Two tales from Dubris

122 CE

Huddled in the rolling belly of the ship, Albinus re-read the message he’d been given in an effort to distract himself from the rolling in his stomach. Months on the road had inured him to travel, but for a man born and bred in a city where the land stayed still pretty much of the time, the road over the channel was not proving enjoyable.

A voice on the deck above called out a command, and Albinus felt the speed of the ship finally slacken as it began to tack in to the harbour. He rolled up and carefully slotted the scroll into its case, and tucked it into a bag under his cloak. With one foot he nudged the sleeping form on the low cot below the bench, which groaned and curled tighter into itself.
‘We’ve arrived,’ he announced, and at the sound of his voice the figure pulled itself upright and, wobbling, lurched to its feet, the thick sheaf of brown hair falling back to reveal the pale and green-tinged face of a young woman.

Other passengers began standing, green-faced or offensively sprightly, and gathered their luggage. The young woman, known since joining Albinus’ household as a child as Sasticca, shouldered a large pack, and made it up onto the deck, down the gangplank and onto the cobbled harbour square before dropping it to the ground and collapsing on top of it with a heartfelt groan.

Albinus gave his slave a few moments to gather herself together as he took in the last country on his journey, seeming at first glance much like any other in the Empire. Behind the familiar offices, inns and clustering apartments though was a new landscape. The hills shouldering the town were steep and mist topped, and behind them curtains of rain fell, even now blowing towards the sea in great gusts. To the right through the rain and mist he could make out glimpses of white, no doubt the cliffs he’d have seen on the crossing if he hadn’t been sheltering below decks.

‘Come on, we’ve got a job that needs doing.’ He commanded after a little while, and then strode up the main street through the town, followed by the woman trying to find a balance between carrying his travel pack, not slipping on the cobbles and not being sick. At any moment, she was sure, her stomach would come up and that would be it for her and her cleanest travelling cloak. The crossing had been worse than even the bar slave at Caletum had said; no wonder Julius Caesar had had such a rough time of it. And he probably hadn’t had to sleep on the floor.

They soon reached a fine looking inn, not far from the walls of the fort. Despite their knocking and calls, there was no answer however.
‘It’s not even a quiet time of year,’ Albinus ranted, as they stepped out into the rain and wind, which was coming now in regular fits and bursts.
A woman passing by looking up at them, and then shuffled over, ‘You’re trying to get into the Cliffs of Dubris, then? It’s closed today, been closed all week in fact. Strange business if you ask me,’ she added with disapproval, her odd accent lilting over the Latin. ‘If you’re looking for somewhere warm, you can’t go wrong with the inn at the lighthouse. It’s just up there, not more than 10 minutes.’ She pointed behind them, up one of the hills crowding over the town. At the top they could make out a glint of fire, almost lost in the daylight and weather.
‘Tell them Camilla sent you,’ she smiled, nodded and was soon lost around a corner.

Slave and master exchanges glances, and then turned on the path leading up the hill. As they crossed the small town, they could make out locals sheltering in the lee of bars, bakeries, food stalls, a furniture warehouse and even a small book store. They stopped at one counter to snack on cheesy bread and soup, where locals rubbed shoulders with other visitors and tried to warm up from the inside. As they climbed the hill, snatches of sunlight made it through the clouds, lighting up the trees and the sea which they could now see spread below them. The lighthouse, rather than a tiny colonial mound, was a tall and impressive structure, recently built enough for the bricks to shine slightly in the sun. At the top, figures moved around, tending the light and looking out to sea, and voices echoed inside its thick walls.

The lighthouse

The lighthouse

Less impressive was the brick building squatting next to it, probably the inn they’d been directed to. While Sasticca went inside to make arrangements for their stay and horses the next day, Albinus gazed up at the lighthouse wondering at the Fate’s decision to lead him to this backwater of the Empire, where even here the relentless energy of the old She Wolf could be felt. Though perhaps not forever, if the message he carried from the Emperor to the struggling commanders in the limitless north of the island reached them. For now, he thought, staring out across the narrow sea, I’ll enjoy the walls of civilization that will keep the foreign weather out and underfloor heating in.

1094 years later

‘Will, get back here boy!’

The boy in question didn’t pause in his breakneck dash up the castle steps. Ducking into an alcove on the staircase he just avoided a small troop of knights, heavily kitted out and liable to mow over any undersized servant brat that got in their way. As their footsteps faded overhead he ran up the last flight, and hid behind a wall hanging before anyone could spot him. From there he could hear the shouting of the knights that had passed, as well as a whole array of lords and dignitaries, each trying to make themselves heard over the raucous sounds of servants bustling, nervous horses in the keep and the usual life of the castle.

‘He has already taken London, and soon Kent will fall, we must move now!’ One voice rose above the rest, and then a silence fell as someone entered the main hall, their footsteps ringing on the stone floor.

