exploring

Unplugged

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"This is so peaceful!" says Scout, crouching on her knees eating ramen noodles at the coffee table. Outside, pretty brown ducks leave the river and waddle up to our balcony, hopeful.

In the afternoon, we walk on sandy riverbanks and collect driftwood treasure. "Can you hold this stick please, Explorer Mummy?" asks Ralph. He needs both hands free to clamber up a sandy staircase that leads to unknown lands.

City kids, I have to keep warning them: "Don't put your hand inside that hollow log!" and "Don't go into that scrub!" and, about every five minutes, or more, "Ralph, don't jump into the river!" My caution doesn't stop their fun, as they race from one new discovery to another.

Shadows lengthen, kangaroos begin to appear. Scout follows a mother and joey, who lead her around and about, through trees and over grassy fields, stopping to watch her with intelligent eyes, then hopping away just as she gets too close.

I didn't think to pack pantry staples so, as the sun sets, we eat Chinese takeout and grapes for dinner, washed down with cheap prosecco from the supermarket.

("I have a good idea," said Ralph earlier, while we were still in the car. "What's that buddy?" I asked. "Coco Pops!" announced Ralph, triumphantly.)

So we also buy Coco Pops to have for breakfast in the morning. And Cornflakes to feed to the ducks.

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In which we visit Australia’s only booktown and purchase a fake pearl necklace, some plastic toys, and no books

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Book Town, defn: "A Book Town is a small rural town or village in which second-hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated. Most Book Towns have developed in villages of historic interest or of scenic beauty." International Organisation of Book Towns (IOB)

When gold was first discovered in Victoria, it was discovered in the pretty little village we now know as Clunes. Today, Clunes is home to 1600 people... and at least 15 bookstores. It is the only officially recognised "booktown" in the southern hemisphere, and one of only 17 in the world.

Once a year, this already very-literary town spills its books out into the streets, and literature completely takes over the town, for the Clunes Booktown Festival. I'm not kidding. You walk into the local hairdressing salon, complete with old-fashioned hair-dryers on the wall, and the rest of the salon is filled with books, wall to wall. Nearby at an antique store, furniture and curios have been moved out of the way to make room for more books. And inside the local cafes? You guessed it, more books. There are books on tables in the street, in market-stalls that line the middle of the road, out the front of the museum, in the post office, and spilling out of residents' garages.

Actors perform Shakespeare on a makeshift stage made out of a ring of hay-bales, children learn the antique art of book-binding, and storytellers and author-talks and book-signings continue throughout the day. The air is filled with the delicious smoke of a hundred food stalls and cafes and bakeries and coffee carts, and all the dogs look happy and the children even happier. It is bustling but not impossibly crowded, and essentially it is my idea of heaven.

When we visited Clunes on the weekend, the rain held off but made mist around the surrounding hills. The streets were wide and the gold-rush era architecture absolutely stunning, with original painted signage still on many of the shop windows and walls. I ate a pulled-pork-and-coleslaw filled roll at the Bread and Circus Provedore that I would recommend to anyone.

The only fly in my personal book-browsing, book-buying ointment turned out to be my "parent" status, since it would appear that hunting for books amidst piles of other books for hours on end is not something that the average toddler likes to do. Even when you give them spending money and say "go for it." Who knew? But since I happen to believe that being a parent is the best thing ever, even better than shopping for books, I'm not about to change that status any time soon.

So we went to the Clunes Booktown Festival and bought a double-string of fake pearls (Scout), a Peppa Pig activity-book with plastic duck toys (Ralph), delicious lunches for four, chocolate ice-cream (Scout), a chocolate milk-shake (Ralph)... and no books.

Yep, not one. But we're going back next year!

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Dispatch from Victoria: Maldon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I had intended to share this post on the evening of Australia Day. That was two weeks ago, and I am only just getting to it now. Ugh so busy!

We don't really "celebrate" Australia Day in our family, only in as much as it is a day off which means we get some additional family time together, and family time is always worth celebrating... but actually celebrating Australia? Well, a date that commemorates the invasion of one peoples by another peoples probably isn't the best one to choose. I wish we had a different one. But that's another conversation.

