Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Unsolicited inspiration


She carefully negotiated around the tables in the North Melbourne café, steadying herself on the backs of chairs. She squeezed onto the banquette at the table next to ours. Initially I felt a bit invaded, given there were heaps of spare tables in the café.

She ordered a large cappuccino and a bowl of fries.  Almost instantly she was holding court with the middle aged business men who'd arrived at the table to her right. Couldn't help overhearing snatches of this elderly woman's jolly banter. She was Maltese, as was one of the business men she was regaling. Seemed she was entertaining them, rather than just talking.

After the lunch rush, the men returned to work, or wherever. My friend briefly left the table and I could sense this woman trying to get my attention.

"Do you live locally?" she asked. I couldn't ignore her overture and my response was all she needed to engage me in a chat. It gave me a chance to study her. She had a weathered complexion and thick, steel wool hair, cut short and practical, a bit awry from sleep on one side. She wore a loose black t-shirt and slacks. No bra. No upper teeth. The lack of teeth made her speech a little difficult to discern so I gave her my full attention. Her eyes twinkled, her face was creased into a permanent grin, as if she expected to see the funny side of something.

She'd lived, raised her three children and worked in North Melbourne all her adult life after emigrating, aged 21, from Malta in 1954.

"I survived World War 2, you know. Lived through it. Can you believe this cafe used to be a Commonwealth bank?" she asked, shaking her head in amused disbelief at the changes. "Have you got children?"

She told me about her son in St Kilda who'd just turned 60. "He looks out for me," she said. One daughter lived in Sydney. She shrugged at my sympathy about her daughter being a bit far away. "What can you do? You'll never guess where the other daughter lives," she said. "Go on, guess"

"Broome," I said. By some fluke, I guessed right. She looked at me like I was magic; a clairvoyant. She was very impressed.

She told me she'd complained to her daughter. "Why do you have to go so far away? 'Well where did you come from, mum?'" Her daughter had reminded her. "What can you do?" Another mirthful shrug and shake of her head.

"You've got everything you need around here," she told me; "schools, hospitals, shops. Do you drive? I never learned to drive. No need."

"Are you finished here, Margaret?" the waiter asked, about to clear her table.
"They all know me here," she told us proudly. "I come here for a coffee, sometimes a bowl of chips on a Friday. That does me for dinner." 

She stood to leave, again holding onto the chairs for support. Worrying she might fall, I suggested a walking frame might be a good idea. "Never!" she said. "I'm all right like this, if no one's watching me!" A twinkling mock-chide.

"Sorry," I said, covering my eyes. I had been staring a bit.

A coughing fit halted her progress.

"I was hit by a car, you know. It was a terrible accident. More than 20 years ago now. They thought I'd die but God was full up. It wasn't my time. He had other plans and here I am. I had a tracheotomy after my accident."  Amused and incredulous at her own luck, she indicated the faint scar on her throat. "It still makes me cough a bit sometimes, but I get over it. If no one's watching," She wagged a finger at me. She took a couple of steps then paused at the next chair.

"Do you live alone?" she asked. I told her I had a husband waiting for me at home.
"Ah," she said. "Remember. You don't know what you've got until it's gone. I'm here now, but it's very quiet at home. I keep busy, but..." She waved the thought away and continued her slow exit from the cafe.

Margaret made my day. I've added her to my list of inspirational octogenarians, while remembering those who weren't so lucky

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Review: French immersion homestay in Aix-en-Provence

Still in Aix, now relishing the comfort of a perfectly appointed Airbnb apartment. I need to write a review of my experience living with a French teacher for two weeks. Almost feel like I have a duty of care to others who may be hoping to develop their French. Perhaps like me, you’re retired and ticking it off your bucket list. Perhaps you’re a parent thinking of sending your kid.

I’ve been walking around Aix with husband, Al, this morning. All the time I’ve been looking for the bewildered Australian woman who I knew was coming in hot on my heels yesterday, to live the same immersive experience. I saw a couple of dazed looking single women in the vicinity of that 17th century hôtel particulière.  Didn’t approach of course.

Will try to be objective here. In summary: S.L.Immersion in Aix-en-Provence provided good remedial French teaching for three hours a day. However, the accommodation was sub-standard; poor. The shared meals were mostly uncomfortable dining experiences eating cheap food. Save your money. Engage a private tutor for 2 hours a day, or join a class. Organise your own meals and accommodation.

