australia day… my way

This evening, down at Altona Beach, I strolled in the evening sunshine and literally watched the world go by. Australia Day had brought everybody out to enjoy the beach, and the council had put on a festival to help.

A small number of Aussie flags were flying on cars and transferred onto sunburnt cheeks, a few green-and-gold sports shirts were in evidence, and two mounted police officers flew the Boxing Kangaroo flag from their saddles.

On the boardwalk people wore hijabs and chadors, beach towel turbans and long-haired topknots, bikinis and board shorts, saris and sarongs. There was Greek baclava, Italian woodfired pizza, vegetable samosas, New Zealand “fush, chups and igg”, SES sausages in bread, all for sale within a hundred metres. Young muscle-bound men showed their Polynesian tattoos with pride, and one brave soul rocked a bleached-blonde flat-top and bandana.

One end of the Esplanade had live Country & Western music, the other Tongan reggae blaring out from a huge speaker. Kite surfers hung out down the western end of the beach whilst kite flyers dominated the east.

I saw Africans of every stripe, Japanese tourists and Vietnamese families, three generations of Pacific Islander at the same all-day picnic, young and old from sub-continental Asia, Italian nonnas with gaggles of grandchildren, a handful of mix-race couples of various flavours. Not many pale-skinned, freckled people like me though.

There was no “love it or leave” slogans, no “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi” chants, just people being people, chatting and laughing, running after two-year-olds, drinking coffee and beer, ignoring boys and posturing in front of girls. This is the Australia I subscribe to, the Australia I belong to.

 

 

 

 

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down memory lane

On the eve of Christmas Eve, I stroll up the street where I grew up to catch the bus into town for the first time in more than a decade.

The 78 bus is gone now, replaced by the number 40 that crawls through working class suburbs west of the city, over O’Connell Bridge itself and finishes its journey in the deep north of Dublin.

Older women with shopping trolleys wait in line by the electronic sign showing waiting times for the different buses. That would have been handy when I was a teenager. “Remember, you can get any number but the 18 bus”, Mum says. “you don’t want to be ending up in Sandymount.”

I hop on board and my favourite seat: upstairs at the very front. The main shopping drag is busy this morning. Jackie’s florist has lots of handmade evergreen wreaths for front doors and graveyard headstones. There is no hearse in front of Massey’s this morning, although when leaving the house I heard the slow tolling of the funeral bell up at St. Matthew’s Church, which this very day is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of its doors. Impossible to imagine burying a loved one in the week that’s in it.

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Down through the lower end of Ballyfermot, I have a perfect view across the river to the Phoenix Park and the Pope’s Cross. There is a new cafe at the GAA club down at Sarsfield Ranch, but next door the draughty scout hall I spent half my youth in, first as a sea scout and then as a venture scout, has been torn down. Wonder where they meet now.

As we go under the railway bridge, the border between Ballyfermot and Inchicore, I look with fresh eyes over the big stone wall into the railywaymen’s houses with their symmetrical windows and colourful front doors. They look huge and fancy from the outside, and I can’t imagine how they can be only two-bedroom houses.

Inchicore village is much changed since my youth: they even let women into the front bar of the Black Lion these days. There is a nice looking Italian enoteca next door, and a handful of international groceries selling Turkish, Polish, African and Indian food. Over the Camac River, St. Patrick’s Athletic grounds are now surrounded by newer apartment blocks as well as the old red-bricked terraced houses. St. Michael’s Church is not far from the street where my father grew up, but the bus heads towards Kilmainham and St. James’s Gate rather than down the South Circular Road, so this is as close as I get.

I remember the name of a girl I went to school with, as I pass her mum’s house in Old Kilmainham. The entrance to St. James’s Hospital is more modern now, with the Luas trams driving right into the hospital complex. Past Guinness’s iconic St. James’s Gate and the green dome of St. Patrick’s Tower, the former windmill of the long-closed Roe whisky distillery, past St. Catherine’s church, the site of the execution of Irish patriot Robert Emmet. I know these places not from history at school but from the stories my Dad told me every time we drove or took the bus down this route. His knowledge of the history of Dublin was encyclopaedic.

