It’s 14 Juillet! Here’s one from the archives:
When I first arrived in Paris in 2003, I was young, naive and green. The city’s beauty literally floored me and I spent much of my first visit being a flâneur, silent and awestruck by the broad boulevards, les petites jardins and the grand, beautiful buildings. And stuffing myself full of pastries and baguettes.
On my recent visit almost a decade later, a more experienced and mature me was less dumbfounded but no less in awe. Even in the melancholy depths of winter, the greyness of the skies – and the pale European sunshine when it breaks through – enhances the delicate lines of the buildings and its the streets. And the city’s inhabitants? C’est chic, bien sûr. Parisian fashion is not showy or flamboyant. But the surprising colour of a scarf, the turn of a lady’s heel, the chic, tousled ‘i-haven’t-tried-too-hard’ hair, the subtle, perfect fit of a young banker’s suit… well, it’s just… quietly, fabulously chic.
Some snaps from my recent visit.
Le Tour D’Eiffel in the limpid wintry afternoon sunshine.
Bread and butter pud (à la française) in the 3ème arrondisement.
Carousel by the Seine.
Buildings in the 5ème arrondissement.
Ticket stubs from Paris.
I went back to Europe recently. T’was a flying visit to London (and briefly, to Paris), to catch up with friends and colleagues, to wish old friends well on their move to North America, and to revisit favourite haunts and soak up the buzz of a city I had called home for many years.
Though it had just been over 18 months ago since I left London, I hadn’t expected to feel like I’d not left at all. I hung out with friends, ate and drank at my favourite places and did what I used to do (without the ‘work’ bit, of course!). But this was overlaid with the eyes of a tourist, albeit a tourist with a very intimate knowledge of the city.
But I did take lunch and spend the afternoon at my favourite department store. Aah, Liberty with your Tudor facade, your cozy spaces with their exposed wooden beams and slightly rickety wooden stairs and floors. And your rooms full of gorgeous treasure after gorgeous treasure. Beautiful stationery, tastefully packaged chocolate, brightly-coloured silk scarves and lovely fabrics. And the usual array of gorgeous designer clothing, shoes and bags, of course. Just like the attic of a wealthy, well-travelled and elegantly flamboyant great-aunt.
By a quirky, unexpected turn of circumstances, serendipitous meetings, straight out opportunism, leaps of faith and perhaps pure, blind luck (always easy to see, in retrospect), I seem to have landed pretty much where I want to be: in a new job in a beautiful building with friendly, supportive managers and colleagues, and I’m just about to move into a lovely light-filled house close to shops, a cosy café or two, lovely restaurants, a purveyor of fine wines and a fabulous bookshop and library.
The only catch? It’s not in my hometown of Melbourne but rather, Canberra – Australia’s capital – and famed for well, just that fact. Cultural goings-on are minimal, and certainly not of the eccentric, underground sort which Melbourne and London is known for. Canberra is also famed for the grand ole business of government, of course. But, as I’ve said plenty of times, life certainly takes you where you least expect and sometimes, you need to grasp opportunities when they present themselves, even if all the boxes aren’t ticked. And given the upcoming federal election, it’s quite the place to be.
The one fly in the ointment? There is no Ikea. A revelation which seriously made me reconsider my move. Because no matter what those design snobs say, there is nowhere like Ikea for a well-designed, nice-looking, inexpensive household bits n’bobs. Especially for people new in town. Quite a glaring omission for the Swedish company, I think, given Canberra’s highly-skilled, cashed-up, transient population. Apparently ‘Ikea runs’ (2-3 hours’ drive to the nearest store in Homebush, Sydney) is quite the thing in this town.
But one thumbs up for Canberra? No Starbucks. Apparently the last one fled town a couple of years ago. And amen to that.
A tasty exotic mushroom pizza with a perfect crust. At one of Canberra’s culinary surprises.
