Since we last met


Since we last met, I’ve been on a lovely walk up Cooleman Ridge with friends, human and canine. The sun came up while we walked, treating us to a
sky-blue-pink view from the top of the ridge. Hot air balloons took off in the distance as we watched.


At first glance, I thought this rock looked like a blond Darth Vader. Now, looking closely at the photo, I think it looks like a stone Womble. What can you see? The hills behind us were rose tinted, and low cloud hung over the elusive Murrumbidgee. My friends suggested that a person could possibly walk the length of the ridge, from their house to mine. Speaking from experience, I’d say that person would need a map. And even then they’d be likely to end up back at the place they started from.


Since we last met, I’ve made a pair of trousers. I hand-sewed them. Yes, indeedy, I did. The material is light and drapes softly and they fit perfectly. I read about a type of seam called flat fell and wanted to try it. I was having a bout of sewing machine fear, so I hand-stitched the whole garment while listening to podcasts. The sparkle of satisfaction that I got from making them comes back every time I wear them.

I hope you’ll excuse the bandaid-wrapped toe in the photo. I cut my toe open twice by stubbing it two days in a row on the same step… living proof that human beings are slow learners and some people should really wear slippers more often.

Since we last met, I’ve been listening to The West Wing Weekly podcast a lot. I adored The West Wing. Every couple of years I re-watch the whole seven seasons and I still think it’s brilliant. The podcast dissects and discusses an episode each time. It’s very witty and engaging, and it makes TWW tragics like me glad to know that we’re part of a community.


Since we last met, I’ve read some good books. Brigid Lowry’s Still Life With Teapot is a gem. I devoured it in an afternoon. Part memoir and collection of hilarious lists, it’s also a discussion on writing and creativity in general. In the first part of the book Brigid makes you like her so much that you can’t wait to read the rest of it. “I’ve written my way towards you,” she says, and she really has.

The second book I thought I’d bought was Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I laughed when I got home and realised I’d bought The Artist’s Way for Retirement. It’s aimed at people who suddenly have a lot of time on their hands, which, alas, is not me or any of my friends just yet. But it’s something we all long for.

The advice in the book—how to unlock creativity—is relevant for all of us, though. Just yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend’s teenage daughter who wanted to start painting but thought she needed to be taught how first. She said the local art teacher painted in a style she didn’t like. “So paint in your own style,” we said.

This morning I read a passage in the book about artistic U-turns, where people take up an artistic pursuit because they enjoy it but then give it up for years because of some unfavourable experience or negative feedback. They (we) associate the negativity with their artistic ability when really it comes down to the teacher having a different style or their work being judged by the wrong audience.

That applies not only to art. When I was a kid I thought I was rubbish at sport. I enjoyed riding my bike and going horseriding, but I hated school sports because I thought I was no good. At our school we wore fluorescent yellow sweatshirts for sport, probably because it was so foggy that the teachers needed a way of keeping an eye on us. On cross-country runs we of course took our sweatshirts off and ran away into the mist to do our own thing. My friends and I would wander around town or go to the sweet shop then duck home for a while. One day we decided to go to the graveyard and noisily stumbled into a funeral by mistake.

Because I was made to do sports that didn’t suit me, I thought I was no good at sport as a whole. I discovered running in my 40s and I love it, but if you’d told me that when I was 13 I’d have laughed because running then meant running away from school to go and buy sweets. So if you enjoy making art or writing or figure-skating or playing the spoons but you’ve convinced yourself that you’re no good at it, maybe it’s time for a rethink.

Which brings me to the next book. Susan Cain’s Quiet came out six years ago and that’s exactly how long I’ve been wanting to read it. There’s a nice review of it here. It’s a well-researched and at times very funny book about being an introvert in a world that values extroversion. I love the way that it debunks the current theories about group work being the way to solve a problem or open-plan being the best office design. To think deeply or be creative, I need a quiet space every time.

When I borrowed the book from work, the librarian, a colleague, was chatty and outgoing. She told me how much it had helped her to understand her son, when previously she and her similarly extroverted hubby had been scratching their heads and thinking, “What do we do with this left-handed introvert?!” I had to smile because she had no idea that she was telling her story to another left-handed introvert. Obviously we have to act extroverted a lot of the time just to get along in life, but for a third of the population our natural inclination is to do the opposite. And that’s perfectly okay.


