Woman on a mission

Hello blog! It’s nice to come back to you; it’s been ages! For much of the first half of this year my emotions and energy were directed elsewhere following a family bereavement. My reaction to the deep well of sadness was to keep myself busy – a classic avoidance technique – and my activity centred around my house, my place of sanctuary, stability and safety.

As well as prettifying and enhancing my home environment – the soft furnishings part of renovations I had done in 2013 – I also had a strong urge to get every area of my life in order. My to-do list ranged from searching for a new dining room table and chairs to getting the outside of my house painted, making a will, getting my passport re-renewed, reviewing my home loan, ordering new curtains for my bedroom, re-designing my garden, de-mothing my wardrobe, and a fair bit of de-cluttering and paper shredding.

As a strategy for coping and holding it together, it was fairly successful, but I can’t pretend it was restful. The impulse was not just to block out the grief but to keep my life moving forward. Maybe if I stood still for any length of time and got too enmeshed in my feelings, I would get stuck and stagnate. And then what? When someone close to you dies, you are super aware of your own mortality. Who knows how long any of us has got on this planet? Especially in today’s world of political and environmental instability with a Twitter-addicted, trigger-happy ego maniac in the White House. 

I was a woman on a mission flogging somewhat obsessively round furniture stores starting with the big brands progressing to more quirky shops selling custom made furniture, pre-loved and vintage. Then there was the quest for curtains and bringing home fabric sample books and agonising over colours and patterns, plodding through the legalese of the first draft of my will – it’s still incomplete as I find it hard to imagine a time when I will no longer be around. It all feels a bit surreal deciding who gets what and where I want my ashes scattered – perhaps half here and half in England to honour both of my homes, or is that too much to ask of my Trustees – and do I need to leave them an airfare as part of the package? With inflation factored in, how much should that be? What will the world look like by then – I am hoping it is a good 30 years off.

Oh, and then there was the punishing obstacle course travel insurance claim related to changed travel plans back in January. In this case, I had to produce a 2-year medical history of my recently deceased father, along with a form signed by his doctor to prove he had not been expected to die when he did. Talk about salt in the wound. That was one of about eight documents I had to assemble as proof that my claim was kosher. My father’s medical history ran to 96 pages – happy reading insurance people I thought with a tinge of schadenfreude. Doggedly (sorry, Bertie, for putting negative connotations on a canine word) I stuck with it and won.

My focus during this time tended to be inward rather than outward; I didn’t feel drawn to socialising on any grand scale, just quiet catch-ups with close friends although, conversely, I did have a little flirtation with internet dating (not my thing) but I had taken out an expensive subscription in October and thought I might as well give it a go. One weekend in February, I met three different characters (that’s a blog post in itself) but I realise now that I was merely box ticking and doing it for the sake of it. I much prefer meeting people in the real world; it’s so hard to get a sense of someone from a profile. And there seem to be so many frogs out there. Ironically one of my nicknames for my father was Toad. Not as in fat-bodied, warty and crusty – my father was anything but, in fact I used to call him Dapper Dad – this was an affectionate moniker that had more of Toad of Toad Hall about it.

However, I did settle on a dining room table, one I had found quite by chance one weekend in mid-February in Cowes on Phillip Island. Happy to discover it was still available in May, I snapped it up. I ended up ordering chairs online from a store in Sydney – first having dashed to Schots Emporium and Goldilocks-like tried out a number of styles for comfort. Amazingly my blind date chairs (you can only glean so much from a photo online) were a perfect match with the table. A marriage made in heaven. Perhaps the moral of the tale is that when you are not looking too hard, the right thing turns up.

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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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.

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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.

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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/.

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…

Princely gardens, barmen and baggage

My mother loves the Royal Family and is fascinated by them. From all she’s read, observed and seen I think she thinks she knows them. I’m quite happy to join in. When I got to England in August she’d recorded a documentary and saved it for us to watch together. Prince Philip: The Plot to Make a King made fascinating viewing and started with his family’s flight from Greece in revolution when he was just a baby. Funnily enough, the same program screened recently here in Australia on SBS. Anyway, the reason I say all this is that it referred to a country residence owned by his German relatives, Wolfsgarten near Frankfurt, where he would sometimes spend the summer holidays.

