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Beach No 49: Manly – 10 December 2017

Summer has arrived and the beaches beckon.

It’s a gorgeous, golden, shimmering day. There’s heat in the sun and cool in the shade. It feels, as it should, like early summer.

I meet Aaron, Giancarlo, and Matthew for a late breakfast at Kansas City Shuffle in The Rocks. We eat, drink coffee, talk of politics, and life, and whatever else comes to mind – an enjoyable, engaged, all-in conversation. This was just the sort of thing I missed while I was travelling alone through France – this sort of free-flowing dialogue among people with enough in common to understand one another yet who have had different enough lives as to make for fascinating observations. We order more coffee, and a sweet to share, and then its time to move on.

Matthew, Aaron, Giancarlo and me (my camera seems biased towards me) at Kansas City Shuffle.
Matthew, Aaron, Giancarlo and me (my camera seems biased towards me) at Kansas City Shuffle.

Aaron, Matthew, and I walk to Circular Quay and find a dispiritingly long queue for the standard Manly Ferry. We are about to walk back to Wynyard to get the bus when we decide to see how bad the situation is for the Fast Ferry – it’s okay so we splurge out ($8.70 one way) and join the United Nations of holiday-makers, a large number of them in Santa hats, zipping across the harbour.

Silly season in Sydney
Silly season in Sydney

Manly itself is, not surprisingly, chockablock. The Corso heaves with people. We stop into the Hotel Steyne for a pre-beach beer (and an opportunity to use the pub’s toilets to change into our swimmers rather than the overused beach ablution block). I like the light in the front bar and the courtyard – it somehow carries a reflection of the sea, which probably isn’t quite literal but the salt in the air does something to the light, the glistening blue beyond is present.

Camera favouring Aaron this time.
Camera favouring Aaron this time.

The courtyard is full of people in Christmas costumes and Santa hats. There is clearly some organised event going on but it’s not obvious what it is. Maybe just a viral thing – “wear your Santa gear to Manly” – the message may have been.

Happy Christmas - Manly style.
Happy Christmas – Manly style.

We make our way to the beach and walk amongst the crowds. The sea is rough, dumpy – the flags are narrowly placed at the southern end of the beach. There we find a spot on the border of sunshine and the shade thrown by the Norfolk Island pines lining the seawall.

The Pacific is all of the blues – from the palest aquamarine through to a green-tinged cobalt on the horizon.

Mohammed is missing. An announcement is made.

Mohammad is a six-year-old boy who’s gone missing in the area behind the flags. He’s wearing red shorts.

I imagine how terrifying this moment must be for Mohammed’s parents.

He must have been found. There is no second announcement. No police or frantic searching by Surf Lifesavers.

The colours of Manly.
The colours of Manly.

I wade into the surf, among the crowd. I dodge the incoming kids on boogie boards. Share smiles with a three-year-old bobbing in a rubber ring – laughing in the waves. His parents are near, but not hovering. There is a joyful freedom in his giggles. There are two-women, in saris, who’ve waded in knee-deep. As usual I ease ever so slowly in, letting my body get used to the water temperature – which is fine, but cool. And then, when I’m finally mid-torso deep – I dunk under.

It’s always a great feeling – cooling, freeing, briefly emptying my mind of thinking and planning. And yet I always take forever to wade into that moment. Perhaps that symbolises something. Or perhaps I am just, as ever, over-thinking it.

Aaron and Matthew have stayed on the beach – laying quietly. I join them – cooling, drying, listening the Babel of voices, the sound of the waves folding onto the shore, the softness of the breeze in the boughs of the pines.

Number 49 - Manly
Number 49 – Manly

“Hungry?”

I thought first of fish and chips but a wish for something healthier wins out and we have sushi instead.

I leave the boys then and collect lamingtons at the bakery on my way to Jim’s. Christabel is there too and we have an afternoon of catching up and chatting – sharing lamingtons and tea before moving to cocktails – and, when Tim and Alex arrive, and dinner served up, a bit of wine as well.

I dash for a ferry but just before boarding I have a reply from Tyler that they are home and decorating the tree – so one more stop on my Sunday in Manly. Lisa Marie is due with their first child in the coming weeks so this is likely the last chance to see them for a while.

Then I’m dashing again – now in a bit of drizzle – to a late ferry full of the sunburned and salty, the tipsy and costumed, and families laden with exhausted toddlers. There’s a lot of sleeping done between leaving and arriving.

Me? I’m feeling … alive and happy. It’s been a perfect sort of day – full of easy, comfortable socialising, and the beach, and a swim – the first of the season, always a bit like a fresh baptism as a Sydneysider.

A BIT ABOUT MANLY

I was going to open this section on the history of Manly with the story of Bennelong because the Dictionary of Sydney led me to believe he and Colebee had been kidnapped from Manly Cove. However, the Wikipedia page about Bennelong says he was a member of the Wangal Clan of the Eora people connected with the south side of the Parramatta River. Such, I suppose is the nature of the relationship between the invaders and the invaded that basic information about Bennelong is confused.

The Dictionary of Sydney says that he, and his fellow, Colebee, were kidnapped from Manly Cove on the orders of Governor Arthur Phillip in 1789 “so that Europeans could learn more about their culture and language”. These men were from the Kay-ye-my clan of the Guringai people. The name “Manly” is derived from Phillip’s description of the people he encountered here in 1788, “their confidence,” he said, “and manly behaviour made me give the name of Manly Cove to this place.”

Taking of Colbee (Colebee) and Benalon (Bennelong), Manly Cove 25 November 1789
Taking of Colbee (Colebee) and Benalon (Bennelong), Manly Cove 25 November 1789

In any case, Bennelong was the most famous Aboriginal man in early Sydney history. After escaping from captivity, he re-established contact with Governor Phillip as a free-man, learned English and served as an interlocutor between the British colonists and the Indigenous people of Sydney Harbour. In this service he also travelled to England in 1792 – taking in the theatre, meeting with various gentry, and getting sick. The location of his Sydney hut is now occupied by the Opera House – on what is known as Bennelong Point.

Even while advising the colonists, Bennelong retained a prominent position in the Eora community – including participation in the last recorded initiation ceremony in Port Jackson in 1797. By the turn of the century he led a large clan living near Kissing Point on the north side of the Parramatta River in what is now Putney. It was here that he died on 3 January 1813. There is a plaque at the end of Watson Street, Putney, about 60m from where his grave is thought to be located.

Emerging from that rabbit hole … by mid-19th century Manly was being envisioned as the Southern Hemisphere’s answer to Brighton Beach, a seaside resort for harried city-dwellers. A wharf was built and paddle-steamers, eventually run by the Port Jackson & Manly Steamship Company, delivered the people. It was this company which coined the advertising slogan touting Manly as “seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care.”