I spent 2,800 euro to live with a French teacher for two weeks at half board, ie. accommodation and two meals a day. I had a reasonably large room with a double bed, bathroom and separate WC. I had two basic, occasionally unappetising meals a day. The meals were at a minimum cost, generally edible and covered the five food groups. (2,800 euro! What could you do with that much money?)

I was exhausted that late Saturday afternoon when I arrived. I’d landed in Paris the previous Thursday, hoping to get over some jet lag during two nights there, before taking a three and a half hour train trip to Aix. I’d eaten a sandwich at about 1pm during that train journey. Luckily.

When I arrived at the Gare Routière - bus station - in Aix it was raining. I’d been advised by the teacher to take a taxi to her apartment. There were no taxis available for about half an hour by which time my luggage and I were a bit damp.

I eventually arrived at the 17th century building, which under ordinary circumstances would have been about a 15 minute walk away, with luggage, guided by Google maps; would have been relatively easy given my light packing. The entrance hall in the hôtel particulière was shabby, cavernous and a little breathtaking for someone who normally lives in a Californian bungalow in a Melbourne suburb. Despite my relatively light packing, I was glad that my host came down to help me get my backpack up those 60 steps. She practically ran up, leaving me gasping with tachycardia on the third landing.

The apartment consisted of a lofty living room, a master bedroom - hers - a guest room which would be mine and a tiny, oddly shaped kitchen beyond which was my host’s tiny bathroom and WC.

Immediately upon arrival, before I’d had any time to catch my breath or settle in any way, I was invited to sit down in a chair that quickly had me at a disadvantage, my bottom almost on the floor and my knees up: a chair that was difficult to get out of without some serious bicep and leg work.

I was excited, exhausted, thirsty and quite hungry.
Could I possibly have a drink? I asked. Briskly, she answered,  of course, and got me a glass of tap water. It’s The Source, she pronounced and I gulped it down.

Could I possibly use the bathroom? I asked.

She showed me my room, and although it was quite spacious it was dingy. My stomach sank. The low double bed with a patterned polyester doona had no bed head. One half of it backed onto an unused, sealed door, the other backed onto the bare plaster wall. A small wooden chair served as a bedside table. A plastic shaded lamp sat on the chair’s concave base. (My water bottle and other night time necessities would lean into the centre of that cobbled nightstand for the next two weeks.)

At the far end of the room was a small toilet cubicle and next to that a tiny, dank bathroom with old fittings and exposed plumbing. In the bathroom, a shower curtain hung over a tiny hip bath. There was no fixed shower rose, only a hand held spray. Cleaning products, and what I presume were other people’s left over gels and shampoos, were ranged along a low tiled shelf.

Further, this bedroom, as I later discovered, was unventilated once the bedroom door was closed. One small, clean, well-worn folded bath towel sat on the end of bed. There was also a hand towel in the WC. I wasn’t offered fresh towels or bed sheets after the first week but when I asked for a towel it was provided. I also had to ask for toilet paper to be replenished, which it was on my request. I cleaned my own WC and bathroom.

A wardrobe,  built under an external staircase, held a rack of mismatched coat hangers, the type that come from the dry-cleaners or are given away with purchased garments. There was also a pokey corner desk with a lamp, built in under the stairs. There was a wooden chair by the desk.

At that stage, I was horrified at the amount of money I’d paid in advance for what would be my room for two weeks. What’s more, it was noisy, and a reinforced glass ceiling/floor in one half of the room meant my room was flooded with light whenever the upstairs light was turned on during the night. This was fixed half way through my second week when I had a dummy spit due to poor sleep for the previous ten nights. The teacher insisted that the owner of the apartments install a carpet square in the upstairs room, offering some relief but turning the room into a spacious dark cell. The room had no wifi, so basically, if I wished to use it I had to sit in the kitchen or living room.

We didn’t eat until around 8 that evening.  I wasn’t offered a snack of any sort before then either. I drank a couple of cups of tea to get by. It got to the stage where I had to ask when we’d be eating. (Lucky I’m on an insulin pump that adjusts insulin delivery according to my body’s needs!)

