Pandemic Panic

We moved into our new house the week after Australia joined the Pandemic Panic. For days leading up to it, my own sense of panic arose, not from the fear of an invisible, insidious virus, but from the fear that we wouldn’t be allowed to move; that the Australian government, like so many of those in Europe, would clamp down and demand total isolation; that we would be held captive in our temporary townhouse, our life already in boxes, lined up in the garage for ease of loading into the removal truck.

Day by day, the rules changed. Gatherings of twenty… gatherings of ten… immediate family… two. Loo roll had disappeared from every supermarket (some cretinous, selfish, chancers had been hoarding – one individual had secreted 5,400 toilet rolls and 150 bottles of hand sanitiser and attempted to sell them online. No luck there, so he went back to the supermarket and tried to return them for cash. Go Directly To Jail. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect £200.)

I felt as if I had been holding my breath for days when Cliff finally showed up with his van and cheerfully started to load our belongings. As we jumped in the car to follow the truck south, the conveyancer rang, and my heart leaped into my throat. Something had gone wrong at the bank. The money had not been transferred. We had no new house.

‘Congratulations. All’s clear. You are now the proud owners of a new home.’ I didn’t know whether I wanted to slug her for frightening me half to death or hug her tightly and cover her with kisses. Of course, I could do neither. Social distancing and all that. So, I just shrieked into the phone. I guess her eardrums are still ringing, so job done. Revenge taken.

Since then, we have passed two months in self-inflicted social isolation. Well, government inflicted, but it seemed only sensible. So, we have stayed away. Mostly. Living an hour south of the city makes that easier. Occasional family sightings prevent total madness. And we are used to communicating by phone after years abroad. I considered taking up letter writing again.

Months of urgency to get our lives in order have settled into monochrome days of tea-and-coffee-lunch-walk-dinner-movie. We vary it with painting a wall, hanging a picture, setting up a compost bin, planting some lavender. None of it is urgent and only habit gets us out of bed in the morning. Who would care if we stayed put? Had our breakfast in bed? Whiled away the day immersed in a pile of books, a sandwich beneath the covers, an afternoon nap? We could be like Charlie Bucket’s grandparents, Grandpa Jo and Grandma Josephine.

I watch the news, but irregularly. Death rates rise, whether I follow the figures or not. Yet they don’t seem nearly as high as many predicted, so perhaps we are doing the right thing. And there is loo roll in the supermarket again.

Our kids are fine, I think. We get regular updates by text or phone and the odd appearance. The streets are quiet but we smile and wave to people on the beach, admire their dogs, grab a pie from the bakery. I chat to every magpie we pass, nod to the kangaroos. The One & Only is trying to keep the pigeons away, showing a marked preference for the cockatoos. Our vision has narrowed, but in an unexpectedly good way. There could be worse places to live out this weird new war.

Meanwhile, I am in contact with a million long-lost friends quarantined around the globe. I text Melbourne. Call London. Skype Manila. Send a Facebook message to Luxembourg. Sometimes it feels as if this suspension of time will go on forever. Then I must stop thinking too much or the panic starts to rise again.

And yet, things are loosening up already. There hasn’t been a new dose of corona virus in three weeks, and the state government has decided its fine to travel regionally now. The numbers on the beach have doubled, there are queues at the local diner – admittedly well spaced – for take-aways. This morning, there were even two indoor tables set for customers. Cellar doors are open even if they can’t let us taste the wine, but word is out that this will change soon, too. Life is returning to normal. Whatever normal is. Fingers crossed it lasts.

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N’oubliez pas Paris

Whenever I go to Paris, I arrive in a different season, stay in a different arrondissement. It means I get to know another part of the city each time I visit, but it also dislocates my usually infallible internal compass. Every time I go to Paris, I feel as if I have landed in a new city and cannot seem to fix the bigger picture in my head. And strangely, every trip to Paris seems to be accompanied by some minor disaster. Yet, despite those challenging moments, and my own inclination to despise this excessively eulogized, pampered and opulent city, I follow it’s siren call again and again…

The first time I see Paris is in July 1984, just after the Chernobyl disaster. I am only nineteen, reluctantly boarding a coach with a girlfriend, one of only a handful of coaches braving the nuclear wasteland of Europe this summer. Thousands of North Americans have cancelled. Our coach is a mishmash of left-overs. We tear through seventeen countries in seven days, or maybe it’s seventeen days, seven countries. Either way, it remains a blur. A cute Italian bus driver, a couple of very cool South American girls in their early twenties, an older couple from Canada who kept complaining: the food (‘Where is McDonalds when you need it?’); the water (‘I have to clean my teeth with pop’); the time (‘Oh, were you waiting for us again?’). Paris? I have no memories, just a group photo under the Eiffel Tower.

It’s 1991. I backpack into Paris in early September with my boyfriend, arriving at dawn on an overnight train from Vienna. We have booked beds at a youth hostel in the 1st arrondissement, a stone’s throw from the Seine, in Rue du Pélican, but we are locked out between 9am and 5pm. We ditch our luggage and spend the day drifting through the city: Notre Dame and Le Palais Luxembourg; the Botanic Gardens and the Pantheon; the Louvre and its latest attraction, the amazing glass pyramid; through the Tuilleries and the promise of an Impressionist exhibition at l’Orangerie, down the Champs Elysée and across Le Pont Alexandre III to the Eiffel Tower. I love the broad, tree-lined boulevards, the generous open spaces, the cleanliness, the distinctively duplicated Hausmann buildings. I am irritated that many parks lack lawn, boasting only dirt or gravel, and those that are blessed with lawn are covered in signs forbidding us to sit on them.

