I have a vivid memory, the contextual details of which are quite vague, of being in the dusty garage of a really old person with my best friend from primary school. We had both entered the garage while her parents attended to the old person who lived in the house with anticipation because we had been told that one of the old person’s cats had had kittens.

I’m sure it suited the adults for the two of us to be out of the way and being entertained in the garage. I wouldn’t have thought that at the time. At the time it was like a magical mystical opportunity to find a baby kitten, hold it and bond with it, love it and be loved by it forever, make it my own.

Imagine a movie set, where the prototypical dusty garage has been constructed. There is probably a penny farthing cycle in a corner, or at least an old sewing machine, everything is the same color, a dusty beigy grey, scant light comes through a moldy window and cobwebs garner corners and window frames. This is the scene Cathy and I entered. We should have been holding hands. That’s how it would have been done if it were a movie.

She spotted the kittens first. They were all in a group on a ledge by the window. We were instantly besotted. They were snuggled together for warmth. It was like a little kitten mosaic. How fortunate we were to be able to enter and choose a little kitten, a disadvantaged kitten, who had never been loved by any person before us. Poor little kitties, lonely little kitties in need of a child to claim them. I could hardly contain my rapture.

We approached the kittens quietly. I can’t remember who reached for their kitten first. We may have reached simultaneously. Upon noticing the extended hand of a grade six girl, the kitten mosaic became a snarling, hissing mass of little teeth and claws. We pulled our hands quickly back. This was not how we had expected it to be.

Together in the garage, Cathy and I reflected upon how the kittens had never known a human from the beginning of their lives and were therefore wild. We didn’t attempt to pick one up. They were pretty bloody scary actually. No one likes to be hissed at. Anyway we didn’t want to contribute to the little kitten anxiety that was clearly being demonstrated. We watched them for awhile, made no headway in being accepted by them and returned to the adults when called without words to voice our collective, unspoken disappointment.

This morning I went to my 19 year old daughter’s shared house to drop off her phone. She’d left it at my place. I’d suffered a bit of abuse from her the previous night but we had sorted it out and I had reassured her that she was loved. She tamed as she sobered up effectively. Anyway, they’d had a house worming party that night. I knocked on the front door and entered when I found the door was unlocked. I tapped on my daughter’s room and left her phone on her bed. She was still in bed closely packed in with another unidentifiable party goer. I’m sure there were heaps of sleeping teenagers and early twenty something’s scattered around the house asleep in clumps (like the feral kittens). There were signs of party everywhere, scores of P-plated cars parked randomly on the front lawn and in the driveway, cigarette butts scattered all over the porch and front yard, an empty bottle.

The feral kittens came to me as a flash back on the drive home. Teenagers are just like feral kittens.

Highlights of Lyon

October 9, 2011

I travelled to Lyon from Exeter, conference hopping. On the little Flybe aircraft across the channel I sat next to another conference goer. He was leaving Exeter and returning home to France rather than continuing to another conference like I was. (When you have flown the 25 hours to get to Europe from Australia, you may as well make the most of it). He was a PhD student originally from Pakistan, who learnt French to obtain a scholarship at a French University. He knew Lyon. I dictated notes onto my iphone as he told me what to see and where to go in Lyon.

Things to see and do in Lyon:

  1. bellecoeur – beautiful heart, city square – biggest in France
  2. vieux lyon – old city, museums (free), restaurants
  3. cathedral – biggest in Lyon
  4. close to Cathedral climb up small tower and view of whole of Lyon
  5. statue of Mary near cathedral also
  6. Rhone – the bigger river, on bank: Quai Claude Bernard, walk on bank in evening (popular promenade in the evenings) Close to this is the old university (conference is in new part)
  7. near Parte Dieu there are two towers: 1. pencil tip, 2. like a half pipe, shopping centre Center Commerciale Parte Dieu – beautiful, not expensive, fountain.
  8. biggest park in Lyon, Parc Tete D’Ore, beautiful lake, underground and come up in centre of the lake.
  9. public cycling stands, 6 euros for seven days: there are machines for hiring, select how many days. if you return to any stand within half an hour there is no extra charge. there are cycling tracks.
I can now add my own reflections to the list.

