It’s been so long I hardly know how to begin. I’ve thought of writing many times since my last post – lord knows there have been inducements aplenty since I left you – but the decommissioning of DoctorDi remains for the time being unchanged.
I miss the blogging gang terribly. You know who you are. I don’t want to lose sight of any of you and hope you’ll forgive that my visits to all your blogs are still so sporadic for the time being. I’m getting there. I’ll keep coming.
For now I just wanted to leave some sort of forwarding address, I guess, since I am still doing a bit of writing online and in May was part of something wonderful at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
I’m still doing the Monthly Feature for Varuna, the Writers’ House; the August feature is called ‘The Anatomy of Effort’. I often interview Varuna authors on their latest books, otherwise I write about some aspect of the craft and/or the writing life. The most popular feature in recent times was undoubtedly ‘Giving it Away,’ about the epidemic of unpaid writing. Please feel very welcome to call in and see me at the Varuna page any time.
And if you’re interested in live, unscripted storytelling, I co-curated and presented the Australian launch of 5×15 at the Sydney Writers’ Festival with the SWF’s new artistic director, the gorgeous Jemma Birrell. Five speakers speaking fifteen minutes apiece brought down the house, in this case Sydney Theatre. It was terribly thrilling for me personally and the response has been overwhelmingly generous (thanks to our five brilliant and diverse speakers). Thanks to the ABC, you can watch (yes, watch!) the whole thing here.
Yes, I was unbelievably nervous. And yes, you can tell.
If you’re in London and New York, do get along to 5×15, the line up is always surprising and exciting. You can check out future programs and book tickets here.
And that’s all she wrote… at least for here and now. I haven’t figured out if I’ll be coming back to DoctorDi or not, but I’m happy to report that I am reading, I am writing, I am well. And I miss you. Be happy, be healthy. I’ll come find you as often as I can.
I hardly need explain, I’m sure, but I shall because you’re all so very dear to me: it’s been so long between posts that it’s finally come to my reluctant attention (no doubt it’s been obvious to all you sweeties for a while now) that this blog is no longer quite…well, viable.
It’s not just the blog. I find myself in a phase of life where I’m writing so little – and far more tragically reading so little – that I must take direct and concerted action now to turn it all around. And that’s precisely what I intend to do, because I am so sick of wasting what little time I do have (being the hours between 8-11pm daily) lying prone on the bed, watching 30 Rock reruns or movies I’ve already seen on Llew’s laptop.
You just start excusing your own slovenly behaviour because you’re too tired to tell yourself the hard truth. And that is: you can waste your life this way. Easily, it turns out.
Those hours could and should be reliably mine, to do with as I will once the Talking Toddler is sleeping, but if Llew – who is more content generally with screen-based entertainment than I – is watching something, then I’ve tended to just flake beside him (easily enough done when I’m so bloody knackered), believing for a time that being mindless together was preferable to retreating into evenings spent intellectually apart. I now think I have to respectfully detach myself from Llew’s means of unwinding, because fundamentally they’re not mine and (unsurprisingly) they’re doing me no favours at all.
I launched my good ship Recovery last night, reading the American journal Creative Nonfiction while Llew watched Shrek II beside me. I felt immeasurably improved, though still unsettled by the separateness of it all. At least if we’re both watching 30 Rock we think the same thing is funny at the same time – last night’s bursts of mirth were unsynchronised and private. But I don’t know what else to do – I’m starting to get really angry with myself about the squandered time. I am accountable to myself for it.
I also need to carve out some time aside from those three hours each night, starting today, so this morning I am en route to see the Sydney Darklings for the first time since before the Grand Tour. I badly need a Darkling dose, and I’m composing this post on the ferry – to be uploaded ASAP – resisting the guilt and pressure (self-imposed as well as external) by venturing out alone. If I don’t mark it out – and keep on marking it out – with an invisible measuring tape of time and space, I won’t get it, I just won’t, and Llew is so much better at doing this for himself that I must follow his lead.
What’s astonishing to me is that it is all so ongoing; it’s not as though we’ve developed any effective shorthand or any unstated agreement or any mutual understanding that means anyone ever says to me, unsolicited, “You go. No, no, off you go. Of course it’s your turn. It’s been weeks since you’ve had a moment to yourself.” If I don’t insist, if I don’t take it, take it, TAKE IT AND RUN, it never happens. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I badly underestimated the amount of negotiation motherhood demands. I never stop negotiating, most especially for the time and space to be alone, doing something, anything, for myself.
