Our drive from Agrigento to the next destination was not a long one, so we decided to take a side trip to Villa Romano. It is reputed to have some of the best preserved mosaics in the world. Sometimes it is hard to plan without clear information, and this was the case for this trip.
By the time we arrived, we were at the furthest extent of a massive parking area, radiating heat in the midday sun. We also had all our luggage in the car and had read too many forums about tourists losing everything they owned out of a rental car! We decided to take it in turns.
So I set off first, and realised as I toiled up the first slope that it was a long, steep climb up to the entrance. After a determined effort (without Peter to push me from behind – not elegant but it helps) I made a call and turned back. That’s a world class attraction I will have to pass up!
Peter went up then and verified that it was so big and uneven that I would have found it too much. He was awestruck with the Villa, so I will include some of his photos of what I didn’t see.
In the meantime I went shopping in the souvenir and other shops at the base. Most of it was the usual gaudy Sicilian colours and designs, but I found a lovely leather and jewellery shop where the owners were the artisans. Beautiful options for some presents to take home, and a way to support local artists. So that was my outing.
As the little Fiat Panda set off to our next destination, I realised that I was getting almost accustomed to being on the road in Sicily, and on the wrong side. Our route from Siracusa to Agrigento took us north along the coast with sweeping sea views and then turned inland and west, avoiding the huge city of Catania. A great drive across Sicily.
We drove towards smoking Mount Etna, then next to it for a while, and the horizon opened up as we covered the kilometres of dry, scrubby terrain and bare mountains at a speed well over 100kph. Some traffic passed us so fast that we hardly saw them coming up behind us. The only relief from the stony terrain was the citrus groves, some thriving, others struggling after last month’s terrible heat wave. There was evidence of the bushfires that threatened the area not long ago.
In a stretch of nearly 200km, there was only one service station about halfway, so I’m glad we stopped. We did not need petrol (little Panda is a hybrid) but a comfort stop and somewhere to have a snack. Relief in every sense!
The route was simple enough until we exited the freeway to take the A19 – roadworks made for confusion and we missed it and did a 10km reroute. Lots of tunnels which are quite dark with no room for error. Peter has done an amazing job driving, although he has stopped indicating when overtaking because ‘it confuses the locals’…
If ancient history, culture, architecture, art and religion are not your thing, Siracusa may not be your top destination, because it is full of all of those things. Everywhere there are stones, gates, columns, carvings and structures with chisel marks made by someone hundreds, even thousands of years ago.
We are staying close to the famous Neapolitan archeological park, but in deference to the heat and to save some steps for a big visit, Peter gallantly drove there and managed to park.
It is a huge area that takes the visitors on a romp through history, starting with a Greek theatre that is used for all sorts of shows today. We did the reverse chronological order to avoid the tour groups, and were amazed at what is still standing of the Roman arena.
It was smaller than I expected, and I had very mixed feelings as I imagined how intimate this venue was for viewing the horror of gladiator and wild animals events that were all the go back then. There are the remains of a pit in the centre where they think the blood ran, and afterwards was accessed by locals for their ‘health’. Oh dear. It was built around the time of Jesus, and gladiator schools were fortunately disbanded about 400 years later.
My other reaction is sheer admiration for those who built these places well enough for them to be still standing a couple of thousand years later. Our council roads don’t survive the first heavy rain storm.
Random fact: there were stands of gum trees around the arena.
Long walks took us backwards in time to the Greek arena which was first built 500 years BC. I took one look at the steep climbs to the top and nearly piked out, but made it and we were wowed by the views and the sheer size of the theatre.
This venue has always had more pleasant functions – performance and culture. I always wonder who picked the magnificent site and started hewing into the rock. Near it is the quarry where it all came from, now turned into a lush garden.
As we had our recovery picnic at the top (we never go anywhere without water, juice, nuts and wrapped Italian treats), we met some Uruguayans who wanted to talk rugby. When they learnt we are from Australia, they started to do the Hakka…we are often seen as one country with NZ! They also wanted a photo ‘without the women’.
Sunday came around again and we felt in need of a quieter day. The heat is relentless and tires me out very quickly. Some reading and communication, and we tuned into New Pen online service again to hear Canon Glenn Loughrey, First Nations speaker who is a priest, artist and author. A great message. I am a solid Yes voter – we need to move forward and listen to our brothers and sisters, however it works out.