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Thomas Street and Meath Street, the heart of the Liberties, are as run down today as they were in my youth. Street sellers call out in their unforgettable Liberties accent: “Get the last of the Christmas wrapping paper, there now five sheets for two euro!” I remember when it used to be five sheets for ten pence. As my father would have said, that was neither today nor yesterday.

The heart of the Liberties has not changed for centuries, the imposing church of St. Audoen’s only in the ha’penny place beside the even grander structures of Christchurch Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral around the corner. So strange that, with the history of this city, we ended up with two Protestant cathedrals and no Catholic one to this day.

Dame Street is heaving with traffic and people. Trinity College is surprisingly bare of Christmas lights but the big old Bank of Ireland is looking great with a huge lit-up tree and plenty of Christmas garlands.

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Round by Westmoreland Street the crowds continue. The Spire rises up into the cold grey sky like a giant silver needle, dwarfing everything on O’Connell Street. Hard to imagine Dublin now without this marker of the new millennium.

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I hop off the bus at the GPO. School kids from Belvedere College are holding a sleep out in aid of the homeless. Clery’s is wrapped up with a huge ribbon of white lights. There is a big Chirstmas crib at the bottom of the tree in the middle of the street: no baby Jesus in there yet though. not till Christmas morning. The last few years saw a fancy artificial tree on O’Connell Street but we are back to a more traditional spruce this year.

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Eason’s is jam packed. Dads queue up with Christmas annuals for the kids. The three-for-two book deals are popular. I don’t manage to escape the shop without a book or two, even though it’s the second bookshop I’ve visited in twenty-four hours. Dublin always reignites my passion for reading somehow: must be all that literary history in the water. I entertain myself for a few minutes looking at the Irish tourist tat on sale near the front doors, and choose a few classic “you know you’re Irish when…” greetings cards to support local small business.

Back outside, it’s not that chilly. The crowds are thickening as the lunchtime crowds start to hit the streets. A day of shopping and family awaits, but for now I stand in the heart of Dublin and try to take in the moment: I made it home for Christmas.

deck the halls

Trust the bride to choose a groom from a family who live in the most perfect New England town ever. Essex, on the deep estuary of the Connecticut River, is picturesque most of the year, but comes into its own during the snow-covered days of winter.

With cold weather taking hold a few weeks earlier than normal, the Connecticut River towns are knee-deep in perfect snow as we make our way to Centerbrook to decorate the wedding hall. Helen and Mike are getting married on Friday 13 December in a beautiful old meetinghouse, originally built in 1722 and recently renovated by two private benefactors.

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In the run-up to Christmas, the townspeople of Essex and its near neighbours take pride in the decoration of their homes. Venerable weatherboard houses of respectable dimensions light up at dusk with fairy-lit door wreaths, identical candles in every window, perfectly measured spruce garlands on picket fences. There is not a cheesy inflatable Santa or electric penguin in sight.

There is no hint of grey slush here: all is pure white. The gazebo on the village green is decorated with garlands and a Christmas tree, all festooned with white fairy lights sparkling through the darkness of a December afternoon. One family has carved out a skating rink on the village pond. I stroll down the main drag as a few flurries of snow fall, and can’t decide which home is the most flawlessly decorated. I am simply enthralled by the Christmassiness of it all.

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We meet up with Mike’s two moms (Real Mom Peggy and Step-Mom Sue) at Peggy’s sprawling New England home on the water’s edge in Essex itself. Like the rest of the village, the house and garden are picture-perfect under at least a foot of snow. The charming but often out of place American Christmas decorations I have seen in many European houses seem perfect in this home: a huge tree in the living room is the centrepiece and every wall and table surface has a wreath or a ribbon attached. The kitchen is well stocked with every sandwich filling known to man (handy for those of us who are feeling a little worse for wear after the school reunion of the night before), and Peggy does a good line in chilled non-alcoholic drinks to help with rehydration.  Needless to say, every plate, cup and glass is Christmas-themed without being vulgar. The red-and-green “Christmas in Essex” napkins seem appealing in this house, whilst I know at home they would just look ironic. I still want some, and Sue quietly tells me the name of the shop in town where I can stock up.

