Hoovering, holidays and tents

Even though I returned to work on 4th January, I’m still tapping into the holiday vibe as much as I can. There’s such a frenzied build up to Christmas Day and a pressure to get everything done that I’ve begun to really cherish the peace that comes afterwards when everything and everyone calms down.

Two months into a new job, this year’s yuletide season proved quite a marathon. My workload started to intensify at the end of November and, from the beginning of December, life became a seamless blur of grant-writing and deadlines, social stuff, choir rehearsals and practising new songs (I’ve joined a smaller choir and we did a couple of pre-Christmas performances), putting on a garage sale, co-hosting my first dinner party for about two years – typically, it turned out to be the night (a late night) before two morning choir gigs, one of them in an aged care facility. What joy it was to sing (even if I was a bit post party croaky) new versions of old favourites such as Away in A Manger and Silent Night to the oldies.

Deck the Halls...

Deck the Halls…

The week before Christmas I went up to Brisbane for a couple of days of work and play. After a day and half of strategizing followed by a long and lavish staff Christmas lunch, I raced off to the Powerhouse to see a show by Cocoloco, a madcap duo consisting of a university friend from Bristol and her Australian husband.


I spent my last day wandering round GOMA – the Gallery of Modern Art – before squeezing in another show at the Powerhouse, having a quick chat with Helen and Trevor, and then travelling straight to the airport from there. It’d all been fun but exhausting and I had a sense of humour failure when I got stopped in security because the funky fish-shaped corkscrew I had bought for my nephew had a foil-cutting knife on it. What?! I’d been in too much of a whirl to notice. Amazingly, I was allowed to go back out to the Qantas desk and post it back to myself. Even more amazingly, it arrived in time to go under the tree!

I got home late the Saturday before Christmas and on route to a lovely Christmas lunch the next day, I managed to hit my head on a shelf, drop a bowl I was given for my 21st and then scrape my car along my carport wall. Not a good look, any of it! Things continued apace until Christmas Eve when I spent all day cooking two complicated desserts (and this from the woman who is 90% sugar free) to take to my brother’s. Dinner was at 7 p.m. and at 6.30 p.m. I was still hoovering and mopping the kitchen floor. I just couldn’t bear to leave it dirty; Christmas, for me, is also a time for renewal and reflection and I didn’t want to kick off with a crumb- and dog-hair-strewn floor.

Talking of hoovering – it’s not just the Brits, some Kiwis also talk of hoovering – reminds me of my trip back to the UK in August. My hoover is a Sebo (yes, I know that’s like saying my Mazda is a Toyota), a German make, which travelled the seas with me from England in 2004. It could probably do with a complete overhaul but my mission in England was to track down a spare part. Now the small market town in Nottinghamshire where my mother lives is no retail Mecca – at best, you’ll find Dorothy Perkins, Primark and Poundland, but it is exactly the place to find a store specialising in vacuum cleaners. Near the train station, in a residential street, is a shop that looks just like the one in the BBC show Open All Hours with Arkwright and Granville. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mTxaK1AHMc

The shop is delightfully cluttered, dusty (don’t think they ever hoover it) and a bit dark. Somehow it’s escaped the digital age completely and there’s not even a computer anywhere in sight. An older man in brown overalls (Arkwright without the stutter) explained that the shop started life in 1946 when his father was one of the first approved Hoover dealers in the area. He, in turn, now works alongside his son who will inherit the business. Helpful as they were, they didn’t have the spare part I needed – my Sebo is now so old as to be obsolete. However, visiting the shop was quite an experience. As we were leaving, a curious-looking man with a pot belly, lank, dyed blond hair and a generally dishevelled appearance strolled in and greeted us with a rather affected and effeminate “Helloooo!” The son explained it was his brother and quickly ushered him next door to a rather run-down house. All I can say is that if this bloke wasn’t the inspiration for Little Britain’s “Only Gay in the Village” sketch I don’t know who is.

Anyway, back to the Christmas holidays – once I had farewelled English and interstate visitors on the 28th, I sat in the garden with my feet up and got stuck into a fabulous novel about a Special Operations Executive parachuted into France as a spy in World War II. But the real hero of the holiday was a sun shelter tent lent to me by friends. I feel so blessed to live near the beach and really made the most of it. There’s something magical and healing about swimming in salt water and then lying on warm sand and sculpting it to your body shape. It’s as good as a massage. Without phone calls, emails, chatter and the normal day to day stuff, it was pure bliss and the tent meant I could stay for longer and not get burnt. Just me, the birds, the waves, the wind, the sun and the sea.

