2017 is almost done. Some of us may already be preparing for Christmas, others will be looking forward to the holidays and warmer weather (here in the Southern Hemisphere anyway) and many of us will start to reflect on the achievements and lessons of 2017, and the promises and challenges of 2018.
Normally I spend the final days of December reflecting on the past year but I’m starting early. It has been a good year, mostly because of the trip to Europe. Everything about where my partner and I went, what we did, who we met and the adventures and misadventures we experienced, was exceptional. I have suffered, however, middling health for most of the year. A cough I developed on the first of January lasted around eighty days. I hurt my back six weeks before we travelled to Europe and in recent weeks an as yet undiagnosed condition has dogged me. None of this dimmed the joy we experienced while away but for most of 2017 I’d have preferred to lie on a couch, read a good book or doze.
It’s been a while since I’ve felt like writing, let alone had the energy to sit in front of a computer. Elixir, Concise, my novel-in-progress and numerous drafts of short stories have been ignored, apart from the odd moment when I lifted my head from my book, felt guilty about not having written anything then hastily turned the page and read on. This adds to my usual struggle with sticking to a writing routine so I decided, not long after we arrived home from the trip, to return to notebooks to jot down ideas, record my thoughts and even use coloured pens and pencils to highlight and illustrate my musings.
I went back to pen and paper because writing was no longer a pleasurable activity. Despite my best intentions, blogging became a process of second-guessing my readers and how they might judge what I write. In other words, I stopped writing from my heart. Going back to basics, writing by hand and playing with coloured pencils helped me rediscover the joy of writing. It seems that poor health was really a gateway to a under-developed creative path.
What does this mean for Elixir and Concise? I cannot maintain two separate blogs, which is why Concise will be retired and the flash fiction stories from that blog will reappear on Elixir, on the page once labelled ‘Sparks’ and now relabelled ‘Concise.’ I will continue to post pieces of flash fiction but as an adjunct to Elixir.
Elixir itself has changed appearance and will be more of an occasional blog rather than something that must be attended to every two to three days.
I recently turned sixty-five, which in Australia was once the age when one officially retired from the paid workforce. I don’t feel old in heart or mind. The insecurities of youth and the challenges of maintaining harmonious relationships still hound me. I also play games with my granddaughter, which means getting down on the floor or kicking a ball with her in the backyard. This year my body has sent me several strong messages; instead of spending hours in front of a computer I need to exercise more, meditate and eat regularly, and get enough sleep. That way, after spending time with the people I love, I will have the energy to write.
What is your experience? Do you have a habit of reflecting on the past year? Is November or December the best time for you? How do you stay healthy so you can do what gives you joy?
Back in late September, when I shared Ben Brooker’s blog, Kate’s Words, I suggested Ben give me a word and I’d try to ‘refresh my writing muscles’. The suggestion is I write for thirty minutes, musing on the word – which in this case is knots – and share what emerges. Okay, here goes …
… R D Laing published Knots in 1970. I tried but failed to read the book in the middle seventies, when I was first married. I failed because … well the text tied me in knots and my life then – as now – was rather knotty anyway, so I felt unable to see the book through to the end.
I wrote a poem a decade and a half later, titled, I think, ‘Rope’. It alluded to the ribald habit ropes have in snapping at your ankles and tripping you up. Maybe I’ll go back to it later this month and turn it into a Flash Fiction, which is something I’ve done with several of my old poems. This is cannibalising one’s writing and has little to do with knots, though it might explain why some of my Flash Fiction lacks a distinct narrative.
Free writing can get knotty too, because when you let the mind wander – the purpose of free writing – the mind, like a rope, can turn in and around on itself, twisting neurons and crimping axons, leading to nowhere or worse, allowing it to form its own connections, risking aberrant, gratuitous or self-destructive thoughts, like ‘Why am I doing this, I am usually so structured and planned? I don’t like this …’
… See what I mean?
Have you ever tried to undo a knot in a gold or silver chain? It’s not easy (see what I did there?). When I cleaned out my mother’s jewellery drawer I found most of her chains tangled into a ball. The week I cleaned the house, the week my father joined my mother in the ‘Aged Care Facility’, was unseasonably hot at well over forty degrees Celsius. I remember sitting on their bed and looking at the tangled ball of gold and silver and wondering how on earth I could separate them. That the ball symbolised my often difficult relationship with my parents was not lost on me and perhaps I applied myself to the task because of that; by separating the chains maybe I could prepare myself for my parents’ inevitable demise, something that happened only three years later, in my father’s case, and eight months after that, in my mother’s. I only ever managed to untangle the ball of chains, I could never address the disarray that was our relationship.
I kept some of those chains. I wear them occasionally and admit I am, like my mother, careless when I remove them and put them away. Will my children have to untangle my necklaces when it is time for me to move on?