‘The traitors in London may have allowed him in without a fight, but he was mistaken in not throwing all his weight at us first. That mistake will cost him the war. Yes he will turn here, and then we’ll make our move and show this invader that the loyal English will not fall so lightly.’

Muttering and some scattered applause followed these words, and then voices rose again as tactics and plans were discussed. It was high summer, and any day now the army of Prince Louis of France would arrive and crash against the walls of the castle.

The dining hall

The dining hall

Having heard all he needed to hear, Will peeked out from behind the wall hanging, ready to make a break for the stairs. The long tables in the dining hall, where he was hidden, where being scrubbed and set by a small army of servants, who also swept the floors and dusted brightly coloured banners hanging above the high table at the far end. To his right through the open arch connecting the rooms he could make out the crowd gathered in the main hall, where the thrones of the King and Queen of England waited, and where the worthies of the castle gathered to plan, argue and debate.

Paying homage in the main hall

Paying homage in the main hall

Beyond that was the room that the Constable had set for himself in the absence of the King. Will had never made it past the main hall, on a dare late at night, but other servants had spoken of a large, fine bed, warm furs all over the place, a special room just for treasure and everything done in the brightest colours you could think of. It sounded a world away from Will’s hay-strewn corner in the kitchen downstairs.

The royal suite

The royal suite

Just then a face turned towards him, and before the other servant could shout he’d escaped and charged down the stairs into the kitchens. Once there Rolf the baker grabbed him before he could make it outside and pushed him in among the other servant boys who were helping with odd jobs. He found himself fetching water, grinding barley, salting fish and soon lost track of what he had been doing before being caught.

Castle kitchens, looking neat

Castle kitchens, looking neat

It wasn’t till dusk was falling that he remembered. Looking around furtively, he saw that there was no one watching, put the butter he’d been patting into form in its box, and slipped out, up the stairs and into the keep. His cap was almost blown off in the strong winds, which blew the heady smells of the kitchen and the stables after him as he ran through the clusters of men and women finishing their tasks for the day and out through the gates. No one paid any attention to him, and he’d made it all the way to the old watch tower before someone called out to him.

The castle gate

The castle gate

‘Oi Will, what are you doing out here?’
He looked up the tower and saw his little sister Phillipa peering down at him, hair streaming out behind her.
‘What are you doing up there?’ He retorted. Her face disappeared and then reappeared around the door of the tower and she replied. ‘I’m watching for the ships from France to come, so I can be the first to know and will get a reward from the head cook.’
‘No, you’d just get into trouble for being out in the tower after dark. Get back, before Margery takes your sleeping spot.’
His sister turned back to the castle with a grumble, but before she ran away she asked, ‘What are you doing out then? You’ll get in trouble too you know.’
He nodded, and then said simply, ‘It’s Albina.’
His sister frowned, nodded and then ran back through the fading light to the castle.

The walls and the channel

The walls and the channel

Will turned back to the tower and the sea behind it, then ran and slipped down the wet grass of the hill and onto the path heading west. Carts and riders passed him, throwing up mud and almost trampling him a few times, so he stuck to the side of the path, covered in weeds. As he trudged the light faded and he felt sure he’d never make it in time. Then he finally reached the small turn off from the main road and followed the winding path up the hill to a grassy, tussocky, windy field overlooking the sea. As he climbed, he looked ahead and saw the great white cliffs, mottled here and there by greenery, but almost seeming to glow in the fading light. He remembered his mother bringing him here, in the few short years he recalled before she died, and telling him that no army that came across the sea to Dover could face the tall, ghostly cliffs, but would turn back in fear. He’d believed her, 3 years old and too in awe of adult wisdom and those mighty cliffs to imagine it could be otherwise. 6 years later he knew better, not trusting in adults or cliffs to keep him and his sister safe.

The white cliffs

The white cliffs

A nearby whinny brought him back to his mission, and he turned his back on the cliffs and scrambled amongst the bushes and shrubs until he found Albina. She was munching contentedly on grass, and seemed unsurprised to see him. She whinnied again, tossing her white mane about her short, furry neck.
Untying his rope belt, Will fashioned a halter and after passing it over her head began to lead her back down the path. Other ponies watched them go, ears twitching and then distracted by hunger returned to their own business.

Wild cliff ponies

Wild cliff ponies

‘You can’t stay out here tonight, girl, not with Prince Louis coming. Huw said the French would eat anything, so they probably wouldn’t be able to resist ponies, especially ones as pretty as you.’ So saying he patted the thick, white fur of her neck, burying his hand in the warmth.