Two days of autumn rain descend, and we move inside. I fall in love with the Orangerie, the Musee D’Orsay, Monet’s water lilies and Degas’ ballerinas. We trudge to Le Pere Lachaise Cemetery, to find Jim Morrison’s grave drenched in flowers and graffiti. We take sandwiches to Montmartre, eat them on the steps of Sacré-Cœur, and buy prints of wet and wintry Parisian scenes as souvenirs.

Fast forward fifteen years to February 2006. We are about to leave our home in the UK, return to Australia. I have been aching to take the Eurostar, – it practically ran past our back door – so we decide to have one final fling in Paris. The One & Only has booked a quaint hotel in Montmartre, the 18th arrondissement. We kennel the kids with friends for the weekend. We plan to make an early start, so we can lunch in Paris – except I forget my passport and we have to turn back at Ashford. We chew through soggy toasted cheese sandwiches on a later train, and don’t reach the Gare du Nord until mid afternoon. Dragging our cases over the roughly cobbled streets of Montmartre, we marvel at the bouquet of picturesque patisseries, boulangeries, charcuteries, épiciers verts… only to find there has been a flood, our room is indisponible. Our first attempt to relocate finds us in a room only two inches larger than the bed, in a hotel where the police are in the middle of a drug raid. A second option has a miniature lift like a birdcage, and a non-smoking room scented heavily with cigarette smoke. The deliciously gay receptionist allows me behind the bar to make a restorative G&T, while he rings around neighbouring hotels. I joke softly to the One & Only that he will have no chance of seeing my new lingerie at this rate. Pierre overhears: he calls another hotel and asks for la chambre la plus magnifique avec le plus grand lit.  He hasn’t realized I speak French until I start giggling. He turns pink as a peony.

The weekend is salvaged with a sumptuous room above the Gare du Nord, an equally sumptuous dinner in the hotel restaurant, and a red rose from mon amour, which more than makes up for the half day we lost rescuing passports and finding a room.

Two months later, we fulfil another promise and take the kids to Paris Disney for Easter. After a full weekend of dipping and plunging, whirling and whooping, I drive for hours around the city ring road through rush hour traffic, so I can introduce them to Paris proper. This time there is a train strike and the hotel can no longer accommodate us, as no one has been able to leave. I have no idea where we end up: somewhere on the western fringes of the city, I think. It is a grubby wasteland, culturally sterile, complete with a long, dreary Metro ride to the city centre. For two windy days, I drag three grumpy, unimpressed kids through the city, trying to find something to interest them. As we clamber up the Eiffel Tower, icy winds roar around us, threatening to dislodge us and fling us into the river.  In less than thirty seconds, we clump back down and buy four thick windcheaters at inflated prices from a stall at the bottom, so we can defrost. We drive south the next day with a sigh of relief.

Another decade, another trip to Paris. Now it’s July 2016. I catch a train from Lyon and pop in to stay with friends in their glorious nineteenth century apartment in the 9th arrondissement and discover yet another nook of the city I don’t know. My friend and I lose ourselves for hours among the ganglion of  narrow cobbled lanes on the west bank. We discover Le Maison de Victor Hugo, and the Vignes du Clos, where we pause for a glass of wine at a tiny pavement café. 

Six months later and we are living in Luxembourg, five minutes walk from the station. I itch to take a train south to Paris. Sadly, northern Europe frowns on spontaneity and, despite the mid-winter jitters, last-minute tickets are exorbitant. So, we drive instead, and park under l’Opera. From our window beneath the eaves of the Saint Petersburg Hotel, we watch the snow drift lightly over the rooftops. It bears no resemblance to the area I stayed in last summer. We stroll briskly through chilly, grey streets, past chilly grey Parisians;  the wind pelting up behind us and knocking us sideways. We meet up with old friends we haven’t seen in twenty years and discover, amongst myriad antique shops, a heavenly little café tucked away in an ivy covered courtyard, where we indulge in coffee and cake.

On our last trip (for now) we catch the train from Luxembourg to Paris for the first day of the French Open. It’s only a two-hour sprint on the rocket-fuelled TGV. We stay in the 16th arrondissement, so we can walk to Le Stade De Roland Garros, skirting round the Bois de Bolougne – a place I have only read about in novels. The room is too small to swing a cockroach, and the bed falls apart as I sit down to lace up my walking boots. But we find a new view of the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero, where we gaze across the Seine to the more famous brother of the electricity tower. I practise my French and prove yet again that the Parisians aren’t impressed with me or my attempts to converse in their piffy paffy language (my grandfather’s word.)

We spend a day melting in the sun at the tennis and dine on the riverbank, a cool evening breeze whispering in our ears.

We discover the Canal Saint-Martin, where tree lined roads accompany it down to the Seine. In the 19th century, half its length was covered over to create wide boulevards and public spaces above, and we meander joyfully to the Gare de l’Est where we meet our train back to Luxembourg.

Farewell Paris. We won’t forget you.

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Thailand: First Impressions

So, it’s 1994.  We have just landed in Thailand, amid the chaos of Bangkok traffic, pollution, and humidity thick as golden syrup, heavy as a winter duvet. I have never been to South East Asia before. I am overwhelmed by the noise, the smell, the heat, the sights. It’s a sensual overload for which I wasn’t prepared.

Traffic here is as bad as we were warned – worse. A far cry from the orderly, symmetrical streets of Adelaide. I have yet to be involved in a real Bangkok traffic jam, though I’ve been regaled with many unlikely tales of beer stocked in the boot to lighten the mood of a three-hour car journey to travel a measly three kilometres. (Little could I know that a year later I would be sitting behind the steering wheel,  knee deep in mopeds at a gridlocked crossroads,  trying to breastfeed my bellowing baby, while my gobsmacked guest sits anxiously by my side, waiting to change gears on the off chance we ever start to move.)