From the knotted peculiarity of Laing, to my early poems, to the gnarled vagaries of my mind and on to my mother’s tangled, sometimes twisted hold on me I have come, perhaps inevitably, to my own demise, to the day when I must untie the knot that secures my hold on life. Maybe I should find a copy of Knots? Perhaps, at my current stage of life, I will understand it better than I did when I was a callous, untried girl?
Afterword: I could not help myself – I edited this piece but only so I could eliminate any convoluted sentences.
Four days ago I posted the last of twelve pieces of flash fiction on Elixir’s sister site, Concise. I enjoyed the exercise although I gleaned only a few more followers for Concise. Attracting more readers was not, however, the point of the exercise. My purpose was to (re)establish a daily writing habit.
The abiding theme of my life is my struggle to write on a regular basis. I understand what I need: willpower; a room of my own; the cognitive, emotional and psychological space needed to write; and the self-belief necessary to shut the door on my partner, my family and my friends. I also need to combine the above with imagination, knowledge of craft and technique, and a vast reading history – because good writers read for pleasure and to learn from other writers. It’s all about commitment, really, and to commit is to ‘join, practise, entrust,’ and to ‘expose to risk. ‘ (OED).
To write, particularly to write and publish (in whatever form) can be risky. Is it acceptable, for example, for writers risk their relationships when no one reads what they write or don’t like the writer’s work?
I wonder how many writers have lost sleep over that question?
On the other hand, I read, many years ago, that if writing is hard then not writing is harder. Writing, like any art, always carries with it a degree of difficulty. The hours can be long, the loneliness alienating, the editing debilitating and the lack of financial return demoralising. Writers are known for ignoring their loved ones, compromising their health, and agonizing over book sales or their blog’s statistics.
But the alternative – not writing – is to risk losing your soul.
I committed to writing late in life. I tried and failed for years to avoid the truth of my obsession with stringing words together. So, yes, writing and posting twelve short, short stories has been worthwhile, not only because it helped me re-establish a regular daily writing habit but because it helped me reflect, once more, on why I enjoy writing, and it has nothing to do with gathering vast numbers of readers or followers.
In writing, a ‘theme’ is the underlying significance of the story or novel, its relevance, how it relates to life in all its manifestations. I was wrong when I said, above, that the abiding theme of my life is my struggle to write on a regular basis. I understand now that the underlying theme of my life has been avoiding risk.
This reminds of my favourite quotation, one I’d print out and display in various office spaces I worked in over the last thirty years:
Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.
New Zealand author (1888 – 1923)
Mansfield’s quotation gradually helped me ignore my fears; I am a writer because I enjoy, most of the time, the complex and often troublesome task of communicating my ideas. I have also found that acting for myself is worth the risk.
What is the ‘theme’ of your writing life? What do you give up in order to write?
I don’t normally share or reblog posts but today I want to encourage you to have a look at my friend and colleague, Ben Brooker’s, new blog, Kate’s Words, and then go over to Brevity and see what they’re up to.
Ben is a respected critic, essayist, playwright and author of many published short stories and poems. Several of his reviews are featured on his original blog, Marginalia. Given his interests, Ben’s writing style is invariably precise, rigorously researched, and intellectually subtle and balanced. In Kate’s Words, Ben plans to slough off scholarly strictures and relax his writing muscles. I’m eager to see what his blog produces and very tempted to follow his lead. I also like the premise – have a friend send you a word and free write on the word to see what emerges.
Because I cannot find a definition of ‘free writing’ in my normally trusty Oxford English Dictionary (Grrr, OED) I have to resort to Wikipedia, which defines free writing as
a prewriting technique in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time without regard to spelling, grammar, or topic. It produces raw, often unusable material, but helps writers overcome blocks of apathy and self-criticism. It is used mainly by prose writers and writing teachers.
This article gives you a deeper idea of what freewriting is and the angst often connected with trying to do it in the classroom. I admire Ben’s willingness to share his free writing because I am usually a bit ‘precious’ about what I write. As Peter Elbow writes in his article,
I’m a bit ambivalent about shared or public freewriting. On the one hand
I tend to avoid it in favor of private writing. For I find most people’s writing has suffered because they have been led to think of writing as something they must always share with a reader; thus we need more private writing. On the other hand I love the sharing of freewriting – for the community of it and for the learning it produces. It’s so reassuring to discover that unplanned, unstudied writing is worth sharing.
‘Toward a Phenomenology
of Freewriting’, p 52.
So, Ben, if you’re reading this, send me a word and I’ll try to be brave enough to share one piece of unplanned, unedited, raw work.
This allows me to segue into the second blog I wish to share, Brevity, a favourite of mine because it features (carefully edited) short creative nonfiction, sometimes known as narrative nonfiction. Brevity recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and it’s currently running a series of fascinating blogs where, as Shane Borrowman the editor of The <750> Project explains, four authors
return to a previous publication and take on the task of either shortening their piece or expanding it.