Lyon is the second largest city in France. It was the centre of commerce for a region in France settled by the Roman Empire some time BC. The ruins of the largest amphitheatre I’ve ever seen are on the hill in Lyon. If you climb the stairs to the top of this hill you have a vista back across the whole city and can even see the alps in the background. This is where you can go into the cathedral (3). The old town (2) is back down the hill. It has wonderful shops to browse. I had a crepe dinner here on my last night in Lyon. The delicious crepes were cooked on a cart and we sat out of doors.

I found the city bikes (9) on the first day and I’m glad I did. Its unusual when you are in a city for a conference to have such freedom in your travel. I rode the bikes everyday and enjoyed not being reliant on transport timetables. The ride along the river from the city centre (where I was staying) to the conference venue was spectacular (6). The river is wide. There are beautiful public spaces, from fabulous children’s playgrounds to picnic areas to fountains, to grassy enclaves where people in bikinis tanned.

I didn’t go to the shopping centre he recommended (7) but the Parc Tete D’Ore (8) is wonderful. I was surprised to find in the park a free zoo. I came upon the animal cages before I realised I had entered a zoo. (wtf is that a giraffe?) I spent time wandering the gardens with friends from the conference here as well because it was within walking distance from the conference venue.

But the list did not include recommendations about finding good food. Firstly I would add that any bakery in Lyon is a great start, and there are numerous. Secondly, I highly recommend an eating institution which everyone in Lyon seemed to know about, Brasserie Georges. Luckily I have colleagues who always find fabulous restaurants in faraway cities.  The restaurant was a wonderful French experience: the ambience, the food, the service. Getting to the restaurant also turned out to be a French experience for me.

I rode a city bike from my hotel to a bike stand that I now realise was opposite Brasserie Georges, except that the road was split. Between where I parked and the restaurant was a wide motorway and nearby a large rail terminal. Not realising this I walked my half of the road without seeing it and became lost. My French is poor to non-existent but I had a little routine that I could use for emergencies. Upon realising I was lost I approached a woman at a bus stop and said in French,

Bonjour, I am Australian, I don’t speak French.

I showed her the address of where I was going but it was not until she read Brasserie Geroges that her eyes lit up. ‘Ah Brasserie Georg-geh’ she said (I’m trying to capture the accent and you need to pronounce the ‘g’ softly with an ‘h’ sound in there as well). She pointed me in the right direction and told me how to get there (in French). I followed the direction she pointed but because I didn’t understand the directions soon became lost again.

I approached another person. This time I used my routine but added ‘Brasserie Geor-geh’ to it with a little palms up, shoulder shrug. The recognition was instant. Again I was pointed in a direction and given instructions in French. Of course I walked in the direction pointed but soon became lost again. I went through this routine with four more people before finally arriving an hour late. I had walked a large three-sixty to appear upon the restaurant from exactly the opposite direction to which I had parked my bike. But I made it! My friends had saved me some of the antipasto entree (sensational) poured me a glass of wine (also sensational) and I ordered duck (sensational) and coffee icecream parfait for dessert (magnificent but it kept me up way too late that night).

I was proud of myself. As you know its quite stressful being lost. I consciously calmed myself down and thanks to the friendly French people had a wonderful experience of it rather than tears.

The view from the top of the hill in Lyon

The beautiful Rhone in Lyon

My first day on the Lyon city bikes

Eating the sensational antipasto at Brasserie Georges

I find cycling good for my soul. I’ve recently developed the habit of shuffling the songs on my iphone as I ride to and from work. I’ve been trying to do that (ride to work) at least twice a week. I need to train.

I have the Otway Classic coming up. It’s a scenic 145km ride taking in our famous Great Ocean Road. This year will be the second year I’ve entered it. I’m feeling more bike-fit than I did last year. Hopefully, I’ll ride it more easily and faster than last year.

One thing in my favour is my new bike! It’s carbon. I bought it for a pretty good price, but I’ve been unimpressed with the after-sales service I’ve received. Instead of taking the bike in for its free first check at the place of sale, I took it in to the guy at the cycle shop at uni this week.

