The world as its was in 1992

Farewell to Ragtrader 1991

Fraser farewells his Ragtrader team

At Lane Cove February 1992

If I had to name a moment when I decided to chuck in my career and start another, it came on a day in June 1989 when one of my favourite advertisers stamped into my Sydney office and cancelled her contract.

Bad days were common in the faltering fashion industry but this was an extra bad one. Rikki had buckled under a return of dresses from Myer, been through a financially throttling meeting with her bank manager and had a problem with a member of her family. She was ready to kill anybody and when she opened her copy of my fashion industry newspaper, ‘Ragtrader’ to find her advertisement on the wrong page, my head popped up in the shooting gallery.

I could see there was no point in trying to argue with her as she thundered on, gulping air as commas in her long list of my transgressions. I simply agreed that her company would no longer have to grace our pages and hoped that our personal friendship would not head in the same direction. After she left, I realised she had been the catalyst I had been unconsciously seeking. In the space of one breath I no longer wanted to run my fortnightly newspaper as I had for 20 years. I’d had fashion parades right up to pussy’s bow. I didn’t want to write ever again about colours, fabrics, importers or clothes for big and little women.

A week later Rikki returned to reinstate her contract and our personal friendship was undamaged, but I had made an irrevocable decision. I would leave the company at the end of the year, take the Christmas break and then begin a new career as a novelist. If that fitted with my odd personality, I would take my work on the road and travel as I wrote.

Leaving was, of course, sad. I’d started Ragtrader in 1972 and sold it to Thomsons Publications in 1989, agreeing to an 18 months management contract. This meant that I was well free to go by Christmas 1990. I arranged a small party at home for the 20 or so Ragtrader Sydney staff members the day I left. We sat outside on my terrace overlooking the peaceful Lane Cover River and drank to the happiness and misery of trying to extract a media living out of the Australian fashion industry. We had been a family and now Dad was about to jump ship.

On Monday January 14, 1991 I woke alongside my partner Michelle and immediately wanted to hide at the bottom of the bed. This was the day I was going to start my first novel. Everybody, including Michelle, would be going to work today. They would have a place to sit, people to see, situations to wrestle with. But I would be on my own, banished from employed society by my own hand. After a wobbly shower and a plate of tasteless, but supposedly beneficial oat bran I sat down at my Macintosh and keyed in a heading: ‘Feel the Width’. I heard Michelle’s Suzuki twin cam drive up the street. Silence settled. Lord, what had I done to myself?

I thought about my servitude in the Australian fashion industry, how I had sold textiles in Melbourne’s draughty Flinders Lane in the 60’s and then, by a stroke of luck or, perhaps, a shove from destiny, I became editor of a minor Murdoch magazine called Australian Fashion News. As I remembered the characters I had known, Abraham Bonstein began to materialise. He was a composite of the European clothing manufacturers I had come to love and hate as a young textile salesman. As Abe turned his aquamarine and white Pontiac into Flinders Lane my novel took its first breath of life.

I worked at it as I would any serious job. Dorethea Brandt had written a slim book in 1936 called ‘Becoming a Writer’. In it, she recommended the best time to write creatively was straight from bed in the morning in order to beat the seduction of procrastination. I followed her advice and each morning would stumble from the bedroom to the Macintosh at about half past six and force my sleepy fingers to type. The first fifteen minutes usually produced work that I would groan over later in the day but after that the mist would clear and I would submerge myself in the perverse world of fashion in the 1960’s.

I soon made the discovery that I loved full time writing and I knew my change of career had been the right decision. I finished the first draft of Feel the Width by June. Then came the tedious re-writes, advice from people whose judgement about writing I respected, and then the long process of door knocking to find a publisher.

By October I had done all I could for Feel the Width and I cut it loose to make its own voyage around publishers. I fervently hoped it would find a home but that was not going to stop me from starting a new book. I wanted to deal with some of the issues of 2084 and I became absorbed in a new experience. I was no longer remembering the past or reporting the present. I was imagining the future.

The New Year saw about a third of the novel captured in my Macintosh. I was pleased with what I had done. I had the story line established, the major characters introduced, and I had a rough idea of where it would all go. It was now time to fulfil the other promise I made to Michelle and myself to travel.

We decided to splurge on first class around-the-world air tickets and start out with only an outline of where to go. I wanted to visit my son Ben in Canada and to buy a just-released Macintosh portable computer in the US. Michelle wanted to meet up with her parents in London where they would be on holiday. Then we would head for Europe, buy a car, drive about and settle for three months in Portugal later in the year – for the perverse reason that not many people we knew had been there. We had to be home before March 1993 when our ticket expired.

We took off from Sydney on March 27, 1992 and headed for Honolulu, our first stopover.

Nine months later, on January 2, 1993, we landed back on that same runway at Sydney Airport. During that time, I finished my second novel, wrote a children’s book some short stories and a long stream of letters home. The letters were partly to keep in touch with friends and family and partly as a record of where we had been.

April 24 1992 from Amsterdam and Aachen

crossing-in-amsterdam.jpg

The Amsterdam crossing where our bags capsized

It is now about a month since we left. Is Australia still there? We haven’t seen a newspaper to find out. But as far as news from this hemisphere is concerned, I intend to stop every month or so and write a report which will serve the dual role of a travelogue and my record to pit against later lapses of memory.

After leaving Sydney on an early morning flight we, and our foolishly heavy baggage, descended that evening upon Honolulu for a two-day stopover. We found a fast, over illuminated city awash with gross numbers of people trying convince themselves they were somewhere glamorous and therefore should be having fun. The downtown area seemed hell-bent upon feeding everybody at ever lowering prices. McDonalds had been well beaten for the cheap, apparently wholesome meal. The budget-bound formed long lines outside buffet style cafes where they could take away as much food as they liked – as long as it was inside their stomachs. The queues were mostly made up of young hollow-gutted backpackers or rotund retirees, both categories capable of consuming remarkable quantities of food and remaining mobile.

