Monday, November 18, 2013

The proof of the Christmas pudding is ........?

The weather in Sydney over the last few days has been drear, dreich and generally wet, wet, wet.  Given that last week I was skipping along the beach glorying in spectacular sunshine this is particularly irritating. 
If only you'd been here last week!

I sent this picture of the sad swimming pool to a friend in New Zealand this morning to convince her that she should be packing her Sou wester for her upcoming trip to Sydney.  

She pointed out that at least it was warm and whilst I did restrain myself from posting back a selfie of me muffled up in my ancient holey cashmere jumper which was the warmest garment to hand this morning, the observation re respective warmths of climate did reinforce my opinion that a move to Auckland might be a bit like returning to my Scottish roots in terms of weather.

Weather aside I did in fact have the most fabulous weekend.  A friend who has a beach house an hour or so up the coast at a place called Patonga invited me up for a girls’ weekend of Christmas baking.   Given my culinary skills this would normally have me running for the hills and in fact I have to own up to a moment of complete panic when I realised I had failed at the first hurdle and had completely stuffed the marinating of the mixed peel and fruit.   However I remained calm (relatively) and consoled myself that most things, and indeed people, are greatly improved by being soaked in brandy for a week rather than the mere skimpy 24 hours that the recipe apparently called for.

Patonga is a former fishing village, transformed into the ideal weekend getaway.  Bags of character, stunning scenery, at the end of the road so off the beaten track, whilst containing all the essentials of life in the form of a ferry jetty, an active pub and a fish and chip shop. 

In fact the Christmas pudding courtesy of a Maggie Beer recipe, was comparatively simple to make, particularly once I axed the notion of dehydrated cumquats as an ingredient, I do after all know my limitations. There is nothing so good I have now decided as the citrusy and brandy scented smell of boiling puddings and cooking cakes on a wet afternoon when the rain is lashing down.  And I have to admit the cumquats that my more ambitious friend tackled with aplomb did smell divine once hydrated with brandy – but once again, what wouldn’t?

I didn’t know the other three women who had also been invited for the pudding project weekend, but I have to say we bonded over the whole thing.  They were all stars on the cooking front and whilst they remained effortlessly polite, they were reduced to hysteria by my method of cutting up a pumpkin – not for the pudding I should add, I may be a cooking novice but I do know the limits of pumpkin.  However I remain firm that there is no right way to slice a pumpkin and if I choose to do it in a completely bizarre way that no decent cook would contemplate, so long as I am not a) using my teeth or b) losing a finger, then that’s all right.

Puddings and stunning views aside the best bit of the weekend, in fact the plum in the pudding as it were, was the conversations.  Such a fabulous group of women, three different nationalities and five different professions between us, and somehow we all just jelled.  We laughed and laughed and by the end of the weekend we were all writing up lists of each other’s recommendations, from films to see and books to read to auction houses to frequent.   I did make a mental note on this last one that given I am supposed to be de-cluttering the debris of the last 22 years currently stored in boxes balanced on top of wardrobes, an auction house addiction might be somewhat dangerous; particularly given my love of kitsch that combined with a competitive nature  will lead to bidding wars  and impulse buys and I can just see Husband’s face when I return with a set of gnome salt and pepper shakers and 68 mismatched glasses.

I am feeling very proud of my two puddings, that I reckon look the business swathed as they are in calico.  
Puddings of which to be proud

However I am slightly more nervous about the instructions re hanging them in a cool place until Christmas, and the accompanying warnings about humidity and the dangers of mould.  I have the general feeling it might be difficult to pass off a pudding with a stilton-like blue bloom around it.  My family tend to be somewhat suspicious of my culinary masterpieces and it may require a major sleight of hand to disguise a furry tendency round the edges of the pudding.  However I can but hope for the best and if the worst comes to the worst, and given most of my coats and shoes grow whiskers of mould given half a chance – and the fact that torrential rain and warm conditions does add up to humid, I think I am not being overly pessimistic in assuming mould is an option, there is always the remedy of yet more brandy and setting fire to the thing prior to the glorious entry.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Different sides of the street - which side do you walk?

One of the things I have loved about living in different countries is the writing and books you discover.  America was a classic case, I arrived there in 2002 convinced on the basis of loving Alison Lurie, that I knew all about American writers and of course had my arrogance and naivety immediately blown away by the talent and wonder of Barbara Kingsolver, Wally Lamb, Ann Patchett and Anne Tyler to name just a few contemporary American authors.  I can still remember sitting in the Rye Free Reading Room, reading Wally Lamb’s “I Know This Much Is True.” and just going ‘WOW’.

Likewise Australia has been a delight in terms of introducing me to authors such as Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Peter Temple and Craig Silvey. 

However it is not just novels that one discovers, great realms of poetry appear, and in America I came back to Robert Frost, via one of the children’s school books, and some of his lines do just stay with me, in particular these lines from “The Road Not Taken”.

