Knossos — Journey to the Past

Our three children (then) stand beside the symbolic bull horns at the Palace of Knossos. 1989.
This area was not accessible to tourists when we returned in 2018.
The sacred bull — this perfect sculpture dates back to Minoan times. Iraklion Museum, Crete, 2018.

As a child I loved reading mythology stories. Let’s face it, I loved reading everything. A magazine I subscribed to as a child had a lot of general information and science articles in it but the centre spread was always a favourite — a beautifully-illustrated episode of Greek mythology. In the years I subscribed to this magazine, I kept every issue in a binder and read and re-read them until they were virtually memorised. I can still ‘see’, in my mind’s eye, the story of Calypso weeping as Odysseus announces he must leave and continue his journey home to Ithaca.

The classic Minoan Greek key, the flower at the centre of the eternal spiral. Knossos, Crete, 1989.

Other myths were covered too, such as Norse mythology, Celtic mythology and tales such as “East of the sun, west of the moon.”

As I grew older I included more detailed studies of mythology in my leisure reading. I was finding that the more I studied science, the more my brain seemed to demand an equal portion of pure entertainment. Cramming for an exam would lead to an increase in displacement activity of trivia being involuntarily memorised.

As a result, when we first travelled to Greece over thirty years ago, we booked into whatever we could afford in tours of mythical places. We had three small children in tow, who had to be considered. My health was not good and back then I walked with crutches. So we planned to take our time. It was Jeff’s father who especially wanted us to visit his friends on Crete that had prompted the trip, but you don’t go that far from Australia without having a good look around while you’re there.

Three storeys down, natural light in the Palace of Knossos. My children were 8, 6 and almost 4.
This area was closed off in 2018.

It was while we were sitting with the children in the grounds of the Minoan palace of Knossos, eating the sandwiches we’d brought with us, that the germ of a story idea took root. I could feel the history and pre-history of the place and all those stories of the people who had lived there whirled around in my head. When I started to write fiction some years later, among my first stories were the ones from our travels.

The alabaster throne, Palace of Knossos, Crete, 1989. This was thoroughly walled off in 2018.
Alabaster throne room, 2018. In 1989 we were able to go down the stairs below this level.
The stairs leading down from the throne room. Note the small drainage ditch at the top of the steps. I had to reach past the barricade to the throne room to take this photo in 2018. Inaccessible.
In the next room to the alabaster throne, our son on this wooden throne wonders what being a king would have felt like.
Knossos, Crete, 1989.
The wooden throne, 2018. The alabaster throne is in the closed-in room to the left. Knossos, 2018.

When we returned in 2018, our aim was to visit the children and grandchildren of my father-in-law’s old friends. But on the way, I had places I wanted to re-visit and other places to add to my list. My Greek mythology stories have grown in depth and volume, and I wanted to feel those places again, to ‘talk’ to my characters and get them to show me around.

And, of course, as happens when we travel, more stories emerge to tell themselves. They tug at my sleeves for attention, jogging my elbow and putting words in my head that they demand be noted down.

These places are real. Mythology is built on their past, on their truths. These people lived, laughed and loved. And this time, we went into their lives, and the evidence of their lives, in much more detail.

Knossos was a focus for us. Our hotel was across the road from the Heraklion Museum where so many of the treasures of Minoan Crete have been preserved.

Minoan Crete is so much more than mythology. This was an ancient civilisation, advanced and capable, a world centre for trade. All world trade was routed through Knossos. The treasures of Mohenjo-Daro, the spices of the east, even amber from northern Europe. Irish gold has been found in Minoan Crete. This was the hub of the world in its day. The stories tell of the people, and the archaeology confirms so much more. The paintings, the mosaics, the decorations on pottery and the jewellery show a great deal of their lives, as well as the similarity of the culture with other parts of the world at the time.

It’s not just pretty trinkets. The palace of Knossos had a drainage system that flushed every time it rained. The efficiency of design meant that things just worked. And they worked well.

Looking down to a lower level. The drainage channel is clearly visible. Similar channels ran down the sides of each staircase. Knossos, Crete, 1989. This area is now completely inaccessible to tourists.
From the second floor. We walked down there thirty years earlier. Not any more. The site is fragile and needs to be preserved.
Steps where once we walked. Photo from 2018. Knossos, Crete.

The hill of Knossos was first settled, it is believed, 10,000 years ago in Neolithic times. The area is volcanically active and earthquake damage was one of the facts of life. But damaged buildings were generally rebuilt, bigger and better. With the wealth of the world concentrated in this one place, they could afford it.

The Queen’s Chambers. Photo taken in 2018 through a barricade. In 1989 we walked in here and through those doors. I believe it was the door to the right that led to an alabaster bathtub.
The alabaster bathtub that we photographed just off the Queen’s Chambers, 1989. Knossos, Crete.
Fragments of restoration dating from the days of Arthur Evans. Tantalising. Knossos, 2018.
The symbol of the labrys, the double-bladed axe that gave rise to the story of “labyrinth”. Knossos, Crete, 2018.
Samples of labrys, the bronze double-bladed axe typical of Minoan Greece and Knossos in particular. Iraklion Museum, 2018.
Another perfect bull sculpture, alabaster this time, with a range of decorated vessels. Iraklion Museum, 2018.
Above the throne room. Looking every bit 30 years older! Knossos, 2018.
In Iraklion Museum, a wooden model of the Palace of Knossos s it would have looked in its prime. 2018.

The end of the Minoan civilisation came less than a generation after the 1500 BCE eruption of the volcano at Thera, now known as Santorini. That eruption produced an ash fall over months which itself didn’t impact Crete much. But when that volcano blew itself apart, there would have been a towering tsunami washing back and forth across the Mediterranean.

The palace of Knossos was badly damaged, but it still limped along for a few years. However, it owed its wealth to its position in world trade, and when all your trading partners have been badly impacted by the destruction, economic and political power imbalances can kill an economy faster than physical destruction. Invading Myceneans, more warlike, would have opportunistically plundered what they could. By 1100 BCE Knossos was abandoned.

To visit Knossos today is to view a snapshot in time, in fragments. Much of the palace is a pancaked ruin, but Arthur Evans reconstructed segments of the palace to his own vision. He got some of it right, but the main treasures are in the museum these days, while archaeologists work to ensure that what we see in the reconstructions of the palace are as close as possible to what we understand the reality to have been. However, Evans’ work itself has become history and is, ironically, protected.

A glimpse into the past — peering into the scale mode of the Minoan Palace of Knossos, looking through a tiny window along an ancient corridor. Where did it lead? What were their lives like? Iraklion Museum, Crete, 2018.

The Joker is Wild…

When we visit a city we’ve never been to before, we like to take a half-day city tour. In London in 2018 we opted to do a hop-on, hop-off tour on the Big Red Bus.

The weather was blisteringly hot, even for us heat-hardened Aussies. Hyde Park looked like a freshly-mown wheat field, with yellow stubble. Green Park was brown. The lawn at Buckingham Palace was being watered, at blazing midday. The British are not accustomed to the damage that can be done to a garden when each droplet of water becomes a burning lens, intensifying the sun.

Green Park, London. Not so green in the extreme dry heat.

We opted to sit up the front on the top open deck. Some of these buses have plug-in ear buds which help you listen to the tour which is generally automated. Still informative, but if you stay on for a second loop, you’ve already heard it all.

On this run, however, we had a young man with a microphone. With his delightful Irish accent, he told us his name was Declan. And, as we discovered, Declan could be a very naughty boy…

He was, however, a mine of information. He told us all about Nelson’s Column, he showed us Buckingham Palace from the back and the side (buses do not drive past the front) and told us all about the Americans wanting to buy “London Bridge” but in reality, they wanted the iconic (and not for sale) Tower Bridge. Somewhere in the US is a nondescript small bridge which used to be in London and was called London Bridge. Declan was sitting there with us on the top deck, dark hair ruffled by the faint breeze and impish smile at the ready.

