land of the Basque…

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Spanish cheese and marmalade on homemade bread at the market…Don’s little treat

It’s not a new concept that there are many ways to learn things. There have been theories around for decades about ‘multiple intelligences’, different ways each of us have of internalising information. I was a very poor history student in high school and university. I would memorise the events and dates and regurgitate them at appropriate times to achieve passing grades. But almost none of it stayed with me in a useful way. I couldn’t understand the relevance. In fact, it wasn’t until the last decade that places and dates and people became more real and relevant for me. As we have traveled, watched some excellent TV programs and movies, and I have occasionally read a tangential volume relating to some aspect of our travels, I have begun to gain some perspective.

 

In 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, Generalísimo Francisco Franco did a deal with Mussolini and Hitler to bomb the area known as the Basque country. Some say it was in order to eliminate one of the key communication centres for the republican forces, most abhorred the methods. The bombings were controversial since it was a military action against a town of civilians. The town and a disputed number of inhabitants were all but wiped out from the bombings. Afterward Franco was able to move in and take the Basque region, and its people, for Spain. This destruction inspired a number of artists to create pieces, including one of Picasso’s most famous paintings, Guernica.

Fast forward 81 years…

We began our recent trip flying to London then to Bilbao in the Basque region of Spain, and then by car to Donostia-San Sebastián. Our intentions were to recover from the jet-lag-cotton-wool-in-head thing while exploring someplace new. On our way from Australia we were delayed in London because a tyre on the plane needed changing. These things always seem to happen when you are on a tight deadline, or when you’ve just been traveling for 22 hours straight. Still…you want the tyres on the plane to work.

I was seated in the waiting area beside a couple of middle aged American fellows who kindly offered me a newspaper article they had been reading and finished. When we learned the flight had been delayed by at least an hour, they began to chat with me, something I normally don’t encourage when I am a captive audience. But they had been kind in offering me the newspaper article on how birds cope with heat (don’t judge–living in a hot place and being a bird lover it was interesting to me!), so I felt I should be polite. They were on the way to Pamplona and then to San Sebastián and Bilbao. As we swapped ideas for eating places, they gave us one for San Sebastián. It’s hard to know which freely offered tips are ones to follow up on, but in our initial explorations the evening we arrived, we found the place and Flat Tyre Guy’s recommendation did look interesting.

 

The first morning in Donostia*, we had a fantastic time wandering around the town, stumbling upon the Saturday markets and more importantly, my favourite fruit…fresh figs. Unbelievable as it sounds to those who know my love for fresh figs, I had forgotten it was late summer in Spain, and they might still be available. Having had little breakfast (the hotel only served continental pastries and fruit–bananas and apples–none of which I could eat) I zeroed in on a gentleman selling figs and, ‘dos, por favor’ later, we were looking for a seat on which to sit and enjoy our jammy, purple treasures. Conveniently adjacent to the market was a small square with lovely gardens and mosaic seats.  It was the essence of Spain. The figs were as sweet and juicy as any I have eaten and that goes back 45 or so years when I first tasted them in Rome!

Continuing on we decided to re-scout the location of the restaurant the fellow traveler had shared. Most lunch places don’t open or start serving before one o’clock. We relaxed into people watching for a while and then we spied the nearby travel bureau. We found a couple of brochures with local information and tours. Unusual to our experience most of the tours included entry fees into places, but not transport to get there. You were expected to get your own self there! This seemed like extra work that contravened our primary objective for San Sebastián, so we abandoned that idea.

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Morgan Restaurant, Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain

By the time one o’clock arrived we were both pretty hungry. Being first on the scene at opening time meant we got a seat, but normally one would need a booking. The restaurant was small with long shared tables and had a menu that was arranged two ways, two courses and drink for one price, or three courses and drink for another price…we opted for two courses, which was 25.50€ per person. We each ordered a drink, me water and hubby wine, which we assumed was a glass, but which turned out to be a BOTTLE. Fortunately, since I only had the water, I could assist with the bottle of wine! However, the unplanned rosè did not do anything to relieve my cotton-wool-brain!** The food was of a very high standard and so for about $90 Australian we had an amazing meal including very nice rosè! It was a restaurant we would have never found on our own so, ‘Flat Tyre Guy’, wherever you are, thank you for the recommendation for Ristorante Morgan!

