Yesterday, at the local supermarket, Cornelia and I ran into one of her friends. He’s a cyclist and we fell into talking about rides around here. We decided to retire to the pub to have this chat over half-pints of Guinness. There’s a door between the supermarket and the pub – which is also a hardware store. Lovely. So small-town Irish.
Today I have a cold and Cornelia’s ability to ‘do’ is amazing to watch – cooking, working, mothering. She is a whirlwind.
This arvo I’m helping at some sort of fundraiser for some sort of cancer charity. I said “yes”.
I need to get my work done, and nap – I’d like to nap.
It is, again, cool, partly sunny and the mountains look beautiful.
As we drive Cornelia is telling me tales from her life and work when this oh-so-Irish comment jumps out at me: “All they talk about at tea breaks is hurling.”
Hurling is a religion in these parts. The Kilkenny team is the Yankees of the sport having won 36 championships (of 129 played – they’ve also been runners up 26 times). Next closest is Cork with 30 championships and 19 as runners up. We’re in season and the team’s colours fly everywhere in Kilkenny. I don’t understand the game but am charmed by the continuing health of a very-definitely provincial sport with no aspirations of, you know, going global. Hurling is Irish.
It’s nice tagging along with Cornelia – it gives us time to just hang-out and chat in the car as she drives between the various puzzle pieces of her life.
In 1988 she was travelling with her friend Nicola and I was travelling with my friend Jerry Lee (whom I visited in Florence a few weeks ago). We were all heading to Greece when we met at the train station in Bari, Italy. We fell in together and spent a few weeks in company.
We’ve kept in touch off and on over the years but I last saw her in 1995 when I was in Ireland with President Clinton.
I’m missing being on the bike but know I need some rest and I am not missing the ‘travel’ per se – the packing and unpacking, the finding a place to sleep, etc.
Also, my lack of interest in Kilkenny is a real sign of needing a break.
Some ideas/questions bubbling away:
Volunteering at the festival, yes (as part of the ‘say yes ‘project);
Make a flying visit to London from here (Derry, Belfast, Dublin, London);
Ferry from Rosslare to Cherbourg and visit the French in Caen; then to Tom B’s and the Vuelta. A train someplace;
How important is getting to the Vuelta?
Can I get to the Rugby World Cup? More Pool A & B tickets go on sale on Thursday
Anyway … I’m still not sure – but I’d like to settle some plans for the next couple of weeks – set some accommodation, book transport. Dunno, dunno.
I just need to get through the stuff that needs doing, spend a few quiet days moving in an orderly way through stuff would be good.
And look for the energy and spirit of it to come back into it.
Cardiff makes me think of my ex-husband. It’s a Rugby place and a Doctor Who place. So it prods the scar tissue – tests the healing. I feel milliseconds of missing his friendship followed by doubts of the genuineness of that initial feeling. It reminds me of the swirling mess of thoughts and feelings I had in the weeks and months after we split. They are best left to lie.
I begin my exploration of the Welsh capital with an amazing exhibition at the National Museum.
Chalkie Davies is a Welsh photographer who was on the staff of both NME and The Face. In the 1980s he put some of his work in a box, closed it, and waited to see how it would age. When the museum called to ask about staging an exhibition he opened that box.
These are glorious photographs of artists who are now symbols of their times but were then in their youth, in their prime.
I walk to the pedestrianised centre of town. At the markets I sample Welsh Cakes – sort of sweet flat scones with dried fruit. Yet another yummy variation on flour, sugar and fat. I get lunch and notice many at neighbouring tables are just having hot chips as their meal – big baskets of them, topped with things, and eaten with little forks.
I pop into the city’s Cardiff Story exhibition – a telling of the history of the city through photos and mementos of citizens. Included was a “baseball bat” which looked a lot like a cricket bat to me. I’ve since looked up Welsh Baseball and it is a curious thing. Descended from rounders but codified as baseball in 1892.
It’s a lot like cricket: teams of 11, games played in two innings, runs are scored when a batter reaches a base and another as s/he reaches each subsequent base, an over-the-boundry hit is good for four runs, the field radiates from the hitting position (no foul territory). But like baseball it’s played on a diamond – albeit a smaller one. Unlike either baseball or cricket the “bases” are marked by poles. Strange … the things you learn while travelling.
I walk a long way to Cardiff Bay to gaze at the Millenium Centre and pretend to look for a rift in time then I do the most touristy thing of the whole journey so far – pay a crazy £18 for the Doctor Who Experience.
It begins with a ridiculous children’s “adventure with the Doctor” led by a woman acting out her part to luke-warm audience participation. When I was a kid I watched some Doctor Who with my nerdy-in-a-good-way older brother – I wasn’t devoted to it but I did like it, this was in the days of Tom Baker and Peter Davison. My now-ex-husband was a much bigger fan and when the re-boot was launched in 2005 we tuned in from the beginning.