A Sunday drive seemed a good idea, so we headed out late afternoon to challenge ourselves on a mountain climb to Italy’s version of the Grand Canyon – Cava Grande di Cassabile. We drove south on the autostrada, almost nonchalantly now, and then turned inland.
Soon we were driving (not at all nonchalantly) on the steepest switchback road I have ever been on and I tried to stifle my squeals at every corner and look at the view, which Peter couldn’t do. So glad we have the smallest car we could cram into, as there is barely room for two cars on these roads and no centre line.
Incredible views of the eastern coastline, especially Siracusa on the horizon. A turn onto a short dirt road, and we hoped the place we had read about in blogs would be accessible. It was, and we had arrived at the rim of a huge gorge with a necklace of water holes at the bottom. People come to do the hike to the bottom and back, but it is actually closed off and not permitted, even if we wanted to.
In the late afternoon sun, the glow of the warm yellow rock in the gorge kept changing. We scrambled along the top, careful not to lean on the dodgy fence. In the freshening breeze, I was renewed with a sense of wellbeing and amazement at my new mountain goat persona. That knee replacement a year ago was worth the pain!
There was a small sign at the start of the walk that my limited Italian told me was about a concert. As people started to arrive and walk along the path we expected to have to ourselves, we realised that we were in the middle of a folk concert – real Italian Amore! It was magical as the the setting sun lit up the warm ochre hues on the opposite side of the gorge and the families settled in for the evening of music. Serendipitous for us, and memorable. I can’t seem to upload the video, but it is on Facebook if you haven’t seen it.
We needed one more excursion to the Isola Ortigia, as the heat had won over its attractions and ambience the first time.I think the whole island must heat up because after a while I was heat struck again and stumbled into the Duomo for refuge, like a mediaeval pilgrim. It is a beautiful, rustic church, built over the original Greek columns.
We made it down to the southern tip of Ortigia, passing millions of dollars worth of yachts and boats on the pier side. Castella Maniace is a huge fort built out into the sea in the 13th century for Emperor Frederick II. I can’t imagine what it was like to live there, but the views are spectacular. Apparently lightning blew up a tower in 1740, destroying most of the fort. The heat was radiating off the walls, forecourt and the sea, so I retreated to the shade of the alleyway and tied a wet hankie around my neck. Lunch was amazing – local pasta dishes involving prawns and anchovies. I have become addicted to ice cold Coke Zero – caffeine and ice with no sugar gives me a boost in place of alcohol.
Just a reflection on apartment living, which is how most people live here. I really felt the busyness of the city, with unceasing traffic noise (windows have to be closed tight, when I would prefer fresh air) and balconies are right next to one another. Laundry is dried over the railings, parking a challenge, chairs scraping on the floor above us a bit disturbing, and yet this is life in a big Italian city. It has been added to our experience bank and we adapted.
With one day left in Siracusa, there was an unfulfilled quest to locate and see a painting by Caravaggio. It used to be in the duomo on Ortigia, but we knew it had been returned to the church of the name of the painting, Santa Lucia. It turned out to be close by! Well, nothing is ever close with one way streets and lanes, but we found it. On a perfect evening, with the sea breeze finally cooling us, we arrived at a shaded piazza in front of the church. Children were playing, old men talking, families wandering to catch the evening cool.
And there it was – a massive painting occupying the front of the church. I did not know before that Caravaggio died at 39, and this painting was towards the end of his life. Imagine if he had lived longer! He had escaped from prison in Malta and and painted it after he fled to Siracusa. ‘The Burial of St Lucy’ portrays her unjustified death by stabbing, and the church is said to have been built where that happened. No wonder St Lucia’s somehow fought to get this painting back from the duomo!
it was a perfect farewell to the city and we bought some supplies for our trip at the little local cafe. Time to sort and pack for a road trip to our next destination – Agrigento. Our hosts came to say goodbye, still pressing gifts on us. Gentile e amichevole – kind and friendly are the words to describe Francesco and Donatella. We will never forget them or Siracusa and hope they will come to visit us one day.
It was a bit like heaven will be for tired pilgrims to arrive at Casa Sofocle in Siracusa. Drained of adrenalin, grotty in clothes we had worn for two days, swaying slightly from the train movement and sweating in the relentless heat, we pulled up in the little Fiat Panda – mercifully right in front of our accommodation. I’m not strong on praying for parking spots, but it does feel like the angels have been working overtime! Parking seems to require constant miracles.