London’s Tower Bridge. Not London Bridge.

As we came past the Houses of Parliament, with the iconic clock, Big Ben, still mothballed, silent and mid-restoration, Declan grabbed his mobile phone and held it to the microphone. “Watch this,” he said. “The people on the street. Let’s blow their minds.”

From the phone we heard a recording of the Big Ben chimes, now amplified through the bus PA system via Declan’s hand-held microphone. Declan giggled while on the street heads snapped round to stare in bewilderment at the huge clock, assuring themselves that it was still wrapped in padding and plastic, looking like another environmental plastic-wrapped art installation by Christo.

Houses of Parliament, from the top of the bus. Declan with his microphone.
Big Ben, under restoration, still encased in scaffolding.

As we went past Waterloo, Declan told us about Philip Astley, who was the founder of the modern circus. Astley was a very skilled equestrian who noticed that trick riding was very much enjoyed by crowds. “A problem,” Declan explained, “was that if the riders were riding along a straight track, the audience never really got to fully appreciate the skill of the riders. So he devised a round track, which initially he called his Circle. It changed a bit as he refined the idea, and became known as ‘Astley’s Amphitheatre’. He brought in other acts to keep the crowds entertained while the next main riding act was getting ready. Acrobats, tightrope walkers and — a clown. Philip Astley was the founder of the modern circus.”

Declan went on to explain earnestly that Philip Astley had actually built his first arena in 1768 on land given to him by King George III, in gratitude for Astley saving the king’s life in a hushed-up assassination attempt. “Years later the king asked Astley, ‘Why, at a time when I was so unpopular, did you intervene to save my life?’

‘Well, Your Majesty, you need to know — I’m never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you…’”

At this point there were groans on the bus and Declan laughed in response. He had just successfully rick-rolled a busload of tourists! [For those unaware of this world-wide ‘game’, the aim is to get people to unknowingly listen to or somehow be exposed to some form of Rick Astley’s 1987 song, “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

I had to take it further. I posted some photos on Facebook, as I had done every day, so family and friends could follow our adventures. I included Declan’s story. In doing so, I had turned my post into another rick-roll. My son posted in reply, “Dammit, mum!”

Next day we spent an amazing day exploring the Tower of London. As we left in the mid-afternoon, we decided to catch the Big Red Bus back to our hotel. And who should we see leaning against a pole outside the bus, but — Declan! He greeted us (our hats were distinctive — another story, another time).

A raven at the Tower of London complaining about the hot weather.

I had to tell him. “I shared your story about Philip Astley with my family in Australia via Facebook,” I said, “and I got ’em. Got ’em good.”

Declan laughed so hard he had to hold onto the pole to stop himself from falling.

We made his day.

Baby, it’s cold outside…

I work from home, when we’re not travelling. I write stories, I edit other people’s work and I help them get published. My preferred work station is actually on my bed. I have everything I need to hand, and the drive for coffee gives me exercise as I have to walk to the other end of the house to get to the kitchen. Even when we travel, I often end up settling on the bed in the hotel, perhaps wrapped in a fluffy hotel bathrobe, while I write. On past trips I’ve edited other people’s writing and been able to email the files back at the next wifi point. But for the moment, we’re home. And in Sydney in winter, that brings problems.

Another of my work stations. Writing and editing is a potentially portable occupation.

In Sydney, Australia, we have an arrogant attitude to the cold. We try to deny it. In colder cities such as Canberra or Melbourne, buildings are routinely heated in winter, cars are heated and people dress for their indoor comfortable environment, with perhaps a hat, coat and scarf for those dashes from the car park to work.

Not in Sydney. Here, when winter arrives we pile on the layers and shiver. Indoor heating? Maybe for some.

At my “work station” – the bedroom office on a cold winter’s day.

When I was a kid, our mother would respond to complaints of feeling cold with, “Just put on another pullover.”

The trouble with Sydney, is that spring, summer and autumn are generally either pleasantly warm or scorching hot. Winter slides in slowly, sneaks up on us and then slams into us, ambushing us with grey skies and icy weather.

Yesterday was claimed to be the coldest Sydney day for thirty-five years. I could well believe it. I had to go out a few times and dressed accordingly — thermal leggings, thermal under-shirt, long scarf and padded jacket. For evening wear I added my kangaroo-skin aviator’s cap. And ugg boots, of course. Knee-high ones. [Note: when an Aussie refers to “ugg boots”, we use lower case because for us, they are a standard item of clothing, not a brand name. Never a brand name.] I had to turn sideways to go through the door.

While summer in Sydney is swimsuit, sarong and thongs (aka flip-flops for people who need more than one syllable to describe footwear), the metamorphosis into winter can be a rude shock.

Yesterday was cold, barely 10 C. Yes, I know many of you will think we’re wimps to complain about something as warm as 10 C, but I’ve known seasoned, snow-hardened Europeans reduced to shivering wrecks in a Sydney winter. Jeff worked with a woman who had been born and raised in Siberia, who told him, “I have never been so cold in my life, as in a Sydney winter.”
There’s something about Sydney cold that feels worse than you would expect.

Our house is not heated. Last night the bed was piled with blankets, I wore multiple layers and only just felt warm enough. Hubby Jeff, on the other hand, who normally sleeps through winter in lightweight cotton, was clearly suffering. Whenever I reached over to check, he felt cool to the touch. He slept through but was not quite whimpering in his sleep.

This morning I smugly suggested that perhaps it is time to change the bed to winter mode. That means a down doona (or duvet).

Normally when we change our bed, we take advantage of the Sydney sunshine. We strip the bed in the morning, load the washing machine, put the washing on the line to dry then put it back on the bed that afternoon. The feel and smell of sun-dried sheets is pure heaven.

But not in an icy Sydney winter, not with snow in the Blue Mountains an hour’s drive to the west (snow all up the Great Dividing Range, right into Queensland, we’ve been told).

We stripped the bed, pulled out a spare bottom fitted sheet and only found one, other than the one we had just put in the wash. The fresh sheet had dead elastic. The fabric is in good condition, but the elastic was as limp as week-old celery.

“No worries,” said Jeff. “We’ve got a new set of sheets here.” He opened the pack of deep blue sheets.

“They look the same colour as the disposable hospital gowns they give you when you’re getting X-rays,” I remarked.

Jeff pulled out the sheets from the bag. “Hmm, they feel like it too.”

I felt the sheets, held them up to the light. “You don’t need to take off your shoes and socks to work out the thread count,” I commented. “These are hessian grade.”
The fabric felt stiff and scratchy. We chose soft pillow cases made of old, worn cotton. The scratchy deep blue pillow cases will be uncomfortable against cold cheeks, so they’re consigned to an under-pillow. And new sheets are on our shopping list.

But the bed is made, the doona is installed and I think we’ll be warm tonight.

Portable Scenery and ‘The Birds’ Revisited

When my kids were little, they were into performing arts. As part of this, they were extras on both television and movie sets. Extras are little more than portable scenery.

When they were under age, as the parent I got to tag along too. I was even in a couple of student-made short films. But for the first time, I’m on my own professional film shoot.

Below – the best-fed convicts in the colony. My daughter and son having breakfast after coming out of costume and make-up on the set of Mary Bryant, a mini-series with Granada and Network 10.

A capable stiltwalker, my daughter Rosemary taking a break between takes on the set of The Black Balloon (2008).

The meeting point is in a park, but parking has to be on a side street somewhere. I get to the area early and use the extra time driving around finding a parking spot. Then, at last, hopefully not too far away, there’s a row of parking spaces under an avenue of trees. Score!

