Getting my Brit Fix and Bridging the Divide

If you had told me when I moved to Melbourne in the early 2000s that a pandemic in 2020 would see Australia close its borders, pull up the drawbridge and ban international travel, I would probably have hightailed it back to the UK (I can hear my Mum saying she wishes I had!). Never did I imagine having to face enforced separation from my family and a country I love dearly with an indulgent rose-tinted, nostalgic fondness.

But I/we’ve managed magnificently: we’ve been suitably British and stoic – and even a bit Buddhist (well, I have; ‘this too shall pass’) – and made the best of it. And, as one with strong Luddite tendencies (yes, I still have a paper diary and LOVE it!) I acknowledge that technology and video calling has given us a lifeline and a rich sense of connectedness; in fact, as a family we’re more up to date with each other’s news than we used to be. I am one of four: there’s two of us here, and two of us there and we have a sibling video call every Friday.

And, thanks to the perseverance of my eldest brother Charlie, Mum uses an iPad and is FaceTime literate. Mum and I started out chatting twice a week, then – as COVID dragged on – I suggested a new way to bridge the divide. When Melbourne is nine hours ahead of the UK, I drop in at Mum’s at noon her time on a Sunday, and we listen (via her radio and our respective iPads), to her favourite programme on Radio 3, Private Passions. Each week presenter (and composer) Michael Berkeley explores the musical passions and lives of his guests. Sometimes we’re riveted by the subject and their musical choices, other times we drift off into chit chat, easy kitchen table tittle-tattle.  Quite often, Mum gives me an update on the birds on her birdfeeder, the state of her garden, what she is having for lunch or who has just walked past the window. It’s as if I am there in the room with her, and we treasure these special interactions.

Tuning into Private Passions with Mum

I’ve also had regular Brit Fixes thanks to plugging into BBC Sounds and listening to abridged versions of classic favourites such as Middlemarch – how did Dorothea stick it out with the GHASTLY Rev. Edward Casaubon? – Desert Island Discs, a Victoria Wood retrospective and, just recently, a reading of a beautifully nostalgic and touching story, written in 1931, of a family on their annual holiday to the seaside. There’s something wondrous about my physical self strolling along banksia- and wattle-fringed coastal paths with my dog Bertie, my headspace transported to Bognor Regis on Britain’s South-East coast, following the Stevens family strolling along the Promenade. Escaping the humdrum of everyday life, excitements back then included freedom from wearing ties, tight collars and stockings, and securing a bathing box with a balcony!

Other wonderful Brit Fix moments have included TV programme Secrets of the Museum – a behind the scenes tour of London’s V & A – looking at the extraordinarily detailed and delicate work of the curators and conservators. What joy to sit on my sofa, getting up close and personal with exquisite treasures, without the slow shoe shuffle past glass display cases, peering in at the small font captions. Another highlight was an episode of Rob Bell’s Walking the Lost Railways of Britain which took in the now disused railway station in Great Longstone, the Derbyshire village where my mother was born in 1931.

So far, so good. But as the months rolled on, I realised, with great sadness and a very heavy heart, that I was going to miss my niece Annabel’s wedding in July this year (it had already been postponed from July 2020) and Mum’s 90th in mid-September.

Once again, technology came to the rescue. My sister’s friend John gave me the most splendid (and I use that very British word deliberately) guided tour of Annabel and Jonny’s wedding in South London. We kicked off early and I had a bird’s eye view of the cake, the flowers, the cheeky bridesmaids and the page boys scampering about, the latter my nearly 2-year-old great-nephew twins, like little princes in their red shorts, white shirts and tartan bow ties.  I was there ‘live’ for the service, witnessed the exchange of vows, my niece radiantly happy and elegant, and Jonny resplendent in his kilt, cape and full tartan regalia, both brimming over with love. As they filed out, I had a quick chat with the just-married couple (making me the first person to address them as Mr and Mrs) and then stayed online while they were strewn with rose petal confetti, posed for photographs and then mixed and mingled. I had chats with many of the guests – from friends to family – until it got to 1am here and I had to remind them I was in my PJs and ready for bed!