After lunch we wondered out into the shaded laneway and up to the nearby public square where we had sat and people watched before lunch. In our absence activities had evolved and a large group had gathered around a small group of musicians.They were singing and swaying en masse to the tunes; some dancing, some with arms around each other’s waists as they sang from small songbooks. This was obviously an activity familiar to them, as were the songs and such was the passion with which they sang, it moved me to tears. It’s not often I spontaneously cry in a foreign country in the middle of a crowd, but once in a while it happens. I’m thinking back at the moment I stepped off the bus in Gallipoli. I dissolved into tears and I don’t even know anyone from that battle. Other people tell me this phenomenon happens when we are in places like Normandy or Gallipoli, where huge numbers of lives are lost. I wonder…

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A few enjoyed dances…

 

Ok, they might have been jet-lag-cotton-wool-rosè tears, but the emotion was deeply felt. It reminded me what a privilege it is to be able to travel, and that there are countries and people who are willing to share themselves with strangers. We later learned the songs were Basque folk songs. Thank goodness the Basque people and their lovely food and folk songs survived and thrive today. And thank goodness my perspective is forever changed.

 

*Donostia-San Sebastián is the full name of the city, but Donostia is the Basque name and San Sebastián is the Spanish name.

**cotton-wool-rosè-brain is why I failed to take any photos of the lovely plates of food. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

a curious woman sees…

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Windows and openings fascinate me. Have you ever caught yourself watching what goes on, beyond the place you are occupying, only to suddenly realise you might be prying? We are curious creatures. Perhaps, it is the downside of the creation of glass. It lets in the light, but also encourages the wandering eyes of the observant…not to mention cameras.

Occasionally, over the years, I have taken a photo of a scene through a window or opening. But this trip I decided, where possible, to document what I saw as often as I could. Sometimes I didn’t want to invade privacy so I looked but did not photograph. Once I took a photo when the sign said ‘no photos’. Such a rebel. I assumed it was referring to the goods within the woollen mill, not the actual window or beautiful scene framed beyond. Surreptitiously, I tapped.

No woollens were harmed in the making of this photo…

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Melin Wlan Woollen Mill, Snowdonia National Park, North Wales

Looking over the collection of images I realise I have captured a layer of reality that may have otherwise only been experienced subliminally. The seen, and almost seen, the imagined, the incomplete and the exquisitely lighted. Ephemeral. To explain them too much would be to deny you, your own imaginative wonderings, so I’ve only included brief titles and categories. Share your thoughts…

(click on any photo and it will enlarge)

the ecclesiastical…

 

the places…

the unusual…

the food…

people…

the uncategorised…

the weather…

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Boston, Massachusetts, tail end of the hurricane

 

long live books…

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Several days before we were to travel, a notification from Amazon came through that an e-book was available for $2.99. ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury was having its 65th anniversary. Since it was first released in 1953, the year I was born, I thought perhaps it might be one of those very interesting full circle experiences. I missed it the first time around, and probably the subsequent four rounds, but heard about it many times over the years. I’ve only read a couple of books from the science fiction genre, one by CS Lewis called ‘Childhood’s End’, over 35 years ago, and one recently by Ursula le Guin, the first in the ‘Earthsea’ series. I enjoyed both, and thought another classic in the genre might be worth a look. So I downloaded the book to my iPad hoping it would be a good one for the journey.

I always like to start a book before our trip begins, partly to make certain I have chosen well, and partly because I find it difficult to get into a new book when in the middle of travel distractions. I was probably 50 pages into Fahrenheit 451 when we settled ourselves into the Qantas seats, ready for the 17 hour flight from Perth to London…well, as ready as you can be. That is a long-ass flight.

As I settled in I checked out the inflight entertainment to see what might be of interest. Straight away, in the ‘premiere’ category, I saw the title ‘Fahrenheit 451’. Wha???? I hate to watch a movie before I read a book…how-some-ever…I was very, very curious. A new release, it is one of the new generation of films produced by Netflix and Amazon Prime and similar production companies. I was wary but thought I’d give it a whirl. I had not read enough of the book to know if the film was adhering strictly to the original story, but I could certainly tell the visuals were created in modern minds and not trying to reflect the imaginings of the 1950’s. The story was compelling, but the book had grabbed me right from the start as well, so at least the film version hadn’t completely ruined the story line and message.

One of the visuals Bradbury uses, almost as another character in the book, are the enormous screens used as walls of the house. A person wears ear phones that connect, apparently wirelessly, with the streaming events happening on the ‘walls’ of the house. Wow. Remember, this was written in 1953, before computers, WiFi, and bluetooth ear phones!!!! Tell me more, Mr. Bradbury!

As I later discovered, the film does not follow the book exactly, but it was engaging and worth a viewing, nevertheless. It carried much of the same cautionary message to society. The story, by the way is about the burning of the world’s books in some future, unnamed year. It paints a dark view of the world.

Having finished the Fahrenheit 451 movie, and eaten a meal, I was not quite ready for sleep…like I said, a long-ass flight. Diving into the selection of movies again, I  came up with one I had never heard of—‘The Bookshop’. It is a recent, British production with actors I enjoy—Bill Nighy and Emily Mortimer. Fortunately I hadn’t read the reviews of it before I saw it or I might have missed an enjoyable film! What do reviewers know anyway! The juxtaposition of seeing a film about a world without books, against a story about a love for books, which by the way, is placed in about the same year as Fahrenheit 451 was written, was utter perfection. One must keep the energies in balance!

