Singapore: Tiong Bahru and time for tea

Imagine a world where scramjets (supersonic-combustion ramjets) travelling faster than the speed of sound could transport us from Melbourne to London in two and a half hours. While this may sound like something out of a sci-fi novel, a joint US-Australian research team has been running trials and recently sent a scramjet attached to a rocket booster to an altitude of 278km at seven times the speed of sound. But the reality is that until rocket-propelled hypersonic travel becomes practical and affordable, travel between Australia and Europe will remain L O N G haul.

That’s why I stopped off in Singapore for a night on my way back from Oslo in August. I’d had a somewhat mixed time in Oslo; some fabulous sights and museums – Viking ships, Edvard Munch and the Vigeland Sculpture Park – but didn’t connect with the locals, couldn’t get a decent cuppa of tea (I know, how very English of me), or enjoy the hotel that was Grim by name and by nature (you couldn’t tell if it was night or day in there). So I was ready for a softer experience to bookend my travels and set me up for returning to Melbourne.

I stayed at the Nostalgia Hotel in the suburb of Tiong Bahru, about a ten-minute taxi ride from the CBD. And what a find! I’ve stayed a couple of times in a fancy hotel in the centre of Singapore with all the city slicker and business suits, where everything is seemingly on tap at all hours, even a pillow menu, which is fun in its way but very impersonal. On arrival at the Nostalgia Hotel, I felt as if I were visiting family, such was the warmth of the welcome by the lady on reception, looking immaculate in her red silk cheongsam. She helped me to my room where, dear reader, I immediately spotted the kettle and made a cup of Earl Grey. No such luxuries at the much more expensive Grims Grenka in Oslo where you could only make an approximation of a cup of tea by blending hot water and frothy milk in a cardboard cup at the coffee machine next to the reception desk.

My room at The Nostalgia

My room at The Nostalgia

Tiong Bahru is small, compact, easy-going and away from the hustle and bustle of the CBD, making it a delightful area to explore. Built in the 1930s and 50s, it was the country’s first public housing project and is a living, breathing suburb where people work, play and hang out at the hawker market.

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Much like the décor in the charming Hotel Nostalgia, which blends old and new, Tiong Bahru is an interesting mix of tradition and trendiness with the French-inspired Tiong Bahru Bakery and other cafés selling cupcakes and sandwiches cheek by jowl with restaurants full of people slurping noodles or sitting down to seafood banquets at wipe-down plastic tables. Then there’s pampered pet parlours, design shops and expensive florists selling terrariums and bonsai alongside shrines wafting incense from doorways.

The Tiong Bahru Bakery

The Tiong Bahru Bakery

After a pleasant swim in the hotel’s lap pool (again, nothing fancy, but I had the pool to myself and views over red tile rooftops), I enjoyed a comfort food dinner of Hainanese Chicken Rice at the Tiong Bahru Club, another vintage venue with wooden ceiling fans and school desks and chairs. That night I slept like a baby – always such joy to be in a bed after a night on the plane – ready to tackle the shops the next morning.

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I went straight to Uni Qlo in the nearby Tiong Bahru Plaza, where I made the most of various items on sale – including a liberty print top – and the tax free rebate. Then, after a quick lunch of sushi in the shopping mall, I took a bus to Orchard Road. I didn’t have the right change and was fumbling about in my purse – so much so that I managed to drop my left luggage ticket from the hotel into the cash box – when three dear ladies, all of a certain age, came to my aid, one of them offering to pay for me. The bus driver, amused at my luggage ticket sitting in his cash machine, told me not to worry about the fare. How welcoming and generous these people were and how different from the reserved (sometimes frosty) Norwegians.

Orchard Road was, as ever, heaving with shoppers. It’s not really my kind of place, but hey, when in Singapore… So I went to just three shops: Marks & Spencer (well, like drinking tea, it’s in the blood), a shoe shop and a small local department store that was easy to navigate called Tangs. At about 4pm as I was trying on the umpteenth dress, jet-lag began to kick in and I started to flag. Luckily, there was a café right in the middle of the ladies’ dress department at Tangs. The Provedore is the kind of place patronised by ladies who lunch and have expensive shoes, handbags and haircuts. Feeling scruffy by comparison, I was nevertheless happy to sit down and I ordered a pot of Earl Grey Jasmine.

In contrast to all the lukewarm mugs of water with a tea bag on the side that I got served up in Oslo, the hot tea, properly steeped and in a pot, was cause for celebration. I couldn’t detect any Earl Grey but the jasmine was suitably floral. And all was well in my world. Then I got the bill and my jaw dropped open – it was $11.20 (so, about AUD 11). That seemed very steep if you’ll forgive the pun. That’s the kind of price you would expect at somewhere like the Ritz! Later on before I got a cab to the airport I had a quick dinner of fish with ginger sauce and a bottle of water for $22. Needless to say, there were no lunching ladies there just locals dining at no-nonsense white plastic tables.

The steepest cuppa ever!

The steepest cuppa ever!

From Grims Grenka to Grunerlokka, Vigeland to Vikings

Continuing my tradition of stopping off in a different European city each time I make my annual familial pilgrimage back to the UK, this year I chose Oslo. Why Oslo? Well, why not? I’ve been to Copenhagen and Stockholm and loved both, and I’ve also had an enjoyable, if fleeting, wander around Helsinki, so Oslo seemed a natural segue.

As with my Frankfurt trip last year (https://thisquirkylife.com/2016/02/09/princely-gardens-barmen-and-baggage/), I spurned Airbnb accommodation in favour of a hotel, keen to be pampered, have my bed made and breakfast served. Trawling through Booking.com after a long day at work, the Grims Grenka Hotel – described as sleek, upscale and unabashedly modern with a patina of cool – looked just the ticket. What you don’t really spot from the online pictures (particularly if you focus on the wide-angled shots of the sun-drenched rooftop bar) is that the interior décor is so Scandy cool that the place is enveloped in a permanent crepuscular gloom. I found myself squinting to adjust to the daylight every time I went out onto the street. And this in a city that only has six hours of daylight in the winter months!