I fervently hoped that the lessons would be worthwhile, given the accommodation was poor. Fortunately, my teacher quickly diagnosed my French language deficits and worked out a suitable program of remediation. I enjoyed the teaching and learning for 3 hours each weekday morning and the 2 to 3 hours of homework and reading - some Guy de Maupassant short stories - each afternoon and evening. I found a couple of nearby brasseries with good wifi and did my homework there, surrounded by charming Aix. I also enjoyed the teacher’s guided tour of the city, our ‘walk in Cezanne’s footsteps’ and our day trips to both Marseille and Lourmarin, which I chose from several possibilities. The S.L.Immersion guidelines specified that there would be two excursions each week. On my first Sunday, my teacher also invited me to accompany her to a free exposition, which was quite impressive.

I discovered that on several nights a week, my host gave private hour long French lessons in her living room. On those evenings, I had to sit in the kitchen or sit without wifi in my depressing bedroom. Exhausted by that stage of the day, I was reluctant to go out alone.

The meals. Cereal and toast for breakfast. I had a slice of toast with butter and cheese each day. Could have had more. I drank tea with milk, mostly using my own tea bags, although loose black tea was available if I wanted it. During two weeks I ate a variety of soups, breads and salads and 2 omelettes. The meals were adequately nutritious and extremely economical. I felt uncomfortable sharing meals with the teacher, particularly in the mornings, when she was uncommunicative and told me she needed time to wake up. Lunches were better, at times cheerful.

Generally, despite being implored to feel at home and to help myself to anything, I didn’t
feel free to do this. Despite the teacher being able to eat in the living room, I was told to eat my own evening meals only at the small kitchen table, in my corner, unless the teacher wanted to use her bathroom, at which point I swiftly moved into the other room. She didn’t want to invade my space by using the guest bathroom in my room. It wouldn’t have bothered me. The lack of privacy made life difficult, for both of us, I imagine. Definitely for me.

I’m glad to have experienced this, but hugely relieved that it’s over.





Wednesday, September 25, 2019

If I’m crying it’s a good thing.

You know that Van Gogh painting of his room, with his single bed and his chair? In my mind’s eye, that room is colourful and inviting despite its simplicity. It seems to move; it’s alive. Well, I’m staying for two weeks in a stark, musty sepia version of that room, sitting, to do my devoirs - my homework - in the evenings on Van Gogh’s chair. At least a replica of it with its rattan seat and carved back. My seat is covered by a thin floral chair pad.

It’s not comfy but my chambre is a bit more spacious than Harry Potter’s cupboard. My desk is tucked under the stairs. Gives me the sense that I’m sixteen again, and dad’s ordered me into my room to get on with my sodding homework, albeit in our 1960s brick veneer in Melbourne.

I was that girl last night: sober, of course. (Well, last night was a school night.) I was sitting upright on an imperative chair, doing my French, transforming loads of sentences and paragraphs from the present tense to the passé composé, one of my life-time weaknesses. Not any more. It’s hopefully sinking in this time, sans the distraction of teen hormones.

Why the Van Gogh link? Yesterday I visited Carrière des Lumières and Le Baux de Provence Village. Experienced a stunning sound and light show in a soaring troglodyte cave. I was surrounded by animated paintings of Van Gogh, and another artist, famous, Japanese but that’s all I remember. The soundtrack was passionate music, contemporary and classical. Nina Simone’s rich voice was perhaps in the mix, but I couldn’t say what else. Was too engrossed in the vastness and splendour. The crowds didn’t even bother me. I was having a private ethereal experience. What’s more, I know I’m having a good time when  tears leak unbidden and silent. Don’t question it when you feel joy. Just go with the flow.

Ah, I’m getting all moist-eyed now writing about it, especially sitting here in a café in Aix, typing with two fingers, sun glinting off the screen of my iPad.

Despite the crudeness of my accommodation here in Aix, the experience is amazing. My French prof is rigorous and intelligent, my type of teacher. She’s picked up my areas for improvement and is addressing them. Unlike in my youth, I know now how to study. I’m doing my devoirs and revising like a demon. Hopefully, I’ll emerge from my immersion vastly more accurate and fluent. On verra - we’ll see.

There’s more, but I’ll save that for another time lest I wear out my welcome in this café with its excellent WiFi.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Put it down to Jet Lag.