The young woman, who is struggling to open a book shop in the 1950’s small English town is pitted against the will of another woman who doesn’t want her to open the shop. Our heroine meets an older man who is a recluse, but loves to read. He writes to her a hand delivered message (this was long before emails…) requesting she send him books she thinks he might find interesting. What do you think she sends him? A certain title, just released, by Ray Bradbury. (Fahrenheit 451)

The man loves Bradbury. Of course. The story progresses into a lovely, gentle but sad story, with a tiny dash of hope. Perfect to sleep after on an airplane.

Somehow all of this ‘book stuff’ settled into my travel-addled brain and when we popped out the other end of the second leg of the journey in London, I was hatching a plan to try and find and photograph every book store I could on our travels. A pity the plan was ill conceived. Book stores are few and the ones that exist were not at all the picturesque type I envisaged. More’s the pity.

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Just look at these titles…Austen, both Bronte’s…but it was the copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that really got me. I held it and it spoke to me, this hard copy book from another age, from the country of my birth.

That is until the very last stop while we were in Wales…a place called Hay on Wye. It is located at the mouth of the Wye River, near the border between Wales and England. And it is known as ‘Town of Books’. Holy moly, did they have books, and book stores. And what do you think I found? A vintage paperback of Ray Bradbury’s book, ‘Dandelion Wine’ and many other enticing volumes.

You might have thought the Town of Books was an appropriate finish for this journey’s theme. So did I. But wait…there’s more. At the end of our travels in the USA, we flew into Los Angeles to await our Qantas flight back to OZ. As I turned a corner toward the international club lounge, I stopped in my tracks. There it was in front of me, a FIVE story screen that was also a wall…a Ray Bradbury wall. Beautiful images floated from edge to edge, between ads for designer watches and perfume. I got cold chills and for a moment felt nauseous. Bradbury’s 65 year old futuristic vision was here. The future is now.

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Bradbury’s imagined, moving wall at Tom Bradley International in Los Angeles.

Think what an adventure that book gave me. Long live books.

 

hurts so good…

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Three days home. Travel brain is nearly gone and home-brain is working again. Mostly.

We have been away traveling for nearly six weeks. I was going to give you a heads up that I might not be writing and then, with no warning, I developed a nasty head cold a week out from departure. It did not go away before flying. This is not a good thing. If you have ever had to fly when your sinuses are in turmoil, you will know what I mean. In fact the cough and sinus stuff did not leave until three weeks into the trip. So, I was not feeling like writing much of anything and hope you understand.

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Guggenheim exterior, Bilbao, Spain

Travel is a good thing. It is. But it is not among the easier undertakings one might pursue. When I say travel, I’m not talking about a vacation to the beach where you bask all day, between margaritas and naps. Our version of travel, while perhaps not arduous, does deplete one’s energy. We walk a lot, see a lot, process a lot of information. Therein lies the second physical challenge for this trip. Walking. I have had a sore foot for months. It gets better and then worse, then even worse still, which it did on the trip. ‘Plantar Fasciitis’ is a common problem for which there is not much known about either cause or cure. Some things work and some don’t. Sometimes it leaves and sometimes it doesn’t. I know because I had it 15 or so years ago and that is exactly what I experienced. The exercises the podiatrist gave me did not work, in fact made it worse. Stopping them, adding stretches of my own saw it go away in a couple of months. This time I’ve had it much longer, have tried both the previous methods of stretching, as well as nothing, had a couple of days of complete absence of symptoms but essentially nothing has fixed it. So I walked. In pain. For six weeks.

I dropped into bed every night of the trip, exhausted mentally and physically, but did actually manage to take in the experiences and enjoy it for the most part. Just not the pain.

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Well’s Cathedral Musical Director practicing with musicians for a future performance.

And while we are at it, there are a few other things I will enjoy not dealing with for a while.