The next morning we visited the fabled beach at Waikiki and tired to reconcile it with its picture image. If I stood on the shore and made a funnel of my hand and held it up to my eye, I had to admit similarities. But the broader reality was quite different. There was a serious shortage of space on the gravelly sand if you wanted to spread a towel carried illegally across the perimeter of the hotel. A human quilt, largely Japanese, ran down to the water from the front of the loud beach bar. The aquamarine water of my expectations had turned cloudy, probably from too many visitations by sections of the quilt wanting to cool off, show off or urinate.

Our next stop was Vancouver, surely one of the purest urban places on earth to live. We spent a delightful week with my son Ben, his mother Wendy and her husband Bob. I practiced driving on the wrong side of the road and after four days was allowed to go solo. Ben had just turned 16 and, of course, had his ambitions intensely focused on his driving licence and then the ownership of a car. You can buy a middle aged American steel giant for a little over a thousand dollars in Vancouver but keeping it on the road threatens to cost far more. Insurance, gas and repairs are all deterrents to the young car owner. In any case, Ben had little need for a car when there were already two in the household and he lived only ten minutes walk from school and most of his friends. Funny how, at a certain age, the once cherished bicycle is left in solitude in the garage, Cars suddenly are the only mode of transport possible, outwardly because of their speed and convenience but inwardly because of their ability to provide a quasi bedroom. I understand this. The VW beetle of my own youth saw some grand struggles on the back seat.

Michelle revealed herself to be a closet travel agent. She reads every timetable, takes advantage of every hotel or airline special, keeps the dead tickets and dockets for ‘points’ and continually changes existing arrangements for better ones. This was the reason for our stay in Vancouver being extended by one day. Michelle discovered that we could fly direct to Amsterdam with KLM instead of accompanying Northwest and other airlines on landing and take-off practice across America

First class was empty except for two businessmen and us. There was, therefore, more staff than passengers, a situation air travellers dream about. In the course of the evening we were enticed, tempted, and seduced into some 10 courses of food and an endless array of exotic beverages. We ate until we could eat no more. Then we ate some more.

I, of course, had to drink to keep up with the eating – which was so extensive and absorbent that I was unable to get drunk. Constipation followed the excessive feast, as it often does in the air. This robbed us of sleep in the huge, almost-a-bed, seats. We lay in them like hibernating toads. Arriving in London, we waddled through customs nearly twice the weight we had been when we left Vancouver. I must add that, after trying to eat sensibly since, and failing, we are still gross. However, Michelle promises that Portugal will be our slimming Mecca, with lots of lean fish, salad and probably a dose of two of the local diarrhoea.

I pause here for a short diversion on the subject of excessive luggage – that terrible affliction of the insecure traveller. We began with too much at Sydney airport. Each of had two cases and a well-stuffed carry-on bag. That might have sounded reasonable until you saw that all the cases were the biggest of their species. To their interiors we then began to add, almost from the first minute we set foot upon foreign soil, heavy goods. For instance, I bought a Macintosh laptop computer and a cute portable printer to go with it. They are both relatively light but they are accompanied by many kilos of books needed to tell me how to use them. To cart all this stock about, I needed an additional carry bag which, in turn, invited me to fill it with more stuff. Now, we were forced to discover, our existing cases could actually hold more than we thought, encouraged by the fact that we could not possibly carry any more cases. So we packed more carefully and sat more heavily on them at closing time.

There were other, more subtle fillers of the cases too. A t-shirt here, a book there, a couple of CD’s, they all add but never subtract. We dared not throw anything away because this was all we had in the world and it might save our lives. Consequently, packing became tighter and cleverer but was not rewarded by reducing the weight by one gram.

This was the backdrop to our departure from Amsterdam by train to the German border city of Aachen. Had we been going to the airport, we would have taken a taxi and paid the porters to break their backs on our high density luggage. But no. The railway station lay beckoningly across the square from our hotel and we decided to carry the bags ourselves. They were almost too heavy to lift by this stage. Michelle, ever resourceful, suggested we buy two folding trolleys – which amounted to more baggage to carry the baggage but it did seem like a good idea. It wasn’t.

We emerged from the baggage room of the hotel with two laden, top heavy trolleys and two suitcases mobilised by their built-in little plastic wheels. Michelle pulled the suitcases and I harnessed up to the trolleys. I had hardly dragged my load across the marble foyer of the hotel when the trolleys touched wheels and, in the manner of open wheeler racecars, capsized. We immediately became the afternoon floorshow for the bored people in the foyer. A smirking porter awarded me six out of ten for trolley skills as I heaved the ungainly bastards through the narrow front door.

Once in the street, matters became worse. I had a wheel touch going across the road and capsized again, this time in front of a line of impatient cars at traffic lights. Michelle had gone on ahead with her cases – well out of harm’s way. I could not abandon our worldly goods on a road in the centre of Amsterdam. In front of honking cars I heaved them back on to their wheels and staggered onto the footpath where Michelle and I laughed so much we were crying. By the time we had reached the station, I had mastered the art of pulling my two beasts but Michelle was suffering serious fatigue with her burden of the suitcases. She thought she might do better with the trolleys when it came time to board the train. We swapped. This turned out to be another bad decision. When the train arrived I sprinted away with my suitcases (see Murphy’s third law of trains: the carriage you want is always the maximum possible distance from where you are standing, multiplied by the square of the weight of your luggage), reached the carriage and looked behind to find no Michelle. She had made an over confident start, suffered a wheel touch and rolled the trolleys. When I caught up with her she had assigned one trolley to two miraculously helpful Dutch women who were pounding along, scarves flying, trying to catch her.

This digression may explain some erratic behaviour in the future, because at the current rate we will soon have too much luggage to move anywhere, even with a car..

Where were we? Ah yes, arriving overweight, in every sense of the word in London.

