Scarecrows, Sprockers and State Visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From the Dreamliner to the Dales

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

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

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

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

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

Mum at Betty’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lest we forget and the legacy of a black cello

Sitting at a favourite beachside café recently, I spotted among the display of black and white photos one featuring a group of World War 1 soldiers on the beach.  According to the caption they were on leave or recovering from injury – there was a Rehabilitation Hospital in nearby Hampton. How they must have savoured escaping the squalor and carnage of the trenches.Although films and books such as Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong have informed my knowledge of the Great War – the war that was to put an end to all wars – I never studied it formally in school. Even if I had, the focus would have been on the battles, movements of troops around the various fronts, logistics and numbers rather than the human stories.

A friend of mine curated an an exhibition at the Melbourne Museum called Love and Sorrow, documenting the wartime experience of eight service personnel and their families. The exhibition was on for two years but, as it turned out, I got to see it the week before it closed – just before the Centenary of World War 1 in November last year.The exhibition started with the propaganda posters and parades extolling the virtues of courage, patriotism and duty. But following the trajectory of the eight characters and their families through photos, scrapbooks, letters, diaries and other personal effects, it soon became a story of separation, loss, trauma, mental and emotional disfigurement.

One mother, on hearing her son was missing in action, was catapulted into premature senility, another sent her husband their new baby’s booties only to have them sent back – redirected – in the same envelope. How chilling it must have been to read the words: Return to Sender.  One of the most confronting sections was ‘Men with Broken Faces’ – before the advent of sophisticated technology and plastic surgery, facial reconstruction methods were cumbersome and crude. One man who underwent surgery never went out in public without wearing a scarf over his mouth, his self-esteem and confidence as shattered as his jawbone.

One of the more positive stories concerned Lil Mackenzie, an enormously plucky nurse who cared for patients in France and Italy close to the front-lines. She was summoned to Buckingham Palace to receive a Royal Red Cross 2nd Class for her outstanding public service. On returning to Australia, Lil and her sisters set up a care home in Boronia, Melbourne, and many of her patients were veterans. She lived to 90 but suffered bouts of depression after the war; no one came back from WW1 without some form of physical or mental scarring.

The statistics were sobering too: over 60,000 Australians died in the war and thousands more went on to die of war injuries out of a population of only five million people. The stories of the eight characters got under my skin, and their sacrifice and suffering lent context and poignancy to a Centenary of Armistice 2018 service that I attended at Green Point overlooking the Bay in Brighton. As the Last Post sounded before the one-minute silence, I thought of all those who had set out with ideas of glory and heroism and either lost their lives or returned broken, tearing families, friends and communities apart.Soon after, I spotted Peter Jackson’s (Lord of the Rings) film They Shall Not Grow Old, which was on limited release in Australia.  This extraordinary film co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW and The Imperial War Museum in London in association with the BBC used original footage from the trenches (stored in the Imperial War Museum’s archives) and used modern day technology to deliver it to us in colour.  Using oral histories from surviving British veterans as the soundtrack and actors voicing beyond-the-grave dialogue based on forensic lip-reading of the silent footage, this film is a tour de force and offers a visceral snapshot of life in the trenches and on the frontline. The oral histories were recorded by the Imperial War Museum in the 1960s around the 50th Anniversary of WW1, the first time the human element of the war was captured.

What struck me was the no-nonsense approach of the soldiers who approached the war as a job they had to get done whatever it took. Resilient, hard-working, committed and uncomplaining they got on with it. Watching footage of them enlisting (many lied about their age to qualify and none had an ounce of spare flesh– no fast food in those days), it was clear that they had to take whatever boots, shirts and uniforms they were given, irrespective of the fit. And they only had one change of shirt. Quite apart from the bombing, bloodshed and loss of life, life in the trenches was gruelling; from dysentery to rats, lice, the stench of rotting bodies, foot rot, frostbite, lack of sleep and the general filth and all-pervasive mud. And, yet, such camaraderie and mutual concern among the soldiers as well as an ability to make the most of any down time –playing cards, laughing, joking, telling stories and, of course, smoking. Lots of that back then.

My immersion in all things WW1 prompted me to ask an uncle about our own family’s involvement. My great-grandfather and two great uncles served in the war but, amazingly, they all survived; how I wish I had known enough to ask them questions while they were still alive.

However, my uncle did share a wonderful story of a musical legacy. In the 1890s a Belgian family came to live in England and in 1904 the father gave his musically-gifted son a black cello. So talented was the boy that he played for Queen Victoria. But in 1914 with the advent of the war, he packed the cello away and went to the front to fight for the British army. Senior officers heard that that the boy was a virtuoso player and gave him ten days leave to return to the UK to get his cello so that he could play for the troops. The cello got damaged along the way but was glued together and survived the war as did the man, who went on to teach cello at the famous independent school, Eton. Cut to 12 November 2018 and a contemporary pupil played part of Elgar’s Cello Concerto on the very same black cello as part of a Centenary Remembrance Service for the 1570 Old Etonians who were killed in World War. If that cello could talk, I wonder what stories it would have to tell.