Since we last met, I’ve made peanut butter cookies and mushroom soup, and this afternoon I’ll be getting the plum puree out of the freezer and turning it into jam. A hint of autumn has crept into each day, which makes me want to bake. I discovered Luisa Weiss’s gorgeous book Classic German Baking yesterday at a friend’s house, and I can’t wait to bake from it. I enjoyed its photos of Berlin as much as I enjoyed reading the recipes and rolling their names around on my tongue. Who wouldn’t want to make Knerken or Versunkener Apfelkuchen?

And you? Where have you been walking and what have you seen? What are you listening to? What have you learned? What have you been making or baking… since we last met?




Portraits and petals


Of all the pictures on display in the National Portrait Gallery, there are two that I particularly love. You see one of them from a distance and your brain says, “That one,” and your feet begin to walk towards it. Then you spend a long time in front of it, staring, because it radiates character. If you move closer to it, you find yourself wondering how that black line here or that gold smudge there can end up representing light and shade so accurately. It’s Robert Hannaford’s portrait of Lowitja O’Donoghue and it glows off the wall. There’s a disappointingly flat photo of it here, but I urge you to go and see the real thing. It’s much more impressive.

Around the corner, tucked away on a side wall, is another of Robert Hannaford’s paintings. It’s of Robert Dessaix. “Robert,” you feel like saying, “how are you? What are you working on?” because he seems really to be there. You could almost walk into the painting, sit down and have a cup of tea with him.IMG_2587

The Portrait Gallery is my second favourite building in Canberra. I’ll tell you about my favourite another time. I love the concrete, the soaring geometric ceiling and the lighting. Hell, I even like the toilet doors, but I didn’t take a photo of them because that would be weird.


I’m in love with the tactile orange blob that greets you as you arrive. I adore the shop, with its eclectic book selection and imaginative gifts. Yesterday I treated myself to a book and took it to the airy, light-filled cafe to read while drinking real leaf tea from a teapot the colour of the sky in winter. I once took a friend from Yorkshire to the Portrait Gallery, and now I hear his voice in my head every time I go there for tea: “Ooh, I loov a posh gallery caff.”

A possibly little known fact about the Portrait Gallery is that it contains Ned Kelly’s death mask. Two things strike you when you look at it: he seems to be smiling in death, and he had an extraordinarily small head. “Surely not?” you think. “Surely if that were true, someone somewhere would have mentioned that Australia’s most famous bushranger had a teeny-tiny head?” Then you realise that the guy who made it must have plonked the face on to a little blob of plaster and made some not-at-all-in-proportion shoulders. At least, I hope he did.

Not far from Ned Kelly’s puzzlingly small head is a carte de visite, a photographic calling card, of Madame Sibly, phrenologist and mesmerist. Apparently she travelled around with her daughter, Zel the Magnetic Lady, feeling the bumps on people’s heads or hypnotising them and making them do silly things. She also claimed to be able to cure gout. That’s quite a CV. If she’d ever had the chance to feel the bumps on Ned Kelly’s head, no doubt she could have warned his mother: “This one’s trouble.”


A short walk from the Portrait Gallery are the Old Parliament House rose gardens. I wasn’t a big rose fan until I moved to Canberra. Even in my first garden here, I took a hard line: only vegetables and native plants. But the next two houses I lived in had roses climbing up the brickwork and they were so cheery and bright that they changed my mind. Also, they required very little effort from me and still looked bloomin’ marvellous every year. So now I’m a convert.


There are two rose gardens, one each side of Old Parliament House. When you walk through the gates of the first one, a cloud of scent hits you. The roses are arranged by colour: a garden of white, a garden of pink, a garden of yellow and so on. There’s a loggia and a rotunda thingy and it’s all terribly picturesque. People like to get married there. In fact, there was a bride-to-be there on Sunday, planning where to stand for her wedding photos, while I wandered around sticking my nose into Fragrant Cloud and Golden Celebration and Taboo. She seemed tense and distracted. “Don’t expect it all to be perfect,” I wanted to say to her. “Just enjoy the flowers.”


While the first rose garden is pretty and manicured because it’s looked after by hundreds of volunteers, the second rose garden is like the Secret Garden or something out of a fairytale by the brothers Grimm. It’s overgrown and much wilder. If you had your wedding there, your expensive dress would become snagged on trailing thorns and you’d end up with big spiders in your hair.


This is the garden where the year 5/6 primary school classes that come to Canberra to visit all the important buildings stop to eat their lunch. On a weekday you’ll find kids running in the maze of rose bushes or doing cartwheels on the grass. It’s a wilder garden and you can run wild in it.