With fifteen minutes to go, there’s no time to read a book in the car. I have to find the check-in tent. And it’s raining. Getting dark. I still have to tow my cabin bag loaded with costume options through the broken concrete of the inner suburb streets, and get to the check-in tent with five minutes to spare. About twenty people sit around the edges of the tent, shivering and trying to stay out of the rain. The film set itself is a building adjacent. One by one we go into the back of the building and have our wardrobe efforts assessed by a team. I opened my bag to show my choices.

“Gorge. Fab.”

Time is so limited, it seems, that even words have to be truncated.

Although they’re happy with what I’m wearing, they find something they like better and I pull on another t-shirt, adding a layer of a light, filmy shirt which gives minimal protection from the cold. I quickly wrap myself in my warm coat for the time being, and head back to the waiting tent in the rain.

Several chapters of my book later, we’re moved inside to the edge of the set, while around us they arrange lights and tripods.

Film set on the sidelines

Filming is a lot of adrenalin for a very short time, and a lot of boredom the rest of the time. We’re moved here, or there, depending on the camera angles being planned. In between we mustn’t talk above an occasional whisper because sound levels are being sorted.

“Is anyone prepared to wear some face paint?” a make-up person asks. I volunteer, along with two others. We have to put it on ourselves (because of, well, Covid). I take my inspiration from designs on the set and put designs on both cheeks.

Rehearse. Practice. Shoot. Move. Rehearse. Practice. Shoot. Move. And wait every so often for the planes to pass, inner city location means plane noise is an issue.

Finally we’re finished with. Filming moves out of the building again, but without us extras. Thankfully the rain has stopped, so after a quick, whispered goodbye to the others, I trundle my bag back to the car. While trundling, I turn my phone on again and ring Jeff, to check in. It’s a dark, inner-city street and I’m a woman walking alone, with luggage. As a result we’re still chatting when I get back to the car. There’s a bit of leaf drop and what looks like small figs on top of my car from the kerb side, but when I get round to the drivers side, Jeff is worried to hear me say, “Oh, my God!”

Sacred Ibis, also known as Bin Chicken. Photo by Samantha O’Regan

My car looks like ‘The Birds’ scene in Mel Brooks’ film High Anxiety, a comedy tribute to Hitchcock horror films. Generous coffee-coloured dollops of creamy goo are splashed over the roof and windows. Now I understand why those parking spots were vacant — after a day spent foraging in every rubbish bin loaded with fast food discards, Sydney’s entire population of Sacred Ibis (deservedly labelled bin chickens) have roosted in the trees above my car, freely relieving themselves. I open the driver’s door and long strings of the stuff drip down inside the car. I rummage in my coat pocket for some spare napkins from a café I’d visited at some time in the past. Good — a large, cloth-like napkin. I use it to wipe the top of the door frame to reduce drips but all that happens is the guano is smeared over a wider area. The napkin rapidly clogs with stuff that is the consistency of hand cream but twice as greasy. What to do with the napkin? Normally I would dispose of it thoughtfully, in a bin. That would be the ultimate in recycling, I thought. Put in the bin, a napkin coated in bin chicken guano, for the incontinent bin chickens to then ingest and complete the cycle.

No bin.

For once I have no bin bag in my car, and no spare hand to forage for a container. So I dispose of the napkin thoughtfully by dropping it in the gutter. Well, I thought about it first. It’s biodegradable. I feel bad, but when I think about the condition of the napkin, not too bad.

I climb into my car, now feeling surrounded by giant bird boogers. That’s when I notice that my windscreen is also covered with slime. And no more napkin.

I turn on my wipers. It takes multiple passes of the washer fluid and wipers, but I finally have a space to see through, enough to drive. I need to get out from under those trees and, equally important, get out of a dark inner-city back street.

I ring Jeff back. “I’ve got the car driveable, but there’s a blob of what looks like clear jelly, now, across the middle of the windscreen.”

“Do you need fuel?” he asks. “Get to a servo [service station, or fuel supply centre, for those who don’t speak Australian] and top up your tank, then try to squeegee the windscreen. You’ve got to get that stuff off, it eats the car duco.”

Then I remember my next problem. I’m still wearing my feral street grunge, and covered in face paint. Turning up late at night to a remote one-man-staffed servo looking like I do — awkward.

Gotta clean up my face before the late night servo stop.

At the next stop light I rummage in my bag for the bottle of water the film crew gave each of us. Then, in the pocket of the door, I find another napkin. I splash some water on the napkin and scrub at my face, checking in the rear-view mirror to see if I have managed to do a better job on my face than I managed on the car.

The servo is moderately busy. My face is maybe looking grubby, but otherwise passes muster. I fill up the car, thanking my stars that the filler cap was not also coated with slime, then head in to pay the bill.

Back at the car, still at the pump, I grab the servo’s squeegee and deal with the windscreen. It took a lot of effort, but it finally looks good. Now the back window. Bleah. More time. A car pulls in, waiting for me to move off the pump, but I have to finish what I’ve started. They wait, then back up and move to another pump. I can feel the glares.

It takes me about ten minutes, but I still only manage to remove some of the biggest blobs. What I thought were small figs on the roof of the car — more ghastly guano.

I look at the bucket of water. It now looks like a milkshake cup that has been badly rinsed. White bits float through the mix, with a scum of creamy stuff on top. I tip out the bucket into the garden bed beside the servo driveway, refill the bucket and rinse the squeegee as best as I can.

On the rest of the drive home, I contemplate the especially high fat content of the bin chicken diet in the inner city. It reminds me of films I have seen of hagfish creating buckets of slime when agitated. Not much in this world will cause me to heave, but I have just added bin chicken excretions to hagfish slime on my list of stomach triggers.

Next morning and we can see the whole mess remaining. It’s beyond the capability of a car wash. Jeff pulls on his overalls and gets to work. It takes nearly two hours’ solid work with a gurney but my car is clean at last.

He’s going to need a hot shower, a change of clothes and a hot cup of tea.

I really love my husband.

Art for Art’s Sake

Autumn and another trip to Canberra. We haven’t been to Canberra to see the grandkids there since Christmas. “The last time we drove out of Canberra,” I reminded Jeff, “we saw a queue of cars stopped at the Covid checkpoint trying to come in.”

No checkpoint today, so we sailed through. It’s the Anzac Day weekend, and for Canberra, it’s a three-day weekend.

Viewing art can sometimes be challenging. No social distancing on this day! Photo taken in the Louvre, Paris, 2018

Autumn foliage glowed all the way down to Canberra. Colours blended in orchards from gold to crimson to burgundy, a foil against the dark evergreen of the pine plantations. Cotoneaster berries grew wild along the highway close to Canberra, red and orange dots in profusion.

All week we’d been trying to book the Botticelli to Van Gogh art exhibition, and finally had to log on at the Mackie VC roadside rest stop, using our phone’s wifi to book tickets for six of us. It was also a handy halfway point for us to share the salad we’d brought with us. We managed to get tickets for 3.30 pm entry, which would give us only ninety minutes before the Gallery closed at 5 pm. But with two lively grandkids in our party, we felt that ninety minutes was likely to be the limit anyway. Would they be interested?

This art exhibition is a rare opportunity to see major world works of art which are normally held in the National Gallery, London. From the exhibition website, on display in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra are “paintings by some of Europe’s most revered artists, including Botticelli, Titian, Rembrandt, Vermeer, El Greco, Velázquez, Goya, Turner, Constable, Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Renoir, Cézanne, Monet, Gauguin and Van Gogh.”

We arrived early to ensure parking. On Saturday, parking under the National Gallery of Australia was free. Miss Nine had chosen a skirt depicting Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” painting, and a shirt with a sunflower theme. Fangirl much? Master Seven was dressed neatly, an achievement in itself. My daughter and son-in-law made up the party.

Very early on, the kids remembered when we had brought them here before. We worked out that we’d brought them to an exhibition of Treasures of Versailles in February 2017. The children would have been six, and four. Yet they remembered. Wow! Maybe bringing the kids to an art exhibition like this was not so crazy after all.