Although the beds were super comfy and the rainforest showers good (even if the compact design meant the bathroom floor got drenched each time I showered), the all-too-trendy monochrome palette of greys, browns and blacks got to me. My room had a black ceiling and a small slit window overlooking an internal courtyard housing the hotel’s atrium. It felt more like a prison cell – what with the forensic police tape stuck over the door of the room opposite (murder, mayhem or merely someone shuffling off this mortal coil?) – than somewhere I might read and relax in between sightseeing. The breakfast place was also dingy and the spread, although good, could have been much improved with more seasonal fruits (who wants boring old apples and oranges when the markets are full of summer berries?), cooked food that was hot rather than lukewarm and congealed, and boiling water for tea instead of jugs of not-very-hot water.

A bit of grimness, however, was a fitting preparation for a trip to the Munch Museum, where I saw one of the versions of ‘The Scream’ (Munch painted four between 1893 and 1910, and the 1895 pastel on cardboard version sold at Sothebys for $119.9 Million in New York in 2012 marking a new world record for any work of art at auction). I started by watching an hour-long feature film about Munch and his life and works. He was a prolific painter and continued into his 80s, examining recurring themes of illness, loss and melancholy, sex and death. The exhibition I saw looked at the connection between Munch’s work and that of American artist Jasper Johns. All fascinating stuff, and the museum café was one of the few places in Oslo where I got a decent cup of tea, made with boiling water and served in a pot. Yee-haa!

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I enjoyed much of what I saw in Oslo but the place didn’t get under my skin and I didn’t fantasise about living there as I often do when let loose in European cities. It wasn’t just the lack of cosiness in the hotel, it also had something to do with the weather breaking on day two, the locals not being particularly friendly, the cacophony of endless construction works and the many cranes cluttering the skyline. Apparently, North Sea oil money is behind the ongoing urban renovation, particularly around the fjord and harbour area, and is due to continue until 2020. Having said that, the new Opera House, which opened in 2008, and sits at the head of the Oslofjord is stunning, and I’d love to go back one day to see a production – there was nothing on when I was there. The roof of the building is made of sparkling white granite and marble and slopes down to ground level enabling visitors to climb up and enjoy panoramic views of Oslo – cranes and all…

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Inside the Opera House

Inside the Opera House

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The first afternoon I arrived the sun was out and I went straight up to the Vigeland Park, the world’s largest sculpture park by a single artist. And what a place! The 200 sculptures in bronze, granite and cast iron represent the life work of Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) and are set out along an 850-metre axis as you walk through the main gate up to the Monolith and the Wheel of Life at the top. Fabulously expressive of the human condition in all its varying emotions and ages, the sculptures are both powerful and beautiful.

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The next day at the Viking Ship Museum where three Viking burial ships excavated between 1854 and 1904 are on display, the pattern on some carved animal heads brought Vigeland’s monolith to mind. Who knows if there is a connection.

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Vigeland's monolith

Vigeland’s monolith

Although grave robbers carried off many of the ships’ treasures, the remaining finds (gifts to accompany the dead into the next life) are extraordinary: intricately carved oak ceremonial wagons; the only perfectly intact beach wood saddle dating from the Viking period; a studded dog collar and iron leashes; lockable chests;, soft leather boots; remnant pieces of woven silk and woollen cloth, some with gold thread; and, my favourite, a wooden bucket made of yew wood with brass fittings and handle rings of iron adorned with a figure head. Who knew that the Vikings were such skilled artisans?

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Ever the fossicker myself, I spent an afternoon exploring the Grunerlokka neighbourhood, a hipster area complete with street art, converted warehouses and vintage shops. I didn’t turn up any treasures but I did get a great jacket in Fretex, Norway’s chain of Salvation Army shops. And I enjoyed my second and only other decent cup of tea in a retro café with comfy sofas and art deco lights.

On my last morning the sun was once again shining, bookending my trip in light (hurray, grimness over) and, before the crowds arrived, I wandered around the 13th century Akershus Fortress. With fun sculptures dotted around and fabulous views over the fjord to the stunning Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern art, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s always good to end on a high.

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Unbuttoning about an ex

I once heard a therapist-type person talking on the radio about reframing events from our past and observing them from a different perspective. He compared the process to sorting your wardrobe: what do you keep; what has significance; what do you treasure; and what can be re-arranged or chucked out. Maybe you can transform an old outfit into a new one with a bit of creative thinking. It’s an interesting metaphor. The items in our wardrobe often have a story to tell, reframing aside.

One of the most loved and enduringly chic garments in my wardrobe is a purple Agnes B woollen jacket. It must be 25 years old. While it’s a bit worn around the cuffs, I had it re-lined a few years ago in lilac which made it look new again. Then a few months ago, I took it to the Dry Cleaners, instructing them to be extra careful with the fabric buttons, which were already hanging by a thread. Needless to say, the buttons came off and were worn down to the metal making it impossible to re-attach them. After all these years maybe it was time to farewell my beloved jacket, I reflected sadly. It didn’t occur to me that I could replace the buttons until the girl at the cleaners piped up that the Brighton Button Shop, a treasure trove of buttons, wools and haberdashery, was just up the road.

The Brighton Button Shop

The Brighton Button Shop

I got talking to Jenny, the current and only seventh owner in the shop’s 102-year history. A former finance worker, she bought the shop on something of a whim when her daughter was a baby, announcing to her husband one night that she had bought a lot of buttons. Back then, according to Jenny, the place looked more like an op shop- dark and cluttered. Always passionate about all things craft, she transformed the shop.

Putting my jacket on what was once her daughter’s change table, she immediately came up with some elegant suggestions for replacement buttons. Loving the personalised service and hearing her story, I felt inclined to share mine.
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Buttons galore

Buttons galore

I was given the jacket by an American boyfriend. I don’t recall whether he gave me the jacket before or after a weekend in Paris. But, thinking it over, it must have been prior.

I was in my late twenties, living in London and going out with an American working mostly in Paris. What could be more story book perfect? I was in love with the idea of being in love and spending a romantic weekend in ‘Gay Paree’.