Asking writers to modify a previous article is a bold move, and the writers are to be admired because of their willingness to do so publicly. It is also a brilliant way to help beginning writers, indeed all writers, improve and enhance their practice. I hope you take the time to check it out. The first example can be found here.
In the meantime, over at Elixir’s sister blog Concise, I have stuck to my routine of writing and posting a piece of flash fiction every two days. I’ve posted five stories and there’s two more to go; I cannot continue the project indefinitely because running two blogs and sending other pieces to competitions is about as much as I can handle at the moment. I have, however, really enjoyed the exercise and I hope you’ve enjoyed the stories.
What do you think of Ben’s method for loosening up his writing? What is your favourite writing prompt or activity? What do you think of Brevity’s <750> Project? Have you ever tried to shorten or lengthen a piece of writing? How did it feel and what did you learn?
During my recent trip and since my return, Concise, my companion blog has languished. To remedy this, and to exercise my ‘writing muscles’, I plan to post, every second day for fourteen days, one of my short, short stories on Concise. Yes, I hope to attract more readers to the blog but I also need to reboot my daily writing practice and maybe this method will inspire me and intrigue others.
Please go on over to Concise and take a look. I’d appreciate it if you share my stories with your readers, comment on the tales either here or on Concise (writers love feedback, particularly if it is constructive), and subscribe to Concise. If you write short stories or Flash Fiction, drop me a line, I’d love to have more guest bloggers, or perhaps write a post/short story for your blog.
I don’t plan to preempt all of my stories, but today’s post on Concise is, I think, about a woman who learns how to commit herself. I hope you enjoy it.
In my last post, I described my discomfort with the travel industry. While researching the topic I discovered criticism of the industry is not new. In 1959, German poet Hans Enzensberger wrote an article addressing the issue of travel as an ‘experience’. This post will attempt to summarise the article.
Enzensberger begins by outlining the development of tourism, including the first appearance of the word ‘tourism’ in dictionaries. He is particularly interested in how tourism is mythologized as a ‘metaphysical’ experience when it was, originally, an exclusive enterprise that pandered to a selective group of people clamoring for an historical, untrammeled, romanticised, pristine experience of, as Enzensberger calls them, carefully selected ‘sights’. He argues that travel is a by-product of the bourgeois/ capitalistic endeavor, designed for the benefit of the few, who believe they have a ‘right’ to crisscross the planet at whim, to the detriment of the many whose rights are deferred. Eventually, the ‘privileged’, wealthy tourists were joined by ‘emancipated citizens’ who, although restricted in both capital and time, nevertheless flooded the tourism industry. This has been achieved in three different ways: standardization, packaging and serial production. Standardization is a result of the emergence, in the 19th century, of ‘travel books’, which encouraged travelers to perceive, and venues to package, certain ‘sights’ as highly significant. Standardization creates ‘obedient tourists’ who visit sights ‘produced’ as tourist venues.
‘Packaging’ is the assembly of a set of specific experiences and venues. When it proved too expensive to create packages for every individual the ‘serial production’ of collective experiences, otherwise known as cruises and guided tours, emerged. Taken together, these three techniques drive an industry that markets ‘inexpensive’ destinations while eliminating the risk that tourists will stray off the predetermined, mass-produced and designated trail. It does not, however, address the needs of residents who live in cities, not ‘destinations’, and who resent the seasonal, mass intrusion of thousands of people into their country and lifestyle.
Given the significance of such locations to the packaged product, tourism, claims Enzensberger, is little more than the political, social, technological, intellectual, cultural and environmental ‘homogenization of space’. I interpret this to mean that most tourist sites are mere parodies, frozen facsimiles of what they once were, little more than fantasy images on a postcard tourists purchase or the photos they snap, instead of unique, organic locations open to change and renewal.
Enzensberger also addresses the ‘adventure holiday’, which, he claims ‘allies itself with the methods of competitive sports.’ A form of heroic tourism reminiscent of Odysseus’ journey back to Ithaca, the adventure holiday provides access to ‘untramelled’ locations, effectively eradicating their ‘undiscovered’ value. Enzensberger’s article was written in 1959, but this concept of ‘lifeseeing,’ or ‘observing the way the people one visits really live,’ eerily prefigures the growth of Airbnb, where tourists eschew large and impersonal chain hotels for the opportunity to stay in a real home with ‘real’ people. This, however, has brought its own problems and restores international hotel chains to their original position of ‘castles of the bourgeoisie’. Fifty plus years before its creation, Enzensberger also foreshadows Facebook when he says,
it is not enough to experience what ideology has sold as the pristine and far away – one also has to publicize it. Those who stay at home demand that the adventures be recounted …
In 2017 neither tourists nor their families need to wait until they arrive home to recount their travel adventures; they can post photographs of the day’s ‘experience’ on Facebook thus verifying their privilege and reputation as travelers.