“I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

I am a creature of habit, I have walked the same road, every morning at about 6 a.m. with small adjustments for light and downpours, same dog, same route, same coffee stop at Arena’s Deli at 7 a.m. every morning where I nod to the other regulars and then last week I decided to take the road less travelled by, and I walked up the other side of the street and discovered the joy of a new view, a fabulous new bakery that I had never realised existed  - (it’s been there for a least a year apparently so spot the woman with her finger on the pulse) – La Banette, purveyors of baguettes, hot from the oven at that time of the morning, conjuring up the taste of France via Vietnam. 

La Banette

Having decided stepping out of the groove is good for the soul – if not the waistline, (baguette with butter and jam anyone?) I then followed the bakery detour up with a visit to the Night Noodle Markets that set up in Sydney’s Hyde Park during Sydney’s Good Food Month.  Fabulous idea, set up 40 stalls selling every variety of Asian street food, add in chairs and tables, open up at 5pm every night and wait for the masses to roll in.  Colour for the eye, tongue and the all important soul and I am coming to the conclusion I should be setting myself a goal, were it not for the fact that my goal keeping record is pretty abysmal, but anyway one can only aspire - so here goes for a goal.   I should be either a) doing something I’ve never done before, b) reading an new author or c) taking the other side of the road as it were, every week.

Sydney's Night Noodle Markets

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Happy Trafalgar Day - wish I could say as the smoke clears

Happy Trafalgar Day – 208 years since Horatio Nelson’s naval victory at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21st 1805.  The only reason I know this bit of trivia is that it is also the birthday of one of my three brothers, so Happy Birthday Alasdair, and your present is in the post.  This tardiness on the present front comes despite the fact that Husband has just set a world record on the international mail front and proved it is possible to send something from the US to Australia in two days.  However the downside to this speediness is that if you are absent minded and fail to specify that when you say ‘Airmail’ you don’t actually mean “Fedex the dammed thing”, you subsequently discover the modern equivalent of a man running full speed with a forked stick is in fact very, very expensive.

Out on the water this morning on one of my rowing outings, it did in fact feel a bit like being on a Trafalgar Day type naval battlefield, not because of any crowded conditions as in fact we had Middle Harbour to ourselves as we rowed up the river, but more as a result of the smoke drifting down through the gum trees and trickling over the sandstone cliffs.  The huge bushfires that are burning outside Sydney are a good hour’s drive away, but the smoke from exploding bushland clouds the city sky and creates the type of sullen, yellowing light that I associate with the end of the world.  Unfortunately New South Wales is due for a further round of hot, windy days so the fire fighters who have already been battling blazes for days, have a mammoth task in front of them in their efforts to protect various townships and property.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot

“Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot,” I just love these clips with the music from Bina Mistry from the end of   ‘Bend it like Beckham’, which has to be one of the original feel good movies.  

Whenever I see actors and production crews goofing around and obviously having a really good time, as they were in these clips, I find it almost impossible to imagine bankers and teachers cavorting around having such fun and I am thus tempted to rush off and enrol myself in NIDA, the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, for after all there must be some roles for middle aged ladies with a good track record.  As a tone-deaf child it was a requirement of my totally terrifying primary school music teacher who was an ex opera singer with the requisite chest to match, that I make an appearance on stage rather than wrecking her choir.  My great dramatic moments thus included a baby angel (a number of times) and lured on by this early success, numerous senior school productions including a totally dreadful Mrs Sullen in a Restoration comedy called The Beaux Stratagem (with hindsight I cannot think what madness overcame the Glasgow Academy master who chose that one as there has never been a play less suitable for a school packed with teenage boys).  I had a ball as one of the four girls imported into the cast to provide the love interest but I don’t think any of the cast – or indeed the audience, ever understood what on earth was going on in the play.  My dramatic career may have peaked with a performance as an “Old Etonian Fag and Friend” in ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ – funny how some lines stay in your mind for ever, just recalling my 16 year old appearance in plus fours and a cap also makes me wonder why my girls’ school didn’t return the dramatic favour and import some boys for the roles that called fairly obviously for a bit of testosterone. 

‘Bend it like Beckham’ and actors hamming it up aside, ‘Hot, Hot, Hot’ applies to Sydney today.  34 oC or 93 oF today at 4pm, with a hot wind blasting through.  The Drama Queens and I took ourselves off down to the beach at 6pm, the water temperature is about 20 oC and was cold enough compared to the air temperature to provide an initial shock, but such bliss to come out of the water and be warm within seconds – being a product of windswept Scottish beaches where running up and down the beach was required to restart circulation and no one in their right mind stood still to let the wind dry them off for fear of hypothermia setting in, I find warm weather bathing an ongoing treat, particularly when followed by a walk along the beach to the bottle shop to buy an ice cream.  Doesn't come any better than a small tub of Ben and Jerry's, sitting with my girls on the esplanade watching the beach day come to an end.  