Or you can sit on a bench in a secluded corner and take in its quiet charms. In its own way, this garden is as enchanting as the other one; you just have to look a bit harder for the pretty things.


Portraits and petals: a good day out.




I’ve never been a fan of February. In the Northern Hemisphere it’s cold and dark and gloomy and you wonder if spring will ever come. In the Southern Hemisphere it’s so hot and dry, day and night, that everything wilts, including the people. It’s a month to be endured rather than enjoyed.

This year, February has been particularly unkind. It’s been one of the busiest times at work. I’ve had a lurgy that just wouldn’t leave and insomnia that seems to have dug its heels in. But those things are nothing, really, because my Dad has cancer again, this time with complications, and has spent most of the month in hospital.


I could write about pain (his) and grief (ours). I could write about shouting in my car while driving home from work, pleading with God/the universe to give him more time and a quiet, peaceful death years from now. Perhaps I’ll get my wish. As things stand, it seems unlikely. A year ago we were talking about him beating cancer. Now we’re talking about him buying time. They were the specialist’s words: “Basically, we’re just buying time.”

If you’re seriously ill, it helps to have a specialist with gallows humour. A recent conversation went like this:

Dad: I think I was in the same bed last time I was here.

Specialist: Yes, we kept it for you. Your name’s up there in permanent marker.

One conversation he had last year with Mum still makes me smile:

Mum: Will he be well enough to go on our overseas holiday?

Specialist: Is he going over in a box?

Mum: No, and I don’t want to bring him back in one either.


How do you keep doing the everyday things when uncertainty, pain and death are looming? For a couple of weeks, I didn’t know if I could stand the futility of so many aspects of my day. I wanted to spin myself a cocoon and hide inside it for as long as possible. I wanted to make caustic remarks in reply to the endless discussions about inconsequential things. I wanted everything and everyone to go away.

But everything doesn’t go away. Whatever personal hell you’re going through, you have to go through it while still doing the everyday things. The garbage still has to go out. The house still has to be cleaned. You have to keep feeding yourself nutritious food. You can’t walk out of work because, actually, it’s a good job and it pays for your lifestyle.


Watching someone confront their mortality makes you face up to your own. And it turns out that there’s an up side to insomnia: it gives you extra time to think. It gives you time to question whether you’re where you want to be, doing what you really want to do. It gives you time to plan how to get from here to there. It gives you time to ask questions like: what do I need to do right now to start going down that path?


Today, finally, the hot weather broke. I went to the garden centre and stood in the teeming rain choosing white flowers to plant in the back garden. By the time I got back to the car I was soaked through, but it felt exhilarating to be out in the rain. Back at home I tucked the plants into the wet soil and their bright little faces cheered me up.

The only way to keep going is to keep going. The Nike slogan works: just do it. I’ve fitted more into this weekend than I normally would. There’s no time for apathy and lethargy. There’s now, today, and maybe there’s tomorrow, but we really have no control over that. I don’t have any answers. I wish I did. I just wanted to tell you about my February.




“If you please, I’ve brought some calf’s-foot jelly for Mr Pendleton,” smiled Pollyanna.

I hope I haven’t turned your stomach. Mr Pendleton had a broken leg, not a fever, but it didn’t stop Pollyanna bringing him one of the many unappealing concoctions that were traditionally fed to the unwell in ye olden days.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since I was poleaxed by one of those sneaky viruses with a sting in the tail. You think it will be over in 24 hours, so you have a bit of a rest then soldier on, only to be knocked flat again days later. I knew I was unwell when I stopped wanting a cup of tea. Apparently, Florence Nightingale was on to this as well:

“A great deal too much of tea is given to the sick by foolish people.”

Mrs Beeton, in her cookery book published in 1861, has a whole chapter on food for the sick. It’s charmingly titled “Recipes for Invalids” and includes thin gruel, calf’s foot broth and beef tea. There’s much talk of scum-skimming. Even she admits that her egg wine recipe (water, sherry, egg and sugar) makes a less than tasty beverage:

“When the egg is not warmed, the mixture will be found easier of digestion, but it is not so pleasant a drink.”

Of course, invalids in books only start to sip beef tea or bravely swallow lumps of calf’s foot jelly after they’ve been through the febrile stage of their illness. That’s the part where they toss and turn in bed, muttering deliriously, while someone applies a cold compress and the rest of the family wring their hands and wail until someone thinks to ride off into the night to fetch the doctor. I’m sure it helps enormously if that someone is Alan Rickman in a puffy shirt.

