So Life Mooches On

Wandering the streets of Melbourne, even in mournful weather, is an experience.

My childhood was filled with books and reading, limited only by my access to books. Other people’s preferences and tastes, from the scientists and academics next door to my father’s more earthy tastes in bush poetry and Australian classical literature.

An avid reader, I devoured everything and went into withdrawal in the absence of words. In desperation at the breakfast table (no books allowed) I would memorise the back of the cereal packet.

And now, in Melbourne, old memories come to life.

Melbourne — old, new and under construction.

Melbourne in my early understanding was a historic place, a place of culture, one of the cradles of the Australian nation. Publications such as the Age and the Bulletin were respected indeed. Those whose work was published in them became household names. Among them are A B ‘Banjo’ Patterson; Henry Lawson; and C J Dennis. All authors I read from an early age. Sometimes the dialect of those classic Australian writers was challenging, because language does change over time, especially slang terminology. But the sort of early Australian slang these writers used was often self-explanatory. As a child I struggled but still loved the cadence of the words, how they flowed. Now as an adult, I have rediscovered my old favourites. Reading them again feels like having a casual natter over the fence to an old neighbour next door, exchanging words as we might pass garden produce back and forth, a sort of cultural barter. I gain added colour in my understanding; they gain further steps towards immortality as their writing lives on in my heart.

Melbourne trams are a great way to get around.

Two days ago we tried to book last minute tickets to The Cursed Child but baulked at the cost and the need to be there on two consecutive nights. Instead we go to a night of live comedy at The Comics Lounge. Instead of The Cursed Child, we see some cursing men. It’s edgy, fun and innovative. Another flavour of Melbourne.

The Comics’ Lounge, a seat of the pants night of comedy in Melbourne. A proving ground of Australian comedy.

The next afternoon we see a play, Photograph 51, at the Arts Centre. It’s about the poorly-recognised contribution of Rosalind Franklin to the discovery of the DNA double-helix. The set itself is a spiral, slowly revealing itself as part of the world of the characters. So different from classics such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the Melbourne production described by C J Dennis in The Sentimental Bloke.

Doreen an’ me, we bin to see a show — 

The swell two-dollar touch. Bong tong, yeh know. 

A chair apiece wiv velvit on the seat; 

A slap-up treat. 

The drarmer’s writ be Shakespeare, years ago, 

About a barmy goat called Romeo.

From Songs of the Sentimental Bloke, C J Dennis, 1915

The Melbourne of today is an eclectic mix of art, design, practicality, multiculturalism and construction. On opposite sides of the street are the old and the new, the classic and the modern, often with scaffolding. Wherever we turn, we see something interesting and exciting. Outside the Victorian Library we see what appears to be a half-sunk pediment in the pavement. Is it a statement on the potential destruction of the library? Or rather a reference to its permanence through future ages? Nearby an antique street lamp has been painted in ornate colours.

Street sculpture outside the library in Melbourne.

We stumble into Melbourne Central with vague memories of the place from our visit when the kids were school-aged. Of course, everything has changed. It’s still an exciting place, but only if you’re there for the shopping. We are not.

Outside the library in Melbourne. Beautiful!

After a late breakfast (expensive) at the café next to our hotel, we’re now in search of an inexpensive top-up, a very light lunch. We’re also in search of ‘Little Athens’, the Greek part of Melbourne. I need a new briki to make Greek coffee at home. We have a map and find Chinatown readily. The red lanterns overhead are a dead giveaway, and the Greek section is the next street. When we find it, it’s marked with a Greek key on light poles and other structures, but there are Asian restaurants along the strip mixed in with the Greek shops.  There are various cafés, a couple of restaurants and — oh, joy! A gift shop. And yes, they have brikis. A range of sizes and materials. The best ones are copper but I need a solid iron one that will work on an induction stove. Small, for one cup.

The Greek quarter in Melbourne.

We seem to be out of luck, until Jeff finds a red enamel one that likes the magnet on his phone case. Yes! If it attracts a magnet, it can be used on an induction stove.

Greek coffee coming up!

The shopkeeper wraps up the purchase and we chat about Greeks in Melbourne, and his place in the community. He is curious about our own interest in Greece, so we tell him our story (see earlier blog). We leave having made another friend.

Next door is a cake shop and, as we’ve been looking for a snack to tide us over until dinner, we drop in. Do they do Greek coffee? The presence of a Chinese girl behind the counter would indicate otherwise, but she nods happily when we ask. So we order two Greek coffees. ‘Metrio,’ Jeff tells her in Greek and she nods again. We choose our sweet treat, and Jeff makes a beeline for the orange syrup cake which we remember fondly as Eftichi’s favourite in Crete.

The coffee, when it arrives, is delicious. It is served with the customary glass of water. At a nearby table, two men converse with animation in Greek. We sit by the window in this unusual place, looking out at the intermittent rain. This is very much Melbourne too, the intermingling of cultures in an Australian city where Chinese girls serve good Greek coffee.

Multicultural Melbourne.

My mind wanders back to C J Dennis and The Sentimental Bloke. Those poems were written of a Melbourne a century ago, of a working class man and his world as part of a growing city. It’s not just a love story between a man and a woman, it’s also showing love for the city, for life and for friendships. Around us we see delivery trucks, young men pushing loads of boxed goods on trolleys. I think back to Bill ‘the bloke’ with his ‘barrer’ delivering a range of goods in the markets, including rabbits at times, and seeing his ‘peach’ the fair Doreen at work in Bourke St sticking labels on pickle jars. ‘The Bloke’ refers to his mates and ‘the push’ or gang and the fights they get into in ‘Little Lon’ (Little Lonsdale St).

