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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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From Darkest Peru to Central London

I adored Paddington Bear as a child – and still do. There’s something incredibly endearing about the marmalade sandwich-eating bear with the duffel coat and bush hat who arrived as a stowaway from Lima and ended up living with Mr and Mrs Brown at No. 32 Windsor Gardens.

So I was delighted to read in the weekend papers that Paddington will hit the big screen in a feature-length film (opening in Britain on 28thNovember) starring Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey), Jim Broadbent, Nicole Kidman and a CGI bear voiced by Ben Whishaw. It opens in the US on Christmas Day so I am hoping that the same goes for Australia.

But the excitement doesn’t end there. Paddington’s author Michael Bond, who is now 88, has written a new book which comes out on Thursday. Titled Love from Paddington, it’s a series of letters penned by the bear to his Aunt Lucy in Lima.

Interviewed on the eve of the film’s release Bond explains that Paddington came about in 1957 at Christmas time when he was searching for a present for his wife. It was snowing and so he went into Selfridges to shelter and found himself in the toy department. There was one lone bear sitting on the shelf so he bought it. The rest is history: apart from the Paddington books which have sold more than 35 million copies worldwide and been translated into 40 languages, there are soft toys and other Paddington merchandise, a bronze statue of the Peruvian bear at Paddington Station, and from 4th November 50 different representations of Paddington will be dotted around London.

Each one has been designed by a celebrity and is part of a fundraising effort to support Action Medical Research, the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) and Childline with many of the creations due to be auctioned by Christies in December. Visit London have created a Paddington Bear trail and some of the sites include Selfridges (The Golden Paddington), a Rolls-Royce Paddington in Berkeley Square and Sherlock Bear (designed by Benedict Cumberbatch) at the Museum of London. The capital’s mayor Boris Johnston has chosen a bear decorated with iconic London scenes, a nod to the author with a Tube sign saying Bond Street, and, perhaps unsurprisingly,a blond tousle-haired figure riding a Boris bike. But precise locations of most of the bears are not being published as it’s a treasure hunt designed to get people involved and raise funds and awareness for the charities involved.

I’m off to London to stay with my sister next weekend. I don’t know what she has planned but I might just have to weave in a bear hunt! And I’m even a little tempted to have a go at writing a children’s book.

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Taking off and unplugging

I’m about to take off back to Blighty and I’m nearly – but not quite – ready. However much I plan in advance, it always builds up to a pre-trip devil-in –the-detail whirl. I tend to sweat the small stuff first – decanting lotions and potions into small bottles, loading up my Kindle, wrapping presents, buying and packing my favourite herbal teas which, ironically, are made in England. Yes, it’s definitely a case of ‘Coals to Newcastle’ but my mother’s local (rural) town definitely won’t have them. I’ve taken some recipes to try out so I can cook for friends and relatives, loaded up my USB stick with photos, documents and work-related stuff, sorted all my hard copy travel documents into folders, made up my regulation plastic bag of toiletries for the plane, cleaned out the fridge, given my indoor plants to a friend, measured out 72 cups of Bertie’s food (he’s off to a homestay place and I’m already welling up about the thought of saying goodbye to him), and tried to fix my garden sprinklers so my pots don’t dry out and die. I’m flying out tonight so better get some clothes in the suitcase sometime soon. ..

At a time of heightened fear in the media and amid all the rhetoric being spouted by our politicians, It’d be easy to succumb to worrying about security on the flight, Ebola, terrorism, mechanical failure – or even losing my luggage. Who hasn’t had troubled dreams about losing their luggage?! But I refuse to be infected by all the negativity and am planning to get on the plane and RELAX. Long haul fights can be mini holidays in themselves if you can get into the right headspace.