I loved Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor – he brought a darkness to the role I really liked. The Doctor as a lonely survivor, powerful, sometimes vengeful, softened by human companionship and his special relationship with Earth. I loved David Tennant’s Doctor, too – he added a cheekiness and a difficult emotional connection with his human companions but still had a bit of the darkness, or, with him, maybe sadness. Or the stories did. Is there anything creepier than Blink (the Weeping Angels episode) or The Empty Child (“Are you my mummy?”)
Once Russell T. Davies ceased to write and produce the show, and David Tennant left, I think the show descended into family-friendly safety. It bores and depresses me. But the shift has made the thing a massive universal success and thus The Doctor Who Experience.
I, frankly, would have paid extra to skip the “adventure” and just get to the exhibition which is very cool to visit (though I think they could make it even better with the addition of more audio/video – interviews with cast and crew would be great). But: Tardises! K9! Several Tardis consoles! Costumes! The Face of Bol!
Nerding out and a bit embarrassed about it.
A Tardis Console!
Wednesday 22 July 2015 7:30 am
I don’t want to. It’s raining. Right now I wish I could skip ahead to arriving at Cornelia’s place in Ireland.
I know it’ll be fine. But the weather invites lying in. Reading. Sitting still.
The French family has offered me a lift to near Swansea and I think I’ll accept. If it’s still raining when I get there I might just roll into town and find a room. Sigh.
After my whinging start, it was a lovely day’s riding.
And I hit another milestone: 2000 kilometres!
The French family (Antoine, Isabelle, Gabriel and ____ – something I just can’t catch) and I cycled out together from Gowerton and are still together. It was a flat, quiet – almost entirely off-road – ride. We mostly followed an estuary of the Carmathen Bay, we rode through wetlands, and skirted Llanelli – where we lunched in the lee of an information centre/café/toilets next to a beach.
We rode through the Pembray Forest and stopped to climb a dune with a sweeping 180* bay view. White horses in close formations galloping in – low tide – the sea was some 200 + metres away. A cyclist on the beach in the distance. A kite-flyer. Leaving the forest, we emerged into open pastureland with cows, it was lovely.
Then Kidwelly – home to a castle, many take-aways (kebabs, Indian, Chinese, fish & chips), a couple of pubs, and a small Spar grocery store with sad vegetables. But friendly helpful people with lovely Welsh accents directed us toward the campground.
It was nice riding with people. They assure me they are happy to have me ride along with them as we’re going the same way at a similar pace.
Just near us … a family arrived after us to their campervan. This park has a lot of simple onsite vans with extender type set ups, obviously owned by individuals as their holiday homes.
It feels very working class. The family group next to us includes a pile of children: Tommy in footy boots, Luca who seems a bit albino, another boy in glasses – all of them sort of 4-6. And a toddling girl.
When I just got up to go to the toilet I thought I might have stumbled over their bodies – fallen where they were – having finally exhausted themselves of running around and screaming. But the adults seem to have collected them up. I think there may be nearly 10 people between caravan and extender there. But some of the kids may come from elsewhere in the park.
When we pedalled into the park – a chatty red-faced blonde girl, maybe 7, asked where we’d come from then she stared gape-mouthed as I answered. The accent – my accent – I think was too alien for her.
It’s really, again, so very English – fitting all sorts of stereotypes of English working class holidays … a caravan park by a Welsh beach. While we were putting the tents up the Mr Whippy van came through playing … of course “Greensleeves”.
Some of the vans are strung with Christmas lights. It reminds me of home – this culture of caravanning summer holidays at the beach has been transported wholesale to Australia.
When I just went to the loo: there was the Big Dipper. It would be ridiculous to say I haven’t seen it earlier in the trip – for surely, surely I have – but I don’t recall seeing it – like that – just big, clear, dipper shaped and upright.
Thursday 23 July – 8:10 am
Either the country was invaded at dawn or there was a military exercise this morning. At 5:15 or so there was gun fire in the distance and voices. I got up to pee and there were weird trails in the sky too.
8:35 pm – Antshill Caravan Park
Well that was a fucking hard day. Beautiful in its way – quiet back roads through farms – but rolling – very rolling. A lot of climbing just to roll down the other side, around a corner, then up again. Really hard, really really hard.
I’ve realised that when I’m riding alone I stop more frequently than the French family does. We didn’t really stop at all. Only to eat our lunch in Carmathen, where we just stood around eating.
While lunching I watched a young man – maybe 20, sharing lunch with what seemed to be work colleagues (a man and a woman) in a busy shopping mall. The whole time he had his hand down the front of his trackies, and inside his undies (I could see the waistband). He seemed sober and otherwise normal – I really should have asked WTF??
Heading into St Clears late in the day I was going to leave the French and find a B&B – I was ready to pay whatever it cost. But the route didn’t go straight through town and we saw the for this campground. So here we are. The campground has a clubhouse with a pub/restaurant – dead empty but for me. I’m having a beer and Pringles – well earned – tent’s up, showered, made dinner.
