At the Pool 2

teenage-boy-swimmer-wearing-goggles-and-cap-during-swim-practice-in-blue-water-at-indoor-swimming-pool_vmmperlng__M0013

It is a cold winter’s morning in Sydney.

Three elderly women are talking and laughing in the change room. I recognise their language as Mandarin Chinese. They are the only occupants at this hour. Have I walked into some kind of private club? Their familiarity and ease with each other reminds me of siblings: each jostling for centre stage, their noisy banter taking up all the space.

One woman is vigorously soaping herself up in the open shower, still engaged in the conversation. Another is drying herself. The third is fully clothed and at the hand basin, applying cream to her face. There are three small plastic containers lined up neatly beside her, each in its own clear bag. I smell mothballs as I sidle up to her to adjust my swimming cap in the mirror.

Their liveliness warms the tiled room with the concrete floor that is showing years of neglect – chipped doors and peeling paint, faded posters and broken toilet seats.

As the sun is just coming up I escape their noisy interchange for the quiet of the indoor pool in the next building. I mark my territory in Lane 4 by placing my flippers and kickboard on the concrete at its head. Show Pony (see the previous post At the Pool) in Lane 3 recognises me. I was hoping to slip into the water unnoticed, meditating on the swim ahead.

Show Pony wants a chat. After a brief interchange, I gently end the conversation and push off. I can almost hear my joints clicking and creaking under the water as I pull each arm back, up and over my head.

The water is slightly cooler compared to the humidity of the air inside the building. The windows have fogged up. I get into the rhythm of the stroke and lose count of the laps, intuitively changing the routine when my body tells me to, freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke.

Between strokes, I see the regular group of retirees performing their aquaerobics routine, a slow dance up and down the shallows. None of them is moving in time. Not many here today, perhaps the cold morning has kept them in bed. There are also new faces: a man with a perfect handlebar moustache, his spectacles dangling around his neck. He is marching on the spot. And another, leaning against the tiles with a faraway look in his eyes, gazing at nothing in particular.

One of the regular life guards on duty looks bored. He has a sizeable novel for company. I am tempted to pull myself up out of the water to ask him what he is reading, and if is it in his native language, Russian. Would he be too preoccupied with a gripping passage of the book to look up and notice someone struggling in the water?

Soon I am riding on a crest of endorphins, completely immersed in the moment. I have forgotten everything, just a vessel, just swimming.

Passing the other way as Show Pony finishes his laps, I kick energetically, hanging on to my board, on the downhill run myself. A boiling wake trails behind me. I nod my farewell.

Young families start to trickle in for vacation swimming lessons with their awkward cargo of oversized beach towels and floating devices. The children’s excited laughter and cries ricochet off the concrete, glass and steel.

Floating, spread-eagled like a star fish, I think of my mother who came from a country where swimming wasn’t such a popular pastime. I visualise her doing an elegant version of breaststroke in our backyard pool, wearing her black halter neck swimsuit, trying not to get her hair wet.

The foggy windows have cleared as I pull myself up out of the water.  The children’s play area outside is shining in the morning sun. The brightly coloured fountains and sprinklers look bereft and forgotten next to a backdrop of bare, spindly trees. I can almost hear the stillness out there as the noise inside crescendos. A little girl decked out in pink definitely doesn’t want to do her swimming lesson this morning. Her mother, with an anxious look and a baby on her hip, is coaxing her into the water to the smiling instructor. Maybe she wanted to sleep in.

On the drive home the sun creates stripes through the trees over the road, like bar codes. I turn the radio on, half listening to the news. A woman has been accidentally shot dead by police in the US, a man in India has been tied to a stake and burnt alive. I turn it off again.

Trying to erase the bad news that has made its way into my car, I focus on the big blue sky for the rest of the short trip home. And think of a hot shower and breakfast.

The Visitor

Laughing_kookaburra_dec08_02

They gathered in his small flat the day after the funeral.

Giants in a dolls’ house.

Quiet. Bereft.

A magpie warbled in the tree outside the kitchen window.

As if it were any other day of the week.

Noisy trucks came and went from the shopping mall opposite.

As did patients from the surgery beneath his flat, pushing prams, pulling along reluctant toddlers.

Or suited up, briskly walking.

His children began the task of removing the remains of his personal life.

Sorting and packing, his personality drifting up from everything they touched.

Their private activity a contrast to the public formalities the day before.

A fitting end to a hectic week of burying the dead.

The meagre remains of his fridge were expired; containers of soup stacked like toy blocks in the freezer.

Each meticulously labelled in spidery doctor’s writing.

One daughter thought of taking them home. Then cursed herself for the absurdity of it.

Eating a dead man’s food!

A kookaburra visited when they stopped for lunch, searching out its benefactor among the unfamiliar faces.

He had fed it every day. Until recently.

The bird watched from its’ leafy outpost – a stand of blue gums that bordered the property.

The offspring were still sorting at dusk. Then a son found a card in the kitchen drawer amongst neatly ironed tea towels.

It was inscribed to my sweetheart, a room away from the other letters on his writing desk.

He thought of the years his father had spent on his own since cancer took their mother. And smiled.

Not so alone after all.