This Romeo ‘e’s lurkin’ wiv a crew — 

A dead tough crowd o’ crooks — called Montague. 

‘Is cliner’s push — wot’s nicknamed Capulet — 

They ‘as ’em set. 

Fair narks they are, jist like them back-street clicks, 

Ixcep’ they fights wiv skewers ‘stid o’ bricks.  

Wot’s in a name? Wot’s in a string o’ words? 

They scraps in ole Verona wiv the’r swords, 

An’ never give a bloke a stray dog’s chance, 

An’ that’s Romance. 

But when they deals it out wiv bricks an’ boots 

In Little Lon., they’re low, degraded broots.  

Wot’s jist plain stoush wiv us, right ‘ere to-day, 

Is “valler” if yer fur enough away.

From Songs of the Sentimental Bloke, C J Dennis, 1915
‘Little Lon’.

And we are here. We walk along Bourke St, we cross at Little Lonsdale St.

We are from Sydney, but we are in Melbourne. Nobody gives us stick about it. Along with Sydney, this is where Australia started, where it grew and, looking at Melbourne’s many construction zones, where it is still growing.

‘The Bloke’ said it best — ‘Livin’ an’ lovin’ — so life mooches on.’

Game ‘n Watch

‘On the move, eh? Heading home? Or running away from home?’

It’s hard to hide that you’re travelling when you’re dragging your suitcases along the train platform. We’re a friendly country, and anyone can and often will strike up a conversation. On the platform, in the lift going out to the concourse, at the bus stop…

It’s only for a few days but this time it’s to Melbourne. It’s all an illusion, but on such occasions I can sometimes pretend that I’ve finally taken up my rightful place among the jet-set. However, inside this nouveau cosmopolite there is still the barefoot urchin who read voraciously, everything from National Geographic to encyclopedias, and could only dream of faraway places. I still feel a bit of a fraud, because this time I’m being flown here for a TV game show. Hard Quiz, on the ABC. I’m not a real jet-setter. The network are covering my airfares and one night’s accommodation. However, by spending a few of our own shekels, Jeff’s coming too and we’ve extended our stay for another three nights. I’m in the game (instead of on it) and he’s going to watch. Kinky!

Not that I make a habit of it, but this is my third trip to Melbourne for a TV quiz show. The first two were about twenty-five years ago and both quiz shows are now defunct, sadly. With the first one they flew us down early to avoid a baggage handlers’ strike, so I had a day to myself wandering around Melbourne. I know Sydneysiders bag out Melbourne, but I liked the place.

The second trip was just for the day and it was exhausting. The contestants were met at the airport and had a nail-biting delay on the stop-start drive to the studio. We saw nothing of Melbourne except the sights from the taxi.

One other visit, not quiz-related, was with family, and only overnight. So this time we plan to see more.

Vintage TV equipment at ABC, Melbourne.

Last night we got our packing done. This morning we rose with the sun and began our journey. A lift to the railway station, then a train — three bags, because I had to pack multiple outfits. At the last minute a shirt I’d been searching for turned up in a crumpled heap and I stuffed it in my bag as we headed out the door. Hey, you never know…

As it turned out, that was the shirt they chose for me to wear. But more on that later.

I had goofed with booking the plane tickets for Jeff. Less than twenty-four hours before departure, we had to quickly find him a seat. Sadly, not on the same flight, but my bad. Jeff left half an hour before me, taking our one big bag on his flight. Convenient, as it turned out.

I have a habit of chatting to total strangers. The taxi driver who took us to the airport from the station asked what we planned to do in Melbourne. I felt awkward; how much could I say? I’m a contestant on Hard Quiz. It was my writing that got me into this in the first place. That needed further explanation that I didn’t want to go into. Then, sitting next to me on the plane, a couple of American tourists were curious about why I was travelling to Melbourne. Because I’m Australian they assumed I’d already seen all of my country. I told them as much as I could about Melbourne (very little) and listened to their plans. I felt even more of a fraud, because travel for me is a recent thing. I’m like a child let loose on an unsuspecting world. It’s taken me most of my lifetime to be able finally to travel.

By the time I arrived in Melbourne, Jeff had just claimed our big bag and, since I only had my carry-on bag, we could walk straight out of the terminal. Suddenly it was all very real.

The view from our hotel window. Handy to the ABC.

We got to the hotel, grabbed a late lunch and I rested up. My call was 6 pm and we timed it to the minute. Easy, because the hotel so close to the ABC. Audience call was for 8 pm, so Jeff walked back to the hotel to wait.

There were four contestants, we were introduced to each other and I immediately forgot everyone’s name. That didn’t augur well…

I thought I sensed wariness: how much does she know? It was probably just my nerves. I don’t normally get nervous, but I could feel my gut tightening and my knees shake with every step we went through. Everyone seemed relaxed and friendly, but not giving anything away.

We were given a briefing, clothing choices assessed, make-up and hair tweaked and some food provided. It is difficult to eat much when your stomach is churning from nerves and then you’re worried about your make-up smearing across your face. The make-up person had given me a particularly strident shade of orange lipstick which, Jeff told me later, did not look as atrocious under the lights. He said it actually looked good, which just shows that when it comes to the effect of studio lights and cameras on colours, I know nothing.

The wardrobe guy looked at the range of clothing I’d brought and immediately settled on the garish and extremely crumpled shirt I’d grabbed last minute. A dress I’d bought specially was not in my bag; I’d left it back in the hotel room. So much for my memory — I’m getting old, decrepit and forgetful.  This is going to be a disaster.