I am in wide-eyed awe of the driving here: kamikaze motorbikes dodge and weave between battered old taxis, scoot up onto the footpaths, unfastened helmets perched atop their heads like storks nests; gloating new BMWs and Jags, the shiny toys of the rich kids, play dodgems with millimetres to spare; tuk-tuks duck round buses that snort out black smoke like angry dragons; swaying elephants lumber down the inside lane, their poor padded feet scorched by the burning asphalt. Rules? To hell with those. I am advised to keep my eyes forward, let the guy behind worry about my rear. 

(This blinkered approach, I will soon learn, is the only way to drive safely through the streets of this mad city. In these early days, cocooned in an air-conditioned car with a practised local driver at the wheel, removed from the immediacy of smog and cloying heat, it is like watching a life-sized video game through the window. Soon enough I will come to know the joys of zipping round the city in the back of a tuk-tuk, always a hair’s breadth from being tumbled into the gutter, a couple of pounds of rusty metal and a lawn mower engine all that lies between us and certain death.)

I long for the icy wind-tunnel that is the passage at my parent’s house in the winter. Ironically, it is only now, immersed in air conditioning 24-hours a day, that my daughter and I have heavy colds. 

It is the rainy season here and the rain comes like clockwork. An hour-long deluge at 3pm that floods the roads and fills the drains to overflowing, while the sky puts on a fireworks display of thunder and lightning. Maids struggle home with their bags on their heads, wading down the back lanes through filthy, waist-high water, armloads of electric cables looping heavily from teetering poles, dipping down to meet the rising tide. I anticipate disaster when the two finally collide, but so far, so good. Every storm dislodges a few more paving stones on the rough-and-ready footpaths. On Sukuhumvit, an elderly blind man trips and falls on the uneven sidewalk, and I am the only one to rush forward and lift him up, attempt to tend to the deep graze on his shin. He waves me away and sits on the step, wailing. I return his stick and he hobbles off, still wailing. No one takes a scrap of notice. A pile of bricks against the wall would suggest someone started on repairs, but lost interest. Thai time is like Fiji time, it seems. No rush. Hasta manana, or better still, hasta la vista. (In modern Aussie parlance. ‘Laters.’)  

There is poverty here, patently obvious, in-your-face, poverty, that squats by the side of the road, staring through dull eyes, in sharp contrast to the rising middle class, the dazzling wealth at the top of the tree. Strolling through the bright new shopping malls, overflowing with replicas of every American clothing store, Asian supermarket, tourist trap and popular chain food restaurant, it is easy to turn a blind eye for a moment or two. Put one foot out into the street and it slaps you in the face like a wet flannel. A one-armed beggar, a clutch of grubby children in ill-assorted t-shirts scavenging for food, a makeshift stall selling heaven-knows-what cheap eats to tuk-tuk drivers. Rusting petrol cans are recycled as rubbish bins that are overflowing, mostly with cigarette stubs. A murky klong (canal) swirls with first world detritus (plastic bags and plastic bottles, a slick of oil) as a noisy longboat roars past, making waves against rickety bamboo jetties where scrawny old men in loincloths throw a line to whatever three headed fish they can catch in this polluted stream. The waft of a smelly drain or a filthy klong makes my nose pucker. A herd of screeching, skeletal feral cats with bent tails rummage in the bins, or lounge like Nero on the ubiquitous scaffolding, licking grimy paws.  

Street cleaners sweep up the leaves into neat piles, as the whirling plastic bags wrap around their ankles. Building materials are stacked haphazardly around copious building sites. Concrete dust layers every surface with a thick skin, as huge, five-star hotels go up apace, squeezed between the precariously balanced, corrugated iron dwellings of the neighbouring slums. Café tables steal across the pavements, wrapped in garish pink plastic tablecloths, set with thin paper napkins, plastic cups, tin spoons and forks, melamine plates. And surprise! The food they serve in these squalid surroundings is really tasty. 

Most of the women I pass are immaculate, neatly arrayed in pressed blouses, stockings and polished shoes, their hair shiny-clean, in tight, neat buns or slick ponytails. All pause to throw a smile or stroke the white-blonde hair of my small daughter. Further downtown, where sex shops and brothels abound, it is the kathoeys that make the most fuss. It is a while before I realize that these flamboyant, sexy women in heavy makeup and high heels clustering round us, cooing and clucking, stroking and giggling, are actually lady-boys. As beautiful and fine-boned as their female counterparts, the only give-away is a slightly enlarged Adam’s apple or a tenor voice. But they are gentle, friendly and kind, and we feel perfectly safe with these glamorous girls. Unlike the coachloads of Korean tourists who descend like locusts on my blond baby and her pink trike. It is the only time I have seen my husband visibly angry, as he wades through, trying to reach us, rescue us from a rising tide of flashing cameras, pinching fingers. (It made an impression, even on our tiny two-year-old, who has ever since looked unfavourably upon zoos, and she quickly develops a throaty growl, like a cornered lion cub.)

Now, she preens beneath the eyes of these handsome young kathoeys, showing off her new trainers, the latest trend for toddlers. A happy distraction when we go shopping, they also prove a blessing. Squeaking at every step, flashing lights and sparkling with sequins, they have proved a vital necessity in a crowded department store, where she is prone to dive under clothing racks when overwhelmed by all the people, and I can only locate her by the irritating squawk of her disco shoes. 

Shopping here is challenging, even without the constant hide-and-seek with a toddler. Surprisingly little English is spoken – given the volume of international tourists – and my Thai language skills consist of Sawadee-kha, Khap-khun-kha and counting to ten. Our grocery bill is huge. Imported goods are heavily taxed and I have no idea about local products, even local fruit and veg. It is my first time in South East Asia. I am so ignorant. It would be terrifying if I didn’t find it all so fascinating. Broccoli and lettuces are bonsai-sized and ruinously expensive. I walk up and down the aisles trying to pluck up the courage to take something – anything – off the shelves. (Soon I will become familiar with the putrid Durian, forbidden to darken the doors of many hotels, and it’s engorged cousin the prickly jackfruit; the dragon fruit with its glorious thick red coat; the rambutan with its feathery spikes, the plump, aubergine-coloured mangosteens and the armadillo-like custard apple with the soft, melt-in-the-mouth centre.) In relief, I discover the elfin bananas, the sunset pink pomelo, like a sweet grapefruit, and the nutty pink papaya with the texture of avocado that I recognize from hotel breakfasts.