As for DoctorDi, perhaps this blog has run its course. It’s been a long project, and through it I’ve made marvellous blogging friends who have enriched my life in ways I never imagined possible when I nervously wrote the inaugural post all those years ago. I shall be better able to keep up with all your writing now I’ve resigned myself to the temporary suspension of my own, at least in the blogosphere. DoctorDi came about really to encourage the discipline of production, but it’s become far more than that to me, and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for showing interest in my writing and by extension in me. There have been countless occasions on which your thoughtful words and friendship have saved me from despair.
I don’t know where or when I’m going to record the life I’m living now, a world in which the Talking Toddler amazes me each day with his bursting vocabulary, mischievous grin and lively eyes.
“Have. A. Book?” he says, scanning the shelves. “Read. A. Book?”
His little hands will close around a spine and he’ll deftly heave it and several other titles off the shelf and onto the floor. He’ll offer it up as he crosses the room to climb up on the couch, holding it aloft like a birthday cake.
“Choose. A. Book. Sit down?”
He floors us with these new tricks of actually initiating conversations and stating preferences – it’s no longer simply mimicry at work. Finishing one book the other night, he sat up and clearly said, “Ping the Duck?”
Llew and I are enchanted by these accomplishments – to us they are monumental. The ability to verbalise is a singular event in our son’s life, but it’s also just talk, that everyday speech which is so utterly commonplace and banal. Nonetheless his thrills me, and his vocabulary is multiplying at such a rate I know I’m already forgetting all sorts of firsts. But I don’t want to forget anything. I don’t want to forget one single thing. And I’d love to think I could keep writing it down here and sharing it with those of you who don’t gag reading it, but I suspect it’s a false hope, so I’m going to resist the urge to cling to it.
The future remains uncertain – we don’t know what we’re doing, but we’ll have to rent out our home, that much is clear. I’m not where I’d hoped to be at 40; moving in with my in-laws wasn’t part of the plan! But now it’s happening, well, that’s life, isn’t it? Full of surprises.
The Talking Toddler continues to delight, adding a dimension to my existence it’s not possible to explain, but his perpetual motion means I am needed elsewhere for the time being. And when I do stop, I feel I need to replenish myself with the words of others much more urgently than I need to unburden myself with my own. I think I write best when I am reading voraciously; ergo, at present I don’t feel I ought to be writing at all. I don’t feel I have the right – or perhaps it’s a lot less dramatic than that, and I just don’t feel I have anything worthwhile to say.
I know my fingers will reliably twitch with energy when I have my reading life back on track. It turns out my compulsion still requires care, and I know the motivation to pen this post is inextricably linked to my evening spent reading Creative Nonfiction. The symbiosis has never been clearer to me, so I know what I must do first. Return to reading. Hopefully the rest will follow. Someday.
Time is an eccentric and cruel mistress. In the past week she’s snapped shut like a teenage girl having second thoughts, so that our time away seems to have been erased from history. Now we are back, and everything is just as we left it, we can hardly believe we were ever gone at all.
Our travels commenced 5.5 months ago – a good portion of any year. We were overseas for 4.5 of that…and yet time has concertinaed now, a folded fan keeping all its secrets. People frown when we answer the question of how long we’ve been away, shaking their heads and saying, “Really? It doesn’t feel like that long,” which only has the effect of making it true. One friend swam against the tide yesterday by saying she had really felt the length of our absence, but for most it seems it’s passed as a quickened heartbeat at best.
The Touring Toddler saw one of his little Mothers’ Group friends yesterday – and he’ll see a couple more today – picking up where they left off with a delighted play along the beachfront. Though we’re not yet back living in Man Town, it’s a relatively simple matter of driving here from Palm Beach and I’ll be doing it regularly if we end up staying at Palmie for longer.*
We are very, very fortunate people. We’re so lucky to be able to stay at Palm Beach at all – if you can’t live in your own home for a while, there are few alternatives more beautiful than this. Palm Beach is where they film the TV series Home & Away, in case you’re familiar with that, and it’s a really stunning part of Sydney, the meeting place between Pittwater and the Pacific, the lush cliff-top home to a lighthouse as picturesque as it is practical.
Though it is zoned as the northernmost suburb of Sydney, to me it is far enough away to acquire a separate identity. It is not a place full of young families, though, because few young families can afford to even contemplate living here. No, Palm Beach is often the rich reward of the retirees who dominate the demographic. Like any small community the place is lousy with minor intrigues, petty grievances and fraught friendships, and while Llew and I exist well outside his parents’ social set, one does grow curious about the population. Many have been hugely successful in their field, and there’s usually a smattering of new OBEs once the Queen’s list is announced. But ultimately life still coils itself around much smaller moments, tightening like a boa constrictor as it ages, so that earlier triumphs recede and we are all eventually humbled by failing minds, brittle bones and Time’s erratic yet conclusive plan for each of us.