The wardrobe guy, a stickler for perfection, returned with our clothes freshly ironed, including my stretch pants that to my inexpert eyes had no wrinkles to begin with. His standards were way higher than mine. Not that that’s saying much…

The sound technician wired us all up, with lapel mike leads being fed under our clothes. In my case, the light cotton shirt couldn’t take even the tiny weight of the lapel mike, so my clothing was taped to me.

We had been primped, pampered, watered, fed and wired up. At regular intervals the various experts came in to do their thing and whisked, polished, fluffed and touched up anything they saw was not quite right. Imposter Syndrome was kicking in big time. I was not worth this much effort. What sort of a fool was I going to make of myself?

Then there was a safety walk-through and tech set-up. As always, there is a lot of waiting around during which the audience filed in and the warm-up guy began to coach the crowd.

For various reasons, we will draw a veil over the rest of the evening’s proceedings. Suffice it to say, it was a seat-of-the-pants experience and I do find that adrenalin always give me a mental edge. Creativity kicks in. So does my mouth, apparently…

We’ll know more when it goes to air. From what we were told, that will be some months away. Until then, I’ll have to hope that some of my more outrageous moments end up on the cutting room floor.

When the show airs I’ll talk more. Assuming it doesn’t leave me speechless!

For now, however, it’s done and dusted. But of course, I can’t sleep. It’s been a very long day, my feet are hurting and by brain is a whirl of mental energy.

Time to write. Not just this blog, but back to my novel, to immerse myself in the ghost story I’m crafting. Midnight seems an ideal time to work on a ghost story, and the faint and unfamiliar noises around me serve to stimulate the imagination.

Speaking of ghosts… that’s yours truly at the famous Countdown piano. Yes, I tinkled with it briefly.

Then hopefully I’ll sleep.

Tomorrow I can relax that knot in the pit of my stomach and start exploring Melbourne. Not even the forecast rain can put a dampener on that!

The Sojourn of the Guns

(or, what happened in Wales)

If you haven’t read my previous blog, ‘Saga of the Guns’ (and why not?) then here’s a quick re-cap.

We bought some toy guns, very ornate and reminiscent of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ in Greece in 2018. Decorative paperweights. We dragged them across Europe and finally to England. But when it came to flying home from England, we hit a security snag and the guns were seized, to be later retrieved and minded for us by a relative living in the UK. We tried to get them posted home but the paperwork was confusing. Many emails bounced back and forth between myself and the NSW Police Licensing Department. After about six months of this the police told us that to bring the guns back to Australia I needed neither permit nor  licence, but I did need legal permission and had to fill in forms. However, given that no model number or serial number existed for these inert lumps of wood and cast metal, the forms were mostly blank. I emailed the police to let them know and they said to send the forms anyway. With no reply received before we flew out, I emailed a UK re-enactor group and through someone called Marilyn I found someone in Wales who was eager to receive the guns.

Now on to the story…

We arrived in London feeling frayed and unwell. We’d messaged ahead to our relative who was coming to London for a meeting and was happy to meet with us for ice cream and a toy gun handover. When we arrived at Fortnum & Mason’s it was raining and cold. London in June! As the waitress showed us to a table, we asked her why it was so cold in summer.

‘Soommer?’ she replied. ‘Oh, that were last Wensdy.’  

When our relative arrived and handed over the parcel of toy guns, I noticed that the bubble wrap had been removed and one of the ‘guns’ was in two pieces. The price tag was completely missing from it. ‘That was what they were like when we got them from the UK police,’ our relative explained.

Finally we could photograph them. Toy guns. Classified by NSW police as ‘imitation antique flintlock pistols’.
If we brought them back to Australia, they’d have to be kept in a locked gun safe.

I could imagine. Things like price tags fall off when items get handed around a lot, and boys (even boys in blue) who like toys tend to take things apart to see how they’re made. But rather than lay the pieces out on the table in the inner London boutique and possibly cause more consternation (and another Level 4 security alert?) we shoved them into the bottom of my cloth shopping bag. I felt like a bagman in a corruption scandal, handing over a package of contraband. Once more we would be lugging these heavy lumps of metal in our luggage.

Later in our hotel room I took the guns out and inspected them closely. The toy gun that was in two pieces turned out to be made to come apart for easy packaging. It was as pretty as I remembered it. It readily reassembled, clicking together neatly. I took detailed photographs, including of the one remaining label.

Then an email finally arrived from the NSW Police, licencing department. The paperwork was incomplete, they said. I hadn’t filled in the model or serial number. Gah!

The business end. No bullet is ever coming out of this barrel!

I emailed back and said that I had already advised them that no such information existed, and they had told me to send in what I had and they’d sort the rest.

Well, fellas — definitely not sorted. We were now committed to having to leave the toy guns in the UK, one way or another. We had to offload them before we left for France. Jeff was adamant — if we got no confirmation from NSW Police licencing, the guns would have to be left in the UK. In a garbage bin if necessary. We had two weeks.

All my hopes now were on Bronwen, the contact in Wales who had been so interested. But I only had an email address and my repeated emails were getting no reply.

We had travelled through Scotland and back into England, through the Lakes District and finally within range of Wales, before we heard from Bronwen. I finally got a phone number! I rang her and she apologised for the poor communication. ‘Our internet is very unreliable,’ she told us. ‘The power keeps cutting out too.’ Once again she repeated her offer of a night’s accommodation in her 15th Century farmhouse in exchange for the guns. She gave directions. ‘It’s a long narrow road,’ she told me. ‘We’re at the end. Just keep going. We’re miles from anywhere. Very peaceful.’