Such a strange new world.

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 He was my favourite poet through high school. He died on April Fool’s Day. Not corona virus – not everyone does – but old age. I didn’t know till today.

The obituary says Bruce Dawe was a postman. A poet. A gardener. An academic. An airman. A Vietnam Vet. He had four university degrees (BA, MLitt, MA, PhD). All acquired through part-time study. He won a swathe of literary prizes. I didn’t know that either, but I’m not surprised.

We read ‘Homecoming’ and the ‘Not So Good Earth’ and learned about irony, war and death. He wrote about death a lot. (Ironic that he lived to ninety). And footy. And cornflakes. A suburban poet. Our poet. Our conscience. Constantly protesting life’s inequalities. His prolific, staccato style appealed to those of us baptized in Shakespearean sonnets, Romantics who rhyme.   (Is it still a poem if it doesn’t rhyme?’)

‘The forests sigh and fall’

I dip into the forest by Ingalla Falls for fresh air, exercise. A city of pine trees eighty feet high. Fire tracks like empty highways during Covid-19. Several trees have toppled. Knocked others over, as they crash to the ground. Jenga. ‘The forests sigh and fall,’ agrees Dawe.

A bank of ferns. No deer here though, in this antipodean forest. No ‘bummer of a birthmark Hal.’ (No Larsson either). A single kangaroo starts up at our heavy tread on pine needles and bounds silently away. A gorge disgorges a creek over jagged rocks. Wind whips through the pines, sounds like waves crashing on the beach. The harsh shrieks of black cockatoos catch at our ears.

“Alert! We see you squatting there, like a warning light in your bright red fleece. A call of nature. But beware, nature might call for you. Brown snakes, bull ants, nettle rash on your bare behind. More than you bargained for.”

‘Like butterflies in the socket of a skull’

Common brown butterflies careen through the air, like sparks from a fire. Dolly Parton wrote a song about butterflies and love.  ‘Soft and gentle as a sigh.’ Dawe used them as a stark simile of war. The juxtaposition of watching kids play hide-and-seek in WW II pill-boxes in Penang: concrete bunkers with slits where soldiers hid with machine guns. Waiting to annihilate the unwary.

Years ago, I watched a TV program. A Queenslander, tightly permed, rotund. In a sweater with a butterfly embroidered across her ample breast. Teaching English to post-war refugees escaping the not-so-good-earth. ‘Say bu-a-floy’ she demands of her petite Vietnamese students, pointing at her chest. They dutifully mimic her nasal tones, her broad Ocker accent. More like butterflies than she will ever be in her caterpillar skin. 

Lone Pine

We trudge up a steep track, a hill laid bare.  A Gallipoli of pine trees. ‘Grey trunks and limbs litter the paddock like a battlefield,’ Dawe wrote eloquently. (He wrote a lot of anti-war poems.) Fairy land has been exhumed. Turned to mud and stubbled trunks, like broken teeth. Yet golden mushrooms grow into the light, in this bald space in the centre of the forest. 

We pass a dead digger. I recall a picture book ‘Are You My Mother?’ A baby bird has lost his mother. Until the ‘Snort’ puts the baby back in its nest, where its mother is waiting.

We emerge below the tree line. Paddocks have turned green overnight. Ironed out by rain. White blobs dot the hillside. A line of narrow gumtrees stand shoulder to shoulder along the hilltop. Catch the sky between their fencepost trunks.

It is ANZAC Day. A national day of remembrance for Australians and New Zealanders, to commemorate those of us who served and died in war or conflict. We say together ‘they shall not grow old as we that are left grow old,’ Our fallen. And ‘the vanished eyes of the skull wink with young laughter, the jaws are mottled with lichen,’ weeps Dawe.

Today, at Gallipoli, a lone Turkish gardener lays a wreath.

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As he stands being you and lifts the pack onto your shoulders, your knees buckle, and you feel the urge to tip over, fall flat on your back. You quail, unnerved by the unexpected weight. Are you completely insane to do this? Or can the pioneering spirit hidden deep inside your faltering heart speak up and inspire you to hike through virgin wilderness for five days?

Remember, if you please, that you love walking; can happily walk for weeks, along beaches, through city streets, across rolling, gentle English countryside. You don’t mind the odd blister – par for the course, just don’t forget to pack the band aids – and you rarely complain about rain, as long as you don a good raincoat and invoke the promise of a hot shower at the end of the day. Mountains don’t provide much motivation – you would rather go around than over, if you’re honest – but you won’t quarrel with the odd hill. And don’t forget your love of maps, a detailed plan, a good sense of direction, and that gratifying sense of achievement when you reach your destination. OK, you may prefer a circular route, but Dad assures you that it’s usually quite a different view when you turn around and walk back along the same path.

You have done plenty of walking with the One & Only, and you have always been perfectly happy in each other’s company. Together, you put the world to rights and plan the future over and over again, changing the story a little every time, or rediscovering old favourites. Occasionally, you may even walk quietly, in single file up a narrow track, enjoying the world around you: the birds, the plants, the trees, the view.

The One & Only has been enormously encouraging about this next Big Adventure. He has done several treks through the Tasmanian hinterland and is full of the joys of long-distance hiking. Apparently, he explains eagerly – like chapter headings – it is good for improving your upper Body Strength, and it’s good for The Soul. It Lightens your Heart to get out into the world, get into your stride and Soak up Nature. It improves your Sense of Self-Worth, your Self-Reliance, and your General Health. And you have bought into The Dream, the magic of the Great Outdoors quite willingly, your youthful brain obfuscated, beclouded and bewildered by every highfalutin’ word of it.