And then, the weekend before last, my brother Tim and I video-called into Mum’s 90th birthday celebrations – in fact, it was a four generation, three-country call from Mum’s breakfast table in Nottinghamshire to Tim and me tuning in from Melbourne, and my niece Georgie and the twins (the page boys) in suburban Paris! On the first call we watched Mum – in the swing and bright as a button from the get-go – open some of her cards and presents.

Four Way International Call

We tuned in again closer to her lunchtime party. This time, the newly-married Annabel, now Mrs Recaldin, was emcee. As bubbles and copious canapes were served, Annabel waltzed us around pointing out Mum’s many cards (35 and counting), the birthday banners and balloons and the assembled guests.  “Which of the grey-haired old dears do you mean?’ enquired Annabel as I asked to speak to some of Mum’s friends, “there are a few in the room!”

My brother, Charlie, toasted Mum with some heartfelt and touching words, acknowledging, too, the extraordinary kindness of her neighbours, George and Annette, who have been her rock and strength throughout the pandemic. “I’ve made it to 90,” replied Mum triumphantly, “and it doesn’t feel so bad!” Then, after thanking friends, family and neighbours for celebrating with her, she added: “I know I can be difficult sometimes…”  Thank Goodness for gin, piped up Charlie.

Having felt weepy on and off all weekend about missing Mum’s party, I went to bed with my heart aglow. I felt the love through the screen and across the divide, and was thrilled to see Mum, the belle of the ball, in her green linen dress and pearls. The word splendid comes to mind again. And next year I’ll be able to visit in person, catch up on hugs, lots of them, and kitchen table chat.

Stories of Moving and Migrating

I’m always fascinated by other people’s stories: where they come from; their cultural heritage; and the experiences that have shaped how they think and act. Last week I attended a talk at a local library, “Migrant Stories: Arnold Zable in conversation with Rose Stone and Rita Price”. For those that don’t know Arnold, he is a published and much-loved author, storyteller, educator and human rights advocate. I love how he described story-telling as the most inclusive of all art forms. That’s so true; all you need is a voice and the confidence to let your voice be heard.

The first speaker/storyteller, Rose Stone, certainly had no issues with confidence. At 93 she has a remarkably strong voice and great sense of humour. She came to Australia aged 16 as the war in Europe loomed. She migrated from Poland, where her grandfather was a tailor. Alone and with no knowledge of the English language, she went straight into a job at a Jewish factory where she spoke Yiddish. She learnt English phonetically, going on to do her HSC later in life and then joining a U3A writing group.

She shared a wonderful tale from a collection she has written. It was about her father or grandfather (my notes are incomplete) expressing his distaste for the chicken soup served by his wife on the Sabbath. And not just as a one-off but a few Fridays in a row. It transpired that the kerosene lamp – perhaps part of the Shabbat table decoration – was dripping into his soup. The way she wove together the characters, the food, the flavours and the humour was masterful and very much in the folk tale tradition.

The other writer, Rita Price, was born in Melbourne to Sicilian parents, who came to Australia after the war seeking a better life. Her parents bought the Princes Pier Cafe (sadly no longer) in Port Melbourne. Rita’s book Cafe at the Edge of the Bay celebrates the first fifteen years of her life when her parents and grand-parents ran the cafe. Interestingly, they served Australian food – pie, steaks and chips – rather than Italian-style food. She recalls that her parents had very limited English but could read, write and add up, and her grand-parents were illiterate but great story-tellers.

Arnold compared the immigrant experience to a play in Three Acts. Act One is where the person lived before they migrated, Act Two represents the move or ‘the rupture’, a momentous decision which can be a journey in itself, and which often originates in horrific events such as the Holocaust or current day religious and political persecution. Act Three is about assimilation, the rest of your life. For some this is the hardest part and they never cease to yearn for their homeland.

I migrated to Australia from the UK ten years ago motivated by a sense of adventure and in search of a new life. I had been through a tough patch and the only thing I was escaping were the demons in my own head! How lucky was I to move here by choice, at a time of fast and reliable e-enabled global communications, knowing that my decision was reversible. Nevertheless, I did move to the other side of the world alone , and it was rather a blind date. Although my brother lived here, I didn’t have a job, man or private income to get me started!