We checked our itinerary. We only had one night available for Wales, and no accommodation booked. This could suit us well.

However, as we got closer to the farmhouse, Jeff began to get more nervous. ‘We know nothing about these people, they could be axe murderers and we might never be found again.’ I laughed, but I was also beginning to feel apprehensive. No internet, she’d said. Power unreliable. Miles from anywhere, she’d said. We could be trapped with no way to call for help.

We found the long narrow laneway and turned into it. But it began to get even narrower until the hedges were brushing against the car on both sides. ‘If a farm tractor comes along the other way now, we’ve got a long way to reverse up,’ Jeff commented. ‘I don’t care how nice the place is, I won’t feel safe. We’re not staying.’

The two-way lane with greenery touching our car from both sides. Then the lane got narrower!

Bronwen was waiting for us at her farm gate. Cats scattered as we eased our car in the driveway. Long grass and nettles broke through the cracked concrete. Cats were everywhere, slinking in the shadows or sunning themselves on the courtyard.

Jeff muttered out of the side of his mouth. ‘I’ve got to turn this car around for a fast getaway,’ he murmured. ‘I need you to help me navigate the car around all these cats.’
I got out, smiled brightly to Bronwen, and explained that Jeff wanted to avoid sun on the steering wheel.

Once that was done, Bronwen led the way into the farmhouse. ‘Come and have a cuppa,’ she offered. ‘Glad you made it!’

‘I see you like cats,’ I said, realising how lame that sounded. There must have been forty in the farmyard.

We picked our way past cats and eased through the farmhouse door, careful not to let any cats in.

‘That one can come in,’ she told us. ‘But not that one over there.’

To us, they all looked identical. ‘We had three rescue cats,’ she told us. ‘Then when they started having kittens I didn’t want to risk them being used by greyhound trainers as bait.’ Her expression was fierce. ‘I love cats.’

Not the same cats, but still a handful.

Cats appeared to be the only livestock on the farm. When I asked more about the farm, she mentioned geese and chickens, but told us of depredations by foxes and hawks. I privately wondered how many cats the foxes and hawks were also getting. The idea that there might have been even more cats was something I didn’t want to think about.

We chatted over coffee. The inside cats swarmed everywhere and the musk and ammonia made our eyes water. Apart from cats littering most horizontal surfaces and attempting a few vertical ones, the house was clean. But I could feel my recent bout of asthma trying to make a comeback under the onslaught of Cat.

I followed Bronwen into the kitchen and noticed a couple of cats spooning on the draining board. Another cat outside the window was dabbing at the glass. ‘I think he wants to come in,’ I commented.

‘Well, he’s not allowed,’ she said firmly. ‘He broke that window.’

I’ve been a pet owner, so I do understand how an owner can identify their animals even when to observers they look identical. But I was still at a loss as to how she could know which cat had broken a window.

‘Don’t pat them, they’re not very friendly,’ Bronwen said of the draining board cats. ‘These over here — they’re very friendly.’ She crossed the kitchen to a chest of drawers which had the top drawer removed. From the second drawer she scooped out a couple of half-grown cats and handed them both to me. Yes, they were affectionate, but trying to handle two was challenging. She piled a third cat in my arms, and took two for herself. I wasn’t sure how many more were in the drawer.

I finally opened my bag and produced the toy guns. Bronwen was very excited. ‘I wish you could stay,’ she said. ‘My husband will want to thank you in person but he’s at work.’

‘I need to have reliable access to email,’ I told her. ‘I have editing work coming in and needing to be sent back out all the time.’

We left, arranging to meet up for dinner in the nearby village. When we got outside, we took deep gulps of air. While we had enjoyed chatting with Bronwen, we were breathing easier as we drove back down that narrow laneway.

We found a place to stay which thankfully had heated towel rails (see another blog about their usefulness in drying emergency hand-washed laundry). After a shower, some urgent hand-washing of clothes and a full clothing change, we felt much better and ready to find the local pub.

Smelling of roses at last.

Right on time, our new friends arrived and we enjoyed a lovely dinner together, chatting like old friends. Bronwen’s husband admitted he’d already looked up the imitation guns online and discovered how much they were worth. He offered to pay something, but we were happy for them to go where they could be seen, and enjoyed, than to risk getting them seized and destroyed in any attempt to get them back to Australia with us. So they bought dinner for us instead. Cheap at half the price.

We finished dinner and prepared to go our separate ways, but pausing in the doorway of the pub, Bronwen spoke to me with quiet urgency. Something had clearly been weighing on her mind. ‘So how well do you know Marilyn?’ she asked me.
I looked puzzled.

‘You know — Marilyn, who sent me your email about wanting to find a home for the guns. I gathered you are a friend of hers.’
‘Never met her,’ I replied. ‘I just emailed UK re-enactment groups and she was the first to reply.’

The brief flash of horror on Bronwen’s face spoke volumes. While we had been feeling increasingly apprehensive about the dangers of meeting up with random strangers living down quiet country lanes, Bronwen had been acting in blissful ignorance, thinking we were people known to our mutual contact and therefore safe. She suddenly realised, we could have been anybody. Even axe murderers…

But it was a happy ending all round, we had found a home for the toy guns other than a bin somewhere, and they had acquired a couple of treasures which they would value. And we each have our own story to tell of a possible narrow escape.

And the police back here in Australia? As far as they know, I’m still trying to bring these ‘imitation antique flintlock pistols’ back to Australia. They still haven’t replied to my last email.