I nearly wept today pushing and climbing up a hill.
It’s two months since I left Sydney.
I am thinking of Vickianne and Jim seeing me off at the airport. I miss everyone.
Friday 24 July 8:10 am – Anthill Caravan Park near St Clears
It’s been raining pretty much all night – certainly since before 4 am.
Last night I’d been discussing with Antoine my need of a new tent. The rain has put paid to that idea. It could be a lot worse (and the day with the puddle (link) was). The tent seams are gone so water is getting through the fly and then some drips into the tent proper. I woke – 4-ish – to find dampness on my sleeping bag so set about rearranging and putting stuff into my waterproof panniers.
Packing and riding in this is totally uninviting.
It’s not pouring but it’s solid and steady and giving no hints of letting up.
The French are awake. I wonder what they’ll do.
I’m tempted to throw away the tent here.
I’m tempted to ask Cornelia if she can collect me from Rosslare on Sunday night.
I’m tempted to find out about the train from Rosslare to Wexford.
Basically I’m tired. Tired of riding. On the bike it’s good – mostly – not the climbing. Not the packing and unpacking.
7:27 pm The Lighthouse Tavern – Tenby
The daughter – Felicity – or some French name near that, had to learn the word ‘unabashed’ for school English. She knew the definition but wanted to understand it in context.
It took me about 10 minutes to come up with a good one – everything I thought of was like from a 19th century novel.
I suggested that it probably relates to bashful – “A teenaged boy might be bashful around a girl he likes, but some would be unabashed in showing their interest.”
I’ve said goodbye to them – having checked into a hotel in Tenby – which is a super-cute town with pastel houses about the beach and harbour. It’s a walled city – not sure who walled it or when – with a ruined castle on the headland.
I abandoned the tent at Anthill. It served me well – but now is dead.
From the campground we rolled into Laugharne, home to Dylan Thomas’ boatshed. An adorable village full of B&Bs. Sigh.
Leaving there it was a super hard climb on cold legs after a wet night – and it was still raining off and on.
And that set the tone. More climbing through beautiful wet green Welsh countryside. I was generally well behind the group but would catch up now and then.
We stopped in Saundersfoot for lunch. I had fish and chips, we went to a café for tea. Everyone was pretty ready to not ride much more today.
Out of Saundersfoot guess what? A big climb?
The sea is beautiful, however – it really is.
I bought a postcard of sunny beaches for a laugh.
Knowing I’d get a bed of some sort lifted my spirits – which have been pretty low for a couple of days.
I want to go out and see what Tenby says for itself on a Friday night.
There were two young women in my hostel dorm last night who set an alarm for 4:15 am – snoozed it twice and took an hour mucking about. Selfish defined.
I’m spending the morning having a look around Bath before riding to Amanda’s in Monkton Farleigh – a village at the top of quite a hill not far from Bath. Amanda, you may remember, is one of the members of Tom Bailey’s band – among other gigs. Her steadiest of which is with the Psychedelic Furs, having played with them for 13 years.
I’m fortifying for the ride. The good coffee places here, well the one’s I’ve been to so far, are very scientific in their approach – there’s a lot of weighing and measuring. Same with Toby at No 35 Cofffeehouse in Dorchester. It’s good but all a bit fancy and ridiculous. I paid £2.40 (A$5.20) for my macchiato – not worth it. Toby’s was $3.25 – totally reasonable.
There’s a dude writing with a fountain pen and a wee pot of ink. That seems very Bath. It’s a hoity-toity place. Beautiful though.
Midnight – Amanda’s Back Garden, Monkton Farleigh
While I’m thinking of it:
– Riding: I cover less territory but see much more.
– A big journey is just taking the long way home.
This week has felt super long. It was only last Saturday that I was in Southampton … bizarre.
I think it’s to do, in part, with being back in an English-speaking environment. I’ve had more conversations, longer and more complicated conversations, this week than I have had in two months.
Riding here – getting up the hill is the single hardest thing I’ve done on this trip.
I rode out of Bath along the river then climbed up away from the river – up a decent hill. Then there was a bit of flat through a town and across the A4. Then I stared up Bathford Hill, which was tough but rideable – I just stopped a few times.
But when I turned into Prospect I just had to laugh when greeted by an incline of 25-30 degrees. It was like that for 150 metres then I turn a corner, and it’s just as steep, for another hundred – but through a forest, it was actually really lovely and quiet as I pushed 5 – 10 metres at a time. Then it shallowed to a rideable angle and I was rolling into Monkton Farleigh– well the edge of it.
I found a 13-year-old kid with a sequined marijuana-leaf hat and pierced eyebrow idling in front of newish houses and he directed me towards the pub. And from there I found Amanda’s.