I’ve blogged about the guy at the uni cycle shop numerous times. I visit the shop once a year, usually before Around The Bay to have my bike serviced. He always tells me off for something and gives me a cycling tip in a sort of fatherly way. I find this amusing because we may be of similar ages. However, I always feel dutifully admonished and suitably thank him for his tips, invariably returning to my familiar ways soon after. For example, he told me one year I must begin riding without knickers under my knicks (it’s the done thing). This I tried only to find it unsuitable to my anatomy (the friction on the towelling of the knicks was excruciating after 100km! and on that occasion I had another 110 to go). Another time he told me how to wash my bike after every ride. I nodded, I promised, but I am yet to develop the habit.

This year it was the way my new bike had been set up that gave him cause to tutt tutt. They’d not put the de-railer on tightly (one turn only – about to fall off, he said), the seat was too far back and on the wrong angle, as well as that the knicks I had on weren’t padded enough for the long rides. (Tell me about it, I said, After the last ‘Around The Bay’ I ended up with two circular bruises on each sit bone that stayed visible for over three weeks!). He’s ordered me some super duper knicks from Canada! He attached a pump to the new bike, replaced the tubes in my repair kit with two fresh ones (I’d used the spare tube that day to repair a flat) and he tried to fit a second water bottle holder for me with no success. I’ll have to wait until a special order arrives next week from Queensland for that!

All-in-all, he spent quite a bit of time on my bike. I’d left it with him for the day. I came to pick it up before he’d fitted the pump. I bought a couple of coffees and we drank them while he worked. The conversation went like this:

“Don’t carry a repair kit, carry two spare tubes instead”, he said as he accessed my little below-the-seat bag especially designed for repair kit items and sundry.

“Ah, um, careful, um, there’s actually also a tampon in there… sorry, um, just so you don’t get a surprise opening that”.

“Oh don’t worry, I have three sisters”, he said as he casually took out my repair kit, tampon and sundry items and replaced the lot with two tubes. Only the tyre levers went back in.

“Have you?” I enquired politely as to his family situation, and added, “I have four daughters”. He expressed surprise and I asked him if he had children.

“Yes one daughter”, and after a pause added, “and four grandchildren!”

Since he seemed to be only around 50 (at the most) I expressed surprise. As we talked his story unfolded:

Only six months ago, he found out he had a thirty-one year-old daughter. She contacted him via facebook. At that time, his daughter had found out that the person she had thought was her mother was actually her grandmother, and the person who she thought was her sister, was her mother.

Her mother was my bike-repair-guy’s girlfriend when he was sixteen. He had no idea she had become pregnant. His efforts to contact her in the continuation of their friendship were returned by her relatives at the time with, leave her alone, you are better off without her, she’s no good, type-messages.

The daughter had always wondered why she was the only one in her family group with red hair. When her grandmother on her death-bed told her she was not her mother, she pestered her aunties until they divulged her father’s name (aka my bike-repair guy). When she searched him on facebook she firstly found his sisters’ profiles. Suddenly suspecting her genetic heritage, she emailed them enquiring if they were related to ‘his name’ and the reason for her enquiry. His sisters subsequently contacted my bike-repair guy to say, Hey, you have to check this out! In my bike-repair guy’s words, “She’s identical to my sisters at that age! And all her kids look like my sister’s kids”.

But that’s not the end of the story! As I said, he was discovered by her six months ago. Since then, he has brought her down from Queensland where she had just experienced a difficult divorce, bought her a car, a home, furnished the home and now has a lot to do with her and her children. He smiled as he said, “Yes, she completely ruined my peaceful lifestyle. I’d never intended to be a family-type-of-guy”.

He’d inherited an instant family even though he’d consciously decided not to have one.

“Well, for a non-family-type, you’ve pretty well embraced the responsibility”, I said.

“The way I see it, I had no choice”, he laughed.

“Four grandkids… wow!” I contemplated his situation. I admired his response to that news of only six months ago.

We laughed.

Herman and I hit it off. We met through a mutual friend initially on a group skiing holiday. The ski holiday was an annual event with this particular friendship group. Herman joined us for at least three years in a row. In between ski holidays we caught up regularly at dinner parties and various functions. Once at a friend’s wedding Herman and I spent the whole night dancing with each other. The young man at the bar commented, “you two are the grooviest couple here tonight”. We laughed because we could never be a couple, just good friends.