  1. having to forage for every meal based on food intolerances. This is not easy and I spent a good deal of the time being hungry. Yes, I lost weight.
  2. having a different shower to figure out with each and every change of accommodation…It is a fact, every hotel in the world has a different shower mechanism from every other hotel. Am sure there was a primordial agreement in the ethers that caused this to happen.
  3. soooo much processed food…if it says on the packet it is healthy for you, it isn’t. Generally, food that is good for you doesn’t come in packets. And while I’m thinking of it, not everything must be consumed on a waffle or wrapped in bread, piled on pasta or rice or have onion or garlic flavouring added.
  4. searching for a place to wash our clothes—I nearly kissed my washing machine when we returned home. What do other travellers do to clean their clothes? Hand washing is just not possible, most hotels and B&B’s don’t even allow it, and frankly, hand washing is not my idea of travel fun.
  5. crowds—I can hear the neighbour’s little dog yapping this morning, and even that is music to my ears compared to crowded, noisy places.
  6. the smell of cigarette smoke in front of every building on every street in every country.
  7. filthy toilets–having to lay toilet paper on the seat before I can sit down, because there are never paper seat covers in the toilets where they are needed, only the cleanest ones have them! Humans are filthy creatures at times.
  8. bad coffee—there are a lot of people who don’t realise you can have the best coffee machine but if the beans are bad, it won’t make good coffee. Likewise, stewing coffee or storing it in an urn is just ruining any chance that coffee has of being good.
  9. loud mouth people in airports, especially on their cell/mobile phones (don’t you know everyone around can hear you? and does not care about your employee problems??)
  10. crappy hairdryers–(my husband hypothesised, there must have been someone traveling just ahead of us putting the same bad hairdryer in each different hotel, or there had been an excellent sales pitch to sell the same inferior device to four different hotel chains!) I have a new shorn hair style and vow not to need a hairdryer for future travels.
  11. bad lighting in bathrooms—worst lighting prize went to two, otherwise nice, B&B’s, best lighting prize goes to the Sheraton at the Falls in Niagara Falls, with a magnification makeup/shaving mirror with it’s own lighting as well as a surround light for the large mirror. Bless them.
  12. filthy, smelly taxis—our daughter has promised to explain to us how to use UBER. Nuff said.
  13. and while I’m at it, taxi drivers who use their phones while driving (not to mention bus drivers who talk on their phone WHILE filling out paperwork, WHILE driving—please leave multitasking to people who are not driving, or walking down the street)
  14. High fructose corn syrup—my sworn enemy.

The foot is strapped and receiving regular ice packs. The mountain of laundry is done, repairs to the garden are nearly done. And there are murmurs…of future adventure…

What keeps me traveling? I’m glad you asked. The mechanics of it are tiring, frustrating and downright unpleasant at times. However…when things take my breath away, or a sudden connection of a piece of knowledge turns on a light inside me, or something unexpected brings me to tears, it feels all worthwhile. When I see Wells Cathedral and a lump sticks in my throat, when I am gobsmacked by the incredible Guggenheim at Bilbao, when a Spanish woman spins her grandson in dance to a Basque folk song, when the most powerful show of water I’ve ever seen tumbles and mesmerises so that I can hardly look away, or when I stop in an ancient cemetery and realise that the man in that grave signed the Declaration of Independence…that is when I know I’m not done yet.

It hurts so good…give me more.

shifting focus…

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This morning I was reading an article about how to blur the background of photos on my iPhone:

You won’t always want to take photos with a blurry background. In landscape photography, you’ll want everything in focus from near to distant objects.

But there are many situations where a shallow depth of field will improve your image.

If the background of your scene is messy or distracting, it takes attention away from the main subject. Blurring the background eliminates distractions and makes the subject stand out.

And so it is with life.

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focussed on the weather…

Looking at the ‘big picture’ where everything is of equal clarity, you can see what is going on, in a general sense. But if you stay in that mode all the time you find that your attention is very scattered, first looking at the sky, then the buildings, then the trees, cars, birds and so on.

Sometimes we need to bring our focus sharply onto a single subject, in the present, so we can see what is important. Clear away the distractions. What is important might be a person, an emotion or a moment of realisation. When we are unable to shift focus back and forth, and then edit the image, our picture of things can get all out of whack—too fragmented, narcissistic—take your pick of a variety of counterproductive behaviours.

We need both ways of seeing.

This winter various aspects of life have gone in and out of focus for me. I look at the big picture for a while, and then zoom in on practical or emotional needs. However, I can never stray far from creative endeavours of some kind, and every now and then poetry pops into my head. If you ascribe to the theory that Elizabeth Gilbert (and others) talks about in Big Magic, you might believe me when I tell you, there are ideas in the form of energies that exist on a different level from our normal experience. We  can tap into it the way we hear sound as it moves through the atmosphere, or see light via different vibrations. These energies move through a person, and can be brought into our plane of existence. If it is not responded to, it will move on, allowing someone else to bring it to this plane. This seems as plausible to me as any other explanation for creative inspiration–elusive and mysterious to most of us.

If I respond quickly, the idea often comes pouring out, almost completed, with little editing required. It is usually brought to me in a moment of intense experience. I sometimes think my memory is quite strange…remembering the moment that inspired a poem for many years; or a particular little café in Bratislava, Slovakia, 8 years ago because I had the most delicious hot chocolate I’ve ever had. But if you ask me about a particular movie or book I’ve seen/read, my memory is likely to be very vague. I suppose it is the intensity and relevance an experience has for some of us that is the determining factor.