I recognised, as I had been pushing my bicycle up that hill that, one, I probably couldn’t have done it two months ago, that I wouldn’t have been strong enough, or maybe wouldn’t have believed I had the strength. And, two, as with so many hard things – if I take my time and do it one bit at a time, I get there.
Amanda has a charming little row-house in this crazy cute village.
Apparently the area is popular with musicians – Peter Gabriel is over there, a member of Duran Duran in that village, one of the Tears for Fears guys is a native.
The views of the countryside from around the village are fantastic.
Amanda is … intense and very talkative and interesting. I really like her.
This evening a couple of her friends came around and we all went out to dinner then, too, a big looping walk around the village. As we did we passed the Lord of the Manor (really) out walking his dogs. A big proper dog and a little excitable mutt who said hello to each of us before Amanda led him back in the direction of his master who hadn’t broken stride though one of his dogs was lagging way behind.
And now I’m settled cosily into my tent, my wee travelling home, down the bottom of her garden. So nice.
Sunday 19 July 8:55 pm Bristol YHA
Some days I’m cruising along feeling good about things and then – bam, defeated.
The ride from Monkton Farleigh to Bristol was lovely, and mostly on the paved Bristol to Bath Rail Trail.
Bristol is multicultural – more Muslim and people of African descent than I’ve seen in a while – and a bit reminiscent of Australia’s Newcastle (working class, revitalised/revitalising, a seaport town).
The Harbour Festival was on – masses of people eating crappy food from vans and drinking overpriced beer from tins and plastic cups. The YHA is in the midst of it. I tried to go to the shop – but it was full of festival-goers. I tried to get beyond the chaos but got turned around in Old Town and found myself back in it. I went into a good looking pub with Mac & Cheese on the menu but the kitchen had closed.
There’s an older woman in my room who was sleeping when I arrived at 6 pm. She has been in bed ever since. A while ago she stirred to tell me she’d forgotten her PJ’s at the B&B.
I’d like to go have a look around but I’m defeated by the crowds and my bad maps. There’s stuff I should do – work, emails, etc. But … just like that … defeated. Grumpy too.
It’s still light. There are lots of seagulls circling and cawing. People in a pub are singing.
I’m going to read and sleep and hope for revived spirits come morning.
10:30 am Monday 20 July – Bristol
I feel like I’m hitting a wall. Not sure if that’s hormonal or just because I know a rest is coming. Or the expense of the UK. Or just the thing of being defeated by Bristol yesterday.
Trying to go easy today – I’m out looking at Bristol.
There are quite a few families out walking and looking for Shaun the Sheep statues which are spread about the place. (The Wallace & Grommit guy is from around here.)
This is the first macchiato I’ve had in a long time that I’d describe as, basically, a macchiato. Double shot with a splash of milk and dollop of foam. It’s made with their house roast – which has an edge, but is nice. I’m having a salted caramel brownie too.
Feeling better for proper caffeine.
There’s definitely a funkiness to Bristol it would take much more time than I have to really delve into. But there’s something about it which I like – it has a good energy.
I’ve decided to simply take the train to Cardiff today. It’s just that sort of day.
Tired. Ready to spend some days in one place. Unpack everything. Wash everything. Get and feel caught up. Feel like I know what’s happening financially.
10:55 pm Cardiff – Richard & Iona’s (Cardiff)
I think all the Warm Showers hosts I’ve stayed with are better hosts than we were, my then-husband and I. I’m always fed. We gave options. In the future I’ll always feed people – it’s so nice.
There’s a French family here too. They weren’t scheduled until later but changed their plans and Richard and Iona couldn’t say no.
I’m pleased to be in Cardiff, in Wales. I like places where, against all odds, a people have held onto their culture.
I’ve done laundry. It’s drying in my room and I can smell it – lovely.
Ending the day in a much better head space than I began. Nice.
I’m here for the Let’s Rock Southampton! festival.
No, that’s not quite true. I’m here to see Tom Bailey play Thompson Twins songs at Let’s Rock Southampton!
I am ambivalent about 1980s nostalgia gigs. If everyone is having fun, where’s the harm? Right? But revisiting the scenes of youth, in middle age, with the bands you loved when you were a teenager and they were in their 20s and 30s … there’s something weird and a little unsettling about it. It invites melancholy and a sense of mortality. When last I saw Tom play these songs I was 18 and he was 33, now I’m 46 and he’s 61.
About five years ago Tom and I spent an afternoon walking around Sydney and catching up. He was then certain he’d never do this – never play these songs again. But things change – and he is. So here I am – in a field in Southampton surrounded by sun-burnt middle-aged Englishmen and women.
Tom’s manager, David I think it is, meets me. He’s a thin, pale man dressed for sailing to South America in a linen suit and panama hat. He asks if I’m Lisa – close enough, he escorts me into the back stage area. And then there’s Tom – with his funny, lovely smile and fabulous hair. Looking every bit as expected.
