This is a cheat post, I’m afraid, much of it lifted from an email I’ve just written Llew’s parents… I’ve spent my free time on housework today and now in the time remaining must turn my attention to some administrative matters that badly need attention… BLECH. If I had a housekeeper, a secretary and a nanny my writing would be in much better shape. Back in the day, Virginia Woolf thought we needed just 500 quid a year to make a go of this writing business – today I would add a few zeros and a staff of 3 just to really live the dream.
So… let the cheating begin…
Our downstairs neighbours, V and V, have been so welcoming, arriving on the doorstep just after we arrived with a bag groaning with homegrown fruit and veg, later returning with a pair of floaties for the Touring Toddler. So sweet. The first gift caused me a small amount of anxiety, however, as it included a small pile of something I couldn’t identify. It seemed a hybrid, part zucchini, part eggplant, possibly even part cucumber, and the cluster – some large, some small – sat reproachfully on the homely wooden kitchen bench here while we easily made use of the rest of the offering: delicious tomatoes and nectarines. V also cleans our apartment by arrangement with the owners, and when she came on Tuesday, it caused me untold consternation to realise that she would see the still unidentified, still unused vegetable sitting there in its little unclaimed group. Oh no! I thought. They’re going to think we don’t like it! Just thinking she’d interpret the lingering presence of this vegetable as a sign that their generous offering had been rebuked was enough to make me cringe, but it also broke the deadlock. I would cook these things, goddammit, and we would eat every last morsel and be glad of it.
My research began with a big bite into one of them. Not a cucumber, then. So I sliced one, skin on, into rings, which I then cooked on a skittle in a little oil, seasoning liberally. The flesh became almost translucent, but the skin released a metallic bitterness I did not enjoy. Llew suggested it was a kind of eggplant; he doesn’t really like eggplant, so this was not a rousing endorsement. Next I decided to peel and deseed them, after which I headed to Google and began searching terms like ‘Greek vegetables’ and ‘Greek white zucchini,’ eventually succeeding in finding an image match. White zucchini. Now I was getting somewhere. ‘Greek recipes white zucchini’ turned up a perfectly reasonable fritter recipe using green zucchini (skin retained, but that was too late for me); I was cooking at last.
I was determined to use the white zucchinis because of the spirit in which they entered my kitchen, but in truth they required far more work than anything I have made in a good long while. The recipe suggested grating then salting the zukes to draw out as much water as possible (apparently this results in a much crispier fritter, which was justification enough for me); I did both then left the bowl in the fridge overnight, by this stage a bit defeated by the epic session they’d already required.
Next day, rolling the grated flesh in paper towel revealed a truly surprising amount of liquid. The small bowlful saturated countless sheets of towel. I rolled them out and rolled them over and rolled them again – I probably went through half a roll of paper towel trying to pat these fuckers dry. Leaving the small mound on the last sheets, I turned back to the mixing bowl I’d rested them in, cracking in 2 eggs, which I lightly mixed with a fork. I wasn’t exactly following the recipe I’d found online, but I had read through it carefully enough and was satisfied I could pull something together with ingredients I had to hand.
Next I chopped a brown onion and added that to the eggs, then I threw in the grated zucchini, some of the dried herb that’s used everywhere here (our grocer pressed a pouch on us during our first visit), some flour, a packet of feta-like cheese (not quite feta, this was unsalted) that I just crumbled with my fingers, lots of salt and pepper and a liberal slug of my secret weapon: tabasco.
I cooked a couple quite slowly on the skittle last night and served them with plain yoghurt as an accompaniment to the fish Llew bought straight off the boat yesterday morning, and you know what? They were beaut. I am going to cook up the rest today; my first thought was to run some downstairs to V and V, but it looks like they’ve gone away for the weekend. Still, when V comes to clean next week, the kitchen bench will be bare, and maybe that’s enough.
Meanwhile it’s another glorious day here. The boys have gone to the beach – I’ve already been for a run and a swim and shall follow them down once I’ve uploaded this post. Our friend J is here from London for 4 days, nursing a fairly gothic-looking head wound after coming off second best yesterday snorkelling straight into a boat’s propeller. No, really. Thankfully the boat wasn’t actually moving at the time or he would have lost his face and possibly his life. As it is he has a Frankenstein-style zippered skull – ten stitches and I can’t believe that’s all. It gets better: he didn’t take out any travel insurance, and guess how much the trip to the hospital in Volos cost?
Wait for it.
4 euros and 87 cents.
Yep. Be my guest. Take as long as you need.
Under 5 euros for x-rays and attention from a surgeon to stitch his head back together. Seriously. That may be the source of the country’s economic problems right there. Unbelievable!
Today I expect to see the resumption of the ongoing battle that rages between families with small kids and the young pairs of ‘bat and ball’ enthusiasts down at the beach. The latter stand at the water’s edge every afternoon, their numbers swelling each weekend, clad only in their swimwear and thwacking a tennis ball back and forth, back and forth for hours, pausing to occasionally saturate themselves beneath the showers that sit as a gateway to the tavernas. They exude entitlement, which means arguments regularly break out between the players and other beach goers, whose enjoyment of the beach is definitely affected by this thick clot of obstruction down by the shore. It becomes genuinely alarming when incompetent players take up their bats; yesterday’s Greek geeks down our end were so hopelessly, hilariously uncoordinated we were constantly using our bare hands to deflect their stray tennis ball away from the Touring Toddler’s vulnerable skull. We played the usual game of charades to make ourselves understood: there are lots of little children playing down this end; can’t you please move further up the beach? After limited success negotiating with them, their gang of equally nerdy mates turned up and what followed was a kind of round robin of slapstick ineptitude. I suppose they were probably just as intimidated as we have been by the more serious (and seriously glamorous) players along the main stretch; these players thump the ball with a largely joyless intensity I find a bit unsettling. Perhaps the repetition is hypnotic. But they do monopolise the beach as though it’s their sacred duty to do so, and it was a relief to get to Monday and realise it’s much worse on the weekend. But now here it is, Saturday again. We’re here for a full month, and it’s a big shock realising that our time here is already more than half done.