As Francesco and Donatello insisted on carrying our cases and started to show us round I felt almost teary because they were so welcoming. I had forgotten the detail of our booking and was surprised to see how spacious it is with four big rooms equipped with absolutely everything. Generosity plus.
And the kitchen is overflowing with food, the fridge full of cold drinks of every kind, a bowl overflowing with fruit and the table set for us to eat. What a lesson in hospitality! I think they took one look at us and made us their project.
Messages every day, suggestions for outings and offers to help us get around. Just beautiful. The climax of this Sicilian welcome came when they dropped around a magnificent selection of local food, including the iconic arancini and cannoli. We invited them in for a glass of wine and had a funny conversation with the help of translation, which ended with us insisting that they stay with us when they manage their dream of going to Australia.
These interactions are precious and much more important than seeing yet another tourist site. And we are rolling in goodies now!
Siracusa is seeped with history – a history so layered and complicated that not even locals know it all. A 2,700 year old city, it is renowned for its ancient ruins, multiple invasions, Greek and Roman history, culture and architecture and as the birthplace of Archimedes. Where to start?
Our impressions of Sicily are that it has so much that is precious, yet is run down and crumbling in many places. While our little apartment is very nicely furnished, outside there is rubbish on the streets, broken pavements, holes in the road and very dodgy looking wiring overhead.
Yet there is charm in the old alleyways, precarious but pretty balconies and pots of succulents (especially the ubiquitous prickly pear) around every corner. In this burst of extended summer, the streets are lined with flourishing oleanders and bougainvilleas of every shade of pink and purple.
A big walking circuit on the first day in the relentless rain failed to find any cafes or food shops, except an old lady selling her last homemade pastries ($7 and delicious) and an African grocery that had wigs in the window but yielded some UHT milk. We met two young men from Ghana and Nigeria, both without jobs, and one of them an engineer. There were, however, multiple handbag shops, and specialty baby wear shops. By the time we got home, we were sloshing through rivers of rainwater filled with rubbish.
We chose to locate ourselves in this big city close to several major cultural destinations, so while it was still raining we took in a couple of indoor attractions.
The church of Saint John the Baptist was built in the 14th century on top of another church built in the 4th century! The church and ruined remains are a popular wedding venue, but it has subterranean treasure which is great on a rainy day.
I peered down the crumbling stone steps with no handrail and wondered what I was in for. I had just signed up for the catacombs tour! A vast maze of burial places dug into the rock underground was where the Christians were buried, as they could not be interred inside the city. We saw just a tiny corner of the caves, including the bishop’s tomb (people paid extra to be buried near him), family sites, and the always touching tiny cavities for babies. Tradition has it that it was also the spot where St Paul dropped in to preach when he was on his way from Malta to Rome (Acts 28:12).
We came out feeling reflective about the big questions of life, death and the march of time. I was grateful not to have met an early death and joined the departed hosts of souls by falling down the precarious steps and paths – another adventure notched up. The hard hat completed my sartorial choices for the day.
The Archaeological Museum is promoted as the most significant in Sicily and has a massive collection of artefacts from prehistoric times through the various ages, including beautiful Greek pottery. At present they have a special exhibition of coins and medals; one can hardly believe that the shiny gold and silver medallions with wonderful portraits on them go back to the the second, third or fourth century BC. Mind blowing. This whole area has given up masses of significant finds that have been well presented in the displays.
In fact, one guidebook described the museum as mind-numbing, and after a while, I agreed, because of the sheer number of exhibits and information.
The sad thing is that the venue itself was a shambles of deteriorating structures. The whole place was leaking, with pink plastic bowls catching the drips and wet carpet everywhere. Half finished renovations, broken air conditioners, piles of rubble – just horrendous, considering the priceless collection inside. They need a LOT of money to fix it – apparently more than is paid by tourists to get in.
Just a reflection here that entrance prices to almost everything in Italy are very expensive, with no concessions for seniors. EU citizens get a discount and under 18s are free. I think the tourists are holding up the economy! €10-15 is common, which is AUD16-25 – each. Throw in a couple of drinks and cannoli and a euro to use the WC and that’s a big total for one day’s activity, before we start on meals.
