Gateway

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.

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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.

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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?

A Journey, a Memoir: The Secret Ideology of Tourism Part I

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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?:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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.

A Journey, a Memoir: The Cyclist

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.

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.

Kilchreest Cemetery, Ballynacally, near Ennis, County Clare, Republic of Ireland.

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.

Charlie Byrnes
Charlie Byrne’s Book Shop

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.

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A Journey, a Memoir: The Peace of Unknowing

I wrote barely a word during our recent trip to Europe and four days after turning the key, for the first time in nearly two months, in our front door, I struggle to write about our time away from home. I am determined, however, to share the best and worst of our seven weeks, so I have decided to create, over the next few posts, a memoir of our journey. Somewhere, buried in the image-album of my mind are scenes I want to share; still resounding in my brain are the sounds of unfamiliar but welcomed accents and greetings, tastes I registered, impressions I stored, sensations  I preserved. These and the vast, impromptu, barely stage managed theatre that was my journey across the world, are my sources. I hope I can do them justice. What I record in the next few weeks may not be chronological but grouped into themes: the characters we met; how we travelled from country to country; the delights or otherwise of using Airbnb; the food we tasted; even the places we longed to visit but had to miss; my reflections on what we saw, did and enjoyed.

We travelled, during seven short weeks, to Scotland (briefly) England, Wales, Ireland, France, Italy and Greece. We stayed in seventeen different towns or cities, some for only one night, others for up to six nights. We had accommodation in twenty different Bed and Breakfasts or private homes (Air B&Bs) and one hotel (after I insisted, we leave the accommodation we had arranged and relocate to cleaner, more pleasant premises.) We travelled on a ferry to and from Ireland and again when we were in Greece, to and from Hydra. I cannot count the number of trains we waited for and travelled on but we took to the air, once in Europe, only once. This means some of my impressions are fleeting, while others seem to impose themselves on me as I go about unpacking, opening weeks old mail and choosing how to live the rest of my life.

Let me just say this; I did not like flying to Europe. I liked being there and I hope these posts will share the joy.

Glastonbury and  Cilwen

These were two of the first places we visited and among my favourites, although crossing the border from England to Wales meant we faced another long drive along the motorway. Despite the rain and dark clouds, I was surprised by the complex pull of Wales, the home of my paternal great-great grandparents and my maternal grandfather. It wasn’t a sense of ‘home’ or even a return; it was something deeper, something primal.   The folded green hills, grey skies and road signs bearing unfamiliar, consonant rich Welsh words above their English equivalent helped make the miles slide by. The sense of attachment increased later when I heard inflexions and rhythms of speech of the people I passed in the street.

Before entering Wales, however, we stopped in Glastonbury, Somerset, a half an hour’s drive off the M4. Steeped in legend and befuddled by controversy, Glastonbury Abbey is supposedly the burial place of King Arthur. Some archaeologists believe Chalice Well, at the foot of the Glastonbury Tor, has been in use for two thousand years. The water from the spring contains iron oxide, giving it a reddish hue which, like the hot springs in Bath, is said to have healing qualities.

We parked the hire car and headed for the tourist information service to purchase tickets for the Well; unfortunately, we didn’t have time to climb the Tor. As we located the well and climbed the hill above it, I didn’t know what to expect. I read and studied the myths, legends and spiritual beliefs of the ancient Celts decades ago but my studies often lead me to poorly researched material, misinformed conclusions and occasionally blatant fictions about the ancient beliefs of the first inhabitants of this area. We sat above the well for a short time. The hills were quiet and light rain fell. When it stopped we decided to descend to the well and sit on one of the nearby benches. All was silent and so we did not speak, awed by more than just the beauty of the place. I wasn’t searching for a message or revelation, I didn’t want to impose my confused feelings and beliefs on the peace we had found but as I sat I felt an inner wisdom uncoil: 'I cannot know', I thought or heard or perhaps understood, 'what I think I know, because at the end of all knowing is only mystery.

