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Friday
Sep232016

No McMansions in Mirepoix

No McMansions in Mirepoix – blog post

This is quite the quirkiest house I’ve ever slept in. For one thing, it’s all of 12 foot wide, except, that is, for the top floor/attic, which measures 14 feet. (I don’t even understand how that’s possible.) Everything is at interesting angles. You think the furniture is placed crookedly and then you realise that the walls aren’t at right angles to the floor, anywhere. The supporting beam is at a weird angle to the boards that make up the ceiling.

Strangest of all, this house is on seven levels. Technically it is a three-storey dwelling, but each storey has a kind of half-storey leading off it, if that makes sense. So that you come into a dining area straight off the street that leads into a kitchen from which five steps lead to a tiny laundry. Up 13 more steps and you’re in a long, slim, beautifully light living room with blue-shuttered windows looking straight down on the narrow street.

Up seven more steps to a bathroom and bunk room that back onto a judiciously placed light-well. Eight more and you are in the main bedroom which has the same proportions and outlook as the living area a floor below. Up nine more steps to an attic bedroom (two foot wider than any of the other areas in the house) and five more steps take you to a kind of mezzanine sleeping area where you could settle half a dozen kids if you needed to.

There’s no garden. It seems, wandering around, as I do most days, that there aren’t many gardens in this bit of town. Some places have a bit of land at the back – across the back wall from the attic room I get a glimpse of red autumn tomatoes and sunflowers just past their best – but all the houses open directly onto the street, so that you come out your front door and you’d be in the gutter if you had one. As we lie in bed having our cup of tea first thing, we hear church bells and French voices drifting up to us as people start their day; when we go for a walk we exchange pleasantries with ladies washing their windows or putting out the cat, or old people sunning themselves on a strategically placed bench. Life happens outside.

It has the feel of an Indian town – people living on top of each other and most of the life happening on the street. Also, although they may look like dolls’ houses, the tiny front doors of these residences lead into sizeable homes. Last year Hamish and I stayed in a guest house in the heart of Bikaner, Rajasthan. The street was only wide enough for pedestrians, bikes and rickshaws. The house opposite was almost close enough for us to reach out and touch the little girl who lived there who I used to wave to from the roof. The door into the establishment was so small you had to bend to get in, and we had a truck load of trouble finding it the first time around.

Once you got inside, however, it was a veritable Tardis. Room upon room opened out (we discovered they had eight rooms for paying guests); there was an open air dining and sitting area on the roof and then another flat roof above that. Each of the guest rooms had their own bathroom, and our hosts had their own quite spacious living quarters.

It feels like the polar opposite of an Australian McMansion, or even a normal Australian suburban home, with its massive rooms, multiple living areas (dad’s den, parents’ retreat, kids’ area), decks the size of something from the Queen Elizabeth II and acres of garden. In Europe and Asia, people go to a park if they need a dose of green open space. The gardens, such as they are, are communal.

Like most Aussies, I have grown accustomed to my big house and garden, and I enjoy it. But I still miss the street life of the city where I grew up in India. I still find empty gardens and pavements lonesome.

And when I venture into the outer burbs in Melbourne with their McMansions, it depresses me. Huge houses containing a couple, maybe one or two kids. Big empty rooms dominated by flat screen televisions that take up almost an entire wall. No one emerging from their domain to chat to the neighbours. There are more interesting and sustainable ways of housing people than either massive suburban dwellings or the dog box apartments for overseas students that have been attracting controversy in Melbourne over the last few years.

We live in a pretty big house by Brunswick standards. These days we rattle around in it, but for most of our 16 years there, every room in the place was used to within an inch of its life, and that’s the way it should be.

Of course I am romanticising France, and India too. (I’m allowed to do that, I’m on holiday.) Who knows how I would cope if I had to live in a medieval house on a medieval street, which is what this is? I like to think I would take to it like a duck to water. I’ll probably never have the chance to find out, but while I am here, having a taste of it – having three weeks in ancient dwelling places in antique towns, I plan to keep enjoying every minute.

Pic 1 - me in our little house. Ours is the one with the blue shutters, the big window on the ground floor belongs to next door.

