exploring

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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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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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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Midwinter mystery

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I wanted to watch the sun rise through the standing stones on the winter solstice.

In truth, the true magic was supposed to happen at sunset: the last of the day’s light beaming through the passageways of the southwest-facing cairns and spilling over the ancient dead like a gift, for a few precious moments in this one important hour every year, for four thousand years.

But sunset in mid December was at 3.30 in the afternoon, and I knew we’d probably still be out. We had made plans to visit a tiny village close to Nairn, and walk ten kilometres though fields to see Cawdor Castle in the distance, the seat of my distant Calder relatives. Probably, I thought, we’d still be driving home at sunset. (We were).

And the forecast was for rain in the afternoon, anyway.

So we hurried down our breakfast and left in the dark, arriving just in time to watch the dawn instead, as it coloured the ancient wood in gold, and sent the fairies shimmering back into the shadows, seconds before the sun’s rays broke then burst over the nearby hills.

My family wandered with me for a few minutes but then retreated to the relative warmth of the car, leaving me to explore the cairns and stones alone.

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For a little while, I pulled my gloves off and rested my fingertips on the ancient standing stones, letting the earth’s currents flow up through that quiet ground and the lichen-covered stone, then coursing into my hands and grounding my body in nature and history.

Four thousand years. It’s an almost unthinkable age to me but, to our planet, those stones are little more than the passing acne of adolescence on the surface of time.

The stones were sharp with ice, and smooth inside the “cups,” little circular dips carved out with stone or antler tools, patiently worked by human hands millennia ago. Hands just like mine, maybe even genetically related to mine, but on people leading lives so different to my experience it is impossible to fathom that which binds us.

Except this earth. This dawn. These stones. They are our constant, linking me to them and them to me as though time did not matter and they had just - just - left, melting away into shadows with the fairies mere moments before I arrived with the sun.

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Who were they?

These ancient ancestors of ours positioned the cairns to catch the solstice sunset, and graded the standing stones around them according to astronomical axes. Those that face the sunrise are smaller and whiter, while those placed toward the sunset are larger and the lichen, when scraped away, reveals stones of pink and red.

Artists of the earth.

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While I stood alone and watched, the morning sun pierced a cleft stone in the lonely field.

On a whim, I stepped behind the stone and let the cut-light pierce and refract over my face, closing my eyes to the gold, and turning it red beneath my lids.

What do you think it means, that split stone? It is not the biggest nor the most impressive of the standing stones that guard these cairns, but the cleft feels strange, not something you see in nature, and to me it feels like a question. Two almost identical pieces of stone, side by side, kissing at the base but pushing one another apart at the shoulders, creating unearthly shadows and bending the sun’s rays and creating a hard-to-pin-down sense of unease.

Like listening to your parents argue in the next room.

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Our humanity unites us throughout the millennia. These stones are part of me and I am part of them. But what do they mean?

A seasonal shift

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The weekend before we left the village forever, they turned the Christmas lights on. I stepped out of our apartment in the twilight to go to the post office, and hadn’t taken two steps before the entire town burst back into light.

Christmas trees on every corner glowed with colour, rainbow twinkle lights floated in swathes above the cobblestones, intricate patterns of light made snowflakes above crossroads, and every laneway seemed touched with magic.

I raced back from the post office to call the family outside, and together we strolled through the wonderland, marvelling at each new discovery. It seemed as though almost the entire village had had the same idea, we were all, young and old, wandering the town in joy, and the streets were filled with the sounds of “Ooh!” and “Ahh!”, punctuated by church bells.

It felt like a fitting farewell to this town that we had called home for almost four months. From summer to winter, we watched the town transition from full bloom (and full to the brim) to a kind of turning-inwards, resting and readying for winter, and every new face on our town has been lovely.

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In the summer, the streets hummed with tourists. The glacerie did a roaring trade, with towering coronets of triple-flavoured home-made ice creams, and markets filled with handicrafts lined the street underneath the ancient clock tower, every day. A horse and carriage clopped underneath our window every hour or so, and a miniature train carrying retired German tourists chugged over the cobblestones all day long.

We would wander down to the river in the sweltering heat, and sit on the stone edges with our feet in the water to cool off, or take a ride on the canal boat that took tourists to Lehon and back all day long (always telling the story, in two languages, of how if something happened to the horses pulling the canal-boats in the past, the captain’s wife would have to don a harness and drag that boat along the little river herself).