As I write, a handsome, broad-backed kookaburra surveys the vista from a naked frangipani tree that remains starkly bald after the bitter winter I can still feel in the air. We are both turned west, facing Pittwater. Occasional sailing craft drifts by, headed for Lion Island or perhaps open water, and the reserve between here and the rippled blue is alive with birdsong and the rustling leaves of so many mighty eucalypts. It is very Australian, this scene, including as it does the unlovely hills hoist heavy with the day’s laundry, the whole flooded in the unmistakable intensity of Australian sun, and I accept that Sydney does and always shall stake a fierce claim on my heart. But I don’t need to be here to honour my affection, and Time shall divulge what she alone knows in due course.
* Postscript: It’s the next day, and the Touring Toddler’s play-date yesterday with three of his MG mates was such a huge success that he wept inconsolably from Seaforth to Dee Why, plainly devastated to be parted from them having been so successfully reunited. Looks like I’ll be making the trip back to Man Town at least once more this week.
You know, there’s one thing about turning 40 that I do not appreciate, and it’s the fact that my knees have promptly collapsed overnight. What is with these Beagle Knees (hmmm, should I register this trademark…? I think strictly speaking I’m referring to a Basset Hound’s physiognomy, but ‘Basset Knees’ doesn’t trip off the tongue in quite the same way) and these new folds of determinedly downward-tending flesh…?
I was in Rome when I first noticed my new, vastly unwelcome knee rolls, standing in the change-room of a boutique near the Spanish Steps. I was also with my mother-in-law, whose lovely birthday gift was shouting me something to wear – a piece of Roman apparel, something to put the spring in my step back in Sydney. So there we were in the final hours of my time in the eternal city, and I think it was in store number 2 that I first spied my very own Sad Sacks, dangling past my knees like failed pastry.
It’s unfortunate that at the very instant I saw my Beagle Knees I was engaged in a conversation with my mother-in-law about the possible perils of skirts of a certain length.
“This would be quite a good work dress,” I offered through the door, inspecting my lunch- and month-bloated figure with thin-lipped disdain.
“Mmm,” said my MIL, before adding, ” but I don’t think one would want to wear a mini-skirt to a job interview.”
I stared at my drapes of knee fat.
“It’s not a mini-skirt,” I snapped. “It’s just a dress.”
I tore it off, too unhappy and menstrual and overfull to even pay my usual care not to leave a streak of face powder or deodorant dust on the thing, the monstrous thing I now wanted to flee. Hated dress. Vile dress. BAD DRESS.
Out of the store I tore, my poor mother-in-law doing her best to keep up with me on the cobbled streets as I charged off muttering to myself about mutton.
I’d all but given up when I spied a boutique I’d not noticed during our 9-night stay: Manila Grace. Inside was the perfect top (thanks, K!) and to go with it, a new pair of jeans I was desperate for and which cost me a lot less than the equivalent in Sydney. Success!
But now we’re back in Sydney, having landed here Sunday morning with a pretty leaden heart, I’m left contemplating my navel as well as my knees. What now, my friends, what now? Perhaps I should have chosen something ‘interview appropriate’ after all.
We arrived in bella Roma on Saturday night, emerging from the Metro at Piazza del Popolo. My heart leapt into my mouth: Rome! oh, Rome! I turned to Llew and the Touring Toddler – beaming, a little breathless, my heart rioting – and said, “Welcome to Rome.”
We made it, and what a perfect and natural place to conclude our Grand Tour. I can’t think of our being here in this most magical of all cities without getting emotional – I’ve always been this way with Rome. It is so splendid it is hard to refrain from gushing superlatives – it is a singular city, and to never see it with one’s own eyes… well, that’s a thought fit to break my heart. I wish all roads really did lead to Rome because I so wish everyone could see it. Rome gives meaning to a word like ‘magnificent.’ I have a huge crush. Clearly.
AirBNB has come up trumps yet again. How much do I love this site?! It has been a huge feature of the Grand Tour and absolutely worth its weight in gold. Right now I am sitting on our big terrace on the fifth and final floor of our building on Via dei Greci, overlooking spires, bell towers and turrets, the beautiful parklands of Villa Borghese visible on the rise to my right, a music academy down below to my left. Yesterday while I was sitting out here, an accomplished pianist’s practise session was my personal soundtrack as I took in all the romance and architectural interest of our vista. Now I have an opera rehearsal, the male lead’s baritone soaring across the rooftops. It is all so achingly beautiful.