Now most people love London and we are no exception. But this time around our view of it was highly coloured by the state of our lodgings. Beware, future travellers, of Merryfield House in York Street, not far from Baker Street. The position of the establishment is superb but that is all it has going for it. The owner of this seven room little gem must have had sworn a solemn oath against Australians because he put us in the basement. It was like living in a burrow, only less comfortable, The ‘shower’ was a white rubber T shaped pipe which produced a pitiful stream of water not anything like a shower. We fell back on jolly olde English baths and pretended we had just come in from a super game of rugger. The bed was lumpy, the room damp, the toilet malfunctioning and the kitchenette always like an ice-box.

The only bright spot in the whole dismal place was an 8 am visit from the proprietor, who would sweep into the room and announce, as though we had won the lottery, ‘Good morning Mr and Mrs Lewis. I’ve got your breakfast for you!’ With a practiced flurry he would set the tray of sustaining English breakfast down upon the wobbly coffee table at the end of the bed, one of those that hinged down from an indentation in the wall. We were never game to swing it up to give us more room, fearing it might return with the wall attached. The room only really worked when we got into the bed. At other times there was not enough space for people, luggage and furniture to co-exist. Lying in bed, I was struck by the incongruity of the furniture. It looked as though the owner had either stolen it piecemeal, found it abandoned on vacant allotments or had been left in the wills of relatives who had strongly disliked him. Even the paint may well have been illegally procured. Nobody in their right mind, and having a choice, would have put up the combination of greens, pinks and blues that adorned the lower ground suite’ as it was called.

Needless to say, were not encouraged to stay our planned six days and long, dank nights. We made up a story about relatives unexpectedly meeting us in Amsterdam and bolted two days early.

Our departure, however, was not before we had spent some time wandering London as an antidote to Merryfield House. One day we went to Covent Garden, scene of the Easter Fair. The place was an ants’ nest of people, stalls and what we came to recognise as corny English entertainment. Two London coppers, appeared normal in every respect except they were walking about on stilts, which elevated them 20 feet in the air. From their lofty position they dispensed directions, settled disputes and joked with children.

We were starting to tire of the fair when we came upon the knife thrower, a street entertainer worth seeing. The performer was a longhaired, hearty voiced young man who strode around his territory in the roofed Covent Garden concourse challenging the crowd to produce somebody to act as his target-to-miss. A portly middle aged man finally came forward and stood in front of the board into which the knives were to be thrown either side of his head. The knife thrower then spent a lot of time building up the expectations of the crowd by almost throwing a knife but being interrupted by some minor breach of his safety precautions. Finally, he placed a hood over the victim’s head and shaped to throw a knife. At that point, a second volunteer, whose presence was unknown to the man in the hood, plunged a knife into the board near the hooded head. When the hood was removed, the victim was both awed by the ‘throw’ and pleased to get away with his head unpunctured.

Thus the knife thrower continued to amaze his victim and greatly amuse the crowd – without ever actually throwing a knife. This is one of the endearing quirks of the British – to deceive with good humour and collect a pound or two in the process.

Amsterdam was almost as crowded as Convent Garden. Our Hotel, the Scandic Crowne, scene of the baggage affair, pointed its nose in the direction of the railway station and was ideally placed to experience some features of the city: pick pockets, beggars, street theatre and rides on the canal boats which are built to just fit under the 100 bridges throughout Amsterdam.

The red light district was also within a baseball hit of hotel. The girls charged 35 guilders (about A$30) for a brief trip to paradise. There are literally streets full of girls sitting in illuminated windows, beckoning and tapping on the glass to drum up business from the battalions of men drifting past. In the coffee shops throughout Amsterdam there are most drugs for sale, while in the porn shops there is almost every sexual device comprising videos, rubber representations and magazines. After a few minutes of gape, most people become conditioned to the barrage and don’t notice it. Amsterdam offers such an overkill of sexual fantasies that it threatens to drain the unwary of any interest in sex at all. There’s just to much of the stuff.

At the other end of the sensual scale was ‘Floriade’, the international agricultural fair held only once every ten years 60 km south of Amsterdam. This Olympic Games of the soil was built around flowers, and there were certainly plenty of those, especially tulips which now come in a staggering number of colours and varieties. But like most international fairs, the ‘extras’ drown the central subject. In Floriade’s case, the flowers had overwhelming competition from fast food, outdoor concerts, a monorail with carriages in the shape of caterpillars, rather boring pavilions of static displays about water reticulation and fun things for kids to do. Many people, it seemed, went to the show so that they could be photographed in a profusion of tulips, sometimes posing, or lying down among them for a more artworthy picture.

I was singularly impressed by the young-lady cyclists of Amsterdam. Unlike Australian lady cyclists, who crouch over the handlebars and lay into their work as an act of slavery to the pedals, the ladies of Amsterdam sit erect in the saddle, apparently pedalling without effort, even up hills. They are to be seen all over the city, usually dressed in long woollen coats of sombre colours, their hair swept back in a disciplined arrangement, their faces in an apparent trance as they pedal majestically through the crazy traffic. I half expect their bicycles to suddenly tilt upwards and for them to fly over the old, crooked buildings to some destination where they would perform solemn magic.

After the Amsterdam luggage trauma, we took the train to Aachen, a delightful old German city wedged between the Dutch and Belgian borders. This is where we met up with Helmut, a German friend who seemed to know everybody in Europe. With his help, we bought a 10 year old Mercedes 300D, the D standing for diesel. An unpretentious car, it cost is about A$9000. We nonetheless expected great things of it. Its principal advantages were cheapness of diesel fuel and the fact that it was so uninteresting nobody would bother to steal it. We also calculated that the thieves of Europe would not believe that people driving such a car would have luggage of commercial value. They would be right, of course. Our luggage is only distinguished by its weight.

May 18 1992 from Austria

Karlovy Vary

Michelle gazing into the Karlovy Vary River. It could be turned on or off.

We left you in Aachen, a mid sized German city sitting on autobahns that go in inviting directions if you want to explore. Our car, incidentally, has been christened Hermann. He quickly endeared himself to us, with his loudly snoring diesel engine and no-nonsense ride. After an initial service at the Aachen Mercedes dealer to rectify a few of the ravages of time, he made friends with us, like an old dog going to a new family. We changed his serious Germanic appearance with a series of Australian flags and stickers to warn upcoming communities that they can expect erratic behaviour from this car and its occupants.

