As promised, the "tea stories" zine

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As promised, I’ve made a little zine, celebrating “tea stories” from all over the world. A heartfelt THANK YOU to everyone who shared their stories on this blog post, as well as those of you who emailed me privately. And especially to Nanette via Instagram, who posted me a box of Dutch Tea and Lady Grey Tea all the way from The Netherlands, when I told her I didn’t know what Lady Grey Tea was.

I had seriously so much fun making this zine. I decided to embrace my inner-90s self, and made this thing completely old-school. I painted the pictures below then glued them in, drew others in by hand, cut old ads out of magazines, and hand-wrote most of the stories. So what you see here is something truly handmade, warts and spelling mistakes and stickytape-lines and all.

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What I learned as I hand-wrote all of your stories, was that our mutual love of tea, while it is undeniably delicious, isn’t really about the taste at all. Tea is about taking a moment: it’s about self-care, it’s about slowing down, it’s about comfort, it’s about mindfulness… and more than anything, tea is about the people we love. Whether shared with our loved-ones or sipped in their memories, tea connects us and comforts us.

(I suspect that if coffee is more your beverage of choice, or hot chocolate, the same could probably be said of these drinks, too. Maybe one day I’ll make a zine for you.)

So, here’s the zine I made you: simply click the arrows on the right to flip through the pages, and if you want to make it bigger, hover over the zine and you’ll see an option to view it in “fullscreen”. (If all the pages in the flip-book aren’t showing for you, you can download a readable PDF here). I really hope you enjoy reading Tea Stories as much as I loved making it.

Download and print this zine

If you want to download the PDF and print this zine for yourself or your friends, simply click the button below. The file has been laid out so that you can print it back-to-back. It will print this way onto 10 sheets of paper, which you can simply fold in half, together, to have the whole zine laid out in the correct order. (It’s designed to fit onto A4 paper so if you use US Letter or Foolscap, you may want to trim it slightly.)

Once you’ve made up the booklet, if you want to post it to friend (perhaps with some of your favourite teabags tucked inside), you can simply fold it in half again to fit a standard letter size (although it will be fat).

OK I’ve got to go, I think I hear the kettle singing.

Naomi xo


In which the author goes to a country wedding, steps in a puddle, and gets philosophical about the passing of time and a misshapen moon

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We were at a country wedding on the weekend. It was a perfect, clear and crisp winter’s day and the couple were married in a short ceremony under a simple canopy in the watery sunshine. Afterwards we moved inside to an old farm building with wonky, handmade bricks paving the entry-floor, wreaths of greenery and fairly lights wound around the exposed beams, and a huge, roaring fire in one corner to which we all instantly flocked, hands out. 

It wasn’t a big wedding. Most of the people there were family or life-long friends, so there was an easy, informal camaraderie to the room. No set places or awkward conversations with strangers at the table. 

At the back of an old wooden stage, a DJ played the kinds of tracks you hear at every wedding, everywhere, and the children, an assorted gaggle of cousins ranging age from five to fifteen, busted their best moves. My two, as the youngest of the group, were often the ringleaders, dragging their older cousins back to the dance floor whenever they showed signs of waning. Later, after the bridal waltz, the grown-ups joined in too, couples dissolving into laughing groups with children riding on shoulders, as we all stumbled through the half-forgotten moves to Nutbush City Limits, YMCA, and the dreaded Macarena. Actually I think they played that one twice.  

As the afternoon lengthened and the night grew dark around us, our little party carried on, a bright oasis of laughter and music, shining out from the middle of the otherwise empty fields. 

One of the uncles was the first to fold, slumping in his chair beside the table, chin on chest. People posed behind him, bunny-ear fingers hovering over his head, but he gently snored, oblivious. Next to go was Ralph. I sat him beside a table to adjust his shoelaces for half a minute, and in that time he simply lay down, put his thumb in his mouth, and closed his eyes. 

Then he opened them again and said, “Mummy, I’m too hot.” I carried him out to the entrance room, stepping carefully in my heels over the wonky, ancient brick floor, and eased the two of us down into an armchair. It was much cooler out there but I put a coat over Ralph and watched the party through the swinging glass doors, as he fell almost instantly asleep.

People came and went, pausing to smile or kiss his dark curls, but mostly it was just Ralph and me, his soft breathing, his sleeping body keeping me warm. I soaked it all in, painfully aware that this time for us, him sleeping in my arms, was not a forever thing. 

Recently my friend Sally shared online about the joys of being a parent to her two grown-up girls. She talked about  how there is a lot of airspace and celebration given to the precious moments we share with our small children, but less about the changed although still beautiful relationship that comes when they are adults. I was glad she shared these stories - I’m always glad when I hear stories about parents with older children - because I know that my own “precious moments” with my little ones are limited. “Our children are only on loan,” Sally’s mother told her, and she told me, and I wonder if my own compulsion to share these moments with you is because I am trying, through my words, to freeze them in time. As if by writing them down I am forced to be more mindful of them, to appreciate them, before they are gone forever. 

Inside the function room, the DJ began playing Walk the Dinosaur. I couldn’t see the stage from my little armchair but from what I could hear, every guest at the wedding aside from me, Ralph and the sleeping cousin was up on the stage, dancing and singing along. And not one of them could hold a tune. 