The Landlord From Hell

I feel I must say at this point, lest you think, dear reader, that we had a terrible time travelling and all the people we met were horrible, that actually most of the people we met while travelling were delightful and very much an enhancement of our own enjoyment.

For us, a lot of the adventure is having the freedom to explore on our own.
Our travel agent back in Australia, a pure gem, had found us places which were either off the beaten track or right in the centre of things, depending on the attractions of a place. As a result, each place was an adventure in itself, the people there being part of the experience.

We had chosen Sarlat-la-Canéda almost arbitrarily at the last minute, still in our search for medieval villages and castles. There’s a throwaway reference in Michael Crichton’s novel Timeline which is set in the area. For one night only, this stopover was between our exploration of Guédelon Castle (the modern reconstruction of a 13th Century castle, see my blog on it) and our friends near Bordeaux. I’d worked hard with our travel agent to find a place to stay that was close enough to the centre of the old part of the town. It wasn’t easy — no big hotels. She found somewhere small, more a B&B than a hotel. It suited us.

The night before, we received an email from our travel agent. It was forwarded from our host in Sarlat, the landlord wanted to give us detailed instructions on how to find the place. We could stop the car nearby (address given) to unload but would need to park away from the appartement. We duly programmed the drop-off location into the GPS plus I’d taken a screen shot of the email so I could make extra sure that we did not go off-piste, as it were.

We had a long drive, in hot weather. The change in the scenery was exciting as we got closer, with high clifftops surmounted with medieval castles in various stages of decay. If only we’d taken a week to do this leg! But it simply hadn’t been possible.

As we came into Sarlat, we almost missed the landmark street name. But as we drove into the street we quickly realised our mistake — this was not where we should turn, it was where we should stop and unload. We had driven into a pedestrian-only area. However, even though we quickly realised our mistake, we saw another car even further in and wondered if it was actually okay for us to unload in that area as the other vehicle clearly was.

Oops! Pedestrian-only area.
Can’t back out, we have to turn around near the blue sign.

Jeff let me out of the car to find the appartement on foot while he began to turn the car around, preparatory to taking it back to park on the main road. It was tight, but I had every confidence in him.

I found the place very quickly. It was small and the inn-keeper was behind the desk. When he came out with me to get the bags he expressed horror at where we’d got to with the car. ‘I sent you email last night — you ignored my email!’

I replied that no, we had not ignored his email but in the confusion of managing the unfamiliar road and having programmed the street corner into our GPS as instructed, the GPS had us turning into that street and not stopping on the corner.

‘It’s not the GPS. It is YOU!’ the landlord continued. ‘Why did I bother sending you email if you deliberately ignore it?’ He loudly continued on this theme out into the street and while he insisted on unloading our bags. Jeff paused in his three-point-turn and also caught the diatribe, as did every passer-by in the entire block.

Our landlord’s voice raised another few decibels when he discovered that our luggage consisted of two cabin bags and two larger bags. While we only needed the two cabin bags, there was no way we were leaving our two slightly larger hold bags in the back of a car that would be parked on a busy main road overnight. But the landlord was by now almost apoplectic with rage. ‘Quatre valises? QUATRE valises? Pour un nuit?’ [Four bags for one night?] ‘Pourquoi?’ [Why?] I almost answered, ‘We’re Kardashians.’

I heard the outraged litany all the way up the spiral stairs to the attic, where we were put for the night. The landlord refused all help with bags, and even my suggestion that perhaps a locked room downstairs could take our larger bags did nothing to placate him. ‘C’est un appartement, ce n’est pas un hôtel!’ [It’s an apartment, it’s not a hotel!]. My brain snapped to classic British comedy and I was by now thinking we were dealing with a French Basil Fawlty.

As the rant faded up to the rafters, the landlord’s wife was still staffing the counter. She looked profusely apologetic and shrugged as only the French can. I was half-expecting her to say, ‘He’s from Barcelona…’. She explained about breakfast, was again apologetic as she asked us to confirm whether or not we would be breakfasting in the appartement’s dining room for only 18 Euros a head extra. I said I’d talk to Jeff when he got back from parking the car. At this point the landlord had returned and heard me mention the car. The rant began again, this time fully in French. While I am not fluent I understood enough of his diatribe to realise it was very uncomplimentary. The landlord continued muttering as he showed me to our attic room. He repeated, ‘You must understand, this is an appartement, not a hotel. This level of service is not usual.’ But despite this, he offered, with eyes rolling at the rafters, to bring our bags down the next morning. ‘But only if it is before 8.30 am. I have an appointment at 9 am that I must not miss.’

When Jeff finally arrived I met him downstairs at the counter and showed him to the narrow spiral staircase that led to our attic room. It was a pleasant room as such places go, and as we were only there for one night we didn’t plan to linger when we could be out exploring. While Jeff unpacked our toothbrushes I checked through the information folder. I found a very interesting sentence. ‘Our staff will transfer your luggage to your room on arrival, and downstairs on your departure.’ So much for the complaints about carrying our bags.

The view from our attic room in Sarlat-la-Canéda.
A delightful medieval town, make sure you stay longer than we did.

There was exploration waiting for us outside and we only had half a day to check it out. On the way past we looked into the dining room. Very ordinary, a minimal menu for 18 Euros. We decided that in the morning we’d get on the road quickly and maybe buy breakfast at a village on the way. At the desk we informed our very pleasant landlady that we would not be in for breakfast, and we would be leaving well before 8.30 am.

