To the beach!

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You won’t find Woonona beach in any guidebook. It’s two kilometres of gently curving sand at the edge of a formerly working class suburb of Wollongong—which, like pretty much the whole of coastal Australia, has some beautiful beaches. In Wollongong you can walk for hours from beach to beach, along the sand or along walkways and cycle paths at the top of the beach if the tide’s in. Woonona, though, is my favourite.

In some ways it’s special because of its ordinariness. There’s something about it that reminds me of the beach in that excellent Edward Burns film No Looking Back. I love that film for its small town feel, its real-life characters and genuine emotions. It’s also got a brilliant cast: Edward Burns, Lauren Holly, Jon Bon Jovi, Blythe Danner. Their quiet desperation is played out by an always empty beach where the wind never stops blowing.

A period of quiet desperation in my life was spent walking along Woonona beach.  There’s nothing that a beach walk can’t solve. I’m a beach-in-winter kind of gal, and when I first moved to Woonona there were times when I had the whole crescent of it to myself. I remember walking on the hard sand at the water’s edge, watching the sunlight turn the waves a glassy green. There were silver backed gulls and huge pacific gulls wheeling above the breakers. Tiny hawks hovered over the vegetation in the dunes. Way out on the horizon the container ships lined up, waiting to unload at the port to the south. When the sun began to set it went down like blazing magnesium tape behind the escarpment.

The beach changed every day. I don’t know why, but that surprised me. It was as if the beach was a physical representation of what life was trying to teach me: there is always change. Sometimes the beach was strewn with dead cuttlefish, white and fleshy and rotting. Sometimes there were beautiful pebbles, worn smooth and glistening. I once found a grey pebble with a perfect circle of white quartz in it. One day the beach was full of sponges and someone put a bar of soap next to a sponge. That made me laugh out loud. When there was a king tide or a big storm the beach changed shape completely and after a while it was hard to remember what it had been like before.

I used to ask a lot of questions as I walked along Woonona beach. I was looking for answers, trying to see all the angles, hoping and wondering and praying. On one particularly memorable day I threw out a prayer that went like this: “Help. I need backup. I need a home.” The answer came, in the form of a phone message, as soon as I finished the beach walk. Like I said, there’s nothing a beach walk can’t solve.

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This week I went back to Woonona to visit a dear friend and to walk on the beach. We started at the northern end, near the saltwater pool where we’ve both done many laps in summer. This also happens to be the spot where, in 1770, Captain Cook and his crew were running low on water as they sailed up the coast in their “discovery” of Australia. They left the ship and set out in a small boat to look for water on land. But, according to Cook’s diary, there was “giant surf which beat everywhere upon the shore” and the little boat was leaking too much so they turned back.

The best part of this story was that there were four men from the local Dharawal tribe walking along the beach at the time, carrying a small canoe, and they pretended not to see Cook and co. Just imagine their conversation. They’re out on the beach, probably about to go fishing in a more secluded spot where the surf’s lower, when they see some really odd-looking creatures bobbing about in a strange type of canoe. “What is that?” “Whatever it is, I don’t like the look of it.” “What are they wearing?!” “Who goes out when the tide’s like that?!” “Just keep walking. Maybe they’ll go away.”

Dharawal is apparently also the original name of the trees that used to grow all across the region. We call them cabbage palms today because that’s what Banks called them when he first saw them, on that same trip when he and Cook tried to come ashore for water.  They do look a bit like cabbages on long sticks, but I wonder whether Banks actually named them that because he’d just had his dinner. Perhaps he’d had a meal of cabbage (to keep away the scurvy) and claret (because they were low on water) and that’s what his slightly inebriated imagination came up with.

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This picture of Cook sits on a plaque at the top of Woonona beach. I love the way that he looks resolute, so formal, while all the little photos that make up his image are of smiling, relaxed looking people.

As we walked along the beach this week my friend and I caught up on each other’s lives. We asked questions and nutted things out and looked at all the angles. The sand was cool and wet underfoot and the autumn air was surprisingly hot. At the end of the walk we rolled up our trousers and paddled in the sun-warmed water pooling by the rocks. It felt glorious, so we did it again. My friend commented on how good we were going to feel after walking and talking and paddling our feet. She was right. We did feel good. All our worries seemed smaller, left behind on Woonona beach for the tide to wash away.