I guess Colonel Brandon was still out riding when I finally emerged from my sickbed. A tiny voice in my enfeebled brain bleated, “Soup! I n-e-e-d s-o-u-p!” I definitely couldn’t face beef tea. I couldn’t even face chicken soup, which I know is supposed to cure all ills. So I turned to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. (Or Hugh Frippery-Whoppingstick as a friend once called him, which still makes me laugh!) The man knows his onions. And his tatties and leeks. If you’re feeling poorly, his soup recipes will gently nurse you back to health.

I started with cabbage, carrot and caraway broth, which was simple and soothing. Caraway is an old-fashioned and under-appreciated flavour, but cabbage is its true friend. The next night I made cucumber and lettuce vichyssoise. “Lettuce in a soup? Will it be slimy?” I thought. It wasn’t. It was smooth and tasty. In fact, it was SO good that I had it cold for lunch for the next three days.

I cheated in the next soup recipe: cannellini bean and leek soup with zucchini. I used spring onions, broccoli and orange zest instead, which made a crunchy, filling and aromatic soup that I think was my favourite for the week. The next night’s recipe was pea and parsley soup. Celia K Irwell said in the American Journal of Nursing in 1912:

“Vegetables should never be given to any sick person without the physician’s consent.”

In her view, invalids should be fed oysters and chicken, but she does allow peas to be introduced on day 3, so she would have found my pea soup acceptable. I found it slightly less than acceptable, probably because I didn’t cook it for long enough or blend it well enough. It was a bit, well, raw-ish and lumpy.

The final soup for the week was kipper chowder, with potatoes, almond milk and bucketfuls of dill. You can never have enough dill, in my opinion, so this was a fine soup. I won’t post a picture of it because, although it was delicious, it wasn’t pretty. But with each mouthful I found myself making the same “mm-mmm!” noises of greedy appreciation that my old labrador used to make.

I think buying the ingredients for all these lovely soups was the cheapest weekly shop I’ve done for a while. The soups were ridiculously easy and quick to make. They were nourishing and delicious and I looked forward to making a new one each night. So, even though I’m completely well again, I’ll be having home-made soup at least once a week from now on. Anne Barrows, also writing in the American Journal of Nursing, in 1905, would agree:

“If as great care were given to cookery for the well as we are willing to bestow upon cookery for the sick, the doctors and nurses would be less busy.”


The joy of missing out


Cartoonist Michael Leunig, in his lyrical way, sums up here the way I feel about the strange, materialistic force that impels some people to own the next big shiny thing or to be the first to experience something. In those moments when I feel overwhelmed by the maelstrom of everyday life, I also feel suffocated by the stuff I already own, so I can’t imagine queuing overnight to be the first to get a new techy thing or elbowing other people out of the way to get a cut price something or other.

I’ve been thinking about this since I read the story of the so-called Nutella riots in France last week. My favourite headline was “Nutella riots spread” (chortle). While the footage I’ve seen looks more like a bit of argy-bargy than a full-scale riot, it is extraordinary that people would fight so hard to get a couple of jars of hazelnut spread at a reduced price. In that situation, I would rather go without or make my own. It’s pretty easy to make and there are many recipes out there in internet land.


Why did those people do that? I know it’s a delicious spread, but I really can’t understand their actions. A colleague told me that she experienced something similar in a supermarket in Greece just after the Chernobyl accident. People were fighting each other for tins of milk because they were so worried that the nuclear fall-out would affect Europe’s cows. I can imagine the level of panic, and I understand it, but that certainly wasn’t the case in France last week.

When I was a child there was a lot of queuing. So many people wanted to be the first to see a movie or to buy the number one record. Perhaps that’s why I don’t do it now. We queued to see ET at the Odeon in Leicester Square and didn’t get in. I still haven’t seen it and I sometimes wonder whether ET ever got to phone home, but not knowing hasn’t impaired my life in any way.

Many years ago, I went to New York unintentionally when my plane was diverted. I had a few hours to spare and, in my jet-lagged state, thought it would be a good idea to go and see the Statue of Liberty. I joined the queue down there in Battery Park…and waited and waited and waited. At some point it dawned on me that if I stayed in line I would miss my connecting flight, so I gave up and went back to the airport. On that occasion I missed out. But what I didn’t know then was that I’d be back in under two years for a wonderful New York holiday. So missing out in one way resulted in an even better experience later.

