artful Dog – Canines from the Metropolitan Museum of Art – and one of my favourite quotes: Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx.

 

London: Hamming it up in…Ham

My ankle now healing I am now more mobile if not entirely comfortable, and more or less beyond the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compress and Elevate) period – at least the ICE bit, not that I could follow that neat little anagram on my travels in France; I’d have needed a lackey to fetch me cold packs or to carry me around in a sedan chair!

So it made me smile when I met up with my oldest and dearest friend Monica last week and saw she was also sporting a bandage around her ankle. She has a bit of a history with ankles – I once pushed her around the Royal Academy in a wheelchair – and this time she’s broken a bone and so her foot is (as one of my nieces would say) well puffy. Puts mine in the shade in fact. Suffice it to say, however, that we were as one moving at the same non-brisk pace, every now and then having a stork-like rest on one foot.

We started our day out at Petersham Nurseries near Richmond in London, an upmarket (shorthand for pricey), artsy, vintage-y nursery surrounded by grassy meadows along the Thames. We had lots to talk about over our artisan tea in the café, the walls framed by cascades of fuchsia-coloured bougainvillea in full bloom.

From there it was a short hop to Ham House, a Jacobean mansion gifted to courtier William Murray by Charles I. Educated with the King, Murray was a ‘whipping boy’ and took the lashings for any of the king’s behavioural transgressions – it was meant to serve by example. Talk about a scapegoat. The least the King could do, later in life, was to make Murray one of the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber and reward him with a sumptuous mansion!

Before visiting the house, we had lunch in the Orangery café situated in the walled kitchen garden, a riot of colour and lushness with purple lavender borders contrasting with the orange nasturtiums and yellow sunflowers. Ham House was considered one of the grandest in Stuart England, and is now hailed as ‘the most complete survival of 17th century fashion and power’. Not only that, it’s reputed to be one of the most haunted too. I was disappointed not to see an aristocratic spectre or even an ectoplasmic footman!

Ascending the intricately carved wooden staircase you come to a series of rooms including the Long Gallery lined with aristocratic portraits including one by Van Dyck of Charles I, a library with a screen made of a double-sided map dated 1743 in which Australia and New Zealand are drawn as one landmass, and my favourite, The Green Cabinet Room, with walls covered in green damask and hung with small paintings and miniatures, one of Elizabeth I dated 1590. Another portrait of note was of Erasmus (school of Holbein) with an intricate frame carved by Grinling Gibbons.

Monica and her husband Jonathan (we met at university) live nearby, and to my delight, Jonathan joined us unexpectedly. By 3.30 pm a volunteer guide started to close the blinds and to shut up the house to protect the paintings – interestingly, the Green Chamber was designed with a curtain rail and protective silk curtains, now restored by the National Trust. Like kids running away from the Bogey Man, we rushed to stay one step ahead.  That was all we needed to revert to our long-standing default of hamming it up – silly faces, voices and giggling – as we sped-read the information cards in each room, here a Japanese lacquer cabinet, there an exquisite monogrammed parquetry floor, here a leather stamped wall, there a bedchamber decorated in honour of Charles I’s wife, Catherine of Braganza. By the time we got below stairs to the servants’ quarters – complete with the Duchess’s bathing room with its round wooden bathtub – we were off the hook. Phew. That’s what I love about old friends; you simply pick up where you left off.

Our final stop was The Still, perfumed with dried lavender and other herbs, the shelves lined with ointments for gout containing pig fat and a bottle of dew harvested in spring this year. In bygone eras, May dew was considered a cure-all and beauty treatment for women, and for men, washing their hands in dew was said to strengthen their skills in knots, locks and net-mending.

I looked up the origin of the word hamming it up as I thought it might be Shakespearean but my research indicates that it means “overacting inferior performer,” dates from America, circa 1882,  and refers to ham fat used to remove stage make-up. Who knew!

But I did get a double Shakespeare fix, once in the British Library, repository of the Shakespeare’s First Folio dated 1623, and then at an open- air production of Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regents Park with my sister and brother-in-law. Booking an al fresco event in England is always a gamble but we hit the heatwave week, perfect for a sumptuous picnic accompanied by a fine English rosé wine, and then watching the play with the setting sun as a backdrop. What a treat to see mischievous Puck, Titania in her fairy bower and the elves on a stage fringed with reeds and surrounded by oak trees. And one of my favourite lines spoken by Helen to Demetrius (who scorns her): “And even for that do I love you the more. I am your spaniel.” Seems spaniels have a long history of being faithful and adoring!