In the tent Tom introduces me to his band (Angie, Emily and Amanda), the manager’s fiancée, and the lighting guy’s girlfriend, Donna. We talk of my journey and Couchsurfing, of the gigs they’ve been playing, and of how I know Tom. He says I’ve probably seen more Thompson Twins shows than anyone else there – I started to try and count them but couldn’t – it’d be in the 20s.
Most of those I worked. I was an intern on their final US tour. I skipped my high school graduation ceremony so I could be in Arizona in time for the start of the tour. It was a crazy wonderful month or so.
Tom is amazed at my memory of those times but I was 18 and on tour with the Thompson Twins so it was all very memorable for me. “Really?” he asks, “You did the laundry? And bought me socks?” Yes, Tom, yes I did.
It was nice reminiscing with him in this way. Then a particularly weird thing happened.
Before I met the Thompson Twins I was member of their fan club. Back in the day this meant posting away to a PO box in London, sending a money order for a few Pound Sterling – in return I got a membership card, a subscription to a newsletter, exclusive news and things like that. Their fan club was run by a formidable woman named Viv.
She and her daughter came to California for a couple of the gigs there. When she found I was working on the tour she lost her mind. She confronted Tom and Alannah about it. She thought if they were going to have a fan on tour it should be herself or her daughter or there should have been a contest. She’s yelling at them in the dressing room 20 minutes before they go on.
I was worried not so much that her argument would win out but that her craziness would taint my presence on the tour, that it would seem like too much of a pain in the arse. I still remember the anxiety I felt hearing her raging down the corridor.
In the end it was a positive turning point for me. I’d been working diligently at all I was asked to do and tried to be helpful wherever I could. My fellow worker-bees saw me as part of the team, and then more so, really, in comparison with the weird woman. They were all very supportive and told me not to worry about her.
But my original reaction had stayed with me. So when Tom turned to me and asked if I’d met her, my blood ran cold for just a second … things from one’s teenaged years live on and echo at a particular resonance.
She had arrived and wanted to come say hello to him. He asked me to go help David find her. When we were all standing together some minutes later Tom asked her if she remembered me, she said she didn’t – and maybe that’s so.
Meanwhile a litany of 1980s pop musicians were playing their sets and I was missing all of them in favour of the genial social scene in the tent. When the second last act, Kim Wilde, went on Tom and his band went to get ready. Donna and I joined the crowd in front of the stage.
And then they came on. And it was wonderful. The lights and visuals were fantastic. It was, yeah – so, so nice. And when they finished with ‘Hold Me Now’ and everyone sang along, it really was kind of special and heart-warming.
The set was great – a short-sharp attack on some of their best songs, played well and sung well: In the Name of Love, You Take Me Up, Lies, Sister of Mercy, Lay Your Hands on Me, Love on Your Side, If You Were Here, Doctor! Doctor! and Hold Me Now.
It was as much fun as I had hoped and not nearly as morose as I had feared.
Sunday 12 July
Having slept in I took a stupidly expensive train to Weymouth – £24.70 for a ride of less than two hours. There, the start of my ride, was in a windblown spray of rain. Despite that, and the low clouds obscuring what are meant to be fantastic coastal views, it is beautiful and oh, so English. There are rolling hills with paddocks of sheep and there are dog walkers in tweed and wellies. I stop at a tea room in Abbottsbury – a village of thatch-roofs and stone-houses – to gorge on Dorset apple cake served with clotted cream and a nice pot of tea.
If you are familiar with the show Broadchurch then you’ll know West Bay. The nearly-gothic cliffs which loom over the main beach are, in themselves, a star of the show and a star for West Bay. I roll around town laughing at the English-summer and have some disappointing chips.
My Warmshowers hosts for the night are in Bridport, up the hill from West Bay. They must get a fair few visitors because as I’m riding into their subdivision, even further uphill, a woman in a passing car encourages me on with a: “You’re nearly there!”
Malcolm and Jude are truly lovely hosts. They are 60-ish and have a beautiful home and garden – rambling and productive. They are passionate people, chatty and interesting. Jude is a bit of a pagan and Malcolm, I think, indulges her more than he joins. They are kind and welcoming and easy to get on with.
After dinner, Malcolm offers to run me around in his car to the Broadchurch murder house and back through West Bay for the night time vibe.
Getting to the house involves driving narrow, hedged, winding lanes illuminated only by his head lights. We arrive in a gravelled car park and there it is, at the top of a little rise. It’s spooky, evocative, and really fun to see.
Monday 13 July
I worked all morning and then peddled away after lunch. Malcolm made this amazing cheese toastie – toasted and buttered home baked brown sourdough covered with a mix of grated cheddar and hard goats’ cheese, put under the grill and served with Vegemite!