In reality, you realize with a jerk – like Snow White emerging from a dream of talking animals and singing garden gnomes – this little holiday threatens to be an endurance test; a test that may shatter your glorious, romantic daydream into a million pieces. Perhaps you ARE an audacious, impetuous trailblazer… or perhaps you’re only a misguided, soon-to-be limping fool.

Lurching sideways, weighed down by your Great Burden, you now see clearly the Dangerous Journey ahead in worrying shades of charcoal grey: no longer Snow White tripping gaily through the woods, but Bunyan’s Pilgrim facing a Terrible Trek. More than fifty kilometres of gruelling slog, amid the promise of constant rain. Hours of armed combat with the undergrowth. Days of wallowing and floundering about in thigh-deep mud across the Sodden Lodden Plains; of trudging through dark and gnarly, root-infested forest, that whispers the threat of those fairy tale Rodents of Unusual Size hiding behind every broad trunk.  Teetering on slippery rocks through fast-flowing icy rivers that grasp eagerly at loosened laces. Fighting off those aggravating, persistent, ubiquitous blowflies that invade every orifice, and refuse to be distracted or deterred by fluttering hands and foul language. Eventually arriving at your designated campsite to the promise of a damp sleeping bag and a thoroughly un-nourishing dinner of freeze-dried meat that needs two days soaking in hot water to give it the delectable consistency – and taste – of soggy cardboard, accompanied by a generous serve of instant mashed potato (disarmingly known as Deb), and topped off with a mug of molasses-black, midge-filled tea. All this gourmet cuisine plus twenty kilos of camping gear strapped to these skinny shoulders for FIVE WHOLE DAYS! 

Finally, the last lap, clambering and stumbling up rugged cliffs, in order to reach the promised Nirvana, the crème de la crème of all views: a cap-shaped peak in the middle of nowhere. A peak, I might add, that will inevitably be shrouded in low lying cloud the moment you arrive. And then to turn around and do it all the way back again? What on earth were you thinking?

Thus, your light-hearted, excited plans – the scrutiny of deliciously detailed maps, the forays to the camping shop for new boots and a Trangia, the acquisition of top-notch sleeping bags to keep you warm in a blizzard, the investigation of suitably light and transportable meals, the trial-run to pack everything efficiently in our shiny new backpacks – have ended in something akin to a small elephant being tossed onto your crumpling, complaining back. How will you ever survive this nightmare? Your backpack weighs a ton and you are struggling to stand upright. And you haven’t even made it out the front door.

But where is your courage, woman? Your sense of adventure? Your usual do-it-or-die attitude to life? Stop being such a wimp. Buck up and take the plunge. Those meek little Australian marsupials are only pygmy-sized. Mud is dirty, not deadly. And flies, well… flies are flies, not Vampire bats or Killer bees. Inevitable but not lethal. And a heavy backpack won’t kill you either! Just remember, it nearly always turns out better than you anticipated… 

*Thanks to Google images for the lovely photo of Frenchman’s Cap, Tasmania

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To Cough or Not to Cough

The Lorax by Dr Seuss

And the question is: when I pick up the phone, do I mention the ‘C’ word – (as in coronavirus or COVID-19)? Or can we talk about something else: pretend we are living in a bubble so far removed from the epicentre of the drama as to make us virtually immune? Scenes from our local supermarkets would suggest otherwise – or else everyone in Adelaide has a chronic dose of gastro and a craving to bake. We are told there should be no hugging and kissing in case of infection, but closely packed hoards queuing at Coles are to be expected. So many stories, so much panic, it has been hard to decide what is wise advice and what is verging on the ridiculous.

Containing an airborne virus on a global scale is not an easy task in anyone’s book. As we worry about every sniffle, take our temperatures three times a day and try to decide whether that headache at three in the morning is because of anxiety, COVID-19 or a possible brain tumour, the stories from abroad are so thickly spread through the newspapers that Royal dilemmas and Brexit have been totally out-manoeuvred.

We are not in total lock down in South Australia. Warnings are largely about social distancing, self-isolating and no unnecessary travel. Be cautious. Stay calm. Like a clam.

I like the safety of our small, seaside town. Coming to the city is scary, but I need to collect my new glasses. Reading is our only occupation now and my old glasses are giving me headaches. Suddenly I am acutely aware of everything I touch.

I see my parents for an afternoon and worry whether I have passed on the virus through the fresh salad I have made. They are in the danger zone age-group, and my father has asthma.

I drop in on my aunt. She is on her own and would like some company. She is also in the danger zone, so we don’t touch. We sit in the garden, several feet apart and drink wine and gossip and giggle. My son picks me up later and fixes her iPad so she can watch all the concerts she has downloaded but can’t hear. Then I worry that she didn’t wipe down the iPad after we left.

My daughter and her household have been self-isolating and working from home for a fortnight since she and her partner got colds that may or may not have been COVID-19. Just as they are set to escape the house, he is sick again. Can he take the test, if only to put everyone’s mind at rest? Or is it simply a change of season cold, a time when more viruses run amok than we can count?

It seems unfair that any other diseases or viruses should even get a cameo performance while COVID-19 has centre stage. Earlier reports have suggested that pollution is a bigger killer than this mealy-mouthed old virus. Reports from Madrid, Milan, New York suggest otherwise, but while we are being bombarded by the press (is nothing else happening in the world?) we seem to be in a relatively secure bubble. My greatest problem is finding anyone to sell me toilet paper, pasta or flour.