Things started badly. He had arranged for another couple to join us for dinner – forget the loved-up hand-holding à deux thing – at the well-known restaurant La Coupole. No sooner had we eaten our first course – think cream, butter, more cream, seafood and cheese – than Mr Preppy from Pennsylvania had his wallet stolen. The evening passed in a tense blur of anger, balled fists and phone calls to American Express.

That night I woke up with an upset stomach and had to dash to the bathroom. On my way back to bed I fainted and Mr P laughed, supposedly at the drama of it. But by the morning he found nothing to laugh about and was in a black mood; I had ruined his sleep and he was suffering.

By lunchtime he was speechless with fatigue and fury. We sat across from each other in a cafe toying with our food with nothing to say and nowhere to look. Feeling waves of passive aggression coming across the table, I had a sudden urge to tip the salad over his groomed head and watch the oily dressing slide down his perfectly shaven face, smoothed to glossiness with some kind of expensive lotion. If only I could get the key to our hotel room, I could do the deed, run back to the room, grab my bag and take off. But the key was in his Calvin Klein suit pocket and so I bit back the anger, smiled and offered placatory phrases and gestures, inwardly muttering YOU BASTARD!

After an afternoon nap, Mr P seemed quite restored and excited at the prospect of visiting his designer friends Gavin and Guillaume, who were renovating the flat of a rich champagne heiress. Gavin, dressed like an English country lord in tweeds and a woollen tank top, opened the door to the vast apartment and kissed Mr P delightedly on both cheeks. I managed a tight smile as he introduced me to Guillaume who was flipping through a book of fabric samples. “Enchanté,” he said getting to his feet and shaking my hand before hugging Mr P to his silk-shirted breast. As we toured the flat in all its vulgar opulence and ostentation, it became painfully obvious that Gavin and Guillaume were much more enamoured of Mr P than I was of him, or he of me. This was not quite the Gay Paree I had been dreaming of.

But now, after all these years, I can laugh at the whole episode. What’s more, I still have a beautiful jacket.

Live to work or work to live?

While I have encountered la few live-to-workers in my time (a scary breed), I’m definitely in the work to live camp. My work has been pretty busy recently and some of the living seems to have been squeezed out, but even during the frantic periods, there have been moments of joy, beauty, learning and a few treats along the way.

At the end of June, I went to Adelaide on a Sunday night ready to run a workshop with my boss on the Monday. We had a good social chat over a delicious dinner in a Greek restaurant (the fried saganaki with preserved figs was particularly tasty) and then repaired to our rather stylish hotel. The rooms were super spacious with electric blankets on the beds and sliding Japanese screens in the bathroom. What a shame, I thought, as I soaked in the bath, that there was no one to play peek-a-boo. Something about those screens brought out my inner child.

The following Sunday I went to Canberra, my first visit to the Civic City since I backpacked around Australia in 1995. This time, at the recommendation of a friend, I stayed in an Art Deco hotel, the Kurrajong, which opened in 1926. As their website so accurately says, the place ‘combines old world charm with a stylish and contemporary twist’. Right up my street.

The Kurrajong is conveniently located for the art galleries, Old Parliament House and Parliament House. I spent a few enjoyable hours at the National Portrait Gallery in the afternoon, focussing on portraits of the first and second wave of European settlers, those early colonialists who made their mark either politically, socially or culturally. Among them were: David Jones (1793-1873), founder not only of Australia’s oldest department store, but the oldest department store in the world still trading under its original name; James Reading Fairfax (1834-1919) son of the founder of the Sydney Morning Herald; Caroline Chisholm (1808-1877) – her portrait used to be on five-dollar bill – an English-born philanthropist and activist who worked tirelessly to improve conditions for immigrants; Miss C H Spence (1825-1910) a writer and reformer who stood as Australia’s first female political candidate in the Federal Convention elections in 1897; and Irish-born Lola Montez (1818-1861), a dancer who came to Australia on her travels. Remarkable in a very different way to Caroline Chisholm, she led a scandalous life, had lots of lovers including King Ludwig of Bavaria (not the so-called mad one) and died of syphilis-related symptoms aged 42. Trivia quiz fans take note off all these useful snippets!

That night I dined in and enjoyed a perfectly cooked steak in Chifley’s Bar and Grill, named after Australia’s 16th Prime Minister Ben Chifley, who lived at the hotel for 11 years until his death from a fatal heart attack in 1951. Rumour has it that the hotel is haunted but, thankfully, I didn’t hear anything go bump in the night.

John Curtin and Ben Chifley, 14th and 16th Prime Ministers of Australia respectively

John Curtin and Ben Chifley, 14th and 16th Prime Ministers of Australia respectively

Then a few weekends ago a friend and I went to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Cranbourne, where the Australian Garden is planted up with a staggering 170,000 species of native plants set in a contemporary landscape – the gardens only opened in 2006 – of water, rocks, dessert, dunes and more. One of the most impressive features comprises 86 (if I remember rightly) narrow strips of land planted with indigenous plants representing all the different bioregions in Australia. I was reminded that Australia has an incredible diversity of beautiful trees and plants – from tiny, brightly coloured heathland plants to beautiful banksias and flowering eucalypts.
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Last weekend was the ultimate treat; a whole weekend away. The dog child and I went down to my brother’s beach house in Anglesea for the first time in over a year. From the minute I got out of the car, I felt myself unwinding. There’s something incredibly restorative about being away in a list-free, desk-free zone with no WIFI, and slowing down to the sound of the wind, the waves, the birds and the spaciousness of it all. On Sunday the weather was glorious and I drove to Lorne where I walked Bertie on the beach and savoured a pot of chai at a cafe overlooking the water which sparkled in the winter sun.

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Then it was on up the hill through tree ferns and gum trees and past rolling green hills dotted with sheep to the Deans Marsh, where friends have a weekend house. Perched on a hill with nothing but garden, orchard, paddocks, dams and trees all around, the house is an attractive mix of timber and corrugated iron with an open fire and cosy sofas inside and a veranda wrapping around the front and to one side. After a week of arctic weather, it was warm enough to eat outside. Bertie ran around in the garden with their dog Boston and the kookaburras did their mirthful routine up in the trees while we enjoyed delicious roast beef and veggies. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a Sunday roast al fresco but it was all the more delicious. I definitely work to live!