The ride today was good: foggy and windy, but dry and so so green. The height of the hedges bordering the road make passing traffic a bit of an issue but they also block the wind. I saw a pair of fellow cycle tourists and realised I miss the busyness of Italy and even France. I’ve seen almost no other tourers here and not many riders in general.
I roll into Dorchester just after the tourist office closes – I can see them still in there but the door is locked and they avoid seeing me. I wander the high street eyeing three or four hotels and then pick one. I could have been more discerning but I’ve been riding all afternoon and I just want a home for the night. It’s a gobsmacking £89 – which is like A$180 – but I’ve not paid for accommodation the past nine nights, so averaged over 10 that’s $18 per night. That’s how I’m going to think of it anyway.
I’ve been on the road for 50 days now and I’m feeling strong and content. Things are good. I’m enjoying the adventure, the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been. Finding the right balances – around how to spend my time and my money – continue to be a bit of a challenge but I think I’m shifting my expectations toward what can be and away from some ideas of what should be.
When my train arrived yesterday evening Tobi was, unexpectedly, on the platform to meet me.
I’ve found the guest/host relationship on CouchSurfing and Warm Showers – both web-based hospitality communities but the latter expressly for bicycle tourists – can quickly form and, even untended, be lasting.
Tobi and Sarah had stayed with me and my then-husband in 2012. They were medical students. Their Austrian university allowed/encouraged their students to do learning-rotations at hospitals overseas. They were in the midst of a year-long series of such placements interspersed with travel when they visited us in Sydney.
At the time, the idea of visiting them was a slim, but desirable, hope. But two and a half years on, down one husband but immersed in my own adventure, here I am in Bludenz and here is Tobi – warm and welcoming.
They are now proper doctors and working in the hospital in this small, beautifully situated city in the far west of Austria – which smells of chocolate (courtesy of the Milka factory). They have a great flat with a great view. Their company and conversation brought a day which had begun with my wishing to be elsewhere to an uplifting end.
They assured me that the woman I’d met on the train was right – a mostly-flat, mostly-off road cycleway runs from Bludenz to Lake Constance and beyond. So a new course was set.
I awake to this spectacular view and spend the morning plotting the details of the coming week. I map the route and send requests to Warm Showers and Couchsurfing hosts further up the track and get positive replies from hosts in Hard, Konstanz and Montbeliard.
In the afternoon I go for a wander around Bludenz running some errands as I go: getting a new smaller water bottle, finding a map and putting a couple of cards in the post. The sun shone, the sky was blue, and it all smelled of chocolate.
In the evening Tobi, Sarah, two of their friends and I pile into their brand new collective Kia electric car (they are starting their own car-sharing group). We drive across the valley where the city lies and up, up, up the hill on the far side – the one which can be seen from their place. Here, we go for an evening’s amble, visit a dairy to eat cheese and drink buttermilk as the cows are led back out to pasture after their milking. It was all so very Austrian and lovely.
It rains while I am on the train to Florence. A pelting rain slanting into the Tuscan landscape of green hills, fields of crops and towns whose names escape me. The station in Florence, Santa Maria Novella, is a huge building from the fascist era – modern and art deco-ish. The main hall is utterly jammed with people through whom I walk my bicycle.
Jerry Lee lives a few kilometres away and I make my way to his piazza and there we meet for the first time in 25 years. He’s the same; I’m the same; we’re completely different and have led whole lives in the interim.
We take my stuff to his place then go out to a laundromat. We talk, as people do, about this and that – we walk around his 500 year old neighbourhood waiting for my clothes to dry. We meet his partner, Davide, at the supermarket where we choose fruit for breakfast. Jerry remembers with certainty that Davide and I met in the mid-1990s at a Steak and Shake in Downstate Illinois but it’s a meeting neither Davide nor I remember.
Home again then out for dinner at a local trattoria – just Jerry Lee and me. He gives me the short version of his past quarter century and I give him mine. We talk and laugh and don’t run out of things to say. We are the last in the restaurant. It’s really quite lovely.
Having spent some time finding my own way around unfamiliar cities it’s nice to just follow Jerry Lee as he leads. We visit a bar and sit with our drinks outside in a cobbled laneway enjoying the cooling night. Laughing and talking; sharing and catching up. It’s nearly 1 am on a Wednesday yet people still bustle about and the gelataria is open and calling. Lavender gelato … ah-mazing.
Jerry Lee leads us on a meandering tour of the central sites of Florence, his Florence –we turn a corner and there is the Duomo. Bold colourful marble brightly lit against the black night sky – it’s breathtaking.
Jerry Lee has studied art history and is full of stories and details. It’s a fantastic way to see his city but now it’s genuinely late and we make our way back to his place where I sleep a weary sleep on the sofa bed.
11 June – Thursday
What a nice, simple, lovely day this was.
Jerry Lee had work to do; I had work to do. We each sat at our computers at his dining room table working and talking much of the day. Intermittently we spoke of our lives, our work, what we were working on now and various subjects of interest.