Today my niece and I are off to see a wartime comedy by Terrence Rattigan at Richmond’s Orange Theatre, a theatre in the round. Heatwave permitting, we also plan to do a guided tour of Sandycombe Lodge, one of the houses designed and built by J. M.W. Turner in Twickenham, amid the Thames-side landscape that inspired him.  My long-cherished plan of making the most of my self-awarded time-out in the European summer is going to plan!

Adventures of a solo traveller: crossing Paris on one foot

I’m 50-something and have never been in ambulance – until last week that is.  And while I was no flashing light casualty – thank Goodness – it was a new adventure.  After five blissful days of reading, swimming and walking (oh yes, and eating very well) with my brother and his wife in Provence, I was on day two of a side trip to Avignon. And, for once, I hadn’t planned anything in advance but knew I wanted to make the most of the Festival.  The Avignon Festival is a huge two-week theatre festival originally founded in 1947. Running alongside the official ‘In’ Festival is the ‘Off’ Festival, offering hundreds of shows across theatre, dance, visual arts and music in multiple venues across the city.

Palais des Papes, Avignon

I was coming out of a performance of Molière’s L’Ecole des Femmes – in French no less – when I tripped on a step, caught my foot and wrenched my ankle back. Who knew it could be so excruciatingly painful, making me nauseous and dizzy? I tried not to f ‘n’ blind too loudly as I drew quite a crowd and the Red Cross volunteers came zipping over on their bikes.

Tearing those ligaments was more painful than breaking my wrist so I was very happy to discover that I hadn’t broken any bones when I was X-rayed in hospital. And on the plus side I’d basically got a free bone density test. Having spent all night in the Emergency Department of a French hospital with a family member last year, I knew what to expect: a long wait, some interesting characters – this time a woman delivering a three-hour monologue – and staff stretched to the limit. I felt hugely grateful to be otherwise well and able-bodied and not stuck in hospital in a war zone. And my sympathies were with the staff who were wearing T-shirts advertising they were on strike, no doubt for much-needed improved pay and conditions.

I was hungry when I got back in the taxi at 9.30 p.m. that night – lunch had been a bit of fruit and a biscuit on the run after doing a tour of the Palais des Papes.  One drawback to my Airbnb accommodation, just outside the city walls, was that it didn’t have a kitchen and was not well served by cafés and shops. I limped along until I found a shop with inviting pictures of avocados and tomatoes in the window, but when I got inside there were only dried goods, carbonated drinks, laundry powder, toiletries and ice creams. Channelling my inner Girl Scout, I bought a tin of tuna and four ice lollies in lieu of a bag of frozen peas to ice my ankle. It had to be that or the chicken nuggets. The only thing about ice lollies is that they melt quite quickly especially when stuck down one’s sock. Never mind, I put the remaining two in the mini bar fridge for the morning.

I lay awake with a throbbing foot that first night worrying how I would manage the train journey – in 31 hours’ time – from Avignon to Paris and Paris to London, what with my luggage, the long platforms and crossing Paris. I decided to start the day by icing my foot only to find the ice lollies had dissolved to a sticky orange puddle in the very un-cold fridge. Do minibar fridges ever work?!

Getting to the pharmacy was a bit laboured – while it seemed miles with a swollen and bruised foot, it wasn’t far enough to warrant a taxi or Uber. I stocked with an ankle support, arnica pills, painkillers and une canne anglaise (how interesting that crutches are called English canes!), the idea being that, when travelling, I could use one crutch to take the weight off my bad foot leaving one hand free to wheel my case. At least that’s what the travel insurance suggested when I had called at 3 a.m. to register my claim.

Then rather than sit in my room and fuss and fret, I asked my Airbnb host to give me a lift to the busy Place des Corps Saints as it would give me a choice of cafes and three theatres. And what a perfect place to hang out! Buzzing with life, people and performers plugging their shows either with flyers or bursts of song, trumpet notes, dances or outrageous costumes, it was one long spectacle. I treated myself to a hearty lunch (the highlight being the lavender-infused goats cheese panna cotta) in one café and then moved to a 1950s style bar for a cup of tea. That afternoon I went to see (foot conveniently propped up) an hour-long Offenbach ‘opera bouffe’– the Ile de Tulipan – a one-act comic operetta with some great duets that explores idea of gender, gender muddles and even the idea of same sex marriage. After a spell in another café, a pack of ice on my foot, I managed to get myself to one more show right around the corner from my accommodation. Il Nouvo Barbiere was full of farce, acrobatics and fun performed by some zany Italians – set, as the name suggests, in a barber shop. Perfect.