Regardless, these energies seem very real to me, and are a source of joy and satisfaction. Thank you for reading.

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After I kissed you goodbye in your ear,

You looked at me and said ‘I love you.’

I replied ‘I love you too’ and your lips quivered ever so slightly—

the way sorrow settles into a person when they need

a little more time,

a little more nurturing,

a little deeper loving.

That look stayed with me like I had failed you,

But you were the one who had to go,

So I could only kiss you and say goodbye.

let it go, and move on…

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There is a long tradition of lawn sales in Alice Springs. In the US we called them garage sales. Either way, it’s a way of moving along items you no longer want or use so that they find new homes, and so your home is less cluttered…or has more space for new stuff, depending on your motivations. My reason for decluttering is because I have discovered I function better, and more peacefully, with less stuff to have to store, clean, use, wear, whatever. I’ve never been a hoarder or even much of a collector. I am too much like my paternal Grandmother for that. My first serious divesting of goods was over three years ago. It felt wonderful to have space in the cupboards and drawers, but I realised how difficult it is to responsibly dispose of things you no longer require. The process made me respect the act of acquiring new things much more deeply. In addition, we also have the concern of waste in the world, and how to dispose of things properly and conscientiously.

Lawn sales, a solid tradition here, are both sociable as well as practical. Some even find them fun, which they are—on the day. However, the sorting, pricing and organising preparations are more like punishment. That part can be made more fun with friends to help, but ultimately you just have to make the decisions yourself. Recently a good friend and I had a ‘team sale’ where we put things together so that it would have a larger presentation. I didn’t have nearly as much as the one a couple of years ago, because I have been pretty careful not to accumulate things again. What I had realised, however, was the first culling uncovers things that later on you can see you should have let go of as well. Hence the most recent cull and gathering of things.

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photo courtesy of google

There is such an eclectic selection of things people put into lawn sales; things you have never even heard of or seen before, but suddenly yearn to own at that bargain price! There was a humorous documentary made in 1996 about the culture of lawn sales in Alice Springs. It is called ‘The Search for the Shell Encrusted Toilet Seat’. I saw it on TV all those years ago and have searched for it to watch again but have not found it. It was clever and quirky and I think surely it will find a place on YouTube or somewhere one of these days. It tells the story of someone who saw a toilet seat with sea shells ‘suspended’ in acrylic for decorative effect. If you have ever sat on one, which I have because my former mother-in-law had one, you would know they are most disconcerting. You feel like your bottom will certainly come off the worse for the experience, but in fact no lacerations were caused in the use of that seat. There are some things in life we really don’t need to experience. The fellow in the documentary prevaricates and doesn’t purchase the shell encrusted toilet seat when he first sees it. He later regrets it. But where was it he saw it? At which lawn sale of dozens had he seen it? Thus begins his search to retrace his steps through Alice’s interesting lawn sales and characters.

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The view over our rooftop of the blood moon full lunar eclipse with Mars in attendance

Each sale has its own unique quality. I’ve always strived to only sell things that are well kept and clean, even if they are well used or old. My friend is the same and so the items we had were of that ilk. The starting time was 7am, and believe me when I tell you, people were parked on the street at least 10 minutes before that, so you’d better have yourself organised! We had the sale at my friend’s house about a three minutes’ walk around the corner from our house. It was the morning of the beautiful blood moon and rare full eclipse, with Mars in attendance. As I set out from our house at 6.36am and walked up our driveway, I looked back. Over the roof of our house was the beautiful sight. I hoped it was an omen for good sales!

The evening before, my friend had arranged things on tables, so that the following morning all we had to do was carry the tables out of the garage to the carport area. Easy. The punters swooped like hungry birds, one going immediately to the large number of CD’s and DVD’s we had, saying ‘Here they are!’ as if she had discovered gold! We haven’t played any of them in years and are not likely to, given we only have one old boom box left to play the CD’s, and nothing on which to play the DVD’s. Early on, a nicely presented and discerning woman came and very, very carefully looked over everything. She added an item at a time to her purchase pile. When she finished she had quite a stack and had to make two trips to her car. A little while later she returned, accumulating another stack of things and then departing. Finally, a while after that she returned again, buying several more items. We heard her say as she walked out of sight ‘you won’t see me again, but thank you for the great lawn sale!’

And we didn’t.

As they used to say in the newspaper in the small town I am from,

‘And a good time was had by all’.