Sarlat-la-Canéda is a gorgeous medieval town, surviving the dangers of renovation and renewal that have infected parts of France that are much more on the beaten track. We had a delightful few hours, culminating in dinner in the town square. Every person we met was generous and welcoming. Our landlord experience was very much out of character. As we strolled back to the ‘appartement, not a hotel’ in the evening we decided to chalk it up to adventure.

The geese of Sarlat — a tribute to the contribution of foie gras to the economy of the area.

Next morning we got our own bags downstairs. The landlord was outraged. ‘That is my job!’ he announced. Then he frowned. ‘You’re not planning to bring your voiture into the pedestrian areas again, are you?’

We assured him that we were happy to manage our own bags, and we would only bring the car into an approved area. We cheerfully waved goodbye and, I suspect, the landlord was also happy to see the back of us.

Outside it was raining, but after the heat of the previous days it was refreshing. While Jeff went to fetch the car, I walked the bags down a ramp to a row of shops where, we’d been told, cars were permitted for a few hours in the mornings. While I sheltered in a café doorway from the rain, the aroma of fresh-baked croissants was tantalising. There was a half hour parking spot just nearby and when Jeff arrived with the car, he parked there and loaded our bags. Then we went into the café and ordered hot coffee, fresh croissants, a warm crusty baguette and sliced ham. Fresh, local and delicious! Once loaded with fresh food we climbed into the car and hit the road. About half an hour later the sun came out and on the side of the road, in sight of a castle on the clifftop, we put together our fresh picnic breakfast. We also had a pot of local mustard which was a perfect condiment. Our petit dejeuner had cost a quarter of what the ‘appartement, not a hotel’ breakfast would have cost, while the scenery and the company was far more pleasant.

Early morning loading zones gave us a chance to load our bags and buy the perfect petit dejeuner.
The buildings of Sarlat-la-Canéda have kept history alive.

Next stop — Toulenne!

Exploring Sarlat-la-Canéda — one day was nowhere near enough.

Writers’ Revenge

We were travelling by train from Stuttgart in Germany to Zurich in Switzerland. Our carriage was mostly empty. Across the aisle a middle-aged woman was settling herself in.  A few rows down on the other side an American couple were talking loudly and exclaiming over the scenery. Once we were settled in our assigned seats Jeff went to the dining car for coffee. The train was hurtling through the Swiss countryside and, as one tree now looked like another, I had my laptop plugged in to the carriage’s power supply, my little voice recorder in my pocket as always, and was settled for a few hours’ productive writing.

The forest by the train tracks set the scene as we travelled to Switzerland.

Behind her, Ellen could hear the panting breath of the wolves. They were gaining…

‘Do you mind not typing so loud?’

The world of my imagination evaporated like mist. The woman from across the aisle had tapped me on the shoulder and broken my train of thought. Her face swam into my view, showing a blend of apologetic contrition and determination. ‘Your computer. The sound of your typing is too loud. Could you turn it down?’

I double-checked settings. Volume was at zero. But there was a faint click every time my finger hit a key. It’s the same with all keyboards, a purely mechanical effect.

The trees were just ahead, if only Ellen could reach them…

 ‘I can still hear it,’ she complained. ‘Surely there is a setting you can adjust? Most new computers can adjust the volume. What are you using?’

I instinctively covered my screen. I’m protective of my writing with total strangers, especially ones that want to tinker with my computer settings uninvited. ‘I’m writing a book,’ I explained. ‘I really need to work right now.’

She was oblivious. ‘It’s really easy, there should be a setting on your computer to mute the sounds,’ explained the woman. ‘Unless your computer is old. Or faulty.’

How could she hear anything over the sound of the train? Two seats down, the American couple were now loudly discussing world politics. It didn’t seem to bother her.

I studied the woman’s features. Maybe she could fit into my story. Spiky salt-and-pepper hair. Narrow lips. Piggy eyes.

‘I don’t want to be a nuisance…’ she simpered. ‘It’s just that the noise is grating on me, like a dripping tap. It’s a long journey, this train, and noises bother me. I’m very sensitive.’

I tutted with a sympathy I didn’t feel. ‘Do you have far to go?’ I asked hopefully. Maybe she would be getting off soon.

‘I’ve got to change trains in Zurich,’ she told me.

Damn! We were stuck with her. I assured her I would type as quietly as possible and she settled back in her seat opposite.

I returned to the forest…

The wolves were circling now, their yellow eyes narrowed to slits. Ellen’s chest burned with the effort…

‘Nobody else is as sensitive as I am, my mother always used to say it was my gypsy grandmother,’ said the woman. ‘My boyfriend says I’m too sensitive.’

My face must have registered an interest I was not feeling.

‘He said I’m useless with money. He’s the most annoying person in the world.’

‘Surely not,’ I replied. She completely missed my sarcasm.

‘Do you write much?’ she asked.

‘Not at the moment,’ I said darkly. ‘Look, the train’s mostly empty. Why don’t you move to those seats over there where it’s quieter?’

‘Oh, no — the sun is coming in that window through the trees. That flicker in the corner of my eye…’

She began to explain at length. I closed my computer. Ellen’s rescue from the wolves would have to wait until the next rare opportunity.

I was being regaled with another diatribe on what the boyfriend said about her sensitivity, and how he didn’t want to lend her any more money. Time was passing, like my life flashing before my eyes. I’d hoped to finish this scene on the train trip and make a good start on the next. No hope now. My well of inspiration had now run dry in the face of interminable interruption and distraction.

Portable workstation — laptop, small voice recorder, coffee on the way.

Just then, Jeff returned with coffee. I accepted it gratefully.