In praise of staycations – and the luxury of time

One of my Christmas presents was My Little Happy Book – a journal to record happy moments, happy scribbles, happy songs, quotes, meals – even dreams. Curiously there’s also a section called My Happy to-do List. While I am huge fan of lists, happiness over the Christmas holidays has been an absence of lists, deadlines and rushing. That’s the beauty of Christmas falling in the summer months – I’ve just about got used to hot, light, beach-y, seafood-y Australian Christmases, the sky an endless blue, the flowering gums alive with the squawking of Rainbow lorikeets, the jacarandas dropping purple confetti.

Like August in some European countries, the whole place slows down, the vibe shifts to something kinder and gentler allowing the days to blur into one another. It’s like slipping into a timeless zone and pressing pause. At one point last year I had thought of visiting America or heading to the coast for the Festive Season.  Neither plan materialised and, so, I have luxuriated in the simple pleasures afforded by a staycation.

I like to honour the Christmas rituals of my childhood, one of them being attending church. Whether you are a believer or not, Jesus’ birth is a magical story and presents an opportunity for reflection and renewal. Over the years I have been to a local church – one year with both my parents when visiting from England, and last year with my mother. While I escaped my usual Yuletide sense of geographic dislocation and depression this year, I didn’t want to push it by attending a church service so redolent of Mum and Dad. My father used to love belting out O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark the Herald Angels Sing – I can see him, now, half singing, half conducting.

Attending a German Meetup Group before Christmas, I discovered that there was a service on Christmas Eve at the German Lutheran Church in East Melbourne at 7pm.

Here was an opportunity to embrace the Christmas spirit without any emotional triggers. I enjoyed listening to familiar readings from the Bible in German and tuning into the cadence of the language as well as singing well-known carols to German lyrics; it’s harder than you would think to get the phrasing and pacing right!

Just over the road is St Patrick’s Cathedral, and as our service concluded, theirs was just starting, the bells ringing out in great rippling peals. One of my favourite sounds, I could have been anywhere in ‘Mittel Europa’ what with the magnificent tree sparkling in the chancel. Only momentarily, though, as the heat – half the congregation were fanning themselves with the service sheet – brought me firmly back to the Southern Hemisphere.

After a delicious Christmas Day with my brother and his family of feasting, present-giving, snoozing, swimming in the pool and reading, I arm-chair-travelled back to Germany in the following days. Airbnb guests earlier in December recommended a German drama on SBS entitled Kurfürstendamm 56 and the second series Ku’Damm 59.  Set in Berlin in the 50s, it’s the story of a mother and her three daughters at a time of huge political and social change. They own a dance school along the Ku’Damm and the advent of rock ‘n’ roll – and the looser morals that went with it – are just one of the challenges to the old order of genteel waltzes and tea dances. What a joy it was to have time to watch six 90-minute episodes and to give it my full attention. Although the plot became a little contrived towards the end of the second series, I was transported back in time and found myself gripped.

I also went off to Oxford courtesy of a wonderful book called A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by Helen Jukes. The author reminded me of me! I also used to live in Oxford and worked for a charity. I, too, sometimes struggle with the rigours of the workplace, the pressure, the ever-shifting KPIs (key performance indicators) and suffer from computer neck. Jukes takes up bee-keeping as a way of changing her way of sensing and seeing the world. Another highlight was listening to a reading on BBC Radio 4 of Italian classic The Leopard by Lampedusa. English actor Alex Jennings inhabited the world of the fading grandeur of the Sicilian aristocracy of the 1860s brilliantly, inserting just the right measure of pathos and humour. Nectar – forgive the bee pun.

I had a list of things I planned to do over the break and have ditched most of them in favour of rest, relaxation and a few refreshing swims in the sea with my dog Bertie. And the tasks I did accomplish had a quality of a spaciousness and didn’t have to be rushed, teeth gritted. Did I mention I managed to crack my dental splint towards the end of last year? The KPIs can wait till I start work again next week. I am hoping I don’t return to the scenario faced by Jukes after Christmas one year: “When I arrive there’s a new set of ‘key performance’ indicators on my desk – a New Year’s greeting from Head Office. Thirty fresh targets, divided into six neat categories, which we are now required to report on each quarter. Everyone’s fuming about it […] I want to throw the performance indicators in the dust bin.” I’m not saying anything.