Inside the first big room, the children gravitated to a wall of paintings. “Is that Picasso?” asked Master Seven, “and that one too?” pointing to two of the paintings on display.
I had to look. It wasn’t Picasso, but clearly had been influenced by that style.

The children moved as rapidly as I had expected they would, from sculpture to painting to photography. Miss Nine was enthralled by some fashion design pieces by Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson of Flamingo Park, an Australian fashion house from the 1970s.

We made our way to the special exhibition and quickly noticed the crowds. Even though we’d had to book a time-slot to keep numbers controlled for Covid reasons, we felt hemmed in enough to put on our masks. But we and the children both, then embarked on a journey of delight and discovery. I was so excited, I forgot to take photographs to begin with, which is why there is no photograph here on Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the age of 34, painted in 1640. Miss Nine and I just gazed at the painting in awe and delight. The artist gazed out at us from the canvas, wisps of ginger hair curling from under his cap and nose slightly reddened from the cold. It was almost a challenge. “Try and tell me I lack talent. I am a great painter, and by this work you shall know it.”

At times there were queues to go into this room or that. We’d install one member of the group to mind a place, while the rest of us took turns inspecting the rest of the room. So much delight! So much to see!

I am not an art critic, nor am I an art scholar. But great art speaks not just to the scholars but to the ordinary people. There were subtleties that I noticed in some of the paintings, for example, which I discussed with the family, including the children. Some of the art works had comments directed specifically at children. “Find how many dogs are in this painting,” one said. “Would you like to cuddle a lamb?” was the question posed on The Infant St John with a Lamb.

The Art Gallery website had said to allow an hour to view the exhibition. We could have stayed all day. Even the children were able to sustain interest, although the slow pace of the queues frustrated them.

Monet’s works stopped us again. Master Seven was taken with the waterlilies, and Miss Nine with the painting showing the curved Japanese bridge.“We’ve been there,” I told her, and asked her to take a photo of us in front of the painting.

A glorious painting, with wonderful memories.
The crowd in front of Sunflowers.

Then we saw the painting we’d all come to see. Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh. Let me just say, posters and photos cannot do this justice. The painting seems to glow with a life of its own. As we moved around it, the colours seemed to shimmer and change. It is a brilliant study in shades of yellow, more shades than we could ever expect to exist.

No photograph can do this justice. It just glows.

We had less than half an hour before the Gallery closed, and there was still one room we’d been told to see. “You must see the pumpkin room,” a good friend had told us. “The children will love it.”
So with Master Seven now getting restless, I took the children outside the exhibition and into the rest of the gallery. We had to hurry past some wonderful art works I’d have loved to linger with. We joined another queue outside a yellow room with black dots. When we finally got our turn, we only had a couple of minutes. Inside the room was a large cube made of mirrors, which reflected the yellow and black in a full immersion experience. And on the other side, away from the doorway we’d entered into this artwork, was a small window into the mirrored cube. The children peered in and saw what appeared to be yellow glass pumpkins, reflected in every direction away to infinity. Our faces were in a small square which also repeated to infinity.

Miss Nine and Master Seven experiencing art at an immersion level.
Pumpkins to infinity. For Pratchett fans, it reminds me of Desiderata’s magic wand, which keeps re-setting itself to pumpkins.

We had ten minutes left. We walked back past Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock, a controversial artwork purchased for $1.3 million in 1973 by the Whitlam government. Now valued at up to $350 million, this purchase has been vindicated, even though for non-art experts like myself it still is an enigma.

Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock. I believe bicycles played a part in its creation.
We can’t get enough of Monet.

Master Seven saw a large Monet Waterlilies canvas and immediately identified it as being “like that painting of the flowers and the green bridge.” Just then we met up with the rest of our party — Jeff, with our daughter and her husband. As we headed to the elevator from this floor, we passed some small sculptures reminiscent of The Skywhale hot air balloon designed by Piccinini for Canberra’s centenary in 2013. It is now owned by the National Gallery of Australia. Film of this amazing hot-air balloon surrounded the walls. It looks like a very realistic whale, but with five pendulous breasts on each side. It’s a controversial and thought-provoking work, dubbed by some as “Moby Tit”.

The last thing we saw as we left, was a painting that was a blend of influences. One of Andy Wharhol’s images of Marilyn Monroe had been grafted onto Van Gogh’s Sunflowers by Martin Sharp and Tim Lewis. Cheeky. Irreverent, maybe. Sharp himself saw it as homage to the influence of both Andy Wharhol and Vincent van Gogh.

Over dinner on the lakeside we discussed art between us, adults and children, all as equals. Art is for the people. Art is designed to give you something to think about.

There is more to art than meets the eye.

Sunset by the lake edge in Canberra. Beautiful but getting chilly.

3801 — Steam On!

She’s baaack!

After some years in the steam equivalent of dry dock, after boiler problems whispered about darkly in machine sheds and steaming bays around the country, that iconic Australian steam train, 3801, is back, baby!

We had been on one of the last trips before she was mothballed, waiting for the replacement boiler. And now, at last, we would be on the very first public return trip on 13 March, 2021.

There were multiple trips planned for the whole weekend, a one hour trip south to Hurstville and back, with a diesel loco at the rear to haul everything on the return trip. For Covid-safe reasons, each compartment was sold as a bubble. We bought a compartment, sure we could fill it with either family or close friends. And so it proved — we filled five of the six seats just from our household, and a good friend, Jim, took the last place in our bubble.

With a 9 am departure scheduled for the first run from Central Station in the heart of Sydney, we left home at 7 am for Sutherland Station. Masks on public transport were compulsory, so we duly complied.

Sutherland Railway Station, at “sparrows” (aka “very early morning”).
Between Jannali and Como — always a place to wonder…
Como, crossing the river. Some of this is mist, some of it is dirty train windows.
Jeff, inside the modern suburban train, on our way into the city.

During Covid we didn’t travel much, especially on the trains. We have to worry not just about Covid, but also about compromised immune systems. So we took the top level on the double-decker suburban carriage so we could get the best view as we crossed the river at Como.

We got into Central Station with plenty of time. The old sandstone edifice of Sydney Terminal still has soaring ceilings and some gorgeous art deco leadlight windows. The old neon advertising signs I loved as a child are now a fixture in the Powerhouse Museum. I used to love the McWilliam’s Wines sign with those impossible purple neon grapes dripping into a glass. Now we can see the old clock right next to the modern timetable board. The old one, with the regular trains and their evocative names such as the Fish, and its associated route, Chips, is also in the Powerhouse. One more nod to the past was the sign over the door to a restaurant — “Eternity”. A nod to Arthur Stace, who from 1932 to his death in 1967 walked the city streets in the wee small hours, chalking the one word, “Eternity” in various places around the city, a one word sermon and witness testimony.

Inside the old Sydney Terminal station, from where trains depart to travel the country.
The new departure board with the old clock.
Sydney Terminal is now a mix of old and new. Mask wearing was still compulsory on public transport.
“Eternity” cafe. Not open for breakfast…

Our locomotive, 3801, was in pride of place in Platform 2. Next to her on Platform 3 was 5917, the picnic train, embarking on a day trip to Kiama. It was due to leave at about the same time, and as well as passengers, the platform was crowded with trainspotters, train crew and various reenactment groups from the history society, either playing music or going through the motions of a porter wheeling a large luggage trunk on a handcart accompanied by a couple dressed as if from the 1930s, looking for their compartment. This first public outing for 3801, the iconic steam locomotive of Sydney, was a festival of celebration.

Platform 3’s picnic train.
A lucky kid in the train cabin before departure. Start ’em young.
‘Play “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”!’
‘I’m sure our compartment was back there…’
Theatre and history combined.

There were some interesting people in the crowds. One man even had a tattoo on his arm of 3801 and was glad to let me take his photograph as he took his turn on the locomotive footplate before departure.