Real needfire – from which Midsmmer fires should be lit – can only be made by rubbing two pices of wood together… We were always fascinated that such a tiny flame could make the twilight seem deeper and so much more blue – we thought of that as the beginning of the magic; and it was tremendously important that the taper shouldn’t blow out as we came down the tower steps and crossed the mound… Once the fire is blazing the countryside fades into the dusk, so I took one last look round the quiet fields, sorry to let them go. Then I lit the twigs. They caught quickly – I love those early minutes of a fire, the crackles and snappings, the delicate flickers, the first sharp whiff of smoke. The logs were slow to catch so I lay with my head near the ground and blew. Suddenly the flames raced up the wigwam of branches and I saw the snowy moon trapped in a fiery cage. Then smoke swept over her as the logs caught at last. I scrambled up, and sat back watching them blaze high. All my thoughts seemed drawn into the fire – to be burning with it in the brightly lit circle of stones. The whole world seemed filled with hissing and crackling and roaring.
And then, far off in the forgotten dusk, someone called my name.
~Dodie Smith, I Capture The Castle (1949)
° ° °
The solstice doesn’t have quite the same history or importance in this part of the world (Lat 37°47’S Long 144°58’E). Here, the length of days do not noticeably wax or wane with the seasons and we’re more worried about a drought, rather than a harsh, interminable winter. Still, it’s nice to pause and mark the Winter Solstice and realise that the warmer weather will soon be here.
I visited Budapest in December 2003. It was bitterly cold, but lovely in the way that only an old European capital could be. I remember a city filled with quiet restaurants, lively bistros and cosy cafés exuding plenty of Old World charm, little independent galleries/shops selling beautiful Art Nouveau-style furnishings. And most of all, I remember a city full of stunning, eclectic, early twentieth century architecture. One did not need to see the guidebook-listed grand buildings for wonderfully flamboyant examples of the Bauhaus, Secessionist, Art Nouveau and Deco movements. Wandering around its broad boulevards and streets, you would be hard-pressed not to stumble upon any number of hidden architectural gems, usually in various states of (dis)repair – too many for the guidebook to mention.
It occurred to me much later, once I had returned to the West, why I had also found Budapest so peaceful, and beautiful. It was the complete lack of advertising. It was 2003 and Hungary would not enter the European Union for another 6 months. There were no posters exhorting you to buy this, or that, in order to be a better person and live a perfect life. Where a billboard would have been, there was only brick, or carved stone, or an unblemished roof line – a wonderful, healing respite for the eyes and the soul.
I don’t imagine Budapest is much the same today.
These images below (from here) communicate a similar spirit of non-consumerism and anti-advertising.
And I’m taking the ‘if it plays, it stays’ line to heart. My cheap, distinctly lo-fi mobile (it doesn’t even have a camera!) will do me for a long time yet.
Susan and I parked the car, glimpsed one of Balmain’s more famous residents walk by with – naturally – a huge bundle of Sunday newspapers, and headed off to brekky.
When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other.
My obsession with flora continues.
Clovelly. Woollahra. Lilyfield. Rozelle. Cremorne. Rosebery. Freshwater. Ingleside. Rose Bay. Lavender Bay. Surry Hills.
To my visitor’s ears, some of Sydney’s suburbs have some lovely-sounding flora-inspired names.
I’d not been to Sydney for over a decade. And back then, it was mostly for work and the CBD hotel, serviced apartment and offices were the places I got to know the best. This time, it was purely for social purposes and it was the infinitely more enchanting backstreets of Paddington, Woollahra, Surry Hills and Balmain I became acquainted with.
It’s been a lovely tawny russet and gold autumn in Melbourne. But the colours, shapes, textures and temperature (a balmy 23 degrees celsius) that greeted me in Sydney! Bougainvillea. Hibiscuses. Palms. Jacarandas. And yet more tropical flora whose names I do not know. Blazing, brilliant, shimmering fuschias and corals, whites and crimsons, saffrons and violets.
