On internal accents

In which my internal dialogue grows accents

Disconcertingly, my internal voice has started talking to me in the accent of Zelda the Destroyer, Ruth’s wrestling character in Glow. I have no idea why this might be, but it is particularly startling because I’m not having a lot of actual conversations at the moment, so much of what I do is narrated in this strange accent. I speak no Japanese–I haven’t even been able to work out ‘thank you’ yet. So there aren’t many opportunities for conversation, not even the small talk or the little jokes between people that we use to smooth out awkward interactions. Well, there was the man outside the 7-11 where I stopped to buy myself a sparkling water today (it’s hot and humid and I needed the sparkle) … there was a small bench outside the 7-11 and a few people were sitting on it so I sat down thinking it was probably more polite to drink my sparkling water there than as I wandered along the street.

I sat, and as I gingerly opened the bottle, trying to make sure it didn’t fizz on me, the man next to me laughed. It seemed like one of those things you might do when you’re sitting next to someone in the shade of a 7-11, and so I laughed with him. But then he started talking so I shook my head and said, ‘Sorry, English.’ ‘Ah, English,’ he said and I thought he was going to be one of those people who then starts a conversation in perfect English and makes a person feel embarrassed about their own lack of being able to talk to people outside their own language … anyway, he didn’t start talking in English, he kept talking in Japanese. It was about then that I realised as well as sparkling water it was possible to buy sparkling ale and I think he’d enjoyed a few out in the sun. I made my excuses as politely as I could given the circumstances and left.

And that’s about the extent of my conversations, my language barrier compounded by the fact that there aren’t really a lot of tourists here, or at least if there are they are lost in the Tokyo population. It’s not like visiting Paris where a person can hardly breathe for tourists and you get to the end of the day and wonder if you’ve even crossed paths with a Parisien. And while I’m not staying in fancy accommodation by any means, nor is it a hostel where people might go to the dining room to gather at the end of the day…mind you, even if I were at a hostel I’d probably be older than most of the other people and unlikely to get into any conversations there either.

So, having Zelda’s accent in my head is straight up weird. I will say that because it’s only in my head, it’s an excellent imitation of Ruth doing a poor imitation of a Russian accent. However excellent my imitation might be, I’m very much hoping that when I wake up tomorrow it will be gone.

On noodles

In which I eat before bed

As it turns out, the noodles were absolutely not to be missed, and definitely worth staying up for. I went down in my dress and carrying only my room key, expecting that we would be given a packet of two-minute noodles and sent on our way. Not so! The breakfast room opens again, but there are curtains around most of the buffet tables (there are four, all quite small), with only one small space at the servery open for the woman who has the noodle shift to do her work.

People come down in dribs and drabs, most of them wearing the lounge suits (I would call them pyjamas, but that seems maybe a bit rude, because they aren’t pyjamas but are in the hotel rooms with a sign that tells us we are welcome to wear them around the hotel). The woman gives a token to each person and then, when she has made their order calls out the number and tells them their noodles are ready. When she knows we don’t speak Japanese, she calls, ‘Thank you for waiting, noodles are prepared for number 7.’

I rarely eat before bed these days, because I always sleep terribly if I eat or drink too much too close to bedtime (probably I always slept that poorly but now that I’m middle aged I don’t like being tired the next day and get tired more easily and so on and so forth … all of that is a long-winded way of telling you that I wasn’t sure I’d actually eat the noodles, but I did want to see what it was about.

As soon as I saw them, I was in love and knew that they would be exactly what I needed. The noodles are the perfect size. Small enough that I don’t feel over-full and uncomfortable before bed, large enough that I feel sated. The noodles and the soup are both light and thin. Also perfect. The whole thing is extremely cozy, and because it is shared with other people, it is also a reassuring touchpoint, reminding you that you aren’t alone. All hotels should offer something like it, because as wonderful as holidays are it is pretty lonely when you realise that there are all these millions of people around but not one of them knows your name.

And now I’m extremely tired again and about to fall asleep. I wanted to tell you about my day–not that anything amazing happened to me, but I did discover a bit more about this amazing city. Maybe I’ll be able to stay awake long enough tomorrow night.