A young fan on the footplate shows off his tattoo.
Steaming up. People everywhere!

On the platform we met up with Jim, our friend who was to share our compartment. Jim is a long-term train enthusiast and we have had many enjoyable conversations with him about many other shared interests. We also had our son and granddaughter with us, who had jumped at the chance to be included.

Once in the compartment we opened the old windows and took off our masks. We were back in our own bubble. While we waited, we shared stories of our memories of travelling in these old carriages. Back in the mid-1960s I travelled to Otford south of Sydney on a train commissioned by a church youth group, to attend a three day camp. We rode on a steam-hauled vintage train, which was part of the regular NSW regional run in those days, before more extensive electrification of the state rail system. We loved these old trains. My first experience of going over the Como rail bridge heading south was on that train. I remember looking out the window at schools of jellyfish in the river below. And in 1969, with raging bushfires on the NSW south coast, our summer youth camp was cut short as fire approached the campsite. We were herded to Otford railway station, a small regional platform surrounded by thick bushland and tall trees, to wait for a train that some warned might not come, due to possible fire damage to the train track. As we waited we saw the fire crest the hill above the campsite and people trying to fight it by flapping it with wet sacks. When the steam train rolled in to collect us, it was with the same vintage carriages also, which I loved. Old photographs screwed to the walls, soft leather-covered seats with built-in head rests and, joy of joys! A carafe of water, lid chained securely to the neck, and two glass tumblers. Sadly, the water was warm from the heat of the day. As the train hauled us through the still-burning forest, we would sometimes see groups of firefighters doing a rearguard mopping up operation, with trackside stumps still smouldering. We were very relieved to get back into Sydney’s Terminal station that day in January 1969.

There was a queue to get onto the footplate. This is a much-loved train.

In our carriage this day in 2021, all this history has been carefully preserved. The glass carafe and glasses are not there, they fetch high prices now in auction houses. But the historical photos are screwed to the walls, and when we examine the timberwork in the carriage, all the screw heads are lined up neatly, the subtle mark of a master carpenter.

Luxury compartment, very Harry Potter… Jim, Jeff and Rob.
My son Rob still doing his Daniel Radcliffe look-alike feat.

With a loud whistle and a clank of carriages, the train pulled out. We moved past the old Mortuary Station from where funerals would depart for the ‘dead centre of Sydney’, Rookwood Cemetery where once a matching ornate sandstone station stood. It’s now mostly used as a picturesque wedding venue. From there the train dipped lower into the deep ‘rat runs’ where tracks could criss-cross overhead, and where generations of steam trains laid down a layer of soot. Now, ferns grow in whatever cracks they can find.

The train rose back to ground level again as we passed Redfern station. The Kiama Picnic Train chuffed past, with cheers and waving between both trains. The festive air continued with every station we steamed through filled with trainspotters with their long lenses and tripods.

Trainspotters at Hurstville station.

In the seat opposite, our granddaughter closed her eyes and sighed as she leaned back in her seat. As I watched her I remembered my own journey on a train like this, heading south to a weekend of adventure in the bushland on the south coast. I think that is where my love of trains, travel and adventure really began.

Inside the Dinosaur, or Craig’s Head Revisited

Climate change deniers, look away now. Move along, nothing to see here. Nothing you will be happy with, anyway.

‘I need a dinosaur! This afternoon!’

I was busy at my writing, lost deep in a fantasy world of my own making, but this jerked me back to reality. Of a sort…

The appeal came from a local community page, a protest was being organised outside the office of our local Federal Member of Parliament, someone who had been elected as a member of the Australian Liberal Party (which, despite the name, is very conservative, and this MP being more extreme in his conservatism than most) but who has recently resigned his membership over a number of issues in which he has been even too conservative for most of his party colleagues to stomach. He’s even too conservative for conservative British TV presenter, Piers Morgan. (

Our MP, Craig Kelly, has been described as a dinosaur for his outdated attitudes on just about everything. He’s basically anti-science, not seeming to be able to distinguish between weather and climate. He looks for conspiracy theories in everything, pushing them hard on his Facebook pages and apparently doing nothing for his constituents. While our evening news has been full of temperature records being beaten around the world, he’s silent. But one US winter snowstorm is cause for him to crow that ‘global warming isn’t real.’ He ignores the understanding that climate change is about extremes in weather patterns, he brands any political opponent, or in fact anyone expressing concerns about climate change as ‘brainwashed’, ‘Greenie tree-hugger sympathisers’ and ‘ignorant’. And in recent events, he has resigned from his party and remains in our Federal parliament as an independent. He is now even more free to spout his nonsense all over social media.

I looked at the invitation to a protest. Would I go? I last attended a protest of sorts as a uni student back in the 1970s.

I looked at my writing project. I couldn’t do both.

I fired off the message. ‘Still need a dinosaur?’

And that is how I found myself trying to find a way into a large plastic inflatable dinosaur suit.

Two determined dinosaurs…

You’ll have seen this things around, perhaps. But getting into one is challenging. Warning – don’t put the suit on with an audience. It will not only destroy the magic, but the combination of guffaws of laughter and not-so-helpful hints are decidedly off-putting.

The legs of the suit end in a tight elastic cuff which goes around your ankle, with a flap designed to flop over and hide your shoes. Advice – remove your shoes before putting your feet in, the elastic has to be tight because it’s trying to keep air inside the suit. By the time you get to this point you will of course have put fresh batteries in the power supply which powers the air pump. These suits work by keeping themselves inflated.

I was overheating, and paused outside the local vet’s surgery.

Once you’ve got your feet organised (and be careful to not put your leg down the tail – that’s a dead end, like dinosaurs themselves) it’s time to get your hands into the little dinosaur arms. Then you zip up the front, putting the dinosaur head over your face, and get someone to help you put on the plastic dinosaur paw gloves which go over your hands. Dino-done! You might flop around a bit until the air pressure gets up, then it’s a dino-shuffle to where you need to be.

Walking in a dinosaur suit –— you need a minder. Not only to help with your dino-mittens on and off, but to guard against over-enthusiastic or even unfriendly interactions.

I discovered very quickly that inside a plastic inflatable suit on a summer day, it heat up and steams up inside. The human body is 70% water and much of this condenses on the inside of the suit, including on the tiny clear plastic window under the dinosaur’s chin through which you need to see. My hair, which had been freshly washed, quickly flopped over my face and with hands locked into their dinosaur embrace, I couldn’t get my hair out of my eyes. So it was off with the mitten, pull a hand back inside the suit, use my sunglasses (yes, I was an idiot, I still had my sunglasses on top of my head inside the suit) over the top of my head as a sort of headband. Then one last scratch of my nose for luck, then put my hand back through the tiny sleeve and have my walker put the mitten back on.

And so we toddled along. I had a placard to hold in my little mittened hands at the end of dino-short arms. Half my arms were inside the suit, only the elbows projected beyond into the dino-arms. The head, now inflated, pointed skywards another metre or more above my real head in the bubble inside. I had to remember this when walking under trees… that first encounter nearly swept me off my feet.

Another hazard was sudden gusts of wind. Several times we stepped out from behind a building to find the wind trying to steer me off-course, like a galleon in a gale.

The whole time, I was either carrying a placard proclaiming the date of a climate change action gathering, or answering comments from the public with lines like, “I’m not the only dinosaur in this electorate!” and “Yes, it’s hot in this suit, but right now it’s even hotter in Canberra!”

At the railway station a man rode up on his bike. In a basket on the front of the bike was a small dachshund. The man asked me (in the dinosaur suit) to pat his dog. I did. The dog went berko. I was trying to soothe the dog. “It’s okay, I won’t eat you, I’m extinct,” but somehow it only made things worse. I couldn’t see much through my now-fogged window under the chin of my suit, but I could feel dog teeth through the plastic glove.