When it was time to leave, my husband gathered up coats, bags and our daughter, and I eased myself clumsily out of that chair, still holding the leaden weight of my not-so-little boy, and clutching a coat over his back to keep him warm as we ventured into the winter night air. I made slow progress back to the car, trying to pick out footsteps in the broken and bumpy unlit path, wearing heels, and carrying a heavy, sleeping child. 

Once off the path there was no light at all aside from the stars and we got lost, turning first one way and walking a hundred yards or so before realising our mistake and turning in the other direction, then finally inching our way down over a ditch and into a paddock, to where the parked car gleamed dully in the distance. I shifted Ralph’s weight in my arms, clasping a wrist in each hand to stop him from slipping… and then with a yell I didn’t realise had left my lips until I heard it, stepped into a puddle of mud half-way up to my knees. 

Ralph woke to my yell, and we stood there precariously, me holding still him up but unable to get out of the puddle, since my shoes were sunk so deep in mud that they stayed behind whenever I tried to lift my feet out. When my husband came to rescue us, I needed to hold onto his shoulders with both my hands to leverage myself (and my shoes) out of that puddle. 

Back on dry land, I poured mud and water out of my shoes as though they were goblets, and hobbled in my swampy, stocking-feet over to the car. The children woke themselves up just enough to find the whole scenario extremely amusing, except that from time to time Ralph would pause the laughter and remember his part in the episode, saying, “Mum, you could have dropped me!” in shocked and accusatory tones. 

The moon rose on our drive home. Both children slept in the back seats, and Mr B and I kept up a quiet conversation with one another, more to help him stay awake as he drove, than because either of us had anything particularly important to say. While we chatted, the moon came up big and yellow, a lumpy kind of almost-full-but-not-quite moon. A floating quince in the sky. I watched it as we sped past shadowy trees and black hills that rose and fell beside the road, my mind drifting away from my wet feet and back to the upholstered armchair where Ralph had slept so angelically in my arms, until the city lights ahead stole the moon’s glamour and signalled that we were almost home. 

I paused at our front door - a heavy, sleeping Ralph once again resting his head on my shoulder - and smiled up at the quince-moon as it quietly watched us from the eastern sky. I wondered what we looked like from up there. All the moments and events of our short lives, both momentous and minute, weighted equally and witnessed in silence. Weddings, funerals, dancing shoes, swampy shoes. Lovers uniting, marriages ending, mysteries solved, questions forming. 

If I think my time with my children is all too short, this must be laughable to the ancient moon, for whom ten years or twenty pass like a breath.

Early the next morning I stepped outside the same front porch, my own breath making mist of the air around me, and watched a hot-air balloon rise in exactly the same patch of sky where the moon had bid me goodnight a few hours earlier. The dawn was very still, and the balloon seemed to be suspended for a moment, not drifting. With its yellow and cream stripes, being almost-but-not-quite round, it looked as though the quince-moon had swathed itself in a coat and defied the very laws of space, refusing to orbit and instead choosing to pause, at least for a little while, in our company. As if maybe she cared.

And then with a loud “pschhh” and a flash of orange flames, the pilot trapped more warm air under the balloon, and it began to rise, slowly floating away from me and into the east. The spell was broken, the moon was gone, and I went inside to make breakfast. 


What if we walked?

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It is a ten kilometre walk to the children’s farm and back, and we don’t have a car today. Before France this would have been out of the question. But now, with the resilience they brought home in their suitcases alongside the medieval Papo figurines, sweet little jumpers from the Monoprix, and a collection of Barbapapa books, the children say, “What if we walked?” 

So I pack a lunch box of chopped apple and pear, crackers, and these banana muffins, and we set off. 

Follow the route towards school and then turn off at the park, sticking to the paths because the long grass is soaked with dew and the day is bright but only three degrees right now. Our breath forms clouds in the air to guide us, and nobody wants cold, wet shoes and socks at the start of a day (the end of the day is a different matter, apparently). 

At the railway crossing, we stop to let a train go by. The children put their hands through the railings and wave to the train. Before the train hurtles past, we can see the driver stand up in her cabin and wave back: a big, whole-of-body, over-the-head wave, and a beaming smile to go with it. 

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We see a beautiful but decrepit old house, one that once probably nurtured families and echoed to tiny, thumping feet and the laughter of children. A long time ago, a colour-loving person had planted a pink-flowering geranium beside the front gate. But now the windows are boarded over, the paint is peeling, some of the cladding has fallen away, and the posts that support the verandah are rotting. 

As we walk on, we make up a story about its haunting. I try for something chilling and deeply tragic, but the children are convinced the demise of the house had been hastened by hungry monsters, aliens and flying dogs. They build their outlandish story with relish, growing more ridiculous by the sentence, giggling and shouting over one another with excitement. I blame Captain Underpants

Under the overpass and onto the Main Yarra Trail, where water is tumbling over rocks in a happy gurgle and bellbirds are calling everywhere. I tell Ralph to move to the left if he hears the ding of a bicycle bell, but he says he can’t tell which ones are the bikes and which ones are the birds. He makes a good point. 

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We tell ourselves, this could be Dinan! Here we are, walking alongside a river again. We climb out onto a wooden lookout and say, “These are the ramparts at the ruins.” Further on, a wall stretches up, up, on the other side of the path, as tall as the Dinan chateau beside the wild apple orchard. This wall is covered in graffiti but we try to ignore that, and tell each other, “Those are the castle walls.” A road bridge up ahead plays the role of the viaduct that connects Dinan to Lanvallay. 

