Sunday, 30 December 2012

Sand and Surf

We spent today at Naval Base, the little village of holiday homes where my Mother's family owns a few of the shacks that grace the cliff face of the Indian Ocean. In the current chain of days registering 40+ on the thermometer, it was a welcome respite, a chance to dip into the refreshing sea water before momentarily sunbathing in the heat of the midday sun.

Where Granddad's shack is, there is a tiny beach: a pocketful of sand hemmed in on one side by the rocky limestone cliffs and on the other by the pale aqua blue water rippling in the sunlight. For our first swim the water is calm and clear, quietly lapping at the golden sands allowing us to drift along following the striped fish and they darted in and out of the rocky outcrop below.

But midday a north-westerly breeze had hit, capping the growing waves and gently rocking us in the direction of the rocky shore. It then died down again, returning to a state of clear tranquillity and warmth, and tempted we submerged ourselves again, washing off the residual cobwebs of heat and sweat and stress.

Floating in the shallows, I remember a time, years ago, when as little girls my sister and I would float out to a rock ten metres from the shore and peering down through a glass-bottomed bucket, we would examine the sea grapes and mussels with which the rock abounded. It was from this selection that we would collect a sample to examine further at lunch. In addition to the fresh mussels, Naval Base brings with it memories of fresh crab, being taught to use the dead crab's claw to ferret out the tender flesh from the depths of the jointed legs. On one occasion a sea urchin was found, its life ending on the barbecue as like the mussels, it's shell was cracked open and content drained in high appreciation.

On occasion we would stay till dusk, watching rays play in the shallows, watching the sea breeze creep in, and the sea swell to a crescendo with the gradual setting of the sun.

Friday, 28 December 2012

What is love?

What is it about us?
Do we have such unrealistic expectations of love that we're never satisfied?
Have we come to view the romance of being in love as the only type of love? As the thing we should expect to feel for someone for the entire of our lives? As though the absence of this is the absence of love, period?
Have we ceased to identify the different concepts of love, focussing solely on the intoxication of being in love because that is the idealistic fluff that is perpetrated to us through the mediums of society? This bliss of first falling in love is what we expect to perpetrate through the 'happily ever after' fairy tales have promised us?

I remember a sermon at school where we were introduced to the Ancient Greek classifications of love, for where we have one word which sprouts confusion, they have at least four: agape, eros, philia and storge. Unlike us, they differentiate between the dutiful love of children towards their parents, or the love that exists between friends. They also differentiate between the passionate sensual type, or being in love and the deeper sense of true love. And it is this last word, agape that is used to express 'I love you (s'agapo)', a phrase that even in this language should outlive the honeymoon period.

While the feeling of eros, of passionate sensual love, be it sexual or not, is an intoxication of which we can never get enough, we have ceased to listen to the voice of experience that warns us of eros' short life span. It is the honeymoon period before real life sets in, when our eyes are opened to the faults of the other and life's little stresses get in the way. When the addition of new responsibilities impact upon the dynamics of a relationship. When the mundaneness of raising children and maintaining a household become the focus of each lover's world and their passionate love for each other morphs into a steadier love.

Growing up, we are subconsciously indoctrinated by the fairy tales and Disney stories upon which we are fed. Though they teach us reading and comprehension they also provide lessons in social expectations: the type of women of the world, the importance of beauty, the 'happily ever after' of falling in love and marrying Price Charming. In this day and age, this is unrealistic and unacceptable. And yet novels exist that can prepare us for life. Romances even, that override the kitsch that Disney has to offer, that can explain this difference in love about which we appear to have become so oblivious. Just one example is Georgette Heyer's 'A Civil Contract' where the young hero is torn between the woman he is in love with but could not marry and the woman with whom he entered a marriage of convenience but eventually comes to genuinely love. Not only does it show that relationships need work to thrive and overcome hurdles, but also the potential unsuitability of in love love to the hardships and business of day-to-day life.
As an exercise in realism, this is a far better thing upon which to base your expectations than the fairy tales and Disney stories upon which we are expected now to grow up.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Nativity Scene