We waved goodbye to the little doggie, who was clearly very relieved to be taken to a place of safety, and made our way back to the electoral office.

By now a second dinosaur had joined us, his suit was at times not inflating well. “Your head’s flopping to the right,” I told him. “Actually, it’s very appropriate.”

Outside our MP’s electoral office are some very shady trees. Remembering our MP’s labelling of any attempts of rational debate as coming from “tree huggers”, I went up and tried to hug the tree with my tiny dinosaur arms. Of course, when dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, trees like this hadn’t even evolved. The coal that is currently being mined to fuel power stations and make steel is a finite resource, the most recent deposits date from the time of dinosaurs and once gone, cannot be replaced. We have increasingly developed renewable energy sources and these can reduce our demand for coal. While we still need coal, we need to work towards the inevitable coal-free future.

Tree-hugging dinosaurs.

Okay, that’s my soap box bit over.

During this time my phone (stuffed down my bra – I know, not a good idea, but there are no pockets in dinosaur suits) had been pinging messages. As a result every so often I removed a glove, pulled a hand inside the dino-suit, and checked my phone. A number of the messages were relevant to our Jurassic walk.

Photo taken from inside the dinosaur suit. The head kept flopping in the way.

Cars tooted, people waved, very few people were critical. Surprisingly, they were usually senior high school students, often being hustled away by their mates who didn’t share their views. “You’re so embarrassing!” I heard one mate mutter to his right-wing friend.

HE was embarrassed? He wasn’t the one dressed as a dinosaur…

Dino-hug outside our MP’s office.

I was told they wanted the dinosaur suit in action again the following week. I said I’d give it a go, but hopefully not a hot day.

The second time, although the day was cooler, the dino-suit still fogged up fast. I had a phone call come in which I took, inside the suit. There was a storm brewing with an occasional spattering of rain, but I was wearing the equivalent of an all-over plastic raincoat.

The police visited. As all the proper permissions had been filed, we felt confident, although the spokes-officer did look rather stern. I started out flippantly, “I’ve been good! I haven’t eaten anybody today!” but thought better of it.

Craig’s head revisited.

By the time I emerged from inside the suit, I was drenched with sweat. Someone handed me a bottle of chilled water which was very welcome. Yes, I know, plastic bottled water is a scourge on the environment. But I promise, I will re-use that bottle until it is no longer fit for purpose, at which point I will recycle it.

Ah! Rehydration!

So what comes next? Who knows? But I do know, I’ve been talking about climate change since I was a schoolkid in 1970. It wasn’t political then, and it shouldn’t be political now. I studied science, I worked in science, I understand scientific method. The more recent discrediting and politicising of science was enough to get me into a dinosaur suit to protest at the dinosaur we have as our political representation in our electorate.

Next stop — Canberra?

Australia’s Parliament House, Canberra.
Despite it’s environmentally friendly design, it’s loaded with reactionary dinosaurs.

Stone Soup

A stone. Is it magic? Or just a stone? How to get a meal out of nothing.

I’m going back a long way now, to a holiday we had when my children were young. We’d been up on the Sunshine Coast, enjoying a holiday in the early Spring. The only way to afford a holiday when you have four children is to find an inexpensive apartment. Definitely not a hotel!

This facility had a swimming pool, but it was far too cold to swim. The apartment had a kitchen which we’d put to good use, cooking our meals rather than eating out every night with four kids.

The day before our departure we were packing and getting some washing done. But the family still needed to be fed, preferably on whatever we had left. The fridge was fairly bare by this stage.

“Let’s make stone soup!” I announced to the girls. They already knew the story, thanks to Jim Henson’s “Storyteller” series. But we were going to do our own version of the traditional folk tale, which goes back hundreds of years through many cultures.

Beside the swimming pool was a rockery of grey river pebbles, some streaked with marble. Miss Ten grabbed one where the layer of marble looked like a ring. “Let’s use this one! It looks magical!”

Back in the kitchen I began the story.

A tramp was looking for shelter on a frosty night. He was tired, hungry and cold but the only house he could try belonged to an old miser. There were signs on the property saying, “Get out! No freeloaders here!”

The tramp read the notices, shrugged, and knocked on the door.

The miser opened the door. “Well?”

You have a fine house, sire,” said the tramp. “It is going to be a cold night. Could I please sleep indoors in your house? Just a quiet corner out of the wind and storm.”

The miser was furious. “Can’t you read?” he shouted. “No freeloaders!” and went to slam the door.

The tramp stuck his foot in the door.

Oh, I quite agree! You can’t be too careful! But I’m not a freeloader. In exchange for your hospitality, I will cook you a delicious soup.”

What with?” the miser asked. “All I see is you, skin, bone and rags.”

Ah, but sire, I have a magic stone. With that, I can make soup. All I need is a pot of water to put over the fire.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a river pebble, grey with a circle of marble on it.

“Just like mine?” asked Miss Ten.

“Just like yours,” I told her.

All we need is a stone. And some water in a pot… all else is seasoning.

The miser was curious. And there was the prospect of a free dinner. “Very well, then. But mind you sleep in the furthest corner. I don’t want wear and tear on the rug. My dog sleeps there.”

With the cottage door closed behind him, the tramp rubbed his cold hands together to try to bring back some feeling.

Well? Where’s this soup you promised me?” asked the miser.

I’ll need — a fire!” The tramp rushed over to the fireplace to warm his hands a little more. “And a pot to put the soup in. And some water. That’s all.”

The miser fetched a small cauldron and filled it with water from the trough outside. “Here!” he handed it over. “Do your magic! Let’s see this miracle soup! I’m betting the only miracle will be why I didn’t slam the door on your face!”

Have faith,” replied the tramp. He dropped the stone into the pot.

Well?” the miser asked. “You’ve got your stone, and your water.”

It takes time,” the tramp told him. “Do you have an old bone? Just something you would have thrown away anyway. We can stir it with that.” The tramp sipped at the contents of the cauldron. “Hmm, needs seasoning. Do you have any salt?”

Leftover barbecued chicken, picked mostly clean.

In the kitchen in the holiday apartment, Miss Ten handed me a spoon. “I think there’s some sachets of salt left over from a takeaway dinner. Here!”

“Let’s look in the fridge. Are there any old bones which we might throw away?” I already knew there were bones left over from a barbecued chicken.

Miss Ten produced the remnants of the chicken. I noted that the stuffing was still there. None of the kids would touch chicken stuffing. We’d picked the bones almost clean. It went into the pot, along with the contents of two salt sachets.

In the miser’s hut in the forest, the pot had been stirred with an old ham bone that still had some meat on it, and some salt had been added. It was coming up to heat and the tramp was enjoying the warmth of the fire. But he would have to feed the miser well if he was to stay warm this night.

The miser hovered. “Is it nearly ready?”

Just a little longer. Do you have any old, wrinkled root vegetables which you won’t eat? Just stuff for the rubbish heap. It will give the soup a bit of body. Some potatoes, perhaps. Or old, stale bread.”

The miser scurried around and found a wrinkled onion, some potatoes and some skinny root vegetables. The tramp put them into the pot. “It won’t be long now.”

Back in the apartment kitchen, Miss Ten looked in the fridge. “Here are some carrots!”

“We need those carrots,” I told her. “I’m going to peel them and we can have carrot sticks to nibble in the car while we drive to the park this afternoon. But here’s an onion. And let me peel those carrots while we wait for the soup.”

Onion ends and outer layer; shrivelled cloves of garlic. Carrot peel. Into the pot.

I decided I would use the onion for dinner, but I needed some onion in the soup too. So I peeled the onion, taking an extra layer. The onion peel went into the soup, along with the carrot peel. We tasted our soup, Miss Ten and I. She peered into the pot. “I can’t see the stone, Mummy. Is it gone?”

“No, the stone is just hiding behind the bones and the scraps. We’ll see it at the end.”