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Autumn ramblings

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Canberra’s had her autumn party frock on for the past few weeks, and what a party it’s been. The region looks so pretty in its purple, red, orange and yellow glad rags. Every day I’ve watched the trees in my street becoming more beautiful. I’ve seen the first fogs of the season hanging over the Arboretum, where a whole forest of yellow sits alongside a forest of red, which sits alongside a forest of orange, which sits alongside…well, you get the picture. And talking of pictures, my plan was to drive around and take masses of autumnal photos to post here to brighten up your day. But all I’ve managed to take are a couple of shots of the view from my back garden.

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Autumn used to mean a slowing down, a time to make soup and bake, a time to be cosy inside or to stride out for a walk under a still blue sky and feel the cool but not yet cold air on your face. I don’t know what’s happened, but there doesn’t seem to have been much slowing down so far this year. Are you finding that too? I was planning to write a post last week about the value of time but I didn’t have time to write it!

I did manage a walk, though, a long, delightful ramble up a nearby hill. I’ve been meaning to walk up that hill for ages. I tried to walk up it a few months ago but couldn’t find the beginning of the path. I thought I could cut across a golf course and end up at the bottom of the hill, but all I found was a fence. There didn’t seem to be an opening. Months later, I noticed someone else walking that way and he didn’t come back, so I decided there MUST be an opening in the fence somewhere. I went and looked again and realised that I’d missed it the first time because I’d been approaching it from the wrong angle. I just didn’t see it. And if that ain’t a metaphor for life, I don’t know what is!

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So off I went, up the hill. It felt so good to huff and puff a bit, to stretch the muscles and the lungs and the imagination. It felt good to take the winding path, the long view, to look out beyond the ‘burbs to the Brindabellas stretching away into the never-never. I met some friendly cows. I looked at interesting grasses and seed pods and rocks. When I got to the top of the hill, two wedge-tailed eagles appeared out of nowhere and circled above me in the blue, blue sky. It was a magic moment.

And what struck me the most as I stood at the top and looked out was that it was only the first hill. The path kept going. There were more hills to climb, more winding paths to follow, more views to see. I didn’t keep going that day; I walked home happy and made a cup of tea. But those trails are still there, waiting to lead to the next adventure. Who knows what’s around the corner? Happy autumn ramblings to you!

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Firgun!

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Here’s an excellent word for you: firgun. No, I didn’t just swear at you! It’s a Hebrew word and we all should use it, or at least we should embrace the sentiment. It means the exact opposite of schadenfreude—something I confess I’m guilty of indulging in a bit too often. Firgun means to take pleasure in someone else’s good fortune, to be delighted when something good happens for someone else. Isn’t that lovely?

My boss came out of her office this afternoon and announced that she’d learnt a new word from this article in The Guardian. We all got quite excited (it was a slow day) and had a long discussion about how to pronounce it and what its origins were. We discovered that there’s even an International Firgun Day, on 17 July. That’s gone in the diary, in capital letters.

Then we found this: the Firgunator. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard. Not at work, anyway. You type in a name and it generates hilarious random compliments. Here’s one I just got:

You’re smarter than google and Mary Poppins combined. No matter what size your shoes are, no one can fill them.

Have a go. If you’re feeling a bit blah or you’ve had a hard day and you need a bit of ridiculous fun, go forth and firgunate! And next time someone tells you a bit of good news, don’t feel jealousy or self-pity; give them a big smile and say, “Firgun!”

P.S. As far as I know, the word has absolutely nothing to do with Chinese New Year; I just used that photo because it’s playful and happy and that’s how saying, “Firgun!” makes you feel!

Material world

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I had a great idea the other day: to make all my own clothes for the rest of the year. How fun would that be?! When I had this (cough) genius idea I happened to be in a town with a great little fabric shop, so I ran down there and oohed and aahed over the range of materials. I was rich in ideas but poor in cash, so I ended up buying only a couple of metres of a really pretty blue fabric to make a dress out of. The shop also sold sashiko fabric by the metre, not just in little kits, so I got hugely excited and bought a couple of panels of that too. Then I left the material in the back of the car for two days.