Pic 2 - a little shop for sale just down the road

 

Friday
Sep162016

Gascony

Our days in Gascony follow a certain pattern. A long walk in the morning, to beat the heat (it’s autumn, but some days still reach the mid-thirties) up and down the little hills, past fields full of just-past-their-prime sunflowers and right-in-their-prime corn. Further afield there are neat rows of vines, growing lush and strong to make the local wines and the aperitifs such as Floc and Armagnac. And the fields are punctuated by pockets of thick forest – trees that I think are chestnut and beech, and whose leaves are just beginning to turn.

We come home after eight or ten k’s, slick with sweat, shower and then head off in our hire car – a snappy little burnt orange Renault. My Favourite Travelling Companion (FTC) is the sole driver, bless him, and we zip around on country roads barely wide enough for two vehicles, our trusty GPS completely leaching the tension from the journey and rendering my job as navigator obsolete, a state of affairs about which I am perfectly content. How did we get about without these things? With my woeful sense of direction, Sat Nav is one technology I am happy never to have to do without, whether at home or in a country where they drive on the opposite side of the road. Our Sat Nav has a predilection for obscure back roads, and that’s fine by us. We are in no hurry.

It’s hard not to feel that the day revolves around eating, and that seems appropriate in France. We plan our days of sight-seeing around a restaurant that we’ve heard is particularly good. When I say ‘good’, it’s not Cordon Bleu I’m talking about, but simple, fresh, local fare – my favourite kind of repast. And it’s ridiculously cheap. €12-15 (AUD $20 or thereabouts) buys you four courses and a glass of wine, sometimes coffee too – in teeny tiny cups that look as though they come from a dolls’ tea set and are filled with coffee so hot and black and strong it’s like drinking a shot. There is soup, entrée of some kind – generally involving ham and salad, and a choice of two or three mains and deserts. I tend to go for the duck, because it’s something we don’t cook at home and because I see poultry in most farms we pass, so I reckon they are local and fresh. (This area, the guide book tells me, has more geese than people.) For dessert, it’s hard to go past the Crème Brulée, smooth and creamy (made with real vanilla beans) with that crusty, burnt sugar topping. The juxtaposition of the two textures – smooth and sharp, transports me to heaven.

I normally avoid drinking in the middle of the day – it sends me straight to sleep – but it’s the south of France, and the sun is shining, and we are on holiday. Usually they give you a glass of the house rouge or blanc; yesterday our genial host brought us an entire bottle of Rosé, and kept bringing us the unfinished bottles from the tables of all the patrons who left before us, disappointed, I suspect, in our lack of stamina.

In the evening, when we do for ourselves in our little medieval cottage with every mod con you could possibly need, we have salad or a boiled egg – our middle aged systems aren’t used to coping with a four course meal at midday.

There is more to it that the food, of course, although that makes a handy hook on which to hang the day’s activities. If you drive ten minutes in any direction here, you come across a picture postcard perfect village. The only way you know it’s not the year 1400 is the fact that there are cars and modern looking pharmacies with their trademark green flashing light.

There’s usually a canal, a river or pond – ducks and geese everywhere – a bunch of houses – stone or brick or wattle and daub, with shutters that are grey, brown or cream or, often, the most divine shades of blue.  Most villages have a central square, where there are still weekly markets. Many of the squares have deep arcades, like a stone version of Australian verandahs, providing welcome shelter from rain or scorching summer sun.

When we come upon a village we like the look of, we park and potter, just meandering around the streets and drinking it all in. For an Australian, it’s like being dumped down in the middle of a Grimm’s fairy tale, without any of the scary bits. I try hard to look blasé about everything, but it’s impossible and I suspect I am walking around with a dazed and dopey grin on my face.

There’s always a church – sometimes tiny, sometimes enormously out of proportion to the village it serves – usually these are seriously old, 12th to 14th century. Inside, you feel the prayer and the ignorance and the oppression seeping out of the pores of the thick stone walls. (Maybe I’ve been reading too much of the gruesome history of the Church in these parts, particularly the activities of St Dominic with his slaughter of the Cathars, who sound like sensible and decent souls to me, even if they were technically heretics.) Some of the church buildings are plain and breath-takingly beautiful, others have the same handsome bones, covered all over with religious kitsch, like a beautiful woman plastered grotesquely in heavy make-up.