Every Christmas (bar this one just gone) my grandfather would construct in his sun room a mountainside nativity scene out of waxed butchers paper. It was a tradition his father had passed on to him, though as the years advanced Granddad would comment on the difficulty in finding the specific type of paper he required to achieve his vision. It was always absolutely stunning, a rocky outcrop around a central cave in which the holy family sheltered but every year it was subtly different, depending upon the creases of the stiff butcher's paper. In the foreground the shepherds tended to their flocks while on the hill behind modern wooden houses and little ceramic churches dotted the landscape. Granddad loved playing with things, electricity included, and so he'd wire up the houses on the mountain side with a set of Christmas lights, however he'd always include one setting for us which we were told was of a naughty boy playing with the light switches in his house.

During the festive season, our first port of call when visiting Granddad was the nativity scene where we would scour the nooks and crannies for the hidden baby Jesus and then proceed to hide him again so that come Christmas Eve, only we knew his location and only we could place him in the manger. Between the cousins we'd team up against each other, and try to be as inventive as possible so that no one else was able to find the hidden baby.

Wandering through Naples earlier in the year, we stumbled upon a Christmas market that specialised in the type of tiny figurines that graced Granddad's set. Every ornament was beautifully executed, from the tradition shepherd carrying a lamb across his shoulders to the more exotic boxes of Asian vegetables designed to grace the local market stalls of the village scenes and with every one I was reminded of Granddad, if not because it was so like what he already possessed then because it was something unusual that would add so much to his carefully maintained traditions.

As we wandered through, I was on the look out for a small cat, a personal symbol to add to the nativity. Cats have played an extensive role on our lives, my Grandfather's included but they are one of the few animals excluded from the stables, and the bible as a whole. Despite being such an appropriate inclusion, I was hoping to teasingly provoke my Grandfather's reaction of 'it goes against tradition', particularly as being a good Catholic, he would be bound to know of the poor cat's absence from the bible.

My argument in retaliation would simply have been that it was adding to tradition, something I seem to do with all the traditions he passes down to me.

I didn't find one.

Monday, 24 December 2012

My (cousin's) first...

My cousin (technically first cousin once removed) is 11 months old and Christmas Eve marked her first visit to Kings Park, our botanical gardens overlooking the Swan river and city of Perth. Kings Park is beautiful: in On the steep slope down to the river native flora grow wild while above manicured lawns festooned with gardens of natives provide the perfect locale for family picnics and weddings.

Picnicing near a young tree, my cousin decided that now was the perfect time to indulge in a little exploring, particularly of the black dirt in which the sapling stood. With no restraints and little more than a mild protest from her mother, my cousin liberally covered her feet, legs and hands in good clean dirt. Watching such indulgence was a simple classic image that could have dated from anyone's childhood and reminded me of photos of my own sister: I recollect a photo of her from before she was walking crawling across the grass with her mouth covered in dirt and grass and if anything, its just given her a more detailed interest in plant life.

King's Park is delightful for not only does it possess and array of plants native to this area, but it also contains varieties of English trees that herald back to a time when we were still only a British outpost actively tried to recreate the English landscape many settlers missed from home. Wanting my cousin to experience as little more of the park, I kidnapped her from the party and went for a wander showing her some of the different plants and introducing her to some of the sounds and textures of the park. I felt as though I was introducing her to the smooth bark of a eucalyptus, the metal plaque of a war memorial, the crunchiness of the flowers of the everlasting (paper-daisy) and the stiff velvety leaves of a banksia.

It was an utter joy discovering such natural things with her and seeing her follow my example and touch things or just sit there with a smile, taking in the thinks I was pointing out to her: the magpie having a standoff with a crow, the pavilion in which her Nanna married... I know she's too young to remember any of this but I suppose I want her to have the opportunity to have as rich a life as I do but with the type of richness I feel to be most important.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

I don't understand

Perth drivers can't merge.
Not like the Italians can. Not with a short on-ramp, a queue of cars behind you and a truck bearing down on you at 80 miles per hour.  On the autostrada, there's not much else you can do, and really its far to difficult to journey anywhere avoiding the autostrada. In Genova at least.