My track record in sewing is not great (you can read about the terry-towelling bikini here: Stash) but I did manage to make a wearable dress over summer. Now that I’ve calmed down—and remembered to get the material out of the car—I’ve realised that I don’t have the time or skill to make all my own clothes. I was even going to try to make underwear. I still might have a go at that, but s-l-o-w-l-y does it!

I’ve been inspired by people’s participation in the 100 Day Project, which is encouraging folk everywhere to make art every day, even if they think they’re no good at it. So many people are actually very good at it, as it turns out. I don’t want to make art at the moment; I want to make things I can use and wear. I’m weary of traipsing around the shops, looking for clothes that fit, that are the right colour and that aren’t too expensive but aren’t made in sweatshops either. To be honest, it’s a struggle. I’m tall. I have middle age spread. I like wearing natural fibres. It’s hard to find clothes in breathable fabrics and styles that enhance the good bits and hide the not so good bits.

A colleague at work is always beautifully dressed. She’s middle-aged and rounded. She wears simple dresses and skirt/top combos but she always looks good because they fit her properly and the materials are gorgeous. I asked her where she gets her clothes. She told me she goes to a well-known material and craft store chain, buys quality fabric in bulk and takes it to a dressmaker. “What a good idea,” I thought, “but why not be your own dressmaker?”

As usual, my aspirations have exceeded my abilities and the time I have available, but getting things out of cupboards and out of the car is a start. I’ve cut out a shirt with sleeves (Impressed? I am! Also scared!) and I’ve found two half-knitted socks from last winter that will be finished this winter. I’ve also decided which patterns to use. I’m making this shirt: Aster, by Colette Patterns. And this one: Sorbetto. Then I’m making a dress, a long coat and some trousers from Everyday Style, which I know I’ve raved about before, but it’s a lovely book. If I’m not curled up in a ball on the floor at the end of all that, I’ll have a go at a dressing gown.

Pictures of successes will be posted here…eventually. Failures may also be displayed to make you laugh. If you can recommend any fab patterns and materials, do let me know! If you’re not already making art or sewing or baking marvellous creations but you’d like to be, go and get started! Or at least start getting things out of the cupboard.

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Something beginning with P

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This is a post about food, not poppies, but my pictures of the cookbooks I’m about to tell you about were sooooo bad that I had to use a picture of poppies instead. Poppies grow in the region we’re going to visit in this post, so I’m only cheating a little bit. Do you know this cookbook: Persepolis: Vegetarian recipes from Peckham, Persia and beyond? Oh boy, I adore this book! I would so love to sit down and have a cuppa with its author, Sally Butcher. I suspect she’d make me laugh so hard that I’d snort tea out of my nose. It’s a collection of vegetarian recipes spanning North Africa and Central Asia, written in a chatty, funny style. It’s also hugely informative about the places the recipes come from. Did you know, for example, that meze comes from the Persian word meaning taste? No, neither did I.

For a couple of years I had an on/off (mostly off) Persian boyfriend. He’d lived in Australia for most of his life but his love for Persian food had not diminished. Before I met him I knew precisely nothing about Persian food, but hearing him talk about it made me go and research it and I became a little obsessed. I was lucky enough to stumble upon this book: Persiana, by Sabrina Ghayour. Mr On/Off had been talking about fesenjan, which is a kind of chicken, walnut and pomegranate stew. That was the first dish I cooked from the book and oh!my!goodness! it was a revelation.

If, like me, you have a bottle of pomegranate molasses in the cupboard that you bought because it sounded exciting but now you don’t know what to do with it, go and make fesenjan. I’m impatient, so I didn’t cook it for as long as Sabrina says to, but it was still mouth-wateringly marvellous. It’s piquant and silky and satisfying. Another recipe from Persiana that I’ve made over and over again is joojeh kabab: saffron and lemon chicken. It’s super easy and completely delicious. You marinate chicken in a yoghurt/lemony/saffron mix then blast it in the oven until the edges char. People wolf it down.

A further recent find in the bookshop was this: Mountain Berries and Desert Spice, by Sumayya Usmani. It’s a collection of Pakistani desserts, which, I’ve discovered, basically contain everything I like in a dessert: cardamom, rice, nuts, dried fruit, rose syrup, berries, soft cheese and that magic ingredient that makes everything in the world seem all right…condensed milk.