So much beauty. Of course there is the occasional bigger town, with supermarchés and car sales yards and industrial zones, but they are few and far between. The Gers – the part of Gascony where we are staying - is one of the least populated of the French départements. It’s one of the most agricultural and unspoiled areas in the country, and it is perfect for us, reeling as we are from a tough 18 months, just wanting to be alone and to gorge ourselves on sunshine and simple, rustic beauty.

In the evening we have a shorter walk down the one street of our village, through the quiet fields, from which you can just see the Pyrenees towering in the distance, beyond which lies Spain. We have our small supper, we read novels or watch a DVD and we sleep soundly, the window wide open to the silent night of a tiny village. And in the morning, we get up and do it again.


 

Tuesday
Sep132016

Edinburgh

When it comes to Edinburgh, who creates the more accurate portrait, Ian Rankin or Alexander McCall-Smith? Both, I suppose and Edinburgh, like any city in the world, has a thousand different faces.

Ian Rankin notwithstanding, I love it. I’ve decided it is now officially my third favourite city, after Melbourne and Ahmedabad.

To be fair, I am always on holiday when I visit. Plus, I stay with my dad and step-mum who I love to pieces, so I am predisposed to being relaxed and cheery and receptive to the charms of my holiday destination. And I’m never there long enough for the weather to get me down.

Having said all that, however, Edinburgh is a place that feeds my soul. Something about it makes me feel instantly at home, contented, restored. It fills me up like a long cool drink of water.

Our first full day in Edinburgh this time around was brilliantly warm and sunny and we seized the day, drove to South Queensferry where the bridges cross the Firth of Forth, and caught the tiny Maid of the Forth to the Island of Inchcolm where there is a ruined (but remarkably well preserved) 12th century abbey, like a mini-Iona. It was a perfect blue-gold day and we gloried in it, pottering around the buildings and marvelling at the toughness of the life of monks 800 years ago.

Next day, happily, was cool and wet, perfect Edinburgh weather. We scored the front seat on the top of a double-decker and rode into town, rain lashing the windscreen. I was in heaven.

I love walking around Edinburgh in the rain. The sets (big cobble stones) gleam cream and pink and grey like semi-precious stones, the castle lowers as it should and the buildings are even more forbidding than they are in sunshine.

Edinburgh must have its ugly, dismal parts, like every city the world over, but they are few and far between. From Princess St, you see the backs of the houses on the Royal Mile and realise that they are eight stories high – maybe the first ever experiment in high-rise living – medieval tenements. The ‘New Town’ – ancient by Aussie standards -  has its Georgian splendour, but as you leave the centre of town and wander into the burbs, the beautiful houses continue, mile upon mile, street after street of elegant, dour residences, three stories high, unfussy and unpretentious

Most of all, I love the profound, utterly sodden green that is everywhere. Edinburgh, my step-brother allegedly said when he was a wee lad, is a city with a lot of country in in. Arthur’s Seat is the most spectacular example – a great hunk of wild Highlands, plonked smack down in the middle of a capital city, so that you can walk from the CBD and be in lonely moorland in a matter of minutes.

But even right in the town centre there are acres of green. Formal gardens to be sure with tidy flower beds and emerald lawns, but also random steep slopes covered with cushiony mosses, lush grasses and shrubs and generously sheltering trees, graveyards where you could get lost in the abundant wild growth around the headstones and fallen stone angels, green and damp and fertile everywhere you look. I glory in it. It is the thing I miss most in our hot, dry, brown, prickly continent. It feeds my soul like the 23rd psalm.

 

 

Sunday
Sep042016

Travelling light

The plan is to travel with carry-on baggage only. Nearly two months away, staying in the south of France, most likely warm, and the islands of the west coast of Scotland, which will almost certainly be cold and wet.

I can’t recall what first gave me the idea of travelling light. Maybe it was a natural extension to the de-cluttering that has been happening steadily at our place over the last 18 months. Once the idea had popped into my head, I couldn’t dislodge it. And of course there are any number of websites devoted to precisely how you can travel in comfort with only a carry-on bag, for months, all around the world.