On departures

In which I make it

It turns out that an hour is enough time to get a domestic-international connection in Sydney airport, but it’s highly stressful and you don’t get a chance to sit and watch the airport go by. Sitting and watching the airport go by is one of my favourite things … mind you anyone watching me go by would have thought I was leaving my dying grandma and never going to see her again the way I was sobbing at the departure gate. Combination of the stress of realising how close my connection was going to be (but knowing that they don’t book it if they don’t think you can make it), but also growing deeper and deeper roots into my house into the next stage of my life.

I’m exhausted now … the only reason I’m still awake is that I’m waiting for the hotel’s noodle service in another twenty minutes. I could’ve gone to sleep hours ago, but there’s something so beautiful in the idea of a ‘noodle service’ and I’m only in this hotel two nights so I don’t want to miss out. Weird thing to not want to miss I know, but there’s been little in the way of rational thought the last couple of days. I’ll be a lot more lucid after a meal of noodles and a nice long sleep.

Talk tomorrow xx

On farewells

In which I’m grumpy, even if I know I shouldn’t be

Sometimes I think, ‘Well, if I just keep talking eventually I will have something to say. But mostly I have no more to say than a person who has nothing to say and no less than someone who has not a lot.

We went out for lunch and it was father’s day. We didn’t know that when we booked. Really we were supposed to be going out for a meal together–the four of us–because I’m going away for a bit, and that’s what you do when someone goes away. You all go out together. So now I’m feeling slightly grumpy that my lunch wasn’t really for me and not only that the meal wasn’t all that great because of course they were doing the whole set menu thing that all the cafes and restaurants do on their busiest days. And I’m grumpy with myself for being churlish, so I’m mostly trying to talk myself out of that.

But we wouldn’t have gone out if we’d known it was father’s day. First, because the meals are always rubbish on days like today. And second, because I try not to buy into the commercialism of it all. I had a wonderful father, and my children’s father is wonderful, but there’s too much pain and hurt in the world regarding fathers and as much as I think it’s important to celebrate the good, I don’t think there’s any need to make the hurt greater than it already is. It feels extremely exclusionary to me. I try not to make a big protest about it, but equally I don’t make a big song and dance about the celebration of it either.

And now I really must go and pack. It’s my worst thing. I’m even worse at packing than I am about being gracious when my farewell lunch gets taken over by something I don’t even agree with.

The puppy is still cute.

Christmas in the campervan

In which we are glad to be dry.

Christmas, eh? I guess like most people who grow up with Christmas as a cultural marker I’ve had a fluctuating relationship with it. I have loved it (waterfights with cousins, yay!), I have scorned it with the scorn of a world-weary, uber-cynic who is only there because her parents made her, I have dreaded its emotional pressures, and I have been entirely ambivalent. (I am only talking here about the cultural aspects of it, not the religious aspects, though I think it’s fair to say this has changed for me over the years as well.)

This year it transpired that on Christmas Day we were in New Zealand, our first full day in the campervan. When we set out from Christchurch it was fine and sunny, and by the time we got to Aoraki / Mt Cook it was raining. The road was extremely busy with campervans. I guess everyone was from France or China or Germany or Japan and may as well be driving. We played my ultra-excellent Christmas playlist as we drove although it’s impossible to hear anything when you’re in a campervan. My goodness, they are rattly and bangy–I had bought a packet of blu-tac the day before and by the time I’d tacd down all the things that were rattling there was only the smallest blob of it left.

We went to a Department of Conservation campground which had a few other campervans and many, many tents. The mister and I have spent our fair share of rainy New Zealand nights in a tent and we were deeply appreciative of our dry space with its working stove and our dry sheets. What’s a bit of squoosh when you’re dry? We bored our children by retelling the stories of our youth. Like that first time we went camping in New Zealand. In our excitement at finding a car we could afford we didn’t check our eleventh-hand Honda Accord all that closely and it wasn’t until we were huddled in it for warmth one stormy night by Lake Waikaremoana that the silicone seal which had been used to hold the hatch together fell completely away and a sheet of water just poured in through the back. The LOLz, eh mister?

Other times when we’ve been away for Christmas there has been at least some time during the day when I’ve felt the absence from family. There’s a different quality to the homesickness at those times. But towards the end of the day this year I realised I hadn’t felt that at all this day. Perhaps because everyone was camping and so we didn’t get any glimpses into other people’s Christmas Days.