Inside, the apartment has been very cleverly renovated, and there’s a lot to be said for having such a crisp interior – so many apartments I looked at during the hunt for the perfect pad were dark and dated, whereas this is immaculate: faultlessly appointed and so floodlit, and all the charm of the view is invited inside by the huge bifold doors leading from the terrace to the lounge. This outdoor area trebles the living space, and when the doors are pushed back, the demarcation between what is outside and what is in blurs delightfully. Stunning, really. And when you compare it to hotel prices in the Roman centre, it’s an absolute bargain. We absolutely love it. It’s my third visit to Rome, but my first in an apartment, and my first with a private outdoor area, and I tell you, life doesn’t get much better than where I am sitting right now.
As a return visitor to any major destination, I think it’s always lovely staying in a different part of town. Last time we were here we stayed in a hotel in Campo de Fiori; the time before that, I was backpacking with a friend and we stayed in a pretty awful hostel somewhere near the Colosseum. Now we’re very close to the Spanish Steps, and while Via dei Greci is off Via del Corso, this place is whisper quiet. We hear more from the music academy than we do from the street. I love that we’re getting to know an entirely new set of back streets, and that our reacquaintance with Rome is full of so much that is entirely fresh. Villa Borghese, for instance. The ideal wonderland for the Touring Toddler, and a great running park besides, I’d never troubled myself to visit it before. We also discovered the ‘Gusto’ dining precinct our first night, going for an evening stroll (when in Rome, after all… and they are nothing if not midnight marchers…) once we’d unpacked, stopping at the more casual Gusto Osteria for an al fresco dinner. Nearby is the Museo dell’ Ara Pacis – a fine looking contemporary space housing the ancient sacrificial altar. Its current secondary exhibition downstairs is The Foreign Press is 100 Years Old, and I’m off to see it all now.
Oh, I turn 40 tomorrow. And I must say, turning 40 in bella Roma makes turning 40 seem AWESOME. Ciao
We’re staying in the Old Town here in Cefalu, and it’s exactly as you’d expect: a maze of tiny cobblestoned streets leading out from the fine Duomo; warm, earth-toned facades and terracotta tiled roofs; crowded rows of compact terraces and sagging apartment blocks with central courtyards. Washing hangs over the street from suspended lines, bread is delivered to the higher floors by rope and pulley, men sit in doorways on hard-backed chairs and miniscule wrought iron balconies afford the lucky few a place from which to survey and interact with the street.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how a load of drying domestic laundry can look so charming and picturesque flapping in the shade of these old Sicilian streets, how even someone’s pretty dodgy worn bath-towels can take on a poetic quality as they rhythmically slap against the side of a crumbling building… But the second you go to the new part of town, where the architectural continuity is present only in the inadequate size and external colour palette of these extraordinarily mediocre dwellings, and you spy the exact same load pegged to a plastic clotheshorse, all you can think is, “Sheesh – these Italians! Are they ever going to get their shit together…?!”
It’s very close living here, so not a place I’d necessarily recommend to privacy freaks. You can’t really move without everyone in the block knowing about it, and that makes for some interesting insights into the lives of its permanent residents. It’s one of the things I have most loved about renting apartments during the Grand Tour: the way it dumps you into a place where people actually live. You just don’t get the same immersive quality staying in hotels – certainly for us this style of travelling, thanks to the explosion of apartment rentals through websites like AIRBNB, has added a substantial additional pleasure to our adventures.
Here on Via Mandralisca, for instance, we were instantly enchanted by the entrance to our courtyard because the short tunnel was lined with paintings by the artist who lives and has studio space in the block, Antonio. What a delightful welcome mat – I can’t think of anything better. His rich oils capturing Cefalu’s ‘locals’ beach’ (the small one we frequent, away from the resort-style new end of town), mingled with religious paintings (he is Italian, after all) and perfectly rendered streetscapes all captivated the Touring Toddler in particular, actually succeeding in slowing him down for a precious few seconds every time we entered the courtyard from the street.
We have greatly enjoyed our instant rapport with Antonio, and it was probably on Day 4 when he called out to us as we were leaving for the day that he’d begun a painting of an angel, and who did it resemble but our own Touring Toddler? Well, clearly there’s been some kind of mistake, we laughed. Unless it’s his alter-ego? Antonio fetched the unfinished painting from inside his studio, and sure enough, the likeness was undeniable, especially around the eyes and bone structure. We were touched by his immediate affection for and interest in the Touring Toddler, the way he always calls out his name with a warm, “Ciao!” For his part, the Touring Toddler is equally enthusiastic, seeking out Antonio and his paintings every time we enter the communal space.
It was at the end of Week 1 that Antonio told us he was moving to another apartment in the block.
“My landlord,” he said, “hates the paintings.”
“Who could hate the paintings?” we said. “They make the whole place!”
“You say this,” Antonio continued, “but he, he walks up and down, up and down, every day he says ‘la galeria…la galeria…’ I cannot stand it anymore. Nobody else has this problem but him. It is not good for me. So I move.”