All the World is a Tent

All the World is a Tent

I even let myself off the hoovering – well almost. All that time on the beach – whether alone in my tent or walking Bertie adds up to quite a few grains of sand on the floor…

Bertie sporting sand and salt sculpted hair...

Bertie sporting sand and salt sculpted hair…

Holidays and Honey-Dos

I learnt a marvellous new word courtesy of my American guests over the Festive Season, namely honey-do, a chore or task performed by one’s partner, husband or significant other around the house or garden as in “Honey, could you do x, y and z?’

My Christmas holidays were much busier than I planned. In addition to the emotional tripwires that creep up on me every Yuletide (missing family and traditions in the Northern Hemisphere, end of year fatigue, a bit of the Bridget Jones Blues, and this year, midlife angst about my career and earning potential or lack thereof), I seemed to be very much on the go, which, of course, is one way of avoiding the difficult stuff swirling around in my head.

What with Airbnb guests (yes, we’ve had lift off and I’m on my third booking), parties and social gatherings, gardening, cooking (including special home-made dog biscuits for Bertie), cleaning, buying new fans, returning faulty fans and choosing new models that actually work, household honey-dos, dog walking, grooming and shampooing and a LOT of chatting, I got into a rather over-stimulated spin. Then this week, the week I had set aside to mellow out and finally relax, I started to look for jobs (a job in itself), and then yesterday got locked out of my house.

Giulia, one of my first Airbnb guests and now a temporary flat-mate, locked the screen door as she was unable to close the front door. I had left it on the latch so she was doing the right thing by securing the property. What she didn’t realise is that my screen key came off my key ring a few weeks ago and has remained on the kitchen bench ever since. All a learning curve: Note to self – be clear about screen door with guests and make sure everyone including me has a full set of keys!

It’s been a new thing for me having not just one but two people in my house (the spare room is twin-bedded). Most of the time it’s fun having congenial company and ready-made dinner, movie and dog-walking companions, but there are times when I need to slink off to a quiet corner and read or simply NOT talk.

Dan and Vickie hail from Colorado and are cycling across Australia on their beautiful custom-made tandem. Amazingly, the whole bike (see picture) can be disassembled and fitted into a couple of cases. They started their Australian journey in Sydney before riding down to Melbourne and around Tassie. They came to me in preparation for the next leg of their journey to Adelaide via the Mornington Peninsula and Great Ocean Road. From Adelaide they are following the coast and crossing the Nullarbor to Perth. Not a trip for the faint-hearted!

They were with me for a couple of weeks and we started out by having dinner together at an excellent Turkish restaurant on Christmas Eve and finished up with an evening spent building self-assembly fans. As you do. Dan is a star honey-doer and helped me prune tall shrubs, take the bins out, hammer down rough nails on a couple of carpet dividers, rig up a way of keeping the laundry (Bertie’s bedroom) ventilated on hot nights, search under the washing machine for a missing pearl earring and much more. He even helped me word a difficult text. How nice it was to have a house husband!

Breakfast at the Sandy Beach Kiosk with Dan and Vickie

Breakfast at the Sandy Beach Kiosk with Dan and Vickie

Had Dan been here yesterday I wonder if he’d have found of way of opening the screen door without the key! As it was I had to drive to the Monash Campus (not my favourite place owing to a job from hell last year) where Giulia is studying. I do have a local honey-doer though – my brother. Like Dan, he’s practical, solutions-driven and likes a challenge. On Wednesday just as the mercury hit 35, my air-conditioner failed to work. As luck would have it my brother was passing by and came in to investigate. I was ready for the worst – last time it went wrong and I called out a service guy, it cost in the region of $800. Just what I don’t need on top of the midlife career crisis! After tinkering with the inside controls, Tim went outside and turned the unit on and off in an effort to ‘re-boot’ it. And it worked and is still working. What a star!