We are chevaliers again, and tired legs discover a last burst of energy before we reach the children’s farm. 

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In fact we are so excited to reach the farm and find our friends that we don’t notice the oak tree but, on the way home, we stop at it in wonder. 

It is ancient, and most of its golden leaves have already dropped, set in a circle of stones and stretching its branches almost all the way to the river. The children climb over the stones and play in the fallen leaves but I am overcome with a powerful sense of stillness. 

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The sun is turning golden as we make our way home along the river, the children collecting leaves and nuts, fanning them out in their hands like cards at a poker table, to inspect the intricacies of Nature’s design. Ralph finds a giant fern frond broken on the ground, and holds it aloft like a sword. 

Back on the back-streets, they discover a small pile of smooth, round pebbles, so we start a game of Hansel and Gretel, counting out steps between stones and taking turns. That game lasts a good kilometre or two, all the way back to the railway crossing. 

The day is warm now - 17 degrees! - so Ralph takes his shirt off and struts those streets as though he’s at the beach. (I am carrying jumpers, shirts, hats, gloves, picnic lunch, water bottle, and other various accoutrements in my back pack. Thankfully a friend has taken our coats in her car, and drops them home for us.)

We find a park we’ve never seen before, rows of trees glowing in the late afternoon light, and promise one another we’ll return one day because there is a playground in the distance “that looks awesome!” We also pass a bakery that we hadn’t seen on the way out, so Scout suggests that next time, we should pick up a baguette. 

The children say, “We feel sorry for our friends who drove in the car, because they would have missed all of this.” 

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Tea stories

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Yesterday I was out at a charity function, all dressed up and two glasses of champagne in, when I saw what every parent dreads: the babysitter’s number come up on my phone. “Ralph has hit his head and it’s a deep cut, I think he needs to go to hospital.”

An hour later, I sat next to a rather sorry-for-himself Ralph in the emergency department*, holding his little hand and nursing the babysitter’s blood-soaked scarf on my lap. And as the night descended outside, a very kind ED nurse brought me a cup of tea.

I had never tasted anything better in my life.

There is something magically fortifying about tea, I think. Especially in times of emotional stress. Tea is the liquid equivalent of a “you’ve got this” pep talk. It fills your body with warmth as it goes down, bringing parts of you back to life when you need to get moving or thinking (kind of in the same way that, in old adventure novels, people are given brandy or whiskey when they come in from the rain and cold or after discovering a murder victim. Except that in my case, that would probably put me to sleep). Tea is also permission to take a moment. To stop, to exhale, to remember these tiny moments of self-care.

Even when the tea is made from a teabag and served in a cardboard cup, and drunk in the paediatric area of a hospital emergency department.

That’s my tea story today - I imagine you have some, too, and I’d love to hear them! If you want to share with this community, tell me your tea story in the comments (if you’re reading this via email you just need to click on the blog post heading so you can view it in your browser to see comments).

I bet it would make a warming, fortifying read to have all of our tea-stories together. If we see enough stories, maybe I could make a little tea-inspired zine for you to download, with the stories and some illustrations like these I’ve included here, of the teacup and tea plant? What do you think? Does that appeal?

I’m off to put the kettle on.

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* Ralph is fine. He was sent home with his cut all glued up, and his biggest challenge is remembering not to exert himself physically or mentally for a day or two.

100 Scottish words for rain

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I heard recently that there were more than 100 Scottish words for rain.

Musical, melodic words like spindrift (spray whipped up by the wind) and aftak (an easing or lull in a storm or rain). Hilarious, fun-to-say words that you’d swear were made up, like drookit (absolutely drenched) and daggle (to fall in torrents).

And words that seem to be plucked straight out of a Scottish novel, transporting you through time and space to a place where “wild” still holds meaning, and ghosts in tartan haunt your imaginings. Yillen (a shower of rain, especially with wind), uplowsin (heaving rain), smirr (a fine rain drizzle), and goselet (a soaking, drenching, downpour).

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The day we hiked to the falls that tumbled into Loch Ness, rain settled in a smirr only ten minutes after we’d started out. But walking through it was not a misery, but a joy. Ralph was fairly sure he had spotted the Lach Ness Monster (“or maybe it was a turtle head”) in the cold waters, and we watched the tiny waves through the trees and raindrops for signs of monsters, dinosaurs or turtles.

When we reached them the roar of the falls, swelled by melting snow, was almost primal. We had to shout to be heard but still the wind snatched our words and swept them into the spindrift before hurtling them into the lake below.

I bent my body into the wind and stood on the platform overlooking the brutal, yellow torrent, inside the spray. What is the Scottish word for rain that falls up, not down? The spray lashed my face and I was drookit in seconds, dripping and frozen and truly, joyfully alive.

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There is a tiny drop of Scottish blood in me, on my mother’s side. My great-grandmother was born in Scotland, with the surname Calder. Calder is a highland clan that once was powerful up near Inverness. It doesn’t have a chieftain any more, but it does still have a motto:

“Be mindful.”