Everyone who comes to Siracusa goes to the ancient island of Ortigia, the historical centre which is attached to the main city by two bridges. Gambling on the rain ceasing, which it did, we had our first foray, successfully navigating in the car and miraculously (again) finding a great parking spot. Peter is amazing to manoeuvre everything in reverse, including parking in tight spots with six manual gears. Hill start training is essential here.
What a treasure! It truly is a place to wander and enjoy. The sea breezes made the temperature perfect and the narrow lanes meant we could stay in the shade. The remains of the temple of Diana (the goddess, not the princess) and an elaborate fountain surrounded by healthy cycad trees are very photo-worthy and attract the selfie brigade, but we were happy to leave the crowds and upmarket shopping drag for the smaller lanes. Our fight with NAB was kind of resolved and our card finally gave us cash from the hole in the ancient wall..
It seems that people do live in this maze of narrow streets,which were quieter and mostly shady. I love the handmade tiles with house numbers and names on them and i am on the lookout to find one. We need to raise the bar in Hastings with a cool house tile, I reckon!
Lemons are a recurring theme, as in the whole of the south. The climate is perfect and you can buy anything from soap to Limoncello to gaudy clothes that would never be worn again.
We have learnt to combine morning tea with a loo stop, as cafes are the most likely places to find one. We are averaging a cannolo per day so far – the ricotta filling is not sweet and they are just delicious. Although we made it to our next stop, the cathedral, we gave in to the heat and how far we had to walk back. There would have to be a second visit to Ortigia. I was pretty stretched by the long hot return to the parking area, but so pleased that I can do things I could not a year ago, like walking 5km in the sun.
The first foray to a hill town was to Noto, one of the so-called Baroque towns rebuilt after the cataclysmic earthquake of 1694; it damaged the greater part of Sicily. I was tense as I gripped several devices and maps to navigate, but Peter drove like a champion and we somehow parked at the top of the town, just above the Duomo.
As we clambered down the dizzyingly steep stone steps, I could only wonder how we would climb back up! Cooled by a pleasant breeze, we took in the cathedral, a palazzo, a gelato kiosk, an outdoor pizzeria and an art gallery. The listed Caravaggio turned out to be ‘attributed’, but the pop art installation was brilliant and elicited a happy dance from my uninhibited husband, in honour of our littlest grandchild’s 7th birthday. Miss you Levi!
Then began the ascent. Just up, up and more up. I was aided by an undignified hoist on the back of my pants by someone I hoped was my husband, and we made it. Reunited with our little Panda, we began the torturous winding trip out of the town.
I only squealed a couple of times, and was grateful when Apple Maps unexpectedly started giving us voice directions. Otherwise I think we would still be going around the hill in circles.
I am going to post this as part 1 for Siracusa, or it will be too long. But before I finish, some random observations:
At least 95% people are wearing sneakers – designer or otherwise.
The easily obtained food here is high carb – pizza, pasta, arancini, pastry snacks, biscuits, cannoli, cakes. We try to keep salad and fruit on hand to balance it out.
The local water tastes bad and reminds us of Adelaide in the old days!
Ambulances and fire trucks go past constantly with penetrating sirens.
Traffic rules are ‘just an idea’ and indicators rarely used, nor speed signs observed.
cars may not stop at pedestrian crossings, but screech to a halt for an elderly person with a walking stick.
Children are gorgeous all over the world and we delight in watching and hearing them.
After wearing my cut off white pants for about nine days in a row because of the heat, on a cooler travel transfer day it was time to pull out the jeans for a welcome change. We are in the groove with packing up now and all went smoothly with plenty of time at the station.
While we were waiting we made friends with two young mums who spoke some English and who were off for a holiday with four children and two prams between them! The five year old, a gorgeous kid, was intrigued with us as his mum explained where we are from. He solemnly counted up to six in English in an attempt to communicate and we showed him a photo of our grandson of a similar age. Missing our family!
Then we were off, plenty of space in the carriage for luggage, and time to chill. Trains here have wifi, so it is a good time to WhatsApp with our family. So much has changed since our earlier trips when we had to buy phone cards and use a public phone!