The lights of Calais

The lights of Calais

If he was quick, there should be a back corner of the stables with enough space for a quiet, tamed wild pony, especially one that was so obviously lucky, with fur the white of the cliffs and the sense to come in when a French army approached. They had both been lucky, him and Albina, and Phillipa too, and even if the castle fell – which it wouldn’t, not with those huge walls and the old tower built by giants from long ago – there were ponies on the cliffs that they could hide among, and secret caves on the beach that their mother had shown them. In the distance ahead a light was lit on the tower, guiding him home.

799 years later again

This post is a little bit different from my usual reports of our travels, but the history and sense of place that I felt at Dover kept drawing these stories out and I couldn’t resist.

When we visited there were no Roman messengers wandering about, but there were the remains of what is thought to have been an inn, which we were unable to get into. A helpful lady directed us to the castle instead, and after the snack described in the first story, we eventually found the old Roman lighthouse. You can still go in, though the steps to the top are long gone. It was in use for a long time afterwards, when people had largely forgotten about the Romans, and in the meantime Dover castle was built around and behind it.

The castle in incredible, the largest in England and amazingly intact. The kitchens have been filled with models showing how it would have looked, and each floor had rooms fully furnished and decorated in bright banners, tables, chairs, chests and re-enactors. While we were in the great hall they put on a performance, making some visitors the royal family for the day, and leading us all in a dance to honour the king and queen. It was a lot of fun, and became yet another memory from a holiday full of wonderful memories.

By the time we left the castle it was getting dark, and so our walk to the cliffs, along the side of a road without a footpath, wasn’t the most pleasant but we made it in time to see them before the light entirely disappeared. They were tall and impressive, and someday I’d like to go back and climb down onto the beach to look up at them in full daylight. There were also many wild ponies.

So I hope you will forgive my indulgence in fiction and history and take my recommendation to visit Dover yourself one day, and see if you can find ancient foot steps as well.

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For Pterry

Years ago I picked up a book. It was in a library, or a bookstore or handed to me by a friend. It doesn’t matter which. The point is that within a few pages I was hooked, line and sinker.
The jokes played a part, and the reality I could see behind the fantastical scenes and plots which whipped merrily along. As with anything I find and delight in I wanted to share it with others, but how to describe a series that melded witches, wizzards, coppers, dragons, zombies, trolls, Nobbses and Death, and which held more of a mirror to humanity than many books that didn’t feature magic?

Fortunately and completely unsurprisingly, I’m not the only person to love the series so there were many over the years who shared a laugh about a particular line or clever references, and who companionably slid off their chairs in glee at the mention of ‘the trousers were better then!’
What I didn’t always mention was that underneath the jokes and wit I could see a deep river of understanding for people, hidden beneath layers of cynicism. Amid the unionizing zombies and teetotal vampires were real people, the people you meet on the street who are brave and cowardly, concerned about their own backyards and willing to lend a hand, stupid and intelligent. These on many occasions also included the zombies and vampires, among others. They were all just people, even when they weren’t. He taught me, through his books, to see them better and to understand the mob as a mass of daftness and potentiality, or in his words,

The intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it.

I saw the city as a process, endlessly consuming material and spitting out civilization and revolutions as things that always go around, back to where they started. Evil, headology, fanaticism, war, fairies, technology. I could have learnt these in pubs listening to folk yarning or reading books about failed revolutions. His way, however, lay by way of laughter and characters that I’ll never forget, and in many cases back to the source which could be plumbed for yet more treasure.

Night Watch

Night Watch

The reason I am writing this, rather than just enjoying the books, is that I read the last one recently. The very last. No more.
It was a fitting end, completing in part the journey of one character and the beginning of others. There was a sense of unfinished business as well, as it hadn’t quite reached the polished stage of the other books. If he’d had his way we wouldn’t have it at all. Despite this, it still contained the sensible, cynical, determined heart of the other books, even including a surprise Monty Python reference. I enjoyed every minute of it, partly because it was the last and always because it was genuinely good. I liked the goat boy, the cat, the battle and the continuing emergence of goblins into the light.

The last book

The last book

A wheel was turning, as it has for many of the books in the last few years, away from the medieval fantasy world into an early industrial land where everyone, regardless of species and gender can have a turn. Even the lowest and most hated can rise up (or descend if preferred) into the sunlight (or shade). I wonder where it would have turned next. In my head the world is now stuck in that last moment, preserved in the Century of the Anchovy forever.

Quanti Canicula Ille In Fenestra?

Quanti Canicula Ille In Fenestra?

I’m not going to tell you to read his books. If you want to you will. For those who have read them and who wear a sprig of lavender on May 25th or wonder about the lyrics of the Hedgehog Song, lets remember him as he’d have liked it, by being a bit more courageous, kind and by using our heads.

How do they rise up!