In other news, images of nubile young Greek gods and goddesses have been replaced by the wildly imbalanced reality of obese young boys and men and largely slim, beautiful women. Llew is spoilt for choice as far as idle appreciation of the opposite sex goes, whereas I find myself appalled by the shocking and all too common sight of men of all ages with unsightly protruding guts and damp looking breasts that are far larger than my own. I wonder at the discrepancy between the two; why are the men clearly falling prey to the same obesity epidemic that has so overtaken the average physique elsewhere, whereas the majority of the women (admittedly my sample size is very limited) seem to have sidestepped it? Strange, since the oily net of obesity certainly captures both sexes in parts of the world, including Australia, where the problem is so upsettingly rife. Perhaps Greek women are endowed with more restraint, resisting the bowls of chips and/or nuts that arrive unbidden each time one orders a beer? Perhaps they are likelier to eat the salad and order their food grilled instead of fried? I don’t know what the answer is, but I can tell you the sight of all this near naked male flesh does not conjure images of Zeus and Achilles, but recalls only the wrong Homer.
Wifi has been down, so I have a couple of posts I wrote as Word docs down at the tavernas by the beach… here’s the first one:
After scrambling and stumbling our way to the 7 am bus to Almiros yesterday morning, we then hopped a cab to the airport in order to hire a car for the coming week. First stop: Volos, the buoyant port city at the base of Mt Pelion. The birthplace of the ancient mythology surrounding Jason and the Argonauts, modern day Volos is the closest (smallish) big smoke to little fishing villages like our own Mitzela. As well as being curious to see what lay further afield, we were specifically on the hunt for several things: a new cossie (bathing suit) for yours truly (since 4 swims a day, every day, quickly makes shabby even the snazziest bikini); some beach sandals for the Touring Toddler; a replacement zip-up 3/4 length swimsuit for the TT to replace the one we lost (a failed bid, since they don’t exist here); some remotely drinkable wine (all six bottles we optimistically bought at the Almiros supermarket proving badly corked) and some English-language periodicals, since holidays just ain’t holidays without (in addition to books, naturally) a few fat newspapers and glossy magazines.
It was a very successful mission, not least because we struck the motherlode at what has to be Greece’s best stocked news-agency. It felt like they had everything; Llew went a bit crazy. He may not read fiction, but he is mad for mags, and this was undoubtedly the most promising set of shelves he’d hungrily perused since leaving London (I’m sure this is one of the reasons for his deep and abiding affection for London – it is a city that also appreciates the humble periodical). Every time I turned around another title was being added to the pile by the cash register. I chose The Sunday Times and Vanity Fair, very satisfactory loot as far as I was concerned, the Times beating the Guardian by a whisker due to a banner across the front page promoting A. A. Gill’s New York piece inside (and as it happens he’s in VF too, writing about the opening of Über London Establishment club, Loulou’s).
A. A. Gill’s acerbic writing amuses and pleases me. Sometimes I think he’d practically top my most-like-to-have-to-dinner list, but I also suspect he’s capable of being an insufferable shit whenever the mood strikes – and you can imagine, reading his withering critiques, that it strikes with Big Ben frequency and volume. When compiling my fantasy guest list, I see dear Adrian glowering at other guests at table, silencing them all with a single vicious flick of his entree fork. And since this is my most-like-to-have-to-dinner list, presumably I’d be quite invested in putting on a good show for the likes of Jeffrey Smart and Renzo Piano and Simone de Beauvoir and John Kennedy Toole. I wouldn’t want my A. A. Anxiety to result in a burnt beef wellington. But I think I’d still have to chance it, because I love his work. And this extract in The Sunday Times from his latest book, The Golden Door: Letters to America, not only illustrates why but makes me want to reflect a little more on our own recent time in New York.
Gill rightly identifies the new safety of New York as one of the transformational changes to the city. It now feels almost entirely lacking in criminality; certainly where we were staying in Chelsea, I did not detect even a minor mood of menace, nor did I encounter it elsewhere. That classic New York schtick of impatient abuse is conspicuously absent too, so much so that Llew and I talked about possible reasons for its widespread demise. When Llew finally overhead someone dishing up a loud serve of old school NYC invective, he sighed happily and said, “Ah, there it is,” as though he could at last rest easy in the strangely comforting knowledge that the apple was still a little sour at its core.
We expected the Touring Toddler to have the new experience of being ignored, dismissed and even actively disliked once we hit the Big Apple, so much so we laughingly warned him upon leaving Hong Kong that this absurd condition of being universally adored was about to come to an abrupt, violent end, whipped to ribbons by the famously sharp tongue of your average New Yorker. But that is not what happened.
“God bless your child” is the comment I most clearly recall. I was standing outside Whole Foods attending to the TT’s hungry crazies (a condition he has unfortunately inherited from his mother); the woman who spoke to me was just another ordinary mother going about her day. I looked up and thanked her – what else could one do? – and she paused just long enough to tell me her own son was grown, had just graduated university, and that it all goes by so, so fast.
“Enjoy him,” she added, before going on her way.
I looked down at the TT, feeling unexpectedly choked, and promised that I would.
The words may have differed slightly along the way, but that same spirit echoed right throughout our fortnight stay in what used to be a cruelly indifferent, roiling metropolis: God bless your child. As you know, I am not a believer, but I warmly embrace the sincerity and basic goodness driving such unsolicited invocations. I am talking about people stopping us in the streets, pausing to speak to us on the subway (and help us get our pram back up to the street just for good measure) and turning to us while we stood in shopping queues. God bless your child. And you have to wonder about that, don’t you, about that kind of seismic shift in a city’s emotional scaffolding? It was extraordinary.
My own theory, pieced together following innumerable exchanges like the one outside Whole Foods, and following the TT’s blazing welcome everywhere we went – places I kept expecting to be hostile to children – is that possibly this is just what New York post-9/11 looks like.