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Airbnb hosting – I’ve had a gut full

I recently read an article about people in the over 60s age bracket making a bit of extra retirement income through Airbnb hosting. The article instanced a couple in WA who were waxing lyrical about sharing their 12-acre property with their guests, who are housed in a small cottage next to the main house and enjoy lots of home comforts and perks such as freshly laid eggs for breakfast. Sounds blissful doesn’t it? Arm’s length hosting must be very cruisy, but what about those of us who are sharing our space with our guests?

When I started offering my spare room on Airbnb in December 2015, my first guests were two Italian girls. They arrived in the middle of the night and continued to keep Night Owl hours throughout their stay, often snagging me in long conversations and tourist map reading sessions at 11 p.m. at night, all the while boiling up their pasta and frying steaks. One night I lay awake worried that they had missed the last train – they had – and on another occasion they walked round the house at 1 a.m. talking animatedly on Skype with their relatives back home.

Then there was the young French guy who I almost gave up for dead when he failed to emerge from his room until 7 o’clock at night. His mother (an Airbnb host herself), who had made the booking, sent me a flurry of texts in French shortly before he arrived asking me if I knew of a chiropractor as he had a trapped nerve in his shoulder. He arrived mid-afternoon and went straight to sleep. I then drove him to the appointment, and afterwards he took the train to the CBD and stayed out, so he told me in his three waking hours the next day, until 5 a.m. Although he smoked outside, it took me several days and scented candles to get rid of the smell of cheap aftershave from his room.

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My second guests were a delightful American couple who were riding round Australia on a custom-made tandem bicycle. We all got on fine and I didn’t mind them using the kitchen or Dan watching TV into the wee small hours, but I had to smile when they ate their toast, jam and peanut butter on pieces of kitchen paper rather than on plates.

By contrast, the very friendly Malaysian mother and son pretty much used my place as a dormitory. They may have put a carton of milk in the fridge but were otherwise out from about 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Perfect! But lovely as they were, they left the bathroom floor awash, their room stank, really stank, of tiger balm when they left (emptying the bin I could see his mother was taking medication for osteoarthritis), and I also discovered dark purple henna stains on the carpet. Luckily my solution dyed nylon carpet is very forgiving when it comes to stains.

What and how guests eat can be quite revealing. A Chinese mother and her 14-year-old son, who stayed recently seemed to be at a loss when it came to breakfast time. I don’t offer breakfast unless guests request it, but Jane’s English was pretty patchy so maybe she had misunderstood. I zoomed into action and put some banana loaf and scones to heat in the oven. But as they were heating up, Jane remembered she had provisions and came back clutching some stale bread rolls she had bought in transit in Hong Kong. She eschewed my offer of butter and jam and stuffed down the bread with gulps of milk. The son then yawned his way into the kitchen nibbling on a skewer of congealed meat. It turned out that the pork skewer also originated in Hong Kong. Amazed that the meat had not been detected by customs, I calculated that it was at least 36 hours’ old (they had arrived in Melbourne at 6.25 a.m. the previous morning) and had been out of the refrigerator all that time. Needless to say the child had a stomach upset the next day.

But my most recent guests – a couple of 20-something Japanese girls – really do take the biscuit(s) when it comes to culinary quirkiness and kitchen aggravation. They only ate out one night in six. From fried fish to home-made beefburgers and stir-fries, they seemed to be at the stove morning and night, using metal implements in my non-stick pans and washing up under a cold running tap. My tension levels rose and I could feel my jaw clenching every time they came back bearing heavy bags of groceries. Oh no! Not ANOTHER cook-up?! Like a guest in my own house, one night I asked to use the kitchen first so they started to wash the rice in their bathroom to speed things up. Later on they let the rice burn dry and the whole house smelt of charred rice. Never mind, they were going to the Great Ocean Road the next day and I would have the house to myself. So I thought. But they didn’t leave till 10.30 a.m. as they were busy boiling up more rice to make sushi which they filled with spam. Spam sushi?!!

I was out on their last night but got back in time to find them frying up a bit of leftover spam. Euphoric at the prospect of them leaving the following morning, I shared with them the Monty Python spam sketch on YouTube and taught them to sing Spam, Spam, Spam. I put all the pans away before I went to bed and left them scouring the burnt rice pan with a steel wool sponge.

But when I got back from walking Bertie on the beach the next morning, they were back at the stove again, frying up MORE spam, boiling eggs (the replacement eggs they had bought me) and making toast. Then, to my amazement, one of the girls, Hiro, went into the freezer and put a huge dollop of salted caramel ice cream (I had offered them ice cream the first night) on top of a piece of toast. Spam, eggs, cashew nuts, spinach and ice cream all on one plate. Then, as they were getting ready to leave, they asked if they could take the biscuits I had put in their room, container and all. Noticing that they had snaffled all the tea bags too, I wrapped the biscuits in cling film and handed them over. Anything to get them out the door. It really does take all sorts to make a world.

Spam, spam, spam

Spam, spam, spam


Spot  the  toast topped with ice cream!

Spot the toast topped with ice cream!

Feeding my inner European

When I got back from Europe in September last year, I went through my usual grieving process: one minute I was walking round Goethe’s house and sipping tea in a chandelier-bedecked café in Frankfurt and, seemingly the next, I was in a yellow cab in Melbourne on my way home, Dave Hughes’ unmistakeably strident tones issuing forth from the radio, the front page of the Herald Sun screaming all things footy and, outside, Beach Road fringed with palm trees.

It’s always a bit of a wrench going from one world to the other, from my former, still parallel life in England were I ever to reclaim it, to my ‘new’ life here. A bit like those early settlers I read about in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, I have held onto bits and pieces from my original home and country as part of the re-settling process here. But at what stage does the new life cease to be new?