Here, we get scared at the mere thought of it. We're petrified of merging with traffic whilst travelling at a snail's pace. And if it's travelling at anything faster than a jog, we slow to a crawl and inch our way into the lane bringing that lane to a familiar crawl in the process. And yet we wonder why the freeway is so congested...

And yet if the traffic lights at an intersection are out we become brilliant drivers; we automatically work as a team and ensure everything runs as smoothly as ever, as though there was never a problem.

I just don't understand. 

Friday, 21 December 2012

Christmas Tradition

For me, Christmas tradition begins with food:

Growing up Christmas wasn't Christmas without the trio of desserts Granddad and Silvija lovingly prepared. Though we always had truffles, rocky road chocolate rinds and biscotti provided by other members of the family, it was these three desserts that represented Christmas tradition.
Unlike the Piragi which were Silvija's tradition, these were Granddad's, stemming from his childhood in Egypt. My mother's favourite was the Ghoreheba/ghorayebah, small mounds of shortbread spiked with a single clove before being smothered in icing sugar. For my cousins, I believe it was the Cornetti, triangles of pastry filled with apricot jam, while in our house my sister and I preferred to fight over the Kahk. Minced dates wrapped inside short pastry, these are the fiddliest to make, a challenge I decided this Christmas to undertake. Normally, my sister would make the traditional foods while I focussed on the biscotti and truffles, but this year her absence and my Grandfather's hinting encouraged me to attempt them myself, (otherwise I knew I wouldn't get any at all).

Now it's not that the recipe is convoluted: its a simple butter pastry wrapped around minced dates. It's just that the pastry needs to be of a certain texture and elasticity and with an ambiguous water quantity to add to the pastry its difficult to ensure you have achieved this consistency or even anything vaguely resembling it. It doesn't help that the last time I made these would have been about five years ago(when me sister was still experimenting with the butter/water ratio) and the last time I tasted them was close to three years ago.

So, with time and effort and a little of a devil-may-care attitude I attempted Kahk:

I just hope Granddad thinks they're up to standard.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Summer Without Raspberries

I miss raspberries.

It's not as though you can't get them here, I just miss English raspberries. I miss the promised intensity of flavour that is lacking in the overripe specimens on offer here.

Living in London I found there were two types: the mild sweet ones that burst in your mouth but left you wanting more, and the firm tart ones that made you eat the whole punnet ever desirous of finding another one as awakening as the last.

I miss curling up on my couch with a fresh punnet and systematically devouring them one by one. It was always with care that each raspberry was selected from the punnet, fresh and plump and promising. And then to taste it, the soft velvety fur overwhelmed by the surge of fresh juice as your tongue forced the berry to bursting point against the roof of your mouth. And even when the punnet was empty, there was always the annoyance of realising you still had seeds stuck in the craters of your molars.

I miss the raspberries that made summer bearable.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Tradition of the Tree

Growing up, we never believed in fake Christmas trees. Never!

Instead it was always some plant retrievable from the garden and capable of spending three weeks indoors weighed down with baubles and fairy lights. Over the years an Albany Woolly Bush has lived and died for the cause, a Ficus Benjamina called into action and more recently the limb of an overgrown shrub that has rebelled against the confines of its allotted corner. If it is the whole tree called to bear the load it remains in its crumbling pot, lifted as one into the lounge room where we can provide it with the make over of its life. It is one when a solitary limb is used that the pot is packed with rocks, the majority of the tree remaining alive and well happily ensconced in the wilderness of the garden.

As Mum's garden is full of overgrown shrubs, we have the ability to be quite choosy and go so far as to put a permanent ban on at least one of the more perilous of Mum's suggestions. But each year, there is always some plant capable of surviving a prune and sacrificing a limb to the cause of Christmas.

Moving to London for two years, this tradition was so ingrained in me that I thought it traitorous to contemplate a fake tree, or even for that matter a real pine tree. What was the point of using a fake tree when a real one was so readily available and so much more beautiful, and in conjunction, what was the point of a real tree when you'd separated it from its root system and condemned it to death simply for being a small classic 'Christmas tree'.