“Think about what an experience like that would do to you,” I said to Llew. “Then imagine this entire city experiencing it with you. It definitely didn’t defeat them, but maybe… maybe it humbled them.”
From what I read and understood at the time, New Yorkers united in that horrible grief the whole world (with a few very sad exceptions) shared with them, and I don’t know that you ever get over it. We visited the WTC site and the NYFD Museum, and you’d have to be especially hard-hearted not to want to weep all these years later at those names and, in the museum, the faces of all those guys who bravely went running in. So many names and broad smiling faces. It makes me want to howl sitting here by a beach in Greece. The two memorial fountains (which are really, really beautiful and haunting) include the words ‘Unborn Child’ after the name of every pregnant woman killed that blue sky day, and I defy anyone to see those two tragic words and not want to run back out to the street and place a hand on the innocent head of the very next child they see. God bless your child – it all makes so, so much more sense to me now that I think about that.
Of an event like September 11, I honestly don’t know that you could avoid asking yourself a few hard questions, and I don’t know if you’d ever again feel like you could afford to ignore the answers you had for yourself. I think something so awful strips away everything else, so perhaps New York simply ended up starting again with its better self as the first block in the rebuild. Whatever happened, I still think it’s the greatest city we have – and now it may well be one of the kindest too.
While in New York, I had the rather strange experience of seeing someone with whom my friendship has lapsed, or, more accurately, well passed its use-by date. I don’t think – and running into him in NYC confirmed this – that he bears me any ill will, I think I just utterly ceased to be relevant to his life the moment I left his sightline – a very long time ago now.
I’ve had a number of friends fade to black this way, and I find it all a bit bewildering and bruising, since bodily absence isn’t the death knell of a friendship for me. In this case it was especially hurtful, as he was one of my best friends during my second year at Pearson, so across a very formative period of my life. But let’s face it: we were great friends in person, but that was for less than a year 20 years ago, and we wrote for maybe another year or so after that. That’s it. I did visit him at his hometown while backpacking in 1999, but when he came to Australia to speak during a Melbourne art show a few years ago, he certainly didn’t bother looking me up.
Ironically, I am professionally and personally interested in contemporary art, publishing quite a lot of articles in The Australian on the subject in Special Reports, as well as obviously blogging about exhibitions and so forth here, so I’ve always been aware of my old friend’s ongoing ascendancy in the international art scene. Quietly, I couldn’t be prouder, however misplaced my pride in him must seem from across this kind of canyon.
I’d last seen him in NYC in 2001, an experience that confirmed his fundamental disinterest in knowing me any longer (indeed, when someone else suggested we meet, I expressed well-founded doubt that he’d have any interest in doing so), so I had no intention of seeking him out this time. But here was the catch: he is now Associate Director of a museum I very much wished to visit, both for the architecture of the building itself (it hadn’t opened when last I was in Manhattan) and for the contemporary art displayed within. I thought, no problem. As if I’ll see him while I’m there – that never happens! Edmund Capon, the recently retired Director of the AGNSW, was never once in the same room while I’ve cruised the gallery on countless visits; ditto Elizabeth Ann MacGregor of Sydney’s MCA. What were the chances my old friend and I would collide? Remote, was my calculation, particularly as curators and gallery directors travel extensively with their work. He probably isn’t even in the country, I reasoned. And more to the point, why should I actively avoid a museum I really wanted to visit because of the demise of a long-ago friendship? To do so seemed ridiculous.
So off we went one day, initially intending to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, then, deciding we’d left it too late, opting at the last minute to head to the museum in question instead. We went straight to the top and began making our way down floor by floor – it’s one of those great midsize museums where it is actually possible to see everything inside during the course of a single tour. Unfortunately the Touring Toddler wasn’t having any of it, so Llew and he made an early exit, leaving me to wander the gallery in peace.
All my nostalgic bias aside, it was a satisfying series, with a number of thought-provoking points of intercession between the multimodal work of such different artists (all female); it was possible to discern the light sketch of a narrative arc that careful curation had drawn between them. It also avoided that all too common crime of contemporary art, which is alienating the average viewer through some intangible, hard to articulate failure of technique and/or originality. I’m sure you know what I mean: it’s when the innate quality of a piece appears sometimes brazenly, oftentimes lazily in doubt. When people say, “I know art when I see it, and this is not art,” I believe they are referring to this branch of contemporary work that leaves even the most intrepid and committed gallery goer feeling cheated and even furious. Jaded. Happily, that disconnect did not trouble my own visit to this contemporary space, which successfully engaged the eye, the mind and, in surprising, sometimes unexpectedly moving ways, the heart. I was so glad we’d come.
In the lift, I sighed happily. I’d enjoyed my visit and was about to emerge unscathed. But as the profound perversity of fate would have it, I saw my ex-friend the exact moment I exited the elevator on the ground floor. He was working at one of the tables in the museum’s lobby cafe, bent intently over his papers in a casually concentrated pose still so like that of the college student I once knew. There was a rush of tenderness for the sweet boy he’d been, but seconds later I felt the frigid air of here and now. What to do?
Llew and the TT were somewhere outside – should I leave? Or, having seen him, should I say hello? Would it, in fact, be exceedingly peculiar not to say hi, having come across him like this? If you are looking for someone who always over-thinks these things to an excruciating degree, then look no further. I am your woman. I was so paralysed you would have thought a far greater challenge than this simple decision was upon me. I paced up and down the museum bookshop a couple of times, agonising like a teenager. And there is something purely regressive about my reactions in this type of situation – I really do unravel like a shoddily bound mummy. I called Llew and told him. He and M had never met; I’m not sure Llew had ever seen a photo, but of course he’d heard me speak of him and knew the situation. He finds it all exasperating, so his patience with me here was not only commendable but kind.
“Oh,” Llew said. ” Actually, I think I saw him. I’m pretty sure we were sitting at the next table. You should say hello.”