We thought we had pulled it off well when we found the hotel, but there was a miscommunication and we were not prepared to pay the extra they were asking, so we bailed and were homeless on the streets of München, Germany’s fourth largest city! Traveller resilience comes from solving problems, we told ourselves.
After dragging our luggage across town to another hotel (one person dragging much more than the other 😊) we were able to book another place instantly and realised that we had ended up in a very multicultural part of town. Thanks to Angela Merkel’s open policies, there are people from many nations; we find ourselves surrounded by Turkish, Afghani, Moroccan, Pakistani and Ethiopian people, to name a few. Best of all, there is marvellous food that we love: kebabs, rice, falafels, Turkish bread, to say nothing of mountains of baklava and Turkish delight! Add the other ethnic cafes and we are in no danger of starving.
Nürnberg is known for all kinds of associations, some of them not so good. It is, however, a beautiful town in Bavaria and we chose to spend a week here. Train travel in Europe is marvellous, and it is even more amazing that we could book our tickets on the German website before we left home.
We have learnt to allow plenty of time when catching trains, especially as I am not the quickest mover at the best of times and am not going to run along platforms finding our carriage. Or so I thought.
We checked out and walked to Frankfurt station, Peter pulling both of our suitcases, good man, and had plenty of time to find our platform. We know how to keep an eye on the diagrammatic train plans that tell you which part of the platform your carriage will stop – we’re across this! Or so we thought.
Somehow we picked up from the typically unintelligible railway announcements that the train was being replaced, so we waited for news. As it got closer to departure time, I noticed that people were rushing back up the platform, and I particularly noticed a lady whose dress I had admired when she went past before. We had evidently not understood the announcement that the new train was leaving from another platform behind us!
We ran – yes I did! I fell in up the steps of the carriage, and Peter hauled the cases one at a time as the door closed, almost on him, and the train glided from the station. We were within seconds of missing that train, which has never happened to us before. It took a while for my heart rate to come down, but at least it has added a little drama to my blog! I was very close to doing a solo train trip with suitcases but no husband.
My life has double joy at the moment. Not only am I able to walk again without pain after my knee surgery, but in doing so I have fallen into a love affair with mangroves. Well-being for me right now consists of a combination of a titanium prosthesis and drab looking shrubs growing quietly on our foreshore. Maybe I am easily pleased!
I was introduced to mangroves nearly sixty years ago: as a third-year geography student at university I researched mangrove habitat as part of the course. Memories of mud, squelch and mosquitoes at Corner Inlet are still with me, but I had no idea how that trip would come full circle and be part of my life today.
Then came my life in West Papua in the eighties. I delighted in the pristine environment of Manokwari on the Bay of Doreri, the mountains rising to 5000 feet out of the water, the tropical growth and our own private white sand beach in paradise. We were surrounded by mangroves but I was too busy having babies and coping with primitive living conditions to explore very much. I know now that over half of the mangrove habitat in Indonesia is located in this part of West Papua and that the trees play an important part in everyday life there.
My latest publication is the forty-year story of Flinders Christian Community College in Tyabb, Victoria. I was invited to co-author this volume with my long time friend and colleague, Valerie Mason; we both were heads of campus in the college and retired in 2008. It was a wonderful opportunity to research and collaborate to write the history of three campus over four decades.
The college was founded by people with a vision for Christian education for young people on the Mornington Peninsula, and has grown to be a vibrant educational community with nearly 2000 students, a large staff and modern buildings and facilities.
We chose to represent the voices of students, staff and parents by canvassing memories and thoughts about the school. These form a large part of the text and bring immediacy and authenticity to the narrative. Building on the previous history of the college from 1983-1994, written by Mrs Avril Howard and titled Born to Bear Fruit, we first painted a word picture of the school as it is today. Our goal was to show that while the college looks very different now, it still encapsulates the founding values of Christian schooling.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Psalm 91:1-2
Foxes have dens, and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head. Matthew 8:20
The unseasonal spring rains this year have prevented me from being outside as much as I would like in the growth season. Rain and more rain. Big fat drops and horizontal windy rain. Hard to escape getting wet sort of rain. Can’t even dash to the car without being drenched sort of rain. Shelter becomes more welcoming in such weather.