So far I’ve made apple halva (like stewed apple but more buttery and fragrant), ground almond and saffron ladoos (a condensed milk treat), and carrot rice pudding (so delicious for breakfast AND it contains vegetables so it must be good for you). The book is laid out according to the regions of Pakistan and the author weaves her personal story into it. It’s beautifully photographed and a pleasure to read. That pleasure increases once you start making and eating the gorgeous sweetmeats.

But back to Persepolis, which I like so much that I could eat the book. Yesterday I cooked a thankyou lunch for a friend, with all courses from Persepolis. We started with pan-fried haloumi with honey and sesame seeds. (Have you tried haloumi with honey? No? Go and make it now. Salty and sweet. So good.) Then we had Somali curry (with peanut butter, chilli and coffee—who knew?!) with tomatoey rice, which had lovely crispy bits on the bottom. We finished with ice-cream made with saffron, coconut milk, coconut sugar and cream, topped with date syrup. The coconut sugar and date syrup were my additions, because that’s what I had, and they gave it a wonderful carameliciousness.

So if you’re wondering what to cook for dinner this week, may I suggest something beginning with P?

Not baking

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People, we have a situation. My oven is broken. Actually, it’s more than a situation. It’s A MAJOR INCIDENT. I love baking. I find it relaxing. I’ve never been a science nerd, but baking is a science I can really appreciate. You mix wet and dry ingredients in carefully measured amounts, apply heat and…something wonderful emerges. Now that I’m home for good, I’ve been looking forward to doing some serious baking. It turns out that my friends have also been looking forward to it. Two weekends ago a friend said to me, “I’m so glad you’re back. I’ve missed the baking.” This weekend another friend came over for morning tea, and when I told her my oven was broken she expressed genuine angst. Then I fed her cheesecake instead and she felt better.

Cheesecake has turned out to be my rescue recipe in these days of no baking. I started a new job two weeks ago and I was under pressure to bring in a cake because I said I would when they interviewed me. The interview question was something like: “What would you do to break the ice with your colleagues?” and I said I’d bring in a cake. All three interviewers broke into smiles and started writing something down. I imagined it said, “Will bring cake. Employ immediately.”

So the pressure was on. I had in mind some kind of lemon drizzle cake to win friends and influence people. I thought perhaps I’d make a lemon cake with—gasp!—mashed potato in the mixture. I imagined something light and tangy with a satisfying sugary crunch to the icing. I bought the ingredients, came home and, uncharacteristically, turned the oven on before I started mixing things. I put my hand in to check the temperature and a cool breeze blew over it. The oven was blowing cold air. Disaster! But then, baking gods be thanked, I remembered cheesecake. I did much recipe surfing and tweaking to get exactly what I wanted. There’s a deluxe version, with lemon curd on top, or a plain (but still incredibly rich version). It contains the five most important food groups: biscuits, butter, white chocolate, cream cheese and lemon, so we will all get a calcium/protein/carb boost from eating it. Also, no-one will die of scurvy. Here’s the recipe, me hearties:

Lemon cheesecake

Base:

  • 150g biscuits/cookies (Choose whatever biscuits you like. I used gluten free choc chip cookies.)
  • 50g desiccated coconut
  • 80g melted butter

Cheesy part:

  • 100g white chocolate
  • 500g cream cheese
  • 1 can (395g) condensed milk
  • 2 lemons

Lemon curd topping (for deluxe version):

  • 60g butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 lemons

Crush biscuits in a blender until they’re fine crumbs (or put them in a sturdy plastic bag and bash them with a rolling pin if you need to get rid of some aggression). Mix them in a bowl with the coconut, then pour in the melted butter and mix to combine. Press the mixture firmly into a greased dish. I used a 21cm pyrex dish, which made kind of a cheesecake slice. You can also use a 21cm spring-form baking tin for a more traditional looking cheesecake. Put the base in the fridge while you make the cheesy bit.

Melt the white chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Try not to get any water in the bowl or the chocolate will seize. Once it’s melted, take the bowl off the pan and let it cool. You can sit it in a basin of cold water to hurry it up. In another bowl, beat the cream cheese and condensed milk. Add the juice and zest of the lemons. Mix it well so that no lumps remain. (But, really, little lumps are okay. See picture above. No-one minds.) Add the cooled white chocolate and mix it in well. Pour the mixture on top of the base and put it back in the fridge, covered. If you’re making the plain and simple version, your work is done. Leave it to set for at least four hours, unless you don’t mind slightly soft cheesecake.