We talked about anything and everything: our respective upbringings, our separate aspirations for life, past and present relationships, work, fitness, children, cooking etc etc. Herman was raised in the country with few resources. However, his high intelligence saw him excel at every thing he put his mind to. He was also a perfectionist. He was a triathlete. At the time he worked as a financier for merchant banks. When he asked me if I had any single friends that he might be interested in, I felt that I knew him well enough to give the match-making thing a go. I attempted it twice. Both attempts were dismal failures for completely different reasons.

In the past I found that friends of mine from different aspects of my life, usually got along well when introduced. It made sense. If I like both of them, its likely they would have things in common.  The first attempt was his idea. He wanted to host a dinner party for me, the hub and my chosen single friend. Herman cooked his usual dinner party fare: bread to dip in olive oil and balsamic vinegar for starters, lentil soup, risotto with porchini mushrooms and pears poached in red wine syrup with low fat ice cream. The food was excellent. The conversation was mostly easy. My friend Judy and Herman found that they both went to the same University at the same time (her to study maths education and him to study chemistry), they both were into the outdoors, he talked about trout fishing and she talked about bush walking holidays and skiing.

Things were going fine until she found out he drove a Porche and he told her that he subscribed to The Australian Opera. She voiced her opinion against opera strongly. She believed opera was elitist and divided society into have-s and have-not’s. After this we had dessert and the conversation returned to lighter topics. However, I felt that Judy’s socialist tendencies clashed so fiercely with Herman’s extravagant life style and liberal views that future dating between the two of them was unlikely. I was therefore not surprised the next day on the phone when Herman expressed to me that he would not be pursuing the friendship with Judy further. What I had not expected was the reason for his decision.

“Jenne”, he said, “I’m sorry but I’m just not into pear-shaped women”.

The second time I tried to match-make Herman. I decided a less confronting situation was in order. I invited a group of friends out to go clubbing: two girlfriends from play group along with Herman and Dana. I introduced Herman to Dana within the group and let them dance together or chat as they saw fit. Dana is a very attractive woman. She is lively and great fun to be with. I have often said that were I a man, I would be in love with Dana. I could not imagine a man who would not be interested in her. Dana was single after a heart breaking divorce. Like Herman, Dana was raised in country Victoria. She had left teaching (where I met her) and was running her own business close to the town where she grew up.

Although she was a self sufficient and successful business woman, she was looking for a man to look after her. In her words, she wanted to meet “a man in a suit”.  I thought Herman could be her guy. She arrived wearing a revealing outfit. She seemed subdued and slightly nervous. Dana and Herman found time to talk to each other. They danced for a short while. Neither of them looked relaxed. Dana had invited some of her friends from her home town to join us.  She became more animated and relaxed when they arrived but spent more time dancing with them than she did with us.

Later she left us to kick on to another venue with these friends. Our remaining group of four opted for a quieter end to the night. We found a cafe and drank hot chocolate before heading home our separate ways. Herman seemed to get along better with my two married friends than he had with Dana. I held hopes that perhaps he may have been interested to see her again at least. However he was not interested in the slightest. His assessment of Dana: “she’s just too agricultural”.

Later I caught up with Dana. “No, not my type”, she told me, “too neat and tidy. He looks gay”.

After that, I gave up! I have never and will never attempt match-making again.

Messages in the sky

January 17, 2008

I took my girls (that’s four), my friend Tony and his daughter (that’s a total of seven bods) out for a sail on Bucket, our catamaran.

Bucket is affectionately called Baby Hoby at our sailing club because she is the smallest hoby cat in the club. I often take large groups of kids and friends out on Bucket. The serious sailors always laugh.

“You have quite a handicap there”, they have been known to jibe as they pass me weighted down with passagers in a race. They can’t understand my point of view of sailing in a race without a competative bent (that is, just for fun).

The conditions on this particular day were not as windy as the day before and there was less of a swell, so I took my boat load out for a long sail into the bay far from the club. We were enjoying the gentle sailing and the children were singing Disney tunes in harmony when the shark-spotting plane flew overhead.

This little plane is very distinctive. It is tiny and bright yellow with a little spoiler-thingy at its tail. It flies over the bay near us at around four or five in the afternoon every day. It usually flies straight over. However, last year it circled in the air a mere fifty meters out from the club. Police swarmed the beach and instructed swimmers to get out of the water. A seven meter white pointer had been spotted. Up in the clubrooms there was a lot of excitement. A race had just finished and the race officials up in the control room, with a first storey view across the bay, were certain they saw the large dark shape. Our children, who were playing near the boat ramp were determined that they saw its fin surface near a power boat too close for comfort. It was very exciting. I texted all my friends and acquaintances the news. My brother’s reply was the funniest: fish and chips for everyone!