On Wednesdays, the square beneath our window, in front of the ancient basilica, would fill with stalls of antique toys and books and curios for sale. Scout wore a hand-woven “love knot” around her wrist, woven by a local woman at the market. Ralph found a red tin van that had once held chocolates. I picked up a 300-year-old writing desk, and a hand-painted ceramic kugelhopf mould from a famous artists in Alsace.

Everything in Dinan was alive. The geraniums in the pots outside our windows burst into extravagant colour, and the dancing light seemed to filter inside, even before dawn. There were jazz concerts in the square below us, sending music into our living room through the open windows until after midnight, while we ate crackers and cheese and sipped rosé, and I painted the memories of our grand adventure.

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And then the wind turned cold.

As the seasons changed, so did the village. The glacerie closed its shutters for the last time in the year, as did our favourite boulanger, and many of the shops and restaurants taped handwritten signs to their closed shutters: fermé jusqu'en décembre (closed until December).

It was a lot easier to move around the town without the crowds, and the children never had to wait for a space on the tourniquet in the playground, and the cafes and bistros that did remain open started selling vin chaud (hot wine).

The breeze picked up, and the trees changed colour. Gold dominated, but there was also brown, orange, and crimson in the mix. On windy days, the sky would rain colour. We collected conkers and walnuts, and roasted found chestnuts. The chemin des pommiers (apple path) below the castle walls was slick with fallen, rotting apples, a picturesque death-trap to any who ventured down that steep slope.

I walked the children to childcare in the golden glare of sunrise, and home again in the dark. On days off, we started frequenting a deli where the paninis were particularly good, and the proprietress was super-friendly towards the children. In fact, everyone grew friendlier, now that the throngs and crowds had melted away.

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And then one dark afternoon, they turned the Christmas lights on.

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Brocéliande

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Do you believe in magic?

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I do, now.

I believe in the magic of forest paths that lead to unknown places, and ancient oak-trees with roots that reach so far into the earth that they touch history.

I believe in the magic of red-and-gold leaves that fall like rain, the crunch of them underfoot, and the sound of wind like whispered promises. I believe in the magic of afternoon light that is actually gold, mist in the morning like a blanket, and the smell of woodsmoke in the air.

Of mulled wine and hot chocolate, sipped in cafes with fogged-up windows and friendly strangers. The call of owls in the night, carrying across still water.

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I believe in the magic of standing in a place of legends, the very spot where, at some point in the 5th Century AD, a Briton named Arthur once spearheaded a resistance against invaders from the north, and inspired more than a thousand years of stories.

Stories of love, of betrayal, of heroics, of swords, and stones, of witches, and warlocks, of knights, of round tables, of grails, and of kingdoms that unite and endure.

And of a lady in a still and silent lake.

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Listening & noticing

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We first noticed it on a Saturday night at the beginning of September: the unnatural quiet.

We were returning from the playground, where the children had spent a rousing hour-and-a-half making friends via a game of Ralph’s invention. It involved tossing his soft car-toy into the midst of a group of children who were spinning at top speed on a merry-go-round. If they managed to catch it, they’d toss it back, causing gales of laughter as Ralph ran hither and thither to pick it up like an eager puppy. Over time, the game evolved into chasings, with everyone chasing the one person who held the car, which they’d then pass to someone else if the mob of children got too near. A bit like under-six football, only with a lot less rules.

The children’s French language skills are coming along swimmingly, too. Mid-way through the game Ralph took a break in order to run up and tell me, “A girl said ‘bonjour’ to me, so I said ‘bonjour’ back.”

So, practically fluent.

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We left the playground and sat down at a table outside a restaurant in the heart of town. I ordered us a tuna salad to share, and a glass of wine for me, and leaned back to enjoy the evening. That’s when I noticed it: the quiet. The town, which we had left two hours earlier bustling with the now-familiar throngs of thousands of tourists, buskers, market stalls and families, was now all-but empty. Two old men at a table nearby, smoking over pastis. The woman from the Presse across the square, leaning in the doorframe of her shop and watching the dusk. An old English sheepdog, asleep on the flagstones.

That was pretty much it, other than us, and it felt uncanny, to say the least. I said as much to the woman who brought us our salad. “Oui,” she said, her face widening into a broad smile, “c’est tres tranquil!” (“Yes, it’s very quiet!”). In the space of one afternoon, the school holidays had ended, and the crowds had melted away like mist in the sun. Now, I thought to myself, I am about to discover what life is really like in the village.

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And one great lesson I am learning from life in this village, now that tourist-season has closed, is that there is a time and a season for everything, if only we learn to listen for it.