Little left but bones.

The tramp was now warm as toast and had been tasting the soup all through. It had started with a pot of water, and his magic stone. But he had added salt, some root vegetables, some old bones and other bits of rubbish that the miser would not have bothered to eat and now the soup was thick, rich and meaty from the old bones. What the miser would have thrown away would have fed a poor family for a week.

At last the tramp was satisfied. “It’s ready! And a finer soup you’ll never have had!”

The miser hurried over with a bowl and a spoon. He saw the sad look on the tramps face, and reluctantly produced another bowl and spoon for the tramp. Together they sat and enjoyed the soup. The miser exclaimed at how tasty it was, how it warmed him and what a marvel it all was. “Please, good sir,” the miser told the tramp, “I will give you a full bag of gold. Let me buy this marvellous stone from you. It is a wonder!”

The tramp smiled. All he had wanted was shelter from the storm. Now he was warm from the fire, had eaten well of the soup which had been concocted with unwanted food from the miser’s larder, and now he was offering money. But the tramp pretended to be reluctant. “Let me think on it overnight. I have been glad of this stone in my wanderings on the road. I will be sad to part with it.”

The miser was now very eager to please his guest. “You take my bed tonight. I will sleep on the mat with my old dog. Maybe after a good night’s sleep you will think more kindly on my offer.”

In our kitchen, Miss Ten tasted our soup. I was very happy with it, and glad I’d been able to produce it with the last discards of our holiday larder. The seasoning in the unwanted stuffing had added flavour and some thickening. Miss Ten exclaimed at the marvel of producing a tasty soup with just a stone, and old scraps from the fridge. But she pushed it aside and took a carrot stick instead.

A strained chicken stock, full of flavour, made from the leftover bits that would be thrown away by most people.
Rice cooked in the same stock, with bits of meat picked off the bones, and a thin-sliced sausage.
By adding more — egg, vegetables, whatever else we can scavenge in the fridge — we have a meal fit for a king.

So what happened next morning, Mummy?” asked Miss Ten, munching on a carrot stick.

I told her the rest of the story as I poured the soup into a jug and picked out the scraps of onion, carrot and chicken bone to put in the bin. Miss Ten reached for the stone and washed it under the tap. “I want to keep this,” she announced, and put it in her holiday treasures box.

Back in the cottage, the tramp spent a very comfortable night in a warm feather bed, in a hut with a burning fire. But when he woke, he knew he needed to get on his way. But the miser was reluctant to see him leave.

Please, good sir,” the miser begged. “Will you sell me your stone? Perhaps two bags of gold?”

With a great show of reluctance, the miser reached into his pocket for his stone. “Very well,” he sighed. Your gold will help me feed myself for a while, at least.” He handed over the stone as the miser eagerly pushed the gold into the tramp’s hands. And then the tramp found himself almost hurried out of the door as the miser took the little pot to the water trough to fill it up.

As he left, the tramp advised, “You will always be able to make soup with the stone, with just water. But it always improves the flavour if you add a few other things too.”

The miser was back in the cottage, door closed on the world and the tramp could see the smoke spiral higher from the chimney as the fire was stoked up to boil the pot.

The bag of gold, and the next stone…

As he walked away through the morning snow, the tramp smiled. At the bottom of the hill he paused for a moment. He bent over the river bank and picked up a stone. He put it in his pack where it nestled next to two bags of gold. He continued on his way, still smiling.

I put the jug of soup in the fridge. That night, with the rest of the onion and a small bag of rice, I made risotto. A meal conjured from nothing.

Years passed in our home, Miss Ten kept the magic stone and made many pots of soup with it. She became a skilled cook, able to improvise. When she grew up and left home to get married, she took her magic soup stone with her.

Door Porn 4 – Santorini

The ferry spilled its load of tourists on Santorini. June 2018, no need for social distancing.

We enjoyed immersing ourselves in Athens, we relaxed on Paros, we got lost on Naxos, but it was all a prelude to Santorini.

The ferry was packed tight (well before Covid!) and, because turnaround has to go quickly, everyone disembarking on Santorini were all waiting with luggage in the large floor of the ferry. Passengers first, then vehicles would start up and drive off.

Santorini is a startling place. Sheer cliffs rise up from the ocean floor, cliffs composed of layers of ash and pumice. The contrast of lapis blue ocean with black cliffs iced with a frosting of white buildings was breathtaking.

Santorini from the ferry, black rock rising from blue ocean. The white frosting is the accumulation of villages, spackled across every possible niche on top.
The view across the caldera from our room in the hotel. That’s the table where our breakfast was served.
Fira, Santorini.
The balcony door to our room. Beyond is the sea on the other side of the island. Fira, Santorini.

Once the ferry was docked and we had the all clear, the crowd surged forward almost as one. Greek ferries have turnaround timed very tightly, and disembarkation is done efficiently, calmly but also rapidly. We had barely enough time to cross the car park and watch the vehicles follow us off the boat, when we saw the doors closing and the ferry begin to pull away, to allow for the next.

Cruise ships have a different transfer dock. We were the plebs, the common folk but no less respected.

A transfer mini-bus dropped us off at a common meeting point, and our destination was pointed out to us. “Go straight up the hill until you can’t go any further. Turn right at the cathedral and continue on about a hundred metres.”

The cobbled road led up to the narrow street. Dragging bags up here was challenging. I loved this little shop, it’s where we bought our first bottles of water.
The street outside our hotel room. Many wonderful doors. Fira, Santorini, 2018.

We dragged our bags over cobbles and low steps, reached the top of the rise and paused to drink in the amazing view over the Santorini caldera. Sparkling blue ocean, black ash cliffs and again, those amazing blue-accented white buildings clinging to the top.

An accumulation of doors — buildings layered on buildings, occupying every possible flat space, and a few impossible ones. It makes for some fascinating door photos. more to come! Fira, Santorini, 2018.

We found our hotel (a door in the wall in a row of shops and, of course, there were more steps inside. No hotel here has wide foyers with circular driveways…

When we were finally shown our room (oh, blessed air conditioning in the heat!) we found we had a balcony with an uninterrupted view not only over the caldera, but looking back to the other side of the island. Santorini is like a sliver of fingernail in the middle of the Mediterranean, curved protectively around the fledgling volcanic island of Nea Kameni. Across the caldera from us was another island, a fragment of the ancient volcanic rim. Below us were several cruise ships which lit up at night like floating palaces.

Sunset from our balcony, looking back to the cathedral. Fira, Santorini, 2018.
Cruise ship in the caldera, just after sunset. Fira, Santorini, 2018.

As soon as we could, we slipped down the stairs and began to explore. Once again, doors were something I featured in a lot of photos.

Under the church in a small village. Santorini, 2018.
Beware of the dog, in any language. Santorini, 2018.

This is a place where I could write about so many things. Foremost in my mind was the Minoan civilisation. What was it like for them, living here in a place of luxury, a place where the wealthy came to live it up, and where so much wealth of the world at the time was concentrated? Back then, they farmed saffron on the exposed plateau.

Church doors. The paving was made by pitting in flat, flinty pebbles on edge. Long-lasting, hard-wearing. We found samples of this dating back centuries. Santorini, 2018.
Door, Unplugged. Santorini, 2018.
Impossible steps, twists and turns.
A door, barely there. Santorini, 2018.
The classic Greek Orthodox church on Santorini — blue and white.

On our first full day we took a tour around some villages, to a vineyard and to the ancient archaeological site of Akrotiri. When Santorini had its catastrophic eruption in about 1640 BC, most of the island and its buildings was completely obliterated. But these fragments survived, buried under metres of ash. Anything organic has decayed, but left a space. They pour cement or other molding material into the cavities and are able to determine the exact shape of what was once there.