“I really don’t think so,” I said.
“Just say hello,” he repeated. “You’ll regret it if you don’t. You know you will.”
He was probably right. But I’m still ambivalent about the awkward exchange that followed.
Gnawing my lip, I waited for Llew and the TT to reenter the museum, needing as I did a bit of moral support. Even to say hello – why is that? Feeling clammy and nervous, I eventually went up, stood by his shoulder and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I saw you sitting here and I thought I’d better stop and say hi.”
When he first looked up, it was immediately obvious he had absolutely no idea who I was. It took several long seconds for his brain to locate the appropriate file and reopen it long enough to identify me. I think I will always miss the company of his very fine mind, but he clearly hasn’t wasted a second missing whatever makes up mine!
Finally he said, “Oh my god,” followed by the usual blurting babble of genuine surprise.
I think I said again that I was sorry to interrupt, and that it was only that I’d seen him sitting there, and that I was really glad to see him doing so well. When he got to his feet, we exchanged the European-style greeting of a kiss on each cheek, though what followed was a kind of rapid fire exchange of….well, itineraries.
He asked what we were doing in NYC, I said just visiting, and that we were leaving shortly thereafter, next stop London, and he quickly said he was flying out too, leaving the next day, in fact, for Berlin (so, you know, PHEW – there wouldn’t be any awkward talk of meeting later to contend with, since he’d nipped that one right in the bud!). When I asked if he wanted to meet Llew and the TT, who were standing about 10 feet away, he just couldn’t help himself. He all but looked at his watch. And he couldn’t resist saying it, he just couldn’t stop himself from saying something along the lines of, “Just for a minute, but then I really have to blah blah blah…” – at which point, something in me just curled up and died.
Was I really asking so much of his admittedly in-demand time that he had to qualify his ability to spend an additional few seconds of it simply meeting my husband and my son? What – what on earth – did he think I wanted from him?? What the fuck did he think I was going to do, drop a sack over his head and kidnap him, removing him to an empty warehouse in New Jersey that I’d kitted out with images from college log books and a serial killer’s photo wall? I was at worst an over-invested friend – not a crazed fucking fan! But that’s the nub of how his responses make me feel – like some sort of weird hanger-on he just can’t shake.
It made me feel so uncomfortable I had to swallow the renewed urge to just run out of there. But over he came to where Llew and the TT were waiting, and we went through the introductions in a friendly enough way. And then, mercifully, it was over. He said something like, “See you next time… maybe…?” (ellipses sounding louder than gunfire), and I think I laughed softly, a sad little laugh more to myself than to him. I would guess my face – ever an open book – probably said precisely what I was thinking, which was simply, “Don’t, just don’t.” No need to pretend at anything when everything is so clear and settled.
One of my great, abiding frustrations with myself is that this disheartening meeting has taken up more time and energy than it deserves. Here I am dedicating precious writing time to its retelling, and in the days immediately following the museum visit, I found I had to speak to Llew and a couple of other friends about it too. I even cried while trying to articulate to Llew how shitty it made me feel – cried! The whole big waste of space makes me so cross with myself, but I suppose it’s also quite natural to need to process the negative stuff; we don’t tend to analyse the positives in life, do we? And I’ve an abundance of those. Still, functional relationships and happy times don’t, I would hazard, dominate the therapeutic scene. It’s things and people that trouble us that we worry at, forever scratching the itchy scabs of our existence while unblemished skin goes unremarked and unattended, quietly doing its job of keeping the greater whole intact.
And I guess this particular scab hasn’t healed because I tend to acquire friends rather than lose them, and it niggles to have been excised so totally without mutual consent. My pride is outraged – I didn’t give permission for this! But more, it rocks my confidence to its core. He doesn’t want to know me – someone who once knew me very well doesn’t want to know me. Ouch! And so over all these years it has continued to lurk somewhere in my mind, a dry, itchy scab that has persisted in intermittently making me ask, why? Why doesn’t he want to know me? There has been a new breakthrough, though, because I now accept I will never know the answer; I also know there may not be one – probably isn’t, in fact. I’m also adjusting the optic a little, and it doesn’t require much, so that I am simply glad to have known him when I did, rather than sad not to have known him since.
I loved that kid; I wish him well. As past tumours go, he can rest easy. I was only ever benign.
The first cloud in Mitzela in six days; no real cause for concern, though a cooler current has certainly hit the water this morning too. If anything the slight cover, accompanied by an occasional breeze, came as a blessed relief on my run this morning. I have conquered the hill that defeated me on Sunday, as well as a few more as I followed the road around, down, and back again. Only one car passed – the fruit and veg truck that comes through the village each day, the grocer announcing his wares through a megaphone as he drives slowly down each and every street, sounding not unlike the Morning Prayer that shatters the quiet of a Muslim morning elsewhere. When he and his assistant (son, perhaps) overtook me, it confirmed what I suspected: another village lay around the next headland. And after a solid 21 minutes of hard slog, I came to the bend that finally revealed it – still a good distance away – allowing me to turn around and head for home.
There are gorgeous if virtually inaccessible bays everywhere, one a short walk from here that we’ve already enjoyed for a late afternoon dip. The Touring Toddler is loving all the beach activity, I’m pleased to say. His early uncertainty after 7 weeks without a swim has given way to his old, slightly unnerving daring. Now he’s back to being a little too confident; if we weren’t there to stop him, he’d just keep marching in.
Mitzela/Amaliapolis is very family friendly, so there are plenty of children for him to… well, if not exactly play with, then interact with at least. We met a lady yesterday who said, “How did you find out about this place? It is not known by tourists,” – meaning non-Greek tourists, as most of the people here are Greek families on holidays. I was pleased to have it confirmed, the sense that we’d hit upon a local place – and I’ve been enjoying the absence of the international multitudes that I know annually descend on the Greek islands. And how did we find it? AIRbnb, of course. It’s come through for us every single time on this trip: Hong Kong, New York, Paris and now here. Best accommodation site I have ever experienced by a million miles, and the only way to travel if you ask me.