 

(In the link above, to my previous post on this topic, there are references to helpful guides. In addition you may find what Courtney Carver has to say helpful. This link is for clearing your wardrobe, but she has books and other courses you may find more interesting, or you can just use her newsletter for inspiration)

giddyup to the coffee horse…

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To say I don’t get out much would probably be an understatement. I’m not a gadabout when we are in town. I don’t like crowds so I don’t even attend exhibition openings, choosing to go after the opening to see an exhibition. I see many amazing sights when we travel so when I’m at home, I’m at home…except… that my good friend introduced me to the Coffee Horse.

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My good friend, Betty helping me solve the problems of the world! Note the rocky outcrop in the distance.

It is hard to put into exact words why the Coffee Horse has me infatuated, but it does. Betty feels the same. Some of the reasons we love living in Alice Springs are the down to earth experiences of having the bushland nearby, a thriving arts community and people wanting to ‘have a go’ at doing something a bit unusual.  Coffee Horse has it all. I hope I haven’t gone and spoiled it now that I’ve let the cat out of the bag! We also like that Alice is a small enough place that you can get to know the owners of the various shops, but big enough to be anonymous if you want to be…more or less.

Of course the flip side of our isolated, small town life is that we sometimes long for the finer things the city can offer. Recently, and arguably, our best hairdresser in town closed its doors after 36 years and some of us are mourning the loss and wondering if we are doomed to be follicle-ly challenged for the remainder of our days. So, it is with great appreciation, that we have discovered another place which feels special.

Many of you will have seen or procured coffee from a ‘coffee van’. On our recent travels a coffee van in the middle of nowhere seemed like a little miracle. One coffee-less morning on a lonely stretch of road in New Zealand, my husband and I saw a handwritten sign, alerting us that we could get ‘good coffee to go’–on a stretch of road that looked highly improbable. In fact my husband stated his doubts aloud, in the form of a chuckle when I proposed we might find coffee on the road between Franz Josef and Haast. He further expressed doubt as to the quality of such a find, to which I responded, ‘you can get a very good cup of coffee from a coffee van’. Moments later, like a mirage in the wilderness, there it was, the coffee van. Festive flags motioning us with their siren-call-promise of a great coffee. It was all true. I promise. It’s not often I’m right, but on this occasion I was…absolutely.

Meanwhile back in Alice…The Coffee Horse is an unassuming, small, repurposed caravan, located on a lot with a thriving art supply and framing business. Also, located next to it on the same lot is a shoemaker. I don’t mean a shoe repairer, I mean a shoe-maker of fine custom fitted shoes, for which you have to wait. Quality takes time. His website says requests are currently closed but you can leave a contact when there is an opening. Good for him. Sprinkled about the grounds is evidence of the creative hearts that have passed through this place—sculptures made from ‘junque’ and repurposed items —one person’s trash is another’s treasure…

At the back of the lot, behind the outbuildings, sits one of Alice’s many rocky outcrops. Sometimes when we are sitting and soaking up the winter sun, or shaded from the heat in summer, you can see kangaroos hopping through the scrub. Now you don’t get that in a city cafe!

People from all around this light industrial area come to fill their ‘keep cups’ and have a break from their day.  Some buy the custom made pottery cups, or opt for the standard, mismatched mugs and cups. The coffee that fills them is second to none. Decaf is my poison of choice and it is as good as any I’ve ever had. They make lovely toasted sandwiches (I’ve heard) and their vegan, grain-free treats are delicious (I’ve dabbled). There is no loud music playing, just the coming and going and quiet conversations of patrons. Some quietly indulge in a book, or sewing, others have their heads down in their phones, though I don’t see that very often. Most people are quietly chatting and laughing. It is a happy place. Even Alison, who operates this little oasis, gets a short break now and then. You can find the Coffee Horse on Instagram. Her new creation opens at a second location, near Watch This Space Gallery, next week. It will be called the ‘Silver Brumby’–a ‘brumby’ is a wild horse. We will check it out and report back to you.

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Creator of the Coffee Horse, Alison, soaking up some winter sun.

Who would have thought a young woman with an old repurposed caravan could draw me out of my house and into an alternative comfort zone?

In Alison’s words ‘May the horse be with you!’ And with you Alison…and with you.

 

**I have not received any payment or even free coffee for this post, I just thought you might enjoy this slice of Alice Springs life.

a survival story…

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Let me set the scene for you. It is the day after the twelve boys and their coach have been rescued from the cave in Thailand. It is a winter morning and -3C (26F) outside. I prevaricate over my usual morning walk. Will I? Won’t I? Gee it is cold. Those 12 children and their young coach got through 16 days trapped in a cave, surely I can put on my nice warm clothes and walk for 50 minutes.