Manly Beach c 1868 by George Penkivil Slade
Manly Beach c 1868 by George Penkivil Slade

It was between the World Wars, and especially after the latter one, that Manly boomed as a commuter suburb. Today it retains elements of the seaside resort while also being a well-off sought-after suburb, and being home to world class surfing and surfers. It is the sister city of Bath, England. I visited Bath during my midlife gap year. It’s twinning with Manly seems both entirely logical and a bit wrong.

Surfers, Manly Beach 1957 (photo by Raymond Morris)
Surfers, Manly Beach 1957 (photo by Raymond Morris)

In 2012 a four kilometre stretch from Freshwater Beach (No 31) and Shelly Beach (yet to come) was named the Manly-Freshwater World Surfing Reserve. I mention this mostly so I can include this from the dedication ceremony – as I thought a photo the then Governor of NSW, and always fabulous, Her Excellency Professor The Honourable Dame Marie Bashir with world surfing champion Kelly Slater would be fun – the lurking presence of Tony Abbott and Mike Baird only adds to the composition, I think.

Duke's surfboard, Kelly Slater, Marie Bashir, Tony Abbott and Mike Baird
Brad Farmer, Jean Hay, Duke Kahanamoku’s surfboard, Kelly Slater, Marie Bashir, Tony Abbott and Mike Baird (Photo: Henry Wong, Manly Council)

MANLY BY THE NUMBERS

According to the 2016 census Manly is home to 15,866 people with a median household income of $2449 per week (almost double the NSW average of $1486 and the Australian average of $1438).

Sixty-nine (69) Manly residents identify as of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage – that’s 0.4% of the total. Like their neighbours, these folks are better off than their fellows living elsewhere – with a median household income of $2291 per week – NSW average for people of Indigenous heritage is $1214 and Australian is $1203.

The average Manly person is of European heritage (most likely descended from people from the UK), they’re in their mid-30s, and live in a flat (just as likely rented as owned). Half of them have a Bachelor’s Degree or more, half had at least one parent born overseas, most likely they have no religion but if they do they’re probably Catholic. If they speak something other than English at home – and not many do – it’s French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, or Italian.

MANLY’S POLITICS

Manly is in the local government area of Northern Beaches Council, in the State Electorate of Manly (James Griffin, Liberal) and the Federal Division of Warringah (Tony Abbott, Liberal).

In the recent national postal-poll on same-sex marriage 84% of Warringah voters returned their ballots with 75% voting in favour (compared with 62% nationally).

MANLY’S LOCATION

Manly is 17.3 kilometres from home.

No 48: Malabar – A winter solstice beach (25 June 2017)

In 2014 I heard a story on the radio about ceremonies people create for themselves. A caller described a women’s winter solstice ceremony she had been conducting for years. The Winter Solstice, marking the moment when more light begins to fill your days, is the beginning of a new cycle and a nadir. The caller’s ceremony involved letting go of the past year – which I then sorely needed to do.

I had then run my worst turn around the sun to date and was, finally, starting to recover. I’ve missed marking the solstice in 2015 (I was in the northern hemisphere) and 2016 (I was focussed on other things), but this year I’ve returned to the idea and set off on a glorious winter’s day to beach number 48, Malabar.

I like how the demographics on the bus shift as I travel from home to beach. From the city to the University of New South Wales we are a mixed crowd leaning East Asian, from UNSW to Kensington mostly East Asian, from Kensington to Maroubra moving towards working-class whites and Southern Europeans. Beyond Maroubra – mostly working-class whites with maybe a few Aboriginals as well.

Malabar has a strange not-in-Sydney vibe – it feels like it could be a down the South Coast someplace … a village between the ‘Gong and Kiama. A row of old-school 1950s – 1970s family homes face the rich blue inlet and the undeveloped green headland to the north.

This is an ocean beach but set at the back of Long Bay and the big waves just don’t reach the shore. When the water is clean enough to swim in (which it isn’t always) it’s a great spot for a lazy paddle.

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I’ve come with my pocket datebooks of the last year. On most days, I’ve recorded three short bullet-points – an event, my mood, the weather, a movie I saw or book I finished reading, that sort of thing.

The sea is a saturated indigo, the sky pale cerulean. The park behind the beach is filled with families, the barbeques in high demand. I sit on a bench facing the beach and, accompanied by the metronomic squeak of a child being pushed in a swing, review my year. One day’s snapshot after another. It takes nearly an hour.

Looking up from my task I notice two frolicking naked 3-year old children – a boy and a girl – and think “I love Australia”. Shame about our bodies is a learned thing. And until they learn it and stop wanting to run around naked, let kids be free – it’s lovely that these kids haven’t had embarrassment and fear imposed on them. People see people in public and think what they will think – it does no harm (predators who act do harm). That the parents of these kids are, themselves, unashamed of their naked children and not fearful that someone might be masturbating in the bushes or about to swoop in to snatch their kids, makes me happy.

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I retire to the Malabar Beach Café for the writing of the Lists – one of all the worst things that happened this past year: the disappointment of a thing not working out with a man, the long search for work, the unexplained silence of a friend, the outcome of the US election, boredom & uncertainty. And then a list of all the best things: that I maintained old and developed new friendships, became a baseball fan again and attended games, that I met my birth mother and her family, the excitement and pleasure when I thought the thing with the man might work out, getting involved in the Women’s March in Sydney, and finally landing a job.

All those things – the good and the bad – are done. They are equally behind me – I can let them all slip into the past today and begin afresh.

I walk to the northern end of the beach and prepare to burn the paper – first the bad, then the good. All the best rituals involve fire. But the paper won’t light – it just smoulders and chars. Rather than take this as a bad sign I move to an alternative. I tear them into little pieces and fling them into the sea. (Actually, I discreetly sprinkle them in an area from which I hope they will quickly be washed away from the beach.) Frankly, it’s not as satisfying as fire – I’ll have to prepare better next year.

Ceremony finished, I go for a walk on the Malabar Headland.  I am passed by two teenagers on bicycles. When they get to the sign for the National Park which says “No bicycles” the boy urges the girl to ignore it, “who’s going to be checking? Come on” he pleads. She refuses – nope, not going to do it, it’s not about being caught it’s about the rule. I like the strength of the girl’s refusal to do what the boy wants – I think that bodes well for her.

Not much further along a couple in their 50s or 60s, difficult to say as they have clearly lived hard, pass in the opposite direction talking of the wisdom and regrets of age.

I think about the lifetime of experiences between the rule breaking teenage boy and the craggle-faced man with regrets. I think about how distant the man’s age must seem to the boy and how near the boy’s age may seem to the man. Time is a funny thing.