The wind is getting up this evening as I type as what is called a ‘Southerly Buster’ blows in and cools everything down, but there is a joyous feeling that even if the stage fails to beckon me forward into the spotlight, there is at least the long, hazy days of a Sydney summer where the locals don’t wear shoes, to look forward to.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

OMG - The Tension – The America’s Cup

I am not sure I can stand much more of this, it is not just every sail and line on the futuristic America’s Cup catamarans careening down San Francisco Bay that are stretched to breaking point, my nerves are also twanging in sympathy and my finger nails are a dim and distant memory as the 34th America’s Cup moves into a cliffhanger finish after 18 races.  The alarm has gone off at 5.30am every morning for the last week and the entire family has assembled on the sofa to watch the increasingly tense, we've gone beyond exciting as an adjective here, America's Cup sailing competition.

New Zealand, population 4.4m has been battling it out on the water with the USA, population 314m.  I say battling but in fact New Zealand had them on the run initially, particularly as the Americans had been given a 2 race penalty for altering the design of the boat – not quite clear what they actually did, as it seems incredible anyone could make these boats go any faster, they already blast round the course at over 40 knots at times, with the boats coming up onto what are called foils to slice across the water.  I would say they skim across the waves like hovercraft, except these are slim line, blade like machines from the space age that bear no resemblance to the wallowing hippo-like lines of a traditional hovercraft.

By last Thursday, New Zealand had won 8 races to America’s 1.   To win the series New Zealand just had to win a final race – and they did, but they ran out of time – so it didn’t count – I think it was at that point the finger nails met their end.  But never mind we all thought – or all of us down in the Southern Hemisphere Kiwi supporting part of the world, all they have to do is just win that last race and they’ve got 7 races in hand to do it – no problem was the mantra.  Well don’t we look foolish now, America has now won 7 races in succession, and much though it pains me to admit in great style, and so as of this morning New Zealand and America are now head to head at 8 races each, and whoever wins the next race takes home the cup.  There has been a certain sick feeling akin to watching Tim Henman at Wimbledon beginning to creep over me during the last few races, but I am keeping a firm grip on myself and just reminding myself good things come to those who wait, watching the action between their fingers as the tension mounts, Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory being a prime example.

You couldn’t get a more exciting final, and more of a Sponsor’s dream.  There is a very nasty cynical side of me that says that the American boat is primarily a Sponsor’s boat – Team Oracle rather than a truly American national team.  The American commentary team are not unnaturally enthusiastic about the three man group of skipper and helmsman Jimmy Spithill and strategists and tacticians, Tom Slingsby and Ben Ainslie who are storming the American boat towards the winner’s podium, but during the deservedly rapturous assessment of the partnership and their results, the commentators carefully avoid mentioning the fact that both Jimmy Spithill and Tom Slingsby, the Gold Medallist Laser sailor are Australians and Ben Ainslie is of course Sir Ben Ainslie, the British quadruple Gold and Silver Olympic medallist.

In contrast Team Emirates New Zealand might have the odd Australian aboard, those Aussies get everywhere, but the main men on the boat, skipper Dean Barker, tactician Ray Davies and Managing Director Grant Dalton are all undeniably Kiwis through and through and when you throw in people like Rob Waddell who won a rowing Olympic Gold medal for New Zealand in single sculls in the 2000 Olympics before he tried his hand at sailing, it just looks like a different kind of team. 

Difficult one to call this one as a fairy tale ending – do you want the Americans, or rather the British and Australians sailing for the American team to claw their way back against overwhelming odds and it is hard not to cheer for Jimmy Spithill who has done such an stellar job of staring down what looked like certain defeat, or do you go for New Zealand, the underdog team in terms of population and funding who have fronted up and done an amazing job finding a truly representative national team despite the fact their population is
78 times smaller than their competitors.

So as a point of principle, and to support small nations everywhere and the Down Under neighbours I am cheering New Zealand all the way across the finish line.   A certain selfishness also comes into the equation given I have lots of Kiwi friends and am thus guaranteed a bed in Auckland to watch the next America’s Cup if they win, so cross your fingers for favourable winds, and cunning tacks and jibes to see off the opposition tomorrow.  


The Ladies' Thinking Club

Australia has a new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott (NB this is not meant as a breaking news flash as the election was 7th September).  Whilst his victory was not unexpected, the line up of his new cabinet aroused considerable comment as there is only one woman, Julie Bishop the new Foreign Minister, amongst the nineteen members.  As you can imagine this has given rise to lots of comments and discussion about quotas and female representation.  Almost every female of note in Australia seems to have been asked for their opinion, though strangely no one has come knocking on my door, whilst there are emotive statistics flying around about the fact that Afghanistan now has more female representation at a senior parliamentarian level than Australia.   However it is worth noting only a year ago Australia had a female Prime Minister, female Governor General and female Head of State (Queen Elizabeth).

