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.