In Aachen, we had several changes of address. We began in a wealthy lady’s marital flat for two nights but her husband was due home and finding us there would have further complicated a situation already tangled as badly as a boy’s first fishing line. We moved into another of her apartments for a few more nights. This one had the advantage of being refurbished but could only be reached after climbing five stories of narrow stone stairs with our weight lifters’ training cases. Michelle revelled in the marble bathroom and sparkling kitchen but the Sony television/stereo/video which I at first admired turned out to be so extraordinarily futuristic and all embracing that it was impossible to work.

We had to move again when the lady required the apartment for an unscheduled meeting with her lover. We were offered, again free of charge, a suburban apartment kept by a wealthy retired man living with his lady friend (they both have been divorced several times) but he has kept the apartment going for ten years in case she ejected him and he needed somewhere to go at short notice.

This apartment had the luxury of a lift up to its fifth floor where it looked out over rolling green hills to the Belgian border. We anticipated some peaceful days exploring Aachen from this base. But first we explored the apartment. It had two bedrooms, a study where I could set up the Macintosh and a comfortable lounge room, which opened out on to a balcony and the view. The tenant had been a tank commander in the Second World War and when we opened the hall cupboard we were greeted by his thick grey German army coat decorated with military insignia. That kind of experience makes you realise how time dominates our lives. In the same place 50 years before we would have been staring at the enemy’s coat and been trapped in his country.

Unfortunately we could spend only one night there because Michelle is allergic to certain dried grasses and we found the place was covered with flax wallpaper. Her breathing passages began to close and we had to flee.

All our Aachen accommodation had so far been donated by eccentric, generous Germans who had befriended us. They also taught us the lesson that giving confers upon the giver the right to organise the lives of the given. It was time to pay and take back our freedom.

Now that we had Hermann, we were mobile enough to move into an unusual hotel well out of town. The rates were reasonable because accommodation was not the main business – sport was. The dinning room peered across five indoor tennis courts. On the other side of the large building was squash, badminton, a gym and sauna. People who stayed there were a little out of the ordinary, too. Many, we discovered, were illicit lovers bedding down for some rapid transports of delight. And there was an odd Englishman who told us: ‘I happen to own a rather fast Porsche sports car and I come to Aachen on holiday twice a year so that I can drive as fast as I damn well like on the German roads.’ He proceeded to quote the car’s physical prowess concluding, with a bashful blush, that he had achieved a speed of 161 miles an hour on a slightly downward incline. The only vehicles faster than his were aeroplanes and certain motorbikes, which could only maintain their deadly speed for half an hour before the rider had to take a break from being a punching bag for the wind.

While we were there, widespread industrial disputation gripped Germany. It disrupted mail, public transport and closed down Frankfurt airport – the busiest in Europe. It also made international telephoning very difficult. But even if we had been able to telephone we probably would not have gone into detail about German double beds. Even the Germans seem to hate them but they still use them, possibly because a little suffering is part of the Germanic temperament.

The bed for the couple who want to sleep together is usually king sized, that is, about two meters wide. But it is made up of two separate one meter mattresses shoehorned into a surrounding base and covered with a doona (duvet if you are feeling French). It looks inviting until you try to get into it. The couple finds that the doona covers the two mattresses when flat but with them under it, lifts up to leave a gap either side. Whether the sleepers are on good terms or not they embark upon an unconscious struggle throughout the night to get a necessary share of covering. If they want to embrace under the cover – which is both too hot and too cold at the same time – they must either agree to share one mattress, which is too small, or one of them has to become wedged in the space between the two.

When we asked Germans why they tolerated such unsatisfactory double sleeping conditions, they could only say that when one partner was ill (they expect to suffer frequent heavy colds), the other could sleep in semi- isolation and be marginally more comfortable.

From Aachen we pointed Hermann in the direction of Rothenberg, a German town heavily bombed during the war but now miraculously restored to former cobblestone quaintness. The town lives off tourists, millions of them, who crawl all over it, leaving their money behind in appreciated quantities. We walked through a park inside the fortress walls and I climbed to the top of the city hall tower – only to find that admission to the final breathtaking view was one DM – which I didn’t have because on this occasion Michelle was carrying the money and she had retired from the climb shortly after leaving base camp. I pleaded with the sour faced attendant who, in his little wooden perch at the top of this tower, clearly loathed the daily sight of puffing tourists.

‘American?’ he asked menacingly.

‘No, Australian,’ I replied, turning out my empty tracksuit pockets.

‘Ah, well, you will do service with fire brigade and police after you get down. Meanwhile, you can go look.’ The sour face was replaced with a skew toothed grin and I proceeded to the dizzy lookout.

After leaving Rothenberg for Prague we stopped at Bayreuth, home of the famous Wagnerian music festival. We left Hermann in a side street and strolled through an overgrown park, heavy with spring blossom and home to tiny fluffy ducklings paddling furiously after their mothers. We came upon a swan, standing by the lake intently counting its feathers. It allowed us to within touching distance before looking up from its work to let out a heavy warning sigh.

Ready to believe we were caught in a magic spell, we followed a path, which eventually led to Richard Wagner’s house – or rather that of his parents – where Richard wrote many of his exhausting operas. The house was of grand proportions, with an entertaining room containing walls of books and musical manuscripts. The front of the room formed a semicircle with tall windows looking out into the garden. In this area stood a slender black Steinway grand piano that Franz Liszt had played. I touched the piano, like a priest might touch the bones of St Peter. This piano has been played in this room by the greatest pianist who has ever lived, I told myself, hoping an electric charge might shoot up my arm into my hands so that I could play like Liszt for just ten minutes. The magic did not happen because the piano was locked and not in playable condition.