For their Christmas lunches the lads had chosen mac and cheese and spaghetti bolognese. I put together these Campervan Trifles which are strawberries, yoghurt, and iced animals. Iced animals are a strangely delicious biscuit although as I said on instagram they do look like they’ve been slapped together by someone whose kid waiting until 8pm Sunday night to mention Monday morning’s bake sale.

For our evening’s entertainment, we transformed the table into the bottom bunk and each of us found a space to sit or lie to watch Die Hard played on my ipad with the sound streamed through the mister’s wireless speaker. I think Die Hard is far more Christmassy than I remember it being when we watched it last year. After that we had The Nightmare Before Christmas. I loved it. I did fall asleep part way through, but I still know I loved it because I’ve seen it before and my sleepiness was to do with being sleepy and not to do with the quality of the film. The floppy adolescent also loved it. The other half of the family will never watch it again.

And that was Christmas in our campervan.

The Campervan

In which we are squooshed.

When I was growing up our family camped, first in a tent and then in a camper-trailer that we bought secondhand on a day trip from Port Pirie to Adelaide.

I remember that trip well because that morning I woke with a headache that felt like I was having knives stabbed through my head and a heaving guts. I did actually throw up when I got out of bed, but we had barely left the seventies behind and parents didn’t let a little thing like their child’s stabbing headache and squelching nausea get in the way of a trip to buy a secondhand camper-trailer. My dad did make a makeshift bed for me by taking out the backseat and putting the lounge cushions across the back so that I could lie flat–this meant that my brother and I travelled without seatbelts but again the seventies (you know sometimes you see those memes on facebook our toys were sticks and SHARE IF YOU AGREE, okay, yeah, sure the seventies sure were great LOL hahahaha).

Anyway, we bought that camper-trailer which was one of those arrangements where it was a fancy trailer with beds that pulled out from each end and keeping it stable was a pair of rather insubstantial legs that wound down and — if you remembered — back up again when you were making the trip home. It was like this only significantly less fancy.

My holiday dream was to stay not in a camper-trailer on a windswept west coast beach dragging a spade into the sandhills whenever I needed to go to the toilet (west coast of South Australia), but in a caravan parked in a caravan park. My goodness, the number of hours I spent daydreaming about those neat rows of caravans all within walking distance of a flushing toilet. Also, I was fairly convinced that I would meet a boy and we would fall passionately in love and spend the year writing letters before we met the next summer at the caravan park again.

I’m sure I brought some of this childhood longing to my decision to book our potential final family holiday in a campervan that would tour the South Island of New Zealand. Now, usually when I book things I spend countless hours researching every possible angle of every possible option before I finally hand over my cash. This time, I was booking in a bit of a rush because it was a last-minute decision to go and I know that New Zealand books out at this time of year. Also, I suppose because I’d spent an entire childhood lusting after a caravan, any caravan, please god just let me sleep in a caravan that it did not occur to me a van is not a van is not a van. Reading that this 4-berth van is “ideal for two couples or a family” and was available for the time we needed it, I just pressed ‘Book’ and paid the deposit. After nine nights I can say that as a family we worked it out, but deadset any two couples who can successfully negotiate a holiday living in this particular van are unknown to me (no offence). The two beds are bunks one on top of each other. During the day the top one gets lifted into the ceiling and the bottom one–through a feat of engineering and design–becomes the table. At night, the people on the bottom bunk have approximately ten centimetres between their noses and the bunk above them. Remembering that this is New Zealand so it is going to rain about eight percent of your holiday, this is not an experience for the faint-hearted and I think the word “ideal” should definitely be left out of the description of this particular van.

Other people had clearly spent more time researching the layouts of the van because we did not see another family with teenagers spilling out of the doors in this model van in any of the places we stayed. Do you know that strange thing when an emotion you haven’t felt for many years resurfaces in your body and it is immediately a touchpoint to a different time and place? Each time I saw one of the vans with the layout I should have booked I felt exactly as I had felt when I was a child in a yellow commodore dragging a camper-trailer behind it and we passed a caravan or a caravan park.

Somehow or other though, this was one of the best holidays we’ve had together. I will tell you more about it tomorrow, but in the meantime please enjoy the accompanying image which is at 7am on the final day of our time in this van. Ha! You think living together in it is tricky, you should try packing. At least one of those bags came to be resting there after it was thrown somewhat, um, energetically from the doorway.

Taking off

In which I am reminded that my body knows more about grief than my mind does.