 

Surprises

fall-tree-leaves-nature-1

I originally wrote this piece of fiction for an online short story challenge. The brief: 2500 words and prompt ‘a white lie’…

It’s a perfect autumn day. Marcus blindfolds me, says ‘I have a surprise for you’. This is not a regular thing he would do. I am excited and intrigued. We have just finished a leisurely breakfast. He’s taking the day off for my birthday.

He gently leads me down the steps from the kitchen at the back of the house, round to the front and down the driveway. I know he is smiling from the timbre in his voice. I smell the sunshine before I feel it – the nutty, damp aroma of the sun beating down on dew soaked grass. I hear a New Holland Honey Eater darting across our heads. Its chirruping wakes me on the dot of six every morning. A very persistent sound for such a small bird.

I now hear our boots crunching on the gravel driveway as he leads me, still very gently. I feel the smoothness of his hand in mine, despite the years of outdoor work. We are both quiet now. We seem to be walking a long way, but I know it’s because I can’t see where I am going.

I think we are a fair way down our sweeping drive now, almost to the road.

We stop.

There is an exchange between Marcus and a voice I don’t recognise.

‘Gidday. Did you find us ok?’

‘Yep, no problems. You were just a bit further from the turn-off than I expected. I paid your neighbour a visit thinking it was your place. Their dog isn’t too friendly.’

Then the distinct odour of horse manure hits my nostrils, a stamping of hooves.

Marcus removes my blindfold.

I can’t see anything at first, blinded am I by the morning sun. I am disoriented, resting my hand on his shoulder to steady myself. I see a horse float attached to a very muddy four-wheel drive vehicle.

The owner of both extends his hand to me.

‘Hi, I’m Tim. Happy Birthday.’

So, looks like I am going horse riding. I check. Fortunately, there are two beasts in the float. Is Tim my instructor? Or is he going to let Marcus ride the other one? Both horses are of a tan colour, with blonde manes. One is smaller than the other. Maybe they are related.

I haven’t been on a horse since I was a teenager, on our farm. When I was diagnosed with cancer 12 months ago I started a list of all the things that I still wanted to do. Marcus must have seen it. I kept it in the top drawer of the pink dresser in our bedroom, along with our passports, photos and spare car keys.

I start to cry. Marcus shuffles his feet on the gravel, looking down. Despite his kindness and the perfect autumn morning, I feel exhausted to my bones.

Horse riding was number three on the list, after going to Vietnam and getting a piano.

The piano had been the first thing to be sorted. I had told Marcus that it would take my mind off things while I stayed at home recuperating. Everything else had to wait until I stopped the chemo and was given the all clear, as they all required some kind of physical exertion. Horse riding involved being able to get up on the animal first. That can be an effort. They never come at a comfortable height that you can climb onto gracefully, especially when you are short like me. Then there is the unpredictability of whether it is going to break into a trot or a canter when it feels like it. You have to be able to hang on and go with it or be forceful up there in the saddle, applying pressure to the horse’s ribs with your knees to slow it down. Pulling on their bridle helps. But doesn’t this jerking movement hurt their heads?

The horse riding is a success. We even get up to a trot. Tim leaves the animals with us for the rest of the morning. We ride for well over an hour, along the fence line of our 10-acre property, then up the road to the dead end and back. We take breaks in-between, just sitting, looking around from our new found height, marvelling at the perfect weather, the perfect view. The horses were placid. I could tell they were used to people. I loved talking to them, patting them. Tim informed us that their names were Gomez and Lucia, brother and sister, as I suspected. Their smell – a meaty, sweaty tang – took me back to being a teenager on the farm, when we owned three of them. I would muck out the stable and brush them down every weekend, grateful to be away from school, homework and lessons, and getting my hands dirty.

After Tim packs up the horses and we wave him off, we eat a salad that Marcus had prepared earlier, on the front veranda.  I sleep for the rest of the afternoon. Then we drive to my sister Sarah’s place for dinner. Her children, Harriet and Will, have made me a cake. I cry when they presented it, for the second time that day. I loved its imperfection; I could see fingerprints in the icing. Harriet admitted that it should have had more of the edible flower decorations on the top but they ate them.

I didn’t think I would see another birthday. I didn’t want to think that far ahead when I was ill. It was too overwhelming.

At the hospital they didn’t tell me how sick the chemo would make me feel. They only mentioned that it might be uncomfortable. I had been sick as a dog from it, retching, shaking. I dreaded the hospital visits and the nausea and lethargy afterwards, even the smell of the outpatients’ ward where I would sit and look across the lawn at the line of poplar trees swaying in the breeze while being pumped with drugs. I was kept in there for a week early in the treatment process. They couldn’t get my temperature back to normal. I remember being so cold that my teeth were chattering. I thought it had only been a three day spell, that’s how out of it I was.

I’m glad that is all behind me now. I am grateful for each day that I can walk outside, look at the sky and smell the rosemary and basil growing just outside the kitchen door. These reminders of home I missed during visits to the hospital.

The phone calls and visitors slowed after the first three months of my illness. That was the loneliest time. I wished then that we lived in town, not 15 km from it, so at least I could walk to a café, see people. But then I didn’t want them to witness me looking so frail either, and asking too much about how I felt. I felt bloody awful most of the time.  Not much of a conversation starter is it?