It may be the most unnatural thing for the body to be cooped up in a pressurised cabin full of recycled air, in uncomfortably close proximity to other people, with limited opportunity for movement and far too many rounds of heated-up food and stewed tea, BUT when else do we get the opportunity to do NOTHING but read, doze, watch films and doodle? Well,that used to be the case. What bliss when you couldn’t use your electronic devices during the flight. You could well and truly SWITCH OFF. That’s all changed now. I am not flying Qantas but have just checked their website, which states:
“There are plenty of ways to keep in touch while you are flying with Qantas. You can now use your personal electronic devices such as smart phones, tablets and music players in flight mode, for the duration of each flight, providing uninterrupted access to work and entertainment. On all A380, B747-400 and A330-300 aircraft you can send and receive text messages, make inflight telephone calls and perform seat to seat calls all from the comfort of your seat.”

What a shame! Is there no respite from the frenetic round of communicating, commenting, chatting, texting and tweeting? I’m happy to have uninterrupted down time and to enjoy the freedom that comes with being in a cyber-free cocoon.

My mother’s house is a technology free zone, which again, is no bad thing. I’m going over to spend time with her and Dad, not to be glued to electronic devices. I’ll have to ration my time online for blogging and emails as I’ll be hot-spotting via my phone. Mind you, however much I rant and rave about the joys of unplugging, I also recognise that access to the internet is vital for researching new destinations and travel arrangements. In 1985 – or thereabouts – I spent half a year in Spain during the third year of my language degree at Bristol. I had phoned ahead to book into a three-star hotel for my first few nights, there being no email or online bookings in those days. I arrived in Granada in mid-October about ten o’clock at night, loaded up with four months of luggage. The hotel claimed to know nothing about my booking – they were fully booked as it was a fiesta weekend – so they turned me away.

The Plaza Bibarrambla, Granada

The Plaza Bibarrambla, Granada

I met a fellow student, who had also just arrived from England, and we lugged our suitcases around knocking on hotel doors getting the same response everywhere. It was now getting towards midnight and a park bench was looking like our only option. Finally we found a cheap hostal residencia in the Plaza Bibarrambla. Run by a woman who seemed to spend all day in her dressing gown sweeping the steps, the beds sagged in a well worn banana shape, a bare light bulb in the ceiling flickered and crackled, and the communal bathrooms had chilly concrete floors and strict rules about not putting paper down the loo. It was super basic and the other guests could have stepped straight out of a Picaresque novel, but the place nevertheless had some charm, and offered fabulous views over the square. I wonder if it’s still there?

P.S. on the Tyranny of Lists

It seems I was rushing so much to tell you about how much I had been rushing that I made some excellent typos! Which were kindly and gently pointed out to me by a lovely friend and loyal reader. Even though I printed off my post and read it aloud before sending, they still slipped through the net. Moral of the story for me is never to work on a post before dinner time when the working day is over, my stomach is rumbling and I am thinking about food!

But, of course, I meant I was ringing the AUSTRIAN railways, not the Australian ones, where speaking German wouldn’t get me very far, however much I got the grammar right! There were a couple of other clangers, but the main other change is that my friend in Japan tells me that WWOOF actually means Willing Workers on Organic Farms not that long-winded explanation I found on Google!

Over and out it’s time for breakfast and Bertie’s walk! Until next time.

A meeting of hearts


“The best and most beautiful things in this world cannot be seen or even heard, but must be felt with the heart.” Helen Keller

I aim to live as much from my heart – feeling my way through life – as from my (very busy) head . But, inevitably, living in such a mind-dominant world, my head often wins out. And I’m definitely with the Ancient Greeks who thought that the heart was the seat of intelligence and organ closest to the soul. On a physical level, our hearts are one of the most important organs in the body beating approximately 72 times per minute moving blood, oxygen, nutrients and waste materials in and out of our cells. But how many of us take our hearts for granted? I know I do.

So you can imagine how humbling it was to meet a young boy not yet six years old, let’s call him Tom, who recently had a heart transplant at the Royal Melbourne Children’s Hospital. Tom was born with what’s known as a TGA heart, TGA meaning transposition of the great arteries. In other words the right side of his heart was doing what the left side should have been doing and vice versa.

This brave little heart warrior (that’s what HeartKids call children with congenital heart defects) underwent major open heart surgery just a few weeks after being born. His young life has been filled with trips to doctors, specialists and hospitals in a constant round of check-ups, cardiographs, echocardiograms, radiography and blood tests. By 2013 he had undergone four lots of surgery, the last one to replace a smaller pacemaker with a larger one.