In rebellion, I decided upon a different take on tradition. Holly is so often associated with the festive season and in London grows in abundance, over peoples' fences, at bus stop shelters and within the local park. Desirous of only a small tree, and applying the Australian ruling that anything hanging over your fence is fair game, I found a festive way to acquire my alternative Christmas 'tree'. What was more delightful was that for the first year I was able to find variegated holly whilst for the second year it was soft leaved holly attached to heavy bunches of bright red berries. Such a classic image.

Now coming back home to Australia I have my own little collection of memorable ornaments and nowhere to hang them. So I decided upon another Christmas tree: one of my own and one, if not traditional, at least native to the area. So I have a lemon-scented gum Christmas 'tree' this year and it smells divine!

Friday, 14 December 2012

Scant Memories

Sorting through my possessions, I recently stumbled upon a gift from my Grandpa. Its rather simple, a pen drawing of a giant panda leaning towards me delicately painted in watercolours. And its a memory of my Grandpa.

The sad thing though is that its one of very few memories, and a referred memory at that. I've no idea how I got it or when he did it though its been sitting on my bedroom wall for most of my childhood. I've been told it was by him and now recognise his style.
He was obviously an artistic man, there's proof enough of that shared out between the extended family.  Illustrations pop up (and are now shared digitally), and more than one of his naturalistic wood carvings grace the lounge room bookshelves. My father and aunts still occasionally talk about the books he wrote and illustrated for them, but the Grandpa I knew personally was never artistic. In fact the only hobby I remember him indulging in was that of pipe-smoking. For most of my childhood he lived in Tasmania on a beautiful wooded property in the north overlooking the beach, but I do remember him staying here with my aunt for lengthy periods on more than one occasion. We were only little at the time, and there was always the encouragement to get to know our extended family. It was just that with Grandpa, it was as though he was never really interested in us at all.

I have two memories of Grandpa. Both are hazy at best and unfortunately neither portray him in a very positive light. The first is of him shuffling around my aunt's kitchen area. Its so insignificant that I can't tell if it really is a memory or whether I've projected his habits onto a place I know he was associated with. The second is clearer. Its of Grandpa standing in our meals area in front of the bookcase. I distinctly picture the bookcase, more than I do the people, as though the height of the case defined the parameters of my view. And then I remember him going outside through the side door to have a smoke as he wasn't allowed to smoke inside. To this day pipe smoke reminds me of him, the only scent I can associate with him.

My grandpa died in 1997 and I remember being told by my father on the way to school. It was the first death in my life and my reaction to the news was being astonished that I felt absolutely nothing. I processed the information as you would any other unalterable fact and just got on with the rest of the day. Its sad that a grandparent could create so little memory in his own grandchild.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

A Disney Wedding

Unveiled has opened at the WA Museum, a lusciously lustful collection of wedding dresses from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London town and it has me thinking. Not about marriage, I've had enough weddings of late to keep me satisfied, but of a current phenomenon.

The exhibition which I spent four glorious hours examining and imbuing through every fibre of my being covers 200 years of bridal fashion history (with a few menswear items thrown in) and it was delightful to see such a diversity of styles, even amongst the very best of historical design. Some brides were practical, some subversive, some innovative and on trend, others conservative for the time and place. But they were all different, and through the careful attention of Edwina Erhman and her team at the V&A, each dress is infused with the identity of the bride and so each dress has a story to tell from how it came to be designed for the bride for her special day, to the love and care the family as put into recording the identity of these garments and accessories (including the bridegroom's waistcoat) and preserving them for our benefit today.

Looking at the variety of styles on display, they serve to clearly illuminate the overarching monotony of bridal gowns today. Here on display are 200 years of diverging styles, 200 years of inspiration: the beautiful and the unusual that women were willing to wear on their special day, clothes that truly did set them apart from the crowd and make their day a day to remember. I know its a terrible thing to say, but today so many brides look alike. I think I can safely say that the dress is the most important part. Too often it has been decided before the groom is even known. In a way it's nice to hope it means the bride has taste, or individuality and a sense of identity. But all too often each dress is big: a large crinolined skirt attached to a boned and beaded strapless bodice.