The Floppy Adolescent is about to start year twelve, and it occurred to us that this summer might be the last school holidays that we have a chance to take a holiday together. The mister has started a new job so doesn’t have any leave accumulated but his office does close for the Christmas-New Year break so we had a decent amount of time if we left the morning after his office closed and stayed until the afternoon before his office opened its doors for 2018. So we decided to return to New Zealand.

The mister and I lived there from late 1992 until 1997, and we always intended to go back but apart from a quick trip not long after that for a friend’s wedding it’s been nearly twenty years since we were last there.

It was a bit of a last minute decision and I was pretty frantic in the lead-up to Christmas so I didn’t do too much in the way of preparation except book the plane (there’s a direct flight from Adelaide to Auckland again now and we managed to get some pretty cheap tickets, although on our flight home our inflight entertainment did not even include the movies) and a campervan for ten days in the South Island. This campervan thing was something I’d always wanted to do so it seemed like the perfect holiday for what is potentially our final family trip (and you might think that a campervan is one way of ensuring that yes, it is the final family trip and we will never holiday together again, but more on that later).

I’ve always been a bit surprised that I haven’t ended up back in New Zealand. I loved living there. The landscape was wonderful, and we camped and tramped a lot. Like really a lot. I felt like I really got the sense of humour. And living in Auckland we had great jobs with many opportunities that we could never get in Adelaide.

But that’s where we were living when my mum died, and somehow I always felt that if I didn’t come home, back to where she wasn’t anymore I would never truly come to terms with her death. I felt like I needed to touch her absence more strongly and more often than I did (or could) from Auckland.

It’s funny you know, what your body knows before your mind, because for the week before we left I started getting slower. My body was sluggish. At the gym I went to pilates instead of spin, and in the evenings when I would usually pace my way along the esplanade I ambled. I slept. I went to bed early and I got up late, and I had been asleep the whole time but I was not rested. I kept scanning my body for a virus. A ticklish throat, an aching ear? But there was no sign of illness that I recognised.

And then, a few days before Christmas, we got on the plane and as we pulled away from the gate I began to cry. Truly cry, like I haven’t cried for years. And that’s when I understood what was going on. New Zealand was the last place I saw my mum. Twenty four years, half my lifetime, spent making an intimate study of grief and it seems there is still so much to learn.

A lot of capsules and many vials too

In which all that is robust is fragile too

This is part of an installation at the British Museum. It’s Cradle to Grave by Pharmacopoeia. The work shows a lifetime’s supply of prescribed drugs, using composites to create drug narratives for one man and one woman. The work excludes over-the-counter and recreational drugs such as panadol, vitamins and ecstasy, but still runs to 14,000 drugs knitted together and displayed in a mesh that runs for 14 metres. Of course, the composites are derived from the developed world and its focus is on our biomedical approach to health.

The woman’s drug story takes us through her vaccinations, pregnancies, miscarriage, hormone replacement therapy, chemotherapy, arthritis, a hip replacements, diabetes and a range of life’s random infections and illnesses.

I saw this piece in 2011 and spent a long time wandering back and forth along it and indeed the criticism levelled by one critic that the piece is a distraction from the rest of the room is a fair one in my case – I don’t remember anything else that was around it. It may be that I did not take everything away from the exhibition that I should have/could have done, but this installation haunts me.

It is the mister’s birthday today. He is 49. I know that age is just a number and 50 is the new 30 and life begins and so on. But bodies. They are robust, tangible proof of our existence, as fragile as our thoughts.

Visit to Sharjah

In which I am not the adventurer I think I am

I loved that green scarf my eldest boy had wrapped around his waist in that photograph. It was soft to touch, the creases fell out of it, and it matched nearly everything in my wardrobe. I took it with me whenever I left the house and it nearly always ended up wrapped around one of the boys.

At the time this photograph was taken we had been living in Abu Dhabi for ten months, and those ten months included the extended three month summer break that I spent travelling through Spain and then living in Edinburgh for a month where I staged my first (what would come to be my only) solo show.

We were spending the weekend in Sharjah, the small emirate that borders the other side of Dubai and is about 150 kilometres from Abu Dhabi. At the time, it had a lot more cheap accommodation and schooling than was available in Abu Dhabi and many people on low incomes would commute. Every day. They probably still do, but I’m not sure about details like that anymore.