3.27 am. ‘Comfort Single Room,’ somewhere in Paris.
Jet lag meine Freute. That’s a lame parody of the title of a Bach chorale - Jesu meine Freute - Jesus my Joy. You get it. I know this couple who gave jet lag the finger in Rome by visiting all the tourist sites in the small hours. The photos were magical, as were their smiles. But given I’m alone here, I’m not quite brave enough to go wandering, even in this quiet arrondissement - district - of Paris. I’m defeating JL in my own practical way. Great time to alphabetise my travel wardrobe. No. Cheap unfunny line. But I did roll and categorise. Not me on the floor, my clothes into packing cells.

I’m trying to ditch some weight. Again, not from me, from my rucksack on wheels. I’m fine. Will be even finer after lugging that capacious behemoth up and down too many steps between Charles de Gaulle airport and my hotel in the thirteenth.

My room is actually a perfectly comfortable single. Which sleeps three. Albeit compactly. Great shower. Good locale with lots of choice for eating and shopping. What am I? Trip Advisor?

No bouloir  - kettle  - in the room but there’s hot and cold in Reception. Water, not service. Farque. JL. Loving the licence it affords one! It’s like being drunk. Perhaps I’ll regret this blog post later.  Unfortunately, the hot water dispenser wasn’t working. Meant the night concierge had to get up off his improvised bed to boil a regular kettle. Nice of him. I even got to practise a little French. ‘Vous êtes un ange,’ - you’re an angel - I said, bowing at him, my hands folded in prayer. Wonder what he thought of my bra-less nightie-leggings ensemble. With all due respect to myself, I didn’t think there’d be anyone at the water dispenser at 2.30 am in a petit hotel in a quiet Paris district.

Now. About my missing wallet, euros - not all of them - and that little divet that you use to remove a SIM. Total mystery. Was I robbed? If so, with skills like that the thief is an artist who deserves their own reality TV show. Such sleight of hand. Magic. Or did I inadvertently leave the wallet somewhere  while I was doing something? (Set that precedent in Munich in 1980. Still got the mauve beret but never saw the travellers cheques again.)

I’ll know in 24 hours whether I’ve developed a cold. A little jetset princess did more than a few point blank coughs into my face as she slept, kicked and snotted her little way from Melbourne to Doha.  Possibly why her mum and dad had her relocated to the spare seat next to me. (Another bloke and I thought we’d lucked out with the space between us until 90 minutes into the flight.) The parents had to consider what was best for them and their other child. I jest. No idea why that poor kid got stuck between two strangers. C’est la vie.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Won't be lonely on my travels: meet Diabetica


I was a fearless 23 year old when I packed, then re-packed too many times, my enormous rucksack preparing for my first overseas trip, well, not counting emigrating to Australia 15 years prior. My girlfriend and I practised hoisting these monsters onto our slight respective shoulders. Seemed easy enough in her front lounge-room. Palled quite quickly getting on and off trains and finding accommodation in England and Europe. On a four week trip around France, Germany and Italy, even the pages of a bulky Europe on $15 a day guidebook were unnecessary weight. Disposed of them as we went. Paris, rip. Nice, rip. Florence, rip. And so on. All the way back to England for our flights home - by which stage my travel companion and I were no longer on speaking terms.

Wasn't much fun, that trip. My chain-smoking friend and I tired of each other's company after a couple of weeks but we still had to do another four, often sharing a bed. We froze, given we were Australian  teachers taking advantage of our long summer holidays which of course coincided with the bleakest winter weather on the other side of the planet. I picked up a rotten virus sleeping ten to a room in a pension in Florence. But mostly I was desperate for big Al, whom I hadn't planned on when I'd planned that trip. Decided that in the future I wouldn't travel anywhere without him.

There were actually three of us on my next trip to Europe: Al, me and another demanding passenger who needed constant attention. Why not personify Type 1 diabetes? I'll call her Diabetica. She and I had started our life-long journey together three years earlier. She still likes to dominate and if she doesn't get her way she makes me pay. Had to learn to do it her way, as I discovered when I regained consciousness in the back of an ambulance on our first night in London. Diabetica and I had become accustomed to how she'd behave during my workaday Australian routine. Didn't know that she'd go berserk trying to fathom the effects of too much exercise and an eight hour time difference. You learn these things as you go.