But earlier this year his heart was showing signs of failure and Tom and his family moved into Ronald McDonald House in Melbourne to wait for a donor heart to come up. I am happy to report that a heart did become available and the operation was successful. Tom has now had two clear biopsies and might soon be able to go home and start school.

I met Tom’s grandmother, Susie, when visiting mutual friends at the end of last year. So when she called and asked to come and stay for a few weeks during Tom’s recovery phase I was only too happy to help out. In fact, she was my first post-renovation guest and so my small but perfectly formed spare bathroom came into play. And, this last weekend Susie brought Tom to stay for a night. It was a short visit – and Bertie dog had to go for a sleepover with his cousin, my brother’s dog, Rocky – but one I will treasure for a long time.

I had seen pictures of Tom before his operation and he looked frail, pale and delicate. So how wonderful it was to see a strong young boy now weighing about eight more kilos and bursting with strength and energy. This little man is a solid mass of muscle and, I kid you not, could easily wrestle me to the ground. Not that we put it to the test.

Instead we got straight down to the important things in life and played games and ordered fish and chips for dinner. My mother laughed at me when I shipped over some of my childhood books and games from England: “What will you do with them?” she asked. “They’re for when little people come to visit, of course,” I replied rather impatiently. Tom loved my game Mousie-Mousie (vintage 1960s) even if half the counters were missing, the mice now have rather twisted tails and we made up the rules. Tom had his own games too, all packed in his Thomas the Tank Engine suitcase along with this Spiderman PJs, and so we played Snakes and Ladders and Monkeys before nipping out to the fish shop.

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Before breakfast the next morning, I read to Tom and reconnected to some of the wonderful books published by Frances Lincoln Ltd, in London where I worked back in the 90s. Animal Parade is wonderful read-aloud animal alphabet book and The Leopard’s Drum, a stunningly illustrated African creation story.
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Tom tucked into a cooked breakfast of bacon, eggs and mushrooms and was as bright as a button. He kept up a steady stream of questions – how old was I? (THAT old, he questioned, adding a nine for good measure), where did I work? (home? Why didn’t I work at Woollies? I think he must have been chatting to my family who don’t think freelance writing is a proper job!) and when would he see me again? Tom and his family had travelled to Melbourne from out of state, so it may be a while before I get to play Snakes and Ladders with him again.

He gave me a big kiss and a hug when he said goodbye and when I went back into my house, I shed a little tear (well quite big actually) for all that he’s gone through, for all that he is and for all that is growing up to be; a fabulous and spirited little boy.

Life Lessons at the School of Life

“Lost for words, copywriter ditches job and calls it a day.”

I wrote this mock headline as part of a wonderful class – How to Stay Calm – at the School of Life in Melbourne. The exercise was to coin a headline summarising a situation where we lost our cool and did more than just feel our anger, we acted upon it.

For those who haven’t come across it before, the School of Life was started by philosopher, TV presenter and author Alan de Botton and has its headquarters in London. To quote from their website: The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm and how better to understand and, where necessary change, the world.

Melbourne’s School of Life is located at the Spencer St end of Bourke St and has a small cafe framed by natural wood bookshelves stacked with everything from the classics and contemporary literature to self-help, philosophy and the humanities. The lecture-style classroom leads off the cafe and is also book-lined, intimate and inviting.

Copyright: School of Life

Copyright: School of Life

For three hours last Wednesday Elise Bialylew, founder of Mindful in May (www.mindfulinmay.org), led us in a wonderfully rich discussion drawing on the works of some of the great philosophers and thinkers from Kierkegaard to Buddha as well as contemporary thinkers, psychologists, neuroscientists, futurists and researchers.

I’ve explored all sorts of therapies, attended different types of retreats and experimented with various styles of meditation and ways to stay balanced, but there’s always more to learn and re-learn. It’s not as if we were taught how to manage or relate to our emotions at school or university, at least not when I was in the education system. Elise reminded us that emotional wellbeing is a skill and takes practice just like a sport. So, as well as going to the gym, we need to make time for training our minds.