I find being back at work three days a week helps a lot. I get into my pyjamas as soon as I am in the door. I’m too tired to do anything else. Marcus has to cook and wash up, feed Mathilde the cat, pretty much do everything. He says he doesn’t mind. I keep pushing him to do more for himself, now that I am better. He is a bit of a loner. He likes his rugby, going to a game in the city with a few friends. And visiting my sister’s place to watch sport with her husband on a Saturday night. I usually drive so he can have a few drinks. But my tiredness at night has cancelled that option out for now. I worry about driving on the country roads in the inky black with no markers, no streetlights to guide my way.

I guess I feel more vulnerable now.

The next day, Tuesday, Marcus is back at work at the nursery. I am planting a new garden bed of annuals next to the herbs outside the kitchen door. I promised him I wouldn’t do anything physical after yesterday’s trotting around the paddocks. But I can’t help myself. It is another glorious day and I wanted to get these annuals out of their pots and into the ground before they started to wilt.

I have my favourite Mozart piano concertos for company, which I am listening to from the wireless speaker Sarah bought me for my birthday.

The dog on the neighbouring property starts to bark, signaling a visitor. Then I hear the crunch of tyre on gravel.

“Helloooo, anyone home?”

It’s Sally from work. She is rounding the back of the house, bearing a huge bunch of lilies. For a split second, I am reminded of the white ones that covered my mother’s coffin. But these ones are a pretty pink, such a positive colour.

Sally is dwarfed by her cargo, peeking over the top of the foliage like a Peeping Tom behind a bush. This makes me laugh out loud. I am delighted by her unexpected company. We embrace and I make some tea, which we partake of in a sunny spot where I have been digging, the sun spotlighting us between the laundry and house as if on cue. Mathilde has tucked herself under the outdoor table, partly resting on my feet. She just wants the sun, not affection. Why is it that cats always seek out the best places?

Sally is ready for a long chat, I can tell. I make a mental note to lie down later when she has gone.

‘Guess what’s been happening while you have been away from work?’

‘Not much I expect. It’s only been four days. And I’m back tomorrow.’

‘Well….you know the semi-retired guy who picks up the pathology samples every day? He’s having an affair with Marie on the front desk.’

She looks happy with herself at the sharing of this saucy information, mischievous, like the cat that got the cream.

‘How do you know?’

‘Poppy and her husband were at Banjos Night Club on Saturday night. She recognised them. They were all over each other!’

I almost spill my tea, I am laughing so much. The incongruity of their union. For starters, there’s possibly 20 years between them. He has a penchant for the outdoors, and she likes expensive hotels. He is a bachelor, she is divorced with three children.

‘Love comes in all shapes and sizes doesn’t it?!’

‘And when he came in to pick up the samples yesterday, she was all coy with him. Hilarious.’

‘Maybe he has a lot of money. Or is good in bed.’

We both laugh in unison.

‘Good on them both. We don’t know what is around the corner for us; enjoy life today not tomorrow.’

We go quiet. I can hear Mathilde purring, then a tractor starting up in the distance.

Sally continues: ‘And about your Marcus. My Matt says he’s been seeing him at the betting agent’s quite a bit lately. As recently as Saturday. Wasn’t sure you knew about it? Matt was surprised as he didn’t think Marcus was into gambling, especially with you having just come back to work. Matt always says ‘you’ve got to be able to afford the risk’ every time I ask him to stop. Admittedly he’s had a few lucky runs the last few races.’

My mind rewinds back to four days ago. Marcus had said that he was going to get petrol.

I don’t know whether to be grateful or annoyed that Sally has imparted this news. But know I must speak to him about it. Talking about finance is always hard for us. He took over the bill paying when I got sick as he didn’t want me to get stressed about it.

I must start to look tired because all of a sudden Sally is up, on her way, professing that she has lots to do before she picks the kids up from school.

‘Don’t get up. See you back at the coalmine tomorrow.’

I fall asleep in my chair in the sun, Mathilde’s body still covering my feet. The deliciousness of it. I wake up I don’t know how much later, chilly now that the sun has moved across the house and we are in shadow. I shake Mathilde gently off and go inside for a proper sleep before I have to face Marcus later and the prospect of work tomorrow.

He is shaking me.

‘Claire you’d better get up or you won’t sleep tonight’.

‘Why don’t you have a bath while I start the dinner?’

Any animosity I may have towards him dissipates as he moves off to run the water for me.

I decide to have THE CHAT while immersed in bubbles…

‘How was your day?’

‘Fine. We got a big delivery of grevillea in. Some beautiful specimens. I have earmarked one for you, it’s called Coconut Ice. And who brought you the big bunch of flowers? Your gentleman caller?’

This makes me giggle.

‘Come here and I’ll tell you’.

As he draws closer, I pull him into the bath; work clothes still on. Fortunately, he’s left his dirty boots at the back door. He is quickly drenched from head to toe, half the bath water sloshing onto the floor. We both shriek with laughter.

We lie there until the water goes tepid. Marcus peels his clothes off him and takes a shower.

‘You haven’t told me who brought the flowers yet’.

‘Sally from work’.

There is silence. He’s not that fond of Sally. I choose the moment.

‘Says that her Matt saw you at the betting agent’s on Saturday’.

More silence. The shower taps go off.

‘That’s right. I was there’.

‘But you told me you were going to get petrol’.

‘I have placed a few bets over the past month to see if I can raise enough money to get us to Vietnam’.