Australia Day fell on a Tuesday this year, which was already a non-daycare day, and Mr B had a public holiday, and this meant we all had time off together. So in a completely random decision that morning, we decided to pack everyone up and head out to the country.

We ended up in Maldon, a picturesque gold-rush town in Victoria.

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It was a pretty day, but it very soon got very hot. And maybe this is just me but whenever we visit country towns in Australia, especially in summer, I can't help thinking about all the clothes they used to wear, and life without air conditioning or refrigeration or even proper running water, and, no matter how lovely the town is to look at, I just think it must have been unbearably tough. They must have been made of sterner stuff, back then.

Not that Maldon is exactly outback or anything. The weather is relatively mild and it's not like you'd die of heat exhaustion or anything. (Once I visited a town in the outback where a new bride had come over in the boat from England but her husband was away mustering cattle or something. She lived there alone for several months and, when the husband returned, she had gone blind from the glare off the salt plains. When I was in that town listening to that story, it was 48 degrees. THAT's extreme.)

But even so, I'm just saying that even in picturesque Maldon - or picturesque Melbourne for that matter - things must have been pretty uncomfortable in the summer.

And then along we come in our air-conditioned cars and wander from shady porch to breezy garden, sip chilled wine in the old, old pub, buy gelato, and try to imagine ourselves stepping into the footprints left behind by 19th Century families.

Homecoming?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA When we turned the corner on the freeway on the way into Sydney and I caught a glimpse of that oh-so-familiar skyline, I waited for the feeling to settle.

That feeling of homecoming. Of nostalgia, of "this was always my place, and it knows me, and I have come home."

But the feeling never came. I thought, "There it is, I know that place," and that was that.

The next day we took a walk into Surry Hills, where I had lived and was happy for many years. At every corner I said to Mr B and the children, "We used to go for work drinks in that pub," and "I used to walk my dog in that park and there was always a man walking a white rabbit," and "Let's go in here, they make the best fresh juices in the city."

But this was no homecoming. It was as though I was narrating somebody else's life, a television show that I had watched over and over until I knew it by heart, and maybe I had even imagined myself into the show sometimes, but it wasn't REALLY me.

Later, we drove into the Blue Mountains to help celebrate my father's 70th birthday. On the way up, past the local movie theatre, past my high school, past the paddocks and trails where I used to ride my horse, I tried it again. But there was nothing.

Not even when I watched my children play with their cousin and their grandparents, which was pure joy.

I don't know why I wanted to feel like Sydney was a homecoming. Why did I need it? I LOVE living in Melbourne. Living here is the best life I've had since I left New York. I don't want to move back to Sydney. In fact, I feel a mild flutter of panic every time I think of it (which is weird, because my life in Sydney was actually pretty good).

So, why did I go searching for ghosts? Maybe I felt like I just ought to. I mean, how can you live for such a long time in one place, and not feel SOMETHING when you return? I don't have the answer.

And then twice, I felt it.

The first time, it was during a sunny morning spent at the beach with one of my dearest friends, Sarah, and her beautiful baby girl. I was never a beach-dwelling Sydney-sider but that morning, watching my children build sand castles and make friends with waves, sitting beside the friend I hadn't seen in three years although it felt like only yesterday, was like coming home.

The second time was when we arrived back at our house in Melbourne a day early, and an hour past the children's bedtime. They were hungry and exhausted, but they greeted this house like a long-lost parent.

"Look at these new chairs! They are LOVELY!" gasped Scout, about the same chairs we had had since before she was born. And then my darlings made their way into the playroom and reacquainted themselves with all of their toys, one toy at a time. Each toy was held and celebrated and cuddled. Cherished. Everything was as though it was precious and their best. The absence of 10 days had made their hearts grow fonder.

And seeing their happiness, I knew I had come home.