And its not even the most flattering of styles. So why do so many brides insist upon it for that one day when they are the centre of the world, the day when they get to marry their Prince Charming?
Is it that on this one day, their day, they simply want to be viewed as a princess... in the Disney Style?

This phenomenon appears to be prevalent among my generation, a generation of girls who grew up with Disney's version of Snow White and Cinderella, no doubt watched Beauty and the Beast in the cinemas, and wanted to be like Ariel with her cave of treasures or Sleeping Beauty with her ability to commune with the animals. Women who's life goal was to find 'the one' and marry. As impressionable little girls we adopt it quickly and apply our own dreams to this thing called a wedding. In more recent years we've added a few more goals to our list, but it still remains firmly implanted there: 'find the one and marry'.

Thankfully, I would add that my generation missed the brunt of the damage. We're just that little too old for the 'Disney Princess' scheme which has taken merchandising by storm. We escaped with our own clutch of Disney princesses, instead of having this growing clutch of vapid beauties stuffed down our throats by marketing giants. Still, we spent formative years amongst characters who's 'happily ever after' began with a big white dress.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Making Piragi

Its 34°C and I'm making Piragi.

We're not Latvian but they're a family tradition, stemming from the childhood days when my grandfather's companion would spend the entire day in the kitchen making batches for her grandchildren and for us. As the festive season approached my cousins and I would be rationed these delights, vying with each other for the victory of gaining the last ones remaining on the plate.

Since Silvija's passed away, it has been my sister who has taken up the recipe and dedicated the time and effort to create these memorable mouthfuls for our family and for my Grandfather. They're not difficult, at least not compared with the other traditional dishes we know and love. Its just that when you're making them in the heat of an Australian summer you realise they really were created for a country that is used to the bitter cold of winter, where the heat of the kitchen was a welcome relief from the realities outside.

The recipe we've inherited calls for scalded milk, a moderate oven in action the majority of the afternoon and the elbow grease to knead, cut and press these little buns into shape. In the heat of summer though, iced water and exhaust fans are as much a necessity as the oven.

The past two years I haven't been home at Christmas or Easter when my sister has made the effort to make these Bacon Buns. This year however she has migrated to Germany and so the duty falls to me, so, with fading memories and several versions of the recipe I'm attempting to retain family tradition.

How did I do?

Christmas Markets

I was born in Australia and have spent all bar three Christmases in the searing heat of an Australian summer. But this year, I miss the cold of a London winter. For the last five years, Christmas here has peaked at more than 40°C and while we cope the best we can, avoiding the hot roast dinner and flaming pudding in favour of cold ham and icecream bombe, it is still a sweltering occasion with the family wilting as the day progresses.

My last two Christmases managed to circumvent this as I was living in London experiencing first hand the concept of a proper white Christmas.  Neither was a white Christmas, though it was close, but the short days and biting cold of London's winter were a contrasting and welcome change. Instead of the feel of sweat running down the small of your back, the air chilled your fingers to the point of numbness and the breeze sent icy fingers down the neck of your felt coat. You felt glad you'd remembered to wear your felt-lined boots or even your toes would be suffering from the chill rising through the frozen ground.

Hearing now of the current festive season in London, I'm drawn back to the Hyde Park Winter-Wonderland where bright lights and German signs advertising bratwursts and gluhwien draw you through the stalls selling christmas ornaments and lollies into the muddy heart of wonderland. I miss the thrill of wandering around London after work snug in a warm elegant coat and fur hat admiring the Christmas lights down Oxford Street and the windows of Fortnum and Mason. Then traipsing across the river at Charing Cross to visit the Southbank markets where stalls sell scarves and jewellery, and delicate glass ornaments to decorate the tree regally awaiting your return home. 