Blind Dates and Silent Movies: 36 hours in the Barossa Valley, South Australia

Could I trust him? Take him at his word? Or would he lead me astray (not again, I hear some of you murmur)? Even though – let’s call him George – spoke nice RP (Received Pronunciation) English, cut glass diction is no guarantee of reliability. George, you see, was very much a blind date.

Although just about everyone else I know – bar perhaps Mum and other octogenarians – uses GPS navigation to get them from A to B, I am a bit of a Luddite and still use hard copy maps and the Melway. It’s part silent protest at the increasing digitisation of our lives, and part preference for following a route across the pages from end to end. So here I was in my rented Toyota Corolla, a sat nav virgin, with George the GPS my co-pilot.

My brain wiring isn’t used to screen, voice, road and dashboard interactivity – there was no way I could listen to the radio as well as tune into George and take heed of the endlessly changing speed limits (I jumped the first time George beeped with a road safety camera warning). What would have happened if something went awry with George’s wiring and I ended up in, say, Port Lincoln, rather than Tanunda in the Barossa? You really have to trust the technology. To be fair to George, he got me to Tanunda although I had to ring the B&B where I was staying for directions for the last two kilometres as he took me in a big loop beginning and ending in Seppeltsfield Road.

I arrived after an afternoon meeting in Adelaide about 4.30pm on Friday, just in time for a quick sunset walk. My original plan, had I left in the morning, had been to drive via German/Australian artist Hans Heysen’s (1877-1968) studio, The Cedars, near Hahndorf.  Instead I spent a very enjoyable hour and a half in the Adelaide’s Art Gallery. The permanent collection in the Melrose Wing is divided into themes and combines some European classics – think Rodin, Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Reynolds, Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud – with Australian artists such as Sidney Nolan, Hans Heysen and members of the Heidelberg school. And alongside cabinets filled with 18th century bonbonnières, scent bottles and snuff boxes are some arresting modern pieces, one of them titled We are all flesh, a sculpture of two horses made from horse skins (acquired from a tanner in Brussels) suspended from the ceiling.

We are all Flesh by Berlinde De Bruyckere (2011-12)

Saturday was my only full day in the Barossa so, as is my wont, I rather packed it in – barrelling around in more ways than one – as I had two fixtures shaping my day: a 2 pm cookery demonstration at Maggie Beer’s Pheasant Farm and a 7.30 pm silent movie night with live organ accompaniment in Tanunda. With George stuffed in the glove box, I started my day at the Mengler’s Hill Sculpture Park admiring the sixteen or so sculptures, most of which are hewn from local marble and granite, and enjoying views over the verdant Barossa Ranges.

Chateau Tanunda was my next stop, a family-owned winery and bluestone estate built in the late 1880 by migrants from Germany – as is the case with so many of the Barossa wineries. As well as sampling some oaky reds and a botrytis (dessert wine), I enjoyed looking at the vintage photos of when the estate had its own railway. Next up was a trip to the Barossa Bush Gardens, a volunteer-planted native garden with prolific bird life and a backdrop of laughing kookaburras and screeching galahs and parrots. In the neighbouring nature reserve there’s an open-air chapel with a huge gum tree acting as a kind of altar and pews hewn out of tree trunks. I had a mini contemplative moment or two,  but wanted to get to Maggie Beer’s so I’d have plenty of time for tastings in the Farm Shop before the cookery demonstration.

For those who don’t know of her, Maggie Beer is an Australian national treasure – a bit like Britain’s Mary Berry. In fact, she wasn’t around on Saturday as she was resting in between filming the Great Australian Bake Off in Sydney. She pioneered the use of Verjuice (green juice from unripe grapes) in cooking and is also big on Vincotto (cooked wine made from non-fermented grapes). After wandering through the shop sampling delicious pâtés, salad dressings, jams, pickles, dark chocolate and vincotto paste, salted brandy caramel and passion fruit curd (I had thirds of the last three), it was time for the demonstration.  Simple but delicious, we witnessed and tasted how much zip a bit of verjuice can add to sautéed mushrooms and roasted vegetables.

After a cup of reviving chai and a quick flick through the papers in a café in Tanunda, I had just enough time to return to my B&B, shower and change for the evening. Tanunda is the kind of place where restaurant kitchens close at 9 pm so I needed to get dinner around 6 pm to make the silent movie show. And what a highlight that was. Built for Adelaide Town Hall in 1875, the magnificent Hill & Son organ, the oldest concert organ on the Australian mainland, is now housed in the Barossa Regional Gallery. The evening included a selection of 1920s silent film classics ranging from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to Felix the Cat. Accompanied by David Johnston, considered Australia’s finest exponent of silent movie accompaniment, it was a gem of an evening. What skill it is to play the soundtrack to those slapstick silent films and get the timing, intensity and nuancing right. My favourite was Felix the Cat: with just four main characters the laundry-washing mother; the piano-playing boy; Felix; and a bunch of cheeky mice, it’s crisp, funny and deceptively simple. What a treat.