I love verandahs around a house; they wrap me up and shelter me whilst still being outside in the fresh air. I can sit and look at the dripping garden, foliage bouncing under the weight of drops. The soil is damp – no watering needed – as it absorbs the gift from the sky. But I am dry and sheltered under the rustic corrugated iron roof. Inside or out, my house is my place, and I can retreat there in comfort. I feel thankful to have a home I can always return to. ‘Home is where you hang your hat’, someone said. I have heap of hats for every occasion, and when I come home, I throw mine back on the pile.
I think about people without shelter. The news is troubling as I see whole apartment blocks in Ukraine blown apart. What does one do next when home has disappeared under a pile of rubble? Nowhere to make children feel safe; no water or electricity. No shelter from the paralysing cold. No soft mattress at night. I shiver and wrap my granny rug around me as I relax in my recliner in the warmth and peace of my home. What have I done to deserve a safe shelter?
Does it matter what size your home is? I recently met friends who made the decision in retirement to live in a ‘tiny house’. As I pack up our stuff to move house and ‘downsize’, it doesn’t compare to their adventurous move to a carefully designed place that measures 8m x 2.5m – for everything! They speak of intimacy and liberation from stuff, of having a spot for every vital belonging, and having to go to sleep and rise together as there is no space for individual movement without disturbance. This is their shelter for now and it means as much and more than the five-bedroom house they moved out of, because it is a shelter adventure.
I think about why we ourselves might still need a house with several bedrooms, bathrooms and living areas. My sense of home and shelter is challenged by my friends’ decision. We are downsizing our property, but not our house. Unlike so many of our friends, we don’t feel ready for a retirement village unit, let alone a ‘tiny house’. I do not need a lot of space for my lifestyle, but I still feel the need to be able to welcome our large family to our home. Giving hospitality is high on our list – we want to share our home, and that takes space.
Clearly, however, a sense of shelter and a roof over our heads is not dependent on size. Our homes reflect what we value at any particular stage of our lives. My artist husband will always need space for painting and all that goes with it. He is not ready to leave that behind, although will be challenged to use a smaller space. Art is part of his sense of shelter and who he is, and I hope that he will find a new expression.
I enjoy watching the TV series ‘Alone’. There is something addictive about seeing people on their own in the wilderness trying to survive in order to win a prize. From my observation, the successful participants are often those who manage to create a weatherproof and warm shelter early in their adventure. They usually have only a tarpaulin to begin with and some are still using that when they leave. Food and shelter compete on the needs hierarchy in the first few days, but I am always surprised when they do not prioritise making a wind and rain proof shelter.
Some are satisfied to have somewhere dry to sleep and keep their gear. Others add branches and moss for insulation. Some manage to set up a fire inside for continual warmth and comfort – that always appeals to me. One person dug downwards into the earth to make a pit house under her tarp roof and showed a strong sense of shelter as she used a great deal of her energy to set it up. Others created swinging doors and protection from wild animals. A soft base for a bed looked like a good idea and many used springy natural materials to create a soft, welcoming mattress. Some did not really have a comfortable place to sit in their shelter, but those who did make chairs often were the most creative in whittling toys, utensils, games or musical instruments. I am sure this level of comfort in their shelter enabled them to stay longer.
As the days dragged on, participants would start to miss their homes and families. It is not natural to be completely alone; their sense of shelter is bound up with the loved ones who live there, and those reflections, (along with their family photo), would often precipitate their decision to give up and go home. No matter how well they build their shelter, home is where you want to be with people you love; shelter and relationships are inseparable for me. I have never, however, lived alone.
The remote highlands of West Papua can be quite chilly, even though the country straddles the equator. The locals wear very scanty clothing that involves only a penis gourd or grass skirt so their homes are important shelters. Their crude (to us) grass huts on the hillside are cosy shelters with interior fires to warm them through the cool nights. The family members, rubbed in pig fat for insulation, curl up on the ground around the fire, sharing body heat, while the smoke from the fire curls upward and out through the central hole in the thatched roof. Body contact in a tiny hut around a fire is the epitome of warm shelter, from which they emerge in the morning with their arms characteristically wrapped around their necks to retain heat. Their shelter is not just their fire-warmed huts, but warmth from their families and their own bodies. Intimacy can be challenging in such proximity!
When my little son saw photos of these huts and heard that we might be living and working there, he said he did not want to go to West Papua. Probing revealed that he thought the big bad wolf would blow down the houses of straw that he saw in the photos. Based on the children’s stories in his books, his idea of safe shelter was something more substantial than a thatched dwelling. Our sense of shelter is culturally shaped, which raises many questions about people reared in ‘Mc Mansions’ with television sets in every room.