‘Oh. That’s very thoughtful of you. Isn’t there a less risky way?’

‘Not that I can think of.’

‘And why didn’t you tell me?’

‘I didn’t want you to worry about the possibility of me losing money in the process. Truth is, I seem to have a bit of a lucky streak. So far I have earned us a cool $2000’.

‘So you have been doing this for a while then?’

‘Every week for the past month’.

‘You haven’t booked the tickets yet though have you?’

‘No, but I was about to, this Friday. I’ve already talked to your boss about leave. I wanted to surprise you’.

‘Another surprise! Though not with eight legs this time. We may want to do a rain check as I think I may be pregnant’.

He’s back in the bath now. We lie there for what seems like forever, embracing in the gathering dark.

 

 

 

 

 

Trams

trams

(Thanks to my colleagues at the Open Genre Writing Group, NSW Writers Centre for their input towards this short story.)

I almost slip on the wet road as I run for the tram. I’m late for my first day at work. I had fretted and fretted last night about what to wear but shouldn’t have bothered. Now I am wet from the freak shower that had started as soon as I left home. I’d checked the weather report on my phone too, making sure I didn’t over or under dress. My sky blue silk blouse is soaked through, sticking to my skin like cling wrap.

I’ll duck into Cue at the mall and grab something off the rack when I get off.

This solution momentarily calms me. It had been six interviews to get this job, only my second one since I finished university. I feel a smile begin to form at the corner of my mouth as I remember the coffee stain on the new boss’s tie, half way down, perfectly round like a target. I had noticed it when he stood up at the end of the interview to open the door.

I had felt a child in an adult’s world sitting across a vast boardroom table from the HR manager and my new boss, feeling dwarfed by the big furniture and the confidence of the people opposite me. Sure, they were friendly enough, but their questions were one dimensional, lacking authenticity and sincerity like they’d asked them many times before:

 Why did you apply for the role?

Can you give examples of your ability to develop relationships with stakeholders?

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

I was by this stage limp from the effort of my performance. My new boss escorted me back to the lift. I kept my head up and shoulders back, just like Mum had taught me. Stooping had made me feel more like my tribe of shorter friends at school; a habit I’d developed since I was a teenager. We chatted awkwardly while waiting for the lift to arrive. It was then I noticed his shoelace was undone. We shook hands. His handshake was firm. I could hear Dad saying you can’t trust anyone with a soft handshake.

I think I could like this guy.

The interview questions kept going round in my head as I tried to slip off to sleep that same night. Then I deconstructed my answers. Did I sound positive enough? Was I too honest? Did I give them the response they were looking for?

My first day at work whizzes by in a fog of new faces and names. I didn’t expect that my role as a Research Assistant required meeting everyone in the organisation. I wish I’d had a ball of red wool in my pocket that I could unwind, forging a path through the labyrinth of offices, leaving a trail back to my desk.

This new world is exhausting so far.

By the time I get on the tram for home I am not able to fit any more information inside my head. I recognise Gunter getting on at the front of the carriage. My heart rate quickens. I didn’t think I’d see him again, not after our last meet up a fortnight ago. He told me then he was going back to Europe in a few days’ time. My bed was a tussle of sheets that smelled of the sun. I could hear waves crashing against the shore in the distance as we silently lay together in the dark afterward, barely touching.

And now we are both on the same tram fully clothed, hemmed in. I imagine him naked, striding around my little flat, light-footed for such a tall man. Looking comfortable in his nudity. He seemed so exotic and self-assured.

We’d met on a tram. Not that I have a habit of talking to people on public transport, especially on my way to an interview. I am quiet before I have to perform in front of strangers. On this occasion I had dropped something. I can’t even remember what it was now. A small packet of tissues maybe. Those ones you buy for travelling. My neighbour half-filled her suitcase with them when she went back to Greece to see her dying father. As if there are no shops in Greece.

Gunter had been sitting next to me on the tram when I dropped whatever it was. We both bent down at the same time to pick it up and our heads bumped. It made us laugh. I’d sneaked a look at him before then. So handsome! And he smelled deliciously clean, fresh, like he’d just walked through a meadow and brought the wildflowers and sunshine with him into the carriage. Everyone around us was dressed in sombre dark clothes. It was raining outside. He looked so alive.

I slide down into my seat and put on my sunglasses and headphones, and focus on the back of the person’s head in front of me, hoping he won’t recognise me. I see him whispering to someone who is just out of view. As we round another corner I get a glimpse of his companion. It’s the receptionist from my new job. The one with the green eyes and perfect skin. I hear myself let out a groan.

I get off three stops before my street. It starts to rain again. I am soaked through for the second time today, this time it is my new lilac button up shirt that sticks to me like a second skin. I take my heels off and walk the rest of the way in stockinged feet, already dreading tomorrow when I have to face her at work.

Runner Rosie’s Northern Adventure

In January – our traditional holiday season in Australia – some folk I know fly to cold climate countries in search of some good skiing slopes, and to get away from the heat. My friend Rosie Vince took a very long flight from Sydney to Norway with a different kind of holiday in mind: sightseeing in the dark, dog sledding and to look at the Northern Lights. She told me that the town of Tromso is the best place to see them as it is located way past the Arctic Circle.