Malabar and its beach from the National Park
Malabar and its beach from the National Park
Ancient rocks, endless sea
Ancient rocks, endless sea

The last time I did this Solstice ceremony I had feelings of lightness and release, unexpected but real. Today I’m trying to feel those things – and am sort of succeeding: being in the moment, breathing in big lungfuls of clean air, watching the sea. But, it’s not quite as good as the first time. Then I was farewelling a momentously bad year, while this one just past has been … well, just a year really. Better than some, worse than others. Even if the ceremony is about putting things behind and moving fresh into the new year – the reality is life is a continuum and the effects of the last year will continue.

Time, in the end, is like the the sea, it keeps rolling in – today, right now, both are steady and calm.

And that’s okay too – it’s been a gorgeous day and I’ve enjoyed reviewing and letting go.

The wreck of the MV Malabar
The wreck of the MV Malabar

Malabar is not named for the region of India but after a ship, the MV Malabar which shipwrecked on Miranda Point on 2 April 1931. Europeans, since arriving in the area in the 1860s – had called the suburb either Brand or Long Bay, the latter still naming the nearby prison.

Wiki says that the area had been a camping location for the original Indigenous residents. There are said to be carvings on the headland and that a rock overhang on the south side of Long Bay was used as a shelter for Aboriginal people suffering from smallpox in the late 1700s. An English historian wrote in 1882 that Aboriginal people referred to Long Bay as ‘Boora’. Scraps, all we have are tiny scraps from a once thriving culture and the few strong descendants of the survivors of a horrible, horrible injustice trying to hold on to what remains and piece together some of what was lost.

In the 2016 census Malabar was home to 5,420 people of whom 64.8% were male – I’m guessing the prison population is skewing that statistic as the state is only 49.3% male. 359 (6.6%) Malabar residents are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders heritage. 67% were born in Australia with England as the top overseas location with 3.5%. One-third had one or both parents born overseas (England, the top location). 1,925 (35.5%) show their religious affiliation as Not Stated (again, I think that’s the prisoners as state wide it was 9.2% – 1,920 did not state their education level as well – state wide 23%). Catholic came next with 26.5%. The top language, other than English, was Greek for 90 people or 1.7%

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Malabar is 12.3 km (7.6 miles) from home.

Malabar is in the local government area of the City of Randwick, the State Electorate of Maroubra (Labor – Michael Daley), and the Federal division of Kingsford-Smith (Labor, Matt Thistlethwaite) (prior to Matt this was the seat held by Peter Garrett, presently touring the world with Midnight Oil).

Long Time a Coming – Long Reef (No. 47*: 16 April 2017)

You’d almost think I’d grown weary of this project given how slowly I’ve returned to it after my time away, but that’s not it at all. I continue to love the idea but sometimes it just becomes hard to get there.

No 47: Long Reef ... slowly, slowly
No 47: Long Reef … slowly, slowly

While unemployed, my weekends weren’t a break from my labours – I could just as easily search for jobs at the weekend as any other time. Even if I wasn’t looking for work at the weekends I felt the pressure that, perhaps, I could be, I should be.  While unemployed, I was also more conscientious of spending money and felt that if I stayed close to home I’d spend less than if I went to the beach. That may not be true, but that’s how I felt.

So, I’ve been meaning to get to Long Reef for weeks but now that I am again professionally employed in a 9-5, Monday to Friday kind of way – it’s finally time.

It’s Easter Sunday and a cracker of a day: blue sky, light breeze, hot for April but not scorching. Australians being Australians are flocking to their chosen places of worship: the beach, the footy grounds, and other places of recreation and beer. I’m heading for the Manly Ferry – such a perfect day for it.

I walk through the picnickers and off-leash dogs in Hollis Park on my way to Macdonaldtown Station where I join a trainload of Sydney’s diversity for the ride into the city. At Circular Quay, I make my way through the throngs to Wharf 3 – where I find there are enough passengers queued to fill a ferry and a half. I guess I’ll take the bus.

From Wynyard Station I get a limited-stops bus which drops me at Collaroy Beach in about 40 minutes, from there I catch a local bus back two stops and pop into Outpost Espresso for a pick-me up.

It’s nearly 2 pm, and closing time, the only other customers are a salty, sandy, end-of-summer bronzed family of five getting milk shakes and iced lattes.

I find myself in a state of joyful liberation because I am employed and it is Sunday and there’s nothing I must do. I have employment and pay coming around the corner – so, no worries.

With this feeling of lightness, I set off for the walk past the golf club and Fisherman’s Beach (No 27 – visited in April 2013). Around Long Reef Point the footpath is crowded with families and couples. A paraglider is circling on the breeze, casting the occasional shocking shadow – like a giant raptor looking for prey. The sea is an autumn steel blue and crashing into the rocks below. I turn the corner and eye Long Reef Beach from its tucked-in northern end sweeping south and melding into Dee Why Beach (No 21 – visited February 2012).

Looking south from Long Reef point to Long Reef Beach and Dee Why beyond
Looking south from Long Reef point to Long Reef Beach and Dee Why beyond

 

Walking on Long Reef Beach
Walking on Long Reef Beach

I walk up the beach to the flagged area, plant myself near the Surf Lifesavers marquee and survey my fellow beach-goers. They are mostly white, mostly local – I’m guessing. There are a lot of families, a few clusters of teenagers, a smattering of couples. A toddler with caramel skin, curly locks and nothing but her Manly Sea Eagles bottoms on – dashes, laughing, away from her Surf Lifesaver father, who is trying to wrap her in a towel.

The sea is a bit dumpy and the flags are planted narrowly together so it is through a crowd I wade into the surf. The water is cool but I grow used to it, dunking my whole self beneath a folding wave and I’m happy to bob in the power of the ocean for a wee bit while dodging little kids on boogie boards and full-grown men body surfing into shore.

I realise I have not been in the open ocean – not a bay or harbour – since before I left for my Midlife Gap Year. Anywhere. I visited some on my ride home to Sydney from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland but for one reason or another didn’t swim at any of them. Admittedly I’m a bit intimidated by the surf – as a native of the American Midwest I came to ocean swimming late in life and being dependent on glasses to have clear vision – the power and mystery of rips and waves unsettle me. The last ocean beach I visited as part of this project was No. 31 Freshwater back in January 2014 – wow.

Autumn, Sydney-style.
Autumn, Sydney-style.

Wet and sea-salty I take up a position on the beach in the sun and enjoy the warmth of the autumn sun – generally more pleasant than Sydney’s often bitingly hot summer sun. It’s already late afternoon and I don’t stay long – but it’s been a lovely day for it and I’m glad I got to Long Reef before the beach season ends.