I didn’t manage to pre-book assisted travel for my return journey to London but, channelling my friend and erstwhile colleague Heather Ellis (see previous blog: https://wp.me/p3IScw-t0) who travelled solo by motorbike across Africa and the Silk Road, I decided to trust it would all work out, canne anglaise at the ready. And sure enough, the girl next to me on the platform in Avignon had only a small rucksack and offered to help with my case all the way through Paris and to Eurostar as she was also travelling through to the Gare du Nord.  What an angel. I was exhausted and sore on arrival in London but happy to have arrived back in one piece ready for a big family reunion weekend.  Avignon had worked out­ just a bit differently than envisaged: I’d seen some of the sites, had some interesting chats, seen five shows – each one un bon spectacle indeed – and had a free ride to hospital.

A room to call my own: Paris

The truth is, people, that staying with family and friends for weeks at a time – while full of blessings, love, connection, reminiscing, giggles and wonderfulness- ­­­­doesn’t afford the same restorative and mind-clearing opportunities that, say, a walking holiday in the Tuscan hills or a week by the beach might. And only ex-pats who trot back and forth to their country of origin get it; others think we are moaning Minnies! But visiting lots of people you don’t see on a regular basis involves a deep dive into lots of lives with all their ups, downs, highs, lows and challenges. Sometimes I find myself lying awake at night reflecting on all these various lives; it can be a bit enmeshing and involving and I sometimes find it hard to detach myself.

Enough of my preamble. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed having a base I could call my own for a few days in a tiny (and I mean tiny) one-room apartment in Vincennes in Paris, an eastern suburb just outside the Paris peripherique. From the outside it didn’t look that promising and my heart sank as I climbed the wooden staircase, plaster peeling off the walls, to the dark broom cupboard where I retrieved the key from the key safe. But, once inside, it was exactly as advertised; stylish, well equipped, comfortable and cosy with very clever use of the space and storage. The only thing it lacked was a fan, which given the intense heatwave, would have made sleep easier! On the upside, the severe canicule (heatwave) meant that the Forfait Anti-Pollution ticket on public transport made travel very cheap. And it was good to see a Government-backed scheme encouraging people to leave their cars at home.

Wandering out my first evening I took in my surroundings: a crêperie, a dressmaker’s/alteration place, a spirituality centre advertising a talk on life after death, a café, a plumber’s, a nail salon, a couple of independent grocer’s, some small dogs on leashes being dragged out for walks in the blistering heat, and even the railway sidings planted up with shrubs and flowers, the tall hollyhocks reminding me of an English border. What I love about Paris is that everywhere you look there’s something interesting; whether it’s a bright red geranium on a wrought-iron balcony, the ornate buildings – decorated with here a Roman head, there a lion or a swag of flowers, the characteristic round attic windows and the flatiron buildings.

The first night I enjoyed a delectable dinner in a local brasserie, the hot mousseline de poisson (fish terrine) something I have never eaten in England or Australia but, then again, I am not a frequenter of French restaurants.

Unable to eat all three courses, I chose fruit salad for pudding and took it back to my garret for breakfast. That morning I indulged in a bit of very gentle tourism, before meeting a friend for lunch,  and visited the Musée Nissim Camondo, a small but exquisite house museum overlooking the Parc Monceau. The house, modelled on the Petit Trianon at Versailles, was built in 1911 by Count de Camondo, a member of a wealthy Jewish banking family, to house his collection of eighteenth-century art and furniture and objects from the reign of Louis X1V.

Some of my favourite pieces were the Gobelin and Aubusson carpets and tapestries, a marquetry desk made of over ten different woods, a roll-top desk inlaid with porcelain plaques (one of only ten in the world), the dining room laid up with a silver service presented by Catherine the Great to her lover, and the display of Sèvres porcelain, the Buffon collection, decorated with exotic birds dating from the late 1700s. The Camondo story, though, is a tragic one, the collection, which Moïse bequeathed as a museum on his death, is all that survives of the family. His son Nissim died in action in the first World War and his daughter Beatrice and her two children died in Auschwitz.