 

Knowledge dissolves and words uttered or written fade in the presence of a mystery older than human memory. As we made ready to leave, I pondered the ‘message’ and what it meant to me, who so values learning and knowledge. In the following weeks, during the daily routine of catching trains, finding our lodgings and places to eat that was my life, I occasionally reflected on and welcomed this new form of ‘unknowing.’

 

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Two hours later we arrived at Cilwen, a place of delicate peace and beauty created by two gracious men dedicated to making their lives simpler and sharing that simplicity with others.

 

Both Somerset and Wales will remain places where I learned the importance of sitting and letting go of expectations and anxieties. By nestling into the stillness of sites sacred to thousands of generations, and refuges built from love, the silence of simply being reveals new understandings and kindles old memories.

November is Done, Hello Melbourne

November has come and gone and not much of it was spent blogging; that’s what happens while working on a novel. I relished my first NaNoWriMo; I hit 50,000 words on the 28th, validated my novel and yesterday set out for Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city and an  eighty minute flight east of Adelaide, for my reward.

The plan was to fly to Melbourne and explore the city while my partner attended a conference but because he was offered last minute work I had to fly in on my own. I woke at dawn yesterday and arrived in Melbourne before nine: the entire day was mine to enjoy.

The Yarra River, looking back to the South Bank

I first visited Melbourne in the 1970s but on that occasion, and every visit since, had no time to look around. This time I have (or had) four days. Situated on the banks of the Yarra River, Melbourne is sometimes the butt of jokes about its capricious weather. As Raili over at Soul Gifts has recorded in a recent blog, the weather was indeed the cause of much distress recently. Despite this, I love Melbourne. So after checking in to the hotel and wandering over to Federation Square

Federation Square


I headed to the National Gallery of Victoria.

Foyer of the National Gallery

Five hours later I was replete. The first exhibition I saw was David Hockney’s ‘Current’. Hockney, at seventy nine, has embraced hand held devices as an artistic medium. His images are reproduced  on numerous iPhones and iPads throughout the exhibition, but also as larger images, such as the one below:

David Hockey from The Arrival of spring in Woldgate


Hockney’s exhibition included eighty two portraits and one still life; all in all I believe the exhibition featured 1200 different images.

After a break I saw Transformations: The Art of Fashion According to Victor and Rolf, a fascinating pair who merge fashion, art, rebellion and technical skill, making as they go, perceptive and critical statements about modern life and the fashion industry.

The final exhibition I visited was Italian Jewels Bulgari Style, which was also quite exquisite but somehow a little gaudy and avaristic after the first two exhibitions.

In the evening I saw ‘Burning Doors‘, the most compelling and profound piece of theatre I have ever seen. But more on that in my next post, once I have managed to think it all through a little more.

After a drink with friends to talk over what we had witnessed, I went back to the hotel where, just before midnight my partner joined me. When his conference is finished we plan to share more Melbourne adventures together.

I’ve written this blog in the State Library of Victoria, which has been a somewhat frustrating process. (I miss my computer, obviously my skills with an iPad are not commensurate with David Hockney’s). It’s time to take a break and visit the reading room, maybe take a few photographs and then venture back to Federation Square where there is food and entertainment on offer.

Melbourne, you have more than delivered, I am grateful you are my reward.

(This blog was edited on 8th December 2016)

Learning how to Change the World.

A little friend of mine had a big adventure last week: she went with her mother and father to a tropical island north of Australia. She travelled on a plane for the first time and is now a veteran of four flights. Each time the aircraft lifted off the ground my little friend cried ‘Wheeee’.Airplane

I have much to learn from this brave little girl.

Unfortunately, however, not everything worked out as planned. On the second evening of the eight-day holiday she fell and broke her collar bone.

Mummy and Daddy were, naturally, distraught and their family back home saddened to hear the holiday was spoiled. After receiving excellent help from the resort staff and advice from the local medical centre the family wisely chose to remain on the island resort and make the best of the situation.