Walking back to my car I passed a wine bar with live music playing. Savouring a glass of smooth Cab Sav named Audrey (making me think Hepburn, a bit of a pin-up of mine) I caught the last quarter of an hour of music and got chatting to some interesting locals, one of whom I met for coffee the next morning.

After coffee on the Sunday, my belly full of an enormous B&B breakfast, I drove back to Adelaide via a few more wineries: Langmeil (long mile in German) was once a small village which extended over a mile (hence the name) from the site of the winery to the church. Here I sampled some delicious reds, my favourite the 2015 Valley Floor Shiraz, and then I walked up to a small boutique winery, David Franz, with wonderful views over the hills. Here I tried and bought a rich, syrupy Shiraz liquor – rather like a young port. Then it was time to rehabilitate George and let him get me back to the airport, which he did, and on time. All is forgiven. I might even take him out again.

The joy of flying solo

The Sunday before last I dragged myself out of bed early to get to a 10 a.m. Meetup group. Intriguingly titled ‘All My Friends are in Couples and I’m Single’, I thought it was worth including as part of my experiment with offline living.  Sporting my five Euro sequined hat (purchased for the Gala evening at the International Fundraising Congress in Amsterdam last October), I yawned my way into the city on the train wishing I had stayed in bed.

It’s busy in Brunetti’s on a Sunday morning. I scoured the place and eventually located what looked like the group. Disappointed by the imbalanced ratio of women to men, probably about 4 to 1, I hovered with my pot of tea and wondered where to sit. The group was arranged around a long refectory-style table which made it difficult to circulate. As much as you can ever judge a book by its jacket, I liked the look of a man at the far end; he was slim, with receding, greying hair and had an air of refined intelligence about him. He seemed engrossed in conversation with the woman next to him.  Hmm, how could I break in? As I approached I noticed that they were both wearing wedding rings and seemed uninterested in mixing with the rest of the group. It wasn’t till they had eaten their breakfast and left that I realised they were nothing to do with the Meetup. And that they must have been married to each other.  Good start, Charlotte! I had to stifle a little giggle at this point.

Instead I got chatting to one of the three remaining men. Stocky but clean shaven and OK-looking, he tucked into a hearty plate of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and mushrooms while I sipped my English Breakfast. His opening line was to admire my hat, so I had to give him credit him for that. Bridget Jones-like, I made a note to self that the hat might come in handy on future sorties into the dating world.

He didn’t waste much time in letting me know that he was comfortably off, his IT business pretty much runs itself and he has plenty of free time to travel (business class, of course), play golf and go to the gym. But he confessed that finding someone to travel and enjoy life with is proving a challenge.  In the next breath, he related his bad experiences with internet dating, telling me that half the women he was interested in turned out to be resident overseas and those on these shores were mostly gold-diggers. Doesn’t he see a connection between bounty hunters and him flagging (bragging about) his wealth as a selling point? And, moreover, doesn’t he see that most of us would only see the wealth as a bonus if it were part of a package involving an interesting personality, a strong level of connection and shared interests?

One woman who had ensnared him had persuaded him to join her on a European river cruise. It later materialised that her female travel companion had had to cancel at the last minute and so it was more about finding a convenient stand-in. It didn’t go well but he did enjoy the Abba Museum in Stockholm. Turns out he was right on trend with that one given the recent news about Abba making a comeback. To which I can only exclaim: Mamma mia!

portrait,adult,recreation,wear,people,woman,festival,actress

All they need is a sequined hat…

His hand brushing momentarily over my right hand, he admired my pearl ring and told me he had tickets for the opera. And maybe I would be the lucky one. That, at least, sparked my interest. What opera and which company? He didn’t know any of the details, only that it was an opera.  Call me fussy but he would have needed at least to know the name of the composer and the opera.  He came across as a box-ticker. Trying to do and say the right thing. If he were an item of clothing, he’d be an off-the-peg number whereas I prefer the designer gown approach, one of a kind and plenty of character.