It wasn’t so much the fact that you can’t lose your luggage, or that you save at least half an hour every time you catch a plane, although I look forward to all those conveniences. Nor was it the ease of walking long distances over cobble stones without anything weighing more than seven kg.

It’s more the discipline it imposes on my mind, and the de-cluttering I hope will happen in my head if I only have four outfits to choose from: two warm, two cool. I am hoping that living in such simplicity will filter through to when I return to normal life; that I will realise I can survive perfectly happily with a lot less in my wardrobe and everywhere else. 

I bought a beautiful new super-lightweight bag and, now that our trip is imminent, it is already packed, and comes in under seven kilos.

For those of you who, like me, love lists of practical things, this is what I have taken in my main carry-on bag, which holds 37 litres:

On the plane I will be wearing: jeans, a fleecy jumper over a long-sleeved top, thick socks and my only pair of shoes – some leather boots that are good for walking but can also be polished up to look quite presentable.

In the small suitcase:

Clothes for cold weather:

  •  Second pair jeans
  • Three long-sleeved tops, two casual, one slightly dressy
  • One thermal top
  • One pair tracksuit bottoms that can double as winter PJs, along with the thermal top
  • One light rain jacket
  • I puffer jacket

  Clothes for warm weather:

  •  One cotton frock
  • One short denim skirt, good for walking in
  • Three T-shirts
  • One singlet
  • One light cardigan

  General:

  •  Four pairs socks, two thick woollen, two thin
  • Five pairs quick drying knickers
  • Two bras
  • Two pretend ‘Pashminas’ that can be used either as scarves or as a wrap
  • Two light weight shopping bags for visits to the supermarché

 

And in a light shoulder bag, I plan to take:

 

  • My laptop
  • Camera
  • Small cloth bag containing all my charging equipment
  • Sunglasses
  • Journal
  • One novel
  • Toiletries – all of the less-than 75ml variety
  • Travel wallet with passport, cards and small amount of cash

 

That’s it.

Knowing how voraciously I read, friends ask about books. When I am travelling, I don’t read much – my brains is busy processing all the new wonders I see each day. Plus, in the places we are staying, there are always a few English novels lying around.

As for sharp things like nail clippers and tweezers (not permitted in hand luggage) I will buy some at the start of each of our long spells (three weeks in each country) and leave them behind. No biggy.

And, I keep telling myself, they do have shops in these countries. What’s the worst that could happen? I might have to buy some supplementary clothes over there, maybe even a suitcase. Damn!

Thursday
Aug182016

Homeless

The homeless bleed onto our city streets. There are more every week it seems, whole dormitories of them. And it’s so very cold, and windy, so that the rain comes at a slant – fine if you have four walls, not so good if all you have is one and an awning.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I realised that housing was more important than food, thanks to reading ‘A bit of a struggle’ - a study of poverty and family life written by Jean McCaughey and published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. I’d always assumed that food was the basic human need; reading about families living in cars, however, I learnt that if you have a roof to keep you warm and dry and a locked door to keep you safe, you can scrounge food somehow. If you have a secure place to stay, you have a base from which to start on welfare, health, education, employment. If you are homeless, no dice.

I lived in other people’s houses until I was 41. Church houses, for the most part, and sometimes we stayed with relatives. They were good houses, but there were a lot of moves. So I never shared the assumption, common to many Australians of my vintage, that I would have my own place. I was amazed when a convergence of events, a bit of luck and a life time of thrift meant that we could do that very grown up thing and get a mortgage. In the 16 years since, there are not many weeks that pass where I don’t pinch myself - we have a house! It is ours! No one can kick us out!

Not having so much as the humblest rental is a universe of insecurity away from my experience. And every day there are more of these folk, in Lygon St, all over the Hoddle Grid, huddled in their makeshift camps, with shopping trolleys filled with blankets and festooned with plastic bags containing their meagre belongings. They have an upside-down beanie for money and a cardboard sign written in texta; often they have a dog curled up with them, keeping each other warm.

I like giving money away, but I cannot give money to all these people. I go home to my own stout roof and sturdy front door with a renewed sense of gratitude. I am unable to get them out of my head.