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!


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.

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.

Feeding my inner European

When I got back from Europe in September last year, I went through my usual grieving process: one minute I was walking round Goethe’s house and sipping tea in a chandelier-bedecked café in Frankfurt and, seemingly the next, I was in a yellow cab in Melbourne on my way home, Dave Hughes’ unmistakeably strident tones issuing forth from the radio, the front page of the Herald Sun screaming all things footy and, outside, Beach Road fringed with palm trees.

It’s always a bit of a wrench going from one world to the other, from my former, still parallel life in England were I ever to reclaim it, to my ‘new’ life here. A bit like those early settlers I read about in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, I have held onto bits and pieces from my original home and country as part of the re-settling process here. But at what stage does the new life cease to be new?

I think, in my case, it’s probably already happened. And any newness is simply a figure of speech and a way of distinguishing my life before and after my move to Australia. I’ve now lived in my Bayside suburb for twelve years – the longest I have ever lived in one place – and it does feel like home. Apart from putting my own stamp on my house and garden, getting a dog really helped me to put down roots. I’ve got to know many people and their pooches on our daily walks on the beach or in the park, and that has created a sense of community and belonging. Bertie and I are part of the local landscape and we blend in. And we’re getting used to summer being in winter and winter being in summer.

Last time I got back to Australia and was still battling the pull-push of Europe versus the Antipodes, a friend suggested I found ways to honour my inner Brit and European. Because it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. I have, after all, chosen to live in the most European of Australia’s cities. Since then, whether consciously or subconsciously, I’ve been finding ways to stay tuned – literally – to Europe and, as a modern language graduate, to rediscover my languages. I started by joining a German Meetup Group. So far I’ve been to a fascinating film about Techno Music in Berlin in the 80s and to a Stammtisch (an informal gathering at a bar) at the Bavarian-styled Hophaus on the Southbank. And I’ve found German cuisine in the most unlikely places. Das Kaffeehaus in Castlemaine is a Viennese café complete with red leather banquettes, gilt-framed mirrors and chandeliers housed in a former carpet factory. I spent five months in Vienna as an au-pair girl when I was 18, and I can vouch for the authenticity of the food – think Wiener sausages, schnitzel, goulash and sweet favourites such as Linzer Torte and apple strudel.


Then there’s SBS Radio and Television, a hotline to all things multicultural and multilingual. I have downloaded the Radio App and sometimes listen to Spanish news or I download the German Radio podcasts which deliver newsy and interesting items in easily digested 10-minute bites. Listening to the spoken language, its rhythms and cadences awakens dormant neural pathways and I start to remember words, phrases and expressions. Like old friends they flood back with a welcome familiarity. Tunein Radio has been another wonderful discovery; the app allows you to listen live to different talk shows and music stations from all over the world.

I love foreign language films and letting myself be transported to wherever it is. This past weekend I saw two excellent Spanish films (a rom-com set in Madrid and a quirky Mexican road movie) as part of the Spanish Film Festival. We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to foreign language film festivals in Melbourne – French, Spanish, German, Greek, Turkish, Israeli, Russian and Latin American to name but a few, and even, last year, a BBC First British film festival showing golden oldies as well as new releases.

And that’s not all. Palace Cinemas screen productions filmed live in HD from London’s Royal Opera House, La Scala, Opera Roma and the Opéra National de Paris as well as some of the best performances from the British Stage as part of the National Theatre Live program. Whoever first thought of sharing these live-filmed productions globally is a genius.

So far I’ve seen heartthrob Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet and Royal Opera House productions of the Marriage of Figaro and La Bohème. The joy of these performances is that you get the equivalent of front row seats for a mere $20 or so and, in the case of the operas, you can read the subtitles and follow the plot with ease. Not only that, each performance is introduced by a well-known actor and he or she goes backstage and interviews the director and actors or singers. My favourite so far has been John Copley’s production of La Bohème. Originally intended to run for a few seasons in 1947, it stayed in the repertoire for forty years, the 2015 filmed performance being the last ever.

The weekend before last a friend treated me to a surprise night out. It turned out to be the BBC Proms – the Last Night no less. Echoing the UK’s Albert Hall tradition, the program on the last night includes sea shanties and jingoistic numbers such as Rule Britannia and Elgar’s Jerusalem. It felt a bit strange sitting in an auditorium in Melbourne waving a dual English/Australian flag and belting out songs about Britain ruling the waves. I reflected that there are certain things you can’t export – it all becomes a bit ersatz. There’s a time and a place to celebrate your heritage and a time and a place to adhere to the old saying: When in Rome, do as the Romans.


Deck the Halls

There was something incredibly endearing about the cow bells and yodelling echoing in stereo around the shuttle train at Zurich airport. With images seemingly lifted straight from the pages of Heidi flashing past the windows, it was a fitting farewell from Europe, and I loved it. I almost shed a tear in fact.

At Vienna airport it was all about the opera. The first thing I saw when walking towards the baggage collection area was a section of the libretto of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus stencilled (or copied – I am not sure of the medium) across the walls. Only in Vienna, I thought.