The landlord in question doesn’t own Antonio’s studio space, so there was no problem with ‘La Galeria’ continuing, until, that is, an official looking notice appeared on the main front doors.
“I wonder what that’s all about?” I asked Llew, as it had a tear sheet down the bottom for residents that looked very much like a ballot.
We soon found out when all the owners and residents conducted their strata meeting on the landing immediately outside our door. How anything was decided I’ll never know; Llew walked in at one point shaking his head and said, “That is just a roomful of people shouting over the top of each other.”
Afterwards, we saw Antonio. The landlord’s motion to have the courtyard gallery removed was defeated. He was the only one who voted in favour of shutting it down. We cheered, and were happy when Antonio moved apartments last weekend because we thought he’s escaped his own little Mussolini once and for all.
But then, nothing. The paintings resting on their easels – our guard of honour in oil – never reappeared downstairs. We didn’t see Antonio for days. Then one morning we discovered black plastic pot plants of ungainly, unlovely cacti replacing Antonio’s work along the sides of the narrow tunnel. Our hearts sank – what was happening? We knew he’d decided to move back to Rome, but now? Without even saying goodbye? Suddenly trudging through the bare tunnel had us all feeling more than a little glum.
“Where are the paintings?” I’d ask the Touring Toddler. “Where did they go? Where’s Antonio?”
And the Touring Toddler would stop, take a sweeping look around and helplessly spread his hands.
“I know,” he’d say. “I know.”
And then lo and behold, Antonio reappeared, explaining he’d been away visiting his parents north of Palermo. We were so happy and relieved to see him, not least because Llew’s parents had commissioned him to do a small painting of the Touring Toddler, which we’re due to collect and pay for, but also because we’ll at least be able to exchange numbers before we leave, and hopefully keep in touch.
“But the gallery?” I asked. “What’s happened to the gallery? We really miss your paintings.”
Antonio shook his head.
“No more. I have had enough.”
“By the end of the month.”
“Wow,” I said, “there’s no point even unpacking.”
Antonio agreed. So while we’re still fascinated by the communal life of this old block, trying to make every day count, this long-term resident has had a gutful. I’m sorry to say La Galeria is no more – and I didn’t even manage to snap a photo for the Touring Toddler to remember it by.
We are back in the regular swing of our own routine now Llew’s parents have headed to the mainland. They left last Friday and – beyond my filing an interview for the Varuna Alumni News – we’ve spent the interim recovering. I’m pretty sure they got to the Amalfi and immediately flaked too. You just underestimate, I think, the impact of travelling with two more people, in close quarters with an unsettled child, not to mention the real challenge we all faced of trying to attend to everyone’s needs and wishes. It’s a pretty big ask. I think we all aced it to the extent that anyone can, but Llew and I at least are still staggering.
The good news is that Llew and I actually got to go out for dinner by ourselves one night after putting the Touring Toddler to bed. K and P went out for an early dinner while we did battle with the One Who Will Not Be Silenced. The second they got home – only just missing the final round of negotiations – we bolted. Waiting for our table, we worked out over a well-earned drink at the restaurant’s bar that we hadn’t been out alone together – had a ‘date night,’ in other words – since Hong Kong. Three and a half months ago.
New York was flat out, we didn’t stop moving for those two weeks, and the combination of the Touring Toddler’s jet-lag with New York’s surprising open house policy toward small children meant that we just took him with us. We always intended to get a babysitter one night but it just never happened. On the next leg in London, we scored a fantastic babysitter, such a winner, but we were only able to lasso her in order to catch up with friends, not venture out by ourselves. It gets expensive, so we had to be judicious. Paris? We were only there 3 nights. Opio? Staying with friends. San Remo? Just a stop on the way to somewhere else. And then Greece and back now to Italy, where in each case babysitting as we understand it does not appear to exist. We’ve looked. Believe me, we’ve looked. In Athens one night we met up with a friend of a friend, and when I pressed her about it, she confirmed our suspicion that it’s just not done. I guess people rely on family or retain nannies; casual babysitting seems to be practically unheard of. So that’s the tale of how a married couple might easily lose their mojo. Three and a half months without an evening alone is a long time.
Needless to say we stayed at dinner the other night until we were the last ones left in the restaurant, then we took a slow stroll around the piazza below Cefalù’s stunning Norman duomo, and I only broke into a run once we entered our building’s courtyard and we heard the Touring Toddler’s anguished cries shattering the quiet of the night. Our timing was good, he’d only just woken up, but even so he was already totally beside himself and I do think we’ll be starting from scratch as far as separation anxiety goes once this trip is over. I think we have reached the limit of his endurance; in a world that keeps on changing, we are his one stable thing, and his attachment to me in particular at the moment is really pronounced. I’m glad we chose that moment to call it a night – causing that level of distress and confusion is just not on. I don’t know what we’ll do for the wedding we’re attending back in Sydney… I really just don’t know.