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The time spent navigating memories

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It’s a slow process. I don’t just mean the making of the #100DaysInDinan project: combing through old photographs for inspiration, sketching a rough idea onto my antique postcards, going over it in pen, painting it. Then finding old pages from magazines, tracing onto them around the envelopes that had held the postcards for a century, folding them into place, then copying addresses onto paper and pasting them onto the front of the envelopes… 

All this takes time, and perhaps in retrospect one a day was too ambitious. 

But the real time is spent navigating memories. As I paint I walk my memories like I walked those old, cobblestoned streets, a hundred times over, during the 100 days we lived in Dinan. 

As I sketch the outline of a fresh baguette, I am back there again, standing outside Boulangerie Banette with my children, tearing the still-warm loaf into into smaller pieces to share, and the smell is the best in the world: nutty, malty, a hug. 

Scout announces, “I can’t go a single day in the world without this bread,” and from that day on, our baker Mohommed keeps one or two baguettes aside for us - and often throws in some free croissants and Nutella crepes - in case they sell out before we get there (which they often do). 

Now as I paint I am climbing the steep hill to the castle ruins in the village next door and I can feel the muscles in my legs burning all over again. (And oh! That wicker picnic basket is heavy! Why did I think a picnic blanket was necessary? And did we really need that much water?). 

My memories tumble onwards, gaining momentum like my children rolling down a steep and grassy hill on a sunny day, squealing with laughter. I think about the friendly grey cat at the ruins that had so enchanted Ralph. He sat among the wildflowers inside the crumbling castle walls and patted the wild cat while it purred like a tractor, and I dug into the bottom of that heavy wicker picnic basket for the hand sanitiser I was sure I’d packed somewhere. We learned that French cats don’t much mind if your French is somewhat lacking.

I paint my feet in canvas shoes, dangling over the canal on a quiet jetty. As I do it, I taste again the honey and walnut cake I’d baked the day before, and carried with us on our walk. I remember throwing crumbs for ducks that wouldn’t come, and watching the tiny bubbles and rings in the water made by unseen fish coming up to feed.  

On comes the summer’s day we spent in nearby Saint Malo, digging and splashing in the beach all day and then running the whole three kilometres back to the bus stop just in time for the last bus home… only to discover the timetable had changed the day before, and we were trapped. So we trudged the three kilometres back into town and found a little hotel. We ate bananas dunked in yoghurt for dinner and it was hot, so hot, so we all slept in our underwear on a big bed. I left the window open all night and watched the moon rise slowly over slate rooftops and terra cotta chimney pots as my children slept. 

It slows me. I start with an anecdote but all too soon I am lost in a fully-fledged memory, and follow that path deeper and deeper into the wilds of nostalgia. 

It washes over me, a longing to be back inside those slower days once more. I was mindful then, truly mindful, consciously taking in everything: watching it, feeling it, tasting it, and appreciating it. Committing it to memory as best I could, not wanting to miss a thing, not wanting to lose any of it. 

So when I paint and I am slow, I don’t mind. A hundred memories is taking me more than a hundred days to record, but this project has become exactly what it set out to be: a process in gratitude. 

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Camping People

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Do you ever go camping?

I need to preface this blog post with the confession that we are not Camping People.

This makes me a little bit sad, because I really want to think of myself as a Camping Person. In my head, Camping People are super-evolved. They know how to pare back their living requirements to the bare minimum, ridding themselves of the clutter that threatens to overwhelm the rest of us on any given day, and bringing only what they can carry, leaving behind only footprints in the sand.

Camping People cook delicious one-pot meals in cast iron… (pots? Dutch ovens? What are those things called?) over picturesque fires, with mushrooms and fennel they foraged in nearby pine forests, or mussels they pulled from rocks on pristine beaches. For breakfast they eat bircher muesli they had pre-made in individual mason jars, which they kept cool overnight by submerging them in an alpine-fed stream, Famous Five style. After dinner they uncork the wine, and tell hilarious stories to one another in the glow of the fire. They drape hand-woven rugs around their shoulders as the chill draws in, and they look good in beanies.

We are not those people.

We tried camping, one time. I won a beautiful, canvas tent in a competition, and off we raced to a campsite among the trees in the mountains. I remember it had been a lean week, so I only had $90 in the budget with which to purchase four inflatable beds, one pump, four sleeping bags, two lanterns and four little folding deck chairs, all from K-mart.

Let’s just say you get what you pay for. The pump didn’t work so we had to blow up the beds by mouth, and they deflated during the night to leave us sleeping on cold rocks. Only one of the two lanterns worked. The sleeping bags made up in bulk for what they lacked in actual warmth, and we froze, huddled together on the deflating beds in our winter coats, through the long, six-degree Celsius night.

I had forgotten to bring the instructions for pitching the tent, so we had attempted it earlier that day amid dust and wasps, tripping over pegs and ropes and arguing pointlessly, while a motorhome the size of our home in Melbourne rolled up and parked within touching distance of our tent (we couldn’t even stretch the ropes out fully or we’d have had to peg them into the side of the motorhome). A marathon runner pitched his one-person tent in front of our car, climbed inside at around seven at night, and commenced a rumbling, avalanche-causing snore that continued with impressive consistency until sunrise the next day.

I couldn’t get the kindling in the brazier we’d hired from the campsite ranger to catch alight, despite or perhaps because of the well-meaning aid of the children who plied it with green wood and leaves, but it didn’t really matter anyway because my K-mart budget hadn’t stretched to anything with which to actually cook a meal.