Long Reef was part of the homeland of the Dharug people, probably, before European invasion of Australia. The commonly used name, by Europeans, for the people who had been living in this area is Guringai, however, it now seems this is not what the people who lived here called themselves. Some rock engravings done by these people remain in the area.

European settlement began in 1815 when William Cossar (a master shipbuilder) was granted some 500+ acres (200+ hectares) including Long Reef. By 1825 it was in the hands of James Jenkins, a former convict who had been transported in 1802 for stealing sheep. His eldest child, Elizabeth, had inherited land in North Narrabeen in 1821 and with the 1825 acquisition, the Jenkins family owned all of the foreshore form Mona Vale to Dee Why. At the extent of their holdings they had 1800 acres (728 hectares).

LongReefMap

 Long Reef is 24 kilometres (15 miles) from home.

For census purposes it’s in Collaroy, which was, in 2011 home to 14,388 people of whom 50, or 0.4%, identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Conversely, 110 residents listed the United States as their country of birth. So there are more than twice as many Americans in Collaroy as there are Indigenous Australians.

It’s in the Northern Beaches Council local government area, the state electorate of Wakehurst (Liberal – Brad Hazzard), and federal division of Mackellar (Liberal – Jason Falinski).

*The next beach in the alphabetical list is actually Little Patonga – another Pittwater beach needing a boat. Four of those have now been set aside to be visited in one weekend out on the water, eventually: Gunyah (Brooklyn) No 35, Hallets No 37, Hungry No 39, and Little Patonga No 46.

Getting Naked on Little Congwong Beach (No 45, 2 January 2017)

No 45: Little Congwong (Monday 2 January)

Little Congwong is not officially clothing optional and yet it is.

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So it was appropriate that I should visit while my friend Matthew is in town.

Matthew recently rode his bicycle from Eindhoven, the Netherlands to his hometown of Adelaide. I had been following his blog as I was preparing for my own big bicycle tour and, one day in December 2014, I was catching up on his story when I watched this video, and thought it was excellent.

I complimented the video, and, knowing he was summering in Australia (wisely not riding in the northern winter), I suggested that if he made to Sydney we might meet.

He messaged back that he was in Sydney and asked if I were free that afternoon.

I found him to be as interesting in person as he’d been on line.

Over the course of my mid-life gap-year, return to Australia, and time spent campaigning for Hillary Clinton we’ve maintained our on-line friendship – liking and commenting on each other’s stuff. While I was on my journey he was riding through Iran, Central Asia, China, South East Asia, and Australia.

He got home to Adelaide in August. Then, just before Christmas, rode to Sydney.

We’d caught up a few times before our beach outing and each time out I liked him more. He’s smart and funny, with a million stories of course, and, unlike any of my other friends, in pretty much the exact same place in life: mid-40s, having dramatically left behind an earlier version of ourselves to go on a big adventure, now on the other side of that we’re trying to figure out what comes next, how to be our genuine selves and be gainfully employed. Oh, and we’re also both on the market for boyfriends.

One thing Matthew enjoyed doing on his journey across the world was to sometimes ride naked. So, a perfect companion for a trip to an unofficially clothing-optional beach.

Matthew met me in Newtown and we set off on our convoluted bus journey to La Perouse under threatening skies. From King Street we walked down Erskineville Road, and into Swanson. We had coffees at Ella Guru Café while it rained.  We then pushed on to McEvoy Street to catch the 370 to the University of NSW and the 391 to La Perouse.

I hadn’t been down that way in, well, years. There’s something about that peninsula, once you get past Maroubra which feels apart from Sydney. It feels more like something down the south coast, some misplaced bit of Sussex Inlet or Nowra.

That is, until you get to La Perouse which is always more Asian and Middle Eastern than those places. And, of course, there are more Aboriginal people. La Perouse is one of the few places in all of Sydney where Aboriginal people have an unbroken record of continual residence.

I also like that Matthew is at least as frugal, if not more frugal, than I am so we perused the lunch menus of the restaurants of La Perouse with one eye and, not surprisingly, settled on the old-school fish and chippery.

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Once fed we made our way, down the stairs through the bush to Congwong Beach (No 16 – visited a lifetime ago on 3 April 2011), to the far end, and along a further bush path to Little Congwong.

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Just as we emerged we ran into a Polish family who warned us there are naked people on the beach – we know, we said. And Matthew chatted with the guy for a bit – here’s a place where we’re different, he’s happy for a chat with anyone.

Sure enough at the near end of the bush-backed, slightly curving 150m or so long beach there were a few topless and naked women sun bathing. There were some men and women in bathers. We kept walking toward the far end of the beach where there were some naked men and other men in skimpy bathers. “We’re definitely in your neighbourhood now,” I said. He offered to head back the other way and I was like, oh, no, I have no problem with naked gay men.

We spread our towels and Matthew got his kit off, but sat in such a way that his junk wasn’t all obvious to me as we chatted. I was happy clothed.

At the far end of the beach a lean, bronzed, naked, middle-aged man was exercising. He had dumbbells and did standing arm curls, and shoulder presses. He did squats and lay on his back doing bicycle kicks. And a variety of other exercises you’d expect on a 1950s parade ground of soldiers dressed in white t-shirts tucked into small shorts. But he was naked. And on the beach. We watched and chuckled. And Matthew mimicked him with is bottle of Dare.

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See naked man with dumbbells in the background.

Mathew went for a swim and fell into conversation with a young European man who was part of a quartet of guys parked near us. Matthew’s new friend, a Belgian, was married to another of the quartet but he, his husband, was up in the bush checking out the cruising scene. My time with Matthew has been an eye-opening, fascinating, education in the ways of life in a certain segment of the gay-male world. Having been dateless and single for quite a while now, I admit a certain envy of the easy, fearless (or at least less worried – about violence, about pregnancy), open, sex-driven culture he’s part of. And, really, it’s just fascinating and deeply foreign – a culture I can no more access than Saudi politics, Japanese yakuza, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

It rained a bit. The sun came out and then disappeared again. When it was out it was like an overly powerful heat lamp much too close at hand.

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Walkers on the bridge to Bare Island.

I wasn’t going to swim. The water was fresh, but not too cool, just sort of dumpy and churning. In the end, I realised I’d regret not having gone in. I have come to like nude beaches; I like swimming naked. And I am at best invisible to the gay men on the beach and at worst irrelevant. So, with Matthew already in the water and chatting with another of the quartet of men. I stripped down, hugged my boobs and marched into the water. And then tip-toed to where they stood. It is a bit strange – the conversing with people while naked.

We emerged, dried, and laughed once more at the exercising man – now wearing a hat and chatting with a naked fisherman. Then we were done, we dressed, and made our way back to the bus stop and on to the City.

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We didn’t ride but this is, pretty much, the route we took to get there.