Lake Tuggeranong

One of the many things I love about living in Canberra is that people here generally don’t feel the need to be first. Also, you almost never have to queue. If a new cafe opens and there’s a buzz about it then perhaps there will be a queue or it will be booked out, but after a couple of weeks it will be queue free. I find it very relaxing not to be bombarded with hype and buzz. An added bonus of not being first is that any kinks in a new restaurant/show/performance have generally been worked out by the time you experience it.


Recently I heard someone on the radio say that he had stopped buying presents for people and instead invited them to join him in experiences, such as going for a walk somewhere scenic, followed by a nice afternoon tea. I thought about that comment yesterday when a colleague retired and was given a present that I hope I’m never given. It’s a tech object that you give orders to. You can tell it to turn on the lights or to play music or movies. You can ask it how long it will take you to get to work. (What if it’s wrong? Will that make people disappointed, frustrated, angry? Possibly.) You can even ask it to tell you about your day. If you own this gadget, there’s no need for you to get off the couch or to use your mental faculties. Harumph!

Perhaps we’ve reached a point now where we need to take a breath and think about what we really want, rather than what we’re told to want. Everything is overhyped now. Every sandwich is gourmet. Every coffee is expertly roasted. I like a gourmet sandwich as much as the next person, but I’m just as happy with bog standard cheese and tomato.

I really think it’s okay to be second or third…or to go without. It’s okay to perhaps be considered behind the times because you don’t have the latest thing. It takes the pressure off. It’s much less stressful. There’s a freedom to it. And, oh, the joy of missing out!

Lake George




As much as


In a shop the other week I saw a card that said, “I love you more than books.” It stopped me in my tracks because…that’s a big call. Also, the card was for sale in a bookshop. I kept thinking about it and it made me a bit annoyed. A quick survey of my friends showed that their reactions pretty much matched mine. One of the people I asked, who loves books and who’s been married for decades and still sends lovey-dovey messages to her partner, didn’t hesitate before saying, “I’d NEVER say that to anyone!”

Another friend pointed out that some books are hateful, so to tell someone you love them more than books isn’t much of a compliment. I once read a book by a well-known Australian author whose work I really enjoy and admire, but this particular book was hateful. The writing was as skillful as ever, but the subject was gruesome and shocking. Worse, it was a true story. I read that book to the end, out of respect for the writer and out of disbelief that something so hideous could happen, but at the same time I hated it. I didn’t even want it in my house. The book seemed to glow radioactively in my hands until I gave it back to the person who lent it to me.

That innocuous little greetings card really got me thinking. I’ve loved some books so much that I actually kissed them when I finished the last sentence! Books have taught me languages. They’ve taught me to sew and knit and crochet and cook. They’ve helped me to understand myself and other people. They’ve shown me great art and architecture and ideas. So many times I’ve finished a book and missed the characters for ages afterwards because they were real to me. Of course, if the house were on fire I’d rescue people and animals first (because most books are replaceable) but I’d still mourn those books.

There are a handful of books on my bookshelves that I would go back into a burning building for. They’re not worth much in dollars, but to me they’re precious because of their history and the hands that have touched them. One of them belonged to my grandad.


When I knew him, Grandad was a mild-mannered man who watched cricket on telly and used a piece of string to hold up his trousers (much to Grandma’s shame). He slurped tea from the saucer when Grandma wasn’t looking. If he spilled gravy on his tie at Sunday lunch he’d rub it into the pattern and wink and say, “Don’t tell Grandma.”

He made me a wicker doll’s pram and a little wooden stool with an inlaid chessboard pattern. Apparently, I was so excited when he gave it to me that I kissed it. (Obviously the kissing of loved objects has become a habit!) He made me a wooden moneybox with a Scotsman who tilts when you put a penny on his plate. And he made me an unnerving little Brownie figurine whose neck broke long ago, making her scary face swivel unexpectedly, and frightening me more than ever.

When he wasn’t in his shed making wooden tables or figurines, and when he wasn’t in his garden stroking bumblebees with his large and calloused fingers, he tried to teach himself French. Family lore said that all he ever learned was the phrase “I have a trunk and two suitcases” and there was a lot of laughter about that.

After he died, I was given his French books, including his groovy 1960s Bonjour magazines and their accompanying floppy 45 records that had to be played at LP speed to be understood (although playing them at 45 speed was pretty funny). And I learned that, actually, he knew a lot of French and had completed all the crosswords.