In late morning we go to Jerry Lee’s printer (he’s a photographer) and then for coffee. In late afternoon we go for groceries and stop for an apertivo with a good buffet in his piazza.
In the evening he cooks us dinner – pasta with Davide’s mum’s sauce. Davide arrives home just in time to eat with us. It turns out he is from the same part of Italy as Madeleine, my Italian teacher, so I was able to understand enough of what he said to impress him.
It may not sound like much but it was a really special day. It is simple and nice and given it’s been a quarter century since we last hung out – that is was comfortable and easy is no small thing.
12 June – Friday
I work more in the morning but finally get out to see the Boboli Gardens at Pitti Palace. Jerry Lee has some photos in a temporary exhibit about women in the fashion industry in the Costume Gallery. Given my lack of interest in fashion this is an exhibition I would have skipped but there are some beautiful and quirky clothes on display and the stories of the women are interesting.
The woman Jerry Lee photographed is Susan Nevelson who, along with coming across as one of those women who are seemingly just simply amazing made her name as a designer of audacious prints for Ken Scott.
She’s in her 90s now and, judging from Jerry Lee’s photographs still quite fabulous. I know she’s told him that life begins at 50 – lots of people say such things but a from a woman in her 90s who is clearly still quite vital and engaged in her passions it carries some extra resonance.
(See more of Jerry Lee’s photos of Susan here and more of Jerry Lee’s work in general here.)
The Boboli gardens are enormous. The weird thing is you enter the palace from a crowded urban area and exit into the gardens which could be in the countryside. The gardens slope uphill from the palace and there are places with views over the city but at the top the view away from the city seems bucolic.
Jerry Lee has to leave town in the evening for a job but Davide is happy to have me stay another night – which was very sweet of him. I see Jerry Lee off at the train station and am really quite sad to do so; we are both sad to say farewell again so soon after having not seen each other in 25 years. I’m determined to get back to Firenze before I leave Europe for Asia next year.
Leaving the station I finally feel like a proper, kind of lost, tourist again – I’d spent the past couple of days letting Jerry Lee lead the way or simply following his directions.
I wander. I find a Tiger shop – my hostellier in Genova had suggested it as a place for notebook saying it was the sort of shop where you always found some little thing that you didn’t know you wanted until you saw it there. I have to say, it was a quite fabulous place full of all manner of knick-knacks: craft stuff, kitchen stuff, some bicycle decorations, party supplies, all manner of things.
I have apertivo at a bar Jerry Lee had suggested and the buffet was an excellent spread – cheese things, and fruit things, chicken wings and stuffed eggs, a bunch of different salads. Dinner sorted for the price of a Sydney cocktail – with the cocktail included of course (10 euro).
Arriving home, Davide is already there and we have a lovely time chatting through the evening. He like deserts, and solitude, and driving; he’s Australia’s perfect tourist (although with a bad case of arachnophobia). We look at my photos from Uluru and the Top End – and I tell him of the beauty, and sounds, and magic of the place.
These few days in this ancient city teeming with summer tourists has lent me a soft domestic space to rest and refresh and I leave with an old friendship renewed and and a new one sprouted.
I’m at the midpoint between returning from my Australian test ride and boarding a plane for Milan. I am calm about the coming adventure – not entirely ready but ticking through the list and confident I will be good to go come Sunday 24 May.
I’m trying not to let my mind settle to long or too much on the size and scale of what lays in front of me. I see it in the eyes of my friends and acquaintances when I speak of it but I’ve been living with the idea of it and the myriad component parts of it for well over a year now, so in some ways for me it just is. It just is my present. It just is my coming and immediate future.
So I am just going about my business of packing what I’m storing, getting rid of that which I’m not, wrapping my mind around the first few weeks, reconnecting with old friends to see when and where I’ll find them, etc. I make lists and tick through them.
I’m glad I decided to have my Going Away Party before I left for my Australian ride. It was a great afternoon, evening and night as friends came and went. At the end we were my core Sydney mates drinking red wine like it was water, singing loudly and badly to a selection of songs from the 1980s and 1990s that were being especially chosen for their likelihood of pleasing me. So the sort of formal, ritualised farewell has happened.
That has allowed, then, in this space in between for the spending of time doing what I would normally do with my friends – like it is as it always is, but each engagement made just a little more luminescent by my nearing departure.
I’ve seen Jim’s Colourwheel permormance again – third time, still good. We had a meal down the pub – him and that circle of his mates. Afterwards, walking up Oxford Street toward the city I messaged Jonathan to see if he was home and up for a drink. He was and we worked our way through three of them at the Golden Age talking of Roger and Peggy, Joan and Don. I was finally – for the first time ever – entirely caught up with Mad Men. Vickieanne and I had just watched the most recent episodes and were biting our nails over the likely fates of our favourites. We had laughed together in delight at Peggy’s rolling skating to Roger’s organ-playing. Such hidden talents! Who knew? On Friday Erin is making me mac and cheese (because I more or less demanded it) and will help me, as ever, with my IT and Social Media quandaries while filling me in on the latest in her life. My leave-taking even pressed the often elusive Rob into an evening of hanging out and catching up in a way we haven’t in years.