Little Congwong is about 17 kilometres from my home. La Perouse is home to 418 people according to the 2011 census. Of these, 27.9% identified as Australian and 19.2% as Australian Aboriginal. (Compared with 0.3% of all New South Wales, and 0.5% of all of Australia.) The balance were 17.5% English, 6.1% Irish, and 4.3% Greek.

Little Congwong is the City of Randwick, the State electorate of Maroubra (Labor – Michael Daley), and Federal Division of Kingsford Smith (Labor – Matt Thistlethwaite).

 

All of My Sisters in Burqinis are Enjoying Christmas Day at Lady Robinson’s Beach (No 44 – 25 December 2016)

In recent years, I’ve made the tradition of a Jew’s Christmas my own. In the United States that’s a movie and Chinese food. But this is Australia so: a swim, a movie, and Chinese food.

Lady Robinson’s Beach is on Botany Bay between the mouths of the Cooks River and the Georges River.

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European settlers (invaders) named this Seven Mile Beach but it was renamed during the tenure of the 14th Governor of New South Wales, Sir Hercules Robinson. He served from March 1872 to February 1879 and the beach was named for his wife, Lady Robinson, or Nea Arthur Ada Rose D’Amour. The fifth daughter of the ninth Viscount Valentia.

Sir Hercules’ career, Lady Robinson’s as well, reads like a stereotype of British colonial service: Administrator of Montserrat, Lt Governor of Saint Christopher (Saint Kitts), Governor of Hong Kong, of British Ceylon, of Fiji, of New Zealand, Acting Governor of British Mauritius, High Commissioner for Southern Africa, and Governor of the Cape Colony. Yet, he managed to get home to London to die in October 1897, aged 62.

Their daughter, Nora Robinson, wed Alexander Kirkman Finlay at St James’ Church in Sydney in 1878. The groom owned Glenormiston, a large station in Victoria. This wedding was the second vice-regal wedding in New South Wales and, as such, attracted much public attention – a crowd estimated up to 10,000 gathered outside the church.

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Wedding party for marriage of Nora Augusta Maud, daughter of Sir Hercules and Lady Nea Robinson, to A.K. Finlay, Sydney, August, 1878 (Lady Robinson is seated, facing the bride)

I do suggest reading Sir Hercules’ Wikipedia page. It’s both fascinating and a strange and unlikely tale to be tied to this stretch of beach – which, on Christmas Day 2016 is hosting families from all around the world – a few of whom, were surely, from other places touched by Sir Hercules’ colonial hand.

The day, while breezy, is otherwise a perfect Sydney Christmas Day: sunny, warm but not too hot, not too humid. Just lovely.

Every bit of shade in the reserve has been colonised by a United Nations of families: East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, European, and African. Many are clearly Muslims, some probably Buddhist – the Christians come for a dip and go back to their parties and lunches at home.

Christmas is the day when I feel most Jewish, not that I practice, but on this day I usually feel very much an Outsider. But not here, not at Lady Robinson’s Beach, where today is, mostly, a day for non-Christians making the most of a holiday courtesy of the Christian majority.

There is a busy shark-netted swimming enclosure. Jet skis buzz along the shore. International flights circle, approach from the southwest, and land on Sydney Airport’s third runway while other planes queue for their turn to depart. In the distance, the cranes of Sydney’s port fill the horizon.

I love this beach. I love how it’s a bit gritty in a working class, working port, immigrant families way – the antithesis of the glitzy beautiful-people blonde-haired blue-eyed stereotype of Sydney’s beaches.

There are more women and girls on this beach in burqinis than bikinis.

And I love that too. I love that an Australian woman, Aheda Zanetti, started a company, Ahiida, to provide swimming attire that allows Muslim women, who choose to abide by dictates of modest dress, to fully participate in this most Australian of activities – swimming in the sea and enjoying the beach.

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I wade into the Bay – the water is cooling, refreshing but not cold. I move slowly to where I’m waist deep then dive in. Emerging I feel a wave of welled and condensed emotions – a rejoicing for my return home, finally, to Sydney, and the easy contentment that has brought me, also some nostalgia for the 19 months of travel and volunteering gone by and the knowledge I’m unlikely to have that kind of open-ended freedom again, and, too, some sadness, for hopes unfulfilled. All of that in the woosh of rising out of the water, raising my arms to splash the sea around me, and then feeling the heat of the sun on my wet skin.

I sit for a time on the beach and write – as I do, an excited family group arrives, first a dad and kids running past me into the water than the younger women, in colourful burqinis, then older women in flowing black hijabs and matching garb. They were all, seemingly, having a really lovely time – while making for a striking scene – these black clad women, wading in the shallows, the planes and port cranes in the background.

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I rode my bicycle home, enjoyed sweet and sour chicken at the Happy Chef then met some new Jewish friends for a screening of La La Land at Bondi Junction.

And so, another Australian Jewish Christmas in the books and a good beach from which to restart this blog.

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Lady Robinson’s Beach was an 13.5 kilometre (8.3 mile) bicycle ride from home.

The portion of the beach which I visited is in Kyeemagh, a suburb in the Bayside Council.

Kyeemagh is a wee little suburb – home to 780 people of whom 37.5 % were born overseas (Greece 10.5%, Lebanon 2.3%, and Cyprus 2.2%). English is the primary language spoken in 44.3% of homes. (All per the 2006 census.)

It’s in the Rockdale State Electorate (Steve Kamper, Labor) and the Federal Division of Barton (Linda Burney, Labor). (It has been a LONG time since I’ve been to a beach represented at both levels by the Labor Party.)

The Last Beach Before My Travel Began, No 43: Lady Martin’s – 17 May 2015

Is this a bit of a cheat?

I visited Lady Martin’s on 17 May 2015 – one week before I departed for my midlife gap year – but never posted about it.

I don’t want to visit it again so I’m going back to my diary from the day to write it up now.

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Lady Martin’s is a wee crescent of beach at the bottom of Point Piper. I suspect in any other country it would be privately held and divvied up among the millionaires whose mansions hover nearby. These include the current Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull. Of course, when I visited back in 2015 he was fuming on the back benches as Tony Abbott went about his business of losing popularity.

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Sneaky access: the pathway next to the Prince Edward Yacht Club.

Here’s what I wrote then:

There’s real and lovely warmth in the sun – which burns bright when not obscured by clouds. The light shimmers blindingly on the weak harbour waves as they flush ashore with a rhythmic, sleep-encouraging hush.

A flotilla or racing yachts rush past out on the harbour.

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There is a party – a birthday party  perhaps – at the Prince Edward Yacht Club. A one-man-band plays groovy guitar jazz.