At first this felt restrictive because, in Australia, we are used to doing all the things, all the time. We eat when we can (hungry or not), and often on the go. We work all the time. Early morning. Late nights. Weekends. My husband brings his computer, iPad and telephone with him on holidays. We do our shopping at odd hours, slotting it around our long days. Pick up this on the way home from the office, grab that on the way home from school, shop for those at 9pm on a Sunday night, and order the rest online at 1am on a Tuesday after finishing a deadline.

I get my coffee take-away and eat at my desk, and our mealtimes are likewise scattered. For breakfast, Mr B grabs a banana for the car and snacks at work when he gets hungry. Often I forget to eat lunch and then pick at unhealthy anythings scavenged from the pantry all afternoon. I feed the kids their dinner and put them into bed, and then by the time Mr B gets home from work I’m often too tired to cook again. We are keeping Uber Eats in business.

By comparison, this is our life in the village:

* The church bells ring at seven in the morning. They don’t start earlier and the inference is, what person in their right mind would get up before seven in the morning anyway?

* On church-service days (including weddings and funerals), the bells start ringing 12 minutes before the hour, and continue all the way up until the hour, to give everyone in the village time to get to church

* The markets run from eight until one on Thursday, and that’s where everyone in town stocks up on fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, fish, cheeses and spices for the week. It’s seasonal, and you just have to roll with what’s growing (no California oranges or New Zealand kiwis here)

* The cafés and restaurants open at noon until about two for lunch, and seven until nine for dinner. Outside those hours most are closed and even if they do open, you can only get drinks

* I’ve yet to see a take-away coffee cup

* The shops don’t open before ten each day, and they are closed on Sundays and Mondays. “Sundays are family days,” my friend told me, with an expressive gallic shrug that seemed to add, “naturally”

As you can imagine, we came unstuck at first. I used up the last of our milk on a Saturday night and shock! horror! Had to wait until after ten on Tuesday morning to buy more for my tea. More than once, I failed to buy enough fruit and vegetables at the markets and had to go without for the rest of the week. (Going without is better than facing the prospect of picking through the genuinely-rotting ‘fresh’ produce in the local supermarket to find something edible. I’m not kidding: if the supermarket was a cartoon, there’d be little wiggly smell-lines wafting above it).

When we first arrived, my kids’ little tummies were used to having lunch at eleven or thereabouts, and we roamed fruitlessly from café to café, searching for something that was open before noon. We had the same problem when I wanted to take them out for dinner, but nobody would serve food until after their bed-times.

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But as time has gone by we have slowly adjusted to these new rhythms and, somehow, they are beginning to make profound sense.

I take menu inspiration from what’s fresh at the market, rather than arriving at the supermarket with a ready-made list and very little idea of where my food is coming from. When it’s time for coffee, I take five minutes to sit at a cafe and people-watch while I sip, noticing and appreciating the taste… and the moment of peace.

Mealtimes are for proper meals, and we enjoy them thoroughly. But when mealtimes are over, we stop eating. I don’t snack any more, and I’m noticing the difference to my waistline. Sundays, when all the shops are closed, are for big cook-ups for the week ahead… or for long walks and picnics if the weather is just too good to resist.

It feels as though we are training our bodies to notice the rising and setting of the sun, the rhythms of the harvest, the turning of the globe and the changing of the seasons.

I am storing these life-lessons away, tucking them into my suitcase alongside the souvenir biscuit tins, vintage ceramic jelly mould and new winter coat that I also picked up here in France, in the hopes that they can be woven into my daily life when we return to Australia.

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One day in Paris (with small children)

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Brace yourself: your day will probably have to start with the Paris Metro. Hold on tight to their hands, try not to inhale too deeply, and, if it’s peak hour, leave enough time to allow a few over-crowded trains to go by before you venture on in (here is a fun guide to surviving the metro in Paris).

Be a tourist

Take the Metro to somewhere close to a tourist attraction. I know, I know, you’re cooler than that. You want to explore off-the-beaten track alleyways and hole-in-the-wall one-dish-only Michelin star restaurants only Parisians know about. But you only have one day, and you are travelling with small children. There’ll be places they’ve seen in movies or read about in books that they are just desperate to visit. My friend, you are going to the Eiffel Tower!

The goal is that you emerge from the dark, smelly Metro-cesspit and watch your kids’ eyes grow wide and hear them breathe “Wow!” as the true beauty of Paris rises all around them. That “Wow” is worth a thousand super-cool secret bars, trust me.