There is much to be said for the freedom, fullness and flexibility of the single life, a sentiment that was explored in a Spanish film – No Filter – I saw on the weekend. It’s a comic romp of a film featuring an over-the-top cat-loving sister, an Instagram-mad millennial, a pot-head chauvinist neighbour, a selfish and self-absorbed artist husband and an ex-boyfriend with a controlling girlfriend who puts them both on a pre-wedding diet of baby food. The protagonist, Paz, gets increasingly stressed as she runs around people-pleasing and putting up with second best. Then, with the help of a phoney Chinese guru, she finds her voice and starts saying what she thinks, really thinks – hence the title. https://www.spanishfilmfestival.com/films/no-filter

Birthday cake for cats

This is a film that will resonate with many women who have held back from saying what they really want to say. I can think of times in my life when I wanted to let rip but didn’t. Such as the self-important work meeting where I fantasized about sweeping all the coffee cups off the table and screaming out in frustration, and the post-argument lunch with an American boyfriend in Paris (he was ultra-preppy and precious) where I seriously considered upending my bowl of vinaigrette-drenched frisée au lardons all over him and his Calvin Klein suit. Then there’s my alter ego who writes anonymous letters to neighbours about squawking parrots in cages or puts up notices in the dog park warning of the karmic consequences of not picking up the poo.

In No Filter Paz doesn’t fall for the guilty overtures of her hopeless husband. Or her ex who questions if she wants to remain on her own.  No, she replies, I don’t want to be alone. I want to be with myself. She reclaims her life and her voice, and, case packed, takes off to the airport. Flying Solo – the flipside of the relationship coin –  at its best.

Experiments with off-line living: more meeting up than hooking up

When was the last time you unleashed your inner child and pretended to be a blind dog, an alien from Outer Space or a French person struggling to make themselves understood? These were just some of the scenarios we were given to act out at a Theatre Games and Improvisation Meetup on the weekend. As a child I loved dressing up and putting on plays with whomever else I could rope in, and I had a bit of a knack for mimicry and accents. But that was then. On Saturday afternoon I struggled to tap into that playful vibe – it felt like being in the classroom on the first day at a new school – although I was warming up by the end. The degree to which I engaged was also partly determined by the group I was in; we were in the same group of four for the whole two hours. And my group was on the reticent side.

It was interesting to observe the dynamic and watch the more ‘Am Dram’ types take centre stage with their suite of accents and gestures, while others played out more slapstick scenes without much sublety. I observed the bolder ones and wondered what their day job was and whether this was the ultimate release; the chance to let go of corporate or even family constraints. It reminded me of the Karaoke party I hosted for my choir last year. Some people tapped into their inner rock star or channelled Madonna, hamming it up and belting it out, while others sat on the side lines. However buried, I think most of us have a desire to clown around as it gives us the freedom to tap into an alter ego.

I went to the Improvisation Meetup not only to unleash the thespian in me, but also as part of my ongoing experiment with adventures in off-line living. It’s not so much about meeting a partner and avoiding online dating, but more about expanding my world and living to the full. But maybe by doing what I love to do and not actively searching, I might meet someone like-minded in the process.

In March I went to a Cryptic Crossword 101 at the NGV. I’ve always wondered what the clue to solving the clues is. A Friday afternoon event, it was full of retirees, mainly women! However, there were a few younger people including the two engaging male presenters, one of them very dishy in a swarthy Hispanic kind of way. As it turned out, he also does cryptic crosswords in Spanish, one of the few languages apart from English with a vocabulary extensive enough. And for fans of factoids, British-born Arthur Wynne created the first crossword in 1913, and it was published in New York World.  Talking to the dishy Hispanic after the event, I found out that you can do Spanish crucigramas online. That might be a stretch even though my Spanish is pretty good. I still haven’t mastered the art in English.

Visiting my favourite beach café a few weeks ago, I got chatting to a couple of older blokes – way too long in the tooth for me – who were pouring over a crossword puzzle. I confessed that my brief 101 hadn’t equipped me to crack the clues – I reckon it takes not only a great deal more practice but also, possibly, a more lateral-thinking brain. But, hey, I now have a new string to my bow. Where once I might have ‘posed’ in a café with my book and beautiful dog child, I can now add the crossword to my arsenal of conversation starters.

Needless to say, there are also crossword Meetups. Incidentally, did you know that Meetups emerged from the community response to 9/11 in New York when people reached out to help one another? I didn’t. I’m quite a regular at the German Language Group Meetups.  I went to a wonderful exhibition of poster versions of black and white photos (the originals are in Berlin) from 1970s East Germany at Melbourne’s Goethe Institute, the only place outside Germany where they are showing. As with all Meetup groups, there’s always an eclectic mix of people from all walks of life. At a German social at the Hophaus I met a young man, impeccably dressed and well mannered, who does the marketing for Viagra, helping to maintain sales over the generic brands. I had thought the key consumers would be men of my vintage but, no, it’s younger men who want to last for longer. It’s always intriguing finding out how people earn their living. At the same group there was an academic, a shy Frenchman with lots of piercings who translates films and a psychologist who works in drug addiction.