Among the party guests are many multicultural, multilingual families – a wee girl speaks French, English, and Russian. But mostly people seem to be speaking French. Which seems appropriate as I realised earlier today that I really will need to learn some of that language.

Had I come at high tide I expect there’d have been little beach to visit as the sand is wet right up to the retaining wall. As it is, there’s maybe five meters of beach running 100 meters or fewer and bisected by the yacht club’s pier.

The beach is Sydney-sandstone golden and surrounded by about a billion dollars’ worth of residential property. It’s a place to really celebrate the decision, early in Australia’s story, to keep beaches, all of them, even little ones like this – public.

It’s lovely. I’m so glad I came.

Next Sunday … will I have time for a beach before my flight?

The following … a river ride and the Giro d’Italia?

Close enough to a swim for May.
Close enough to a swim for May.

Lady Martin’s Beach is in the Municipality of Woollhara, the State Electorate of Vaucluse (Gabrielle Upton, Liberal) and Federal Division of Wentworth (Malcolm Turnbull, Liberal).

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Silent in Foggy France: Bayeux – Benouville – Houlgate

Sunday 30 August 9:10 am – Relais ‘La Roseraie’, Bayeux (Day 98 of my midlife gapyear)

I wonder when I will converse again. Will my voice go rusty, my tongue uncertain? This will be day eight without a proper conversation.

‘Sadness & Happiness’ – the last poem in Selected – one of my favourites – so much so as I think my shoulders slumped and I let out a little sigh of … there should be a word which reflects the regret of finishing a book.

Now I’ll have to finish my ‘poem’ and prepare to share it with Robert. That makes me nervous just thinking about it. But excited too. I want it to be good and I want him to like it.

Fabulous French sugar cubes - breakfast at my chambres du hote
Fabulous French sugar cubes – breakfast at my chambres du hote

7:05 pm – Camping les Hautes Coutures, Benouville

I had a little chat with a fellow cyclist this evening – a Frenchman out for a ride and a bicycle tourist – he had a little English – we spoke of my trip and his, earlier in the summer, to Scotland. He told me that in WWII a Scotsman playing the pipes led troops into battle across the bridge I’ll traverse in the morning.

It was a day of two distinct halves. The first was through very, very quiet farming country and little towns. Beautiful – fog hugged the earth pretty much all day. But in never rained. And it was mild. Freshly harvested hay bales are strewn across fields. There were cars outside churches. A few open bars. Quiet.

Breaking in my new French Aussie cap and admiring the farmers' work.
Breaking in my new French Aussie cap and admiring the farmers’ work.

Then I reached the sea.

I got a crepe in some small beach town and a Frenchman was keen to chat about my trip – but we had about the same number of words in each other’s languages. He was enthusiastic and friendly though.

From there I rode along the coast in and out of beach towns – full of French and English holiday-makers. This is Juno, a landing beach of the British and Canadians. It was interesting to see they had become English in their accoutrements: carousels and soft-serve ice creams and hot chips served from kiosks and people walking and flying kites and building sand castles and roller-blading. While the English may visit for the history they also want a fun beach holiday – the Americans back at Omaha were just there for the history – they’ll go to Florida for a beach holiday.

So I rode through these late-summer holiday-makers – an object of some interest. People looked, and watched – but none tried to speak with me. At the Brittney Ferry Terminal, I left the sea with a right-hand turn along the canal which runs to Caen.

All up I rode about 65 kms to arrive at this 4-star campground – I prefer two or three as they have all I need and nothing that I don’t (pools, playgrounds). But here I am. And I’ve paid for 3 hours of internet too.

Today I thought often about my return to Sydney – riding in from Palm Beach. Coffee in Manly. Pedalling across the Bridge. A drink in the Rocks and ‘home’ to Five Dock.

And Robert’s Selected Poems – I was thinking about them. I think the Germans have a word for the remorse felt when you’ve finished a book.

Monday 31 August – 8:40 am, Camping les Hautes Coutures, Benouville (Day 99)

Another foggy morning with some rain overnight and drizzling off and on now. I am breakfasting in the ablutions block – among the washing basins, not the toilets – on digestives with butter and tea while my computer (and hopefully my mp3 player) charges.

Last night – after some work – I sent my next e-newsletter – which I was happy with and had replies in the night from Bob M., VAL, Sabra and Debra B.

8:15 pm – Camping Municipal des Chevaliers, Houlgate

Short riding day – less than 40 km – I didn’t leave Benouville until midday. I had proceeded along in my getting ready but before I could get the tent packed it started pissing down. I took shelter in the bar – had a coffee and did some work.

When I did finally get away it was under a heavy blanket of cloud and lingering fog – breezy. And that’s what it was like all day, but for 90 seconds of sunshine while I was at the tourist office here.

The early part of the day followed the River Orne back to the Channel – partially through a wetland nature reserve where I saw a deer – second of the trip – the first near Southampton. In that millisecond of seeing its haunch I though “kangaroo!” – same colouring.

Then I was back along the sea.

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I was going to ride further than Houlgate but I realised I was knackered. They had a municipal camping ground – €8 plus free Wi-Fi (which I haven’t tried yet).

While I was pitching my tent, and unpacking my bicycle – other bicycle tourists showed up for the neighbouring pitch. They are French, but she lived in Sydney for a year and New Zealand before that. She speaks English quite well. We had a bit of a chat – but nothing of substance sadly. They seem to have gone into town now.

I showered. I made dinner. Yesterday’s wet clothes are hanging up until I go to bed.

I wish I had a chair with a back. That would make life better.

My route - click to enlarge.
My route – click to enlarge.
My route in context (Paris in the lower right, Amiens in the upper right.) Click to enlarge.
My route in context (Paris in the lower right, Amiens in the upper right.) Click to enlarge.

Beautiful Bayeux: A pink room, loneliness, and a tapestry

Friday 28 August 2015 (Day 96 of my midlife gap year)

8:20 pm A Restaurant in Bayeux

It’s nice to be in a city again. Bayeux is compact, beautiful, and busy with visitors. The helpful tourist office found me a reasonably priced chambres du hote on the edge of the city centre which I’d never have noticed myself as it’s located over a hair salon. My room is quite pink, and I like it.

A double bed beneath a cheap chandelier in a pink-walled hotel room.
My very pink room in Bayeux.

Sometimes I ride past ‘old’ buildings, but mostly I’m riding in modern France – physically and mentally. This past week I’ve been mired in World War II – history, but of a modern sort. Bayuex is a reminder of the depth of human history here. It was founded in the 1st century BC but there is evidence of older occupation by way of fortified Celtic camps and indications of Druid activities.

Bayeux was the first city liberated following the D-Day landings. The Germans were drawn off to defend more strategically important locations so Bayeux was spared destruction and is – on this late summer’s evening, a gorgeous place to stroll.