I started writing a journal on 1st April, 1985. I'm glancing at it now. Everything was blissful and beautifully handwritten for the first page and a third. My aunt and uncle had met us at Heathrow and later dropped us at our hotel - where our booking had gone missing but we were accommodated anyway. We wandered around London, bought a leather jacket for Al (subsequently stolen in the south of France but that's another story.) We ate, we drank. I wrote that 'my dogs were killing me'. Must have walked miles. Later the same day we met some Australian friends for dinner then back to our hotel. 'Fell into bed at approx. 9.30 absolutely jiggered,' I wrote. 'Slept very deeply until I woke up at the desperately hypoglycemic stage...I grabbed one of the sweets at the side of the bed and woke Allan.' Won't detail the feeling of losing consciousness and having a seizure, but even without rereading what I'd written back then I can still remember the terror of fading out and not being able to stop it. (Later it led to nearly 7 years of panic disorder, but again, that's another story.) I've glued the admissions card from University College Hospital, London onto page 3 of that first journal. In my attempt to analyse what led to that hypoglycemic episode, the only one requiring medical intervention in my 38 years of living with my Type 1 twin, I've recorded the number of 'portions' I ate at dinner -  that's how we did it back then; 1 portion = 10 grams of carbohydrate. I'd injected an evening mix of 16 units of Actrapid insulin and 14 units of Protaphane insulin. I finger-prick-tested my blood glucose using a bulky Glucometer and had three injections - using plastic syringes - a day. It's still complex managing my condition, my constant passenger, my occasional succubus, but living with diabetes today is a free-wheeling cycle down a gentle slope compared to life back then. Still, our six month trip around Europe in an orange VW combi-van remains one of the most delicious experiences of my life.

Said I wouldn't travel without Al again, but Diabetica and I, are travelling alone together to France next week. Al gets a break, but of course I'm stuck with her. Nowadays, with the help of an intuitive insulin pump that delivers insulin according to the data from a subcutaneous Continuous Glucose Monitor, I can mostly work out what Diabetica is doing . But mindful of what she might do out of her comfort zone, much of my carry on luggage will comprise of countable carbohydrate snacks to keep her tempests at bay. I've even bought a silicone band for my wrist pronouncing that the wearer is 'Diabetique' - sounds almost romantic - should capricious Diabetica decide to attention-seek in the streets or subways of Paris.

Actually, if I drop my tedious metaphor the fact is that I'm travelling solo. I haven't been this excited since I had my second baby, 31 years ago. I'm going to Aix-en-Provence to do a two week intensive language immersion home-stay with a French teacher.

Should be interesting.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Did you just say erection?


He was in the supermarket deliberating by the bread. ‘Excuse me, love,’ he said noticing me. Must have thought I looked friendly enough. 'Can you help me? How good are your eyes?’ Maybe he considered my conspicuous specs give me supersight, rather than indicating the reverse. He passed a printed list and I removed my glasses to apply my 20/20 close range vision to the small print - I do actually have perfect visual acuity if the target is within about 10 centimetres.

'The doctor told me I’ve gotta lose a bit of weight,' he confided ruefully, 'and it’s killing me.'

He looked okay to me. Tall, comfortable, easy on the eye, bit of a rocker style about him, full head of salt and pepper hair combed back, gold hoop earring in each ear; cool bomber jacket; blue jeans. Maybe carrying a bit too much weight around his middle.

'Yeah? Maybe I can help,' I said. 'I’m a bit of a diet expert. I've had diabetes for nearly 40 years.' Not normally something I'd share with random shoppers in supermarkets but the occasion seemed apt. And yes, I know that doesn't make me an expert but I've got a bit of insider insight into the effects of carbs on the system.

I read the printed list he gave me, scanned the shelves and suggested that the Helga’s whole meal grain bread might suit his dietary requirements. (Not affiliated with the Helga's company in any way, in case you're interested. I'm more your home brand.)

'The doc, she says I’ve gotta have porridge instead of my usual five Weet-Bix,' he told me. 'Reckons  I’m eating too much carb.'

I did a quick mental calculation. Five Weet-Bix. That’ s easily 50 grams of carb before you add the milk and sugar.