Before he became a gardening, woodworking, cricket-watching bee stroker, Grandad was in the navy. In his photo album are pictures he took in Spain during the civil war, and in the Middle East and the West Indies. In World War II his ship was in the Battle of the River Plate. He kept a shell casing from that battle and used it as a doorstop for the rest of his life. My aunty has it still.

For all his travelling, he had never been to Paris. In the last years of his life, his daughters took him there for a weekend. He walked slowly, leaning on his stick and looking around in wonder at the buildings he’d read about. He sat on a bench in the Jardin des Tuileries and listened to people speak the language he’d been quietly learning for years. It must have been a dream come true. Possibly he was overwhelmed, because all he could say over and over, this man who’d travelled the world, was: “Different, innit?” As far as I know, he didn’t say anything in French for the whole weekend and, disappointingly, he didn’t use his famous line.

But he did browse the wares of the bouquinistes on the Left Bank, and he bought this book, published in 1927, to continue his éducation française:

I love it because it’s a beautiful, endlessly fascinating book, but I also love it because it belonged to Grandad and when I hold it in my hands the memories of him come rushing back. So I think I’d have to agree with my friend who said that the greatest compliment you can pay someone is: “I love you as much as books.”

Drink your tea slowly

The purpose of a vacation is to have the time to rest. But many of us, even when we go on vacation, don’t know how to rest. We may even come back more tired than before we left. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Oh dear. Guilty as charged. I think I overdid it: three trips away in under three weeks. For those of us who live on the Southern Tablelands, a trip to the coast takes several hours, usually ending in a drive down a long and winding road. Whichever route you take, there’s always that last bit with the hairpin bends. I calculate that Little Black Car and I drove around 34 hairpin bends. Excuse me while I have a little nap now…for about a year.

But wait! No napping allowed because it’s back to work time and it’s busy and already two weekends are filled with obligations. Going back to work was a shock. “This is what I do?!” I thought incredulously. “This can’t be right. Who on earth thought it was a good idea for legions of us to sit all day in front of computers, shortening our hamstrings, our forearm tendons, our sight and our attention span?”

While I worked, I allowed my mind to escape into a Thomas Hardy‑esque fantasy of scything in the fields with my fellow villagers, stopping at morning tea time for a hunk of bread and a lump of cheese, washed down with a tankard of local cider. In this bucolic vision the sun (not the artificial lighting) was shining and the carthorses (not my co-workers) were snorting and sighing. Clearly I chose to focus only on pastoral loveliness and to ignore all the bad things that happen in Hardy novels, but it got me through the day.


That rambling introduction is my way of saying: I’ve got nothing. I felt the urge to write something and had planned to take you on a day trip to a historic town not too far from here, but that will have to be postponed because there’s nothing left in the tank, mine or Little Black Car’s. This weekend I’m dog-sitting in the country with my furry friends Mr Drooly Scrumptious and Ms Leaps and Bounds, and all I can manage is a walk around the garden and a few photos of interesting native plants. Here’s a picture of some kind of flowering pea (looking very much like a fairy toothbrush):


And here are some banksia pods, looking every bit as cunning as the Big Bad Banksia Men in May Gibbs’s stories:


Now, while one of us chews sticks and one of us snoozes with his head on his paws, the plan is to switch off, and to sit and look at the big sky while drinking tea and following some sage advice. I declare this afternoon a holiday.

Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Taking stock


Hello, m’dears! It’s the holidays! Yippee! I hope you’re having a relaxing time, wherever you are. I went on a sneaky pre-Christmas break! How good is that? Unplanned beach trips are up there on my list of best things ever. A friend and I house-sat in beautiful Austinmer for a couple of days, two minutes walk from the beach.

Every day we flip-flopped down to the sea pool. The water was still cold, so we did the walking in slowly while clenching your teeth manoeuvre, followed by the ARGH! of the shoulders going under, followed by the “oh, it’s actually lovely” comment. Some days the tide was exhilaratingly high and the waves crashed across the pool, lifting and dumping us and almost dragging us out. I found I couldn’t stop grinning, which is not my usual expression when facing possible drowning, but it was unexpectedly blissful.


Christmas Eve featured another beach, Seven Mile, in the pretty Shoalhaven. It was grey and cool and the wind was up, but we had a bracing family walk before the turkey/ham/puddin’ fest began.

And now here we are: New Year’s Eve. I’m going on another quick trip to the coast later this week, so I’m quite content to stay home tonight and take stock. You could call it a quiet night in, but the boys three doors down are already drunk, so it’s not going to be that quiet! Anyway, here’s my taking stock list.

