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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Staccato

Obituary

 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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Trailblazing

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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Recapturing Charmian

In 1964, the Australian born writers Charmian Clift and George Johnson returned to Sydney with their three children after fifteen years abroad. Over the next five years, Clift would write more than 250 essays for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Melbourne Herald; her observations on life in Australia and how much it had changed in the years she was away. And the many ways in which it had not changed at all. Later, years after her death in 1969, many of those essays were collected in the books ‘Images in Aspic’ and ‘The World of Charmian Clift.’

‘Images in Aspic.’ What a perfect title to reflect her tangible frustration with Australian complacence. While Clift and her family had been living in an impoverished, post-war Europe, affluence had arrived in Australia, and she regularly bemoaned its stultifying effect on the free-wheeling, fearless, pioneering mentality of earlier, less prosperous generations, goading her apathetic countrymen into using their newfound wealth for cultural, emotional and intellectual exploration.

Clift may have been sharply observant in her critiquing of the average Australian, but she was also optimistically encouraging that we could rise above our middle-class apathy. Unlike fellow expatriate Germaine Greer, who has notoriously condemned Australia as ‘a huge rest home, where no unwelcome news is ever wafted on to the pages of the worst newspapers in the world’ and spent much of her life in Europe, Charmian came home, somewhat reluctantly perhaps, but with a relatively open mind.

I have recently returned to the town of my birth after almost thirty years abroad. I am delighted to be back, and look forward to putting down my bags for a while. And yet it has not been as easy as I had imagined. Four months down the track, and I still feel unsteady on my feet and unsure of my place and purpose here. I must also admit to succumbing to a lethargy I am finding difficult to shake. Not for me the rousing essays of an exile returned, but a hiatus in my ability to lift a pen and make even a mild observation on the changes that have been wrought upon our remote and pretty city over the past three decades. Not to mention the changes that have been wrought upon me! I know this city well. And yet I often feel like a total stranger. I swing between a desperate desire to settle down and an equally desperate desire to flee. The emotional roller-coaster ride is exhausting.

In my defense, I can only assume that Clift also had to spend her first months house hunting and job hunting and re-establishing her roots; that she too found the organization of all the day-to-day minutiae an exhausting mental challenge; that her piquant, pithy observations came later, once her body and mind had come to rest and she was able to take a good look around at her old environment reborn.

So, with this in mind, it is my new year’s resolution – albeit delivered a little late in the day as we sit upon the cusp of February – to closely observe this city of my childhood, to see how it has changed and how it has stayed the same. Unlike Clift, I have popped in for regular visits over the years, so it is not quite the leap of faith for me as it was for her. Nonetheless, I am noticing an almost daily clash of memory and reality.

There are so many new – and tall – buildings I don’t recognize in what was once an unusually low-level city. There is a ruinously expensive bus tunnel under the much-maligned park lands to save commuters a few precious minutes and three sets of traffic light. There is the on-going threat of a development planned for the North Adelaide Aquatic Centre to house the local football team and all its administration offices on public land. There is endless chaos at Darlington as the construction of an apparently urgent north-south corridor disrupts the traffic and the local inhabitants around Flinders Medical Centre. And there is that ever-creeping plague of suburbs crawling north and south combined with a tremendous amount of in-filling on the old, inner-city quarter acre blocks just to highlight how much the city is expanding. And were there always this many traffic lights?

And yet the familiar is still around to soothe ruffled feathers. Marion Vineyards, boasting a single hectare of grenache and shiraz vines planted in 1907, remains in rural juxtaposition between the traffic lights on busy Oaklands Road and the Marion swimming pool. In the heart of the city, the central market has been operating for a hundred and fifty years and is still a joy to the senses. The Botanic Gardens, the zoo, Rundle Mall, Cleland Reserve, all have been updated and upgraded, but in essence they have stayed the same as I remember them from my childhood.

There have also been some creative and fascinating new developments that have altered the skyline, enhancing the view and contrasting with the elegance of Victorian Adelaide. There is the Adelaide Oval, with its wondrous new curves to compliment the more angular 70s edges of the Festival Centre on the opposite bank of the River Torrens, while still boasting its historic score board, and retaining the view of Saint Peter’s Cathedral with its French Gothic silhouette. The extraordinary – and extraordinarily expensive – Royal Adelaide Hospital sits like a stack of huge shipping containers beside a giant cheese grater at the western end of North Terrace, providing an Alice Through the Looking Glass discordant reflection of the Victorian original now abandoned at the eastern end of town.

At ground level, beautiful wetlands have been created down the centre of the Old Port Road. There’s a 70 km path for pedestrians and cyclists along the Adelaide coastline, and another 30 km track along the length of the Torrens, from Athelstone to the sea. And all around the city limits, from Clare and the Barossa in the north through the Adelaide Hills to McLaren Vale, there is a veritable cornucopia of wineries a stone’s throw from the city.

I may not feel inclined to gush about all the changes I have seen, but I do plan to be more like Charmian than Germaine. And while Adelaide may not have the competitive vibe of Sydney or Melbourne, London or New York, why would we aspire to recreate our beautiful city in their images? Adelaide has been an elegant, tasteful, tree-lined city since Colonel Light first drew up plans for the new British settlement. And these days it purrs contentedly. It has a cultural agenda that punches well above its weight, and an abundance of gold star beaches, food and wines, wonderful rural landscapes and gorgeous gardens. All of which can be enjoyed at a much gentler pace than the frenetic cut and thrust of other larger cities. I think I am going to enjoy getting to know this elegant town a whole lot better!