I think, in my case, it’s probably already happened. And any newness is simply a figure of speech and a way of distinguishing my life before and after my move to Australia. I’ve now lived in my Bayside suburb for twelve years – the longest I have ever lived in one place – and it does feel like home. Apart from putting my own stamp on my house and garden, getting a dog really helped me to put down roots. I’ve got to know many people and their pooches on our daily walks on the beach or in the park, and that has created a sense of community and belonging. Bertie and I are part of the local landscape and we blend in. And we’re getting used to summer being in winter and winter being in summer.

Last time I got back to Australia and was still battling the pull-push of Europe versus the Antipodes, a friend suggested I found ways to honour my inner Brit and European. Because it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. I have, after all, chosen to live in the most European of Australia’s cities. Since then, whether consciously or subconsciously, I’ve been finding ways to stay tuned – literally – to Europe and, as a modern language graduate, to rediscover my languages. I started by joining a German Meetup Group. So far I’ve been to a fascinating film about Techno Music in Berlin in the 80s and to a Stammtisch (an informal gathering at a bar) at the Bavarian-styled Hophaus on the Southbank. And I’ve found German cuisine in the most unlikely places. Das Kaffeehaus in Castlemaine is a Viennese café complete with red leather banquettes, gilt-framed mirrors and chandeliers housed in a former carpet factory. I spent five months in Vienna as an au-pair girl when I was 18, and I can vouch for the authenticity of the food – think Wiener sausages, schnitzel, goulash and sweet favourites such as Linzer Torte and apple strudel.

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Then there’s SBS Radio and Television, a hotline to all things multicultural and multilingual. I have downloaded the Radio App and sometimes listen to Spanish news or I download the German Radio podcasts which deliver newsy and interesting items in easily digested 10-minute bites. Listening to the spoken language, its rhythms and cadences awakens dormant neural pathways and I start to remember words, phrases and expressions. Like old friends they flood back with a welcome familiarity. Tunein Radio has been another wonderful discovery; the app allows you to listen live to different talk shows and music stations from all over the world.

I love foreign language films and letting myself be transported to wherever it is. This past weekend I saw two excellent Spanish films (a rom-com set in Madrid and a quirky Mexican road movie) as part of the Spanish Film Festival. We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to foreign language film festivals in Melbourne – French, Spanish, German, Greek, Turkish, Israeli, Russian and Latin American to name but a few, and even, last year, a BBC First British film festival showing golden oldies as well as new releases.

And that’s not all. Palace Cinemas screen productions filmed live in HD from London’s Royal Opera House, La Scala, Opera Roma and the Opéra National de Paris as well as some of the best performances from the British Stage as part of the National Theatre Live program. Whoever first thought of sharing these live-filmed productions globally is a genius.

So far I’ve seen heartthrob Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet and Royal Opera House productions of the Marriage of Figaro and La Bohème. The joy of these performances is that you get the equivalent of front row seats for a mere $20 or so and, in the case of the operas, you can read the subtitles and follow the plot with ease. Not only that, each performance is introduced by a well-known actor and he or she goes backstage and interviews the director and actors or singers. My favourite so far has been John Copley’s production of La Bohème. Originally intended to run for a few seasons in 1947, it stayed in the repertoire for forty years, the 2015 filmed performance being the last ever.

The weekend before last a friend treated me to a surprise night out. It turned out to be the BBC Proms – the Last Night no less. Echoing the UK’s Albert Hall tradition, the program on the last night includes sea shanties and jingoistic numbers such as Rule Britannia and Elgar’s Jerusalem. It felt a bit strange sitting in an auditorium in Melbourne waving a dual English/Australian flag and belting out songs about Britain ruling the waves. I reflected that there are certain things you can’t export – it all becomes a bit ersatz. There’s a time and a place to celebrate your heritage and a time and a place to adhere to the old saying: When in Rome, do as the Romans.

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At Home in Hobart

Last week I was in Hobart for work, to run a grant-seeking workshop and meet with a few clients, and I stayed on for a couple of days afterwards. For three out of the four nights I stayed in a delightful studio which I found on Airbnb. Situated at the back of a beautiful period home just 10-15 minutes’ walk from the city centre, it was attached to the main house but had its own entrance reached via a red brick path. But for the bay window (which reminded me of my Oxford terraced house) overhanging the sandstone wall on the street side, you might not notice that there’s a house tucked away up there. Even the wooden lattice gate and steps up to the house are enveloped in a tunnel of foliage.

incognito house

tunnel of green

It was fun working in a different space and looking out on a sun-filled courtyard planted with a bay tree, clematis armandii, weeping Japanese maple trees, succulents and geraniums. My charming host, Bruce, is an architect who relocated from Sydney. What made the stay particularly special was the delicious breakfast he prepared every morning. There was something flavour-enhancing about the blue and white china, the yellow milk jug, the red bowl full of creamy white yoghurt, the black and white striped sugar bowl and the Mondrian napkins. What a joy it was to enjoy a slow and convivial breakfast; Bruce and I talked about everything from politics to arts, books, music and travel. The simple elegance of the breakfast table was echoed throughout the house with its dark green shutters, stained glass panels flanking the front door, polished boards and floor rugs.

Garden view two

breakfast

Having visited MONA – the Museum of Old and New Art – on a previous visit, this time I went to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, where I explored the section covering the arrival of the early settlers who brought with them their ideas of order and post industrial revolution ‘enlightenment’, not to mention animals, plants, trees, insects, salmon and trout eggs, furniture, china, silver and glassware. How strange it must have been moving to the other side of the world in the days before air travel and fast communications. One of the exhibit captions really sums up the experience: “The swans were black, not white. The trees shed their bark but kept their leaves. The seasons were reversed. European settlers in Van Diemen’s Land viewed the new world they encountered with amazement and wonder. They called It ‘The Antipodes” – the name means ‘direct opposite’.

The top floor documents the Aboriginal genocide (with ‘Bugger Off’ you white fellas translated into the native language) and the fear, ignorance and savagery of the colonialists. What I found most confronting is that one of the tribes was completely wiped out and so will never be able to tell their story. On a brighter note, the exhibition does at least acknowledge the atrocities, and Aboriginal people from the community had a hand in developing the space.