(On the other side of the camping ground, actual Camping People were stirring paella on a little gas cooker, while a teapot suspended over a neat little campfire and children roasted marshmallows on sticks. Later they pulled out camp-chairs that looked like armchairs, and drank wine out of enamel cups. I watched them from the shade of my lopsided tent, through narrowed eyes.)

Because it turns out that, at least for most of us, the amount of stuff needed to actually feed, clothe, shelter and maintain basic hygiene for a family of four is actually a LOT. I mean seriously, there’s so much stuff in camping! Definitely more than we could fit into our tiny Toyota Corolla, even if the budget had allowed me to fully prepare. (The tent alone weighed more than 44 kilograms and filled the entire boot of the car. What’s even up with that!?)

After that one night we hurried back home: filthy, freezing and forlorn. My husband called some friends that same afternoon and gave the tent away, and I donated the sleeping-bags to charity (with a note attached that said “for summer”). We swore we’d never go camping again.

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And then we did.

One of the lessons we learned as a family, while we were in France last year, was the importance of taking time out, and switching off, together.

So we cleared the calendar for three nights over Easter. The budget didn’t stretch to much (thanks in part the the aforementioned stay in France) and so, with some trepidation, we decided to try camping again.

It was definitely easier. Not perfect, but easier.

We took the ‘glamping’ route, the best part of which involved someone else pitching the tent, and packing it up afterwards. Oh and floorboards, pre-made beds (with doonas and blankets), a little bar-fridge to keep the milk cool in the absence of any alpine-fed springs, and even a heater!

Of course, we were still covered in dirt most of the time, the campsite showers had scary creatures on the walls, and the campsite ‘kitchen’ was so rusted over I couldn’t even boil water, let alone cook paella. We ate a lot of dim sims from the local take away shop.

And fish ‘n chips on the beach, under a high, full moon.

Actually, it wasn’t that bad.

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The children splashed in the icy sea-water, building sandcastles and a conical abbey of sand that they called le Mont Saint Michel. We explored seaside villages and manicured gardens. Old-fashioned hedge-mazes and sun drenched pathways to remote lighthouses.

In the evenings, we read our books and drank hot tea - and later red wine - wrapped in soft blankets. When it was time to turn off the lantern, the moon painted Chinese calligraphy in the leaves and branches of nearby trees on the canvas walls.

I could hear the soft breathing of my family, all asleep but me. Distant waves kissing sand. Night birds. And, on the final night, the winds of a gathering storm.

Maybe this is how Camping People feel.

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Sustainable travel

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I’m sorry.

I’m going to apologise to you, first, but then also to the planet. Because the truth is that as much as I tried to be mindful and sustainable while we were travelling as a family last year, I failed more often than I succeeded, and I suspect I could have tried so much harder.

I realise this confession is not very helpful, especially if you happen to have opened this post in the hopes of finding tips for sustainable travel (perhaps we could brainstorm ideas together?). But I think confessions are an important. I fail all too often when it comes to taking care of the world we live in, and I think it’s important to own my failures, and to let myself feel the shame rather than sweep it under the carpet, so that I can do better next time.

Also, maybe if you sometimes feel that everyone else is a zero-waste champion, carrying around a year’s worth of waste in a single mason jar while you forgot to bring the reusable bags to the supermarket last week… my confession might help you feel a little bit better, and perhaps a little less alone. We have a better chance of success if we support one another.

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(A bit of context: we were on holidays for one month. There were five of us, three adults and two children, making our way from Dinan in France to Scotland, via Paris and London, staying in Air BnB homes along the way. Our time in the village hadn’t been a brilliant success at sustainability (I shared some of our experiences and ideas here), but it turns out that life on the road can make things a lot more difficult.)

Things that did work well

First, the positives. There were some things I did that worked really well, making life easy and practical for us on the road while also going a small way towards minimising our footprint. They included:

  • We used public transport as much as possible. From the time we left Australia in August to our return at the New Year, we took trains and buses almost everywhere. We only hired a car for one week, in order to travel in the Scottish highlands, and only took a taxi on one late night in London, and two extremely early (one of them 4am) mornings

  • I packed three beeswax wraps of varying sizes when we left for our trip, and used them to cover just about anything. They were especially useful in Dinan, but also came in handy when, for example, we wanted to transport a half-eaten cucumber from one Air BnB home to another, without using plastic wrap or take-away plastic boxes

  • I had also packed a square, collapsible, insulated lunch bag. Again, back in Dinan this was great for carrying cold things home from the market, but it was also handy once we hit the road, not only carrying food from the shops but also storing it and taking it with us from one place to another, rather than throwing things away

  • I bought some tourist-style biscuit tins. I love to use tins at home for storage, but they were also very helpful while we were travelling, slotting and stacking neatly in my suitcase, and carrying everything from food to stationery supplies to first aid. (Clearly I had already eaten the biscuits. I did it for the planet)

  • I packed two heat-proof drink-bottles with me when we first left Australia. One was glass and I accidentally smashed it in a ceramic sink in our London B&B, but the other was wood with metal insulation, and is still going strong. I’d fill this with water before leaving from the day, so that we didn’t need to buy plastic bottles of water

  • I packed two tote bags for carrying groceries, and bought a couple more when I needed them. I also wore a back pack every day (this one), rather than carrying a handbag. It could expand to create a surprisingly big space, and I’ve carried full-sized blankets in it, bottles of milk and wine, stacks of books, and secretly-stashed Christmas presents. Mostly I was pretty good at bringing bags with me, even for things like Christmas shopping. I think we used three or four plastic bags in total in the month we travelled, and those I saved to use as garbage bags in our B&Bs

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Things we really should have done better

  • I didn’t bring a reusable coffee cup. In France, this didn’t matter. I drank tea at home and coffee in cafes and, knowing this would be the case, I just didn’t add it to the luggage I was packing. But in London and Scotland, often my husband would go out early while I was getting the kids dressed, and bring back two coffees and the newspaper to read. It was so nice to have a ‘proper’ latte after all that time that my conscience grew weak.