I think I fall on the side of encouraging good women rather than imposing quotas that could lead to mediocre women to match the numerous mediocre men in government.  One of the arguments out there is there aren’t enough good women – but one only has to look around to see that isn’t true, the correct response is there aren’t enough good women prepared to consider politics as a career, and the reason for that lies with the nature of politics and politicians rather than the potential calibre of women as a race.

Whilst considering the women in politics question I listened to the following interview with Agnieszka Fryckowska the Base Commander at the British Halley VI base station in Antarctica.  She is in charge of a 13 man team, with most team members doing 18 months on the base, 9 months of which are spent as a small group isolated from the outside world with the added bonus that for a couple of those months the sun fails to make it over the horizon. 

Agnieszka sounds a fabulous woman in a fascinating job, and what had me cheering was when she was asked about being the only woman, not to mention the boss, her response was that as members of the team “We are hired for our ability to do the job, not whether we are male or female.”  And in the end I think whether you are running the equivalent of Ice Station Zebra or the Australian Liberal Party that has to be the right answer, notwithstanding there are lots of things you can do to make life easier for talented women to apply.

When I was back in the UK earlier on in the Northern Hemisphere summer I came across some sample questions from the General Paper for the Fellowship Exam at All Souls College at Oxford.  The questions were in one of the Sunday papers and the Drama Queens and I whiled away a train journey whilst considering issues such as “Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?” and “Is it an extremely unnatural condition for a male and female to live continuously together?” and one of my particular favourites; “It has been said architecture is frozen music.  Does this make any sense?”

I got back to Sydney and stuck up a copy of some of the questions above the cooker – always useful to have something to read whilst supper chars, before deciding that I don’t see enough of my female friends and I should have an evening where I made them talk about some of these questions – a kind of Ladies Thinking (and obviously Drinking) outing. 

I know it sounds incredibly pretentious but I love my book club both for the books we read and the discussions we have about them, but also for the fact it gives us all an excuse to get together, and I thought having a think about some of these questions would give us a focus.

I was a complete bundle of nerves before the 14 women turned up and in fact was in the running to invent a question of my own along the lines of  “How advisable is it for the hostess to have a couple of quick drinks before guests arrive?” but I have to say it was the most fantastic success and people really seemed to enjoy the chance to talk about all kinds of issues and really welcomed the chance to be forced to move off the children/husband/dog/holiday conversation roundabout we sometimes all get caught on – generally enjoyably I should add as if you want mindless banter at the school drinks party then I am your woman.  However I certainly came away from the evening feeling completely buoyed by what a fantastic, thought provoking, interesting, risk taking group of female friends I have, who lift me up emotionally, and intellectually and make me laugh big time, and if I was Tony Abbott I’d be giving them a call quick smart as they are just the kind of people to run the country.

Tony Abbott was a Rhodes scholar so will be familiar with All Souls College, but I can’t help feeling that had he had a go at this question in the run up to the election he might have at least had some answers for his critics!

“If you were Prime Minister, what considerations would you take into account in deciding the size and composition of your Cabinet?”

Monday, September 16, 2013

Row, Row your boat

It’s raining in Sydney.  Raining in a remorseless dirge like fashion that makes nonsense out of words like drizzle.  Before it got dark I kept glancing behind me in the manner of one starring in a low budget horror movie to a darkened horizon with clouds bulging up behind each other in a way that made the continuing downpour a certainty. 

You get out of the way of rain.  We’ve have had weeks of dry weather, with sun and warmth on tap and I have begun to take an early summer for granted and so consequently I now feel aggrieved that having shaved my legs ready to burst upon the world in my shorts, the weather takes a turn for the nasty and not only am I back in my jeans, but I am also wondering where my head to toe waterproofs are.

I row in a social Ladies’ four every couple of weeks or so.  The other three and the long-suffering coach go out every week and another lady and I act as part time subs. The time interval between my outings means that there is no muscle memory involved and each hour and a half outing hits my protesting body like, well like an hour and a half on a rowing machine, and I have to be practically craned out of the flimsy shell when we return to dry land.  Muscle moaning apart, Middle Harbour which is one of the arms of Sydney Harbour, has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world to have a Monday morning row with a bunch of friends.  Normally we row through harbour mansions and on into secluded creeks fringed by gums and sandstone escarpments dropping down to the water.   Most of the upper reaches of Middle Harbour are within Garigal National Park so it comes as almost a shock when the arches of Roseville Bridge, a major throughway between Central Sydney and the Northern Beaches hoves into view.  Middle Harbour is reputed to be a shark breeding ground and is undeniably the site of the last shark fatality in the harbour, as a result I tend not to trail my hand through the water – not that there is much opportunity for hand trailing as I row with a crew that likes to push itself (and half kill their weaker brethren e.g. me) and thus rather than lounging around on the water in the Three Men in a Boat mode, we are more likely to be doing pyramids – 5 firm, 5 light, 10 firm, 10 light – I am sure you are getting the picture and also hopefully the general sense of why I return from these outings puce in the face and bent over like a banana.