I have been shaped by a life of constant moves – I have lived in thirty-five homes, not counting short stays. Some of those houses have been very basic, but they have all been our homes and I have never been without a place of shelter. There have been many lessons from a such a nomadic life, but the main one is that home is where you are.
The views out of my window are jarringly unfamiliar. Different plants and trees mixed with just occasionally friendly lavender and acacias. Suddenly a pair of lorikeets flits under the pink bottlebrush and my heart leaps to see birdlife that I know. I am sitting at a new window after moving from our home of eighteen years.
Our comfortable, convenient, customised dwelling that felt just right. The place that worked for us, embraced us, like slinky pyjamas. The rooms that all connected to the living areas so that we could always converse from anywhere; we felt close to each other. The family room with framed picture windows on three sides making the garden sidle inside and embrace me, then entice me out. Watching the snow peas form in the raised bed outside and the brassicas sprout their secret heads. Anticipating the seasonal arrival of perennial plants carefully planted in view of my spot.
There was a place for every phone charger, each spare toilet roll, the motley array of kitchen appliances, the grandchildren’s toys and books, dozens of photo albums and hundreds of books. Not that everything was always in its place, because it was just home. But the debris always found its spot eventually.
The cackle of kookaburras heralded rain or woke me out of early morning sleep and always made me smile and wryly enjoy the hilarity. The wind in the surrounding bush and the occasional crack of a dropping branch. The rain on the wrap-around verandah roof which always made me feel cosy.
Years of digging, weeding, composting, planting and pruning shaped a garden that was my canvas. Warm palette of reds, yellow and orange at the front; cool hues of mauve, pink and white at the back. A random mix of natives and perennials, unruly cottage plantings breaking out of borders and little surprises around the corners. Flowers in every season. Garden statues, bird baths and benches creating resting places for birds and humans. The rustic garden arch elegantly supporting my Pierre de Ronsard pink climbing rose.
Seven raised veggie beds have produced countless kilograms of produce over the years. Boosted by my husband’s lovingly cultivated wormy compost, the seasons came and went with summer vegetables and salad plants alternating with winter root crops, brassicas and alliums. And always greens of every shape for the picking. Unforgettably tasty tomatoes and bowls full of peas, fresh garlic plaited and cured, a herb box providing year-round flavours. Treasure hunts for the potato crops with the grandchildren, with squeals of delight when the biggest tuber was found and celebratory chips made.
Flourishing citrus trees weighed down with golden fruit contributing to summer drinks and lemon, lime and grapefruit marmalade to last until the next season. Overflowing abundance of organic cornucopia to share with all who came.
And the grandchildren. The first one was a six-week-old swaddled bundle when we moved in; now there are nine and some are high school graduates towering over me. They have never known Grandma and Poppa living anywhere else. When they were little tackers, they were too scared to go right up the back with its bushes, overhanging trees and warnings about snakes. Then it was totem tennis, soccer and badminton, paintings in Poppa’s studio, along with the annual Easter egg hunt. I would find stray undiscovered eggs under the bushes for the rest of the year.
Family gatherings for Christmas and birthdays followed a well-worn cycle, with the decorated table extended and a trestle added as the tribe grew. Eventually the highchairs went to the op shop with the soft toys, and the cheeky children would seat themselves at the big table, leaving the kiddie table for the adults! So much comfort food – especially Indonesian food with yellow rice and curries with aromas evoking our family history.
Dusty in summer and muddy in winter, our unmade road led nowhere except to our home and a couple of neighbours. Twice we made adrenalin-fuelled evacuations just in time from bush fires that threatened our secluded retreat. The two hourly train tooted at the nearby crossing, punctuating our lives and thrilling the little grandchildren. The goats over the road bleated, and the forbidden roosters crowed insistently; dogs barked at the wind and visiting cars. But peace descended like a comforter at night while we slept.
We will miss sharing coffee with our neighbours – almost a daily ritual at our fence café during the lockdowns. We shared our lives, our birthdays, Thai food, our faith, our worries and the time of day. How to tell such close friends that we were leaving?
But we have and life goes on; we file away the memories with gratitude as we transition to making new ones.