Vårväderstorget

As I made myself comfy on the bus on the way to work two weeks ago I got a worried email from my father, checking that I was alright. I looked around at my fellow commuters, who were reading the paper or twiddling on their phones without any sign of panic. There had been a shooting in my city and it had reached the news in Australia, but had somehow bypassed the front pages of the morning papers.
I happened to be teaching that morning, and brought up the subject with my students as they filed in.

‘We’re on the news in Australia? Really?’ Exclaimed someone in surprise.

‘Another shooting? I wonder why that one made the news.’ Commented another, blase.

‘It was gangs wasn’t it? I know someone who was shot. It’s all about drugs, you just have to know where to avoid.’ Someone else added confidently.

‘It only happens in those areas, we’re fine here.’ Concluded another of the students, as she sipped her coffee and gestured vaguely over the river.

Sleepy GBG in the morning

Sleepy GBG in the morning

Just another gang shooting, it seemed. The lid seemed mentally fixed on the topic, as if this neatly packaged the incident away. A look through reports of other incidents in the last few years revealed that the student’s comments were broadly true. Shootings were common and they did seem to happen repeatedly in the same areas. Areas removed from the centre of town by barriers of water, other suburbs and apparently of the mind. Not in my backyard.

I recalled a few weeks earlier hearing about a shooting outside a pizza shop in a suburb where I regularly drink. A local who is a friend seemed surprised that it happened in her local suburb, it being a nice neighbourhood and according to a documentary about Swedish accents, the ‘Montmartre of Gothenburg’. How could that happen here?

The week after the shooting I spoke to another of my students, and she also dismissed it as happening somewhere else. In a dissonant sort of way, the incident was both unimportant because it happened so often and because it happened outside the scope of her neighbourhood. The unspoken line was that it happened in low socio-economic suburbs, where there is usually lower education standards, higher unemployment and a greater percentage of people born in other countries. This mess of assumptions and indifference played alongside an incident just the previous day in which a man had shot his ex-partner. It had happened within 200 metres of my student’s school. This time there was no connection to gangs, rather a private disagreement. She shrugged when I asked if she was ok. Nothing to do with us.

As someone who is still an outsider in many ways, there are nuances that I miss and suppositions that I throw about the place. This I hope excuses me of offenses I may have cast in the faces of locals and aspersions I have thrown upon my adopted home. It seems to me though that you can’t find answers to questions if you don’t ask, or at least send questions into the ether.

World clocks and the future

It was a chilly and blustery morning when my mum and I set out from our hotel, notebooks and minds prepared to be filled with jottings and ideas. We arrived early and as other guests trickled in after us, we had a go at table-soccer. She won. A bit of tentative mingling and checking the tea supplies followed, and then the suddenly growing crowd filled the main hall, to stare expectantly at the stage. A man strode up and with a big smile welcomed us all to the 2015 Conference On Sustanability, and so began three days of presentations, workshops, networking, a constant barrage of new ideas and the drinking of a lot of tea.

For the first day I juggled presentations with lesson planning, writing last week’s blog-post and marking. It seemed that almost everyone else was grabbing time to sit and write or type, though as I gradually realised, much of it was last minute changes for their own presentations. It seemed I was one of the very few who was there without a presentation looming over their heads, or even a Dr. next to their name.
One memorable presentation from the first day concerned ‘novel ecosystems’, environments that many people nowadays imagine are wilderness, but are in fact heavily influenced by human activity. Our ability to measure the wildness of an ecosystem decreases as our childhood memories of nature, which take the place in our minds of the ‘ideal’ environment, become more and more degraded with each generation. It made me wonder about the bush I’d grown up in, which I had thought was rugged and wild, but which had long been encroached upon. It’s still wilderness in my mind though, with the addition of a few pockets of Tasmania and New Zealand. Will I ever see truly wild nature? Whether I do or not, at least I’ll be more aware of judging what wilderness really means.

After a day of listening and a quick change, my mum and I made our way to the Copenhagen Town Hall, which was even more impressive on the inside than the outside. There were grand halls, lots of flags and the busts of many men, and on the walls and ceiling of a stairway, raised reliefs of trees, flowers, gulls circling around chandeliers and clumps of clover. The reception hall, where we were treated to the traditional pancakes that are a specialty of the old building, was hung with town crests and on one wall the crests of Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe islands and Denmark were displayed along with two gilded walrus skulls. I suppose even if you have no overseas territory anymore, it doesn’t do to let anyone else forget what you once had.
Once we were back outside we found a bookstore cafe called Paludan’s, which was extremely cosy. Bookshelves lined the walls, and most of the miss-matched tables were filled with students, office workers, tourists, parents, older couples and hipsters. A shared dinner of nachos (‘I’m not hungry, I’ll just taste yours.’ ‘Tasting isn’t eat half mum.’), tea and a well made cup of coffee followed, a good end to a quite full day.