I still think it might be my dog Bertie who leads me to someone interesting.  There was a new man on the beach this summer who caught my eye. He had an open, honest and smiley face – a boyishness about him – and lightly curly hair that matched his dog’s, one of the ‘oodles. And, importantly, no gold band on the third finger of his left hand. A fellow dog-walker, Suzanne, thought he might bat for the other side, something about the timbre of his voice and the pink floral towel, so she did some investigating for me. One should, of course, never judge a book by its cover; ring or no ring, he is, in fact, married.   In a nutshell, dear reader: been there, done that. Nein Danke.

Never mind, a few days later Bertie raced off to a rocky outcrop flanking the beach. Worried that he might repeat his trick of a few years ago of getting a bait-loaded fish hook in his mouth, I dashed after him and narrowly avoided colliding with an attractive silver-haired man changing after a swim. Apologising for invading his privacy, we had a chat and I picked up a German accent – well done Bertie for taking me over there! The man was Swiss German and had a strong accent and a good sense of humour, not something always associated with the Swiss. And I didn’t spot a wedding ring. Chances are that he’s married too but I enjoyed our brief chat and practising a bit of German. And it reinforced my belief that you never know who and what you might encounter in the real world. Onwards and upwards.

To sleep, perchance to dream

Are you getting enough sleep? And how much is enough?

A professor of neuroscience and psychology, Matthew Walker, has written a new book: Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams – the premise of which is that not getting enough sleep shortens our lives. Walker advises that adults need between seven to nine hours’ sleep every night. He says that you can measure ‘objective impairments’ in brain and body in those that regularly sleep less than seven hours –  these include increased blood pressure and heightened flight-or-fight response, calcification of the coronary arteries, a depressed immune system and a higher risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease.

The article I read in the (London) Times was teamed up with a feature on ‘The Best Beds in Britain’ which I read with interest as I’m quite picky when it comes to beds. Billed as the most luxurious mattress is a four-poster bed in the royal suite of the Savoy Hotel in London which comes with a topper made from hair hand-combed from a species of yak found only in the Khangai region of Mongolia – guests can buy replica mattresses for a mere £70,525.  My favourite, though, is the glamping option at a secluded cabin in the Vale of Glamorgan where the bed has a state-of-the-art mattress and is decked with locally woven blankets and sits in the middle of a circular space with views over the countryside. Glamping or even plain camping in nature without electric light also cancels out issues related to what Walker calls our ‘dark deprived society’.

Sleeping Princess and the Pea-style

I used to be able to sleep in just about any bed but, now, my spine and I are very particular – downright fussy in fact.  Just like Goldilocks, I don’t like my mattress too hard, too soft, too springy, too high, too low, too synthetic, too full of lumps, bumps and ridges or plagued by an annoying creak or squeak.

I’ve experienced quite a variety of mattresses in my time, some of the most memorable being a lumpy horsehair mattress in a flat full of heavy Biedermeier furniture when I was an 18-year-old Au Pair girl in Vienna,  a roll-up Japanese futon (I needed two mattresses to stop my vertebra digging into the floor), a queen size pocket-sprung mattress (to minimise partner disturbance) – there’s another variable to throw into the sleep mix; you can have the right man but the wrong bed or the right bed and the wrong man), a hard unforgiving mattress (once my sister’s vicar’s guest bed) and a super saggy bed worn into a permanent banana shape in a one star ‘hostal residencia’ in Spain. Then there have been lumpy creaky sofa beds and collapsing Z-beds at friends’ houses, bunk beds, hospital beds and school dormitory beds. Talking of school, I was the only new girl to be still awake the first night of the new school year when the brute of a housemistress –she of the tight perm, tight lips, dandruff-sprinkled collar and pointy boobs came round with her strong beam torch to check on us all. What’s more, she named and shamed me at the house meeting the next day; all the other 59 girls in the house were apparently sleeping peacefully.

During a protracted phase of insomnia some years ago, I was convinced that a new mattress would fix the problem AND alleviate my back ache (never mind that I spend longer hunched at the computer than I do lying in bed). I’d read somewhere that bed coil springs conduct electricity and intensify our exposure to electromagnetic waves and radiation hence keeping us wired.  Cut to 2009 or thereabouts when I got sucked into purchasing a memory foam mattress – not a spring in sight – at Melbourne’s Mind-Body-Spirit Festival (wasn’t that a clue that the bed might come with healing hype?). I told the guy – he of the twinkling bedroom eyes – that I am like the fairy tale Princess who can feel the pea under twenty mattresses and twenty eider downs. “We don’t make Princess-size beds, only Queen and King-size,” he quipped at the same time offering an irresistible discount and to deliver the bed in person.  Giggle, giggle, twinkle, twinkle.