On Saturday night I headed to a birthday barbeque my niece, Georgie, and her husband, Manu,  were hosting in their garden in the green and leafy, once communist suburb, of Fontenay-sous-Bois. We oldies – my sister, her husband and I – enjoyed chatting to the youngsters but the pièce de resistance had to the the three-tiered cake – Victoria sandwich with fresh raspberries – that my sister had brought over from London on the Eurostar! The same beloved sister that met me for breakfast at Kings Cross Station at 7 a.m. the Sunday in May I flew in from Perth.  She’s a champ.On Sunday morning we headed off to the more ethnic 20th arrondissement to the Bellevilloise, an art nouveau cultural centre, once a cooperative – hence the warehouse-y feel – founded in 1877 also housing a café and restaurant. We were there for Georgie’s 30th birthday jazz brunch and we feasted like kings on the all-you-can-eat buffet. Even though weary from the night before and full of food, I insisted that we made a detour to the nearby Père Lachaise Cemetery, resting place of so many notable people and surely a perfect place for the spiritualists’ talk on life after death?

I dragged the family around with me, determined to the last – I’m like that – it’s an annoying perfectionist streak – tofind the tomb of at least one famous person.

My sister and I in Pere Lachaise

We did eventually find Oscar Wilde’s, although it didn’t really live up to the hype!  And for some years it’s been enclosed behind protective glass to prevent Wilde fans defiling it with lipstick-mouthed kisses. Ah well, at least we ticked it off! The most fascinating thing about Père Lachaise is that when it was first built in 1804, it was considered too far from the city and not well used so the administrators decided to attract more custom by moving the remains of some famous names starting with Molière and La Fontaine. Clearly a successful marketing strategy!

Not Oscar’s but another tomb that caught my eye

As I write this I am on the train – the wonderful TGV – heading towards Provence (tall cypresses that remind me of Van Gogh landscape visible in the distance). Provence means it’s time to pause, time to hang up my tools and let my mind go fallow. No more blogs for a bit – maybe I’ll even do a digital detox!

Wandering down Memory Lane

It’s been a week of reminiscing – meeting up with two university friends after a gap of 32 years and visiting Oxford, my home from 1997 to 2002.  The amazing thing about meeting Victoria and Charlotte (la otra Carlotta – we all read modern languages at Bristol) was that we just picked up where we left off. And, yes, we’ve all aged but, conversely, we all looked exactly the same. What had changed was our choice of food and drink. Prosecco wasn’t the drink du jour back then, fancy grains like quinoa hadn’t come to the West and spiralized didn’t exist as a verb and certainly not when teamed with vegetables!

I received the warmest of welcomes from my friends Hilary and John in Oxford. Freshly picked roses and a selection of hand creams by my bed, a kettle and a supply of herb teas in my room along with a stack of interesting books including Rose Tremain’s memoir, Rosie. How I love my creature comforts! Drinks and nibbles in their stylish garden followed by a delightful dinner was the perfect prelude to a good sleep.  Breakfast the next morning was beautifully laid-up with gluten-free cereal and bread, sliced mango and pomegranate and a pot of Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade. Luxury.

On Saturday morning Central Oxford was heaving with shoppers, tourists, students, day-trippers, school kids, buskers and performers – you name it. I met Juliette – I worked with her husband Giles at the Wildlife Trust and she and I used to sing in the same choir – and we wandered, chatting ceaselessly, through Christchurch Meadows where traditional England was in full swing: green striped lawns; punts gliding by; students in full regalia hurling themselves into the Isis to celebrate the end of exams; a cricket match in progress and cows grazing. We crossed over Magdalen Bridge and walked up a good stretch of East Oxford’s Cowley Road, known for its more Boho and multi-ethnic scene, to a park where Giles was DJ-ing between bands. I wish I had had more time to hang out at the Florence Park Festival and tap into the earthy, folksy, eco-friendly, funky vibe. I caught a bit of music over some polenta chips before bussing back to Central Oxford to give myself a little break before the next chat fest.

Another delightful dinner with friends Tom and Annemarie that evening, this time in Kidlington. And in a belated celebration of the summer solstice we sat outside after dinner overlooking a scruffy field, a donkey sanctuary (I also spotted a fox slope by), warmed by a crackling fire with the occasional bat flying over.