Now, travelling with a three-year-old has its challenges, even with a three-year-old who loves, from the first moment, to fly. This holiday had, after the accident, more than the usual difficulties.  BeachSwimming in the pool or on the beach was out of the question. The excursion to the Great Barrier Reef was likewise cancelled; they couldn’t risk her overbalancing in the boat. Walking along the beach was fairly safe and there was a child’s activity room, but for a lot of the time the parents were faced with amusing a three-year-old while trying to contain her natural ebullience and help her understand that the sling compromised her balance and her ability to do things for herself. As any one who has had anything to do with a three-year-old knows, they have to do everything for themselves.

The result, sadly, was a frustrated little girl and a several days of temper tantrums.

Don’t get me wrong, this child is not a little angel; she has her moments. But these were serious, ear-splitting, toy throwing, hitting out, refusing to go to bed, refusing to do anything she was asked, tantrums.

Her parents are gentle, reasonable, perceptive people. This child is neither spoiled nor indulged and whatever discipline is needed is always explained, measured and reasoned. But Mummy and Daddy desperately needed a holiday, and their dream of a few blissful days with their little girl was ruined by the pain and grief of their thwarted expectations.

I’m not saying they didn’t handle it well, they did, but I could see the strain and exhaustion on all three faces when we picked them up from the airport last night.

How I wished I could have wrapped them in my arms and made it all go away.

I’ve thought a lot about what turned this usually affectionate and happy little girl into the monster her mother described to me as we trudged towards the carpark through Adelaide’s cold night.

Maybe it was the excitement of the trip, the anticipation and then the letdown of the accident and injury. Maybe it was the pain killers. As mild as they were, having to take them over several days can affect anyone, particularly a child. Maybe it was the unfamiliar situation. When we’re feeling poorly, we need the comforts of our home and our familiar toys. Perhaps it was the shock and pain occasioned by the fall; my little friend woke screaming several nights after the accident. Maybe it was a combination of all these things?

And maybe it was just raw fear. I’m no child psychologist (which is amazing, because any woman who’s raised three children is, of course, an expert on children), so I consulted Dr Google – specifically concerning children who hit out during temper tantrums. My intuition was confirmed.

We usually lash out at others when we are afraid. It’s part of the classic freeze, flight or fight reaction that comes from deep within what neurologists call our reptilian brain, an ancient section of the brain that controls our heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. The thing about three-year-olds (and most humans), is no matter how articulate, how well parented or how well behaved they are, fear inevitably triggers survival instincts and that results in defensive behaviour, in hitting out at others. There’s no irony in the fact that we often hit out at those we love, at those who hold our very survival in their hands, because we trust them to understand, without reacting negatively, our instinctive, automatic ferocity.

My little friend is probably one of the luckiest people I know. In her terror and pain she hit out at the very people she knew would cope with her behaviour. Her parents, despite being stressed themselves, found a way to understand, witness and try to soothe their frightened little girl’s inarticulate rage.

Not all girls or boys are so lucky.

I held back tears last night when I watched the exhausted father walking from the plane, holding his sleepy eyed baby in his arms. Their flights home were delayed and they’d spent the last 12 hours either waiting in airports or flying, but there she was, snuggled close to her Daddy, smiling at my partner and me, waving tentatively at us with her free hand.

Is this story a caution against travelling with children? Far from it. Accidents happen, tempers flare and misunderstandings occur wherever we are in the world. When I think of that couple alone in their resort room, relying on the goodwill of staff when the accident happened, and later receiving calls from concerned parents and grandparents across the width and breadth of Australia, I am reminded of how important family is, how we reach out to each other during times of travail and stress. This happens on a small scale, like it did this week with my family, but it also happens on a large scale.

We’ve learned, in the last dozen or so years, that there is but one race of humans and we came from the same mother. We are a very large, rambunctious, sometimes violent family and that violence usually comes from raw fear, from the ancient section of our brain that reacts first and thinks later.

My little friend is going to grow up to be an amazing woman.   P1020430 (2)She will gradually learn to moderate her reactions, to articulate her fears, to be mindful of her thoughts and, given the way her parents are raising her, to be compassionate when she witnesses another’s fear, another’s pain.

She may even change the world; she may find a way to end the fear that animates violence, because that’s the blessed potential of every child on the planet.