Depending on which part of the city you’re staying in (i.e. the most convenient Metro lines to you), you could aim for any of these Metro stations:

  • To see Notre Dame first: get off at Saint-Michel Notre Dame (RER lines B or C), or Cité (pinkish-purple line)

  • To see the Louvre Museum first: get off at Louvre Rivoli or Palais Royal Musée du Louvre (yellow line), or Chatelet Les Halles (RER line A)

  • To see the Eiffel Tower first: get off at Champ de Mars/Tour Eiffel (RER line C)

  • To see the Arc de Triomphe first: get off at Charles de Gaulle Etoile (yellow, blue or aqua lines, or RER line A)

  • To see the Opéra Garnier first: get off at Opera (olive, pink or purple lines), Chausée d’Antin La Fayette (pink or lime lines), or Auber (RER line A)

  • To see the Tuileries garden and Place de la Concorde first: get off at Tuileries (yellow line)

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Buy a croissant

Get yourself out of that Metro station, and look around. Wherever it is you emerge, it’s a fair bet it will be beautiful! Let the kids stretch their legs, and take a ramble over and around wherever it is you’ve decided to start. (For my kids, this means racing around the forecourt at The Louvre).

Now find a nearby cafe and prepare to overpay outrageously for a coffee and a croissant. It’s worth it. The kids are hungry, and you’re in Paris. Order them a pain au chocolat and they will be over the moon. (Remember to use the loos here because you’re going to hit the road again soon).

Hop on a bus

Look around for a hop-on-hop-off bus and buy yourself a day ticket. These buses are a fantastic way to look around a city if you don’t have much time. They hit all the top tourist destinations and the name pretty much says it all: you can hop on or off all day, using these buses to make your way around the city.

If you’ve emerged at any of the places I listed above, a hop-on-hop-off bus will be nearby, so just grab the next one: this is how you’re going to get around for the rest of the day. Sit upstairs if the weather is fine.

Especially if your children are quite young, the hop-on-hop-off bus will work with their moods. Do their little legs need a rest? Hop on the bus and drive around, seeing the sights while giving them a break (bring snacks if you need to). Are they growing restless? Jump off at the next stop and let them explore - another bus will be along whenever you need it to continue on your journey.

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Let the kids set the itinerary

Now let the kids set the itinerary. As you drive past the bouquinistes (those green market-stalls along the Seine), tell them about the antique postcards and books and trinkets they can find there and, if they like the sound of that, get off at the next stop. If Notre Dame fascinates them, hop off there, then take a walk to Shakespeare and Company afterwards. Or if they are art-lovers, hop off at the Musee d’Orsay and visit all those lovely impressionists. (Notre Dame tip: you can book online to climb to the top and skip the lines. Musee d’Orsay tip: book your tickets online to skip the queues).

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Climb that tower

Let’s face it, assuming you do let the kids take charge, at some point or another today you are most likely going to the Eiffel Tower. (If you definitely know they’ll want to do this, try to make the Eiffel Tower your first stop, because the lines only get longer as the day goes on).

Hop off the bus, and prep the kids. Tell them that yes, they can climb it, but it is a long way up, and there’s no changing their minds half way. Would they prefer to take the lift? (If you like, you can buy a ticket that allows you to walk up to the first level, then take the lift to the second. You can choose to take the lift back down as well).

Half an hour later, ask incredulously, “Are you sure??” when your 4yo and 6yo declare that they want to climb both levels. Now moan and pant behind them as they set a cracking pace ahead of you, and you follow as best you can, carrying all the bags and coats they shed along the way. Have a tarte au pomme or a hot chocolate at the top. You’ve earned it.

(Let them buy that crappy Eiffel Tower snow-globe keyring. You are making memories.)

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Take a break

When you need a break from exploring, hop off the bus near one of Paris’ many beautiful parks. Take a breather here, and let the kids race around if they need to, or lie in the grass and make shapes out of clouds if that’s more your speed. If the weather is hot, float a paper boat in a pond, or let them dance through sprinklers to cool off.

Optional extra: after receiving a thorough soaking from the sprinklers, allow them to treat you and half-a-million other tourists to a dance performance on the Trocadéro to dry off. (Oh yes, they did). Or bring a change of clothes.

Ride a carousel. Buy crepes from an outdoor vendor and eat them for lunch under a tree or beside the river.