'Yeah, that’s lots of carb. She's right. Try porridge with a few sultanas,' I suggest. 'Forget the honey, you’ll get used to the taste of porridge and gradually find it's good on its own.' He looked a bit sceptical and picked up the bread. 

'Had a bit of a scare recently,' he continued. 'Thought I'd had a heart attack. Turned out I'd pulled a muscle at training.' I study him a bit more closely. Football? Probably.

He seemed to want to talk and I was okay with that. He told me the heart scare led to further tests. Despite his blood work being normal, a calcium test had revealed he was at greater than average risk of heart disease. He didn't want to take statins to reduce his cholesterol, hence the diet.

Gary  - I asked his name - said he'd had another health scare. He'd had his prostate removed two years earlier when he was 50. Seemed appropriate to tell him husband Al had also had a radical prostatectomy two years ago. Perhaps that opened the flood gates. After I'd agreed that you've got to continue the pelvic floor exercises to keep incontinence at bay, Gary got on to Viagra. By this stage, I was poker-face riveted.

Gary wasn't a fan of Viagra; joked about how he didn't appreciate checking his watch at dinner and asking his wife of 25 years if she'd be up for it in an hour. Said it was a bit of a downer, if I knew what he meant.  'If we can't just share a look and go, how about it, what's the point?' he asked. Luckily, he and his lovely wife had been able to re-establish normal relations. As some kind of proof, maybe, he got his wallet out and showed me a picture of her with their son at his son's graduation.

What really got to Gary was the fact that some men are so fixated on their virility, their perceived masculinity, that they'll avoid having surgery at all costs, even if it means death. 'I mean, what's the point of an erection in a coffin?' he asked. Beats me.

Therapists have all sorts of theories about oversharing. Perhaps I should have shut Gary down at whole grains and walked away. Perhaps his revelations were inappropriate. Perhaps I was interested and it was freezing outside and I didn't mind dallying. Or perhaps my new rocker friend had met a soul-mate in aisle 7.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Losing my shit.


So I've had this cheap plastic water bottle for years. It lives on my bike in a neoprene, faded pink and blue spotted holder. Recently it brought me close to tears. Twice. To anyone else it's about as precious as an old newspaper blowing along a gutter. Unless you were into collecting rubbish, I doubt you'd pick it up.

The guy working at the cinema snack bar must’ve thought me deranged as he retrieved this wrecked vessel from his special lost property cupboard under the counter - and he didn't know I'd just cycled seven k to pick it up.

"Come to mama," I thought, eyes pricking with tears. I only talk to myself when no one can hear. "You’re home now," I smiled. Was only mildly self-mocking as a bit later I fitted it into the bottle carrier on my bike.

I hate losing things and it doesn't often happen. I have a mental map of where everything is and can generally find anything, with little mental backtracking, amongst apparent chaos.

Beats me how I recently lost two items. Had to let the first item go. A neoprene - that word again - wrist support, in case you're wondering. I knew I’d left it behind in the Ladies, just as I settled in for my second viewing of the three hour film Never Look Away. (I'd make some comment about the ironic title, given my loss, but if you've seen the film you know I wouldn't dare suggest such a trite analogy.) I was hardly going to leave my seat, stumble out of the dark cinema and run downstairs to the public lavatory to see if that’s where I'd looked away and abandoned my armband. 

The movie over, I dashed to the loos. Well, it is a long film. Unfortunately, in my haste I looked away from pink spotty bottle, which I left behind in the cinema foyer. Didn't know that at the time.

Felt a bit ridiculous leaving my name and contact details for the cleaner, in case she'd found my manky wrist band and rather than dropping the smelly thing in the bin had put it carefully in lost property. No luck there.

Cycled home a little forlorn, despite my second viewing of one of the best films I’ve ever seen. A couple of hours later, back home, pink spotty bottle was still addling my thoughts. To assuage my misery, I called the cinema. I teared up when a kind person told me she'd found my precious and I could collect it from the snack bar.

About 20 years ago, I watched a teacher spend her recess accosting a room full of busy teachers on their break. She was sure one of us had stolen her coffee cup. I totally understand. There are so many things over which one has no control that some of us become a bit manic about guarding our stuff. Think it's time for me to give a few things away.