The other lure for Rosie was to participate in the Polar Night Half Marathon. When she told me she would be running in the cold and dark at 3 o’clock in the afternoon with up to 1700 people from around the world and it was likely to be -11C, my ears pricked up. This didn’t sound like your run-of-the-mill competition.

The Polar Night Half Marathon takes place during the Polar Night Period when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. Hard to imagine this in Australia during our sweltering summer! It is the most northern half marathon event in the world. If runners are lucky enough they may witness the light show of the Aurora Borealis along the torch lit route.

Tromso also hosts the Midnight Sun Marathon in mid-June and the Mountain Challenge in late August.

Tromso was Rosie’ 2nd stop in Norway, after Oslo, then on to Bergen. After that she visited Stockholm in Sweden, Helsinki and Rovaniemi in Finland (the official hometown of Santa Claus), Saint Petersburg in Russia and Copenhagen in Denmark, travelling by train, bus and boat.

Rosie’s summary: ‘it was bone chillingly cold, exhilarating, breathtaking, awe inspiring, inspirational, fascinating, beautiful and brutal’. The brutal bit refers specifically to her experience in Russia: ‘I found the people to be very stoic but they do have a sense of humour when they relax.’

Rosie made a decision four weeks before her trip that she wasn’t in the peak condition required to do the half marathon. She decided to run the 5km race instead. Though when she actually arrived in Tromso she was surprised how just walking took so much concentration, even with spikes on her shoes. She chose not to run at all as she was worried about slipping on the ice and hurting herself.

Despite such caution, she suffered a dislocated shoulder the night after the race when she was thrown off a dog sled.

Rosie shares her life with her equally fit partner, Dave. He bought her a bicycle instead of chocolates for their first Easter together. They met at the local swimming pool in Sydney’s Northern Beaches district where Dave was the head coach. Ironman and triathlete Sean Kenny trained there too. Dave is still a swimming coach and runs his own swimming and triathlon clubs.

Rosie competes mostly in triathlons. I asked her what her training preparation looks like:

  • Running 5 days a week: 12 to 15 km each session; a 25 km ‘long run’ would be added to a session when in peak Ironwoman training
  • Cycling 3 days a week: 80 to 100 km each session
  • Swimming 3 days a week: 2 to 2.5 km each session

I’m exhausted just typing this! I’m intrigued about what gets inside the heads of elite athletes, what makes them tick. I enjoy fitness and exercise myself, but I don’t have the perseverance or drive to put in the effort that Rosie does.

She kindly accepted my request to be interviewed for my blog:

What do you like about running?

The freedom it brings. And it costs nothing, apart from the shoes. It is a great way to discover your locality on a more intimate detailed scale, a sensory connection. I usually find places for dog-walking for example that I didn’t know previously existed. And running stopped me from getting too fat when I was a teenager!

And hate?

I hate when I go through periods of lacking motivation. But even when I feel lazy and out of shape, if I can get the shoes on and push myself out the door I soon start to feel great once those endorphins kick in.

Also the aches and pains as I get older (Rosie is 51), and having to warm up longer beforehand – usually up to 45 minutes.

When did your running career start?

When I joined my high school’s running club, Mater Maria College at Warriewood in Sydney’s Northern Beaches district, and the Warringah Athletic Club at the same time. Straight after I graduated, I travelled to the UK where I joined a club at Battersea in London. Three years later back in Sydney I met Dave. During that period I became a member of the Manly Warringah Women’s Athletics Club.

What about injuries?

Fortunately I have only experienced niggling things – sore Achilles tendon and calf muscles. Though they can keep me out of action for up to three weeks. Of the three disciplines I compete in, I have experienced more injuries while cycling.

What opportunities has running given you?

I have travelled to other countries and met some amazing people through running. When I joined the Battersea Athletics Running Club in London I met Olympic Gold medallist and OBE Steve Ovett.

While still at school I competed in the Pan Pacific Games in New Zealand.

Who do you look up to in the running world?

Barefoot runner Zola Budd is my hero. I love her rawness. She runs from the heart, barefoot and gutsy. She was and is an ‘ugly’ runner: arms askew, gangly long legs, mouth open. During the eighties when I was in the UK I was trackside when she broke the world 5000m record at the famed Crystal Palace. The air was electric with excitement and joy. It was a magical time in my athletic life to meet and watch in action my running hero. Zola now lives in the USA and has completed a number of university degrees and she coaches a university track team.

Can you describe the mood in Tromso with all those fit people in town?

It was pelting with snow half an hour before the race. The course looked fairy tale inviting, with campfires and Christmas trees festooned with lights placed at the starting line. The town itself was buzzing with runners and their supporters in the lead up to the start of the event. I can always spot a long distance runner. They have a tendency to look a bit gaunt. Lycra clad athletes were hopping up and down, and a few foreign swear words muttered as people geared themselves up for the race. A big stage had been set up where instructors were belting out commands for aerobic warm ups.

How did you find the lack of daylight?

To be honest four days of darkness – the length of our stay in Tromso– was enough for me. I was starting to feel claustrophobic. I spoke to a local in a phone shop and he said he finds the conditions more testing in summer when it is light all day. Then the town is noisy with seabirds visiting from all round the world. He wants to kill them!

What’s next?