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Down at the Meeting House, we join forces with the (thin-lipped and grim-faced) wedding planner and her (much friendlier) associate to deck the halls for the wedding feast. The reception room looks bare with just a few wooden trestle tables strewn about, but a few hours’ hard work from willing workers transform the space into a green, silver and white spectacle replete with Christmas baubles, acres of tulle, fancy folded linen napkins, polished silverware and more Christmas cheer than you can shake a stick at.

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The bride takes a few minutes to regroup in the picture-perfect chapel area while the rest of us try to even out the number of votive candles per table of twelve. All must be perfect for the big day.

A last-minute visit to Ikea (more votive candles are required) and before long we are back at home base, avoiding the mere mention of alcohol and inhaling vast quantities of vegetables from the Chinese takeaway in the vain hope that our culinary choices will negate the over-indulgence of the night before. It’s going to be a big couple of days and we need our wits about us.

mystic pizza

The Hyundai Elantra is a decent car, but nobody ever called it exciting. We stand in the Hertz office by New Haven train station, and Orlando looks longingly at pictures of other, sexier, cars.

“I don’t suppose you have anything available in your Adrenalin range?”, he asks hopefully. We’d already tried and failed to book a muscle car online, but New Haven Amtrak Hertz didn’t appear to do anything but nice sedans. The young man shakes his head. “Sorry sir.” Then, “Wait, I think we might have a Mustang. Would that do?” Orlando looks hopefully at me. I nodded.

Ten minutes later we drive away in a dark grey Mustang convertible, Orlando at the wheel, me trying my best to look cool despite my sensible attire. Driving on the right hand side of the road for the first time in maybe ten years, Orlando handles the car like a pro as we head towards the freeway sans satnav. How hard can navigating be on decent roads with signs in English?

The I-95 is the main east coast highway, running all the way from Florida to the Canadian border. The Mustang purrs along, eastwards across the great Connecticut River and past the signs for Rocky Neck State Park. An hour later another river, this time the Thames River (as opposed to the River Thames) that flows, predictably, through New London.

Mystic is a pretty old seaport with a huge maritime museum and a pizza place made famous by the 1988 movie, Mystic Pizza. The museum precinct is full of beautiful old houses and military buildings, manicured lawns, centuries-old cannons and more flags than you can shake a stick at. Despite the drizzle, the Christmas lights and decorations and pretty shops make Mystic a welcoming little town. We park the Mighty Mustang (all the while hoping somebody might see us and be impressed by our choice of vehicle) and take a mini-tour of the main drag. Bookstores stand cheek by jowl alongside expensive clothes shops, navy surplus places and surprisingly few eateries.

Near the top of the high street stands Mystic Pizza, the restaurant that inspired the 1980s teenage movie of the same name. Given my obsession with food and specifically pizza, my craving for Christmas-themed spiced milky drinks accompanied by cookies shaped like Christmas trees fly out the window and we walk inside.

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The booths are named for famous roads: Pacific Highway, New Orleans’ French Quarter, even London’s Abbey Road. The blurb on the menu reminisces about hordes of fans lining the streets during the heyday of the movie, but on a cold, raining Monday lunchtime we are almost the only diners. Two mugs of tea are served at less than scalding temperatures, but I suppose we are in America, the Land of the Lukewarm Beverage. I am momentarily distracted by the thought of a nice bowl of New England clam chowder, but let’s face it: in a week’s time will I look back and be happy with this menu choice in this particular restaurant? We order a large Meatza Pizza to share, extra jalapeños, well cooked.

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Back outside in the freezing cold, we take another turn along the high street before retreating to the Mustang for the drive back. I take the wheel this time, heading westwards for a few miles along Route 1, through the pretty villages of Poquonock Bridge and Groton.