After weeks of round-the-clock news about the corona virus, I feel I will be forever mired in a swamp of inflammatory language that is starting to drive me crazy. Maybe I risk being blasé, but sometimes I wonder if this is simply nature’s way of keeping a balance. Particularly as mankind seems intent on self-destruction. I received this message on Facebook recently (the stage directions are mine):

Mankind: (in a whiny voice) There’s no way we can shut everything down in order to lower emissions, slow climate change and protect the environment.

Mother Nature: (sharply) Here’s a virus. Practice.

Have you ever read The Lorax? First published in 1971, Dr Seuss captured for kids the tale of man’s selfish and greedy destruction of the planet in favour of economic ‘biggering’. Confronted by the Lorax, who ‘speaks for the trees’ (well, someone’s got to), the Once-ler refuses to tone down the environmental damage he is doing, as he demolishes acres and acres of glorious Truffula trees in order to produce a completely pointless ‘Thneed.’ If you don’t remember the book, you may have seen the movie. Not my favourite adaptation, to be honest, but undoubtedly it captures a new, and potentially larger audience than the Seuss original.

Well, the Lorax and Mother Nature appear to have connived, and made another bid to be heard. As industry shuts down in a domino effect around the globe, the coronavirus lockdown is having a dramatic effect on deadly air pollution from Wuhan to Mumbai and New York to Rome. Cities that have long held records for some of the worst air pollution in the world can suddenly see the sky. ‘It is a silver lining in terms of this awful crisis that we can step outside and breathe,’ says one observer in Delhi.

As planes come down to rest, driving is restricted and factories have pressed the pause button, jaundiced skies around the world are clearing. Fish, cormorants, crabs and plant life are now visible in Venice’s clear blue canals. Horizons are no longer as murky as they were six months ago.

Pollution levels, the papers tell me, have dropped by more than 50% in many parts of Europe since so many countries have shut down for fear of an untrammelled virus that has currently killed around 70,000. But do we worry about the 7 million people around the world who die annually from diseases related to poor air quality? And these same vulnerable people are most likely to die from Covid-19. Ironic isn’t it?

What will it take to make us sit up and listen? Modern medicine – with its antibiotics, flu jabs and vaccines – has done much towards saving lives, and slowing down natural selection to a dull roar. The Grim Reaper is no longer as staggeringly destructive in maternity wards as he once was – at least in many countries, that’s the case. Like the Onceler’s business, our human population is continuously biggering and biggering and biggering. On a small blue planet that has been struggling for decades to contain us, what can be done to reduce our chronic impact on this beautiful world?

So has Mother Nature sent us a virus to make us sit up and see what can happen if we are prepared to change the world order? Less pollution., less consumption, less waste… less people? War and disease, plagues and pestilence have slowed us down in the past, made us pause to reconsider the impact we have. But how much do we really learn? How many of us are prepared to take advice from older generations who have learned the hard way? How much are we prepared to alter and adapt the way we live to ensure a future for our children and our grandchildren? How does economic biggering really help us survive as a species? Or are we destined to create a smouldering, smoggy ball out of our beautiful, vulnerable blue planet?

  • with thanks to Google images – and Dr Seuss! – for the Lorax pic.
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A Feast of Birds

Galahs, of the blushing, watermelon-pink breasts,
squawk and gnaw at the bark of grey-skinned gums
The neighbour’s palomino pigeons swoop and loop
like fighter pilots in formation,
banking through a hair’s breadth between branches
Down below, the diminutive and dainty native variety,
their quirky quiffs quivering through the garden beds,
pick-pick for seeds or scraps of worms.
Tiny, tawny, roly-poly sparrows twitter sweetly, like Disney birds,
and bob about beneath the shrubbery,
using the wild olive as camouflage from the bigger, bossier fowl,
outgunned by the outspoken, cacophonous screeches of the indigenes.

An early morning breeze recites poetry through the leaves
which the magpies punctuate with their warbling gurgle,
and raucous demands for breakfast ‘if-you-please!’
Down in the valley a solitary kookaburra roars with laughter,
ridiculing the world for its precarious pretensions, or perhaps
mocking the hook-nosed ibis as it high-steps along the river bank.
On the horizon, the sun slips smoothly, peach-like above the hills,
turning the grass from gun-metal grey to old ivory
and flecking the gum leaves with kaleidoscopic sparkles.
Through the wispy fronds of a casuarina I catch a glimpse of the sea, white capped and eager to start the day, like a bumptious puppy,
while the soft, cotton ball clouds drift across the broad, blue sky.

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Shoo fly, don’t bother me!

‘Flies are of course always irksome, but the Australian variety distinguishes itself with its very particular persistence. If an Australian fly wants to be up your nose or in your ear, there is no discouraging him. Flick at him as you will and each time he will jump out of range and come straight back. It is simply not possible to deter him. ‘ ~ Bill Bryson

There have been many glorious and joyful moments about returning home to South Australia. The proximity of family, the fabulous food and wine, the delightful climate, the ease of life. Then there is the blow fly, that insect so annoying, so ubiquitous to the Australian landscape. So perfectly designed to drive you crazy.

After all these years away, I had forgotten – almost – about flies. And while this past summer has done immense damage to wild animal populations across the country, I am betting my bottom dollar that the common Ozzie house fly has not suffered one jot from smoke inhalation or destruction of habitat.

If it has, then the only remaining colony has taken up residence at my place, anticipating my lack of preparation and my rusty skills of elimination.

Six years living above the clouds in Manila and we had the occasional infestation of weevils, which, small though their little legs may be, seem perfectly willing to climb thirty-five flights of stairs to feed on the contents of my pantry. Oddly, though, we were too high for flies. In Luxembourg, it was apparently too cold for flies. The only intrusion from the insect world came in the form of tiny spiders who liked to snuggle into the corners and wrap themselves up warmly in their webs, but generally stayed out of the way. On the Isle of Wight, when the seaweed would occasionally sweep in over the reef and descended thickly on the beach at Bembridge, we’d be mobbed by sand flies on our evening walk. But on the whole, the cross-channel winds swept most small invaders up and away across the Channel, and I suspect they have since taken up residence in Brittany and speak fluent French.