On Sunday I caught up with two girlfriends, Anne and Michele, and in the afternoon we all went for a walk through the fields (one of the things I miss most about living in Australia) starting in the village of Stonesfield and ending in Coombe. The walk so carefully planned by Anne ticked every box and more: green fields with red kites wheeling overhead; hedgerows dotted with fragrant elderflower and dog rose; a gently flowing river; country cottages adorned with blowsy climbing roses (lots of these); AND the ruins a 4th Century AD Roman villa in North Leigh, once one of the largest in Britain.

And the highlight: a section of a surviving Mosaic floor complete with patterns of leaves, knots, stylised pots and a swastika or ‘Greek Key’ pattern possibly serving as a maze to ward off evil spirits. The colours of the stone tesserae have faded, but it’s easy to imagine the original blues and reds and the wealthy Romans lounging around on couches, enjoying the underfloor heating.

I could have done with underfloor heating in my Oxford terrace, a rather hotchpotch house full of quirks and wonky angles, and not nearly as light and airy as my house in Australia. The energy always felt a bit stagnant – not helped by rivers of condensation that poured down the north-facing front window in winter. I recall an alternative health practitioner – Dr J – who I consulted in my digestive disaster days attributing my health imbalances to geopathic stress! Something to do with  underground nuclear testing since the Second World War causing splits in the earth’s crust. He said it was often present in people with syndromes and illnesses that failed to respond to other treatments, and who were living in damp or mouldy houses, plagued by wasps, bees or ants.  That was my house to a tee including invasions by wasps and bees nesting in the attic in summer.

Driven by an overwhelming urge to visit my old house – lifting the lid on the past is seductive and is maybe a subconscious desire to take stock of the present – I knocked on the door on Sunday afternoon. Sadly, I had just missed the current owner but I managed to peek through the window and saw that she’s put in a new kitchen and got rid of the cat-scratched carpets and replaced them with polished boards. I caught up with the neighbours on each side, both still living in Islip Rd, and found out my house has also had a loft conversion.  One can only hope that the makeover has driven out any geopathic radiation and ushered in feelgood vibes!

My house is/was the first on the left

Returning to my mother’s house talked out and ready for a rest – it gets very intense jumping into so many people’s different lives and absorbing and integrating information – I went to make a cup of tea after lunch only to find the kitchen windowsills teaming with ants. Geopathic Stress?! Probably not, I’d put it down to Climate Change and the strange weather and humidity. I am off to Paris this weekend where the temperatures are going to be in the late 30s, quite a change from today’s cloudy 19 degrees!

 

 

 

 

 

Scarecrows, Sprockers and State Visits

Have you ever thought about the history of scarecrows? I hadn’t but the 12th annual Ranskill and Torworth Scarecrow Festival – a village fundraiser close to where my mother lives in Nottinghamshire – prompted me to do some research. The Egyptians were the first to make wooden scarecrows in the likeness of deities to deter the birds from eating grain. In medieval Britain children would walk through the fields throwing stones at birds raiding the crops but when the Black Plague decimated the population in 1348, there weren’t enough people to work in the fields so they made scarecrows out of straw with turnips or gourds for heads.

I always think of that song in Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat (still one of my favourite musicals of all time) Stone the Crows, the one that comes after Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream:

Well, stone the crows
This Joseph is a clever kid
Who’d have thought that 14 cows
Could mean the things
He said, they did

And who remembers Worzel Gummidge, the TV series from the 70s and 80s, based on the books by Barbara Euphan Todd with John Pertwee aka Dr Who as Worzel, the scarecrow? I’ve just read that the BBC is filming a new adaption to be screened later in the year. There’s something very lovable about a scarecrow who comes to life and befriends children, getting up to tricks and mischief.

I didn’t count the scarecrows lining the roads around the two villages but there must have been a good fifty or more covering topics ranging from humour to history, cartoon characters, fiction, fantasy and fairy tale. Mum and I hopped on Wilfreda Beehive, a 1965 London Routemaster Bus, to view the exhibits in style.

Some of my favourites included three Spitting Image-style politicians: Theresa May, Jean Claude Juncker and Jeremy Corbyn, a policeman holding a hairdryer as a speed detector and a robed figure sitting on a chair entitled Mindfulness. Positioned atop trees and hedges along the route were knights on horseback, astronauts and children’s favourites such as Peppa Pig. A lot of fun.