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Emerging research shows that mindfulness – training our minds to focus on one thing at a time and staying in the present moment – can actually develop our pre-frontal cortex. This is heartening as our brains haven’t kept up with the pace of change and evolved to cope with the demands of modern life. But a little mind training can help update the software. Want to know more? Try reading Daniel Siegel’s The Mindful Brain or do what I did and download some guided meditations onto my phone. I love guided meditations as I find it much easier to still my mind and focus.

During the class we also reflected on what it is to be human, and the fears that we all share. According to Buddhism, mankind’s five greatest fears are: fear of death; fear of illness; fear of losing your mind; fear of loss of livelihood; and fear of public speaking. Who hasn’t experienced one or all of those at some stage in their life?

Given our inherent human vulnerability – it’s time we learnt to listen to the likes of researcher and author Brené Brown who writes that owning our vulnerability can be a strength and actually connects us to others – the last part of the class focused on five key prescriptions for living. (If you’ve not yet discovered Brené Brown, I highly recommend one of her TEDTalks http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame?language=en) –

The Five Prescriptions

1. Acceptance – survival stories – Elise recounted the story of a shipwreck survivor entitled the Sinking of the Trashman which is part of a collection of extraordinary stories called The Moth (more about the Moth in a future blog). What emerged from this tale of survival was a belief in a higher power, a conscious choice of focus (expressed as a sense of wonder at the sky, the stars etc), a talisman (she threw a black pearl into the sea as kind of offering), a determination to focus on positive memories even in the face of death (two crew members were eaten by sharks), a great deal of resilience and lots of common sense practicality; for example, she used seaweed for insulation.

2. Discernment – mindful awareness – a recent study showed that five hours of mindfulness actually changed the body’s genetic expression and can help with inflammation and chronic pain. What’s more, it can even boost production of an enzyme that protects against ageing. Forget botox and collagen…

3. Surrender to the Ascetic or Aesthetic – perhaps losing oneself in nature or becoming absorbed in a work of art.

4. Compassion – empathy and identifying with others – which can sometimes mean simply holding the space for another person rather than trying to fix them. But equally important – and it’s not valued in our culture – is self-compassion. How can be kind to others when we insist on beating ourselves up and criticising ourselves?

5. Communion and Connection –this is about connecting to others. I’m reminded of that famous John Donne poem – ‘No Man is an Island’. Where would we without friends and community?

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Under Pressure

A bit of fun from a fellow blogger. Sometimes a pile of unread books can seem like another pressure. I was very lucky to receive a Kindle for my birthday last year. Having long resisted reading from a screen and letting more technology encroach on my life, I found the transition remarkably smooth. When I go overseas in October, it’ll be great to load up the Kindle rather than lug books around. And, owning a Kindle doesn’t stop me from reading ‘real’ books or buying them!

Critical Dispatches

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The bookshelf above my bed is now beyond overloaded and I’m quite certain that it’s going to collapse any day now. We’re at breaking point. One of the screws on the bottom left corner is looking particularly dodgy, and despite my best efforts I can’t get the damn thing tightened back into the wall. I can only hope that if it’s to go then it goes while I’m out at work, otherwise I’m afraid it could kill me.

What a way to go. I wonder which book would do me in, who would be the publisher? Assassinated by Abacus; a Faber & Faber finishing; rubbed out by Random House; massacred by Pan MacMillan; ousted by the Oxford Press. Would it be a hardback that delivers the final blow? 1984 or Brave New World? One of those weighty paperbacks, the copy of Infinite Jest or the Hunter Thompson anthology, would definitely…

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A trip down memory lane

At last I return to my blog. This time it was work that stopped play. I’ve had a couple of assignments that have proved tricky and overwhelming. From an article on aged care legislation to a government tender and a newsletter for a university, they’ve all been a bit dense, brain-clogging and writers’ block-inducing. Anyway, today I’ve come up for air and, so far, have celebrated by going out for lunch at one of my favourite cafes and reading the paper over a bacon and egg sandwich. There’s some so comforting about bacon and eggs – I think it must hark back to childhood.