    Lesson: I should have said “no thanks.” Or waited until I could leave, too, and had the coffee in the cafe. I did sometimes, but mostly I didn’t, and I’m sorry.

  • I took a big bag of soap nuts with me when we first went to Dinan, and used them for several months. But then the ancient washing machine in our rented apartment tore apart the little muslin bag I used for them (as well as several items of my clothing). I didn’t know how to replace it, so I had to buy ordinary laundry powder to use on the road. I tried to find earth-friendly detergent but still ended up with a kind of contact-dermatitis on my legs and torso, which doesn’t bode well for the waters it drained into.

    Lesson: I’m not sure. Learn how to sew my own little muslin bags? There’s no way I could have carried a month’s worth of clean clothes for five people travelling in winter. Can you help? What would you have done?

  • I used traditional Christmas wrapping paper, even though I knew it probably couldn’t be recycled. There was a lot of angst around this (for me) and in the end, I chose paper because a) by the time we arrived in Edinburgh, where we’d be for Christmas, we only had two days left to organise everything, b) I couldn’t find brown paper and didn’t have time to decorate it anyway, c) my husband doesn’t like furoshiki wraps because he thinks they don’t get used, and anyway I couldn’t afford to buy enough for all the presents, d) the children didn’t have Santa stockings or sacks, so I wanted to create some kind of ‘unwrapping’ experience for them, and e) we didn’t have a tree or much in the way of decorations, so the other adults travelling with me quite rightly felt a bit of festivity was in order.

    I didn’t want to be the wowser in the group, and perhaps by this point was feeling a bit (or a lot) hypocritical about pushing the issue, given all the other slip-ups and outright failures we’d been making along the way. It’s hard to be vigilant about recyclable wrapping-paper while sipping coffee from your take-away cup.

    Lesson: In retrospect, the smartest thing would probably have been to bring two stockings or sacks for the kids, so that the Santa presents didn’t need wrapping, and then to use a combination of cloth, tea-towels, ribbons and other ideas for our presents to one another. Also, I’m going to teach myself how to properly use furoshiki wraps, so by next year, my husband might accede to their usefulness.

  • Food waste and recycling was tricky. I did manage to sort-of minimise our food waste, but we were limited in terms of recycling options, depending on the rules of each home we stayed in. I’ve written before about the challenges of not bringing things in, rather than figuring out what to do with the things on the way out, but I don’t think I was particularly good at this, especially once we hit the road.

    Lesson: Really, there’s not a lot you can do in these situations, other than to be mindful of what you bring in, and I just needed to be more vigilant in that respect. It’s a lot harder to cook at home while on holidays, and can sometimes be counter-intuitive (the amount of ‘things’ we’d need to buy for just one meal in terms of food ingredients that wouldn’t get fully eaten, and all the jars, tins and plastic they come in, would possibly be more wasteful than a single take-away pizza box or plastic container), so I guess the answer is to think hard and creatively about what comes in, every time.

  • Air travel. This is the giant, white elephant in the room when it comes to sustainable travel. Here we are as ‘responsible’ human beings, travelling with our keep-cups and tote bags, while just to get where we want to go, we are participating in an industry that is responsible for more than 2 percent of the entire world’s carbon dioxide emissions by burning finite fossil fuels, emitting greenhouse gases, and leaving contrails in the atmosphere. In addition, airports and the related infrastructure (terminals, runways, ground transport, maintenance facilities and shopping) use up huge amounts of energy, water and resources.

    Lesson: Clearly, the easy answer is not to travel by plane. But I am selfish and I do want to travel, at least sometimes. Australia is an island, so any international travel requires flying. It’s a start to participate in a carbon offset scheme (where trees are planted to ‘offset’ the fossil fuels your journey burns). I did this and don’t want to discount it, but to me that feels like a tiny drop in the ocean.

    I have had another thought: I’ve read that the per-passenger-per-kilometre carbon emissions of air travel are roughly the same as travelling by car. So now, back home, I need to be even better at not taking our car, walking instead, or using public transport if necessary. (Although to get from Melbourne to Paris, and then to get home from Edinburgh to Melbourne, we flew 33,682 kilometres. Multiplied by the five of us, that’s 168,410 kilometres, so I have a lot of walking and tram-rides to do before I even break even from this one trip, environmentally-speaking. It’s not a perfect system).

    What do you do? How do you combine air travel with your environmental conscience? What are your top tips for thoughtful, sustainable travel?