It was looking grey this morning as we set out, but as I say these are Everest climbing type ladies – they don’t do wimpy so off we went and of course as soon as we got to the point of no return, the heavens opened.  It is interesting to note that this point of no return rule applies to rowing outing as well as my childhood Scottish walks.  We got back to the dock with water gushing off us, dripping would be inaccurate, as a description, though I did note that my bra that was obviously inside my clothes was dripping.  I didn’t think it was possible to get any wetter until we turned the boat upside down to carry it up to the boatshed and promptly emptied a couple of buckets of water over ourselves.  I got in a hot shower, noting with interest that my fingers had that wrinkled washerwoman look I associate with Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggywinkle, but as I stood under the glorious hot water I did get a grip on reality and thank my lucky stars that a wet Spring day in Sydney rowing in a Fab Four still knocks the spots off a cold wet day in most of the rest of the world.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Caitlin Moran - blazing like a comet?

I am a woman of obsessions, indeed as many of my friends will testify I now boring for Britain on topics such as steel and concrete as I am midway through the riveting 'Stuff Matters', a book about materials by Mark Miodownik, and enjoying it to the extent that Husband is beginning to complain that  he is finding bedtime conversations revolving around topics such as the discovery of stainless steel and the near mystical properties of areogel, a bit of a turn off.

Sometimes though people and topics are like comets, you have never heard of them and then suddenly they appear on the horizon, unannounced,  and then keep reappearing in a flood of sparks and twinkles and this is the unlikely role that Caitlin Moran the UK columnist and broadcaster, has taken up in my life.

I first discovered her when a friend gave me a copy of Caitlin Moran's book “How to be a Woman”. Like all good columnists and comedians, she doesn’t spare herself or others and I found myself alternating between snorting with laughter and metaphorically covering my eyes and going “Oh my God!”,  but bits of her writing have stayed with me which for me is always the sign of a good book. 

Then I was back in the UK this summer, I came across a fabulous column by Caitlin in the Times Magazine entitled ‘My Posthumous Advice to my Daughter’.   As the parent occupying the main lion-taming role in the three ring circus that is life with three teenage girls, I am always keen on a bit of advice, though obviously I’d prefer to deliver the words of wisdom in person rather than from beyond the grave.   I loved her advice to her daughter and as I read through her wacky and funny but oh so truthful guide to life, I found myself nodding and going “Yes, Yes” in a way that definitely alarmed my fellow passengers on the stationary Edinburgh to York train.  Some of the gems I treasured were:

“Always remember that, nine times out of ten, you probably aren’t having a nervous breakdown – you just need a cup of tea and a biscuit.  You’d be amazed at how easily and repeatedly you can confuse the two.  Get a big biscuit tin.”

“Never love someone whom you think you need to mend – or who makes you feel you should be mended.”

And my personal favourite bit because I hate to say it, I do lead my life a bit this way:

“Life divides into AMAZING ENJOYABLE TIMES  and APPALLING EXPERIENCES THAT WILL MAKE FUTURE AMAZING ANECDOTES.  However awful, you can get yourself through any experience if you imagine yourself in future, telling your friends about it as they scream, with increasing disbelief, ‘NO! NO!’”.

(This is the link to the full article, however you do need to subscribe to get it in full comet appropriate glory!

And this week just to complete the trinity of the Caitlin Moran experience, I came across a Radio 4 podcast of the woman herself, reading extracts from her teenage diaries which made me laugh so much that there was definite stool wobbling going on. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Swan Song - the novice guide to Aussie Rules

Sunday night was the end of a glorious day in Sydney.  We’re talking huge blue sky untainted by clouds, sun warm enough to bask in during the day and to shed a couple of layers and a sunset to warm the cockles of amateur painters’ hearts everywhere.  It was also a first for us – somehow despite living in Sydney for almost 12 years on and off, we have never managed to catch a game of AFL or Aussie Rules as it is alternatively known and so Sunday evening we headed off to watch the Sydney Swans in action against the Richmond Tigers.

AFL is fanatically popular in Victoria and South Australia – and I do mean fanatically, it is not uncommon for teams in Melbourne to get crowds of 30,000 to a routine game, and in fact looking at the statistics, the Collingwood Magpies got a whopping average of 53,440 spectators per game.  AFL is still a relatively new concept in New South Wales and consequently Sydney,  the Sydney Swans were formed when South Melbourne Football Club relocated to Sydney in 1982.  