I got chatting to a couple in the gallery café and told them I was heading to the Botanic Gardens. Before I knew it they were giving me a lift – thank you Ray and Anne! It was lunchtime when I got to the gardens and I headed straight to the restaurant where I secured a table on the balcony with glorious views over the Derwent Estuary and hills beyond. After lunch I strolled through the gardens in the soft autumn sunshine through the fernery to the lily pond and onto the oak woodland, no doubt planted to remind the colonialists of the Mother Land. Here, briefly, I was back in the land of deciduous trees and the snap of fallen leaves underfoot, the dappled light through branches and the musty smell of leaf mould was so evocative of England that I felt tears pricking my eyes. A few steps on and I was back to the Antipodes in eucalypt woodland watching fairy wrens foraging on the ground for food.

Botanic gdn view

oak trees

That afternoon I headed up to North Hobart to the State Cinema where I got chatting to a woman who was seeing the same film, Rams, a wonderful tale of sheep rearing and sibling rivalry set in Iceland. We shared one of the comfy leather sofas and laughed and cried our way through the film. She insisted on giving me a lift back to my lodgings afterwards. What is it about Tasmanians and friendliness? Perhaps it comes from living on a small island where the pace is slower and people have more time to chat?

Dinner that night was a $12 steak at the Irish pub down the road. It was delicious and easy, and, as with everywhere I chose to eat, dining solo felt very relaxed and I escaped away to Southern Ireland care of my Kindle and Colm Tobin’s (of Brooklyn fame) novel Nora Webster.

After a quick peek at the Salamanca Markets on Saturday, my last day, I headed back to the Art Gallery to see a wonderful exhibition documenting the experience of migrant women, mostly from Britain and Europe, who moved to Tasmania between 1945 and 1975. What I loved most were the re-created interiors showing how the women maintained a connection with their homeland and customs through food, fabrics and costumes, books, religious icons, photographs and paintings. Before the days of email photographs documenting important events and milestones were sent to relatives back in the homeland, even – particularly for Catholic families – mourning photos showing the deceased person. Whether consciously or sub-consciously, many of us more recent migrants still hold onto keepsakes, furniture, china, treasured objects and items of pure sentimental value that connect us to our heritage. My house certainly has an English cottage feel about it.

museum interior

One of our clients at work is the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and I was able to attend one of their matinees on Saturday. Cleverly titled Bach to the Future, the concert featured works by Haydn, Bach, Mozart and Barber. But, for me, the most heart-soaringly beautiful piece was variations on Bach and Mendelssohn by Elena Kats-Chernin and other artists with Genevieve Lacey on recorder and clarinet. My only experience of the recorder being at school when it was invariably squeaky, never have I heard it played with such dexterity and clarity. The ‘Re-Inventions’ were interspersed with choral movements from Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Creating an evensong feel, the choir sang by torchlight up in the roof space and the whole thing was sublime. When I turned on the car radio back in Melbourne on Sunday, they were playing a recording of the very same concert. Spooky or what?

Before heading to the airport, I had a final cuppa in the café at the Grand Chancellor Hotel (where I had left my luggage) looking out over the water. Ah, Hobart, you’ve treated me well. Can I come back again soon?

Warbling about climate change

I had a real treat on Saturday; I was immersed in the natural environment from dawn till dusk and what bliss it was. I headed out with Bertie just as the sun was coming up and the magpies were starting their melodic carolling. The skies seemed to belong to them and them alone. What a fitting start to a day of birding.

Through a fellow dog walker, I got myself onto a trip over to Mud Island with a group from the Bayside Birdlife group. Originally called Swan Isles by the European settlers in the 1800s because of the large number of swans, Mud Islands Reserve lies approximately 6km north east of Portsea on the Mornington Peninsula, covers an area of 50 ha and is now designated a RAMSAR wetland of international importance. More than 70 bird species have been recorded here making it a bird spotter’s haven.

Boarding the boat, I didn’t know what to expect. Looking around I noticed a good few grey beards, lots of dun-coloured pants, reef boots, cameras and massive telescopic lenses, tripods and a fair few Akubra-style hats. I never have the right gear for all this outdoorsy stuff – as in those trousers that unzip at the knee (like the reef boots, so good for wading through the water…), a special rucksack with built-in water bottle holder etc., but there were other mismatched bods (rain jackets teamed up with straw sun hats) and we made a merry band.

MI one

The trip was led by the local Birdlife President, Tania, who really knows her birds and is a mine of information on all sort of things. We learnt, for example, that sea urchins (known as sea hedgehogs in some languages) have five-fold symmetry, that the weight of a bird’s feathers is seven times that of its bone mass and that the nearby South Channel Port is an artificial island built as part of a network of fortifications in the 1880s to protect Port Phillip Bay against foreign invaders during the Gold Rush.

Spending five unhurried hours walking round an uninhabited sandy island and being away from all the noise, chatter and busy-ness of everyday life on the mainland was magical and immensely soul-soothing. I marvelled at the unspoilt environment all around me: saltmarshes, dune scrubland, seagrass beds, mudflats and water shading from light blue to green to dark blue, all a rich feeding and breeding ground for waders and sea birds. The beach is dense with mussel shells in varying tones of purple, large rock-like oyster shells, clam and scallop shells, one of which was covered in sponge and reminded me of a clasp purse. Another interesting find was a group of nests from a straw-necked ibis breeding colony.
scallo shell

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I didn’t have an agenda or anything to achieve unlike my comrades, many of whom were armed with notebooks in which they listed species they had spotted (regular readers will know that I don’t need any more lists! (See https://thisquirkylife.com/2016/03/22/im-proud-to-be-a-41-percenter/), noting any ‘firsts’ and adding up their totals. Twitchers through and through. My own binoculars are pretty average, so I made good use of Tania’s spotting scope to see the doubled-banded plovers, the ruddy turnstones, the red-capped plovers and the red-necked stints. We also saw lots of pelicans, black swans and terns as well as a foraging swamp harrier and a couple of pacific gulls toying with a washed-up mullet.

reef boots

On the return boat trip, we stopped by a gannet colony on a wooden tower-like structure where a few fur seals were basking. The photographers rather hogged the view as they snapped away. I took a picture with my iPhone but it came out looking blurred as the boat was listing quite heavily. Well that’s my excuse anyway. That and the increasingly chilly wet feet – the downside of not having the gear!