Bayeux at sunset.
Bayeux at sunset.

The mass of tourists promises conversation, I hear English on the streets – but I’m feeling stuck in my cone of silence. I know there are chats for the asking, I just can’t find the … energy? Nerve? Conviviality? To bowl up to an English speaker and say “hello”.

So, I’m here –  in this poorly chosen restaurant with a poorly chosen meal.

Jim says I should get out more – he’s right – but getting out more equals getting lonely more. This is the space of loneliness: dining on a Friday night, alone, in a strange city. I am surrounded by couples and families. It’s a lovely city, and I’d like to enjoy it, but lonely plus a disappointing meal makes me grumpy and sad. The irony is that my response to loneliness is a wish to be alone.

Saturday 29 August 6:33 am (Day 97) – Relais ‘La Roseraie’, Bayeux

I’ve been awake for nearly an hour.

At the American cemetery a British father with two sons under 10: the older says, “So he survived?” Dad looks around and says, “Does it look like anyone here won?”

While I appreciate what Dad was doing there – those boys and men, interred there, may have lost their lives – but that we’re not all speaking German, and are living in free, democratic countries – they won. They most definitely won.

I’ve had an email reply from Robert – which is nice, he’s pleased I’m reading Selected Poems. I’ve typed up my ‘poem’ about reading his poems – as it exists so far … it’s … okay. Not sure if I’ll send it to him – that’s a bit nerve wracking, really.

[I]t seems that someone who wants too much to get things is also someone who fears. And living in that fear cannot be free. (From Robert Pinsky’s An Explanation of America (Part Two, III, Epistulae I, xvi)).

My freedom on the road is borne of some of this fearlessness – not a bravery but a lack of worry and want. Others tell me they see it as bravery, but I think bravery is mostly in the eye of the beholder.

11:15 pm – Relais ‘La Roseraie’, Bayeux

Bayeux has been at the cross-roads of clashing civilisations going back to the Roman arrival in Gaul. Later the Vikings came and then the Franks and the English. So, I guess, there’s something appropriate in the city being associated with one of the oldest artistic renderings of human warfare.

The Bayeux Tapestry, which I saw today, was made around 1070. It tells the story of William the Conqueror’s triumph over the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The 70-metre-long tapestry (really an embroidery) is a series of panels with some (Latin) text. The museum supplies a little audio device which explains the tale as you move along at a steady pace in what is, basically, an ever-moving queue of tourists.

It’s gorgeous, the colours vibrant, and it’s just generally in very good nick for 945-year-old cloth. While the names of famous men are attached to its history it’s important, to me, to remember the work itself, the stitching, and so the fundamental artistry, is the work of women. Anonymous 11th century English women – and they have done a stellar job.

But it is a depiction of war and I am reminded that the same stories of war and loss, bravery and sacrifice, have been played out way too many times.

Detail of Bayeux Tapestry found on www.english-heritage.org.au © DeAgostini/Getty Images
Detail of Bayeux Tapestry found on www.english-heritage.org.au © DeAgostini/Getty Images

Aside from successful touristing, the day was insanely productive: bike fixed (I’d had a wee gearing problem and the brake cables needed adjusting) – they charged me nothing, so I bought a new cap – Australian green & gold with kangaroos no less; Intersport sold me expensive but fine knicks to replace my old, inexpensive, but fine knicks.

This evening I washed my clothes at a laundrette and had take-away sushi for dinner – pricy but good. I chatted with Jim on Facebook – which was nice, as always.

Sound and light projection show on a 1797 tree at Bayeux Cathedral
Sound and light projection show on a 1797 tree at Bayeux Cathedral

Then I went out to see the Rendez-vous a la Cathedrale – Les Lumieres de la Liberte – a projection and sound show on the 1797 tree in the Cathedral courtyard – 10 stories of liberty from across history. The WWII section was haunting in its way, the Flower Power one fun and lovely.

(Not my video – it’s the whole show, so a bit long – but you may enjoy bits and pieces of it.)

A few drops began falling just at the end of the show, which became steady rain, then torrents by the time I got within about 200 metres of home.

It’s pelting – torrential, tropical nearly, with thunder and lightning too. The last rain this heavy might have been on the Australian leg of my journey.

I am so glad not to be in my tent tonight.

Pedaling with Ghosts in the Normandy Rain: Isigny-sur-Mer to Bayeux

Thursday 27 August 2015 (Day 95 of my midlife gap-year)

9:15 am, Camping Le Fanal, Isigny-sur-Mer, France: Rain Rain Go Away

I slept until 9 and it’s raining again.

At 7 the church bells were pretty insistent on waking everyone. I’m surprised I fell back to sleep. If I’d gotten up at 7, I might have packed away a dry tent. Now, and since just as I woke, there is a steady pitter-patter. Riding in this sort of rain is not too terrible but I’m growing weary of it, as a constant companion.

Rainy view from a tent door.
Blech – I don’t wanna go to school today, ma.

I’d like to get to Bayeux today – but that’ll be hard if I just sit here in the rain. Hard in the rain and with two cemetery stops. We’ll see. I don’t want to go out in the rain right now. I really don’t.

10:40 am – The Café at Camping Le Fanal: Still Raining and Feeling Sorry for Myself

Worst morning weather so far.

Who is Cool Kids by? No idea – it’s playing for the yoga class going on in here now.

It’s hard to make quiet my friend when there’s little quiet.

There’s noise and voices and people – but I haven’t the skills to talk to them. Simple … simple conversation doesn’t satisfy. The cuts come both ways – I’m in a cone of a monolinguistic silence or really muteness and the sort of conversation I crave is highly articulate – something erudite and clever.

Between the rain and the silence, I’m feeling sad. On the bicycle it’s fine because I can make quiet my friend. I can have my imagined conversations.

God, it’s miserable – just pissing down.

Maybe I should just pack up the wet tent and go anyway? It’s just rain. Sigh.

This place is making me sad.

Okay, I’m sure the radio announcers aren’t saying “Shitty FM” but that’s what it sounds like. Time to go.

3:50 pm – German War CemeteryMore Dignity Than Deserved?

As expected, this is a place of mixed feelings.

In the display – pictures of Nazi boys, maybe 17 years old, happily surrendering. For their peers lying here I feel sadness – too young to have agency. But the men buried here – maybe they didn’t ‘deserve to die’ – maybe they didn’t personally round up civilians (Jews and otherwise) and send them to their deaths. (Those who did – for them I will reserve “deserved to die”.) But I’m glad they are dead, all of these Nazi soldiers, in so far as they – or some of them – had to die to liberate France and ultimately the camps. And these boys and men – they have graves.

Nazi war graves in Normandy
More dignity than Nazis deserve?