Gulls and trees

Gulls and trees

One each of the three days of the conference, there were guest speakers before the first run of presentations started. The speaker who made the strongest impression on me was Selina Juul, the founder of Stop Wasting Food. She spoke about the massive amount of food needlessly wasted in many parts of the world and the culture of over-supply. It seems that Denmark is way ahead of many other countries in terms of wastage, partially due to her efforts I think, and it was pretty clear from her presence, passion and past efforts why they decided to make her the Dane of the Year for 2014. She was also willing to put her words into actions, happily eating an unsellable banana as she sat down.

Selina Juul, mid-speech

Selina Juul, mid-speech

My mum’s presentation followed soon after, and went really well, including at the end enthusiastic thanks from members of the audience. I blogged and worked, listened and chatted, talked to a woman from Nigerian about the reality of life in the same country as Boko Haram and drank tea. That day we also decided to wag, just a little, and so crept out around mid-afternoon and enjoyed a walk around the city and another visit to the History Museum.

Endless gears

Endless gears

My mum was also very inistent that I see a clock that she had found in the Town Hall. It was the World Clock, which was started in 1955 and includes the movements of the planets, the days of the year, the seasons and seconds. Most remarkably, it has one gear that completes a revolution every 25,753 years. Which seems as good a symbol of sustainable thinking as anything else I’ve seen.

The World Clock

The World Clock

As night descended we found the Georg Jensen shop and spent a while wandering around gasping at the designs and a lego shop which had every possible kind of lego piece you could imagine. Thus summing of Denmark quite neatly.

All the lego

All the lego

That night we had booked tickets to the official conference dinner to be held at Cafe Petersborg, an old institution in Copenhagen. It sat near the Amalienborg palace, around the corner from the Little Mermaid, in the part of town reserved for flash offices and restaurants that were too fancy or too well-established to be replaced. It dates from the 1700s, and has the low wooden ceiling and a few twisted door frames to prove it. The food was tasty and traditional and the company even better. We shared a table with a Portuguese lady who lived in Brazil and told us almost unbelievable stories of what it’s like to live in São Paulo. We heard about the hopelessness of law enforcement to the regular danger of theft on public transport and in your car, and a girl who was shot at a train station because her coddling parents never taught her to duck when she heard gunshots.
Fortunately our own ride on public transport was much less fraught with danger, the worst risk being that I wouldn’t leave when we reached our stop. The seats were very nice, considering it was a train. I’m not sure if I’d say chaise-longue, but not that far off.

Commuting in Copehagen

Commuting in Copehagen

Before we knew it, we had reached the final day of the conference. It began with a final speaker, and then a day full of ideas and talking. I sat in on a presentation about love ethics in sustainability, agroforestry in Taiwan and then a series about educating for sustainability. It was during this last series that I heard a speech about virtue ethics with reference to ancient philosophy, and Plato in particular. I very much wished, as I sat and listened and then chatted to the presenter about it later, that she had been my philosophy teacher at Uni.
By the time the afternoon ticked around there were far fewer people, most likely because many had left after their presentations of were being tourists.
Finally the end of the day came, with the final speech and a call to continue to work towards a sustainable future.

So the conference was over. For our last night we ate out at a pizza restaurant and enjoyed a final stroll through the city, talking about what we’d learnt, who we’d met and the days to come. The next day we caught a train to my home town, bidding farewell to Copenhagen, so full of greenness, bookstore cafes, endless clocks, strange accents, wonderful folk and history.

Things that don’t change

I am happy to announce that my jetlag is over, yay! I have also ceased to giggle at Australian accents, although once or twice I have drifted to the right side of the road. Fortunately only my nana was there to briefly panic and suggest the other side might be better, so no incidents occurred.

The stainglass window in Forrest Chase

The stainglass window in Forrest Chase

This past week was a bit less planned out than next week, so on Monday I found myself at loose ends. My partner had started working so was unavailable for adventures, as were most other people I know, so I decided to head into ‘the city’. I still can’t help but think of it in inverted commas, despite the constant growth. Like a younger sibling, I’ve seen it grow, and grown up with it. From visits to the museum with mum and grandma to see the whale skeleton, to wandering up to 78 Records with my school friends, to working in A. B. Facey House and then after work drinks in new, crowded bars. And like a younger sibling, I have an irresistible urge to condescend, just a little bit.

London Court

London Court

It has grown since I was last there, though is still in flux, with giant stretches of construction sites and cranes peeping among the towers. I suppose some day it’ll be finished, but it won’t happen while the boom is still booming.

Perth from South Perth

Perth from South Perth

I caught the train in from Midland, and for those who know Midland, it is still very much Midland.

Midland train station

Midland train station

Once in the city I wandered, discovering that the final cinema in the city is gone and that otherwise little has changed. One of my favourite restaurants, The Greenhouse, is still there and I had a lovely lunch, which included the finest lemonade and the third best dessert I’ve ever had.