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Comfort food

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When I was in my early 20s, my then-boyfriend and I used to go and stay with his grandparents, in their little blue weatherboard cottage in the country, beside a lake. I remember waking early in the morning and going for long walks on the sand, watching dolphin families fish for breakfast. Morning tea with his grandma, served precisely at 10am every day, was always tea in a big pot, and Iced Vo-Vo biscuits.

One year, a few days after Christmas, we were less than an hour into our journey back home to Sydney when we received a sad phone-call: my boyfriend’s grandfather had had a heart attack, and died. We immediately turned around and hurried back to the weatherboard house, which by the time we arrived was already overflowing with family-members: parents, sisters, uncles and aunties, all with their jobs to do, somewhere on the spectrum from grief-counselling to hearse-ordering, depending on their skill-set.

All except me. As the little-known girlfriend of one of the grandsons, I felt acutely in the way. Awkward, a noisy presence (although I rarely spoke) during a time when the family needed to close in, bunker down, and support one another.

Often, food is how we show someone we love them, when they are going through a difficult time. Something hearty and lovingly baked, and left at the doorstep to be consumed when there’s no time or energy left for cooking, or frozen for a later day.

But as a superfluous guest in the bereaved person’s house, I couldn’t do that, so I made the next best thing: tea. Pots and pots of tea. I made so much tea, in fact, that everyone got sick of it. I distinctly remember walking into the kitchen where my boyfriend’s mother and grandmother sat together over the table by the window, and offering to put on the kettle. “I think we’ve all had enough cups of tea for today, thank you Naomi,” they said.

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We had a bereavement in our family this week and, once gain, my mind turned to food.

I can’t erase the pain of those who are most affected, but I can sit in the stillness with them. (I have learned, since my 20s, that sometimes it is OK to be still with someone. We don’t always have to be doing, doing, doing). And the other thing I can do, this time, is make food. Nutritious food because grief can take a toll on the body. Hearty meals because they feel like edible hugs. Handy dishes that only need to be heated up to feed a whole family. And sweet treats, for emotional self-care and to have something easy to offer the inevitable well-meaning guests who drop around.

It was serendipitous, also, that the day after we lost our loved-one, I received a gift in the mail from Sophie Hansen (of Local is Lovely): her latest cookbook, A Basket by the Door. Actually, I received two copies of this book on the one day, one that I had pre-ordered, and another as a personal gift from Sophie.

Sophie’s book is all about food that is made to be given away. The edible care packages through which we share love during the large and small milestones of life: the loss of a loved one, a new baby, a school picnic, pre-exam jitters, a graduation, welcoming a new neighbour… and the list goes on.

This is such a heartwarming concept for a book, don’t you think? There is nothing fancy or flashy in here, and most of the recipes are relatively easy to make. The goal is to share love, not show off. Delicious, tasty, wholesome food that is intended to be given away (although Sophie does make the clever suggestion that we double some of the recipes, to keep some for ourselves as well!), alongside practical tips on how to ensure it travels well.

Country hospitality.

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(I realise at this point that this is starting to sound like a sponsored post: I assure you it’s not. I bought my own copy of this lovely book, and nobody asked me to write about it. I just really, really adore the concept of edible care packages, and even I can cook these recipes!)

For my grieving family, from A Basket by the Door, I have already made a rich and hearty lasagne, half to eat now and half to freeze for another day when cooking feels like too much. I’ve prepared a simple and delicious filling for chicken sandwiches so we can stuff it into crusty bread rolls and take it to the park to recharge in nature. I plan to make and freeze some bliss balls during the school holidays for the kids to take in their lunch boxes when term starts, and there’s a coconut and lemongrass broth that has caught my eye for dinner some night soon.

I baked the blueberry, lemon and rosemary cake you see in the photograph above this afternoon, as a treat for the children when they came home from school, tired, grubby and low on reserves. (It freezes well so there’s a lot of future after-school treats in that tin!)

Sophie made all the food for this book, and photographed it, herself, over two years. Doing it this way - slowly, thoughtfully - meant the food she made was shared in the way it was intended, with family and friends, each dish an individual act of abundance and love.

In this spirit, I was thinking I’d like to send you a care package, too, to say thank you for being my community.

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This blog is my happy place. I called it “Naomi Loves” many years ago, because I wanted it to be a celebration of the things, places and people I love, and that has never changed. In fact, of late I have really fallen back in love with this form of storytelling, and it gives me great joy to write a blog post each week.

But what really makes me swoon about this blog is you. In 2019, when so many people are saying blogging is dead and the only real community is on social media, you are here. You read, you leave your comments, you send me emails, and I cannot tell you how wonderful I feel to know that we are sharing this little time together, and that you allow me into your world in this small way.

Those of us here on this blog are a much smaller community than on my Instagram or my newsletter, but that makes it feel all-the-more intimate when I am writing to you, and I feel I can be more vulnerable here than anywhere else in public. It’s almost as though we’re family.

And so, I want to thank you. I’d like to give you my second copy of A Basket by the Door (the one I paid for, because the one Sophie gave me has a little note in it that makes it extra special to me). I won’t post this opportunity anywhere else online, I’m keeping it only for this little blog community, because I appreciate you so much.

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If you think you’d like A Basket by the Door, either for you or a friend, simply leave me a comment in this post below (if you’re reading this via email you just need to click on the title of this blog post to see it in your browser, and then you’ll see the comment box), letting me know what your favourite ‘edible care package’ is (either to give or to receive), and what makes it special. (Mine is chicken pie, but the why of that is another story for another day).