As a game it seems to me that as Hungarian is to language so AFL is to the rest of the footie/rugby world in that its closest relative is probably Gaelic football.  My grasp on the rules etc. is very slim and I am bracing myself for a flood of emails from enraged aficionados but here goes on what I have picked up so far:

Played by 18 a side
Played by men in tight shorts and sleeveless vests
Played by very fit men – it is a game of constant running and apparently when they fitted GPS trackers to players it wasn’t uncommon for them to run 16km during the course of the game.
The field of play is oval– and indeed we went to see the Sydney Swans play at their homeground the SCG – the Sydney Cricket Ground

The ball goes forward, backwards, inside, outside, upside down so far as I could see
You can kick or hand punch the ball but not pass, and spectators shout “ball” a lot
If you run with the ball you must bounce it every 15 m or so
To score you kick it through some posts with different scores for which posts it goes through, put me in mind of Quidditch to be honest
You can tackle but not below the knee or above the shoulder
If you take a mark the opposing side are not allowed to tackle you but tend to dance around in front of you windmilling their arms
The umpire starts play by hurling the ball at the ground and it then rebounds or bounces back up into the air
Throws ins are by umpires who throw the ball over their shoulder with an enviable vigour
Offside doesn’t seem to exist as a concept
The game is four quarters

At the end of the game , which happily in this particular case ended in victory for the Swans, everyone sings the team song – very rousing. if you want to sing along and they then open up the field to an event called Kick to Kick, where supporters come on the pitch and have a kick about once the teams have left.  Lots of small children and their parents kicking balls around in a general melee of celebration.

I really enjoyed the game, and I particularly liked what a family atmosphere it was, Swans supporters draped in red and white came in all shapes and sizes from Grannies to infants sporting bobble hats in the Swans’ colours of red and white.  The play on the field was incredibly fast and exciting – the ball moves up and down the pitch at an amazing speed with relatively few interruptions for things like rule infringements so play really flows.  So I’m off to buy my red and white scarf, learn the words to the song and enthuse the Drama Queens on the joys of Aussie Rules – and mental note to self, must learn the right moment to shout ‘BALL’.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Rule of Three - Post holiday Laws of the Universe

I think I may have discovered a new rule governing the universe – in particular the holidaying part of the universe.  I am unsure whether I should be applying to the Nobel Prize committee for Chemistry, Biology or Physics for  basically the Rule of Three seems to touch on most of post holiday life and body.
The Rule of Three holds that:
1.     It takes three months of holiday run up to build a reasonable level of fitness (and bear in mind we are not talking Olympic level fitness here merely the ability to walk up the hill from the beach without turning puce and catching at my chest) – and approximately three days of holiday to loose that residual fitness and return to couch potato level, albeit clad in a bikini and was there ever a more attractive garment for a potato than a bikini?  (NB at this point just have to draw attention to the Australian manufacturer called AussieBum who market their exceedingly brief and tight swimming ‘briefs’  and underwear under the slogan, “If you doubt yourself, wear something else” – good job it’s aimed at men  not women!)
2.     It takes three weeks to lose a kilo – and note here I mean to lose it properly rather than temporarily mislay it on a 24 hour basis owing to a nil by mouth type diet and conversely roughly three hours to gain it – but actually possibly worth it in terms of groans of greed as the Italian notion of a light lunch slips down.
3.     It generally takes us three whole days as a family to relax into life on holiday, to start sleeping in, slopping around, reading ancient copies of Agatha Christie novels, playing cards and charades and just generally behaving like characters from “Five have a Great Time” and conversely approximately three hours and a large washing pile before pre holiday stress and snappiness returns.
4. The three week pile of mail that awaits on the doorstep looks three times as interesting as it actually is - reminders for pet vaccination having after all a limited fascination factor.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

50 Shades of Green

The Green Green Grass of Home

We have just come to the end of the winter school holidays in Australia.   These holidays could be billed as  ‘Three weeks to hit Europe’ as that seems to sum up the general holiday exodus from our leafy enclave on the Lower North Shore.  This part of Sydney is packed with both expat families and also those with the resources that mean a family trip to Europe is on the radar – and frankly given the strength of the Australian dollar everywhere looks cheap compared to daily life in Sydney.

Being complete Lemmings by nature, we followed the trend and were on the plane as soon as the school bell went. 

I so loved being back in Europe.  In a deliberate change of policy, we managed to avoid the usual expat rat race where you spend the entire holiday belting from one relative or friend to another with meals and conversations rationed out and no matter how long you have, somehow you never have time to see everyone properly and instead engage in a maddened speed dating routine, trying not to wince when friends say “so when are you off?  We must catch you before you go.” And you feel a complete louse having to break the news they’ve had their allocated half hour.

We spent ten days in Italy and fell in love with Tuscany, romped through Rome, and indulged in the most fabulous food. Pasta funghi e tartufi, just the words are enough to make me drool, my Italian may be non- existent but it’s amazing what an incentive mouth watering smells are in translating a menu, though I did have to resort to a ‘Harry met Sally’ moment, declaring I’ll have one of what she’s having” in one restaurant.  Rome was a revelation as we walked in Roman footsteps, danced our way through galleries crammed with works of art and guzzled gelato.