Reading: Re-reading Tim Winton’s The Riders. It’s my absolute favourite of his books, only just beating That Eye, The Sky. But if I had to choose one of them to take to a desert island, I couldn’t; I’d have to take both. I started re-reading it with the intention of looking closely at how he does it, how he makes the prose sing, but in an instant I forgot all about that and got lost in the story all over again.

I’m also reading (well, gawping at the pictures mainly) this book:


Isn’t it beautiful? My fuzzy photo doesn’t do it justice.

Getting to the end of: Yoga teacher training! Two years down the track, I’ve finally logged enough hours to get the qualification, once I finish…er…10 assignments. But the end is in sight. I’ve just started looking at chandra namaskar, otherwise known as salute to the moon. It’s been a turning point for me, as I find so many yoga classes focus on salute to the sun and (say it quietly) I don’t like it! It’s too fast and sweaty and makes me feel a bit panicky, whereas the salute to the moon sequences are so much slower and calmer and inward focused. Just what we middle-aged-prone-to-stress folk need. So that’s what my classes will be built around. Hurrah!

Joining: A gym!


No, that’s not it. But some wag obviously uses Austinmer headland as a gym. And why not? My gym isn’t big or particularly fancy, but it does have a pink, sparkly chandelier in the changing room, which is a welcome distraction from the pink, sweaty reflection in the mirror. I joined not as a New Year’s resolution but because I missed treadmills. I know! Seriously weird! But, try as I might, I just don’t enjoy outdoor running and I missed the happy trance that treadmills give, so back to the gym we go.

Listening to: Possums and parrots eat all the plums on the plum trees. I managed to pick one colanderful. That’s all they left me. All day I hear “Ting, chortle, THUD” as the parrots eat the plums and drop them on the shed roof. Then for a couple of hours each night I hear what sounds like an old man wheezing right outside my window but is actually the possum eating the plums that the parrots haven’t eaten yet. Yes, I should have netted the trees, but I couldn’t because I don’t have a ladder.

Buying: A ladder! Now I can do things like net fruit trees and change light bulbs and get into the roof space that I threw things into when I moved in and haven’t been into since. The only way is up, baby!


Enrolling in: A creative writing bootcamp. I’ve got a stack of old scribblings which need to be whipped into shape, and I’m looking forward to learning a lot.

Saying goodbye to: A couple of relationships, one of which changed suddenly a few months ago, leaving a huge gap and making me very sad, but now I’m going to let go and wish them well.

Surprising myself: By thinking about overseas travel. If you’d asked me a year ago, when I was still living out of a suitcase and doing a mad intercity commute, whether I’d like to go overseas again I’d have said, “Not in a million years.” Now I’m thinking, “House swap. Berlin. How can I do that? When can I do that?” It probably won’t be this year, but the seed has been planted and I’m gonna keep watering it.

Baking: Olive oil cake. “Cake, so soon after Christmas?!” I hear you exclaim. Yes. So many cakes, so little time. It’s very light and plain and rather delicious. The recipe is from this book: Food Swings, by Jessica Seinfeld. It’s a lovely book and she’s super nice, so I urge you to borrow it from the library or buy it. I’m not going to put the recipe up. Everything in the book is simple and tasty and just what you feel like cooking. I’m really enjoying it.


See that white blob next to the cakey? It’s skyr. Icelandic yoghurt, made in Australia, available at my local supermarket in Canberra. What an amazing world we live in! I went to Iceland for a too short visit a few years ago and one of the things I loved about it was the Icelandic sense of humour. On the Icelandair menu they have skyr and they tell you to eat it with a fork to use up some time. They also have porridge as a menu item.

Apart from cake, dolmades and salad are my food of choice at the moment. I’d like to say it’s home-grown salad, as I planted a lot of leafy greens, but see possum above. So now I’m eating store-boughten salad. And while we’re on the subject of dolmades…

Discovering: This record in a friend’s record collection:


I apologise for yet another fuzzy photo, but aren’t those shiny trousers something?! I really wanted some like that when I was a pre-teen, which was about the time that bouzouki disco was popular. So here, for your summer listening pleasure, is the Bouzouki Disco Band. I guarantee this will stay in your head all summer. Thanks for reading this far. It’s been a long post. Happy New Year!