Then, last night, I decided to have one last look for the missing pearl earring. I lost it about a week ago when I had come in from walking Bertie. I heard it drop – a soft drop – while I was in the laundry but there was no sign of it anywhere despite Dan’s inventive use of a coat-hanger to sweep under the washing machine. I bought the earrings back in 2009 when I was on Thursday Island. They are high quality pearls and I love them. So you can imagine my delight when I re-checked the pocket of the jacket I had been wearing. There was the missing pearl in the inside pocket. I didn’t even know there was an inside pocket.

It’s been a funny few weeks and I’ve been rather topsy-turvy but I’m now Girl with Two Pearl Earrings and a Functioning Air-Conditioner and am counting my blessings! What’s more, last night I chanced upon one of the most stunning sunsets ever. Enough to lift anyone’s spirits!

Sunset on St Kilda Beach - 8th January

Sunset on St Kilda Beach – 8th January

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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‘Fairing’ well at Christmas

For those of us from the Northern Hemisphere, Christmas Down Under can be a bit of a challenge. It’s Christmas but not as we know it. Hot blue skies, gum trees, flaming red bottlebrush flowers, beach, barbecues and seafood platters are a far cry from short, wintry December days, mince pies and mulled wine, turkey and the ‘trimmings’.

But this year I had an unexpected Christmas fix. Last Friday night my choir sang at a Christmas Fair and Festival at Ripponlea House, an elaborate (think chandeliers, ornate fireplaces and plasterwork, stained glass, embossed wallpapers, Regency furniture and more) Victorian mansion in Melbourne’s South East. After our performance a few of us took the opportunity to look round the house. By this time it was about 8.30 p.m., the light was fading and there was a slight nip in the air; perfect conditions to appreciate the house in all its Christmas glory.

Evergreen branches and candles adorned window sills, stockings hung in the nursery fire place and half-wrapped boxes of gifts lay on the bed in the master bedroom. In the dining room a formally set table was decorated with gold crackers, silver candelabras with red and green candles and paper napkins shaped like crowns. As if that were not enough to stir up nostalgic, rose-tinted memories of the festive season back in Blighty, carols floated up from the terrace below where a more traditionally minded choir ours were singing all the old favourites. It felt like Christmas and I went home feeling warm, fuzzy, and, well, festive. Deck the halls indeed!

This time last year, I was on my way to Copenhagen where I spent three nights on my way back to England. Christmas has its origins in the mid-winter pagan festivals of Northern Europe – yule comes from the Norsk word Jul – and so mid-December in Copenhagen was the place to be. Leaving Melbourne on a sunny 30-degree day, I arrived to snow and temperatures well below zero. From start to finish it was like being in a Winter Wonderland with stalls selling roasted almonds and mulled wine (known as glog) dotted around, brass bands playing carols in the city’s cobbled streets and squares and lights and decorations adorning every available window and facade.

Christmas at the Royal Copenhagen shopfront

Shop Window at Royal Copenhagen

Although it’s hugely touristy and commercial, I went to the Christmas Market in the Tivoli Gardens. Here, there was no escape from Santa – even in the Ladies’ toilets a piped voice wished us Ho, Ho, Ho, Happy Christmas. It was all a bit twee with a token reindeer in a pen surrounded by gingerbread-style houses selling steaming mugs of mulled wine, fur-lined boots and woollen hats from Lappland, confectionery, candles and Christmas decorations galore, but you couldn’t fail to get into the festive spirit.
Rudolf looks a little lonely

Rudolf looks a little lonely

The Christmas Fair in Christiana, a squatter community that started in the 1970s on the site of an old military barrack was a complete contrast to the extravaganza in the Tivoli Gardens. Now a self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood operating to a nine-rule Common Law, Christiana is scruffy, hip, New Age and eco-friendly with some edgier fringe dwellers into the mix. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
In the grey hall, designers, artists and craftspeople from inside and outside the community were selling artisan products ranging from glassware, wicker, wood, ceramics and fabrics to chocolates and gourmet foods. Food Take-away snacks eaten at long refectory-style tables were suitably eclectic and included mulled cider, pancakes, baked potatoes, chilli con carne and Thai noodles.
My last stop in Copenhagen was a Christmas concert at the Helligaandskirken (Church of the Holy Spirit) in the city. The choir sang a varied program (from German and Danish carols to the Messiah) a-capella-style and it was glorious. Sublime even. I was moved to tears by the beauty and simplicity of it all. I was genuinely touched by the Christmas spirit and it had nothing to do with Santa and presents!