Wet feet and wind burn aside, I got into my car feeling exhilarated and energised from a day immersed in the elements with only feather markings, flight patterns, bird calls, beak size and wing spans to think about. I grabbed a cup of Earl Grey tea at a café before driving back from Sorrento in sunshine, singing at the top of my voice to opera classics on ABC Radio. I was in the zone, so much so that I kept exceeding speed limit by mistake – let’s hope I didn’t get caught on camera!

I can’t pretend that I wasn’t whacked by the time I got home and could have happily gone to bed at 9pm, but I had promised my friend Simon (from my former choir) that I would attend one of his multi-media ‘Music for a Warming World’ shows. And I am so glad I made the effort even if it did mean driving through the CBD on a Saturday night.
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Simon of Simon Kerr Perspective fame is a talented singer/ songwriter and academic. He and his girlfriend Christine have put together a fabulous show ‘where science, art and hope converge.’ Drawing on photos, peer-reviewed science, quotes, facts and figures, the show weaves together song and overhead visuals.

One of the pieces that really hit home was played by violinist Kylie Morrigan. Composed with one note representing the average global temperature for a single year from 1880 to 2012, it got higher and higher until it felt really frantic. As Simon says, the scientific evidence around global warming and climate change is irrefutable and 2015 is the hottest recorded year to date. What kind of world are we bequeathing to our grandchildren?
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That’s where the hope comes in. We can do more than ride our bikes and be vigilant about our recycling. Instancing the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (a private charitable fund) who have recently announced their decision to withdraw their funds from fossil fuel investments, he encouraged us to find out what kind of investments our banks and super funds are making. With a playful song entitled ‘Cheerio Coal’, he ended with a call to action: disinvest from the fossil fuel sector and stop propping up an economy that drives climate change.

What will happen to places like Mud Islands Reserve if we carry on as we are and the planet’s average annual global surface temperature rises by another 1 degree above the pre-industrial level?
For more information or to host one of Simon’s shows go to: http://www.simonkerrmusic.net/.

I’m proud to be a 41-percenter

Lists, lists, lists, lists/ lists, lists, lists, lists/ LISTS….. (to the tune of Monty Python’s Spam, Spam, Spam). I love a good list and get immense satisfaction when I achieve and complete a job or chore. I used to try and wean myself off my inner list-ticker but now I’ve decided to embrace and celebrate it.

My notebooks are never this empty...

My notebooks are never this empty…

Some so-called leadership experts (if you believe the Sunday papers) claim that to-do lists are a no-no and can make you more stressed. Studies have shown that only 41 per cent of professionals who write lists actually complete the tasks. I clearly fall into this bracket. But I don’t just make lists for work, I write lists for everything even when I’m on holidays. I like to get things done and make the most of my time whatever I am doing. In some ways I’m a woman on a mission to squeeze the maximum out of life. By working through my to-do lists, I reckon – perhaps kid myself – that I make more time for new experiences and adventures.

Talking of adventure, I recently had an Out of Africa moment or three at the Fundraising Institute of Australia’s annual conference, which, this year, was in Melbourne. I work for a fundraising consultancy that assists not-for-profit organisations to develop effective grant-seeking strategies. Our theme this year was: ‘It’s a jungle out there and we can help you get out of it.’ With a foliage-draped stand dotted with blow-up zebras and monkeys, we donned pith helmets (sourced on-line from the UK; perhaps not surprising given Blighty’s colonial past), leopard print scarves and khaki jackets. It was a whirlwind of networking, meetings, exchanged business cards, chats, dinners, drinks, lots of business development and regular injections of caffeine. It was exhausting being ‘on’ for the best part of three days but we had a lot of fun.

Out of Africa...

Out of Africa…

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Post conference our workloads have trebled and it’s still go-go-go. That’s why I’m so happy I embarked on a list-a-thon during February. I wanted to clear not just my desk but the decks in general – I’d had a whole load of chores building up and hanging over me since Christmas. I slashed and burned my way through my lists and lists of lists of lists every weekend for a month. I tackled the front garden by my carport and replaced a weed suppression mat covered with dusty old stones and shells with new soil and plants. I weeded and pruned my courtyard at the back, moved pots around, transplanted cuttings from a hardy geranium grown eleven years ago from a cutting taken in Country Victoria and scrubbed paint splotches off my garden table. On behalf of the Body Corporate, I finalised negotiations with fence contractors and tree removalists, did the minutes and the accounts, the latter badly as I am no mathematician, and organised for a new fence to be erected.

I replaced saggy cushions on my newly-acquired op shop sofa with firmer foam inserts that didn’t leave bottom-shaped hollows. The only problem was that the guy in the shop measured the new cushions against the old ones which cascaded over the edge of the sofa. As a result, they stuck right out like a ledge and my feet barely reached the ground. Off I went straight back to Clark Rubber to get them trimmed, problem solved. I also replaced my old office desk with a state-of-the-art electronic height-adjustable desk. My brother, who happens to live next door to a guy who runs an office furniture outfit, got me a fabulous deal. While I don’t stand for more than about 30 minutes at a time, it does relieve the pressure on my lower back and keep me energised. Another of my back saving strategies is to swap my chair for a Swiss Ball here and there as it (apparently) helps to engage my core muscles – and that’s de rigueur nowadays, so the gurus tell us, if we want to stay fit and healthy, that and the consumption of chia seeds, pomegranates and kale. The change of desk brought on an office spring clean and general tidy-up. I threw out lots of old paperwork, tied up all my phone and appliance leads with cable ties and made the room feel more spacious. My old desk is in my carport awaiting collection by the Salvos. Another tick!