Attend to my new garden. I love gardening. I find it restorative and peaceful. It has taught me patience and to be more methodical. You can’t be the ‘bull in the china shop’ when gardening.  What’s not to love when the plants burst into flower, the trees sprout and provide shade and privacy but more importantly those same trees provide shade, shelter and a home to all the local birds. I love the hard, physical, back breaking work that gardening can be, but its’ joy is seeing your efforts come to life and the vision that initially popped into my head actually take shape.

I also want to return to Ironwoman fitness. And start planning my next adventure…

 

Socks, Chocs and Saris

Socks, Chocs and Saris

sari

The hectic time of year marking the festive season is thankfully behind me as I write this post. Australians spent an estimated A$48 billion on Christmas gifts in the 6 weeks leading up to 25 December (source: Australian Retailers Association). That’s a lot of socks and chocolates!

It was during this seasonal shopping period that I discovered socksandchocs – a registered charity based in Birmingham England, founded by ex-soldier and policeman Ian Northcott. He has put our penchant for spending to good use by urging the donation of basic needs for the homeless. By Christmas 2016 donations had reached 9601 pairs of socks, 8298 boxes of chocolates, 136 sleeping bags and 4078 miscellaneous items such as gloves and underwear. If you are wondering why chocolates have been included on the list (as I did), I urge you to read Ian’s story. Ian’s charity now operates in over 30 localities between England and Northern Ireland since its inception in 2010, and also provides emergency accommodation.

Closer to home, Share the Dignity’s #itsinthebag Christmas campaign caught my attention. My yoga teacher collected unwanted handbags filled with toiletries for women fleeing their homes at Christmas due to domestic violence. I donated a new Lonsdale backpack that I had originally bought my son for his Birthday, and took pleasure in purchasing personal items to fill it (he didn’t like the colour. I’m glad I gave it to someone who would be more appreciative!).

In addition to the giving and receiving, there is a flurry of socialising in the lead up to Christmas. My first invitation was for early November – to Sunday lunch by a friend in my writing group. Details were scanty: don’t bring anything. It is just a casual get together.

I arrived at a neat wooden home with a large leafy garden in the nearby suburb of Strathfield. As I approached the house I recognised my colleague and host greeting people at his front door. There was a procession of sari wearing strangers pulling up in cars. Their beauty reminded me of butterflies emerging from a cocoon as they navigated their way out of their vehicles in their colourful traditional costumes.

A casual get together with writing friends this was not turning out to be.

I counted a total of 20 guests from the Indian community and to my horror realised that they were all non-alcoholic drinking Hindus just as I proffered my hostess a gift of liqueur chocolates. She politely put them on display (I so wished for them to be placed at the back of the nearest cupboard, and conveniently forgotten until the next spring clean). As I was being introduced to the guests I noticed the men wearing freshly pressed collared shirts, and began to feel a bit underdressed in my casual backyard lunch wear.

We were ushered to the rear of the house, where a large table had been set up under the awning for our communal feast. It was refreshing to see orange juice and water being offered, no alcohol in sight (except what was hidden inside my chocolates!)

The sari wearing guests and their partners were immigrants from Bangalore, all fluent in the local dialect of Kannada, which they eased in and out of throughout the gathering’s conversations. The food was stupendous. Of particular note was hostess U’s dessert, a recipe from her village: pancake stuffed with lentils and brown sugar, with warm milk poured over the top.

Another surprise: the 4 of us representatives from the writing group were asked to give a short informal talk. We sat in a loose circle and took turns. I chose to speak about why I ended up in the group and what impact it has had on me personally: I had found my tribe. Another colleague, a retired French teacher and poet, recited a poem she had written about a garden in Paris she was particularly fond of. Though she had to compete for our attention with a flock of noisy rainbow lorikeets feasting on the banksia tree next door.

‘B’ shared his experiences of travelling around India with his yoga group. An accomplished actor, he had us all laughing throughout the narrative. ‘A’ described her youth on a farm in rural NSW where she was home schooled and a brown snake joined her for a lesson. This sparked immediate interest. Some of the men present stopped fiddling with their cell phones. Even the procession of ants that had gathered under my feet seemed to slow down as she regaled her near miss with death story.

The Indian guests happily shared their experiences when I prompted them. One particular woman stood out: visiting Sydney to assist her 2nd daughter with the recent arrival of her baby. She confessed to being nearly 60 (she looked 40!). Hers had been an arranged marriage – at 18 – and she indicated that she and her husband were ‘out of love’ now. He is a workaholic, leaving home at 7.30am and returning at 9.30pm. Her mother-in-law has lived under their roof since the marriage and still treats him like a small boy. I was horrified. She lamented the fact that she never went to work or furthered her education. She spends as much time as possible travelling to her daughters in Sydney and in the US.

Bare feet were the order of the day, guests leaving their assorted footwear at the front door. Being shoe-less brought an immediate sense of community, of belonging. There were some good healthy feet on show!

Among us there were professors, engineers, self-employed entrepreneurs, officer workers and taxi drivers, even professional entertainers: ‘S’ sang a traditional song in Hindi from her appearance at the Pink Sari Project concert, which raised breast cancer awareness among women in the Indian and Sri Lankan communities. I felt honoured to be included in their company, if only for an afternoon.

The women present wore lined faces and warm smiles, laughing and chatting, touching each other in a familiar way. They could have passed as sisters, so playful was their interaction. The intense colours and patterns of their saris heightened the visual pleasure of looking out to the shaded garden with its magnolia, frangipani and hibiscus .