The whirlwind day-tripping of last week in which we visited Enna, Siracusa, Taormina, Èrice, Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples and finally Palermo – Siracusa and the temples proving major highlights – has given way to our usual alternate mornings of free time, which both of us are using to exercise and look for/think about/do some work. Cefalù’s own rhythms are oddly concordant; it was an utter madhouse here during K and P’s stay, teeming with people and wild weather: the surf was up, the water dirty, the streets overwhelmed. Now all is calm, including the once again pristine waters. I’m so sorry they never got to see it like this.
And now I must away… I have so much work to do on myself and my practice. The only thing that is really clear to me on the employment front is that I must strive to reach my potential as a writer. What that means in a practical sense I am still struggling to understand.
We’re galloping toward the end of the Grand Tour, I am desperately sorry to say, and the time in Cefalu is already flying by. We’ve been joined by two gatecrashers: Llew’s parents arrived from Australia on Thursday, inspired by our rave reviews into booking their own Italian sojourn. They’re staying with us for a week, then heading off to the Amalfi and then on to Rome where we’ll meet again, though this time in separate accommodation. This apartment was huge for 2.5 of us, but we’re pretty cosy now! It’s been wonderful seeing the Touring Toddler’s response to the arrival of his grandparents; we weren’t sure how long it would take him to warm up, but in the event it was no time at all. He’s absolutely loving them being here, which of course is the best possible reception for Grandma and Granddad.
It’s funny after 3.5 months abroad to be suddenly talking about Australian politics and Australian society and Australian sport and Australian media again… I haven’t missed it, and aside from catching up with family and friends, I am not looking forward to going home. I just don’t want to be there anymore, and I am not sure what we are going to do about it as Llew feels very much the same. I had thought that a trip of this magnitude might attend to the itch to be elsewhere, but all this prolonged and exquisite scratching has only inflamed it.
We have a great life in Sydney, we love it, it’s home and we’re very privileged to have a place there, plus it hopefully goes without saying that we love our family and everyone in our wide circle of friends, but none of it has been able to extinguish the desire to start all over again somewhere else. And that desire has been compounded by a gradual but steady erosion over the past few years of my natural affection for other Australians. I’ve always liked my country, I’ve always liked my fellow Aussies, I’ve always been a big believer in the place and its people. But I realise from this remove that my faith has been quietly diminishing over time – there’s a variety of reasons for that, it’s not one thing – and now the thought of having to go back makes me want to cry.
I guess I am a bit disillusioned politically, philosophically, economically, intellectually and socially, and while perhaps I have no one but myself to blame for that, still I seem to feel better about things now I’m out of Australia. Of course, that is partially a function of denial: we have been avoiding addressing the reality of our situation, which is that we’re both unemployed. We have a child. We have a mortgage. We have bills. None of that is going to be pleasant – reentry promises to be unusually turbulent and we face a really hard time trying to work through our prospects. Hopefully we’ll eventually come up with some sort of plan for our future. Currently all we know is that the job market is pretty terrible for both of us, not just in Australia but around the world. Besides which, Llew doesn’t even want another job like the one he had, working in finance for a big bank. So he may well be starting from scratch in another industry, or taking a number of risks trying to work for himself. I have no idea what his next job looks like or where it will be.
And what job shall I start looking for…? It’s not exactly a great time to be an out-of-work writer – journalists are losing their jobs, and those that still have them are holding on for dear life. Part-time or full-time? And will I even earn enough to pay for the childcare I’ll require to return to the workforce at all? And what will be the effect on the Touring Toddler of all these huge changes to our household? Speaking of which, without jobs we can’t even afford to live in our own home upon our return. We need rent income to cover the mortgage repayments, so immediately upon landing in Sydney, we’ll have to find new tenants, move the rest of our stuff into storage and stay with Llew’s parents until we sort ourselves out. Really, the whole thing is a shambles. No wonder we favour denial. Denial’s been fun.
I had a dream last night all my teeth fell out, so the party is definitely winding down as my subconscious starts cracking the whip. I’m officially concerned for our future. But in the meantime, hey, we’re loving Sicily, and if we’re going down, we’re going down in a blaze of misspent euros. We’re in Italy, and it’s a beautiful life.