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Once my desk and office were sorted, it was time to tackle the paperwork and I did so with a vengeance. All that getting up and sitting down and circling my pelvis on the Swiss ball clearly put fire in my belly. I started by changing bank and credit card. The process wasn’t as complicated as I thought, thanks to my lists of course, but time will tell if I managed to successfully swap over all the direct debits, standing orders, on-line accounts and other payments. Then I had to do my tax return. Technically, it wasn’t due till May but the ATO thought I owed them money (for reasons I won’t bore you with) so I had to get it done. Lots of phone calls, scanned documents and spreadsheets later, the matter was all settled. I also had to call my health insurance provider about some back claims and make some on-line purchases, cashing in a Marks and Spencer voucher for me and then ordering a replacement dog training whistle for Bert. I can’t think where or how I lost the old one, but my voice just doesn’t carry over the wind and waves at the beach so a new one is essential. I could have ordered a cheapo pack of children’s party whistles from China but thought better of it and ordered a couple of shepherd’s whistles instead. When I came to phone through my credit card details, I found myself talking to a delightful woman in Inveraray on the West Coast of Scotland. We had a lovely chat – lists can you take you interesting places.

My kitchen was also in need of a bit of life laundry. First, I bagged up some surplus dry food items and tins and took them to a drop-off place for asylum seekers, then I sorted a large pile of recipes torn out of magazines and newspapers and filed them, at the same time banning myself from looking at any more recipes for at least a year. Needless to say, I did have a recipe relapse the weekend before last when I took a photo of a delicious-sounding chicken salad in Sunday Life. Leopards and spots…

Another task that I’d been putting off since I got my new job in October was to transfer all my photos, files and music from my old to my new computer. I’ve now moved them over but haven’t organised the photos, which somehow seem to have duplicated themselves into copies and copies of copies. Getting round to sorting out the photos keeps dropping to the bottom of the list along with doing my stretches, shredding old paperwork and cleaning Bertie’s teeth (he swallows rather than chews his food so gets plaque build-up).

I may sound like I’m incredibly organized, and in some ways I am, but don’t be fooled, I can also be chaotic and absent-minded with too many things on the go. But a bit of chaos and unpredictability is good and healthy. Too much listing, doing and thinking kills off spontaneity and bombards the brain with too much activity. How about you? Which of you are go-with-the-flow types and which of you are more plan and list-driven?

Needless to say I never arrive at the Nirvana-like state of being list-less, but after a blitz, the lists tend to plateau out and it’s easier to tackle the day job and to keep the rest of the time free for fun, creativity and socialising. In April I’m signed up to go to Mud Island off Sorrento on a bird-watching trip. It promises to be wet, muddy and full of fabulous waders and wetland birds. Well, I hope I get to go, I am on a wait LIST!

A good soaking

I recently watched a program featuring Dunleary on the Irish Coast and, specifically, an open-sea bathing area known as Forty Foot, where hardy souls brave the chilly waters of Dublin Bay all year round. On Christmas Day the number of swimmers increases significantly as festive frolickers plunge in.

I wouldn’t like to think how cold the Irish Sea would be in the height of summer let alone the depths of winter. But it did look gloriously wild and rugged and the chance of coming nose to nose with grey seals might warrant the risk of hypothermia.

Here in my Bayside suburb of Melbourne, there’s a mob called the Brighton Icebergers – they’ve been around since the 1980s and even have their own website – who swim year round in the Bay. And don’t confuse Melbourne with more tropical parts of Australia – the water here drops to around 7-12 degrees in winter and the air temperature might be a mere 5 degrees topped off with a wind chill factor. And when it’s cloudy, the water can seem as grey as the Atlantic.

I’ve certainly made the most of the warm summer days and enjoyed swimming in water at an ambient 20 degrees followed by a spell in the sun to dry off afterwards. A few weeks ago I met a seasoned Iceberger who tried to convert me: “The water’s lovely even in winter,” he said, describing how he puts on a neoprene cap over his regular swimming cap to insulate his head against the cold. “The worst thing you can do is to jump straight into a hot shower when you get home. Your body’s numb and you need to warm up gradually. Anyway, you should be used to the cold, you’re British.”

How many times do I get that comment?! And how many times do I reply that a person’s ability to tolerate extremes of temperature is not so much determined by geography as by constitutional type. Having said that geography can of course influence your body type (think Inuits, for example), but not in my case. I didn’t tell my fellow burgher and iceberger that if I go swimming when the outside temperature is anything less than a warm 20-something, preferably 25 or over, my hands go numb and my ears ache.

I may have terrible circulation, but my Anglo-Saxon heritage has made me stoic when it comes to dealing with inclement weather. I think nothing of putting on waterproofs (you still get soaked) and walking Bertie even if it’s tipping down with rain and blowing a gale. Thirty-something years of (often) wet holidays in the UK and family walks in all weathers, come rain or shine, have proved a good training ground.

What’s more, I once sat through A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the pouring rain in the garden of an Oxford college – the show clearly had to go on even if it were more like a midwinter night’s dream. It was hard to concentrate on the rhyming couplets as the rain puddled in the grooves of the bucket chairs on which we were sitting, forming a mini lake around our bottoms.

And just last summer when I was in England, Dad, Sally and I had a wet picnic in the Yorkshire Dales. But, this time, with a combined age of 216, the three of us opted to stay in the car and enjoy the wonderful views. Without all that rain, of course, the fields wouldn’t be such a lush and vivid green. Sally, who is wonderfully organised and a fabulous hostess, had prepared a delicious lunch served in 1970s orange-coloured Tupperware-like containers. A bit like an in-flight meal but way better, we had bread and butter in one compartment, prawn cocktail in another, strawberries in another and so on.

Spot the orange lunch trays!

Spot the orange lunch trays!

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As I write this the temperature is climbing to a sticky 33 degrees in Melbourne. If I had managed to get out of bed an hour earlier, I would have been able to enjoy a swim before getting to my desk. A bit like all-weather swimmers, I greatly admire people who can get up between five and six every morning. I am definitely a lark rather than an owl, but I’m currently struggling to get out of bed at 7am! Anyway, mustn’t grumble as the Brits would say (that’s the thing we grumble, we don’t whinge) as I might fit in a swim after work instead. If I can first clear my desk…