My ears pricked up as I was due to stop in Frankfurt on the way back to Australia. A Google search revealed that the gardens at Wolfsgarten open twice a year, and, as luck would have it, my trip coincided with the autumn weekend, the Fuerstliche Gartenfest (Princely Garden Festival).

So it was that on a glorious autumn day in September – blue skies and temperatures in the low 20s – I found myself in the gardens of a former hunting lodge tucked away in the woods in Langen, just outside Frankfurt. I had envisaged an open garden but it turned out to be a garden design and outdoor living expo with stalls selling everything from garden furniture, plants and ornaments to hats, scarves, food and wine.

hats

In the old orchard, amid ancient pear and apple trees, I stopped to admire a jumble of retro galvanised metal watering cans and enamelware. Then I came across a table laid out with heritage apple varieties in all their mismatched, variously coloured, un-waxed,un-polished, irregular glory.

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heritage apples

Strolling on through a courtyard and past a large imperial-style fountain, I came to the Japanese garden, an oasis of calm with Monet-like water lilies floating on the surface of the lake amid shimmering reflections of acers and willow trees. Another favourite place was the old half-covered swimming pool where a flower arranging competition was in full flow. And we’re not talking church rota type arrangements but lavish and exotic sculptures.

Jap Garden

A bed of dahlias in reds, yellows and oranges (the theme of the show was ‘flammende Gaerten’ meaning flaming gardens, as in warm and hot colours) reminded me that, yes, it was autumn here even if I was days away from returning to spring in Australia.

Lots of stalls were selling edible treats: I sampled truffle-infused honey; salt infused with cornflower petals; variously aged Gruyere cheeses; and baked apple chips on offer at a wholefood store where a lean, lanky guy with sandals and a beard (a cliché but true) was promoting the nutritional benefits with evangelical enthusiasm. With the rigorous Australian customs regulations in mind, I decided against buying the honey and the apples but did get some of the salt. It’s blue and turns my scrambled eggs green! Other treasures I would have loved to bring back include a pink-painted ladder and an Ark-like collection of brightly painted animals.

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Wandering around, I listened to a string quartet, ate my home-made picnic (smuggled out of the hotel breakfast bar), supped on mint tea at one of the many stalls selling Moroccan sweetmeats and got chatting to a like-minded local woman in a courtyard where cheeky putti angels sat atop the garden walls.

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Wolfsgarten is surrounded by woodland – there’s something special about German forests that goes beyond Black Forest Gateau fame; in fact I spotted a red squirrel (a rare thing since the introduced greys have taken over) on my way to the station – and was a very special find. I felt a deep wave of happiness walking round the gardens and a renewed love for Europe, its history, languages and culture.

Another bonus was that the hotel where I was staying was just three stops away from Wolfsgarten. Searching for something affordable yet elegant, I remembered Hotel Wessinger from the 90s when I went to Frankfurt for the International Book Fair as part of my job The Wessinger was good then – small and family run with its own chocolate shop and patisserie – but it’s recently been renovated and now has a fabulous pool and spa, which I made good use of.

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After cheap guesthouses and/or Airbnb places the last few trips, it was a treat, and I ate in the excellent restaurant every night. I also had a drink in the bar, a cosy place suited to tea with your aunt or a drink with a business colleague, two of the nights. I wheeled out my best German for the barman only to discover he was Irish, and flirty at that. Calling me young lady, he assured me I was only as young as the man I was currently feeling. Had that been the case, it would have taken about twenty years off me; I discovered he was a mere whippersnapper born in the 80s. On my last night he asked what my plans were for the evening and was most insistent that I join him for a nightcap, adding that he would be around till 1 a.m. Flattered as I was (golly, can I still pull?!), he was a bit of a lush and I preferred to save my energy for shopping at the flea market the next day.

As well as the flea market, I explored the arty/studenty area of Sachsenhausen and had fun browsing in a olde worlde crime fiction bookshop with a spiral staircase. I bought a few books but restricted myself to avoid excess luggage. I asked the ladies in the shop if baggage in the German language can mean emotional as well as physical baggage. I told them I was writing a humorous, warts ‘n’ all memoir, formerly an A-Z. We came up with a good opening line: Charlotte always had so much baggage…

Wendeltreppe

The baggage problem became a self-fulfilling prophecy after the flea market and I had to cram my cases to the gills! I’m always a bit sad to leave Europe so like to buy up a few souvenirs – that’s my excuse anyway!