From Bucket we watched the little yellow plane.

“That’s the shark-spotting plane”, I said for the benefit of our guests. “Last year it circled about there because a seven meter shark was spotted”.

Just as I said this the little plane’s engine changed pitch and it did a turn. Oh shit! I thought to myself. “Ready about”, I said clamly to my crew.

I quickly turned bucket around to head back for shore. I was on a beautiful straight tack to the club. However, right at that point in the drama the wind dropped! We were still over a hundred metres out. For once I was wishing I didn’t have the extra weight on the boat. With just one or two people she can fly. Poor Bucket laboured with her boughs deep in the water.

“So a seven meter shark. That would be almost three times the length of this boat”, Tony pointed out.

“Ah yeah”, I said. This I already knew.

The wind picked up. As I sheeted in the sail and Bucket started moving with some speed I noticed the little plane flew off in the other direction. My eldest daughter commented on this fact. She and I had both been secretly antipating the plane’s movements in a state of unspoken but shared anxiety. Had it completed its circle and not just done a U-turn, our panick would have been acute.  As it was it was just mild heebie-jeebies. I made a bee-line for the shore anyway. That was enough sailing excitement for me for one day.

Today when I was jogging along the beach I heard a plane in the distance. I looked up expecting the shark-spotter, eventhough it was only midday. Out in the bay I saw Bucket’s colourful sail. The hub was out there with Emma and one of her friends. The tide was out and thousands of funny little soldier crabs were socializing on the sand. A little dog ran with me for awhile until his owner called him back. The sound of the plane got louder and I could see it was not the little yellow plane at all, but a biplane towing a large message on a banner. I watched it approaching waiting to read the message. It was written in large red letters on a clear background:

“OLD FART BRIAN JONES TURNS 60 TODAY”, it said.

My first impulse after laughing was to share it with my kids, “Hey guys you have to come and see this”. But I knew it would be gone before I got back to the house. The humour in this message was for me to enjoy alone.

 

You get what you pay for

November 22, 2007

I want to tell you about Martin. I don’t know how old he is, but I think he’s probably older than me. He has just become a grandfather, but he still looks very young, and is very young in the way he relates to people. He is enthusiastic and kind. He is also excellent at what he does. He is a musician and he plays violin, classical guitar and mandolin. He is also a music teacher.

Martin has inspired my children. My two youngest are learning to play the violin with him and my oldest is learning to play the guitar with him. Emma was the first to ask if she could take up an instrument. Martin runs group lessons at my children’s primary school and for the first year, Emma hired a violin from the school and went to a group lesson for twenty minutes once a week. She enjoyed it and took it seriously.

That was three years ago. She now has a private lesson with Martin in his own studio. Sally took up violin at the start of this year and also has a private lesson with Martin. When Kathleen expressed an interest to learn the guitar, Martin made a time to fit her in as well on the same day as the others. On Tuesdays the three of them have their lessons in half hour stints all in a row. So on Tuesdays, I pop in and out of Martin’s studio four times. We always chat while the children are setting up their instruments. He is always happy and has something interesting on the go. The children feel energised and encouraged by him too. He is a wonderful, gifted musician and individual.

Once I was leaving his studio and another parent arrived with her daughter, who is Emma’s age. I stopped to greet her. On this particular occasion it wasn’t long after Emma changed to individual lessons. She had been thriving and had expressed her appreciation for the opportunity to change from group to individual and to be learning in the serenity of his home rather than at school. I made a remark to the other parent, something like, Oh Emma is loving the individual lessons. Martin is wonderful isn’t he? Her reply to this was:

You get what you pay for.

I did not voice my opinion at the time. However, I certainly did not give any indication that I agreed with her. This particular statement I found insulting, to Martin and to my general philosophy on life. Who Martin is and what he gives to others is priceless.

Later, I wondered if she had passed her philosophy on to her children. I wondered how many people subscribed to it. I wondered if they also unthinkingly applied it to people. I wondered what it meant for society the way I thought I knew it.