Enzensberger reminds us that while migration has always been a ‘biological and economic’ necessity, travel has not, historically, been a pleasure. Both, however, are closely associated with capitalism: travel through rampant advertising, the plethora of hotel chains and the marketing of museums, art galleries, and historical sites; migration through war, the premier fuel of capitalism. Is this is why people fleeing, for example, Syria, are labeled ‘economic refugees’? Does the idea, spurious though it might be, of tourism as pleasure blind us to the legitimate needs of people fleeing for their lives? How can we imagine refugees are seduced by the lure of exotic places and economic benefits when what they need is safety and time to grieve for lost homes and family members killed by the same capitalistic regime that casts tourist dollars across the planet?
I am aware that this post describes what Enzensberger calls ‘tourism’s clandestine disappointment’:
Despair is a familiar experience for tourists. Blindly, they grasp for the strongest means to dissipate boredom, well aware beforehand of the futility of their escape. Again and again they see through a deceptive freedom that is sold ready made, but refuse to admit the betrayal that has victimized them. They do not voice their dissapointment because the blame would not fall on the organizers of the trip but only on themselves. In the eyes of their friends, such a confession of defeat would amount to a social failure.
Enzensberger, A Theory of Tourism, pp. 134-135
Written in the late 1950s, Enzensberger’s article examines who benefits from the tourism industry and who is disadvantaged by it. More importantly, he asks that we examine how tourism shapes our perception of the world and ‘whether we have created it, or it has created us.’
These questions continue to be asked. In 2015, Elizabeth Becker described the growing criticism of tourism adding that in 2012 tourists made a billion trips abroad, bolstering an industry that adds ‘$7.6 trillion to the global economy.’ She concludes by noting that,
The United Nations World Tourism Organization projects that by 2030, global tourism will reach 1.8 billion trips a year. It is now so big that it will inevitably be part of conversations about climate change, pollution and migration. Without serious government attention, many beloved places will be at risk of being trammelled and damaged — what those in the tourism industry call being loved to death.
Should we, can we, reverse this trend? Are there better ways to experience the world? As TheGuardianrecently reported, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), which promotes ‘responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism’,
recommends a number of proven methods for managing crowds in destinations, such as encouraging tourists to visit beyond the central sights, diversifying tourist activities, reducing seasonality and, importantly, addressing the needs of the local community. The focus should not be, it says, on simply stopping tourists arriving.
The UNWTO has published a pamphlet listing a series of goals designed to achieve this end. The first is to
End poverty in all its forms everywhere: As one of the largest and fastest growing economic sectors in the world, tourism is well-positioned to foster economic growth and development at all levels and provide income through job creation. Sustainable tourism development, and its impact at community level, can be linked with national poverty reduction goals, those related to promoting entrepreneurship and small businesses, and empowering less favored groups, particularly youth and women.
The next time I contemplate spending my tourist dollar, I will try to keep this and the sixteen other sustainable development goals in mind. Unless we all commit to doing so, there may be no more tourist sites to visit.
My relationship with travel and tourism is complicated. My parents never expressed a desire to travel, I cannot remember waving farewell to extended family members heading overseas holiday, so the idea of travel was not part of my childhood. There’s no question that my recent trip to Europe was a powerful, pleasurable and deeply important experience but while writing the last few posts about the trip my discomfort with the politics of travel has rekindled. This is the first of two posts reflecting on tourism as a phenomenon. I intend to look outside my personal experience and examine the impact tourism has on the planet and on individuals’ lives.
I understand the human need to peek over the back fence, peer around the next corner or look past the horizon but when I read recently that everyone wants to travel I had to disagree. Some people like to travel, others are vagabonds for whom settling in one place is an anathema, but there are many who refuse to traipse around the world because they find planes, railway stations and sleeping in a different bed every night a challenge they cannot face.
Since my trip I fall into the crack between the two; I enjoyed and I disliked the experience at the same time. I believe this is normal. I also believe there are many ways a person can learn about the world and most of them do not require stepping past the front door.
A tour is ‘a journey for pleasure in which several different places are visited,’ but tourism is ‘the commercial organization and operation of holidays and visits to places of interest’. (OED) Despite the obvious distinction, tourism – visits to celebrated cities, art galleries, museums, sacred sites and geographical wonders – is usually described as a moral ‘good’ and ‘tourists’ as benign consumers of the world’s bounty. But is tourism always for the good?
Australians, in particular, feel the need to experience the wonders of the Northern Hemisphere. From the late fifties through to the seventies droves of Australian Baby Boomers made an almost obligatory pilgrimage to the United Kingdom and Europe. Many, who despite being born in Australia, declared they were ‘going home’, if only for a visit.