So…New York. I can’t believe we have only been overseas for two months – it feels like so much longer. Our fortnight in NYC honestly feels like six months ago. I guess I should begin with the flight: a 15-hour ordeal hurtling us into a 12-hour time difference between Hong Kong and NYC. Obviously we were dreading it. And when we got to the airport, our seat reservation hadn’t come through, so we were looking at a regular row instead of the bulkhead seats we’d booked. Llew never complains, never sends anything back or asks for a refund or anything, no matter how just his cause, but this time he stood his ground, an out of character reaction for which I shall always be grateful, because ultimately he prevailed and the right seats were ours.
Oh, it makes a difference with a tallish toddler in tow. Truth be told, the Touring Toddler probably needs his own seat now, but he was still borderline even just two months ago, though he was far too big for the sleep pods they have on board. He was sticking out of the one we tried using from Sydney to Hong Kong like a baguette out of a bicycle basket. And all things considered, it went pretty smoothly. We broke the 15 hours into shifts, which in hindsight was the perfect blueprint for what we’ve only just hit upon here. Time on, time off – it meant neither of us was pushed to the brink in a confined space, because we both always knew that at most we only had two hours to go. And you can deal with two hours, in the same way I can deal with a half day here. In some ways it’s actually easier, because you’re not expecting the other parent to do anything, and you’re not waiting for or considering them, either. You’re in charge. And you only have to get to about 2 pm before you all come together again. Plus, through it all, whatever the TT chooses to hurl at you, there’s the knowledge that you’ll get your own break the next day. Genius.
Perhaps I sound selfish, being so greedy for these hours to myself. Thrilling to the time away from my husband and son as though I just can’t wait to get away from them. I can see that it might seem that way, because, well, actually it’s true. I can’t wait. I genuinely look forward to it, and I love it, and I am already a much better wife and mother for these 3 mornings to myself than I have been since we left Sydney (and the TT’s two days at family daycare). I need it. I have always spent a lot of time on my own, though I am a social creature too. How else does one get any reading and/or writing done? I’m just constructed that way; I need time to myself. Everyone does, but some more than others. And if that need isn’t answered – much like my very basic need for a decent amount of sleep – I quickly become very bitter and twisted indeed.
And stressed. Really stressed. I think 19 months of motherhood has put 19 years on my face. I get where that pinched look comes from – it’s the expression of a woman who isn’t managing her own needs properly. And it doesn’t do anyone a jot of good, in my humble opinion. I can feel the accumulated tension going slack throughout my body with every slot I get to myself. It’s so simple, really, not a big ask at all, but so absolutely fundamental to my well-being.
Shit, I’ve done it again! How did I get so off track?! I’m supposed to be talking about New York and here I am opening the rant can again… Oops. Okay, I guess the segue into the New York story is to note that once on the ground, we did not give each other the time out we knew we both needed and wanted. And for that I blame New York itself, which swept us up in the great tide of its ceaseless energy and demanded that we fall in line and keep time. But all is forgiven, because how I love New York City.
We caught the alarmingly rickety Airport Train from JFK, changing at Jamaica for the LIR line to Penn Station. It all went smoothly and cheaply, considering we had a pram, the TT, a portacot and two bags in tow. The apartment we’d booked on AIRbnb was a few blocks from Penn Station, so we decided to walk, and our first glimpse of the great metropolis this time included Macy’s and Madison Square Garden. We were on W29th, between 8th and 9th, on the top floor of a narrow old 1890s walk up. When we arrived out front, Llew and I looked up and then stared at the pram dubiously – it would not be fun ferrying it up and down each day. When we booked, the charming ‘host,’ Raul, an artist and research assistant to a New York art investor and patron (great job, huh?), warned us that the apartment was on the 4th floor, but we didn’t realise that this amounted to 8 short flights of stairs. If the TT is freakishly adept on stairs now, it is thanks to our two weeks in Chelsea. We only took the pram up there twice, immediately investing in a good bicycle lock so that we could leave it undercover by the window grille on the ground floor instead. A great solution, as it turned out. And the stairs forgave all the usual NYC sins: baked goods (Amy’s, anyone?), pizza (large enough for a helicopter to land on, I am sure ours could be seen from space), pretzels, bagels, guacamole and chips… really good guacamole, too – available everywhere.
While New Yorkers often identify as being either uptown or downtown types, I’m giving my vote to midtown. Chelsea was great for us – we were right by the end of the High Line, (easily the best addition to the city since my last visit), walking distance to all the area’s galleries as well as to Chelsea Markets (the best coffee we found in New York was opposite the markets at Blue Bottle; they also have a cart on the High Line), a short walk from the Empire State Building and Madison Square Park (think the Flatiron Building), and in close proximity to the Hudson River Park path for running, which we did whenever the monsoonal rains stopped. We could head to Times Square in one direction and the utterly transformed and now supremely hip and happening Meat Packing District in the other, plus we had friends uptown and downtown, so being at the midpoint between them was incredibly convenient.
I also appreciated the delightful warmth of Raul and Milena’s apartment, which you can see here. It was a lovely sanctuary at the end of a day’s roaming, and since it overlooks a small park and has a skylight in the lounge-room, it gave us an invaluable sense of space and openness in an otherwise notoriously crowded city.
Catching up with old friends there was amazing; one, B, lives just a few blocks downtown, so we really made like neighbours the entire time we were there. B and I went to Pearson College together and have been friends since we met in Canada in 1989, but we haven’t been able to just casually make plans like this since then. It was an extraordinary luxury to just make impromptu arrangements with him and other friends, and really that was one of my primary goals for the Manhattan Project. Mission Accomplished.
Another dear Pearson friend, R, came up from Philadelphia for the day, and returned on our final Sunday with her husband and two boys for the Central Park picnic some of our uptown friends had organised. One friend, A, even made an appearance all the way from Toronto, if you can believe that, happily combining a romantic weekend in NYC with his lovely girlfriend L with catching up with us on a perfect summer’s day in the park. Such occasions make me feel blessed; though I am not religious, I really don’t know what other term to use.