Most guests chose to eat in their traditional way with their hand, not spilling anything. Those ants underfoot were getting hungry! I opted for cutlery which had thoughtfully been left out for the westerners.

The early afternoon breeze picked up the edges of the women’s saris as they talked and listened. There was a surreal like quality to this gathering – sharing stories and a meal with these friendly, engaging people of different backgrounds and life experiences from mine.

One guest confessed that she didn’t like Sydney at first and they emigrated because her son was accepted at university here. She told him that as soon as he finished his engineering degree she was going back home. Time brought a change of heart: she decided to stay once she got a job, made friends and started to integrate further into society.

All those who had moved here admitted to issues of assimilation when they first arrived from India. And  that their command of English provided a helpful tool. Saris I was told are very difficult to keep looking so beautiful. I could only imagine as I inspected the layers of woven silk at close hand.

I am grateful to be living amongst a diversity of cultures, and for the rituals and mindfulness that come with Christmas. An opportunity to share, meet and celebrate with people and connect with my tribe, wherever that may lead me.

My speed date with San Francisco

 

The USA is a big place, with a total land mass of 10 million km2 (4 million mi2) and a population of 325 million people at the time of writing this post. I was reminded of this fact when I flew there from my sunny patch in Sydney last month. San Francisco and its bay area was my destination, to visit family, the vibrant city known for its year round fog, hills, pretty wooden houses and streets veined with cable car tracks.

The city of San Francisco is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on its eastern side and San Francisco Bay. A maze of cars, traffic lanes, people, shopping centres, food outlets, churches, warehouses (crossing the San Mateo Bridge for the return flight in my sister’s car two weeks later I felt I was leaving one country for another, so vast was the body of water beneath us).

The bay area measures 11,300km2 (7000mi2) and has 7.1 million residents, urban sprawl interspersed with rural agriculture. California is colloquially known as the ‘food bowl’ of the USA, and is the fifth largest metropolitan district. My 45 minute rides on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) from Fremont station into the city proper gave a sobering view of industry: portside shipping containers and cranes silhouetting the landscape; warehouses that sort used clothing, car yards and car washes, RV hire; rubbish recycling stations; abandoned buildings covered in graffiti; community gardens; dust bowl school grounds – evidence that California has been in drought for 6 years. This also explains the backdrop of golden hills where I could imagine the dry straw coloured grass crackling underfoot were I to explore them (I have earmarked that adventure for my next visit).

Sydney was formally recognised as being a sister city of San Francisco in 1968. To my mind Sydney is more the littler sibling in the relationship. Make that a very little one, way down the pecking order of the English speaking family. Though natives of the bay area where I stayed may argue the toss that we in fact speak the same language. The usual response to my questions were: ‘Pardon me?’ ‘Can you repeat that please?’ I was surprised at how much the locals liked my accent. I thought I sounded awful; my sister, now a permanent denizen of San Francisco (and who sadly now feels so far away) doesn’t want to lose hers, so positive is the experience for her.

Cars are cheap to buy. And to run. A neighbours had 6 cars in their driveway, one for each member of the household. People are a lot more polite behind the wheel than I am used to in my southern city. Is this because of the excellent organisation of the road system? Though I admit to being perplexed when I saw drivers U-turning at traffic lights. It’s legal in the USA. And necessary, everywhere being very wide apart. Despite my sister’s enthusiasm for the ease of driving around I wasn’t tempted to actually get in the car and do it myself! I was out of kilter enough after my long haul flight, feeling that I had popped up into a Dr Zeuss book where life was being played out in reverse.

I’d arrived in Upside Down Land.

There is signage everywhere you go reminding people to conserve water. Yet toilets flush like a mini tsunami. It appears the ½ flush option hasn’t reached this part of the world yet. And there are squirrels to negotiate when one is cycling or driving round the suburbs. Those little critters can stop traffic.

Californians are polite. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Nice to meet you!’ ‘I hope you enjoy your stay’, a trait that sits side by side with a marked reserve. There is an invisible line between them and me and how much they are prepared to talk about themselves (I also noticed this when visiting New York two years ago). So I take note and remind myself not to be too eager to ask questions (which is the default position for this writer!) They are curious about me but not overly so.  And they know how to skirt around the personal stuff. Australians generally have a tendency to overshare. I admit I am a culprit here!

For most of my 2 week visit I was happily holed up in the bay area suburb of Niles, famous because Charlie Chaplin made movies there. It is a picture book hamlet of quaint wooden historic houses bordered by those round golden hills. More recently developed streets display Brady Bunch style faux ranches with pebble features, neat lawns and a sense of order about them.

I didn’t expect Bougainvillea and Crepe Myrtle trees to be growing in such abundance in this quiet neck of San Francisco’s bay. Seeing groves of common eucalypts filled me with a sense of de ja vu.

I ventured into the city a few times on the BART. It is a 15 minute drive from my family’s house in Niles to the station at Fremont (the last stop on the line). I bought a newspaper and asked for directions from a rheumy eyed vendor in the financial district. Not far from his kiosk a young male was sprawled out in a sleeping bag on the pavement; not an uncommon sight for this city.