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Dispatch from the road

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Echuca, Central Victoria. Arrival time 5:20pm

Scout: I want to live in this hotel forever, because it has got Peppa Pig on television. Ralph [with glee] : Noise! Noise! [about the people coming and going from our hotel at all hours throughout the night] Me: Wow, this place has got a spa. That was unexpected. I might get a massage! Mr B: It's not that kind of spa. Tepid water. Strangers.

In the morning, we cruise around the town searching for a cafe that is open for breakfast at kids o'clock. Find a nice-looking cafe, order our breakfast, then thank all the deities on Olympus that I remembered to bring little boxes of sultanas because there is a 45 minute wait for food and NO TODDLER WAITS 45 MINUTES FOR ANYTHING.

Head out to Port Echuca and it is so cute! A horse-drawn carriage rolls past us as we lock the car. I love that touristy stuff! Race down the wooden ramps to catch a paddle steamer just in time. Scout is adamant she doesn't want to go on the paddle steamer, and boards under protest. After five minutes on the river, she announces she wants to ride on ALL the paddle steamers, ALL the time.

Scout's favourite paddle steamer activity: lying down on wool bales and pretending to sleep Ralph's favourite paddle steamer activity: watching the steam engine at work. He is mesmerised!

Also a favourite activity for everyone: drinking tea on the deck. Both children: Real tea! Real tea! (They take their tea weak, insipid, milky and barely warm)

The skipper lets the children have a turn at "driving" the boat. Scout gently holds the spokes of the giant wheel as the skipper steers. Ralph grabs the wheel and holds it, and suddenly we are heading straight for the banks of the Murray River. The skipper hastily redresses the situation. We beat a hasty retreat from the cabin.

Yarrawonga, Central Victoria. Arrival time 1pm

Scout calls it Arrow-Wanta. Ralph dissolves into hysterical giggles every time anyone says "Yarrawonga."

We walk up the main street and Ralph goes everywhere he is not supposed to and does everything he is told not to and then he puts his hands somewhere really disgusting and before I can get to him, shoves his thumb into his mouth. I lunge towards him yelling "Nooooo!" and it's like I'm running in slow motion and I swear my voice has that weird, deep sound that happens when you have the sound on in slow motion, but his thumb was just too quick. I whip it back out and clean and sanitise his hands, but the damage is already done. If he doesn't catch a hideous disease, he will have the best immune system in Australia. It's probably a 50-50 chance either way.

In the car again, later that afternoon.

Ralph [offering up thumb]: Mummy suck my thumb? Me: No way! That's so disgusting! Ralph: AHAHAHAHAHA [proceeds to suck his own thumb] Scout: Suck MY thumb Mummy! Me: [defeated sigh]

We sing 'The Quartermaster's Store' in the car approximately 37 times, at Scout's request. "I ONLY want to sing 'my eyes are dim,'" she insists. At every new verse, Scout picks a family member or friend and her father matches the rhyme to them (there was Mummy, Mummy, rubbing her tummy in the store...). "Now do Shohana Daddy! Now do Sebastian! Layla! Alexandra!

Albury, on the Victoria-NSW border. Arrival time 4:30pm

Scout: Let's see if this television has Peppa Pig! Me: Hey Ralph, Yarrawonga Ralph: [doubles over and screams with laughter]

There is supposed to be a restaurant and room service, but it is closed on Sundays. After we put the kids to bed, Mr B goes out to find some takeout. I turn out the light and sit on the bed in the dark, looking at my phone. Both kids sit up and try to make me laugh. I walk around behind our bed and crouch down on the floor behind the bed so they can't see me or the light of my phone. The kids keep laughing, but slowly go quiet. My back hurts from bending over. I start itching. I think the carpet has fleas. Mr B returns with Chinese takeout and it is so bad, but we are hungry and desperate. I grab an old blanket from a cupboard and we eat sitting on the floor of the bathroom. I wish I was kidding. Later, we share headphones and watch a couple of episodes of Turn: Washington's Spies that I have downloaded onto my computer. A very addictive show!