For the deluxe version, make the lemon curd by whisking the eggs with the sugar, juice and zest of the lemons in a small saucepan (non-stick is best). Add the butter and heat the pan slowly, stirring all the time. Keep stirring until the mixture thickens. It takes about 10 minutes. Pour the thickened lemon curd through a sieve while it’s still warm, to get rid of any egg white lumps that may have formed. Let the lemon curd cool then spread as much as you like on top of the cheesecake. Put the cheesecake back in the fridge if you haven’t let it set yet. Otherwise, slice and eat as soon as you feel like it!

 

The week of last things

 

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For the past two years, out of necessity, I worked in Sydney but I didn’t live there. Like several of my colleagues I commuted a long way and cobbled together various overnight arrangements that included sleeping in the office (seriously, we did that a lot), sleeping on a friend’s sofabed and, when I was desperate for a good night’s sleep, checking into a hotel. Sometimes the hotel option was a flop because I booked somewhere with thin walls, noisy aircon and road works outside, but just occasionally it paid off, like the time I booked into a grand hotel for a fraction of the normal price and they upgraded me to a room with this view. I could have stayed there for the rest of my life!

This week that all came to an end. It was my last week of intercity commuting. To say I was relieved is the understatement of the century. In fact, the minute I got home I threw down my bag and did a little dance like this one in Love Actually, when Sarah and Karl finally get together. But before that happened I said goodbye to a few experiences that have been pretty constant in my strange life of the past two years. Here, in no particular order, are the highlights from the week of last things:

The last time I said, “Good morning!” to Il Porcellino, the most excellent bronze sculpture who sits outside Sydney Hospital. He really is a fine fellow. People rub his snout for good luck. I once saw a Chinese businessman rub his wallet on Porcellino’s…er…pizzle, so I guess that brings extra good luck.

The last time I will get caught out by Sydney weather. Finally—finally—I’ve learned that when the forecast says cloudy it means torrential rain that will make your shoes fall apart and soak every piece of clothing, despite your valiant attempts to deploy an umbrella.

The last breakfast at Dymocks café, a genteel place on the balcony above the bookshop, where you can eat a superb omelette, watch people browse bookshelves and almost (but not quite) drown out the sound of jackhammers outside.

The last breakfast at Metro St James. (This is starting to sound as if all I did for the past two years was go out for breakfast, but that’s because we worked long hours without a break, so pretty much the only time I saw the outside world was at breakfast time.) I liked that place so much, not least because of its hanging plants, astroturf and view of an enormous fig tree. I also liked its mysterious jars of ferns and primordial slime.

Are they anaerobic terrariums? Beats me. Anyway, I enjoyed sitting in a corner next to them, reading my book and listening to great music (sometimes ’60s lounge music, sometimes reggae, sometimes funk, and often songs I’d never heard but instantly liked), while I ate a very good breakfast. AND they have Pepe Saya butter. Really, all my needs were met.

The last week of working in a building with wallpaper. I loved this wallpaper:

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In fact, I’m pretty sure the wallpaper was one of the reasons I took the job. It certainly made working there more bearable. There were other architectural and decorative features that I liked, but this wallpaper was my favourite. One of the perks of working in a heritage building is that you get to experience history while you work: sandstone steps worn down by two centuries of shoes, quirky staircases that no-one in this health-and-safety conscious world would ever dream of putting in a workplace, a tin roof that leaks no matter how often it’s mended, and leadlight windows that so many people have looked at and admired. And then there are the ghosts. I never saw the ghosts. In all the nights I stayed at work I saw only cockroaches, but there was a lot of unexplained creaking of floorboards, and two of my colleagues who slept in the oldest part of the building swore they’d seen the ghosts. I don’t doubt it. I kind of wish I’d got to see them too.

And finally, when the ridiculous work hours, the long-distance commute, the odd sleeping arrangements and the exhaustion were over for good, I went to the Tea Room in the Queen Victoria Building and had the most splendiferous high tea with a friend. Sydney, for all its noise and brashness and crazy busy-ness, does have some jaw-droppingly beautiful buildings and the QVB is one of them. It was a grand, lovely, civilised end to two very unusual years and the week of last things.