Talking about childhood, I’ve now got to the fun bit of my home renovations and am unpacking boxes of ‘stuff’ (there is no better word) that I shipped from the UK about 18 months ago. As well as books, plates, ornaments and decorative bits and bobs, there’s quite a bit of memorabilia. The Life Laundry gurus might disapprove but I’m really happy that I held onto some treasured items before I moved to Australia. Unpacking them years later (I was too deluged with work to celebrate but, as of last Wednesday, 9th July, I’ve been in Australia for ten years) I’ve smiled, laughed, cried, felt amazed, incredulous and deeply respectful for times past.

I’ve got quite a few letters spanning about three decades – remember those beautiful hand-written items we used to pop in post boxes before electronic communications took over? I’ve got some of the first letters I wrote to my parents in the late 60s when they were away and I was staying with family friends. The spelling is atrocious, there are no punctuation marks anywhere and the words on the page are jumbled reminding me of magnetic scrabble letters on a fridge. But I’d been to the sea and thrown sticks for the dogs and was excited about going with Susie and Gillie to the laundrette and having hot chocolate from a machine. Then there are letters I wrote home from my brief stay at boarding school (where I was miserable) telling my parents: “I love Queenswood. It’s just at night the people in my dormitory talk till about half past ten and when the horrid old house mistress, who is equal to the size of four elephants, comes along at night she says I should be asleep otherwise I’ll have to go to the doctor for some tablets.” Later on I insist: “I am extremely happy here,” and I concluded another letter by saying: “Don’t forget I’m tremendously happy here.” Methinks that I did protest far too much.

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Letters from both grandmothers brought tears to my eyes. My maternal grandmother told me she was expecting lots of guests over the summer and shared her menu plans with me. Memories of her signature dishes came flooding back. I must ask Mum for the recipe for Granny’s Bombe Surprise made with blackcurrants. A tactful letter from a boy I had a crush on in my teens let me down gently by asking about my love life and sharing holiday plans to go to America where there would be “lots of lovely girls!!.” Another male friend (I wonder if he ever realised I had a thing about him?!) wrote me a long, long letter in 1978 full of his pre-university adventures (toad racing, potato picking and meat packing) travelling up the East Coast of Australia. He sent me a special full-colour fold-out souvenir of the Great Barrier Reef (when it was still pristine) and apologised for his writing style: “Out here everything is said backwards or abbreviated.” He was in Queensland at the time… Little did I ever dream that I would end up living in Australia! Back then it was a faraway land, dry and dusty, and full of kangaroos called Skippy.

I’ve also got many of the letters I wrote from Vienna in 1982 when I was an au-pair girl for a family. A bit like at boarding school, I was terribly, terribly homesick not helped by the crushing routine of having to walk the two little girls every morning in the Stadt Park whether it was minus five or plus 30 degrees. But I did enjoy Vienna itself and still have programs from the Opera House (Carmen, La Bohème, Arabella etc) complete with the playlist for that day. You could get a standing ticket for six Austrian Schillings – a bargain! I’ve also got programs from the Volksoper (the less fancy ‘people’s opera’ where I went to operettas by the likes of Offenbach), brochures from Schönbrunn Castle, a poster advertising a Festival of Clowns, a postcard of the Prater (the famous Ferris Wheel) and a glossy program from the Spanish Riding School (those wonderful Lipizzaner horses).

The Opera House Vienna - this postcard looked dated even in the 80s!

The Opera House Vienna – this postcard looked dated even in the 80s!

The Spanish Riding School, Vienna

The Spanish Riding School, Vienna

There are years of diaries in my boxes including a lockable five-year diary that I wrote for three years, love letters, papers and magazines marking special occasions such as Royal Weddings and much more. Some of it will undoubtedly end up in the attic or the shed and I’m not mourning the things I threw out – such as folder of beer coasters and matchboxes of every restaurant I went to in California in 1984 – but I’m happy to have created a small and meaningful time capsule.