But there was more: amid the stalls selling hand-crafted bags and natural skincare products there was a dog show and competition with categories including Gundogs, Working Dogs and Hounds, Pedigree, Pastoral and Toy, Good Looking Boy/Girl and Most Appealing Eyes. Drawn to the spaniels, I met several Bertie lookalikes. They were, in fact, sprockers – a mix of cocker and spring spaniel. Bertie is the result (one of ten) of an accidental mating between a field spaniel and a cocker spaniel. What does make him? A focker, a flocker? The mind boggles. That same day I accompanied Mum to St Peter’s Church in nearby Clayworth, home to theTraquair Murals by renowned Scottish Arts and Crafts artist Anna Traquair (1852-1936). I reckon Mum goes more for the social connection than any deep-rooted faith. The somewhat happy clappy vicar – it was Pentecost Sunday (reminding me of our/Australia’s Pentecostal PM, Scott Morrison) – challenged us to reflect whether we were ready for God’s Kingdom on earth. The lady in the front pew assented with a vigorous YES and clapped her hands in the penultimate hymn. Mum, meanwhile, whispered all too loudly, that the service was going on way too long and she hoped there wouldn’t be yet another hymn. There was. I enjoyed a bit of time out to reflect, count my blessings (excuse the pun) and admire the fabulous murals.

Not to be defeated by the rain, we also visited Retford’s local museum housed in a handsome Georgian mansion. A mix of various private collections – china, glass etc – and displays of bygone eras, I enjoyed the Second World War Kitchen, the cabinet full of lotions, potions and medicines such as Dr MacLean’s Stomach Powder and the Victorian schoolroom. Although once a thriving market town (granted its first charter by Henry III in 1246) and then a coal-producing centre connected by a network of canals, it’s gone rather downhill and is now full of shops such as Primark and Poundstretcher.

There’ve been some afternoon naps – I’ve bagged what was Dad’s reclining chair and plugged in a little hot pad in an attempt to create a sun lounger experience. I’ve done lots of cooking and, to Mum’s delight, tried recipes that I have collected over the years with only one culinary flop so far. And all this against the backdrop of the ongoing Brexit debacle: no deal, a revised deal, a postponed deadline, proroguing Parliament, a General Election, scrapping Brexit or remaining. It’s chaos. And the way the Conservative party leader selection process is going, it looks like the UK and the US will each will be ruled by blond blusterers with bad haircuts. I met a lady on the train to London who was on the Conservative Executive Committee under Thatcher and was injured in the Brighton Hotel bombing in 1984. She knows Boris and insists that the buffoonery is all an act and that he is a shrewd player. Let’s hope she’s right!

Trump, of course, basked in the attention, pomp and ceremony surrounding his State Visit to the UK (labelling anti-Trump protests as fake news) to mark the extraordinarily emotional 75th Anniversary of the D-Day landings. Britain being Britain, he was highly criticised for his sartorial faux-pas with the vest of his white-tie outfit way too long under the jacket. Then there was the errant h in his spelling of the Prince of Whales and his vicious verbal attack on the Mayor of London. By contrast, the Queen so dignified and chipper and doing her bit for that so-called special relationship between the two countries.

 

From the Dreamliner to the Dales

I decided to change things a bit this year and booked Qantas Flight QF9, the Dreamliner, flying non-stop from Perth to London. I loved it and am a convert! The door to door journey from one continent to another shifted my perception of the distance, reducing it to more of a hop than a long haul. And what joy to avoid the hassle of a stopover and getting off the plane – often at an antisocial hour when sleep beckons most – and shuffling back through security, belt off, laptop out, liquids in plastic bags.

Boarding at 3.15 p.m. in Melbourne, I enjoyed a celebratory whisky and light lunch on the way to Perth and read the papers cover to cover.  Getting out at Perth airport is a breeze and there’s an open-air lounge where you can re-oxygenate and even hear birds flocking.

The next 17 hours flew by – literally. A couple of hours’ reading and then dinner before settling down for the night. I am always frazzled by the time I get on a long-haul flight, job or no job, which makes me nicely tired. I slept on and off – am I the only one to get a stiff neck?! – and didn’t check my watch until we were six hours away from London – nearly there then, I thought to myself. A bit more snoozing then I foot-tapped to a video of a Coldplay concert filmed in Sao Paolo before the plane landed in London.