The first few months were hell. Shortly after moving to Melbourne, I dreamt that England and Australia were geographically joined at the hip and that you could easily drive from one to the other. Clearly, I was homesick and missing family and friends.

I arrived in winter and struggled to find furnished accommodation (my furniture was on the High Seas). I ended up renting a sunless flat with an oven that wouldn’t turn off, taps that dripped endlessly and a vacuum cleaner that belched out more vomit-scented dust than it sucked up. Then there was the married man (a friend of friends in the UK) who hit on me: “Would you like to have an affair?” he asked point blank. And this hot on the heels of dinner with him and his wife where they waxed lyrical about how they first met and got together. He and his wife ran a B & B in the CBD and he had taken me out to lunch to discuss whether I was interested in providing occasional weekend relief. He gave me a lift after lunch, and so we were driving along Beach Road in St Kilda when he popped the question.

Manipulative and hugely chauvinist, he took my (equally point blank) refusal badly. I was glad to get out of the car and went into Safeway to do my groceries, pretending nothing had happened as I filled my basket with broccoli and other veggies. The next day the stress caught up with me, and when my computer froze for the umpteenth time as I was searching online for jobs, I threw it across the room in a fit of frustration. That was the end of my (luckily second-hand) computer but only just the beginning of Act Three of my story, which, I am happy to say, got a lot easier as time went on.

Frost with parrots

English people are renowned for obsessing about the weather (well, if that’s true it’s because they get their fair share of miserable Northern European grey skies, rain and chill) but, from my observations, we’re all pretty tuned into meteorology especially now we can access the forecast via our Smart phones.

Melbourne’s winter this year has thrown all sorts at us and, as an all-weather dog walker (try telling Bertie it’s pelting with rain and blowing a gale and we need to wait till it’s cleared), I’ve been out in some pretty inclement conditions. That’s where my UK training comes in handy: you simply layer up against the cold, don wellies, mac, hat, gloves and scarf and get on with it. Forget the whinging Pom thing, we’re remarkably resilient when it comes to weather.

We’ve had one of the coldest winters for many years with snow blanketing many places around Victoria that are normally untouched by such extremes. On Monday morning I was amazed to see a sprinkling of frost in the park when I took Bertie for a walk. I found it rather magical and it reminded me of Blightly, apart from the parrots screeching overhead, that is.

In the Bleak Mid Winter, Frosty Wind Made Moan...

In the Bleak Mid Winter, Frosty Wind Made Moan…

But on Sunday, the wind and rain held off and we enjoyed the most glorious winter sunshine. It was as if the weather Gods had called a truce and bathed sky and land in gentleness. I took Bertie on our favourite walk along the coastal path from Hampton Beach beyond Sandringham and towards Half Moon Bay. And what a wonderfully nurturing experience it was. As we descended the steps to the dog beach at Hampton, we passed a man chopping back some branches that had blown onto the path. He also had an orange ukulele with him and said he often came down to the beach to practise. Sadly I missed his practice but I did hear a Chinese woman singing a bit further along. She was sitting meditatively on a rock oblivious to passers-by and walkers. How I admired her insouciance! Then I met a South African couple walking Gorgeous, their Staffy. What a wonderful name for a dog. Everyone seemed to be smiling, even the dogs.

Looking towards Melbourne

Looking towards Melbourne

Looking towards Half Moon Bay

Looking towards Half Moon Bay

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For once I was not caught up in my head and felt really alive to what was going on around me: the calling of gulls; the gentle lapping of waves; the salty briny smell of the water; and the busy high notes of the fairy wrens as they flitted about. It was a day to breathe in, to feel the expansiveness and to be thankful.

Half Field Spaniel, Bertie loves being in the grass

Half Field Spaniel, Bertie loves being in the grass

We walked on and on, clambering up and over rocks, up and down grassy slopes, onto the path then back onto the beach for a bit of ball throwing and paddling. After a couple of hours, we stopped off at my favourite cafe, the Sandy Beach Kiosk by the Sandringham Yacht Club. It’s cosy, casual, scruffy, wonderfully unpretentious, serves hearty food and is dog-friendly. Over a cup of English breakfast (what else?!), I caught up with some other spaniel owners and their little girl, read sections of the Sunday papers and generally put the world to rights. A perfect Sunday morning.

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