Lemonade

Lemonade

I then did a tiny bit of shopping and decided to catch the ferry across the river, because why not. Once across I took pictures of the city, and then strolled back around the river, with the sun in my eyes and the familiar trees and the walk warming me up.

The next day I had scheduled lunch with my dad, and then dinner at the house of 2 very good friends. I got up, baked an apple pie for dinner, then headed out to see my dad. It was a day and night of food and conversation, and wonderful company, and I finished by feeling extremely replete, and not just in my very full belly.

An apple pie

An apple pie

On Wednesday morning I drove down to Mandurah, where my nana lives, to spend the night. She is my father’s mother, and has lived down there for as long as I can remember. I have many childhood memories of christmas holidays spent at the beach, and lounging around the old house. I can remember the hot bitumen as we ran barefoot from the old red 4wd to the sand, the tides forming new sand banks each time we visited, the slick slatherings of suncream on my skin, the old fashioned music in the car and the sand that built up in the shower as we rinsed off the salt-water.

The summer beach

The summer beach

Creamy mashed potato, the old piano, playing with my cousin, trips to the shops, movies in the lounge and the hours of quiet reading and cards as the afternoon drew on. Years later the furniture has been moved around, the beaches seem smaller and the house still smells and feels the same. A constant, like lamingtons, the wisdom of old ladies and a cup of tea.

I also chatted to my nana about her father, who my father had found more information about prior to my return. She has vague memories of the man, who left when she was 6 (or more likely was told to go my her mother), and then returned years later when she had children herself, not recognising her and demanding to know who was living in his house. Not wanting to disturb her mother, she didn’t identify herself, and he left in a taxi, only to die, probably alone, a few years later. It was just one part of the tragedy of the man’s life, decided in large part when he signed up to the Australian Army in 1917, claiming the age of 18 but in fact 16. My father’s research says that he was sent to the Somme, probably as a reinforcement after the battle of the previous year. What he saw there we’ll never know, but he came back damaged, apparently never able to settle and often on the bottle. My father traced his grave, a bare patch of earth with the small numbered plaque, partially covered in sand. Soon we hope to give him back his name, something that I wish the countless other numbered graves could also receive.

My great-grandfather

My great-grandfather

After I returned home from Mandurah, I drove over to a house where I have spent many days and evenings, and where another man damaged by the war spent the last of his years. Since high school I have whiled away hours at the KSP writer’s centre, writing, talking and working, and this being a Thursday I did what must be done: I went to the Thursday Night Group. The group meets to read out their work, critique that of others and drink wine and prior to moving to Sweden I spent most thursdays there, laughing, chatting and discussing the work that brought us all together week after week. Many of the usuals were still there, reading out new stories or poems, making very poor fowl related puns and kindly pulling apart each others writing. As with the house in Mandurah, it was another constant, unchanging, reliable and often quite silly.

Then finally on Friday I went into the city again, this time with a purpose. Before I moved to Sweden I had worked for one state government agency for about 3 years, so there were many memories and friends there, that I wanted to visit. There were a few doubletakes from those who didn’t know I’d be there, and questions about how I was, how Sweden was and what I was doing. Government agencies in my experience rarely change fundamentally, despite cuts, freezes and policy changes. The day to day goes on as always, and those I met seemed mostly as they had been when I left, if slightly busier. After wandering about surprising people for a while I headed out with a few particular cronies and spent the next few hours in another aspect of government service which is unchanging – the afterwork drink.

Gums in Guildford

Gums in Guildford

Next week I will be even busier, catching up with those I haven’t had a chance to see yet and spending some final hours with my family. Soon enough I’ll be back in Sweden, with Australia again another memory. Then in a year we’ll return, and I hope have a few days without rain.

When in Sweden…

Last weekend I tried skiing for the first time, however unless there is an event for slowly sliding backwards down a snowy slope while saying ‘Oh dear’, I fear I won’t be participating in the winter Olympics this year.

I’ve long entertained romantic images of myself gliding easy across snowdrifts, looking around at trees and stunning vistas and have been looking forward to trying it out while we’re here in Scandinavia. My partner was even more enthused, having been snowboarding before and eager to try again, so when he found a ski park not far from Göteborg, the plan was set.
We headed off with two friends, bright and early, though were discouraged by the recent rain and the iciness of the snow that remained. On our arrival we found that the snow had been iced over and was very slippery, and as we waited for the park to open we weighed our options. There were no lessons available and these weren’t the ideal conditions, but nothing it seemed could prevent my partner from unleashing himself upon the slopes. His first attempt on the little slope was, well, his first attempt, but eventually he set off up the bigger slopes and was soon gliding happily down, hardly ever on his back.