That same day Hermann got us to the old Czechoslovakian city of Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad if you are German and thought that because you conquered the place during the war you had naming rights). This beautiful town was originally famous for its hot spas – which we decided to try. The spas were more like hospitals. If you didn’t specify to the contrary, you got electrotherapy treatment, which probably meant they popped you into a bath with 220 volts for company. We carefully established that we wanted mineral bath only please, and were sent to separate bathrooms to undress and lower ourselves into old copper baths full of acrid water. After half an hour of soak and bubble we were each wrapped in a hot cloth and laid out on a bench to cool off like suet puddings taken from the pot.

I now look 30 and Michelle looks like my teen-aged daughter. We were told the effect wears off in about three months, meaning that you may not notice any difference when you see us.

Kalovy Vary nestles between a series of steep, connecting valleys and is divided by a swiftly running, walled river. Many of its buildings are still deserted after communism made them too bourgeoisie to occupy. But happily, owners have returned to others and are restoring them to the splendour of past centuries.

The lodgings Michelle had chosen for us was the Hotel Grand Pupp. Yes Pupp, pronounced as the generally most revolting substance known to man. The Hotel Grand Pupp was grand indeed, with vast empty entertaining chambers, massive eating halls and cavernous rooms. Ours was no exception. It led out on to a fancifully sculptured balcony from which we could survey the decadent detail of the buildings opposite and the spires of cathedrals and public buildings beyond.

Our first grand night at the Grand Pupp afforded us our first taste of Czech food. We sat in the Pupp dinning room of lavish masonry and teeming waiters all looking as though they were playing caricatures of themselves. The menu, thankfully in English, offered a huge selection of dishes. I chose oxtail soup and Michelle prawn cocktail as starters. My soup looked good but the ox had reclaimed its tail, leaving a taste like stale seawater. Michelle’s prawns were the size of fingernails and totally devoid of taste. We forgave this opening with the promise of the main course: chicken curry on rice with a separate plate of vegetables. That is what we ordered but, through a language difficulty and some perversity on the part of the hotel staff, I was favoured with the chicken while Michelle received plate of pallid vegetables. When we complained, three waiters from the regiment immediately went outside to commit suicide. My chicken revisited the kitchen and returned in the same condition but this time Michelle got chicken plus vegetables but no rice. Fearing further waiter self-annihilation we tucked in to it. There was no hint of curry, or any flavour at all for that matter. Michelle’s vegetables had been turned into little bags of water held together by a thin skin that used to belong to the vegetables. Michelle downed utensils but I battled on, adding a glass of wine like diluted cod liver oil and crepes that had been cleverly cooked to imitate tripe.

Now you may wonder why we have devoted so many words to Czech food. It is to underline the point that it seems to be a national goal (maybe in was an oblique protest against Russian rule) to make food absolutely unappealing. There are few fat Czechs. They have cooked themselves into slimness. They almost certainly dislike their own food and so do the tourists. I can see Americans flocking there to take part of a new craze to take on culture and take off weight.

On to Prague, the ‘Paris of Eastern Europe’ according to Helmut, our German friend. He spoke with a forked tongue, as it turned out.

We were sucked into Prague’s maelstrom of grime midway through the afternoon. The traffic obeyed no rules, especially when it came to rushing at pedestrians to frighten them back on to the pavement – where they were still far from safe. Prague was a series of ancient streets, cobbled alleys, stately dilapidated buildings, distant golden spires and inadequate maps written in Czech. Michelle tried to navigate us toward the Ambassador Hotel but, for two hours, failed. We went on an involuntary car tour of Prague, sometimes passing the same buildings two and three times as she wrestled with the map. To add further excitement I charged up a one-way street the wrong way and became better acquainted with the local drivers. After a couple of circuits of a huge, teeming boulevard we stumbled by accident upon the Ambassador Hotel. A stony faced receptionist told us there was nowhere to park, no booking in our name and no room available.

We returned to the auto war, finally flopping down at the President Hotel where Hermann was given a resting place in a side street and we were given a huge, ugly room with a classical communist bathroom for about $300 a night. What is a communist bathroom? It is a large, grey tiled cavern with the toilet squashed needlessly into a corner so that only people with thin legs can comfortably sit on it. The shower is hand held and there is no screen, which means you must kneel to take a shower and in such a cowering position you must feel humbled before the state. The mirror is small so as not to encourage vanity and the long shelf that was supposed to hold toiletries badly needed painting. There was one small, weak overhead light and the cake of soap provided was hard, yellow and smelled evocatively of my grandmother’s laundry.

Our first impressions of Prague persisted over the next three days, enhanced by more listless food and people who clearly did not like tourists – with one notable exception. He was the money changing man who approached us in the street and offered us twice the official rate for our US dollars. Under communism this had been illegal but now, with western capitalism rampant, we chose to believe it was permissible. After hearing the amazing rate offered by this man, we decided to exchange US$300. He counted out the equivalent in Czech currency, rolled the bank notes into a wad and exchanged it for our three folded notes. Chortling, Michelle and I made off to a cafe to toast our good fortune in tepid coffee. I lustfully drew out the money to admire it as soon as we sat down. It was then I found that I had paid to see an expert in sleight of hand. Somewhere between correctly counting the notes and handing them over, our business partner had made the switch into one correct bank note wrapped around a wad of play money.

After a dash around the monuments and great churches we beat a retreat worthy of Napoleon. We rubbed the dust off Herman and made off to Vienna, but not before a barney at the border where Czechoslovakian officials wanted to fine us for not having yet another stamp on yet another piece of paper. We settled in for a siege but their lack of English to counter Michelle’s passionate explanations won our freedom with no fine.

Ah Vienna, birthplace of the waltz, of elegant people, of superb old buildings, of palaces bigger than the whole Principality of Monaco. It rolled out before us, but not before our usual, unscheduled motor tour of the city. This time we had no map at all, only the intent to find a railway station where there was a rumoured accommodation booking office. Murphy’s Law of Lost Tourists sent us to the wrong station and then saw to it that the right station was fortified against entry by road works and ‘verboten’ signs.