I’ve been back in Melbourne nearly three weeks now but my head is still full of Europe. I left Zurich on 18th November, just two days before the Christmas lights in the Bahnhofstrasse were officially switched on. How tantalising is that?! I could see long threads of lights hanging overhead and could only imagine how dazzling they would look on a cold winter’s night.

Garden at Café Schober, Zurich

Garden at Café Schober, Zurich

And that’s the problem you see. It’s too light and warm over here for Christmas to feel like Christmas. It’s all wrong, upside down, topsy-turvy and back to front – at least, for those of us brought up in the Northern Hemisphere. When I first moved to Australia, I suffered acute homesickness at Christmas time. I struggled to adjust to fir trees and tinsel glittering in the sun (I was amused to see Christmas trees and mounds of look-alike snow in Federation Square this year) and days spent feasting on seafood or lying on the beach. Because I love the Christmas traditions, just as I love antique bone china cups. It’s the classicist in me.

My idea of listening to Christmas carols is not joining in a bun fight in the park with big screens beaming pictures of Dolly Parton-like singers blasting out American carols all about Santa and jingling bells. It’s about going to a church or cathedral and listening to an angelic-voiced choir boy leading in with the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, preferably by candle light. Last night I drove past my local park and the carol fest was in full swing complete with B-list celebrities, lots of hype and pizzazz, hordes of people, food stalls, and very noisy fireworks at the end. Baby Jesus didn’t get a look in…

I read something in Time Out suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t lean so much towards the European-inspired traditions (as in when in Rome…) and instead of fir trees have sand sculptures and other Aussie-centric decorations. Hmm, perhaps. Anything would be better than the pitiful and cheap-looking decorations installed by my local council this year. I thought it was perhaps just me with my snobbish European thing going on but, according to my local paper, ratepayers are up in arms at the cost of this year’s embarrassing effort. “The council has attempted to spruce up shopping strips with gold ribbon wrapped around trees and secured with cable ties, and stars stuck to fences and bins.”

From being in denial one year about Christmas – I simply edited it out and focused on the summer holidays instead – this year I am going all out to get into the Christmas spirit. I’ve collected up all my decorations old and new and added bits and bobs from two dollar shops, Target, Op Shops and my local park. Rather than a tree, I’m spraying twigs silver to arrange in a vase including a few gum leaves (my nod towards the ‘When in Rome’ thing). Then I’ve sprayed some fir cones to dot around my book shelves. I’ve got two traditional advent calendars and a Julelysspil, one of those delightful rotary candle holders that I purchased in Copenhagen (see photo), a few reindeer and lots of candles.


It’s easy to overlook the true meaning of Christmas – a time of peace, joy, celebration with family and friends, and an opportunity to rest and renew ourselves for the coming year. Whether it’s baking Christmas cakes and biscuits, singing carols, going to church or putting up the decorations, it’s about tapping into the wonder of the Christmas story and the aged-old Yuletide traditions. The origins of Christmas are actually something of a multi-layered mishmash of Pagan and Christian festivals. Yule was a Pagan midwinter festival celebrated by the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples, an excuse for feasting and revelry to break up the long winter months. Whatever spiritual or religious tradition you belong to – or don’t belong to – it’s definitely the season to be jolly, to be thankful and to have a good knees-up. Go forth and deck the halls. Holly anyone?

‘Christmas… is not an external event at all, but a piece of one’s home that one carries in one’s heart.’ Freya Stark

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Ohh Vienna – tra la la

I am very excited about going to Vienna. On a whim, before I left Melbourne, I wrote to the father of the family I au-paired for back in the 80s and, to my surprise, he replied by email. Sadly his wife died in 2009 but he still lives at the same address and his daughters, one of whom is married with children and one of whom is engaged, are both living in Vienna. I was in two minds whether to get in touch; looking after those girls wasn’t the easiest of gigs. But, thirty-odd years later, I’ve rather forgotten about the homesickness, the sometimes stifling routine and general stuffiness of a titled Viennese family and am left with a sense of gratitude that I had the experience – horsehair mattress, dumpling soup, tweedy relatives with leather-patched jackets and all.  I lived pretty centrally in the 10th district where all the embassies are situated and was right near the Stadt Park with its statues of Strauss, Schubert and other well-known artists. I got a bit bored endlessly playing catch or Mr. Wolf with the children, but as far as playgrounds go, this was a pretty glamorous and stylish one.

As I have written before, the family also introduced me to opera and I grew to love it. I would rush off after giving the children their tea and bath and get a standing place for just 12 Austrian Schillings. So, with just one night in this venerable city, I am treating myself to a good seat in the stalls at the Opera House.  I will be seeing Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, an opera that is somewhere between a fairy tale and a folk tale. As the name suggests, Janacek was Czech and his work incorporates Moravian folk music and weaves in themes on man’s connection with nature, love, the cyclical nature of life and death and even has a bit of a socialist agenda. The Cunning Little Vixen has got all the ingredients you might expect: a forester, the forester’s buxom wife, a poacher, a cast of woodland animals including the two foxes and more.  To quote from the Welsh National Opera:

“The score contains some of Janáček’s most enchanting music. Dream sequences, the wedding march of the foxes, and the magnificent finale of ‘When evening arrives’ paint a glorious picture of the countryside Janáček loved so much.” 