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Golden brown

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When you live inland, summer in Australia is many shades of brown. People from the coast come to visit and the first thing they say is, “It’s so brown!” I like to think of it as golden brown, like the grass in the photo above, which was surely spun into gold overnight by Rumpelstiltskin. This week I went even further inland on a work trip, to an area where so much food is grown in soil that from the air looks dry, brown and unproductive.

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They add water, brown water, and end up with rice, citrus fruit and pretty much every crop you can think of. It’s hard work. I heard farmers talk with equal amounts of passion and exhaustion about how they look after their brown land, about how frustrated they are at the rules that people in government departments in green cities make up to apply to them, out beyond the Great Divide, where life is completely different. For a mad moment, sitting in my brown motel room, I channelled Chairman Mao and thought up a plan to make everyone from the well-watered cities come out to visit the country to experience life on the brown land. Then they would have an idea of how much work it takes to feed us.

It’s not all hard work, though. There’s fun to be had in the golden brown paddocks. And there’s quirky brown metal art to prove it.

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There are crazy motel carpets celebrating the history of farming and stock work, in tones of golden brown, of course.

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And all I can really say, now that I’m back in my little house made of brown seventies brick, in an inland city that’s well stocked with everything it needs, is thank you. Thank you to everyone who lives on the land and spins straw into gold to feed us and to keep the economy afloat. It’s official: farmers are really doing that. So, thank you. We really appreciate it and we don’t say that often enough.

Musings of a mosquito magnet

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Psst! Wanna join a club? It’s pretty exclusive. Apparently only 20 per cent of people belong to it, although the science on that is a bit iffy, if you ask me. It’s the Mozzie Magnet Club. You’ve seen us. We’re the people scratching our ankles at the evening barbecue, especially if we’re anywhere near a pond or a dam. You might have noticed us doing a special dance when we water the garden at dusk, kicking our legs out and slapping our arms in some crazed version of a Bavarian folk dance.

This morning I was lying in bed, enjoying the fact that it was Saturday, when suddenly it began to rain and I had to run outside and rescue the washing. I spent less than five minutes outdoors and I was in constant motion, but when I got back into bed I had a mozzie bite on my thigh. Please note: I was not standing naked in the garden while I did the unpegging. I was wearing two layers of clothes. How the heck did the mozzie bite through all that fabric? Unless it went via a different route, but let’s not talk about that. This got me thinking: why are some of us the chosen ones? So I did some research and here’s what I found.

Mozzies mainly bite people with type O blood. WRONG! I don’t have type O.

Mozzies bite people who drink beer. WRONG! I don’t drink beer. Pass the bubbly, dahling.

Mozzies bite pregnant women. WRONG! A male friend of mine gets bitten as often as I do and he’s definitely not up the duff.

Mozzies bite larger people because they breathe out more carbon dioxide. Well, how rude! I’m a tall person and will admit to gaining a few kilos in the past few years (middle-age spread, anyone?) but mozzies have bitten me my whole life. When I was about 12 my parents took us to Amsterdam. We stayed in a hotel with tall windows that looked out over a canal. It was only the second hotel I’d ever stayed in and I thought it was beautiful. The breakfasts were a revelation because—shock, horror!—they had ham and cheese and crispbread instead of Weetbix. One night we went out looking for a hidden church that happened to be in the red light district. We walked past a lot of women in their underwear, sitting in windows and waiting for customers. My sister (aged 7): “Daddy, why doesn’t that lady have any clothes on?” Dad (fiddling with guidebook and looking embarrassed): “It’s supposed to be around here somewhere.” Anyway, the point of this story is that I was bitten to death and my parents remained untouched.

Mozzies are attracted to people with higher body temperatures. Guilty on that score. I’m hot. (Insert winking, tongue-in-cheek emoticon here.)

Mozzies see dark colours better, so if you wear black you’re more of a target. Sorry, but that seems terribly unscientific. Are you telling me that people who wear black suits to work get bitten but then when they change into their pink tutu for ballet class they don’t? Are there hordes of goths all over the world scratching their ankles right this minute? Do grieving nonnas get bitten more? That seems very unfair.

Mozzies like skin that has a few types of bacteria rather than many types. Eeuw. And yet, perhaps it’s better to be exclusive and have only a few types of bacteria on your skin instead of hosting any old bacteria that shows up. I really don’t know how many I’m hosting right now and I really don’t want to know, but I’d prefer not to be a bacteria slut.