Back onto the huge iron bridge across the Thames River, Orlando falls asleep while I put my foot down and get a feel for the Mustang. I turn up the radio. Mariah Carey sings All I Want For Christmas Is You, the first Christmas tune I’ve heard on the trip so far. I sing along as the highway junctions fly past, surprisingly not waking up the sleeping beauty beside me. This is turning into a pretty decent holiday.

once in a blue moon

New Year, new decade, full moon, blue moon….. geography meant we didn’t get to see the lunar eclipse this side of the world but my Irish family braved the bitter cold to stand in a country field on New Year’s Eve to watch the partial eclipse.

The end of the first decade of the twenty-first century: where have the last ten years gone? In the last moments of 1999 I stood on the roof of London’s Hayward Gallery with Orlando waiting to see the “river of fire” and hear the chimes of Big Ben that heralded the new millennium. Little did we know that we would see the start of 2010 living in Melbourne.

The Chinese Year of the Brown (earth) Ox is almost over, and the year of the White (metal) Tiger is coming. They say the hard work of the Ox will make way for the drive and wealth of the Tiger, as metal is often equated with money. The astrologers tell us not to be afraid of starting or trying something new in the year of the White Tiger. We will start the new decade with positive thoughts and intentions, and make the best of what comes our way.

Happy New Year, and Happy New Decade.

Scorpio Fire Horse Warning (that’s me)

About the Fire Horse

The six decades spanning the gaps between the years of the Fire Horse mean that this rare sign occurs only in the years 1846, 1906, 1966, 2026, etc.

These years are bad for Horses themselves and bad for families who have a Horse in the house. This is because the Fire Horse’s influence can change from beneficial to malignant, and during these years all Horse families will become subject to illness, accidents and bad luck in general.

Men and women actually born in the year of the Fire Horse will have the same characteristics as the ordinary Horse — but they will be more accentuated, in the good qualities as well as in the bad. 

The Fire Horse will thus be a harder worker, a more cunning individual, more independent, more gifted … and alas, far more selfish. His passionate nature and the frantic egotism which seizes him will lead him to commit his worst excesses when he is in love.

The Fire Horse is animated and sociable. He has a wild side that leads him to a life on the edge. Fire Horses are generally either incredibly lucky or ridiculously unlucky. They love the excitement of action and the change it brings. The Fire element makes them passionate about their feelings and they always take a stand in a situation. Fire Horses are never on the fence about anything and have definitive opinions about the world. Their tempers can be overbearing

There are those who say that the Fire Horse can be a good influence in the heart of his own family. But popular belief asserts that he will make trouble in the home he was born in just as he does in the one he himself has built.

What we do know is that the Fire Horse will have a career that is more varied, more exceptional, more interesting than that of the ordinary Horse. The Fire Horse carries within himself the seeds of fame … or of notoriety!

new year’s resolution

You know my theory: never make a resolution you won’t want to keep.

In years gone past I have come up with:

  • no more walking or cycling uphill
  • have a spa day every month
  • eat food from a new country at least once a month

You get the idea.

I have no idea what my new year’s resolution was for 2008, so I decided I would record my 2009 resolution here on these pages:

  • Eat more seafood.

It is an easy one to achieve – we love shellfish, and fresh seafood, but we don’t get around to going to the market often enough. For New Year’s Eve I hopped on the moped, went down to Footscray Market and bought up some rockling fillets, some fresh de-shelled prawns and a handful of scallops out of the shell. A trip to the vegetable stall for some fresh herbs and the makings of a Greek salad, and I was all set.

The prawns were marinated in chilli, garlic, coriander and some Punjabi Kitchen King masala from the local Indian supermarket, then panfried in their own juices. I served them with the Greek salad on New Year’s Eve for supper and realised I had seriously over-catered. The rest we left until this evening when we had the rockling fillets steamed in foil parcels in the oven with garlic, green shille, spring onion, coriander and Chinese five spice. The scallops I tossed in chilli and garlic and threw them on the barbie. Divine.

Happy New Year everybody! What are your resolutions?