Being able to meet S and S’s little girl, I, and P and D’s daughters, E and A, and setting the TT loose among them (the memory of the TT and E sharing an extended cuddle on the couch at P and D’s apartment will not soon leave me) was a very special highlight of our time there. Normal life – I just wanted us to feel like we were part of their normal life. And with a last-minute Friday night at S and S’s place with wine, pizza and chat, followed by a similarly successful recipe at P and D’s house after the picnic, I really feel we managed that. And it tops up everything, don’t you think? The heart, the friendship, the memory bank.
My second free morning, and another perfect day has dawned hot and bright blue in Mitzela. I am sitting in the other beachside taverna this time, in a lovely shaded spot under one of the spare few trees in this part of the world that is not a scrubby, stumpy olive tree. I’ve been for a half run, half walk up the road to a hilltop overlooking this bay and the next; as a route it was hot, hilly and hard. I think I’ll ditch the dirt goat track to the top next time and just stick to the road; although the views were spectacular at the top, I could’ve done without the burrs and ants clutching at and climbing up my ankles. Nice to have a run, though – the first since an equally jerky slob trot by the Seine in Paris. I don’t like running in fits and bursts, but I took it fairly easy this morning and I’ll do better next time.
Since my swim I’ve been reading David Baddiel’s The Death of Eli Gold. I saw him speak at a 5×15 event in London, and I am really thoroughly enjoying it. It’s doing everything a novel should do, producing in me such a range of emotional and intellectual responses that it’s taking quite a bit of discipline to pause now so that I may make use of this time to write something myself. Even in the past hour, Baddiel’s novel has made me a) laugh out loud b) want to cry and 3) made me look up and blink hard at the sea so as to get a nightmare vision dislodged from my mind. It has also, since I started reading it in the fits and starts that are my lot now (given the Touring Toddler’s unspeakably fatiguing style of perpetual motion), made me question repeatedly whether I’ve got what it takes for fiction writing. I just don’t know if I am capable, technically or creatively, of doing anything like what Baddiel has done here. And this isn’t a woe-is-me thing at all, I feel pretty detached about assessing my own potential at this point, because it’s really only my potential I so badly want to reach. I just want to have a clearer sense of what that is, so that I may direct my (currently emaciated) energies more effectively. If I conclude I am no fiction writer, for instance, well, that frees me up for other writing. I just find I’ve lost the appetite for agonising over this question – it impedes my productivity, which is not only unhelpful but something in present circumstances I can ill afford.
So. More mulling, and I probably need to look at the thing I started back in Sydney, but for now I am just going to enjoy this return to posting.
Before I continue the travel tales, I must interrupt this post with two exciting announcements: the first is that Darkling Jenny‘s novel Brumby’s Run is out and those horses are off and racing! I can’t believe I am missing such a momentous time, and I am so upset to have missed the launch, but Jenny’s rural romance has already hit Penguin’s Top 10 list! Go, Jenny, go! We Darklings are shaking our feathers with pride and pleasure. So proud of our girl.
There’s also great book news for my dear blogging friend Charlotte, whom all of you here know from her terrific blog, Charlotte’s Web. Her manuscript found representation last year, and ‘Balthazar’s Gift’ has recently been picked up for publication in Germany, Charlotte’s adopted home. It’s been wonderful following Charlotte’s journey so far, and I could not be more thrilled to see her labours so justly rewarded. I’ll keep you abreast of future developments as my list of published author friends happily swells!
Still no sign of Llew and the Touring Toddler… I’ve moved on to an ice coffee in order to keep the corner couch we’ve taken a liking to; easily the best seat in the house, if you ask me: fully shaded, slightly raised to catch the sea breeze, overlooking the beach and big enough to stretch out. But I’ve got it to myself and have caught larger groups eyeing me a little resentfully. Still, the etiquette seems to be first in, best dressed, with people draping towels etc over chairs before disappearing for a swim, thus claiming their seat of choice for what often appears to be the entire day. And as long as you keep ordering refreshments, that’s apparently fine. So… assuming Llew and the Touring Toddler make an appearance soon, we’re good. I am mildly surprised not to have seen them yet as it’s nearly midday and the TT has been waking up saying, “Beach, beach, beach,” so I am not clear on how Llew’s managed to stall him so long… still, I have to retrain my brain not to keep anxiously timekeeping and to instead just EMBRACE THE FUCKING REPRIEVE.
The Touring Toddler really has us on the run at the moment. I’m not a natural co-sleeper and he has had his own bed from the very beginning, but now he has learned how to liberate himself from the portacot, he has decided to spurn it in favour of climbing in with us on a nightly basis. That’s the first problem, not easily addressed while this trip has forced us to share a room with him. The budget (already a risible concept in our slippery hands) really does not extend to 2-bedroom apartments. So in he climbs, and no amount of depositing him back into his own bed works. Believe me, we’ve tried. Hours go by. Tempers fray. Tears are shed. But even when we eventually admit defeat, it’s not as though he’s satisfied once he’s in bed with us. No, that’s just when the crawling, rolling, wriggling, slapping, pinching and mountaineering begins.
I’ll be straight with you: I can’t handle it. I really can’t. I get next to no sleep and am frequently the focus of a great deal of physical assault. He’s only 19 months old, but he is more than capable of inflicting actual pain. And he never stops moving – that’s the real killer. That’s the thing that makes sleep impossible. So I end up dangling off the side of the bed, pushed and shoved to the outer limits, gripping the sheet for dear life, trying to retain enough purchase on the mattress so that I don’t simply drop to the floor. I suspect I’d sleep better if I did, curled on the bare stone floor like an ageing dog. In London I developed a hacking night cough that just wouldn’t quit, keeping not only myself but Llew and the Touring Toddler awake too, so I took to sleeping on the couch, two floors below our attic room. I slept better than I had since leaving Sydney, when we last had a bedroom separate from our son’s. Llew rightly accused me of liking it on the couch better than upstairs, and what could I say? It was obviously true, because I was finally getting some sleep, and without sleep I am unhappy and deranged.