By the time we hit the UK, still admittedly part of Europe, but clearly different in most European minds, not to mention British ones, the sun had come out and the world was transformed – to put this in perspective in the 11 years since we last lived in the UK, each time we have visited the mother ship as it were, the heavens have opened, we have frozen and half drowned and wondered why British people don’t have dryers and turn on their central heating regardless of season as it strikes us as bloody freezing in July .

But this year we struck lucky and landed just as the heat wave began.   After what had been an appalling Spring as we were reliably informed by everyone we met, there is nothing as lush as the British countryside.   We’re talking  ‘Jerusalem’ country here with “England’s mountains green”, verdant hillsides, billowing hedgerows, green on green creating vistas that calm the soul and call for a Pimms in the hand whilst watching the amazing sight of a Scot winning Wimbledon.  Add in four days with 17 of my relatives (I come from a largeish family) and a Golden Wedding celebration and it was hard to say how the trip could have got more idyllic.

The Australian countryside is mindbendingly stunning in a completely different way to that of the UK, but though I find myself equally blown away by the space and emptiness of Australian landscapes, and the colours, less of a vibrant green and more of a subtle shadings of grey, yellow, Australia is in the end a dry country and in contrast there is something very soothing in luxuriating in layer upon layer of green in the UK.  50 shades of green in fact. and I came to the conclusion this layering is what Europe (and the UK) is all about.  Layer upon layer of history, landscape layered in a living reminder of prior existences whether it be the Roman roads still visible in their lines across the countryside, or the ancient Via Francigena that crosses Tuscany, layer upon layer of buildings and activities that have shaped every part of the land, and of course layers of sophistication in the streets of Rome and London, where everyone jostles shoulders from nuns to definite sinners.  I do have to note that though I am not Catholic, I did take to crossing myself on pedestrian crossings in Rome and generally tried to find a nun to attach myself to  as I stepped onto the road as the scooters seem to give the religious a slightly wider berth than the hairsbreadth margin that they allow to tourists.

I came home feeling I could easily have done three months in Europe and am quelling firmly any yearnings for the ‘green green grass of home’ with the realisation that actually home for us is now Sydney and frankly it’s a heck of a nice place to have as home base – blue sky day today and a seemingly huge moon floating over a pewter night time sea.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Warts and all?

I like plain speaking doctors, it is always useful to be clear about what the issue is, and after all what’s wrong with the odd word like ‘Fat’ when bandied about between friends?

I’ve had a fair bit of medical plain speaking in my time, mostly it has to be said, during periods when I was very fat, pregnancy rather than cream cake related, I hasten to add.   There was the young obstetrician in London who answered my query about whether inducing the baby that had taken up what seemed like permanent roost in my womb, would end with a second caesarean scar.  Having already gained what the obstertrician in Hong Kong referred to as the ‘Mark of Zorro’ across my stomach with baby no.1, I was anxious to avoid the same fate with baby no. 3.  He looked up casually from his notes, and remarked that in his experience women of my age were a bit like old bangers, once you cranked them up and started them they just ran and ran.  I should point out here I was 34 at the time, admittedly not spring lamb status but had never really considered myself in the old banger  or mutton category.

There seems to be something about my insides that brings out the worst in male doctors.  There was the radiologist who was searching for a lost IUD, (don’t ask, I don’t know why these things happen to me), who remarked with satisfaction when he found it, “One good tug and they’ll get that out” before realising the word ‘tug’ should never be used with regard to someone’s innards, unless you are addressing some kind of fowl.  Turkey or no turkey, I laughed, and in fact we parted best of friends, overcome by such giggles that we reeled out into the waiting room together in the grip of the type of hysteria that can have hardly reassured the legions of pregnant women waiting for their own ultrasounds.

My latest problem is not with the charming doctor who conducted my recent skin check, but with the terminology he employed to describe my blemishes.  When a woman gets to a certain age, and yes, we are now talking old banger status, she does not expect to be told the lumps and bumps that add character to her face are actually ‘age warts’.  Plain speaking is all very well but whilst the dewy complexion vanished like the proverbial dawn some years ago, I don’t want to think of myself as akin to Gerda the frog with ‘age warts’ dotted across my face.  If the medical profession can bend the rules and call wrinkles, laughter lines, why has no one rebranded beastly ‘age warts’.  How much better if I could emerge having had a few ‘You Go Girl marks’ or “Glamour bumps’ pointed out, ‘Age warts’ are benign and generally appear after the age of 40 so there is no reason why they have to be branded with words that strike repulsion into the female heart – though I did discover during a quick google check that they did in fact used to be called ‘Senile Warts’ so I suppose I can’t really complain about ‘Age warts’ too much but as for that other classic sign of aging, the hairs on my chinny chin chin,, don’t start me on that one or I really will be tugging some unfortunate doctor’s giblets out.

Age Warts - Pah! Like these Kookaburras I laugh in the face of them.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Vivid - The Light Fantastic

Circular Quay in Sydney, is the hub of the city, the spot where the ferries come in, ending a ferry trip that must be one of the most spectacular in the world with the Harbour Bridge to one side, Opera House to the other, with a view that makes it hard to know which way to aim your camera for the average tourist.