What are the personal and cultural advantages of wedging oneself into a plane and leaving the comforts of home for exotic, unfamiliar or ancient sites? I believe there are three main claims to support tourism:
Tourism exposes us to different cultures, beliefs, food, customs and ideas and creates a more informed, rounded individual. Travel enhances education and exposes us to different values, all of which leads to a better understanding of the self and of diversity
Humans need a holiday. They need to escape from the pressures of life, to relax and have someone cook and clean for them. This is tourism as a mental health break, something to anticipate and, more importantly, to earn
Tourism enhances the economy of a country or city. If tourists stop traveling, economies will suffer.
What counter claims can be made to the above?:
The idea that tourism is a form of education is all very laudable but it risks objectifying the ‘other’ as, different, odd, cute, or even strange, thus confirming the tourist’s superiority and belief that their way of life is ‘better’ than the one they witness when away from home. Is this the origin of many an Australian tourist’s comment, upon return from an overseas holiday, that, ‘We’re the lucky country, all right, you’ll learn that when you go overseas.’ Does tourism reinforce racial prejudice, commodify other cultures, and risk imposing white Anglo-Saxon lifestyles on others races, cultures and classes? The notion that, ‘you’ll be a more rounded, better informed, less insular person once you’ve traveled,’ makes me wonder how and why travel per se grants entry to the august club of ‘travel improved citizens’? If overseas travel were truly educative, why the need to advertise it? The claim that travel exposes us to other cultures begs the question, ‘What really drives a desire to travel? Is it self-enhancement or a form of cultural prestige? An airline ticket merely confirms that tourists have the skills to plan and organise a trip, the good fortune to work in an industry that provides vacation pay, and the means to afford an overseas holiday. It doesn’t automatically grant the individual an open, curious and reflective attitude to the countries they visit
A mental health break is certainly important but who caters to tourists’ needs while they escape the tribulations of everyday life? This question is better addressed by examining the third claim: tourism enhances the economy of the areas visited
Is the claim that travel is motivated by benevolence justified? Who actually benefits from the injection of tourist dollars into the economy? Is it the person who picks towels up from the hotel bathroom floor? The manager of a cheap resort in Bali? Or is it the company that owns the hotel chain? Does the tourist dollar go to the wait staff in a French restaurant or the Travel Agency who planned and managed the traveling experience? Does a visit to Thailand include considering the resort hotel’s impact on the local infrastructure and environment? Where does the rubbish left in hotel garbage bins end up? Next to the hotel, or in the rubbish dump behind the hill alongside the village where the hotel cleaner lives? And what about the carbon footprint incurred flying millions of tourists across the world?
While writing this post, I read that residents in Venice and Barcelona have declared they have had enough. The unrest incurred by tourism seems to be spreading, and may not be just a reaction to terrorism. In the next post, I will examine why some citizens of Europe are wary of the current state of the tourism industry.
In the first week of our trip to Europe, we set a pattern that became an important feature of our holiday; visiting sites or houses connected to the greats of literature. The first, at Laugharne, on the estuary of the River Tâf, Southern Carmarthenshire, was where Dylan Thomas spent the last years of his life. We enjoyed a peaceful morning strolling along ‘Dylan’s Walk,’ from Castle Laugharne to the Boathouse, now tea rooms and a museum devoted to Thomas and his work. Thomas wrote many of his major pieces, including Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, in a small shed located between the Castle and the Boathouse and its interior remains faithful to how Thomas left it when he took his ill-fated trip to America.
Later that month, after travelling through Counties Clare, Wexford and Galway in the Republic of Ireland, we spent three days in Dublin. Ireland values it’s scríbhneoirí so they created the Dublin Writers Museum, which has, since 1991, celebrated the history of Irish literature through copies of books and displays of writing paraphernalia owned by Irish writers, some of whom have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It also houses the Irish Writers Centre a resource and support service for Irish writers. We spent several hours at the museum, immersed in an august literary tradition that continues today.
We scheduled our trip to Dublin so it coincided with Bloomsday, a celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Set on the 16th June, the book describes Leopold Bloom’s thoughts and impressions as he meanders through Dublin. Early in the book he stops at Davy Byrnes’ to eat lunch so we joined the throng at Davy Byrnes’ in the middle of the afternoon on the 16th June 2017, enjoyed a Guinness or two and listened to the Irish songs that grew louder, more intense (and more raucous, but because we don’t understand Gaelic we can’t be sure) as the day joyously rambled into evening.
James Joyce Statue, Dublin
Outside Davey Byrnes with a small section of the crowd.
Early next morning, unaffected by the previous night’s indulgence, we lined up with several hundred others to visit the Long Room of the Trinity College Library and view the Book of Kells. I studied Medieval Literature in 2006 and have, since then, harboured a desire to see this delicately yet sumptuously illuminated text. Because of its age and fragility, it is displayed in a large glass case and there was barely any elbow room as dozens of tourists at a time strained to see the pages of the book before moving on so more visitors could view the text. The wait and polite jostling, however, were worth it.