I think of the concentration camp soil at the Holocaust Memorial in Paris. The soil on which the greasy human ashes of thousands fell – that’s the best we can do for those victims – here is some soil which may contain a smidge of DNA from whole families.

I don’t know that Nazis deserve the dignity of this cemetery – even if they were someone’s sons, brothers, etc. Jumbled in a nameless pit would be about right.

All that – and while looking at my bicycle noticing all the German bits – Schwalbe tyres, Abus locks, Ortlieb panniers.

I wrote in the book at the German cemetery: “They have the dignity of graves, their victims only ash.”

As I was leaving a tour bus full of retirement-age Germans arrived. So so weird. One fella wandered over to admire my bicycle – we tried to exchange a few words but neither of us had enough of the other’s language to do so. A real pity – we had common ground in my bicycle and I was deeply curious what had brought him here today. Is his father here? An uncle perhaps? How does this place feel for a 65-year-old German?

10:30 pm – Omaha Beach Campground: With Ghosts All Around

It rained more than it didn’t today – no clear spells until the usual one at, like, 8pm. The ride today was map reliant – gone were the good bicycle-centric road signs – but pretty straight forward and easy enough. All the fighting zones feel ghostie and blood soaked.

Pont du Hoc – where the US Army Rangers scaled a crazy cliff to take some German guns, is American run – so everything is in English first. And there are water fountains plus soap & hand driers in the toilets. Sorry, bathroom.

Pont du Hoc cliffs - scaled on D-Day
Pont du Hoc cliffs – scaled on D-Day
Pont du Hoc cows grazing in grassed over war-damaged clifftops
Pont du Hoc sheep grazing in grassed over war-damaged clifftops

People look at the bike, at me, with a sort of admiration or envy or wonder but not like I’m nuts.

I was dead keen to find a hotel tonight but this campground appeared first, so here I am, night four under nylon and surrounded by the (mostly) French, which is good. As it should be – though tomorrow night I wouldn’t mind finding myself in a bar with fluent English-speakers.

(There’s a pair of hedgehogs making noises out there – they are snuffling around near my bicycle. There are also goats insecurely penned in what I’m calling an old German defence on the sea side of the campground. We are on the headland of the western end of Omaha Beach.)

I walked down to the beach tonight. And nearly wept. It was high tide – waves lapping into the break wall behind which the landing troops sought a little shelter. There’s a memorial – from the Army Reserve, I think. There’s also a hotel, a place to rent kayaks and paddle boards, people’s summer homes. Life goes on.

Selfie of middle-aged, short-haired woman on a pebbly beach with ocean and jetty
At Omaha Beach at sundown.

The French have gotten on with using these spaces for the living but don’t think for a moment they have forgotten about the dead. In all the rain I’ve taken few photos this week but had I they would show Normandy to be a place of slate-roofed, stone villages adorned with flowers and wind-whipped quartets of flags (those of France, Great Britain, Canada and the United States). Memorials and remembrances – official and private alike – abound.

It’s been a tough day – in the rain and the places I went, but good too. Always good.

I’m still reading Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems and writing my own poem about reading his poems. I’ve nearly finished the book, the poem … still needs work.

Where:

The Western headland of Omaha Beach

Where a German bunker houses sheep

And the French enjoy their beach hols

Had I been on this spot on 6 June 1944

The sights would have haunted me into oblivion

Friday 28 August 2015 (Day 96), 8:15 am

Omaha Beach Campground: OMG Sun!

Oh, what is this golden burning ball in the sky which lights the world?

And where is my blanket of cloud?

The tent is damp with condensation and dew which sparkles in this strange morning light. May it last, may it last.

Yesterday I had Midnight Oil’s Blossom & Blood on the mind and Love & Rockets Ball of Confusion – riding through history can do that to you.

1pm – Normandy American Cemetery Visitors Centre: Beauty and Pain

There was a gaggle of French road cyclists hanging about when I arrived. One went to pee in the bush – really? I looked at him – I wish I had the French, but still I said, “There are no toilets? Nice way to show respect.”

I sighed entering.

It was noon and a bell was tolling the hour. Then a carillon played something really tacky – I think it was The Yanks are Coming.

And then in among the graves in the shining sunlight – all grandiose American Americaness.

So much loss. So much gained.
So much loss. So much gained.

The cemetery is profoundly beautiful, and I felt a deep sadness looking at this sea of graves – all these lives sacrificed – all those futures lost. I allowed the scattering of Stars of David to lead me through the graves – taking the time to read the names as I went. There was a quartet of markers which, I thought, said much: on the front right – Adolf Greenburg of California died 24 June 1944, behind him Edmond G. Sokolowski of Connecticut died 9 July 1944, to the left Vito Monticciolo of New Jersey died 2 August 1944 and in front of him “Here Rests in Honored Glory A Comrade in Arms Known But to God”.

These were American boys, yes, and a reflection of the immigrant nation they came from – but, these were also descendants of Europe. Much is made of the idea of that the Americans came thousands of kilometres to help people they didn’t know – and there’s truth in that – but I’d put good money on none of those three Americans being more than two-generations removed from somewhere in the Yiddish homelands, Poland, and Italy. More than likely all three did know people, had relatives, who were suffering under the Fascists.

I will admit to feeling different for the Jewish boys and men here … they died, as Jews, fighting Nazis. Thanks to Quentin Tarentino’s Inglorious Basterds I do hope most of them died with Nazi blood on their bayonets.

The landing beaches aka my route the past few days.
The landing beaches aka my route the past few days.

Looking for somewhere to eat my lunch I, strangely, found no provision for people to sit somewhere away from the graves. The signs even said no eating of food or picnicking anywhere – including the carpark – I ignored it, finding a bit of shaded grass next the parked coaches.

Another bus arrived disgorging a herd of Americans – tethered by earphones to their leader. I thought: I would rather stay home and watch travel docos than travel like that. I thought again of how I may cover less ground but see so much more.

I am not even on the same plane of existence as these people.
I am not even on the same plane of existence as these people.

I thought about how motorized travel is mediated travel. They ride in their buses – sleeping against the window, emerging to a ‘place to visit’ having not experienced anything of the in-between.

They are barely here at all.

After my lunch (with a side of superiority), I left my sadness and thoughts of war and death at the cemetery gates and rode into the sunny afternoon with a relieved sigh. I thought the best way to honour those brave, crazy, ignorant, terrified boys and men was to enjoy this beautiful day with a light heart and a happy internal dialogue. I whistled and sang my way into Bayeux – greeting the cows as I went.

What a glorious afternoon for living.
What a glorious afternoon for living.
Map showing cycling route described in this post
My route (click to enlarge)
My route in context - see Paris in the lower right.
My route in context – see Paris in the lower right. (Click to enlarge)