Gundagai, half way between Melbourne and Sydney. Arrival time 12:30pm

We find an old pub for lunch and I order a salad and convince the children to eat some vegetables, by way of giving them a back tickle for every mouthful of greens effectively swallowed. I am in dire need of salad and otherwise-healthy food. I have already put on weight from all the junk food on this road trip. This always happens when I travel in country Australia. Once I was on the road in the outback for three weeks for work, and came back six kilos heavier! No exaggeration. Everywhere we went, the only thing to eat was chicken kiev. I never want to see another chicken kiev as long as I live.

Things are almost as dire right now. Scout rests her head on my leg, lovingly, then looks up at me. "Mummy, your leg is getting nice and fat and squishy. It is like play dough!" Cue salad for lunch.

After the salad, we go for a walk and then it rains so we take shelter in the Gundagai Bakery, which happens to be the oldest bakery in Australia. It is also very cute and the food is very yummy, so we each have a doughnut. Salad plus gentle walk cancels out doughnut calories, so this treat in no way contributes to play-dough legs.

Currently typing this from Goulburn, southern NSW. Arrival time: 5pm.

Check-out time, if we can help it: 5:05pm. Or earlier. At reception, the lady coughs and sneezes directly into her hand, then picks up the keys and hands them to Mr B. We search for our room. It is on the bottom floor and outside our window, two men are smoking and drinking about eight VBs each. They smile and say hello to the kids. Ralph yells "HARRO!" at the top of his lungs. Scout hides behind my legs.

We unlock the door.

This room is SO GROSS. I can't even begin to tell you. And I have stayed in hotels with toilets under the showers, and weird smells, and uninvited wildlife, and suspicious stains on the bedding, and even more suspicious stains on the walls, and camel poo coming out of the taps (true story!).

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Searching for ghosts

You cross the drawbridge and enter the ramparts searching for ghosts. There should be many; Carcassonne has a sad and brutal history that spans 3000 years. But if they are in the cité today, the ghosts are silent. You are in southern France, not far from Toulouse. There have been Celts living here, then Romans, who built the northern rampart of the cité you are exploring today. Under the basement of the medieval Count's Castle, Roman mosaics and sculptures still glow from the walls.

But century upon century of bombardments, murders and changes-of-hand followed for Carcassonne, from the Visigoths to the Saracens.

At the dawn of the 13th century, Carcassonne enjoyed a brief period of peace and religious tolerance. Catholics and Cathars shared neighbourhoods and even homes, and the Jewish community was not far away. But in 1209 the city fell to a wave of Crusaders, and then the horror truly began.

The Cathars believed in living lives of humility and poverty. They saw God as the creator of eternity and spirituality, while material life and even time itself were creations of evil. By most accounts, they were a peaceful people. By contrast, the religious wars declared upon them were brutal.

Carcassonne as you wander through it today belies its history. Filled with sunshine and shops and cobblestones and tourists and pointed blue turrets, it appears more Disney than Dracula.

Yet throughout its 3000 year history, this picture-perfect cité seems to have suffered under a violent curse. Turbulence continued throughout the ages. Even as recently as 1944 when Carcassonne was delivered by the Allies, many people were killed around the train station.

It is such a beautiful place, overlooking a medieval town and a wilderness beyond. You whisper a prayer that this windswept, hilltop castle and the ghosts that haunt its stone walls may now enter peace at last.

Oh boy, 2011

Happy New Year! Are you excited? Renewed? Planning new adventures? I sure am, but it was rather therapeutic today to think through the year that was. (Hint: as you read this, you might even discover a special little surprise I've been keeping up my sleeve for a while now.) January Harvested a veritable vegetable bounty from our tiny back yard in Enmore, Sydney. An impressive feat given that only a couple of months earlier this was a black-plastic-and-gravel-covered parking space, and that even now it could boast only about half a foot of soil before the dense clay began.

February Suffered through a heat-wave in our wonderful old Hogwarts house (twisting corridors, staircases that turn corners and go up and then down again for no reason, PLUS a genuine cupboard under the stairs). Though we loved this house, it was hot hot hot, about 10 degrees worse inside than out. (The picture is of the house as I had it made into a snowglobe. Oh, for snow!)