‘I love good coffee,’ the spiky-haired woman told us, eyeing Jeff’s plastic cup.

‘The dining care is open,’ he told her. ‘Not too many people.’

‘No, I’m not good with crowds. I find it too difficult being around a lot of people, I feel too nervous. I’m so sensitive, you see. It’s all that psychic energy.’ She was now batting her eyelids at my husband. It’s a good thing I know he’s bulletproof. He wasn’t even aware of her flirting. With the woman distracted (I hoped) I got back to my writing.

Ellen felt the rough bark of the tree at her back. The lead wolf growled and crouched, ready to spring…

‘I can still hear it. Can’t you fix it? Nobody ever understands how really sensitive I am to vibrations. I have to take medication for my nerves.’

Medication for something, I thought darkly.

‘What’s the problem?’ Jeff asked.

The woman explained to him about my loud typing. His sidelong raised eyebrow at me spoke volumes. I’m surprised she couldn’t hear him thinking. The sound of tapping keys is purely mechanical, there’s no way to completely silence it.

In pretending to examine my laptop, Jeff had made the mistake of turning his back to the woman, so she grabbed his arm to get his attention. ‘Too much noise makes me physically ill, I get terrible headaches too.’

‘Have you tried wearing ear plugs?’ he suggested. ‘We have some here…’ he began to rummage.

‘Oh, no, they make my head feel like I’ve got corks in there and the pressure builds up in my head like a bottle of champagne that’s been shaken.’ She smiled at her own imagery. ‘See? I could be a writer too.’

‘I’ll try and type more quietly,’ I promised. But it was too late. Damage done, I could not concentrate on the scene while also worrying about making too much noise with my fingers on the keys. Besides, even though I couldn’t even hear it myself over the rattle of the train, the faintest sound of my fingers on the keys was too loud for her.

Jeff, sensitive to my own vibrations I suspect, did his best to run interference for me. As the woman monopolised the conversation I could see his eyes begin to glaze over. However, despite his attention, every time I started to type she would stop me, one way or another. Clearly, I was not to be allowed to deviate my attention one iota from her.

I finished my coffee and headed for the train toilet. Not that there was a need, other than to get some privacy and a break from interminable complaints about noise, vibrations and the trials of being born so sensitive…

I still had my small recording device in my pocket. In the loo, masked by the rattle of train wheels on tracks, I vented to myself. ‘That BLOODY woman! All she wants is attention, all I want to do is get some work done! She just wants me to stop typing so she’s got someone paying attention to her! Well, I won’t have it!’ But I knew that I had lost. The woman would keep interrupting, would keep competing against my typing until I gave up. I did some slow breathing, splashed water on my face, counted to ten and returned to my seat.

The woman was gone.

‘Where did she go?’ I asked.

‘She finally stopped eyeing off my coffee and went to get her own from the dining car. I reckon you’ve got about ten minutes.’

I smiled at him and opened the laptop. Back to the forest…

The wolves were now so close Ellen could smell the carrion on their breath. Suddenly she saw a flash of spiky salt-and-pepper hair as the woman ran past. The lead wolf leapt in pursuit. Ellen watched in immense satisfaction as the pack fell on the tourist and tore her to pieces.

I always say that writers can get the best revenge.

Breakfast on the train in Zurich. Peace at last!

Going Home — In Apple Blossom Time

It’s lovely being away and in a different space for a while. Even if it’s only a short stay and you’re busy, or you’ve been there before. But I’m noticing, we often have plans which we never fulfil.

Of course we generally get the important stuff done. This last long weekend our main aim was to visit Floriade and to also hear our daughter’s choir sing. As they were singing at Floriade, it was a good double bill for us. Seeing the grandchildren was a bonus, and we always enjoy Canberra sightseeing. However, there is so much more we want to do and never get the chance. Or perhaps, we never make the chance? Or, more likely, we over-organise ourselves and so sitting around doing nothing is what we should be doing. Never underestimate the value of Time. It’s never wasted when it’s with family.

Parliament House, Canberra. The ‘Big House on the Hill’ is actually under the hill.
The government inside is less green than the lawns on top.

The choir was singing on Sunday, but we travelled down on Friday. Saturday was spent hanging around with the kids, doing very little. We could have used the time to visit my cousin’s vineyard, but it is a long drive from our daughter’s place. I had my laptop with me, but decided against getting some writing done (even though I have a backlog of writing tasks accumulating) in order to just ‘hang with the fam’. The kids planted some seedlings in the garden and helped me tidy up the dead woody stems from last season’s herbs.

Yesterday we got to Floriade and thoroughly enjoyed it. The choir performance was ‘just fun, more relaxed,’ our daughter said later. They had to adapt their performance to a smaller stage arrangement. Listening to superb renditions of old favourites, new songs and especially Australian classics while surrounded by glorious colour in the flowers around us was a wonderful way to begin our exploration of Floriade.

Brindabella Chorus, an international standard all-female barbershop choir.
They’re a branch of the Sweet Adelines and they sound amazing!

After the performance we grabbed an early lunch and set off to explore. You would think the kids would quickly become bored with even the prettiest gardens but these kids wanted to know everything. ‘What are the bees doing?’ ‘Where is the pollen?’ ‘Why do they do it?’ So we watched bees for a while, and I explained a little about plant anatomy. We had a discussion about weeds, and how even a beautiful flower can be a weed if it’s growing where it’s not wanted. Then the kids were off to various organised activities and rides. Somewhere in there, ice cream featured. So while the kids did their thing, we explored the gardens and took our photographs.