There’s something magical and majestic about the Vienna Opera House. From what I recall, it’s all gold, gilt, splendour and sumptuousness with glittering lights and sweeping staircases. It belongs to a bygone era of men in top hats and ladies in fine dresses, hats and gloves, their horse and carriage waiting outside.

Talking of a bygone era, another thing on my list for my 23-hour stop in Vienna is to visit the Palais Ephrussi, one of the properties originally owned by the Ephrussi family, a wealthy Jewish banking dynasty who made their money as grain merchants in Odessa. The story of their demise at the hands of the Nazis and the fate of a family collection of 264 netsuke ( intricately carved  miniature Japanese figures made of ivory), is captured in Edmund de Waal’s brilliant family memoir The Hare with the Amber Eyes (winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award). After the war in 1945 one of the Ephrussi family returned to find the Palais Ephrussi severely damaged but their maid, Anna, had managed to save the netsuke from the Gestapo. It’s a wonderful story and told with such grace, humility and sensitivity. The building is situated opposite the Votivkirche (church) on the Ringstrasse with its imposing, imperial-style showy buildings. The Ephrussi Palace building is now owned by Austrian Casinos so is still clearly in the business of making money!

Homeward bound

I’m beside myself with excitement! I’m planning a trip back to England in October to see my parents and family and then tacking on an eight-day European adventure. It’s such fun organising it all and I have already imagined myself sitting in atmospheric cafes, walking along cobbled streets, wandering around ancient churches, tuning into different languages, browsing street markets and more. Although living in Australia I’m next door to Asia, it’s Europe that steals my heart.

I haven’t been over to the Northern Hemisphere since December 2012 when I spent three nights in Copenhagen on my way to England. It was December and yuletide was in full swing. I felt as if I were in a Winter Wonderland and relished every minute.

This time I had planned to return via Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. A small and compact city, it would have been perfect for strolling around and soaking up the Central European vibe, but the flight times from London were limited and at anti-social hours. So where else? Berlin continues to be all the rage but I wanted somewhere that wouldn’t bring on a full-blown attack of guidebookitis. (see my post:

Then I remembered that I had read about Krakow being the 7th and newest UNESCO City of Literature joining Melbourne, Edinburgh, Iowa City, Dublin, Reykjavík and Norwich. And, of course, it’s Poland’s second largest city and stuffed with historic interest and significance – from the largest medieval plaza in Europe and Kazimierz (the old Jewish quarter) to countless churches and ancient tombs, a vibrant arts scene, a still-functioning salt mine and, of course, Auschwitz nearby.

I managed to get the second last thirty pound fare on Ryanair from London and, through Airbnb, I’ve booked into an artsy and affordable attic room in a share house in the old part of town. One of the hosts is training in Traditional Chinese Medicine (right up my street) and dances the Tango in his spare time, and the other is a landscape architect specialising in community projects. Reading the many enthusiastic reviews they sound like wonderful people to engage in conversation, but they also appreciate peace and quiet and do yoga in the mornings. I know I am going to love it there.

From Krakow I am heading to Vienna for just under 24 hours and from there I will get the train to Zurich. Researching hotels in Vienna and what’s on at the Opera brought back all sorts of bittersweet memories from my au-pairing days in 1982. When I worked in publishing in London in the 90s, I contrived to spend a day in Vienna after a sales trip to Germany. I think I met with a couple of publishers and then found time to go back to the street where my erstwhile employers lived. With a thumping heart I rang the doorbell but no one was home. Perhaps just as well. After all, we didn’t get on that well; I gave my notice in half way through and then had to grovel my way back a week later when things with a new family across town didn’t go so well. Although they had seemed much more fun, less stodgy and starchy, and the children were older and capable of more sophisticated games than Mr Wolf, I hadn’t reckoned on a fur-shedding cat taking up residence on my bed or that a very bossy and imperious cook with orange hair and thick blue eye shadow ruled the roost and wrote all the rules. I was highly allergic to cats in those days, something the red-haired cook used to her advantage. That and endlessly comparing me, unfavourably, to the previous au pair. According to my research on Google the father of my original employers is still living in Reisnerstrasse, but this time, inspired by a phrase a friend sent me: “the past is for reference not residence,” I won’t be retracing my footsteps.

The girls I looked after in Vienna

The girls I looked after in Vienna

Instead I’m staying in a wonderful-sounding old-style hotel called Pension Suzanne right in the centre of Vienna opposite the Opera House. I’m really curious to see what modern day Vienna is like. Is it still a bastion of stiff manners, etiquette, snobbery (the family I worked for were minor aristocracy) baroque interiors, quartets playing Mozart and lots of strudel, noodle soups and sachertorte? And are the Viennese of a certain class still wearing the green Loden coats and hats with brushes on? Scanning what’s on in November, I see there’s still plenty of theatre, opera and classical music performed in historic costumes in ornate salons, but there’s also Mamma Mia, Mary Poppins and Lady Gaga. I think I’m going to find Vienna much changed!