I jogged up the hill near my house, walked 30 metres or so to catch my breath and then decided more jogging must happen to warm up. As I jog down the other side of the hill, still trying to get my blood pumping, I see some scavenger birds circling a distant, dark shape on the fairway of the fourth hole (we live on a golf course). A few more metres and I realise the shape is a Dingo feeding…on a dead kangaroo. I pull my camera (which is my iPhone) from my pocket and open it up, hoping that my cold fingers can still get the touch controls to work. I take a photo that I know will show very little, but it is just to get the settings right and make sure the touch control is working. As is my usual practice with wild life, I slow down. As I approach, every few metres, I take another photo, and another, refocusing and getting closer each time.

The birds of prey begin to scatter. The Dingo eyes me nervously but he is hungry, so he continues. Finally, he thinks I am too close and he reluctantly begins to head toward the taller grasses at the edge of the course, looking back over his shoulder all the while. He still doesn’t want to leave his meal behind so he stops…and watches me. I’m relieved that he is somewhat afraid of me since I am walking alone and have no means of fending off an attack. He has what he wants anyway, and that is not me.

I quietly walk on and soon am getting farther away. He decides I mean him no harm and he approaches the carcass again. Now I can see the bloody bare bones of the rib cage but I know if I stop it will spook him so I continue on. I don’t want a graphic photo of the corpse in any case. I know this is Mother Nature and all part of the survival of the fittest.

And what about those boys and their coach, and their rescuers? If that isn’t also a tale of survival, I must have missed something. The world is a marvel and a mystery, revealing itself every day.

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Dingo and dead kangaroo in the middle ground of the fairway

the stories within us…

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Just after the sun had broken over the horizon, sending a few bleak wintery rays across the grasses in front of the house, I looked out the expanse of windows that stretch the width of the west facing end. There, about 30 feet in front of the windows, silent and purposeful, strode a lone Dingo. So quiet, the neighbourhood dogs even missed a good chance to raise the alarm. So quiet, I later wondered if I had seen it at all. Nearly the same colour as the dried, blonde grasses, only the dark spot of his eye and his nose and the sunlit hairs on the ridge of his back and the plume of the tail shone his shape. Perfect camouflage.

Lingers in my mind’s eye like a dream.

I set out for my walk moments later, in the direction the Dingo was heading. A single lone Dingo was probably nothing to be concerned about since I wasn’t walking a small dog that might be mistaken as breakfast. I kept my eye on the tall grasses walking over crisp, frosted ground, down the desolate back of the golf course on a Sunday morning. No further sightings. I wondered…is this the new normal of our cohabitation? The Dingo casually strolls through the neighbourhood while I keep a watchful eye and go for my morning walk.

Stranger things have happened.

The day before, a small mob of Wallabies had converged on our patio, scratching themselves thoughtfully, studying the windows…the same windows on the world through which I had seen the Dingo. The two adults and two joeys probably saw their reflections, or maybe some slight movement inside as I adjusted myself for a better view of them. Most likely the reflections of the rocky outcrop and sky behind them was their point of interest. It must be very confusing for them. Imagine if we all became focused on what was behind us rather than moving forward. The Wallabies were not seduced. Slowly they moved up the breezeway that gave them safe passage to the bottom of the driveway and within a few hops of the road. If they cross the road safely, which has always happened in the 20 years we have lived here, there is only one row of houses and then they are back in the bush again.

With the Dingoes.

Almost 40 years ago, I looked out of another expanse of windows. It was a whole lifetime ago for me–for the world. I was high atop the World Trade Center in New York City. The place was called ‘Windows on the World’. We were there for a cocktail reception for a national gathering of Television Promotion Managers and Art Directors. Below, an enormous world of skyscrapers, tiny ships and cars, and even tinier humans, spread out for many miles. They went about the business of the world. And now, I watch the business of Mother Nature where species learn to live with one another and it is survival of the fittest. No trace or photos of any of it, just what my brain has selectively conserved. Why would this memory visit me now? Why can I remember conversing with two fellows from Australia, one from Sydney, one from Wollongong, forty years ago, but have trouble remembering what I had two days ago for breakfast?

How do we reconcile the worlds within us? For the most part it is an unconscious process. But now and again we tell stories and make art and that turns something with seemingly no purpose into something of value.

 

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Winter Solstice

 

 

the road to Fleur’s place…

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There is probably little left that I can add to what has already been said about Fleur Sullivan, either by herself or by the many thousands who have eaten at one of her restaurants. Even when the renowned Rick Stein was asked if he could eat any place in the world, where would it be? Answered Fleur’s Place in Moeraki ‘because how could you want anything more?’fullsizeoutput_3f58

Fortunately a colleague had mentioned this to Don some weeks before we began our trip, because you definitely need a booking to be assured of a table. We had only a couple of hours’ drive between Dunedin and Oamaru the day we drove through Moeraki, and we planned it so we could have lunch at Fleur’s Place. But first…we had to take me to Mazagran Espresso Bar* before leaving Dunedin. I needed another one of the best coffees I’ve ever had, having also had one the day before. Thank you Mr. Google. Don is very patient with my coffee addiction, just as I am patient with his wine enthusiasm. We have suffered worse.