March Married the funniest, smartest, kindest, most generous, most surprising man I have ever met, in the vegetable patch of the Hogwarts house (complete with a back door painted “Notting Hill blue” by my mother and father), in the presence of a small but wonderfully-loved group of family and friends.

April Airmail came out. Suddenly had to discover social media: Facebook pages, Twitter, Goodreads, all kinds of groups and forums, and started a blog. Got excited about this new online world. Got annoyed that said new online world was taking over my life. Began to learn (still trying to learn) balance.

May Packed house contents into storage. Bundled up dog, cat, office and a suitcase of clothes, and moved up to the Gold Coast. Stayed in a soulless one-bedroom apartment that overlooked the garbage bins. Em taught Oliver to swim. Airmail won “Rising Star” award and was featured on bn.com boutique.

June Mr B went to America for work and, as well as missing him, it made me miss all my USA friends even more than I already did every day. Learned how to make really good cupcakes by using and adapting the Magnolia Bakery recipe. Got fat. Reconnected with a wonderful friend, who made the GC bearable.

July New job for Mr B, in Adelaide = Packing. Organising removalists. Organising cleaners. House hunting. Thinking, “How did we accrue so much STUFF in Queensland after only 10 weeks?” Meanwhile editing a magazine on a very tight deadline. Joined Kristen Lamb’s brilliant #WANA711 blogging group.

August Flew to the Blue Mountains to visit parents for Dad’s birthday. Flew alone to Adelaide to greet removalists at a house I’d never seen. Big relief! The house was lovely. Set up very own "dream study." Damaged back. Flew back to Qld. Joined Mr B, dog and cat for final two-day road-trip to our new home.

September First royalty cheque arrived for Airmail! Not huge (not even slightly), but still special. Couldn’t bring self to cash it. To Paris for a glorious week with two friends I’d known and loved for 25 years. Cheese, wine, mussels, street art, galleries, parks, cobblestoned laneways, churches, love.

October Took train to London to meet Mr B, Em, her cousin Maggie and Nanna. Unforgettable picnic in St James Park with dearly loved and greatly missed friends. Three weeks of explorations through London, Paris, Toulouse, Carcassonne, Nice, Venice. In Rome, the girls threw me a birthday party.

November Back home in Australia, discovered a little stowaway who had been secretly riding with us since France. Baby Bulger is on the way! Spent the month embracing the questionable glories of utter exhaustion, morning sickness (all day and all night) and a body that was rapidly becoming not my own.

December Learned how to cook vegetarian, egg-phobia and pregnant woman -related Christmas feasts. Baby Bulger passed the 12-week scan officially “low risk.” Christmas Day in Melbourne with friends, little cousins at Nanna's house, storms and floods. Nephew saved an old lady from her flooded car.

To be continued in 2012.

And a Happy New Year to you!

Adelaide weekend

Day 1: guests for the weekend - dear friends long missed; hugs and more hugs; exploring the Central Markets; eggs for leisurely breakfast at an old cafe; loading up with fresh cheeses, tomatoes on the vine, hummus, beetroot dip, radishes, still-warm baguettes and a tray of glowing nectarines; talking, talking, talking together; making lemonade with lemons from our tree; picnic on the lounge room floor; stroll to Jam Factory to look at local art; throwing sticks for the dog in the park until he hides in the shade under protest; good food and dry riesling over a long and lovely meal. Day 2: reading the paper in the sun by the swimming pool; painting my toenails blue; fresh orange juice; breakfast of French crepes around the table; a hit-the-spot coffee from a cafe in Glenelg; strolling down the jetty to watch the divers and fishermen; walking along the beach, feet in warm sea water; small children chasing fish in the shallows like they chase pigeons in the park; a beer at the pub; fish n chips from newspaper cones outside in the sun; a spot of beachside window shopping; home for more fresh lemonade; watching Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra sing in Anchors Aweigh and placing bets on whether or not "He's going to dance in the fountain in this song"; a sad farewell.