After reluctantly leaving Dublin and recrossing the Irish Sea we took the train to Bowness-on-Windermere in the Lakes District, an area beloved of poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge, and writers Thomas de Quincey and John Ruskin. As a former junior primary (elementary) school teacher, I was on this occasion, more interested in Hill Top, the home of Beatrix Potter, than the Romantic poets. It took nearly half a day to walk from the Lake Windemere Ferry to Hill Top. The walk was mostly uphill but the day was cool and we relished the lush English farmland we passed through. As inexperienced walkers, we were careful to stop occasionally, rest, drink water and take in our surroundings. Once we arrived we had a cup of tea and sandwich at the nearby tea rooms before visiting Potter’s house and the gardens. Both house and garden match the illustrations from Potter’s books so I took several photographs of the garden for my granddaughter who, like so many children, enjoys the timeless tales of Peter Rabbit and his friends.
On the way to Hill Top
In the garden
In France, the literary highlight was a visit to Shakespeare and Company. A lover of book shops, this is one I have longed to visit. Due to the weather and our poor map reading skills we failed to locate it on our first day in Paris but found it through a circular route (along the Quai de Montebello, down the Rue Maitre Albert then, realising our error, back along the Boulevard Saint-Germain to Square Rene Viviani) on our second day. I had, of course, to buy a book.
In Florence, we discovered the Casa di Dante, the birthplace of Dante Alighieri, was ten minutes walk from our accommodation on the via Lambertesca. We had not planned to visit the Casa, but by then we had come to accept our footsteps often led us to literary sites (though that’s not hard to do in Europe). Dante’s Divine Comedy is considered a masterpiece and the greatest poem of the Middle Ages. It was innovative for the time because it was not written in Latin but in the vernacular, which made it accessible to many more readers. Dante, therefore, anticipated the Renaissance and initiated the development of a national language of Italy. The museum, steeped as much in the history of Florence as in Dante’s literary works, attests to the esteem held for him by his birth place.
While planning our holiday, we realised that at the end of seven weeks we would need to rest before the long flight back to Australia. We decided to find a beach where we could relax during the final days of our trip. On the advice of friends, and because there are no cars allowed on the island, we spent five idyllic nights on Hydra, a peaceful haven, despite the occasional bray of a donkey. On our first day, we were told about a forthcoming performance by sixteen young actors and dancers, students from the Ryerson Theatre and Dance Company, Canada. The show, Our Leonardo (devised by Corinna Seeds, directed by Peggy Shannon with choreography by Alyssa Martin), was a tribute to Leonard Cohen who, before he gained fame as a musician and song writer, was a novelist and poet. Cohen lived in Hydra from 1960 to 1968 and the tribute was hosted by Hydrama, which has for more than two decades presented many drama and dance performances as well as workshops, seminars and courses. Their focus is on Greek plays but they invite groups from around the world to perform under the stars in their small amphitheatre in the tiny village of Vlychos. We could have spent an hour walking to Vlychos from our accommodation but decided to take a water taxi instead; it and the performance were both free. Once we arrived we followed the locals to the theatre and found seats in the already crowded amphitheatre. The audience included English, Australian and American expatriates who, along with several natives of Hydra, knew Leonard Cohen and we listened eagerly as they shared their stories of the sixties. The performance itself was energetic; young bodies glistened with sweat as the performers sang and danced their homage to Cohen and his music. It was a fitting finale to our abbreviated, eclectic but intriguing literary journey through Europe.
I’ve always enjoyed travelling by train. I remember going to the city with my mother, catching the train at the local station, sitting on the worn, scratchy leather seats, watching familiar houses, parks and railway crossings swish by us and, despite the movement and occasional gentle jolt of the carriage, always feeling safe. I think buses have a sense of forced intimacy where, despite their proximity, strangers rarely chat; on trains, people tend to smile and seem more relaxed. I was pleased, therefore, when we decided to include several train journeys while in Europe.
The first, from Glasgow to Bristol, began at 7:10 am, barely 24 hours after we landed in Scotland. We boarded at Glasgow Central for a seven-hour trip to Bristol Temple Meads, passing through Newcastle on Tyne, Durham, York, Derby, Birmingham, Cheltenham, Gloucester and numerous villages and small towns. It was a wonderful way to see the lush English countryside, to gawk, as most Australians must, at the verdant, lyrical green we read about as children, but never truly imagine as it really is.