I hate it when this happens, but the following post is not in real time. Right now I am in Cefalu in Sicily, Italy, listening to John Lee Hooker, but here is what I had for you last week (with more to follow – I am doing my very best!):
It’s been a busy and brief tour since last I posted. After saying a teary goodbye to Amaliapolis – I’m sure my claw marks are still visible on the road leaving the village – we drove to Delphi, set in mountainous terrain under the shadow of Mt. Parnassus. Since then we’ve been to the islands of Poros and Hydra and are now in the final days of our Greek Odyssey here in beautiful Athens. We’re spending a week here, but Wednesday’s departure is approaching much too rapidly for my liking. It’s very easy to imagine never leaving.
Delphi was jaw-dropping, truly spectacular thanks to the ruins of the ancient Sanctuary of Apollo and the stunning mountain-scape that has cradled the site these thousands of years. As Llew said as we approached, seeing it, it is easy to understand why it was once believed to be the beginning of everything: the centre of the universe according to Zeus. There is something stirring in that ancient stone – here history is weightless, a ghost spirit slipping past you on the path.
Unfortunately we shattered the serenity for everyone when the Touring Toddler turned on the lengthiest and most spectacular tantrum of his short life. It began at the base of the Sanctuary of Apollo and lasted all the way to the stadium at the top. He fought and screamed and howled his way past the ruins of ancient columns both Doric and Ionic, past the Treasury, past votive stands, past the amphitheatre, past crumbling walls and temples. His indignant roar, his unbendable back arch, his signature ‘ground thrash’ all made a sustained appearance before the late afternoon crowd of weary travellers trying to enjoy the sacred and respectfully silent site.
Some people like retracing the steps of the ancients, knowing they are walking in the shadow of the past, but not our boy. No, the Touring Toddler prefers screeching past, kicking up dust clouds and scattering stones in his wake. Whatever gods still reside at Delphi were surely roused from sleep that day.
The village of Delphi itself appears to be in the grip of a terrible depression. It was deflating witnessing the struggle of so many businesses designed to profit from what is still a guaranteed stream of tourists; while it’s true there are visitors aplenty, perhaps they are staying elsewhere, and perhaps travellers are now less inclined to buy the cheap trinkets and overpriced souvenirs that so dominate Delphi’s shop windows. Perhaps that’s where our own austerity measures may be seen in effect.
We had a pretty ordinary lunch at the first cafe entering town – it has unbelievable views down into the valley below, leading all the way back out to sea, but the food was, well, bad. I know part of the reason it was vile is that we were smack bang in the tourist zone – suddenly it was wall to wall pizza and waffles. But the real shock came while scouting hotels for a room. We were only going to be there overnight, so there was no need of an apartment, and there was availability everywhere. A vacancy is one thing. What was so abjectly awful in Delphi was the level of desperation driving the prices down. One man – Nick – showed me a room and virtually chased me back onto the street lowering the price with every increasingly brisk step I took.
“Please don’t make me do that again,” I pleaded to Llew. “I can’t handle it. I feel personally responsible for that guy’s predicament. The guilt of not taking his room is making me feel sick.”
Sure enough, Nick leapt out to the street as we passed on our way back to get the car. I was mortified, rooted to the spot by shame and embarrassment.
“Nick,” I squeaked, “this is my husband, Llew. I’m sorry, but Llew has found us another hotel. But thank you, thank you very much.”
What was it, Nick wanted to know. What was it the other place had that his hotel didn’t have? We hastened to reassure him that our decision was no reflection on his property, just our own needs, but Nick would not be consoled. He wouldn’t let us leave.
Where was it? Which hotel, he pressed, which hotel had stolen us away from him? Llew and I looked at each other and shrugged. We weren’t even sure of the name. All we knew was that the room was light, spacious, had a great balcony and that the hotel itself was MUCH better suited to the Touring Toddler’s incessant explorations. We apologised, but still Nick would not admit defeat, insisting Llew inspect the room too.
“How much?” Nick wanted to know when they returned and Llew explained again that the other place was just more appropriate with a toddler.
“It’s not about the money,” Llew said.
It was the issue of ‘how much’ in Delphi that most succinctly captured the town’s crisis. I have never stayed in a hotel this cheap in my life. I am sure that I paid more for a bunk in a reeking backpackers’ when I did my obligatory European tour back in 1999, when the Australian dollar was the enemy of its people. Now that we are enjoying the unusual luxury and opportunity of something approaching parity with the euro, Llew, the Touring Toddler and I are simply part of a current mass invasion of the Continent. Someone told Llew a couple of days ago that Australians are the second highest visitor group to Greece this year, and I can believe it.
I distinctly recall landing in London in 1999 to the surprising news that Australians were universally regarded as the biggest tight-arses on the planet… it didn’t gel with what I knew of my fellow Antipodeans – generous people by nature – but I now realise it was entirely due to the crushing exchange rate at the time. I always say it was like putting your savings in a pile and setting it alight – Australians had to count their pennies because each and every one was costing three and a half times that. I think northern hemisphere visitors to present day Sydney may just know a little more keenly what I am referring to.