So last night, when Llew suggested I take to the couch, I did, and fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, we all had a decent night’s sleep because of it. Without the second adult crowding the bed, Llew and the TT had ample room to accommodate all the latter’s nocturnal roaming, and I simply flaked, sleeping the dreamless sleep of raw exhaustion. As a result I feel more rested and therefore more buoyant than I have in weeks. But it isn’t good for my relationship to have one of us sleeping with the TT and the other on the couch. It just ain’t right; our closeness suffers. And I think intimacy between couples takes such a hit anyway once the couple becomes three that we at least can ill afford the additional remove. I’d welcome any advice on this, and plan to email my mothers’ group back in Sydney to ask how they’re coping with the little ones learning to escape their cots. It must be happening there too, although the TT’s proper cot is much higher off the ground than the portable variety. Still, out of his cot or not, it can’t go on. I know several of the mothers in my group are willing, happy co-sleepers, and it apparently works for many families, but it is not for this little duck, no sir.
What very much IS my scene is this climate. Hot and sunny with a light breeze, skies entirely untroubled by cloud, a flat expanse of crystal clear water at the ideal temperature (always refreshing, never bracing) and really, other than for modesty’s sake, no need of clothing at all. I have barely worn anything but swimmers since we arrived. I have a beach kaftan I brought from home that I wear for sun protection to and from the beach, and at night after a shower I throw on shorts and a t-shirt, but that’s it. So, so different to the cold and rain that pursued us so ardently across the globe until we hit Opio, in France. The relief of good weather, finally, is beyond my power to describe, but I feel it in every part of me, physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s too hot for Llew, in truth, but I love it. Love it. Daily it’s restoring some essential part of me that had been progressively ground down along the way… I can’t help it, I find ongoing inclemency deeply dispiriting. It genuinely affects me; Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)? I’m sure I have that, and I am not given to claiming a condition if I can possibly avoid it. But in consistently lousy weather, SAD I do indeed feel.
I think it’s the root cause of my failure to ever truly adore London. I know it’s a great city, and culturally one of the world’s best, but the sky is too close to the ground and it gets me down. My enjoyment of London is marred by its climate, and it’s really the one thing that prevents me from ever wanting to live there again. In the end we were in London for 4 weeks, thanks to the generosity of our friend J, with whom we stayed the majority of the time at his fantastic house in Chiswick, which backs onto the immaculate grounds of Chiswick House, as well as thanks to the beautifully warm welcome at K and S’s amazing place in Islington, at the opposite end of town, but even with catching up with some of my very best friends in the whole entire world, it was enough for me. Llew’s unbothered by it and is flat out beguiled by London, so would live there again in a heartbeat, but it’s one of those things I honestly can’t compute. I can’t program myself to experience the weather in any other way, try as I might. I can’t figure out – sincerely cannot comprehend – how it is that so many people are so unbothered by all that relentlessly shit weather. Each to their own – the miracle truth of the human experience.
Okay, it’s now after 12.30… I’m almost worried about those two! And I really have to give up this seat now, it’s obnoxious not to. So I’ll head off, with a detour into the sea on the way home. Mitzela, how I love you!
Well, it’s another perfect day in Paradise, or Amaliapolis as it’s also known, on the mainland coast of Greece. It’s my first time in this ancient land and this is the beginning of only our second full day, but already I am – we are – so, so glad to be here. I have all but blown my inaugural ‘Mummy Work Time’ this morning, reluctant as I was to believe that I had to be the one to leave the house. But it is clear to me now that I can neither relax nor work while the Touring Toddler is nearby. He simply won’t allow it. I don’t know and couldn’t guess how many times he said, “Mummy, Mummy, Mummy” this morning – I lost all track. It was as though he had some preternatural understanding of the deal Llew and I struck last night, which was to give each other alternate mornings off childcare duties so we each get to work or exercise or sleep or WHATEVER before coming together as a family in the afternoon for exploring, swimming and playing. Just how the little master of the house knew beats the shit out of me, but he was clinging to me this morning like a leech on a leg, and I ended up running out the door fearful of squandering my entire shift. So here I am at one of the two beachside tavernas sipping my first iced coffee, a popular morning refreshment here. Everything is stunning: the water, the blue sky, the views and the people.
But where were we?
I think my last post was about meeting Litlove, which feels like an age ago; since then we’ve been to Paris, then Opio (a village in the hills above Cannes) and finally Sanremo, before losing a day in transit getting here. There was a sick, silent moment in Sanremo when I feared (as, I learned later, did Llew) that we wouldn’t make our flight, but somehow we did, and now we’ll be here for one whole delicious month. Travelling is great, but now I finally begin to believe we are on holiday.
We had a hell of a time the second we left our friend E’s improbably beautiful sanctuary in Opio. We had to return the car Llew had hired for a day to the rental place in Cannes – a hilariously tiny car that made even the Touring Toddler burst out laughing on sight – and of course the map app on my iPhone, powered as it is by some mean-spirited witchcraft, managed to steer an alternate course away from Cannes as the minutes until the midday closing time rapidly bled away. Fast running out of my prepaid French sim credit, I made one, two, three increasingly frantic calls to the rental place, providing the woman on the other end with unwanted updates all along the painfully gridlocked route.
Having stayed up late with E’s sister-in-law, H, I was nursing a profound local wine hangover, and every wrong turn and traffic jam drilled into my exhausted brain like a sackful of wrathful worms. The Touring Toddler registered his own protest from the back, screaming most of the way into town and regularly attempting to open his car door – buggered if we could find that tiny tin can’s child lock. By the time we arrived a solid 25 minutes late, spewing apologies to the terse but still obliging woman who had so mercifully waited for us, not to mention the team of men who swarmed from the back office to check the car and drive it away, we were all drenched in sweat, just as though we’d gone through a car wash with the windows down. Thankfully the Touring Toddler managed to restore relations – before the lady hopped on her Vespa and zipped away – by waving and blowing kisses, while Llew and I mopped our sodden brows and exchanged high-fives at having made it. Just. Next stop: the beach. Stat.