*Two sculptures by James Hamilton, on display at Brighton Beach for the 2020 Patritti Brighton Jetty Sculptures. With thanks to the PBJS website for the image of ‘Equilibrium’ (the giraffe). ‘The Crown’ (or violin) – is my own photo.

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Oh, What a Feeling!

The week before Christmas, the One & Only and I took the Toyota, Bruce, for a run to the Yorke Peninsula. A simple, short break was required before the Christmas mayhem kicked in.

The road north out of Adelaide is rarely a tempting proposition, particularly in summer, when the flat, dry, unresponsive landscape seems to suck the marrow from your bones. The horizon is vast, and the sky is deep blue and cloudless, but even that feels joyless, when it leaves the sun free to blister your skin like a grilled pepper, despite the tinted windows.

And yet, after what seemed like hours of empty, yellow paddocks and shimmering tarmac, we shimmied through Port Wakefield – where the fish shop was ‘sorry, closed, for it’s a bit hot’ – and rounded the elbow at the top of Yorke Peninsula, and followed the coastline south-west to Marion Bay. Here, the pelicans were soaring over the jetty in perfect synchronicity and the oystercatchers, ankle deep in clear water, were pecking delicately at the sandbank.

It was my first trip to the Yorke Peninsula since a brief and boozy weekend during the university years. Prior to that, there is a solitary photo of me in my slippers and dressing gown at Pine Point, at a point in time when I was too small to remember even the best beach holiday. So, I had few expectations, other than the supposition that bleak, dry moonscapes would feature heavily. They do. Man has cleared mile upon mile of scrub and eucalyptus for the purpose of planting mile upon mile of wheat and barley. Random settlements have sprung up along the coast where boats could anchor and fill their holds with the farmers produce. A scant sprinkling of gum trees lines the highway – a churlish nod to the thick, cluttered hedgerows of the Homeland – and dust invades every orifice.

Shaped like a boot, Yorke Peninsula is the central leg of three peninsulas in South Australia: Eyre to the west and Fleurieu to the east, with Kangaroo Island floating just below, across Investigator Strait, like a football. It was named for British Home Secretary Charles Philip Yorke by Matthew Flinders, who sailed around the coast of South Australia in his ship HMS Investigator in 1801-1802. It may sound more prosaic than the choice of French explorer Nicolas Baudin – Cambacérès, after a statesman of the French Revolution – but given that Yorke Peninsula was to become a land of Cornish copper  miners and tough, farmers, it seems more fittingly pragmatic.

Originally, this peninsula was home to the Narungga people, but the early settlers soon decimated the local tribes with their European diseases and desire to claim the land, and today, Innes National Park is all that remains of the original landscape: 10,000 hectares of coastline, scrub and sand dunes. The tea tree is king, and blowflies are in aggravating abundance. Several attached themselves to us as we wandered around the ruins at Inneston and then proceeded to hitch a ride on the car so they could accompany us to every corner of the park, even out to the lighthouses where a feisty wind threatened to blow us over the cliff, but could not dislodge the flies from our shoulders.

Weathered cliffs and rocky islands loom over the graveyards of numerous shipwrecks. On land, the park teems with wildlife. Drivers must potter along at a mere 40kmph in order to give way to a sun-struck lizard who plods witlessly across the road in front of us, or a family of emus stepping daintily through the saltbush, completely oblivious to the road and our bright orange car. The shy Tamar Wallabies, once extinct, have been successfully reintroduced, but prove impossible to find. However, we do spot a solitary, rust-coloured peregrine falcon swooping overhead in search of lunch. And on Pondalowie Bay, a mob of dolphins – we count an extended family pod of about thirty – play in the water, competing with surfers for the breaking waves, racing up and down the coast and dodging neatly between the surfboards. Out on the Sternhouse Bay jetty, we first smell and then see a bunch of penguins balancing on the smooth rocks at the foot of the cliff. And, out for an early swim one morning to beat the heat, we interrupt Kanga and Roo grazing in the sand dunes above Whipbird Way.

It is a harsh climate, even in this era of air conditioning and icy beer. Yet I imagine the lives of the gypsum miners and their families, isolated at the south-western tip of the Yorke Peninsula, a two-day ride to the nearest town, were imminently harder. Here, in the late 19th century, about a hundred and fifty inhabitants were toughing it out beside the saline Marion Lake. A rough paddock on the edge of the tiny town is now labelled ‘cricket ground’ but there is little else to indicate a lighter side to life. Odd to think that even the joys of the surf probably did not register with these late Victorian settlers, working to scratch a living from the less-than-lush landscape.

Yet, aside from the persistent Fly and the insidious dust, both exhibiting a keen desire to inhabit my nostrils, Marion Bay is quiet and serene, well removed from the hue and cry of Christmas shopping. With one pub and a small grocer at the petrol station, there is little to do but drift along pristine beaches, search out lonely light houses and rhapsodize over sunsets.

On the one day when the soaring temperatures trap us indoors with the air conditioner and Christmas lists, we are set free a little sooner than expected, when the hot north wind whipping through the treetops suddenly does an about-face and blasts the heat away in a matter of minutes. We push lists aside and decamp to the veranda with a glass of rosé and a local Brie. Restoring the calm is a worthy occupation. The magpies seem to agree.

*With thanks to the One & Only for his beautiful images.

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