On a normal night, the lights around the harbour twinkle and glitter very satisfactorily, with people spilling out of the Opera House or standing with a drink on the Terraces beneath it, whilst strollers promenade round Circular Quay and the quayside restaurant outdoor tables fill up with diners.   

‘Vivid’ the Sydney Festival of Light, Music and Ideas, that is now into it’s 5th year, lifts the spectacular rating of the city at night to ‘Completely Out of This World’.  As soon as darkness falls, the sails of the Opera House become a playpen for colour and pattern, the curves of the sails a projection screen for lyrical imaginings around the theme of ‘Play’.  I say lyrical, even though it is more appropriate descriptor for music, because somehow it just seems the right word to describe the blending and weaving of light with shapes and patterns appearing and disintegrating like themes in a symphony.

Sydney’s landmark Customs House building that dates back to 1845, is hidden behind an elevated train line and a motorway – raising an interesting question about the thinking of those who designed that particular transport solution.  ‘Vivid’ transforms the classical symmetry of the Georgian fa├žade into a laughing, jiving house of fun, with the pared back architectural lines of the building blurring in a psychedelic, mind bending screen, complete with a King Kong inspired gorilla swinging through the action. 

The Museum of Contemporary Art building always reminds me of an industrial factory head office in my own personal version of 1984.  From the Opera House, gazing across Circular Quay towards the MCA building, the patterns of light build in blocks and cascade down whilst targeted lines create cats cradles across the building.  It all seemed pretty impressive as a view, but once we had wandered our way round the Quay past the individual light sculptures and it is hard not to be astonished by the variety and creativity of the light artists, the highlight of ‘Vivid’ for me, was standing in front of the MCA, and watching the building climb and crumble in patterns of light, whilst behind us the choreographed music played.   The combination of two sensory experiences was just outstanding.

‘Vivid’ is on until June 10th, and the lights and the show go on from 6p.m. every night, so should you be in Sydney, get yourself down there and trip the light fantastic.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Out of the blue

It came out of the blue as these things always seem to, though perhaps a more accurate description would be out of the black, blue seems too cheerful a colour for the days that alter the landscape of life.  As dusk fell on Sydney yesterday, on Sunday afternoon, after a glorious, golden Autumn weekend I opened up an email headed ‘Bad News’ to discover one of our oldest friends had died.  A polite email written by her 15 year old daughter, who took the time to hope we were well, as she broke the devastating news of her mother’s completely unexpected death.

There are some friends who play pivotal roles in your life and who appear and reappear like a comet.  And she was indeed comet like, fizzing with life, ideas and excitement, there was never anything dull, bland or boring about her.   She began as my boss, hiring me in the giddy days of merchant banks in London in the 1980’s.  I was 24 at the time, and at the lunch she hosted to introduce me to the team, she ordered drinks for the male members of the team who true to form were late in arriving, and as this was indeed the heady and frankly often alcoholic days of the City, she declared with a characteristic wave of the hand, “Charlie will have water, Simon, a gin and tonic”.  I made a mental note that Simon sounded my kind of guy, and twenty-five years later, he still is, for ‘reader I married him’ and as matchmaker in chief as it were, she danced the unfamiliar Scottish reels with gusto at our wedding, twinkling at the kilted gentlemen who swung her round.

We all moved on from that initial team, but stayed friends.  Like us, she and her husband became fixtures on the expat circuit for a while.  Our lives mirrored those Scottish reels as we all met and separated in various locations around the world in a bizarre intricate form of the dance of life.  We lived in Hong Kong at the same time, and she was one of my first visitors when Drama Queen No. 1 was born 18 years ago.  She wrote me an email recently recalling ‘that partly misty, but beautiful day in HK – such nice memories … ‘.  We met up again in London, as her daughter was born, the same 15 year old who is so bravely coping with telling all the people who loved her mother, that she is dead.  

We celebrated a New Year’s Eve in Sydney together as they passed through in 2007, my girls and her daughter somersaulting in the pool as the adults sat at tables in the garden and we introduced her French husband to the delights of sparkling shiraz, that great Aussie invention for hot nights. 

In February this year, we all sat round a table at our local Italian restaurant and toasted ourselves and friendship and talked about possible moves to Sydney and smiled to see our daughters laughing together, the immediate empathy between them crossing cultures and countries.

And now she is dead.  Out of the blue.  I feel so lucky we had that evening in February, but sad about the email I almost sent last week.  The one I thought of, and rehearsed the initial chatty lines in my head, and just somehow never sent, just lost the thread and moved onto the mundane list of stupid to-dos, and now she is dead. 

So send those emails, pick up the phone, celebrate the friendships and the fizz and relish good friends bring, drink the sparkling shiraz, dance the reels and colour the night with fireworks as she did.