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Ice cream

Hop back on the bus, and visit as few or as many more sites as you want to. When you’ve had enough, hop back off at Notre Dame, and take a short walk along the Seine and over the bridge to the picturesque Ile St-Louis, to enjoy a cone of the best ice cream in Paris, from Berthillon. It’s seriously worth it. Sit in the gutter if you have to. You’re not shy.

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Have dinner with the artists

How is your energy? Are all of you flagging? If you have the stamina (or if you have a spare morning the next day), take the Metro once again, up to Montmartre.

The closest stations are Abbesses (green line), Anvers (blue line) or Lamarck Caulaincourt (green line). If you’re not sure which way to go from the station, just head up hill. Depending on which direction you come from, you’ll either pass winding lanes with artists selling wares that spill out onto the sidewalk; or there’ll be buskers, hawkers, tricksters performing that old cup-and-coin trick, and way more pedestrians than cars. Each walk is equally fun.

At the base of Sacre Coeur is a carousel that (joy of joys!) has two levels. This will make your children very happy indeed. When they’re ready to leave it, take the funiculaire up to Sacre Coeur (go in or not depending on their interest - it’s the actual funiculaire that they will love, and the cost is a standard Metro ticket price).

Now walk around the corner to Place du Tertre for dinner. Choose one of the restaurants facing onto this lovely public square (once a favourite haunt of all your favourite artists) and order something delicious. I love moules-frites with a crisp rosé, but you do your thing.

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There will be loads of amateur artists wandering around, offering to draw or paint or cut portraits of you and your little ones, and selling landscapes of all the places you have visited and admired today. I know, it’s cheesy, and the likeness is not exactly the best. But what a great memento of your day in Paris with your family, having your children immortalised forever in the style of a mid-century-mod portrait. You could take a wander around and pick up a souvenir for not too much if you like, or settle in for that dinner and let the artists come to you.

As dusk settles and the café lights come on, snuggle those tired kids onto your lap and ask them, “What was your favourite part of today?” They’ll tell you it was the ice cream, and the sprinklers. Stuff you could just as easily have done at home.

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The magic beach

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There are cliffs at the edge of the horizon, behind the rocky island, so pale and misty they could be a mirage. I wonder aloud at what point the coast curves around, until somebody tells me that no, that is Jersey. The day is so clear that we can see all the way to the British Isles. 

We arrive just as the tide is drawing out, unaware of how lucky we are. Long stretches of golden sand, still rippled with the marks of the waves, unfold under our feet. We explore rock-pools, a waterfall, an infinity pool built into the ocean wall. Gingerly we step between barnacles and in and out of patches of seaweed, making our way to a fort and prison on a hill. (Only a few hours later, there will be no beach at all, and the fort will become a wave-battered island.) Here are ancient walls, hidden rooms, and breathtaking views across to the castle walls and the old town. 

I picture all of this under water in only a matter of hours. The paths, the steps, the hewn-stone alcoves... and then I think about Atlantis, and I wonder...

The children start the day in long pants and jumpers and slowly shed layers as the sun grows in strength, ending up gleefully racing across the sand and through the shallow waves in just their underwear. We plan to visit for two hours and stay for seven instead, barely making it to the last bus home, tired, sunburned, and overflowing with happy memories. 

As if to complete the cliché, seagulls circle above the castle towers, calling. I feel joy. 

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Pirates! For centuries, the treacherous coastline, hardy sailors and impregnable castle walls made our magic beach a haven for pirates. Think of every swashbuckling Treasure Island story you have ever heard: yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, and all the rest. Ruthless crews would lay in wait for English, Dutch and Portuguese ships carrying gold, spices and other precious cargo from the Caribbean, then hide their treasure away in the many secret harbours and hideaways that pepper the cliffs and coves. In the 17th century the King of France legalised the pirates (for a share of the profit), and so they became known as corsairs, privateers pillaging on behalf of the Crown. They were so feared that British mariners called our beach 'the Hornet's Nest.' 

Ralph chooses a random spot in the sand and starts digging. "Soon I'll find treasure," he announces, with supreme confidence. 

This is a place rich in history and beautifully, sometimes brutally, ruled by nature. As we clamber over the still-wet rocks, Scout starts chanting to herself softly, "At our beach, at our magic beach..." from a well-known children's book we have at home. The book is about a beach that is beautiful and magical in its own right but, on every second page, the children in its pages imagine something more: knights battling dragons; an exhilarating underwater race on the backs of seahorses trailing pearls; smugglers, sneaking along the rocks at dusk. 

The book is called Magic Beach

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