Ready to hit the slopes

Ready to hit the slopes

Meanwhile I decided to have a go and got myself decked out skiing gear and had my first try and skiing. Not quite graceful gliding, but after much concentration and effort I did manage to move forward. One of the friends who had come with us joined me and we set to, slowly climbing the little slope and then trying to work out how to stop or turn as we sped down again. By observing others (mostly around the age of 5 in our area) I worked out the basics, but each attempt at stopping or slowing down resulting in shooting off to the left. An attempt from the pinnacle of the little slope resulted in sliding into a pole and gradually making my way down while trying not to go tearing off into the lifts.
At the end of the day, though, much progress had been made from knowing nothing, though a descent from the taller slope was still out of the question. Next time I would like to try cross-country skiing, which I imagine would involve fewer slopes. Also lessons.

Study can be fun

Study can be fun

Other than adventures in the snow, this last week has been primarily focussed on preparing for a Swedish test on Wednesday, and another next Wednesday. This week’s was in preparation for the other which is much more important, and to show us and the teacher what we need to be focussing on. For me it was mostly writing. It seems sort of odd to me now as I happily type away that stringing words together is such a struggle, but someone the rules don’t seem to penetrate. What I need to do, I think, is divorce the forming sentences from all English grammar and think only in term of Swedish.
Subjekt – Verb – Objekt.
Q-ord – Verb – Subject – V2 – Objekt.
Adverbial – Verb – Subjekt – V2 – Objekt.
Infinitiv efter hjalpverb.
Still they are rules, floating above the forming ideas, not implanted yet. More practice is needed. Perhaps I should write an update in svenska någon tid? För en publik av en.

Getting there!

Getting there!

On the subject of writing I have also managed recently to finish a short story, the first one I’ve finished in over a year. Yay! It is currently being read out at the finest writing centre in the world (who me, biased?) by an obliging friend and getting good reviews and critiques. Which makes the distance between Göteborg and Greenmount Hill seem not so vast.

To the sea

This update was started as I sat on a rock overlooking the sea in Saltholmen, alternately scribbling in my writing pad and staring around at the perfectly serene surroundings. I didn’t lug my laptop to the coast and up that hill, and so I’m now typing it up at home, while a rainy mist persists outside.

Göteborg is a city that is tied to the sea. Since it’s founding it has lived by the ships that still meander up the Göte älv to disgorge their contents on the docks that, unlike other harbour cities I’ve seen haven’t yet been reclaimed as fashionable apartments. The Gulf Stream which passes nearby keeps it relatively warm, so far warm enough for a sheltered Australian who can only imagine snowy winters as Yule cards. (As I retype these notes, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, the most oceanic music I know, has started playing, and as well as seeing the still surface of the bays at Saltholmen, I can see the dark beneath the waves.) I’ve always been drawn to bodies of water, whether rivers, lakes or the ocean, fancifully I imagine it could be because about 80% of me is water, but to be honest I don’t know for sure.

An old man sharing the sun

It is a surprise, then, that it’s taken me 6 weeks to visit the coast, and now that I am perched on a rock overlooking Saltholmen harbour, the sun on my back and the breeze in my hair, I am glad. There couldn’t be a better day to be here.

View from the rock

My plan initially had been to take a tram to the end of it’s route, in order to see more than the central city that I’ve been wandering around so far. I chose the 11, which ends at Saltholmen, an island relatively recently connected to the mainland. According to Wikipedia, this town is very popular in summer, when locals flock to swim in the protected bays. This would explain why, in October, the kiosks and icecream stalls are closed. Nevertheless, I wandered along the jetty, admiring the scrubby rocks, and found a cove. A rickety bridge spanned between worn rocks and I climbed over, seeing a rock with a 2 metre sharp drop into a warm pool below, whether drifted jellyfish, seaweed and small fish. There I sat, dangling my legs. I wrote a bit, inspired by the quiet and beauty, then sat and watched. Soon I climbed further and found a perch on the highest rock, with a view over the sheltered harbour and bays. There are others basking up here, a few couples wrapped in themselves and others reading and soaking in the light and sea. Just being. It is a fine place to be. I wish this being, right now, could be forever.

A sheltered bay

Obviously it couldn’t be forever, but I sat there for long enough to feel steeped in the sea air, then climbed down the rock and made my way to the tram. On my way I found a patch of forest, with groves of birches, young oaks and startled birds. It seemed almost absurd to find two of the places I enjoy the most, the sea and the forest, in the same place.
Then I went home. This was last week, and I can picture the scene where I sat as it is now. Windy, overcast, damp and quiet. I look forward to being there again.

Surprise forest

Omens and what next?