The bed came rolled up in a plastic tube. As I sliced open the covering, smells of newness and fire-retardant chemicals wafted out. “Made in China” I read and panic set in. I meant to buy an all-natural latex bed but had somehow been seduced into a glorified piece of foam.

The first night, I struggled with newly manufactured chemical smells and the strange feeling of the foam. I liked it and I didn’t, it felt good and it didn’t.  Lying on my back, I slid my hand under the arch of my back to gauge the level of support – kicking myself for not doing a more through test before I bought it. I wasn’t sure it was doing what I needed it to do. Ouch, and I had just spent the best part of $1000. After a few nights, my lower back hurt more than before and I kept getting up and prodding the foam to watch how it held its shape (hence the memory thing and contouring to your body) and gradually bounced back. I read the sales bumph and the ecstatic testimonials but remained unconvinced. It felt as if the foam was making my spine sag.

A few weeks later I visited a store that sells natural latex beds and learnt that memory foam beds often lack the proper density needed to support the spine, and so, yes, the sagging feeling I was experiencing was probably accurate. I ended up selling that mattress on eBay – not everyone is as Princess and the Pea as I am. That’s when I discovered toppers, my first choice being a cheapish feather and down topper that covered my mattress and floor with feathers which were rough and poked out of the casing. Ditching that, I then ordered a dual layer polyester topper from British store John Lewis and have not looked back.

My other hot tip to any other fidgety types out there is that stores like Kmart sell cheap ‘egg box’ foam toppers that are light and easy to transport when travelling. Like a guilty secret, I always smuggle in my topper when I stay with certain friends whose spare bed is like a brick. It’s revolutionised my weekends with them. And they need never know.

The Start-Up Entrepreneur, the University Researcher and the IT Specialist

Sounds like the opener to one of those classic Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman jokes, doesn’t it? In fact, I’m referring to the three dates I crammed into a weekend back in February. And don’t they sound promising? Spoiler alert: appearances (online profiles) can be deceptive!

The Entrepreneur, a self-described Europhile and part of an ‘am dram’ group, was a bit of an old stodge, a portly man sporting a straw fedora (alarm bell number one), striped shirt and chinos. Had he been an Englishman, he’d probably have spoken with a plummy accent and voted for Brexit. With a nod to my British heritage, he wondered if I would like a gin and tonic – this at eleven in the morning! Rather than order tea and fall into another stereotype, I ordered a smoothie which at least gave me sustenance to get through the meeting. We met in a prestigious sport club where, of course, fedoras and reactionary views (think also climate change denial) are not out of place. Grilling me on my single status and relationship history (don’t ask…), he asked: Wouldn’t a bloke around the house annoy you? Quite probably, I replied (thinking, especially if it were you wielding your heft around the place) but who says we’d have to live together? His eyebrows shot up at this; clearly, he’s not across the concept of LAT (Living Apart Together), a potentially elegant solution for couples who like their own space but also want to be in a relationship.

According to Wikipedia LAT relationships account for ten percent of couples in Britain and between six and nine percent in Australia, Canada and the US. In a variation on the LAT theme, I always think of the British Royals who supposedly have separate bedrooms or chambers. Sounds quite fun to me as long as there are visitation rights. What a good way to keep the spark alive.  Doing a brief bit of research on the subject I found a wonderful quote by Lady Pamela Hicks, the Queen’s cousin: ‘In England, the upper class always have had separate bedrooms. You don’t want to be bothered with snoring or someone flinging a leg around. Then when you are feeling cosy you share your room sometimes. It is lovely to be able to choose.’ If a monarch can’t avoid flying leg syndrome, who can?’ You have to love the euphemistic no-sex-please-we’re British-style reference to ‘feeling cosy’! To my mind, cosy conjures up pyjamas, cocoa and a hot water bottle not passionate encounters. And, of course, the upper classes can afford sizeable properties where separate bedrooms are an option.

Back to the dates; the University Researcher was an extremely shy man from Eastern Europe. Nice enough and bright, but I’d say he hadn’t recovered from the death of his wife and was not, I suspect, entirely at home in Australia. Somewhat adrift in life, he didn’t seem that fond of his homeland or parents and siblings either. I struggled to hear him as he spoke so softly and with a heavy accent. And much as I tried to pitch in on the academic research, the conversation went nowhere. The chai was good though!