All coffee-d up and ready for the next leg of our adventure we decided to explore an area just south of Moeraki called Shag Point. And yes, we did see the real life idiom ‘Shag on a rock’ that is a familiar Aussie description for someone hanging about, alone. Shags are a type of bird, and they were true to their reputation, lonely and abandoned looking, though in large groups. I know, makes no sense.  It was also a viewing point for the native New Zealand fur seals. They lazed about that sunny morning on the well worn cliffs…looking for all the world like large brown…well, you know…logs. Ahem. My iPhone makes them look smaller and farther away than they were. They were enormous. It was heartening to see them in quite a few places around the South Island during the three weeks we visited. They had been endangered at one point, hunted to near obliteration for their fur, but are now protected and have repopulated well.

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native fur seals basking in the sun

It was still a bit early for our one o’clock lunch at Fleur’s so we drove up the coast just a few minutes passed the turn off to Moeraki to view another natural phenomenon, the Moeraki boulders. These are very peculiar, perfectly round, rock formations like nothing we had ever seen. Some looked as if the cliffs were giving birth, revealing the boulders where they must have formed millions of years previously.

Finally, the time was near when we could deliver ourselves to the much anticipated lunch. Still being a few minutes early, we slowly approached, observing the setting from across the bay, then closer, letting the ambiance soak in. The restaurant was purpose built but it has the casual feel of a hybrid fisherman’s cottage come boat shed. Inside, neatly scrawled all over the walls and window sills patrons had left their names and often their gratitude for Fleur, praise for the food and atmosphere. (I guess people just need to validate their having been in a place, as per last post…) Once again, we had never been any place quite like it. This was becoming a mantra for our visit to the South Island.

If you don’t like seafood you probably wouldn’t have liked the menu, however, we were spoilt for choice. Given my consumption limitations I stayed with my new favourite fish, Blue Cod, a New Zealand speciality. It was pan fried with no flour and served on a bed of the freshest cooked vegetables, accompanied by home made tartar sauce and lemon. That fish had probably been swimming around only 12 hours previously and the freshness was definitely reflected in the flavour. Now, I didn’t really need dessert, but if you think a little thing like that was going to stop me trying Fleur’s Crème Brûlée, you don’t know me very well! Don ordered an apple crumble with homemade ice-cream for his dessert. We did not need dinner that evening. And this time, that really did stop us!

Fleur’s Place was really as much an experience as it was a restaurant. Watching 76 year old Fleur hefting boxes around and fussing about place settings, then sitting down with some of the diners, and then returning to her duties was like a well rehearsed play. Two of the people who served us had French accents and one was New Zealand. We wondered with Fleur’s french name if there was a connection and I suppose I will find out if I read her memoir. (there is a nice photo of Fleur on the cover)

The entire experience was delightful from beginning to end and we kind of hated to leave when our meal was finished. So we wandered around outside and I happily took a few more photos.

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large fur seal that slept through the entire arrival of visitors and the fairy penguins

Somewhat reluctantly we drove on to what was our destination for the next three nights. Our accommodation in Oamaru (Fleur’s hometown) was a 1930’s B&B. Our hostess gave us details and said it was an ideal evening to go and see the Fairy Penguins arrive on shore. So off we went to purchase tickets for the nightly arrival of the adorable, little blue penguins. When I say little, I mean tiny. They are only about 30cm (12”) tall, some even smaller. They come in after dark, in ‘rafts’ (groups) of about 20-30 at a time. The water is rough and they have to scramble up a rocky bank and you fear for them every time. But this is their life and they are well adapted. That night 148 arrived and scurried across the open ground between the two pavilions of spectators. We were told to be very quiet and there was absolutely no photography allowed so you will have to check out this link and imagine the cuteness overload! I still smile every time I recall those impossibly small, blue darlings*.

We arrived ‘home’ at our B&B, very cold from being on Penguin watch, but our hosts had turned on the electric blanket, the under floor heating in the bathroom, and the heater for the room. Now you don’t get that in a hotel!! We snuggled in, dreaming of Fleur’s and little blue apparitions.

When I think back about this day, I see that it embodied the very essence of New Zealand. It had been a perfect banquet of quirkiness, kind people, wild animals, and amazing food, against a backdrop of stunning beauty, wrapped up in one delicious day. The road less traveled is a wonder.

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boulders and the sea

*Mazagran is a cold, sweetened coffee drink that originated in Algeria

*The only other place in the world you can see fairy penguins in the wild, besides New Zealand, is Phillip Island in Australia. The observation stands in Oamaru were built well after the preservation of the dwindling colony was reversed and all steps have been taken to protect this naturally occurring colony.