In such circumstances, expensive hotels wait like fox traps, their luxury rooms and suites prepared for the arrival of the desperate. We came, we saw, we paid. But from this one night plateau of ease we were able to arrange to move to the place we had always dreamed of: a pensione in the middle of the city.

A pensione, as its name suggests, is for the poor. In this case, the poor are defined as those on an extensive trip not being paid for by somebody else. The desperately poor stay in youth hostels and the utterly destitute range down from there. Right in the middle of Vienna, our ‘Pension Pertschy ‘ comprised 42 rooms built in 1725 and tampered with since by the addition of small bathrooms within the cavernous bedrooms. Lying in the ancient,low bed, the elaborate crystal chandelier above seemed so far away that I felt like a nobleman’s baby waiting for nanny to come with a dipper of warm water.

May 28 1992 from Lake Maggiore on the Swiss/Italian border

chateau de Chaumontel France

Chateau do Chaumontel, sitting turreted and magnificent in its own moat.

From our pensione in Vienna we dived into Austrian culture. I have a passion for churches and, if possible, organ recitals therein. Vienna fed this passion, beginning with the huge St Stephens Church in the middle of the city. We took a lift to the top of one of the dizzy spires to test our resistance to vertigo.

Back on the ground we did the rounds of famous composers’ houses. Vienna is peppered with places in which Beethoven lived. Ludwig, it seems, was always failing to pay his rent and having to move house – either because symphonies were hard to sell at the time or because he was unable to hear the demands of his landlord until it was too late. We inspected the most popular place where he lasted a couple of years before being evicted. Like most display houses of the mobile famous, this one of Beethoven’s had to share his chattels with all his other houses. We were thus able to contemplate his sugar pot, a lock from one of his doors, and another whole door, which he was said to open and close many times a day. The rest of the rooms were filled with pictures, some of Ludwig but mostly of other people of the time along with a few photocopies of music manuscripts. A tottery piano looked promising but the surly German watchdog was unable to tell us whether it had anything to do with Beethoven or not. That evening, as fortune would have it, Sky television news announced that Beethoven’s own piano had just been returned to England, from whence it had originally come. It had been restored and was now worth five million pounds sterling.

Mozart’s house suffered the same problem. Wolfgang had certainly lived there, enabling pilgrims like us to share his authentic floorboards, but the good memorabilia was elsewhere. There was not even a pretend piano or a dusty old fiddle to fantasise over.

Our visit to Schonbrunn Palace was an exercise in the opposite direction. On the outskirts of Vienna, this home of the Habsburg family (who, as you undoubtedly remember, reigned over Austria for 700 years) takes up more than 500 acres with its rococo buildings and gardens. When the Habsburgs resigned from government in 1913 they did not give up their ownership of half of Austria and a good chunk of Hungary. Under international law they still own it and could, at any time, wander in and claim it. Families with marriageable children could do worse than scour Europe for available Habsburgs.

Of the 1400 rooms in the Shonbrunn Palace, only 40 are open to the nosey public – and a good thing too. Any more would bring on a cultural bilious attack. One of the rooms is the greatest surviving example of rococo style in the world. It is panelled in rosewood and decorated with gold filigree which surrounds dozens of priceless Persian miniatures. It used to be called the ‘millions room’ because of its value. Inflation has now changed the name to the ‘billions room’. When in full swing, the palace had more than 125 kitchens, 800 servants, no bathrooms and only one toilet – presumably for the use of the senior Habsburg. The rest must have been well fed but rather smelly.

We spent one evening with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which played some memorable Brahms and de Falla. We spent another evening at the famous opera house where we put our necks out of joint trying to see La Traviata at the bottom of a giant well – such was the position of our seats. The performance, however, was superb and worthy of a tear on many occasions as these passionate but disciplined musicians filled the elaborate old tank with miraculous sound.

Less lofty music was available on the street. There was a good jazz band busking in the main platz, along with a zonked out folk singer who kept forgetting his words and a solo alto saxophone player dwarfed by his flashing gold instrument. But the strangest act was girl who slapped a tambourine and blew on one of those humming plastic whistles whilst whirling a hoola-hoop around her waist to the tune of her father’s nose flute played from a bench beside her. The father was dressed like a gentleman, including a stylish hat, and seemed not to notice that he was playing the nose flute to his daughter’s gyrations, which were neither skilful nor artistic. The two of them were there night after night, honking and hooping, entertaining nobody, and never collecting a schilling.

The wealth and splendour of the Catholic Church in Europe is awesome. In Prague, for instance, supposedly raped by communism, the gold contained in the churches is still counted in tonnes. At the Loreto church, which is part of a cluster of God’s real estate overlooking Prague, there is a treasury holding more diamonds than De Beers storeroom. One monstrance (the symbol of the radiating love of God) had no less than 6,500 diamonds set into its solid gold rays. The treasury was heavily hung with strongroom doors and electronic alarms but no visible human guards. Every visitor must calculate the possibility of making off with just a few sparklers or a chunk of gold. If not them, then surely a team of professional robbers.

Whilst the Christian churches of Vienna are numerous, wealthy and highly accessible, there is but one synagogue. Before the Second World War there were 170,000 Jews living in Vienna, serviced by 94 synagogues. After being decimated by Hitler, there are now only 6000 and still under strong anti-Semitic pressure. Their surviving synagogue is patrolled by paramilitary guards brandishing automatic weapons. Visitors are not permitted to enter before undergoing a lengthy interrogation and examination of passports. We encountered a contrasting situation in Prague where the old synagogue (dating from the 13th century) is open to all. It is a small, simple building with little adornment yet is has an atmosphere more reverend than most grand cathedrals.

Spring in Europe has an entirely different feeling to spring in Australia. Instead of our slow transformation of cool mildness into warm mildness, Europe bursts into spring like the opening bars of a wild polka. Every tree and plant has spent winter screwed down tight, pumping itself full of sap. Every insect has been inside a cocoon or huddled beneath wood, waiting. Every bird has spent months planning. And then the barrier suddenly falls. The air fills with fragrance, flashes of wings, floating pollen, operas of birdsong and bombardments of blossoms. The celebration is on and not one living thing has a moment to waste.