Ahh, summer in España! Café and jamon that rendered me speechless, cold beer and languid wine, a weighty, quirky, macabre history, knock-your-socks-off architecture, fashion, textiles and art.
Barcelona… Lively, energetic, vibrant, hipper-than-thou, pared-down style, its organic, swooping over-the-top modernisme curves, cutting-edge textiles, warm, friendly folk and the coolest kids in the world. The ghosts of Picasso, Miró, Gaudí and a thousand artists haunt this beautiful, creative city. It’s enough to make a girl buy a wholly inappropriate orange and green swirly patterned jumpsuit, wander off the beaten track and almost get mugged (a big gracias to the lovely old ladies out for an afternoon stroll who saved me from a couple of young punks with designs on my camera by appearing in the nick of time in the Parc de Montjuïc).
Madrid… Colder and formal, with grand boulevards, architecture and plazas to rival those of Paris. And the Museo del Prado – oh the Prado! with its radiant, terrible, sinister, lively, questioning, weighty, calm, infinitely beautiful works by Velázquez, Caravaggio, El Greco and Goya (to name but four)… the oh-so-very cool, modern Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and Picasso’s stunning Guernica, subjected to the indignity of the same cacophonous chattering, demanding, snap-happy mob which beseiges the Mona Lisa… And the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza with its Old Masters, Cubist and lovely Fauvist, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. Madrid could stupefy and render a girl senseless with Stendhal’s Syndrome.
Little Toledo in Don Quixote country. Once the country’s capital, beloved by El Greco and site of one of the oldest mosques in the Western world. Now increasingly a ghost town, the local populace driven out by heavy rents caused by tourism. Wonderful winding, oft-deserted cobbled medieval lanes where I had my most memorable meal in an unpretentious café catering to the local construction workers and the more adventurous tourist. Fried chiperones, paella and a creme caramel. Finished off with a café cortado, a Spanish espresso with a shot of milk.
But I lost my heart to Granada of Andalucia. “Oh yeah, that big castle,” said an Australian acquaintance whose mother was born in Granada. “I forget the name. [oh to be so unmoved by and detached from the glories of Alhambra!] Did you go?” Yes, I certainly did visit that ‘big castle’, the war fortress of Alhambra which watches over Granada from the nearby hill of La Sabica. That grand, intricately constructed Moorish castle which once housed kings and queens, sultans and their concubines. With its elaborately planned garden of roses, oleanders, magnolias, cypress and orange trees, and a hundred other types of flora each carefully chosen and planted for the perfection of their intermingling scents. With its gurgling fountains and water channels, built so that wherever you are within the fortress or its gardens, you can hear and be soothed by the tinkling musical laughter of water.
In Granada, the heart of flamenco country where come evening in the shadow of Alhambra, you will be serenaded by student guitarists plucking exquisite notes from their instrument for a few euro. Where for twenty euro, you can join the masses in one of three evening sessions to watch the gypsies dance in the world famous caves of Sacro Monte. Where you can purchase una caña and be presented with a hefty plate of delicious tapas, free of charge. Where it is not surprising to see young children, their parents and their grandparents – three generations of one family – out together for a promenade around town at 1am during weekends. Where the people drink to be merry, convivial, to dance, to relax, rather than to engage in a drunken fisticuffs.
The heady combination of food, music, architecture and history, the indelible cultural influence of the MoopsMoors, a young, lively university community, the friendly, laid-back vibe of my hostel and the people I met there, and the spiritual energy which crackled around the town was intoxicating. Something had compelled me to visit Granada and the Alhambra as a last farewell to Europe. And surprisingly (or not), whether wandering the quiet, shabby streets of the Albaicín, dancing the night away in a little bar to modern and traditional Spanish music, pausing in the Alhambra’s Generalife Gardens to take in the mingled scents of roses, oranges and myrtle or listening to the haunting sounds of an intricate flamenco guitar riff beneath an almost full, bright moon, everything felt like it was in its right place.