So all normal, but not quite so.
Part of my ease around leaving is knowing that it’s just Italy – I can buy the stuff I need, I’ll get a local SIM card, I’ll find WiFi. It will be lovely, it will be Italy, but the day-to-day of communicating and feeding myself won’t be that hard. Basically much of what I can do here I can do there.
What I won’t be able to do there which I can do here is marvel at Vickianne’s exuberant joy, salivate over Erin’s AH-Mazing kitchen creations, lose uncountable hours to engaging conversations about nothing much at all with Jonathan, or enjoy all the easy warmth and comfort that is my friendship with Jim … in short for all the wonders of modern communications I will be without the tactile, phernomal presence of my friends.
I will be without the glasses of wine, the off-and-on planning for a get together and the last minute catch-ups; I’ll be without the hugs and laughter, the repeated themes, and occasional debates. I will share with them tales of my adventures but we will not share the adventures themselves. That is as it must be for the best sort of adventures – but it is for this I am trying not to think too much of the bigness and the length of my journey.
While I ride along alone in Europe, here in Sydney there will be small joys and large, work angst, momentary pop culture interests taken up, new recipes trialled, big plans and small will be contemplated, made, and abandoned. Some of these I will hear about, of course, but not in person, not over a coffee, or while walking down King Street, not over a glass of wine or three somewhere in the City, nor with takeway Thai while watching Mad Men or during a bush walk in Royal National Park. All of that will await my return.
I guess part of the feelings that whirl and rise when I think about it come from the sure knowledge that if I return the exact same person as I am now I’ve failed to be truly open to the adventure. I will change; my friends will change, Sydney will change. I don’t fear the journey but I worry a little about the return.
If I were ranking the best named beaches Flint & Steel would be near the top. That I can’t find anything explaining the source of that fantastic moniker adds mystery – maks it even better. I can tell you it was already called Flint & Steel by 1832.
Flint & Steel was an exciting beach for me for threefour five reasons:
One, it was the first beach of the 2013/2014 season.
Two, it was the first beach I visited after the demise of my marriage
Three, it was the first beach I was visiting with my old mate Laura whom I was grateful to have back, and more central in my life, since the demise of my marriage.
Four, the beach is called Flint & Steel – which is awesome
Five, there was a fine looking German boy (well, mid-to-late 20s) doing what Germans do – enjoying a nackt (nude) swim. He was there with his girlfriend/wife – and, physically anyway, she had nothing to complain about.
It was an utterly perfect day – sunny and warm but not too hot.
We drove to the Resolute Bay Picnic Area car park, on the Lambert Peninsula, in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park and before heading for Flint & Steel Beach we visited Red Hand Cave. It’s a rock shelter with a 5,000 year old Aboriginal hand stencil. To be reminded of a wholly different life that was lived right here so recently, and which had been so lived for so long, is always grounding and connecting yet saddening and remorse-inducing – a reminder of our tenuous place on earth and the damage we do to one another (with intentional cruelty or ignorant carelessness). Live now – the future is unknown.
We began the walk down to the beach. It was pleasant – shaded with occasional views of Broken Bay, Lion Rock and Patonga on the opposite shore – and, in part, steep. The return trip would be a thigh-burner.
Flint & Steel, like all of these northern non-surf beaches I’ve visited so far, is a shallow-curve of maize-coloured sand buffering the bush from the bay. It collects driftwood and man-made detritus from the soft waves – waves driven as much by the wake of boats as tide and winds.
There was a young family on the beach and the aforementioned German couple. We walked to the far end and took up comfortable spots on the rocks from which to enjoy the sandwiches Laura had brought and the sight of the nackt German as he came and went from the water.
It was a lazy, summery late Spring Sunday. Other visitors came and went from the beach; all manner of boats cruised or rushed past. In due course it was time for a swim for Laura and a wade for me – the water was still a bit cool for me. But Laura strode purposefully into the water up to her neck, plunged in, and floated about. It is the most wonderful sort of nothing – to be in gentle salt water, floating or wading, looking back at the sand and the bush (and the nackt German) under a Sydney-spring-blue sky with the sun glittering off the greenish water.
As expected the climb back to the plateau and the car is a rigorous effort. We stopped for a salty selfie and to visit with a big-ol’ goanna.
Flint & Steel was 44 km (27 miles) from my suburb of Concord. It’s in the Hornsby Local Government Area, the Hornsby State Electorate (Matt Kean, Liberal) and the Federal Division of Mackellar (Bronwyn Bishop, Liberal).