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!

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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.

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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.