I know some of you have missed out on past opportunities on this blog because of time zones, so this time we can take it slow. I’ll choose a winner a week from today, on Friday evening, Australian Eastern Standard Time, and email that person. The opportunity is open to you anywhere in the world and, depending on the laws in your country, I might bake you a batch of my mother’s Anzac biscuits (they travel well) to go with the book.

Big hugs,
Naomi xo

UPDATE 15/04/19: This competition is now closed, and the winner has been notified. But if you’re in the mood for some inspiration, have a browse through all the kitchen-generosity in the comments below. It’s utterly heartwarming! And do still feel free to share your thoughts on this. The community on this blog genuinely makes it my happy place.

The memory-map

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The first thing I painted was the 14th-Century chateau, one night after we had explored it with our friend Tonia. We’d set out early that morning with a backpack stuffed with chopped vegetables, bananas, baguettes and the homemade koulourakia we’d baked the day before from a Meals in the Mail recipe, to walk the ramparts all the way around town.

At the chateau we stopped to catch our breath and polish off our little lunch, sitting on the ancient stone wall amid glorious pink and red flowers, before buying four tickets at the gate and heading inside to explore. The chateau is formally known as “donjon de la duchesse Anne,” or “the keep of Duchess Anne,” a woman beloved as a ruler and protector of Brittany from 1488 until her death, as well as being Queen Consort of France (twice).

Today, her keep is almost empty: no roped-off antiques or baltic pine replicas here, just empty rooms with carved shutters half-closed over diamond-paned windows. It made space for the ghosts, and we could almost feel the past walking among us in those empty rooms. We climbed the narrow spiral-stone staircase up, up, wandering the rooms where once the Duchess Anne ate, conversed and slept, until we emerged to blinding sun and gusting winds on the roof. Then we headed down. Down, down, into the smoke-stained ‘dungeon’ of a kitchen, where there were no windows and Tonia and I had to use our iPhones as torches so that we could all make it down the final flight of stairs without breaking any limbs.

At various levels (especially in the guards’ rooms), medieval toilets were cut into the stone and, from the smell, were still occasionally in use. We only just - with seconds to spare - managed to stop four-year-old Ralph from doing the same, and the laughter from our little party at this lucky escape carried us all the way back to our still-new (to us) apartment.

So later that night, when the children were sleeping the deserved sleep of the utterly exhausted and Tonia and I sat up eating cheese and drinking rosé, I drew the chateau on the blank paper of my future map, and wrote our little story down next to it.

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Piece by piece, as we built memories, I added them to the map. Picnics at the nearby ruins. Baguettes from our favourite boulangerie. Trips to Saint Malo, le Mont Saint Michel, and Broceliande. The carousel the children loved to ride, where first Scout announced, “Our town is amazing!” The church with the bells that punctuated our days and nights with such beauty. The big, old English sheepdog we called Sarah, from that time I said “Look, that dog has it’s hair up” and Ralph replied, “How do you know it’s called Sarah?”

Painting at night after each adventure, there wasn’t any strategy or forethought to the map, and this made for lots of mistakes. I painted the Thursday markets one evening after carrying home the week’s bounty, and, a few days later, drew in the clock tower behind it after we had climbed to the top. Then a month or two further along, when I decided I needed to paint in the grand old buildings that lined the market square, the clock tower was already in the way. In my painting it has grown legs and journeyed a full block away from the rue de l’horloge, where it stood since 1498. I drew Sarah the dog before adding in the buildings around her, and it turned out she was not even remotely to scale. I had accidentally turned her into a canine giant, eclipsed only by the baguettes, which are the size of some houses. Saint Malo was on a wonky slope, the abbey at Lehon slid over onto the very bottom of the paper, and a strange, ibex-like creature on the carousel loomed over everything else.

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The mistakes have come to be my favourite parts of this map. I could have waited, of course, collecting these moments in my mind to faithfully reproduce them back home. Carefully copying or tracing a roadmap of Dinan, and then plotting out our favourite memories with both accuracy and artistic arrangement.

In fact, that was my original intention in making the map. After taking multiple wrong turns when trying to follow the map of the ramparts given to us by the Dinan tourism office, Tonia and I joked that I’d paint a more accurate one, and give it to them when we left.

But the best adventures are unplanned and precious moments come unbidden. And if you don’t stop to notice them when they happen, those moments can journey on by, altogether unseen.

So I chose mindfulness over method, thankfulness over design, and pasted my little acts of gratitude like patchwork all over the paper, living each drawing in the moment without pausing to plan the final piece.

When we left the village in December, I didn’t know what to do with the map. The handmade paper was so thick and large it couldn’t fit into a tube, so I carried it with me from Dinan to Paris, Paris to London, London to Cumbria, Cumbria to Inverness, Inverness to Edinburgh, and Edinburgh to Melbourne, Australia. After we returned home, it lay rolled up and forgotten on the sofa-bed in our front room for a month, buried under clothes awaiting dry-cleaning, until finally in mid-February I uncovered it and found the time - and emotional fortitude - to finish what I had started on that hot summer’s day at the chateau, back in August.

So here it is, in all its wonky, unplanned, mistake-ridden, navigationally-bereft, emotionally-rich glory. The story-map of our sabbatical in France, and a pen-and-paint act of thanksgiving.

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