A sample of Floriade. Every year in Canberra, spring is celebrated with wonderful floral displays.

And now its Monday morning. Time to check out soon. This was a different motel to our usual, and at first it seemed to be a valid alternative, but we quickly realised that convenience to the railway station had its downside. This place is more expensive and, although breakfast is included, it only consists of tea, instant coffee, fruit juice, cereal and toast. With my dietary restrictions (gluten-sensitive and lactose-sensitive) I pretty much had to bring my own of everything. At least I could use their toaster, although even that would not have been possible if I was completely gluten-allergic.

The room is a concrete box at the top of the stairs where everybody has to walk to go do the things that travellers do. All the doors open to the outside, which would make it cold in winter and hot in summer, despite air conditioning. And the walls are so thin that we can clearly hear the main road traffic, and even the people in the next room snoring. I’m sure they heard more of our weird conversations that they would have wished to and are making mental notes, ‘Never again get a room next to a writer.’ There is a very popular pub over the road. People enjoy conversations in the street as they leave, and rev their cars.

As a result, when we leave here this morning, we won’t be taking a last, regretful look back. The people have been lovely, even the snorers next door. But it’s time to go home. Home is where chores are waiting, various appointments to be kept, and life returning to our village routine. From here it may seem dull, but it is still calling me. We need our routine, our home space, and when we feel particularly frustrated we can dream of life on the road.

It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining. So even though we have to get home, we’ll take the long way. On the drive down, I saw orchards of apple trees in full blossom and it reminded me of my childhood and the drift of spring petals from our own orchard. They say we can never go home after we’ve left, but either in our hearts or in our own lives, home is always there.

Apple blossom time

We’ve always wanted to go the slow road for years, to see the other side of Lake George and drive through the heavily forested areas towards Bateman’s Bay.

Even the journey home can be an adventure!

A Spring Long Weekend

I know I’ve been writing about writing while travelling in Europe, but there are always quick trips close to home.

Where we live is like an island, surrounded by sea on two sides and a national park on the other two sides. It’s a long drive to ‘the mainland’. Sometimes the shorter north road floods and we have to take the longer, windier south road. It’s all beautiful, even in the rain, but at times treacherous.

North road impassable by flood.

I should be concentrating on the drive. So why is it that my mind starts to weave story ideas when I have to keep my hands on the wheel?

If the detour is unexpected, I’m probably running late. But last week I had the delight of a reconnaissance trip to assess the flood for a later trip. I had the luxury of Time. And, because the north road was flooded, I had an empty road. So when I felt the urge to pull off the road to jot down some notes and take photos, it was easy. I was able to take photographs of spring wildflowers in places that are usually inaccessible. And in our area, while some of the wildflowers are small, secretive and delicate, others are grand, glorious, vibrant pieces with multiple flower heads half a metre across and on stalks as thick as your wrist, four to five metres high. They scream, ‘Here I am! Look at me!’ Like some sort of triffids, these Gymea Lilies march through the bushland, stalking their pollinators and tempting them with an abundance of nectar.

Today I’m on the road again. Heading south, through the Australian countryside, towards Canberra. I have some writing to do before I leave (not just this blog!) but if I allow plenty of time, I’ll be able to pull off the road along the way and make notes. The road to Canberra is dotted with small rest stops, each named after an Australian military hero, a winner of the Victoria Cross. We already have our favourite stops, the ones that tend to fit our travel schedule. They have a toilet block of sorts (a ‘long drop’, not sewered — put the lid down when you’re done, folks, or the smell will be a rude shock to the next visitor), a picnic area and, hopefully, some water. However, the drought is now very bad and the last time we visited, there was no water for hand washing, let alone drinking. Reminder — pack some hand sanitiser… and extra bottles of drinking water.

There is a brownness to the Australian landscape, especially during drought. Perhaps for those used to the intense greens of Europe Australia seems stark and barren. But this is my land, my ‘sunburnt country’, and I can see the life within. In spring it is even more joyous.

Aussie rest stop toilets can be a bit daunting.

I have visited those rest stops through the seasons. With intense autumn colour in the southern highlands, the dry dust and locusts of a scorching summer, and the misty film of green of new pasture on Lake George against the backdrop of white windmills on the far hills. It’s been a long time since I could see water in Lake George; farmers pasture their sheep on it when there is no feed anywhere else. Kangaroos, as opportunistic as ever, move in to take advantage of any easy pickings. And the last time I took the south road I saw a lyrebird scratching in the leaf litter in the thicker part of the forest. A flash of wonder, then I had gone past it and there was nowhere to turn around to go have another look.

I don’t know what I will see on the drive; each time is different depending on the season and how dry it is. Last week’s rain may not have reached far enough to break the drought in the areas I will drive through. But maybe… and when we get to Canberra, we’ll go to Floriade, a celebration of spring by the edge of Lake Burley-Griffin. A festive profusion of tulips carpeting the area. It’s glorious. I’m looking forward to seeing it, I love flowers of any kind.

Lake George sunset, October 2018. It’s a bit browner right now. I love those windmills!

But for me today, the journey will be the adventure. My water bottles are filled and ready to load. My bag is packed. I have an extra warm jacket in the car for the cold Canberra nights. There was snow in the southern highlands last week —I have seen snow maybe a dozen times in my life. There won’t be any today.

And on the drive, at least the early part, will be my sassy Gymea Lilies, standing impossibly tall and bold with their intense green stems and bright red flowers.

I’m allowing time. Packing the camera. The notebook is to hand.

My bush companions and harbingers of spring.

Allons y!