Yesterday I received an omen. It landed on my hand with a splat, as I sat plotting a story outside a cafe in Victoriapassagen. I’m assuming it was an omen, because otherwise a bird crapped on my hand for no reason and that’s nowhere near as interesting, though I’m not sure what it presaged. Hopefully that I was on the right track with my story.
Today I went to a cafe and didn’t get an omen from the sky as there was space inside this time. My hot lemon, ginger and honey drink, macaroon and delicious foccacia made up for the lack of signs though, as did progress with my story. It’s one that I’ve been working on for a few years now, and I’d left it on the back-burner when it got stuck about a year ago. Recently the characters and the heart of the story came back and are now creeping around my head, plotting and directing the action.

Writing assistance

Ominous bird doings aside, during the last week or so I have been mostly preoccupied with looking around and wondering what I’m doing and where I’m going. Reassessing my daily lists of Things To Do. Focussing not only what is most important, but what is actually doable. Having done this I feel as though I’m clearing the hurdle of the second stage of expathood. From my own experience and talking to other expats who’ve been here longer, the first two stages are as follows:
The first stage was the wide-eyed wow stage, when the world around me was new and everywhere I looked there was something intriguing to be investigated and most likely photographed. That still happens to me now, when I go for walks into town or cycle to a place I haven’t seen before, but my neck has been craning less and I sometimes have moments when I feel as though I’m touching the borders of being part of this place.
This second stage is when the momentum caught up with me and I had to pull myself in and really think about where I want to be and what I can do to get there. It came to a head last Friday, when all my get up and go, got up and went and I just felt tired.
What the next stage is I don’t know. With November just around the corner, all encroaching darkness and cold, I’m hoping the Swedish language classes will start soon, so I have something to throw myself into. Just in case, I bought two candles yesterday, to ward off the dreariness and provide literal and metaphorical warmth. Soon I will go in search of advent candle holders, to light up our kitchen window.

What all this writing and navel gazing means, oh readers, is that my adventures haven’t been of the adventurous kind lately. Possibly the most exciting events occurred over the weekend, starting with Kanelbullens Dag on Friday. This is a tradition in Sweden, in which it is the duty of all to eat huge, sugar coated cinnamon rolls, and who am I to deny the customs of my adopted country? They were delicious, and enjoyed in the company of other expats who then headed to a French restaurant/bar for less traditional alcoholic beverages, and discussions of B-grade shark-related films.

Kanebullen, mmmm

On Saturday we went to another of the free Foyer Concerts at the Opera House, the theme of which was Nordic cello. Again the music was beautiful, so much so that at times I risked sinking into a doze, warm and content as I was. More wanderings with expats ensued, and then other wanderings, and a visit to Universeum, the Göteborg version of Scitech, Aqua and the zoo all bundled in one place. It was great fun to stare at the exhibits, exploring the river systems of Sweden, admiring the feathery dinosaurs and stepping into the tropical rainforest section, which was a very tropical 28C. This last was my favourite, which made up half the building. Imagine a vertical cross section of a 6 storey building, and fill the left side with winding paths through recreated rainforests inhabited by birds, monkeys, lizards and piranhas. The piranhas were in tanks, fortunately. The toucans, with their giant beaks and amazingly colourful feathers and habit of staring right back at us were wonderful.

Curious toucan

Resists urge to make a two-can joke. Oops.

There was also a tiny black monkey who skittered around, jumping out from nowhere and disappearing as quickly.

Escaping monkey

The day ended with drinking a bottle of wine and watching the final episode of Vikings and then Gladiator. I had decided that my habit of sobbing messily at the end would be a thing of the past. Oh yes. Of course, by the time Russell Crowe was doing that odd turtle neck thing he does in the death scene, a little tear was dribbling down my cheek and my throat felt quite tight. Is it ‘a good man’ dying? Knowing the Empire was passing it’s prosperous period? That neck thing? I still don’t know, only that it gets me every damn time.
The next morning I showed some evidence of having drunk a fair amount of wine, and so took it easy till the afternoon, when I cycled to the nearby lake. It involved a bit more uphill than I’d planned, but it was more than worth it. Sitting on the grass watching as the sunlight crept over the trees along the banks of the lake and the little island, lighting up the still water and clearing skies brought more peace than I’ve felt in a while. If I concentrate I can feel it now, and picture the lake.
When my partner returned from his own, longer, cycling trip, we went for one last night at Liseberg. It was the last night until it opens for the Christmas season, and was free so we walked around and had dinner at the Austrian restaurant, then walked some more until the sky was lit up by fireworks.

Liseberg fireworks

It was a lovely ending to the weekend, and as we made out way through the crowds and past the beautifully lit tree near the main gate, I felt as though this week would be easier.

Tree like a galaxy, and a light post

In the short time since the weekend I’ve been concentrating on my writing and study, and creating a comfortable space for my partner and myself. There’s still a long way to go, and many more stages to be discovered and breached, but I know it’s possible and that I’m not alone on the road.