I joined a small mob of tourists on an open top double decker bus tour to get a quick lie of the land (highly recommended!). We took in Cow Hollow, the Marina, the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge and the park of the same name which I have also earmarked for further exploration on my next trip). Haight Ashbury – where Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix lived and where I will definitely be returning for a more relaxed inspection – City Hall. Norman our guide liked the sound of his voice a bit too much and in the end I disembarked in the Tenderloin district before our tour was done.

He did shed some interesting facts: for example that there are 93 Starbucks outlets in the CBD alone, yet only one motor registry. Our bus drove past it and there was a queue snaking all the way through the carpark. Also that the most expensive real estate is in the Pacific Heights area and prices have fetched up to US$65 million for a property.

Chinatown was another adventure, on my 2nd visit (episode 2 of my ‘speed date’) – a treasure trove of street upon street of bric-a-brac, souvenirs, fabric, antiques, framed calligraphy, Chinese grocery stores, restaurants. It kept going, like an optical illusion. English language took a back seat here. I also remembered for my return trip to take a heavier jacket. The weather can turn chilly at short notice.

The sophisticated Ferry building and Embarcadero shed another light on this city of many faces, in stark contrast to Fisherman’s Wharf with its obese tourists, overflowing rubbish bins, long queues and smell of fried food. But the busking was world class. The iconic Transamerica Pyramid building near Jackson Square stood out on my map like a treasure chest, X marking the spot to indicate the serious business precinct of uptown.

Receipts are longer. The GST is added at the checkout, and where applicable the tip. In some instances I noticed an ‘employee benefits tax’ had been added on too.  It got to the point where I wondered whether I should be tipping or not, for example the overly helpful assistants in Macy’s at Union Square. Is that the expectation? Or are they being genuinely nice to me?

Ok I will admit I felt like the country cousin at times!

I can confirm the minimum wage in the USA is US$8. I saw this documented on a staff noticeboard at Oakhurst, where we stopped for supplies en route to Yosemite National Park. This begs the question: how can people afford to live? Apart from gas, cars and clothing, other commodities are on par with my part of the world that I could see. One has to pay for quality food here, the same as Sydney, though my green-fingered sister in-law grows arguably the best tomatoes I have ever tasted.

A visit to the local farmers market in nearby Newark is a Sunday routine for this family, where colourful pyramids of fresh produce is piled high and being spruiked by smiling growers – mostly Hispanics who have driven for up to 4 hours from their farms that very morning to set up their stalls. Orchids (at around US$15 each – so cheap!), cilantro, chillies, corn, beans, okra, potatoes in every hue imaginable to name a few.

I witnessed the racial divide when attending a professional baseball game in Oakland, the Seattle Marines versus the local Oakland team. My sis had scored us VIP tickets through her work. We were waited on in our seats by staff of Negro descent. We ensured that we left a good tip. I couldn’t help noticing that the crowd in our enclosure were mostly white.

My 2 week stay was punctuated by 4 nights at Mariposa, near Yosemite National Park. We bundled up 2 vehicles and 4 people, leaving cats, chickens and my sister-in-law’s abundant vegetable garden to the neighbours. The 3.5 hour journey due west (which stretched into 5 with lunch and comfort stops) afforded me a view of the ‘food bowl’ in action: row upon perfect row of grape vines, fruit, olive and nut trees playing tricks with our eyes as we sped past. Still blinking, we would touch on the outskirts of an urban city, its mega mart the flagship indicator.

Yosemite National Park didn’t fail to disappoint and deserves a blog post of its own. Our visit was strategically timed with the end of the official summer break. Though we still jostled for parking, and trying to take photos without wandering tourists in the frame proved difficult. I could imagine the flux of people in high season. Seeing woodpeckers, skunks, chipmunks and deer in their habitat and sequoia trees dating over 3000 years in age still fills me with a sense of wonder. Stripping down to our underwear and taking cheeky dips in water falls and rivers was a highlight (we ensured that the other more sedate tourists were out of view!).

My very active niece kept me delightful company when I wasn’t busy being a tourist. I highly recommend spending one’s vacation looking at the world through the rose coloured glasses of an 8 year old! My memory is a warm fuzz of cooking, craft, cycling, swimming, assembling Lego, playing the piano, jumping on the trampoline. I can still see her ahead on her bicycle, pink tassels on her handlebars flying, her butt marking time as she stood on the pedals, looking back over her shoulder every now and then to ensure Aunty was following. Our destination was the Hacienda, a private pool a few blocks from home for paid up members only. An oasis!

Her energy left me breathless at times and ready for bed when she was. Why walk down the hallway when you can tumble turn / cartwheel / run? I will miss her ability to be totally in the moment, her singing (when she doesn’t have her head in a book – reading it upside down – no sitting conventionally for this one!) and her curiosity for everyone and everything. In short a joy to be around.

On my return flight to Sydney I was reminded that there is nothing glamorous about long distance travel, unless you can afford the ‘big bucks’ seats up at the pointy of the aircraft of course. The fug of unwashed passengers at close proximity, their personal detritus strewn at my feet, queuing for the amenities like bleary eyed sheep in the middle of the night, the smell of mass produced food.

Delayed connections and lost baggage added to my woes, but I reminded myself that when you travel you have to be prepared for anything to happen (actually this was the sage advice of my sister who does a lot of travelling for her job). I have already started a savings account for the next visit so it can’t have been too unbearable!