I now – unwillingly – recall long dusty walks in the bush, when we would turn around to discover a vast swarm of flies piggybacking on our shoulders. White t-shirts would turn black, as we carried them from one camp to the next, free of charge, while a small posse of scouts would be sent forward to swoop and swarm into the corner of our eyes. Recently, I saw a very wise and well-prepared walker attach a net to her broad-brimmed hat, like a beekeeper, and will definitely be investing in that piece of genius. Corks look cute but never seemed to have much effect, and without some sort of protection, my swearing becomes prodigious.

In Adelaide – at our place at least, and with apologies to the neighbours – the house fly is alive and well, and twice as irritating as ever my younger brother could claim to have been. Unfortunately, too, no fly spray has any effect whatsoever on the tough strain of Musca domestica that has evolved since I last encountered it. And it has become a Jedi master at dodging tea towels, rolled up newspaper or even the swiftest slap.

My Number Two Son, lacking anything as practical as a fly swat, has got very handy with the egg slice.

Yes, I know we should love and forgive all God’s creatures, but I do find flies are beyond redemption – and definitely beyond my patience. They have a habit of waiting till I come down to make a cup of tea in the morning to start scooting round my face in that ‘look at me! look at me!’ manner of small children. Then they lie low, where I can’t find them with the egg slice, until I bring out something edible, and off they go again, swooping and careering over my breakfast, lunch and dinner. And I can assure you that this is not random, unconditional fly behaviour, but a concentrated effort to drive me completely nutty. It took me only three days to recognize that my resident flies simply love fly spray, and are happy to bathe in it like Chanel, despite the vast quantities that I aim furiously at their chirpy heads.

The egg slice is more effective, but where one dies, another simply rises in its wake… or maybe it’s just the same one with a Lazarus complex.

I have scoured the internet for clues, and finally found a possible solution. Apparently, flies hate the smell of basil, cinnamon, lavender and lemongrass – so ‘not only will spraying these essential oils around the house create a beautiful aroma, but they will also deter those pesky flies too.’ Well, here’s hoping. If this advice proves to be effective, I will be planting a Trump-style wall of lavender and lemongrass around our new house to keep the little buggers at bay.

In the meantime, I am sitting down at McLaren Vale, overlooking vines and hills, and enjoying a fly-free zone. Maybe it’s the crisp autumnal morning that’s keeping them tucked up in bed and out of my face. Or perhaps the howling wind that is deterring us from lounging out on the deck, has blown them all the way to Antarctica. One can only hope…

*With thanks to Google Images for the introductory image!

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‘You’re the avocado to my toast!’

“Truthfully this is one ‘recipe’ … I make and eat most often! … It’s the holy trinity of Vegenaise, avocado and salt that makes this like a favorite pair of jeans — so reliable and easy and always just what you want.”  ~ Gwyneth Paltrow

Nothing has EVER annoyed our daughter more than the comment from Australian journalist Bernard Salt that “twenty-two dollars several times a week [spent on smashed avocado] could go towards a deposit on a house.” This was reiterated by Australian real estate billionaire Tim Gurner, who advised millennials on Sixty Minutes that they should stop wasting their income on smashed avocado and expensive coffee and start saving for a house. His inference was that his success was due solely to working his butt off, and never wasting a penny on such fripperies as brunch, pissed off an entire generation. Our daughter certainly did not take this slur lying down. She quickly calculated that, for her grandparents, buying a house was the equivalent of three years’ salary. Today’s first home buyers are looking at the equivalent of eleven years wages. To some, that might simply suggest our kids should just work more, and work harder, for longer. Or perhaps, understandably, the idea of drowning themselves in debt creates a void perfectly filled by a little comfort eating!

I grew up, like Richard Glover*, in ‘The Land Before Avocado.’ I don’t believe avocados were available in regular supermarkets until the late 1980s, certainly not in South Australia, and even for those who knew where to find them, they were an expensive treat. Apparently, they could be found in Queensland as early as the 1940s, but misinformation and an untimely blight meant that they were forced to keep a very low profile for forty years. Then, waitressing at the original gourmet pub in Unley, I remember serving them as ‘baked avocado’ with prawns and melted cheese, which most distressingly to eager taste buds, all too often resulted in a ghastly bitterness that made the avocado slink backstage in shame.

Luckily, it eventually reversed the negative press by convincing people it was better raw, could cheerfully accompany any salad or prawn cocktail to the dinner table, or alternatively, arrive early with the canapés, accompanied by lime juice, coriander and crackers as a glamorous, green guacamole dip. In these rather tastier forms, it quickly became the ‘must have’ ingredient at any dinner party and on any menu.

I still remember the first time I met an avocado. One Friday evening, in my pre-teen childhood, my father brought one home from the Adelaide market. Like a surgeon, he sliced it in half, carefully removed the seed, and poured a vinaigrette (he had prepared it earlier) into the pit. Garnished with salt and a dash of pepper, he proceeded to eat it with a teaspoon. While he kindly shared it with his four fascinated offspring, he undoubtedly lived to regret his generosity, as we all adored this exotic, indulgent snack. If ever he tried to smuggle one into the house after that, we were bound to discover it, and hovered like baby birds, mouths open, eager to share the spoils.

Smashed avocado on toast had gained traction in Australia by the early 1990s, but by that time I had fled overseas. By 2010 ‘smashed avo’ was an international food trend. Yet we cannot claim its discovery by any stretch of the imagination – it has been popular in South America for centuries, in much the same way Australians have long eaten Vegemite on toast for breakfast.

Today, we see it on every café menu across the city – in fact across any city we have ever visited. It garnishes every California roll to be found in Australia in the past fifteen years. It attends every private dinner party mashed into the host’s favourite recipe for guacamole. I know, because I indulged in a glorious version at my aunt’s only last night.