I can understand the romance Europeans attach to spring. Strolling in the long twilight through luxuriant gardens with Strauss drifting on the still Vienna air is the stuff of dreams – yet it is real in the European spring.

We went to the Vienna woods for a different side of the same magic. The woods cradle Vienna on three sides and are really quite vast, with their seemingly endless walking paths under the intense green canopy. The woods do not pretend to be a forest, particularly in the Australian sense of hooking undergrowth, prickly grass and towering trunks. The trees of the Vienna Woods are relatively modest, growing close together through layered carpets of leaves.

On the way to the Woods we became lost and blundered into Lichtenstein Castle, a 12th century stone structure in the best storybook tradition, standing defiantly behind its crumbling walls and looking out over a random pattern of wooded hills from its towers and battlements.

As Hermann rumbled contentedly home from the Woods we came upon a roadside attraction offering a tour of ‘Seegrotte, Europe’s Largest Subterranean Lake’. Curiosity overcame us and stopped for a look. We passed across our schillings and followed a guide into an old gypsum mine with an interesting history. It was steadily mining gypsum for fertiliser from around 1860 until routine blasting in 1912, hit a water sack which flooded the mine and drowned the miners, forcing its closure. Then, during the second world war, the Germans pumped out the water and used the mine as a secret factory to manufacture fuselages for their first jet fighter. The work was done by prisoners of war, working like mole people in the damp caverns of the mine. About 150 fuselages were built but the planes were not completed before the war finished. Pictures of the prototype fighter showed a stubby winged aircraft with a huge jet engine sitting on top of the fuselage just behind the pilot’s Perspex screen.

In 1949, the mine was reopened with about a meter of water left in it to form the so-called ‘subterranean lake’. Visitors are taken through the dim, spooky caves in a boat and told that, every day, there must be 20,000 litres of water pumped from the mine to prevent it filling up again. We offered a short, private prayer for the pump and the man working it.

It was time to head for Salzburg, three hours away by Hermann. His diesel engine performs very well down hill or even on the flat where we can cruise along happily at 160 km’s, only allowing exotic BMW’s, Mercedes and Audi’s to pass. But on any upward incline Hermann becomes an overweight old man and prey to insubordinate Japanese runts and middle aged Renaults.

Our destination was Furstenbrunn, a tiny hamlet crouching before a 7000-meter mountain about 10 kilometres from the centre of Salzburg. Here was a pensione of only 10 rooms, set in gentle, blossoming gardens within hearing of a wild, snow fed mountain river which slowed to later divide Salzburg down the middle. The pensione room was free of television, radio and telephone, and I found I was able to get some good writing work done. The Alps retained a top of snow even in summer. They looked like giant, crooked cakes sprinkled carelessly with icing sugar.

Salzburg turned out to be a small version of Vienna trying to digest the same number of tourists but failing. In every doorway there seemed to be another bewildered couple pouring over a map and on every street herds of tourists bunched to hear the rasping voices of their guides.

After some more palaces and a castle overrun by yelping French school children, we trudged to Mozart’s birthplace expecting the usual lack of anything of substance to see. But no; and this explained why all those other Mozartian places were so bare. At two addresses in Salzburg we saw where he was born and later lived with his pushy fiddler father, Leopold. And yes, there was his piano (verboten to touch upon pain of a flogging) his childhood violin, his mother’s kitchen and a bed of the type in which Mr and Mrs Mozart begat Wolfgang. Under the bed was a steel jerry unceremoniously chained to the wall to discourage souvenir hunters. At the house where little Wolfy was born it was obviously thought essential to show his cradle. But instead, visitors were treated to a plaque on a wall announcing that immediately below was where the cradle had stood, and would be still standing, if it could only be found, which it couldn’t.

Although there are only two official residences of W.A.Mozart in Salzburg, the town is furiously milking his memory. There are Mozart streets, Mozart statues, Mozart chocolates, Mozart watches, Mozart liqueur (on the Baileys cream principal but with a heavy overload of chocolate and nougat) and even a Mozart after-shave. You can give money to buy a brick to help reconstruct Mozart’s house in its original form. No musician performing in Salzburg dare present a program without something by Mozart – if not everything. Every shop offers Mozart recordings and various pictures and busts of him that vary considerably, so that the clear picture we had upon arrival was totally confused by the time we left.

We swapped our fragrant Furstenbrunn mountain retreat for one concentrating on another of the six senses. Our destination was Lake Maggiore in Switzerland, entailing a journey through numerous road tunnels, some more than 15 km long. Mechanical trouble in one these would be a nightmare. Imagine conking out in the middle, with an eight-kilometre stroll before you reached daylight.

We arrived at Hotel Mirto al Lago late in the afternoon, found a free parking space nearby and lugged our cases in. We sat in the outdoor cafe, had a drink and ordered dinner. It was utterly tranquil, with the lake in tones of deep teal and pewter within a few metres of our table. The bell tower above us on the hill clanged six o’clock out across the water, colliding with its own faint echo from the mountain in the distance. This is where we should stay for a few days I said with a settling sigh.

After a simple, tasty meal, and some contemplation of the water, the scene started to fray at the edges. We wondered why the waiter was staggering as he came towards us. He was carrying our bill. Through sleight of menu, we had to pay just more than $100 for a dinner of minestrone soup and grilled fish. We put up a feeble struggle but he had us, backed up by the hands-on-hips manager who was obviously used to shocked new patrons.

After a walk, which thankfully cost us nothing further, we retired to bed, but not to sleep. The romantic gonging of the hour was now much louder on the uncompetitive night air. In between, or sometimes in opposition, the church of Saint Loud stuck up haphazard outbursts from a set of higher pitched, more piercing bells. As if this were not enough, we found our open window overlooked a public stairway, which filled and emptied with chattering, happy people from the ferries. When they finally all went home for the night, a baby in a room opposite took up the cause with snorts and bellows which filled in between the bells. I read until 3.30 am and Michelle fell into a fitful sleep bedevilled by mad babies fighting each other with bells and restaurant bills.