Then there was the IT guy – let’s call him Tom – a smug and strangely detached individual who swiftly brought the conservation round to himself, his weight loss and gastric sleeve (surgery that reduces the size of the stomach rather than having a silicone band implant (a lap band)  inserted at the top of the stomach to restrict food intake), his alcoholic mother who lives in a home, and his father in he US, with whom he has a fractured relationship. Not the most encouraging start to a first chat, you’ll agree.  Ever polite, I thought I’d  make him feel better by dropping in mention of the FODMAP diet and a recent bereavement – just to even things up. Instead, the conversation moved back to Tom and his change of career plans – he was researching nursing. Mistaking expedience (he singled out nursing as one of a few suitable options for re-training) for a sense of vocation, I offered that there’s a huge demand for carers in the aged care sector but that he’d need to be emotionally resilient to deal with the frequent occurrence of death. Oh, I wouldn’t care about that, he said dispassionately, but if they were sick on my uniform I’d change it. He had a dark sense of humour too, the kind of humour that thrives at others’ expense. What’s more, he didn’t like dogs. Computer said NOOOOO! As did my head, heart and restriction-free gut.

The Entrepreneur (at least he was a dog lover) and the IT Specialist were keen to meet up again, but, not surprisingly, I wasn’t interested. I resolved yet again to be open to meeting people in the real world and to enjoy the time I spend with those I already know. Trawling through profiles takes time and energy; I’d rather devote that time to landing a more compatible fish in the real world, preferably one without a fedora or a gastric sleeve.

Cream-crackered in Kraków

Where to start? I’m in sensory overload mode, very travel weary but hugely stimulated by it all and almost drunk on history. Kraków is a fabulous city with so much to see, taste and explore. Everywhere I look delights me: from the street lamps to church spires, cobbled streets, medieval squares, parks carpeted in golden autumn leaves, clanging blue trams, castle walls, buildings festooned with stuccoed angels or garlands of flowers, ancient towers and fortifications, cafes, bars, chiming clocks, clopping horses, mime and street artists.

IMG_1796.JPG

The Airbnb flat I am in staying is as groovy and spacious as the pictures promised. There’s even a leather saddle on the sofa in my room! Marcin, my host, who sits his final exams in Trad Chinese Medicine tomorrow, is easy going and welcoming. He encourages guests to write on the kitchen wall on the theme: what would you do if you had no fear? Don’t you just love that? Right up my alley.

The only problem is that it’s on the fourth floor and I have 30 kg of luggage. Standing at the bottom of the worn wooden stairs when I arrived, I wondered if I should perhaps start going to the gym, but then a guardian angel appeared in the form of fellow Airbnb guest, a strong Texan. Problem solved!

I’ve now had two days of totally ‘immersive’ tourism. Yesterday I went to Auschwitz/Birkenau. Although,like many of us, I have seen Holocaust film footage, read books and articles and met relatives of concentration camp survivors, what really brought home the horror and thoroughness (so many neatly typed lists) of the Nazi brutality were the exhibits full of human hair, shoes, suitcases and prosthetic limbs stripped from the Jews and others deemed unfit for work. Then the horrific medical experiments, forced (and extremely painful) sterilization of some of the women and the castration of some of the men. And I had no idea about the suffocation cells, basically the size of a phone booth where they crammed in four people for hours at a time with minimal ventilation.

On the plus side it’s 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and
Poland is no longer a communist country, but war and conflict from the
Ukraine to Syria serve as reminders that we haven’t learnt from the past. If only…One of the first things visitors see at Auschwitz is this quote:

IMG_1805-1.JPG

The tour returned to Kraków about 3pm and we caught the end of Independence Day celebrations – part military, part patriotic and flag-waving knees-up with a free concert in the main square.

I sampled some delicious honey vodka and then headed to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter where I dined in a traditional Polish restaurant – beetroot soup and cabbage rolls- (absolutely delicious) and got talking to a young girl who organizes weddings. The second woman I’ve met here who loves her job (the other is a tour guide in Asia), she’s organized weddings in locations as diverse as Greece and the Wieliczka Salt Mine.

If I had more time, I would have loved to see the salt mines but you can’t do it all. Mind you, I’ve tried! No wonder a friend, in response to my last blog, wished me luck with my ‘hell bending’ (determination) to make the most of my European adventure.

Today was another huge day starting with a small food market full of sausages, hams, pickles, veggies and babushka-like old ladies doing their knitting in between selling eggs and strange-tasting smoked cheeses.

br />
IMG_1927-3.JPG</a

IMG_1905-0.JPG

Then in between several cups of reviving tea and a piece of the aforementioned smoked cheese with crackers sitting among the pigeons in the square, I went underground to experience medieval Kraków at the Rynek Museum, to Hippolit House, a recreation of a wealthy merchant’s house through the ages- think Baroque, Rococo and Biedermeier plus one of Poland’s largest clock collections – ending up at Schindler’s Factory Museum, which deserves a blog of its own.

Suffice it to say that at the end of my museum marathon I was more than ready for a shot of honey vodka! I went back to Kazimierz and relaxed in one of the cavernous low-lit bars.

IMG_1969.JPG