Currently things are much better for us in the UK and Europe and Australians are making the most of it. So. Back to Delphi. By the time we managed to extract ourselves from Nick, he had dropped the room price to €35. The other guy’s room was €35 including breakfast. If I could find a hotel that cheap in Australia, I guarantee it wouldn’t be somewhere I’d ever want to stay, and it certainly wouldn’t have views or be walking distance from one of the most significant sites in the country.
We were parked up on the curbside unloading the car when Nick rode up the street on his vespa. He slowed, taking in the full scene, noting the offending hotel and the final confirmation of our betrayal. After several agonising seconds watching us unpack, Nick sped off, his face a fury, his shoulders hunched over the handlebars.
We’ve been in planning mode here in Amaliapoli, trying to push through all the administrative requirements of the next stage of the Grand Tour so that we can get back to the more pressing issue of enjoying our final week here. Oh, the lump in my throat when I think about leaving. I have been so happy here.
One of the waitresses at the beachside taverna we favour mentioned late Friday afternoon that there would be a dance show over at the small village port, which sits on the opposite side of the bay. Kick off was 9 pm, she said, so I looked at the Touring Toddler a little doubtfully and said we’d definitely try. It’s always a punt trying to take the TT out past his bedtime (although this week he seems to have switched to a much more Grecian program), but we figured it was worth a shot.
Candle bags lit the way from the road, and a healthy throng of locals and annual holiday-makers packed the available area. A huge circle of chairs defined the dirt dance floor, and with every seat taken, the rest of us formed standing rings behind. A full moon rose over the beach end of the bay, so low and bright in the sky, its reflected glow stretching right across the water all the way to the port. The moon’s golden path, swaying gently with the current, made me wish that we could, for an evening, all dance on the water, for there could be no more inviting ball room than that still and starry night.
Still, what we got wasn’t bad either, an exuberant burst of song and dance that mesmerised those children not already performing (the TT included) and set all the adult toes tapping. ‘Grease Lightning’ kicked off the show – daggy but fun – and what a blast it was seeing half the village waiters and waitresses strutting their stuff, all coiffed and polished, spinning and dipping with the best of them. Next the young kids swarmed into the circle, stomping, running, giggling and grinning their way through a traditional Greek number, before the teenage girls strode confidently into the centre for a ‘Pink Panther’ number. The hour-long concert ended with the saucy tango, which transcends all language barriers, everywhere and always. Rapturous applause was the reward for all their hard work and preparation, faces everywhere beaming brighter than the moon.
We wandered with the dispersing crowd back down along the lamp-lit bay, past the still busy cafes and restaurants, just about bursting with affection for this place and its people. I am really, really going to miss it. As I write this, the TT is having a nap and I am stretched out on the couch with the gigantic window bringing the view teeming through. It is the loveliest place with the most bewitching view: the small island that sits swimming distance from the bay, the glorious blanket of blue sea and the mountains rising up majestically across the gulf. It eases something in me that is otherwise generally wound too tight. I am utterly charmed by this village and this vista – I shall remember it always and expect to yearn for it just as long. Islands be damned; Mitzela is divine.
We leave here Sunday – reluctantly – and the plan is to go to the ancient site of Delphi, then, yes, an island for a couple of days, then on to Athens, where we have booked an amazing-looking place on AIRbnb that is right in the Acropolis zone. Devastated though I am to be leaving here, I am very excited about Athens. It’s a real gap in my Ancient City CV and I can’t wait to see it and immerse ourselves in the local neighbourhood for a whole delicious week of architecture and history. I just felt a bolt of pure joy at the prospect.
And then it’s goodbye Greece, I’m sad to say, though what an inspired decision this leg turned out to be. We’re taking an overnight ferry to the port of Bari on the Italian east coast, and from there flying to Palermo in Sicily, where we’ll be collected by the nephew of the couple whose apartment we’ve booked and driven to Cefalu. In researching our options for this next leg, we both became a little infatuated with Cefalu, so let’s hope our intuition serves us as well there as it has here. I’ve never before made it to Sicily despite a couple of trips to Italy so I am DELIGHTED to be getting there now. It looks like Llew’s parents are going to join us there for a week, too, before they continue on to Norway and we make our way to Roma, glorious Roma, city of my soul, in time for my 40th birthday. Now that’s what I call a plan.
After that, I’m afraid the music stops. We’ll have to face up to all the boring stuff like jobs and bills and mortgage. But let’s not linger there now, not when the sun is shining, the sea is blue and we still have this week in Mitzela…