Deck the halls




I’m a migrant. People speak the same language here as they do in the country we came from, so that made it easier to fit in. After 37 years I identify more with the country we moved to, but I still notice differences and my childhood cultural references fall flat. Most people don’t know that I came from somewhere else until I start telling them things about my childhood. For example: the Christmas before I turned five, I had my photo taken not with Santa but with a monkey that danced on the top of a barrel organ played by a man in a top hat. When I told a friend that story, she asked whether I knew Charles Dickens personally.

At the work Christmas party last week we all asked each other the usual “what are you doing for Christmas” question. Some people rolled their eyes and told sagas of driving from A’s house to B’s house to C’s house to try to please everyone. A colleague from Shanghai told us that in her city everyone stays out late on Christmas Eve, shopping and partying and looking at sparkly displays of lights and decorations. Then they go to work the next day. She’s a bit disappointed that everything’s shut here at Christmas.

I asked a Czech colleague what she’d be eating for Christmas dinner if she were still in the Czech Republic and her answer was: “Carp and potatoes,” which was not at all what I was expecting her to say, because “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the FEAST of Stephen” and carp and potatoes doesn’t sound very feast-like. It turns out that St Stephen’s Day is after Christmas, so I guess that explains the modest Christmas dinner; people have to leave some room.

In my family, chemotherapy was someone’s Christmas present last year. We’re a small family unit anyway because everyone else still lives back in Europe, and the thought of becoming smaller weighed heavily on us. But this year we’ll be pulling Christmas crackers and clinking wine glasses because everyone’s still here. We’ll be groaning from eating too much of Mum’s excellent Christmas pudding with plum sauce. We’ll time travel by phoning relatives who are still stuck in Christmas Eve when we’ve already started Christmas Day. We’ll play Christmas carols about snow and holly and reindeer and then we’ll put on our cozzies and go down to the beach and thank our lucky stars that we moved here.

Merry Christmas.


P.S. As you can see, I have a bit of an obsession with decorating office desks. They look so much nicer like this, don’t you think?!

Little slices of life


See this picture? My phone thinks it’s me. It filed the photo under “selfies”. I’ll admit
I don’t often take selfies, so perhaps it doesn’t know what I look like, but this is going a bit far! If Oliver Sacks were alive he could write a book and call it The Phone that Mistook its Owner for a Lamp. I’ll let you know if it thinks I look like any other inanimate objects. This could be an ongoing thing. Perhaps it’s trying to tell me something: lightbulb moment/shady/let your light shine. Feel free to add any other lame puns.

Life in the small, quiet, pretty house is humming along quietly, which suits me fine. There was a new arrival a couple of weeks ago…a working oven. Cue the fanfare. It’s been a while, so as soon as it was plugged in I started baking like a woman possessed. There was date cake with caramel icing. There were monte carlos. There was Persian love cake. There were coconut sugar cookies. There was gluten free bread that was, though I say so myself, a triumph. It sliced beautifully, was the right combination of crusty and soft, and toasted well.

I was planning to share the bread recipe, but when I made it again it came out looking like a mountain in Norway:

Can you tell the difference? Neither can I. I’ll experiment a bit more and post the recipe once I know it’s reliable.

Baking again has reminded me just how much people appreciate home-made food.
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth anymore, but I love the ritual of baking and sharing and it makes me happy that such a small gesture makes other people happy. My colleagues at work devoured everything I brought in. A friend bought me the book Sweet, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh, purely out of self-interest, she said. My mission is to bake my way through the book. I think there’ll be quite a few willing taste testers.

On another creative front, a while ago I said I was going to try to make myself some clothes. In fact, I think I said all my clothes. Progress has been slow. There’s been a lot of cutting out and pinning and tacking but no actual completions yet. As I cut out the latest project on the floor it occurred to me that this could be how the phrase “to cut a rug” originated:

img_3637.jpgOne thing I’ve learned already is that making your own clothes is time-consuming and sometimes tricky but it’s definitely MUCH cheaper than buying them. And it’s fun!

There’s also been a bit of sashiko stitching happening:

There’s been nodding and guffawing while listening to Russell Brand and Ruby Wax discuss meditation on Under the Skin. It’s probably the best discussion I’ve heard on why meditation works, in whatever form it takes for you: mindfulness, prayer, guided meditation, mantras, walking or focusing on the breath. Or baking and sewing! It’s certainly been my experience that being able to step back from your own thoughts is
life-changing, and the more you practise it, the more able you are to do it.

So there you have it: a little bit of what’s been going on here. There’s been just enough time to bake, make, observe and listen in between the busy parts. All those little slices of life: small yet so satisfying and very much enjoyed.