Underlying genetic factors are probably the main reason some people get bitten more than others. Aha! There we have it. All of the above are the fun theories and the real answer is: we don’t know.

Many years ago I went on holiday to Venice with a friend. We had dinner one night in a restaurant by the lagoon, and it was memorable for two reasons. The first was the pizza. It was the best quattro stagioni I ever had. I still dream about that pizza. The second was the mosquitoes. It was a balmy night and the water lapped softly nearby. In the lamplight I watched mosquitoes line themselves up like planes coming into land, just over my friend’s shoulder. And one by one they flew straight past her black clothes, her beer, her O type blood, her slightly sweaty upper lip, and bit me. Like I said, it’s an exclusive club. I guess we should be flattered.

 

Slow train to Crazy Town

 

 

rainy-train

Lordy, this was a big week. There was a nerve-wracking job interview, there was an eye-watering tax bill, I spent 8.5 hours on a train to attend a 1.5-hour meeting in Sydney, where I was drenched twice by monsoonal rain, and now we’re experiencing the mother of all heatwaves. I’ve been moping around in a state of grumpy exhaustion today, not achieving much at all, so I decided to think about the small, quiet, pretty things from this week instead.

The first one was that slow train ride to Crazy Town (Sydney). I could have caught the bus and saved, oh, 45 minutes in the day, but I love the way the train sits in the landscape, travels through it rather than next to it. It was a blessedly cool, rainy day and I had two seats to myself. The train is only three carriages long: A, B and D. Why there’s never a carriage C is a mystery I haven’t cracked yet. The train often malfunctions (doors won’t shut, toilets block, aircon breaks down) but it’s staffed by a small crew of lovely people who are unfailingly nice.

As we trundled along, a common topic of conversation was why there isn’t a fast train yet, when the government’s been talking about it for decades. But, you know, if the train went faster we wouldn’t see the mob of kangaroos splashing through streams in a gully. We wouldn’t see the sunlight catch the bleached grass seeds on the top of the embankment. We wouldn’t notice that black cows run away from the train but brown cows don’t. (Not scientifically proven but definitely observed!) There’s something about the landscape of the southern tablelands that sings to me and makes me so glad that I live there.

Sydney was as busy and noisy as ever. Even the weather was ostentatious. The rain was coming from all directions and there was no way of keeping dry, so I sat dripping in a café and drank chai and ate the best masala dosa in the known universe and felt that I could be in actual India in the actual monsoon.

masala-dosa

Every time I’m in Sydney I try to meet my friend Ian at the Maya Vegetarian on Cleveland Street. We always say next time we’ll try something else from the menu but we never can. The dosa is too good. The slightly fermented taste of the crispy pancake, the chilli in the potato/lentil filling and the three sauces—bitter, hot and cool—are a winning combination. The desserts are lip-smacking as well. Besan burfi, loaded with cardamom and pistachios, is my favourite. I’d show you a picture but it didn’t stick around long enough to be photographed.

Another small thing that I’m grateful for this week is this book:

patti

I really think books find you at the right time. This is exactly the book I needed to read this week. It’s been wonderful accompanying Patti Smith while she sits in cafés and writes and thinks about life. She lets you into her brain and makes you laugh out loud at some of her thoughts.

A pretty thing appeared unexpectedly in the garden this week:

lily

This pale pink lily decided to bloom while everything else wilted and got sunburnt, which just goes to show there’s always an up side if you look for it.

And back to that slow train. On the long trip home I listened to random songs, tracks from old CDs I hadn’t heard for years. It was so good to have the time to sit and really listen. As Paul Weller sang “Broken Stones” I noticed what a beautiful soul voice he has, and I reminisced about when I was a teenager, when I was in love with The Jam. I listened to French pop and Indian dance music and imagined dancing down the aisle of the train and getting all the other passengers to join me. Then the Eagles sang “Take it easy” and I thought how right they were. When the week is overwhelming and you’re stuck on the slow train to Crazy Town you still have a choice:

Take it easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand, and take it easy.

Cheesy, but true. Have a good weekend. If you live in the heatwave zone, stay cool. In fact, stay cool anyway, wherever you live.