Llew had already enjoyed a solo swim the day before when he’d picked up the car, but for the Touring Toddler and me, it was the first dip in open water since leaving Sydney. E’s magnificent hillside holiday home has a lovely plunge pool we tested several times a day over our four-day stay, but as you know we are incurable beach folk, so the sight of a sandy beach all but brought tears to my eyes. I could’ve happily torn the clothes from my body in my haste to get into that azure sea, but a quick change in a nearby toilet meant I was still in the water just minutes after seeing it.
The Touring Toddler, no longer familiar with the water (extraordinary to witness both how much confidence he’d lost in 7 weeks away, and how quickly he’s regaining it), was extremely uncertain at first. But a couple of fistfuls of darkish, silty sand later and he was ready to start throwing it into the sea, and then it wasn’t too much longer before he acquiesced to a swim with me. By the end, he didn’t want to leave. Which made two of us.
“More? More? More?” he said.
“Yes,” we said. “We’re going to go to a new beach. Do you want to keep going on our big adventure?”
Happy and refreshed, we made our way to the station. We only had a couple of euros between us. I’d had trouble getting out cash in Opio, so I was obsessed with getting to an ATM before we boarded our train to Ventimiglia, across the French-Italian border. It’s funny how these things go. If I’d just boarded the train and dealt with the cash situation in Italy…well. But I was hellbent on getting some money out, worried that the Touring Toddler would have some kind of food-related meltdown and I wouldn’t have the funds to fix it. So off I went, successfully withdrawing 200 euros before meeting Llew back at the station, where I used my card again, this time to purchase our tickets.
I don’t know when the woman first marked me – perhaps it was back at the ATM machine – but I first noticed her because I got up from my seat on the platform to check the vending machine for appropriate snacks and she immediately sat down in my place. It seemed an odd thing to do, given Llew was in the next chair and the Touring Toddler was sitting in his pram right across the two seats, but she was overweight and older so I thought she needed to take a load off. She was heavyset, dressed entirely in black, her nondescript hair pulled tight off her broad, plain face. She stood when I returned, her eyes unsmiling when I offered a grateful “Merci.” She stood behind the seat then and smoked a cigarette, but when the train pulled in, there she was again, sticking close to us and getting on the same carriage.
“Ventimiglia?” I asked, stumbling and mispronouncing the name, my haste to get on the train mixed with the anxiety about whether it was even the right one. She nodded grimly and stepped on behind me.
Llew and I grappled with pram and luggage while she stood silently by, waiting. I gestured to the stairs leading to the upper level, which we were blocking with the Touring Toddler’s pram: are we in your way? Would you like to go upstairs? She shook her head and waited, watching. After a brief discussion, we moved the pram to a spot downstairs, backing it against the first seat at the bottom of the stairs, and then we found seats for ourselves. I did see her take that first seat and sit with her back to the window, but still I didn’t twig. She made a call on her mobile phone, and I noted the astonishingly deep, gravelly voice of a longterm smoker. I smiled at her a final time, thinking she was a harmless Nonna type who would of course sympathise with our frantic, over-burdened lot. Like all parents, I am also so dazzled by my child that up until that moment I mistakenly believed the whole world to be likewise charmed. And in the haze of my hangover, I did something so stupid I still can’t believe I did it: I left my bag hanging across the pram handle, open and with my wallet sitting right at the top. So. Unbelievably. Stupid. The previous night’s alcohol had dulled my senses, which ordinarily would have been well alert to what was happening. In retrospect, it is all so painfully clear.
The Touring Toddler was being a bit of a handful, so Llew and I were distracted for a full few minutes trying to entertain and settle him. The train stopped at the first or second station and I was vaguely aware of the woman getting off. And, only when it was too late, the penny finally dropped. I leapt to my feet as if I’d been bitten on the arse, reaching my bag in a second. My wallet was, of course, gone. My wallet, with the 200 crisp euros I’d been so urgently driven to withdraw, was gone. My wallet with my VISA card, my debit card, my travel money card, my driver’s licence, my Medicare card, my health insurance card, my membership cards to everything from NSW Library to Taronga Zoo, all these things I so easily could and should have left at home, useless as they are abroad, all gone. Gone, all the things I can’t even remember were in there.
Gone too was the happy glow of the carefree tourist – without a doubt the greatest loss of all, replaced as it is by the beady eye of paranoia and vigilant suspicion. The sad truth is that I am usually excessively careful about such things, but I allowed myself to stop worrying for just a few minutes, a pause in my habits that this woman exploited. It’s a real shame, but here, surrounded by the beauty of Mitzela (as the locals call it), I’m pretty sure I’ll get over it.
POSTSCRIPT: The July feature for the Varuna Alumni News is now up; it’s what I worked on after saying goodbye to Litlove at the British Library. Here’s an excerpt:
Libraries are magical places. They have the ability to soothe the weariest heart with the calming presence of all those collections, shelves upon shelves of books, glorious books. This month’s feature is ostensibly about a recent visit to the New York Public Library, but as I write this, I’m sitting in the British Library in London, so you’ll forgive me, I hope, if we end up meditating a little on libraries in general. For instance, when I look around this crowded mezzanine, overlooking the gorgeous, vast glass-encased column of books that dominates the building’s centre, all I can think is that there must be hope for us yet.
Libraries must number among the most utilised free public spaces of any city; every one I’ve seen teems with life, even the poorest ones in the shittiest parts of town. People seem to still value the library as an institution, to prize it, even, as a meeting place, a home for the exchange and creation of ideas – what the hell, let’s call it Knowledge HQ – so what is the gap between books and their safekeeping? Can the book ever die while the library thrives?
The full feature is available here.