This morning, we wandered down Prospect Road for a coffee. Like avocado, Prospect has become incredibly trendy since we last lived in South Australia, filled with quirky restaurants and cool cafés. And, of course, every café there has its own version of smashed avocado on toast. Today, I resisted, despite my own personal fetish for avocado on toast. Today I chose mushrooms on toast instead. Sourdough toast. Served with ‘chèvre goat’s cheese’ – just in case you didn’t know what the English for chèvre was! At least it wasn’t the price of a house mortgage – although there wasn’t much change out of $20 – but I did miss my avocado. And while I am not a struggling millenial, the condescension of the press has somewhat dimmed the unadulterated joy of avo on toast with a hefty sprinkling of apologetic guilt.

So, while the mushrooms were tasty – and a change is as good as a holiday, I am told – next time I will quash the guilt and proudly stand up for my much maligned avocado, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, as long as we both shall live!

*Glover, Richard, ‘The Land Before Avocado: journeys in a lost Australia,’ 2018

…And thanks to Google images!

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Let Them Eat Pie!

Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye, Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie…~ traditional nursery rhyme

Back in the fourteenth century, long before fridges and freezers came into existence, there was pie. Pie crusts were designed as a way of preserving food:  a thick, hard, inedible casing called a coffyn made from flour, water and eggs. Inedible it may have been, but apparently it could keep the contents reasonably fresh for several days. The ‘medieval equivalent of canning,’ surmises Charles Perry of the Los Angeles Times. It has been suggested that the name ‘pie’ came from the Middle English word for magpie, a bird renowned for collecting all sorts of odds and ends in its nest. Similarly, the pastry ‘nest’ was often filled with an astonishing mixture of meats: from venison and wild boar to heron, duck and stork, to blackbird and crow.

Blackbirds may no longer be a fashionable filling among the connoisseurs of pies, desirable today only in nursery rhymes, but pies with alternate tasty innards remain hugely popular as a dinner, a dessert or a quick snack.

The Cornish pasty, a distant cousin to the traditional meat pie, was originally designed as a portable lunch for the tin miners to take to work. Their wives would wrap meat and vegetables in a pie crust, adding a thick handle of pie crust so the miners could throw away that part without making themselves sick from the arsenic-laden dust that covered their hands. The pasty has since accompanied Cornish miners all over the world, although these days, a lighter, flakier pastry means the handle remains as a decorative but edible feature.

Americans have claimed the sweet pie: pumpkin, apple, peach, key lime, banoffee. The list is endless. In Australia, we have made the meat pie our own. The recipe for pie was brought to the colonies by the British, of course. By 1850, the pieman was already ‘a conspicuous institution’ in Sydney (from Michael Symons book ‘One Continuous Picnic’). Less than a century later, and presumably tongue-in-cheek,  meat pie with tomato sauce was being touted as our national dish. And by the 1970s, meat pies had become a lunchtime staple: in school canteens; in corner delis; for football fans as the Aussie equivalent of American hot dogs (Michael Symons again).

The Pie Floater is still remembered fondly in Adelaide. Once popular with late night revellers, the pie cart would wait resolutely in Victoria Square for peckish passers-by. This extraordinary dish consists of a meat pie turned upside down in a bowl of mushy pea soup, and squirted with tomato sauce.

The South Australian National Trust recognized the pie floater as a South Australian Heritage Icon in 2003, although sadly, the last pie cart was forced to close four years later.  About that same time, I was treated to a delicious, and decidedly more sophisticated version at the Adelaide Hilton, courtesy of TV chef Simon Bryant, who kindly presented his recipe on an episode of The Cook and the Chef, so we could all add it to our kitchen repertoire.

Since we moved back to Adelaide last year, our feet have all too often found their way to the nearest bakery in search of sausage rolls, pasties, meat pies or an apricot pie with ice cream for later. The steak and pepper pie has become a firm favourite, although I fear it is adding generous inches to my waistline. Therefore, it’s probably a blessing that I’ve always had a morbid fear of making pastry. Many years ago, my first weekend job was stuffing pasties at Opie’s Bakery, but I never learned the skill of creating perfect pastry. The list of ingredients may be minimalist, and the method looks simple enough, thus I am bound to find it excruciatingly difficult! Anyway, why should I tie myself in knots trying to achieve something that will bear only a tragically distant resemblance to the glorious pies that Simon Bryant – and every local baker – creates   with effortless ease? I accept my limitations, despite exhortations from Martha Stewart who produced an entire cookbook on pies and tarts. At least Julia Childs understands the fear of disaster – soggy dough, crumbly dough, too hard, too flaky – and cheerfully provides much helpful advice on how to avoid failure, for those of you brave enough to follow her lead. Her best tip is always to keep a marble rolling board in the fridge, as temperature plays a crucial part in creating an edible, visually satisfying pastry.

All this talk of pies reminds me of that wondrous children’s book The Magic Pudding, which the author himself describes as ‘that little bundle of piffle,’ written to win a bet that children prefer stories about food and fighting to magic and fairies. And yet, as the title suggests, that cut-and-come-again pudding was as magical as it was edible!

“The Magic Pudding is a pie, except when it’s something else, like a steak, or a jam donut, or an apple dumpling, or whatever its owner wants it to be. And it never runs out. No matter how many slices you cut, there’s always something left over. It’s magic. But the Magic Pudding is also alive. It walks and it talks, and it’s got a personality like no other. A meaner, sulkier, snider, snarlinger Pudding you’ve never met.’ ~ Norman Lindsay

I never understood why Albert (the name of the magic pudding) was so grumpy, but the idea of a constantly available snack is making me hungry. So, on that note, I’m off to the bakery for a steak and pepper pie. With sauce. Of course!

*With thanks to Google Images for the pics.

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