For each of the two years I spent in London, I bought a little ornament for my Christmas tree, a small decoration that symbolised that year's adventures. The first year it was tobogganing in Greenwich park with housemates as we celebrated the first snow and the close of schools. We borrowed the landlady's tea tray with strict instructions to prove its indestructibility. It returned, a slight dip in the middle as we'd pulled the handles up hanging on for life as we careered down the steep slopes of Greenwich park. The second year I'd finally discovered the deer who resided in the corner of Greenwich park and so the wooden ornament depicted them calmly grazing amongst a forest of evergreens. 

I miss the bright red berries of the holly as it heralded the arrival of the festive season, and the alternative Christmas tree it provided for me as its green and variegated leaves lit up a corner of my little room. 
And hearing of my sister's current adventures through the markets in Potsdam, sampling the German food on offer just makes me want to leave the chaos of organising Christmas here and return to the calmer (if colder) airs of London.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

That Ring Finger

It's a strange feeling, to have your ring finger obviously checked for signs of marriage.

I'll admit, on this occasion, perhaps it was a little more expected than usual as I was at a wedding dress exhibition and was so obviously taking notes on the wonders of the exhibition. And assumption has it that someone my age would no doubt be there looking for inspiration... that is if I wasn't already married. So she had to check. So she knew how to word her question. Silly really, as historical fashion is enough of a draw for me. But I suppose she wasn't to know that.

It's strange though because I view my marital status as completely irrelevant both to my life, and to society's view of me. I am who I am, an interesting person in my own right. And if you feel the need to check my finger before deciding whether its worth your while to come and talk to me, I wonder whether I'd want to talk to you. But it still holds an immense importance for others and guides (even if only subtly) their expectations and assumptions. Norms that deserve to be tested and challenged.

I'll admit, I delighted that on this occasion the woman's response to my fingers was pure confusion and I had to draw her attention away from the solitaire diamond and heirloom wedding band on the wrong  finger to accept a view at odds with the standards in social expectation. I wear old jewellery: my mother's Art-Deco diamond, my grandmother's cross, my great-grandmother's earrings, my great-great-grandmother's wedding band named and dated for prosperity. It just so happens that my mother's solitaire compliments the wedding band quite superbly and raises more questions than I'd ever allow it to answer. You see, for me marriage is very much an after-thought; as my sister puts it, only of consideration when financially advantageous to her overseas life with her partner. While I understand its importance to others, I didn't grow up dreaming of my wedding dress, planning my wedding in detail whilst waiting from 'the one.' It didn't seem necessary... at least not to me.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Kitchen Tea Etiquette

This past weekend I attended the kitchen tea of a dear friend and watching as she sat in a pile of presents opening them one by one, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the rules of a Kitchen tea were unknown to more than one of the guests. Despite the looming cost of the wedding presents, the bride was unwrapping expensive tea sets and seasonal plates by Rob Ryan, gifts that surely cost far more than the $2 that will get you a perfectly functional spatula from Kmart.

As dictated to me by my mother, when she and previous generations married the bride went from being a daughter in her parent's house to owning and running her own house, a house that needed kitting out before she moved in as a newly married woman. Then, the groom provided the house but as the bride's role in the new house was running the household and ensuring her husband was fed, it was her duty to fill the kitchen and linen closets. The bride's dowry box contained the household linen, and the bridal registry contained the more expensive, more important items, the typical white goods of the house: the microwave, the toaster, and the crockery and cutlery of the house. But the kitchen drawers still needed to be stocked with those utensils so necessary to preparing dinner like vegetable peelers, spatulas and potato mashers. To accommodate this, the female family and friends of the bride would gather together and present to the bride these utensils.

As my generation has preferred the practise of moving out of our parent's home before marriage, we have acquired for ourselves the household of furniture and medley of kitchen utensils. However the tradition of the kitchen tea has quietly hung on and is now making a come back. Unfortunately in conjunction with this the etiquette of this occasion is not experiencing an equal resurgence: mothers have forgotten to pass this vital information on to their daughters to the extent that some girlfriends have no idea of what a kitchen tea actually is. And of those who do, some still don't realise that they are supposed to arrive with nothing more than the eponymous vegetable peeler.

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