Buildings three and a half thousand years old at least.
Doorway and window in ancient Akrotiri. Santorini, 2018.
My writing projects on Minoan Greece had me in hog heaven!
A glimpse inside the homes from thousands of years ago. Skilled craftsmen lived here. Potters, jewellers, carpenters, artisans. Ancient Akrotiri, Santorini, 2018.
Walking the sstreets of ancient Akrotiri. How old is this doorway? Santorini, 2018.
You can see the pots, the seats, the tables in here.

After Akrotiri we stopped for lunch and a swim. It was a black shingle beach, the tiny stones burning hot underfoot.

Here is the door to my change-room with my much-travelled Boomerang Bag.

We finished at the popular village of Oia, where people gather every day to watch the sun set. It was very crowded, but an exciting visit.

Door in Oia, Santorini 2018.
Church bell tower, Oia, Santorini 2018.
Oia is a challenging place to photograph. So many people! Santorini 2018.
Even iin such a beautiful place, practical maintenanc
Shape and colour are highlighted in the sunset. Oia, Santorini 2018.
Always look back — there’s always another perspective to a story. The rooftops are packed with people, all in Oia to see the sunset. Jeff on the right is looking at his mad wife with her back to the view. Oia, Santorini 2018.
A withered wreath over the door. As discussed in previous post on Naxos doors, this is an ancient custom. Santorini 2018.
An interesting notice on a door — in Santorini, they are promoting live sports on TV. Not unusual, you say. look closer. it’s State of Origin, NSW vs Queensland! Santorini 2018.

It’s a beautiful place, almost impossible to take a bad photo.

A flirtatious accordion player — a touch of delight at the end of a glorious day. Oia, Santorini 2018.


Christmas on the move

NSW Christmas Bush in the local park, anonomously decorated.

We’d planned to be in Canberra from early Monday before Christmas to babysit the kids, with school finished for the year but parents still working. We were then going to stay until Christmas Day, leaving the next day (Boxing Day) to head home. I planned to use the quiet evenings to work on writing and editing. Then we heard that we would be allowed to attend our granddaughter’s dance concert. The choir concert (a few weeks earlier) was unfortunately not open for audiences.

We had already booked accommodation and planned to drive down on Sunday, but the dance concert was midday. With a three and a half hour drive, we’d have to ‘bug out’ early from home. We also planned to bring our son Rob with us. He had an event to attend on Saturday, so the schedule was tight. We were considering leaving on Saturday ourselves, and perhaps getting Rob to come down by train. We booked the extra night’s accommodation (in a different hotel, the one for the majority of our stay wasn’t available that night).

Christmas on the road.

We discussed it all on Friday night. Rob was determined to attend his event on Saturday so we went online to book a train. We could have booked Sunday, but would have missed the dance concert to collect him from the railway station in Canberra, so we reluctantly booked his train for Monday instead. All other trains were booked out.

Within five minutes of booking (and paying for) the train ticket, Rob’s phone went off. The Saturday event was cancelled. There was an increasing Covid hot spot in Sydney’s Northern Beaches area, about as far away from us as you could get and still be in Sydney. So could he come with us after all?

“I’m working tomorrow morning on the bread run,” he explained. “It’s too late to let them know now.”

Rob decided to come down by train on Monday. That way he could work Sunday morning as well.

With the Northern Beaches Covid cluster growing in momentum we felt some disquiet setting out. Strong restrictions were coming back in, but we knew we were still okay to travel. We double-checked, loaded the car and set off. We’d packed the car carefully to allow for Rob’s seat and luggage coming back with us.

On the road to Canberra

We wore our masks whenever we got out of the car — buying fuel, buying lunch, checking in to the hotel in Canberra. The hotel was full of cricketers! There were security guards and Covid marshals on every exit, which was disconcerting.

Next day was a more relaxed bugout with perishables carefully packed in a cooler back somewhere buried under the load of Christmas presents. We were carrying gifts from the extended family to the “Canberra mob”. Fortunately we were able to park under a handy tree and wait.

Our grandson almost exploded into our car with his energy to announce their arrival.

Queuing for the concert was interesting. We wore masks, but in disease-free Canberra this seemed to be an exception. We were all expected to leave 1.5 metres between us in the queue, but inside it was full seats. We kept our masks on…

That evening there was a press conference. The border was closing at midnight. I rang Rob. Could he get down to us before midnight, by car? Nope, not packed. With the likelihood of heavier traffic than usual, the chance of him getting to us by midnight was vanishingly small. There was also the chance that we, as recent arrivals, could be sent home or, worse, made to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks. Should we leave? We’d delivered our Christmas presents already.

The kids were upset at their Uncle Rob not coming for Christmas.

We took a chance. Next morning we watched the news anxiously. Yes, the border was closed but we had no problems. We’d booked time slots to take the kids to some of the public places around Canberra and decided to go ahead. If we were going to babysit, we’d have fun too, and see the sights.

Parliament House, Canberra, Australia. The actual Parliament House is under the hill with the flagpole.

First stop, Parliament House in Canberra. This is a fascinating place, I’ll write it up separately some other time. Under Covid conditions and with two young children, we weren’t going to have the usual leisurely tour. With parliament not sitting, there wasn’t a lot to see. The kids loved the Lego model of Parliament House, complete with Lego sheep on the lawn on the roof (Parliament House in Canberra is an earth-covered building). They really liked the artwork and some of the stories that various guides told us in passing.

Looking from the Australian War Memorial towards Parliament House (note the tiny flagpole in the distance). The white building just in front of the flagpole is Old Parliament House which is now a museum.

After Parliament House, we went to the Australian War Memorial. Again, our time here was pre-booked to ensure that not too many people were inside at any time. Our grandson wanted to look at the eternal flame first, he was fascinated with the burning gas bubbling up from the pool. From there we went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I explained to the kids that nobody knows who is buried there, except we know he’s Australian from World War I. So for all the families who lost a brother, a son or a father in WWI, there is some peace in knowing that the man buried there could be him. He represents them all, all Australian servicemen and servicewomen who never came home.

Wall of Remembrance — each poppy represents a recent visit from someone paying respect.

We looked for names on the Wall of Remembrance then explored the displays inside. Again, with the children we knew their attention spans would be short, but we think some of what they saw was understood.

In the Australian War Memorial — a blanket crocheted by a prisoner in Stalag VIIIB, where Jeff’s father spent time in WWII. Did the same skilled prisoner also craft dad’s cap? The colours match.

The next day we took the kids to Telstra Tower on top of Black Mountain. It was on their list of places they’d wanted to see. We went up into the tower and enjoyed the view from the observation deck, amazed at the wind.

Blowin’ in the wind — it was my Marylin Monroe moment.

On the way back to the car we saw a young ringtail possum snoozing in a nearby tree. “It’s all an adventure,” we told them.

Snoozing ringtail possum in the fork of the tree.

We collected their mother and went for a drive in the bush, as requested by our grandson. We ended up in a place we’d never been to, or even heard of — Gibraltar Falls.

Gibraltar Falls.
Lady beetle on the granite boulder, Gibraltar Falls.
Mating beetles (it’s that time of the season). Gibraltar Falls, ACT.
Tiny flowers, Gibraltar Falls, ACT

We hiked down the slippery granite steps to the falls, and the kids exclaimed over a lady beetle. Little things and big things caught their attention. I got out my macro lens and we explored further, getting up close and personal to beetles, flowers and the lady beetle. It seemed a world away from coronavirus.

Christmas Eve was all about preparation. Last minute grocery shopping, and keeping the kids out of the kitchen while their father set about his one day of culinary glory in the year — cooking up a feast. Far too much food, but all of it tasty. It will all get eaten, but not necessarily today.

Gifts in various stages of being opened.
Greek-style lamb on the barbecue for Christmas dinner.
Christmas feasting done — leftovers for Boxing Day.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Stay safe, stay well.

Tomorrow we drive home, and back to higher restrictions.