Just over a week later we had a mammoth four train experience travelling from Bath back to Bristol, on to Stafford, then Crewe and finally arriving, late, in Holyhead where we connected with the ferry to Dublin. It was quite a day. We had reserved our seats but nevertheless had to locate the platform for each train, find the correct carriage, stow four pieces of luggage, locate our seats and stay alert so we were aware of the station preceding the one we needed, and retrieve our luggage (by now beneath the bags of those who boarded after us), in time to scramble off the train (minding the gap as were instructed each time a train stopped), and again find the correct platform and make it (barely, on two occasions) to the next train. The train for the final leg of the journey was delayed so we, and two dozen other passengers, arrived late at Holyhead. The ferry waited for us, so the last mad dash of the day was from the train station to where, in the same building but a five minute walk away, our passports were stamped before we could board the MV Ulysses. Imagine our relief as we settled into the ferry’s comfortable seats and relax during the crossing to Dublin.
On the 22nd June, feeling by then like seasoned train travellers and having arrived in London the day before, we braved the Underground. We shared an evening meal with one of my partner’s friends who later showed us around Regent and Carnaby Streets and then escorted us to Piccadilly Circus from where we needed to travel a mere two stops along the Bakerloo Line. We thanked our dinner companion and descended to the platform where a discussion ensued about the correct train. The train arrived and my partner, certain he was right, boarded the train and turned to check I followed him. I hadn’t. The doors closed and the train departed leaving me stranded at Piccadilly. For a moment or two my brain ceased functioning. Rooted to the spot, I stared at the empty space where a train and my partner had once been. Eventually, the thought occurred that I should climb back up the stairs and find a taxi. It was then a voice behind me said, ‘Don’t worry, stay right on this spot, wait for the next train, get on at the same door as your friend got on. He’ll get off at the next stop and be waiting for you. You’ll see each other and you can either join him or he can get on the train and you can continue your trip.’ Only a part of my brain took this in as I was wondering if I could call my partner, unlikely because my phone was not working properly and my international sim card had developed the habit of capriciously refusing to connect me in certain locations. I doubted it would cooperate on the Underground. I turned toward the voice and saw a young woman with a heavy backpack on her back, long honey coloured hair and hazel eyes, standing behind me. ‘Will he?’ I replied, my brain still trying to take in what had just happened. ‘Yes, he’ll get off at the next stop,’ she said. ‘But we’re Australian,’ I said. What I meant to say was we were unfamiliar with the Underground but revealing our nationality was all I could manage. Unfazed she said, ‘It happens all the time. My Mum taught me what to do when I was ten. My mates and I, when we go out in a group, aren’t always quick enough to get on the train together and that’s what we do.’ I could hear the next train approach. When it arrived my rescuer, sensing my uncertainty, gently marshalled me onto it. ‘I’ll stand with you,’ she said, ‘you stay at this door and you’ll see him at the next station.’ The doors shut and off we went. Still anxious – my default position during much of our holiday – I answered my companion’s questions about where we’d been in the last three weeks and managed to calm down. If my partner wasn’t waiting for me, I could catch a taxi and we’d eventually, if separately, arrive at our accommodation. My rescuer continued reassuring me. If the heavy backpack indicated she was a student, I thought she might be studying psychology or social work, she so deftly handled a panicky, aged Australian tourist. The train pulled into Oxford Circus and stopped. Just as my rescuer promised, sitting on a platform bench exactly opposite the door where I stood was an exceptionally glum looking fellow. He looked up from his phone to see me waving furiously and, when the door opened, beckoning him to join me and my new friend. He smiled, joined us on the train and together we profusely thanked our guardian angel. We were never so glad to see each other as on that night, he because he thought I’d be furious with him (I wasn’t) and me because I wasn’t looking forward to a taxi trip back to our accommodation.
In July, we shared the highlight of our several train trips. We left our accommodation in Montmartre, Paris, early and made our way to Gare du Nord to begin our epic journey to Como, in the Italian Alps. The countryside just out from Paris was shrouded in a light fog, and for most of the trip to Zurich, where we changed trains, the sky was overcast. Tired from our short but delightful stay in a wet and occasionally windy Paris and used by now to travelling by train, we relaxed, took photos from the carriage (despite the TGV travelling at around 297 kilometres per hour), and dozed off occasionally while the train climbed the hills towards the Alps. Once out of Zurich, however, we looked forward to crossing the border into Italy. We went through several tunnels, each one taking us closer to Largo di Como and the next stage of our journey. The sky was still overcast when we entered another long tunnel. We emerged minutes later and light flooded our carriage. It felt as if we had stepped onto a movie set: the sky was clear, the sun shone brightly and the colours of the lake and surrounding mountains gleamed. We both gasped, momentarily distracting our fellow passengers who, it appeared, had witnessed this miracle before. It was truly one of the delightful moments of our adventures with trains; a journey, as the Italians might say, that was ‘bonissimo’, and a trip I’d recommend to the most blasé of travellers.