By this time, we had found a place to live and while the lads and I were in Spain, the mister had moved out of our temporary apartment and into our new compound apartment. We had passed the first anniversary of my dad’s death, my grandfather was more settled in his new accommodation. In the shadow of the GFC and a company merger, the mister’s employment was not unstable but was more complex than we had thought it would be when he accepted the job offer over a year before.

I was also facing something entirely unexpected: I was not loving living in a different country and culture to my own. This messed with my mind because until now I had thought that I loved travel, that I wanted to live anywhere, everywhere allthewhere. For more than twenty years nearly every decision that I’d made had been on the understanding that I wanted always to be seeing new places. On our backpacking trips I had listened to everyone else’s stories of living in Singapore, Hong Kong, the Middle East and I had thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ You understand, don’t you, that when I say ‘thought’ I mean ‘believed’. I mean that this was who I thought I was. A person who wants to be in new and different places. Even if it had sometimes frightened me or made me feel uneasy, the opportunity to think beyond myself had always energised me.

This was not my experience in my first year of being in Abu Dhabi. During that time I was filled with such intense and debilitating feelings of dislocation that it was impossible to focus or concentrate on anything much more than the immediate task at hand. More deeply, whether I was conscious of it or not this was having a profound impact on my sense of identity and self.

On the weekend that this photograph was taken, I was taking practical steps to grapple with this mismatch in my expectations of myself and the reality of my feelings. I was organising trips like this thinking that it would help me to root myself more firmly in the place. That’s what I’d always done previously when I felt out of place and dislocated – I’d thrown myself fully into that space.

It didn’t work. I did not enjoy my weekend in Sharjah even for one second. The emirate of Sharjah is dry (that is, without alcohol), but the Russians we shared the lift with as we went down to the lobby of our hotel were clearly drinking something more than water. Sitting by the pool for an hour I felt like I was a character in a road trip movie only I was the only one who hadn’t taken three days of drugs to get there. The weather had not cooled and I hadn’t adjusted to the constant heat of the desert. I couldn’t get my head around the museums’ hours and so we were mostly wandering around between closed museums and empty markets. And I didn’t once feel that spark of excitement and discovery that I do at new museums and art galleries.

Of course, this was a temporary unhappiness. Soon enough, time would soften the sharp edges of my grief. I would make peace with the many changes to my identity – the changes that had been forced on me and the changes that I had made. I would stand steadily again even if the ground under my feet were sand.

But on the day I took this photograph I didn’t know any of that.


In which I am, once again, a sucker for an accent

This is the story of how I know you cannot have an orgasm simply from drinking coffee.

Once upon a time yesterday morning everything went wrong starting from the moment when I got out of bed at 4.50 am to get a floppy adolescent to swimming training on the other side of the city. For example, the cat upended the food scraps bucket in order to get to the imagined delicacies contained therein. I have no idea what he was after because when they were upended on the floor all I could see were coffee grounds, carrot skins and an avocado seed. I will not bore you with the rest of the details because although they felt horrific as I lived them, when I write them it looks like nothing more than a boring list.

Anyhoo, I decided to treat myself to a coffee before I went to my office to do some work.

The barista said, ‘Can I help you?’ and his accent was Spanish, and this was the best thing that had happened to me all day.

‘I would like a skim milk caffe latte please, but I can have it only half…I don’t mean half the shot of coffee but half the milk.’

‘Ah, you mean like piccolo, I will make you piccolo.’ His accent was still Spanish.

We chat and I say, ‘I need the coffee because I get up early to take my teenager to swimming.’

‘Do you mind if I ask you a question?’ (Still with Spanish accent.)

I shook my head.

‘Where do you swim?’

A little more conversation ensued because he wanted to know where to swim that was not too expensive, because in his country he swims a lot and he is missing it.

Then, he passed me my coffee and said, ‘Are you a coffee member here?’

I shook my head and he said, ‘I will charge you only two dollars anyway.’

Spanish accent.

At my desk, I drank that coffee and not only was it made by a man with a Spanish accent who only charged me two dollars, it was the smoothest coffee ever made, ever drunk and I drunked it but I did not have an orgasm and that is the story of how I know it is not possible to have an orgasm just from drinking coffee.

But that is not the end of the story. I went back to the coffee shop at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and ordered another coffee although lunchtime is the time past which I do not consume caffeine. He only charged me two dollars, but the coffee was a little bitter and a little tired. And not every story has a happy ending.