Cut to a few days later when I got whacked with a bit of delayed jet lag and wanted to crawl back to bed as soon as I got up. Instead I spent nearly all day cancelling a long-planned trip to Wales with Mum (just too far, too complex and too exhausting at Mum’s stage of life and for me as the driver) and booking an alternative, more local, trip to the Yorkshire Dales. Endless conferring with my brother who lives in Yorkshire, viewing accommodation on Booking.com at crazily slow internet speeds, and phone calls to see if we could get rooms next door to each other etc. We decided on two locations: one night in the spa town of Harrogate and then three nights in a more rural location in Nidderdale.

We went through more chopping and changing, booking and cancelling – but I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that we booked into a Premier Inn in Harrogate, one of those impersonal, functional places that lacks soul. Dinner – charred to a cinder chicken and chorizo skewers and gloopy, rubber cheese lasagne for Mum – was inedible. Perhaps as subconscious karmic revenge, I managed to set the toaster on fire the next morning with my gluten-free bread! Thankfully, we had been to Harrogate institution Betty’s Tearoom for lunch and enjoyed a succulent and tasty kedgeree. And somehow – without a Sat Nav or detailed map, I had managed (with a few wrong turns) to negotiate the one-way system and found my way to a dress shop I had read about that specialises in 1950s dresses. Purchasing the dress of my dreams – a full swing dress complete with net petticoat and turquoise silk jacket to match was one the trip highlights! And we managed to get Mum to Marks & Spencer, hard-to-find parking meter, slippery wet pavements, brollies and shopping bags notwithstanding.

Mum at Betty’s

There were a few lowlights too. Arriving at our second destination, a country pub in the small village of Wath – accessed by a tiny humpback bridge reminding me of the Three Billy Goats Gruff song – we both sensed the place had a strange vibe. There was no reception but we located someone in the kitchens and she led us through a labyrinth of ramps, steps, swing doors and passages to our rooms. Red Flag number one: this place was not Mum friendly! While our rooms looked comfortable with their four-poster beds and chest-of-drawers, the old-style bathrooms only had showers over the bath. I had requested and been re-assured there was a walk-in shower for Mum. They apologised for stuffing up the booking and we agreed to move on.

We made a few calls to other places only to get a ‘no room at the inn’ response. Rather than panic, I resolved to trust that we would find somewhere and we drove over the moors to the popular village of Grassington, where we secured two rooms at a nice country hotel overlooking the square. Mum’s room was small and full of hard edges – tea tray, wooden bedposts – and an unpredictable shower that propelled me into overprotective mode. We drove each other mad at times! However, by 5 p.m. we had made a pot of Earl Grey in our room and enjoyed an energy-boosting complementary mini chocolate brownie. Dinner – wild halibut – was excellent too even if Mum’s hearing aids magnified the other diners’ voices and the clatter of crockery…

Rested and refreshed by the next morning, we woke up to sunshine – at last – and had a memorable day. We drove through narrow, twisty lanes bordered by green, green fields, ancient churches and moss-clad stone walls to Parcevall Hall.

The oldest part of the hall dates back to 1600 but the garden was created by Sir William Milner, a refined gentleman of Arts and Crafts sensibility and strong religious faith, in 1927. A series of stone terraces, beds brimming with summer pinks and purples bordered by immaculately cut yew hedges looked over out the vast expanse of Wharfedale and beyond. We sat in the Chapel Garden and listened to the soundtrack of birdsong and bleating lambs. Glorious.

Lunch afterwards in Appletreewick’s historic Craven Arms pub, full of fascinating memorabilia and collectibles – from old miners’ lamps to postcards of the Queen and a sample 1910 menu – rounded off a wonderful morning.

Our last day was a bit of a wash-out as the rain came down inducing a feeling of Cabin Fever. We got accommodation in Skipton at one of the only places with vacancies on a Friday night, a canal-side 1980s hotel with lots of exposed brick and endless fire doors. Dinner in the conservatory overlooking the canal gave rise to a few giggles: the wine waiter confessed to not knowing about, or even liking, wine, and the waitress described the salmon as coming with avioli – I think she meant aioli – and ‘loadsa other stooof” in her thick Yorkshire accent. The food when it came wasn’t bad at all, and we loved watching the ducks, swans and occasional barge passing by.  Nevertheless, when we got home at lunchtime on Saturday, it was a case of home sweet home!