Journeys imply place: visiting a specific location; experiencing different landscapes; discovering a new perspective. But journeys are also about people. During our trip, we avoided large hotel chains and opted to stay at Bed and Breakfasts or Airbnbs and as a result met several fascinating characters.
After coming off the M5 and, given Google Maps, enduring the uncertainty of England’s narrow country lanes, we were eager to see our first Bed and Breakfast, a classic Georgian home near Exeter in Devon.
Remains of a Roman Wall
Fountain at our first Bed and Breakfast
It had two storeys, a large dining room and a parlour, all decorated in heavy, late Victorian age-thickened furniture and densely woven drapes in glowering reds and greens. I don’t have a green thumb, but I am sure there was an aspidistra standing in the corner of the parlour. We arrived hungry, tired and in need of somewhere to dine but our hostess was nowhere to be seen. We stood in the wide hall and coughed loudly, opened and shut the unlocked front door several times and eventually called out, to no avail. We could hear the sound of a television coming from somewhere but could not identify which direction. Eventually, after our calls became louder, a door opened and the television’s babble momentarily flooded the hall above us. A male voice called, ‘Coming,’ and we looked towards the stairs to see a thin man with collar length, wispy hair plastered to his scalp and a welcoming smile punctuated by uneven, and in a couple of cases broken, teeth. His manners and upper-class speech were, however, impeccable. He took a piece of our luggage in each hand and ascended the steep staircase saying as he did so that the lady of the house would be back soon. He swung open the door to a room swathed in primrose coloured wallpaper with sheer pink curtains filtering the afternoon sun. We deposited our luggage, which had taken on a pink glow, and he showed us the powder blue and white shared bathroom, handed us the key and told us to make ourselves at home.
Our hostess appeared later and carefully dropped into the conversation that the man who greeted us was not her husband, only the lodger. We met our hostesses’ husband a day later when we almost let their dogs out on to the busy road and only just avoided a doggy tragedy. Our hostess, however, was unfazed; she was a cheerful, hard-working no-nonsense woman who ran several businesses and admitted to us the day before we left that if we were looking for accommodation akin to ‘Fawlty Towers‘ we’d come to the right place. In many ways, it was a little chaotic but we found everyone there, including the lodger, charming and helpful.
In County Clare, Ireland, a conversation with another landlady went amusingly wrong. The decor on this occasion was more muted, but the welcome just as warm. One morning at breakfast I spotted a large battery charging in the corner and commented on how impressed I was with the number of electric powered cars we’d seen in the UK and Ireland. I also described the public electric vehicle (EV) charge points we saw at the Motorway Service Areas (MSA) in England and that we needed more of them in Australia. Our hostess, a competent, bustling woman with an engaging Irish accent, looked a little confused, but the conversation continued amicably. It was only later when I was going back over our discussion that I realised it was not her car that was electric, but her golf cart (which I call a golf buggy), and certainly not something you’d drive along the M5 to have recharged.
In terms of the rich and famous, we had only one encounter, though sadly not with the real person. At yet another essential ‘comfort’ stop, this time while driving between Dublin and Limerick, we discovered an MSA named after the 44th President of the United States. The Barack Obama Plaza contained a petrol station, food court, toilets and a visitor centre detailing information about Obama’s Irish connections. We didn’t have time to visit the visitor centre or take our photos with the life-size cardboard cutouts of Barack and Michelle Obama standing in the main hall but we were chuffed with finding this little bit of America in the middle of Ireland.
Finally, my favourite ‘character’ of the entire trip was another hostess in Ireland, this time in Galway. I promised to keep her identity a secret so I’ll call her ‘Kathleen’ and like all our hosts she was warm, friendly and helpful. She also had an energy and attitude I immediately warmed to. An hour after meeting her I felt like we’d been friends for years. On the first morning after arriving she described the easiest walking route from her home to the centre of Galway and wished us well.
We spent the day visiting several of Galway’s famous Celtic jewellers, locating the best pub for a traditional Irish lunch and Guinness, watching the local buskers, searching for an art gallery that, sadly, wasn’t open, locating Nora Barnacle’s home and unexpectedly coming across Charley Byrnes’ Bookshop, heaven for any bibliophile.
After a long day, we trudged back to our lodgings and were halfway there when we both heard a loud, vaguely familiar voice. We looked up to see a woman in a pink puffer jacket holding, with her right hand, her mobile phone to her left ear and steering her bicycle with her left hand. She was followed by a string of cars, reduced to travelling at her lazy speed. It was Kathleen, happily oblivious to the traffic trailing in her wake. When I later described the scene to her she smiled and said she had no idea who’d do such a thing. I agreed, promised I’d not tell her husband and asked if I could please share the tale as long as I never revealed her identity; and I never will. Kathleen, may your rides through Galway remain safe and true and thank you for making our stay the delight that it was. You and others like you helped me to understand that where place and character meet, memories and stories are made.