The waitress next morning told us the noise was because of local ‘religious habits’ and went on to thank God she didn’t live here. As she finished, we noticed the dinning room was full of ancient pendulum clocks and at around 10 am, like a salute of cannon, they all went a-gonging accompanied, of course, by their great grandfather and Godfather on the hill. We decided to leave all this cacophony behind to those who would appreciate it and set out for France to look for a house to rent in August.

We spent another night in Switzerland, at an underwhelming place called Leistal and another in France at Dijon, home of the more gentle strains of mustard and an outstandingly terrible Chinese restaurant. Our cost of living, which had been frighteningly high in Switzerland, dropped in France. Both food and accommodation were much cheaper and so was Hermann’s diet of diesel fuel.

Then we clattered into Reims for a day and a night – more as a stop on the road than anything else but the visit turned out to be memorable. After the obligatory visit to the cathedral, one of the biggest gothic examples in Europe, we decided visit a few of the famous homes of Champagne. First on the list was Piper Heidsieck where a little car, the sort you might find in Disneyland, took us through limestone caves and provided a commentary on the making of Champagne. At the end of the tour, we bought a bottle of their ‘Savage’ blend (not available in Australia) and Michelle decided to become a collector of Champagne umbrellas. She bought the Piper model to start the collection. Fired up for more umbrellas, we rushed off to Tattinger where a tight-lipped receptionist told us we had to make an appointment to get into their precious limestone caves. In addition, they did not sell umbrellas. What, no umbrellas? Why else would we have come here? You must have lousy Champagne, Michelle said, as we rushed away to make the Mumm tour before closing time.

Mumm was much more rewarding, with a free tour of the underground limestone caves holding a modest 40 million bottles, a free glass of their cuvee brut at the end of the tour and a chance to buy another umbrella.

We intend to go back to buy more umbrellas and, as an incidental, drink another glass or two of the wonderful liquid. We gleaned the following information about Champagne:

The stuff does not improve in the bottle. Keep non-vintage no longer than five years from the day you buy it. Vintage and special blends can last for ten years from the date on the bottle. However, at Mumm, we saw bottles that had been kept for over 100 years – still in good condition because the sediment had not yet been removed.
The dryness or sweetness comes from the addition, at the last minute before corking, of special wines and sugar to flavour it, not from the original grapes.
The grapes are picked exactly 100 days after the vine flowers and the first fermentation takes about six weeks. Then it is tasted, blended and put into bottles with yeast and cane sugar added. Six months later it is uncorked to take out the sediment and then lies for a minimum of three years until it is released for sale. ‘Vintage’ is held for four years and exotic blends are held for five.
The whole city of Reims is riddled with hundreds of kilometres of limestone caves, hand dug, to hold the maturing Champagne. The companies have to be careful where they are digging, lest they break through into somebody else’s caves and start carrying off their Champagne by mistake.
There is six kilos of pressure behind the cork of a fresh bottle of Champagne.
We now think it outrageous that a little upstart country like Australia used to call its bubbly ‘Champagne’. Every other country in the world respected the district of Champagne and its ‘king of wines’ but not us.
Having come from two star austerity in Reims we could hardly believe our good fortune in Chantilly, a town best known for horse training and a famous, historical chateau. Our German friend had booked us in to the Chateau de Chaumontel, sitting turreted and magnificent in its own moat and set in a garden of giant elms and a confetti of spring flowers. The Chateau is known principally as a restaurant, one of the best in France, so the story goes. It also takes some guests in three star accommodation. We were allocated the ‘suite’, comprising a baronial bedroom with marble fireplace, enormous windows looking out to the gardens, polished floorboards (which were so old they had sagged to resemble a hammock and groaned loudly when walked upon) and an upright Bechstein piano which I foolishly thought might be in tune for me to play. Off the bedroom was a bathroom, also of huge proportions and abominably decorated in blue floral wallpaper (carried across the ceiling) which clashed with an art deco random pattern tiled floor and a red Persian rug. It featured the usual random-spraying hand held shower in the bath, an odd toilet with a small button in the wall that summoned a gush of hot water into the bowel, a bidet, a wash basin looking more like an operating table and many cubic metres of cupboards. Off the bathroom was our walk-in wardrobe, circular, because it was formed by one of the turrets. I felt like Napoleon on a rare visit home to Josephine as I strode about the suite.

Dinner was another matter. In the famous dining room all was lavish traditional French decoration with impeccable plates and cutlery. The room stole the diners’ voices. They sat in murmuring huddles, awed by the wine list and intimidated by the intricate subtleties of the gold and white menu. After a glass of Champagne, a bottle of red and a finishing glass of Sauterne to go with a superb meal, Michelle said I was becoming ‘audible’ and took me walking in the garden, still clearly lit by the twilight even though it was past ten o’clock.

We sat on a seat by the moat, a good place from which to contemplate the urban French, with their undoubted excellence in art, architecture and food being as rude as possible to everybody, especially foreigners. They invented the word ‘haute’, meaning high, and it conveys their attitude. At all times they try to out-haute each other. That involves the drawing in of the bodily extremities, pursing the lips in such a manner as to convey the presence of an offensive odour, puckering the chin and arching the eyebrows. When speaking, the words must come out like strobe lighting, with an intonation that suggests the conversation is so unsatisfactory it may end at any moment.

The French road system is interesting too. Parking metres can encroach upon pedestrian crossings, speed signs appear in contradictory clusters or not at all, everybody drives as though they are trying to escape a nuclear bomb and there are unexpected, haphazardly priced tolls on all motorways.

There seems to be a competition among French motorcycle builders to see who can market the smallest machine. A man can seem to be propelled along the road by an anti-gravity force until you discover two tiny wheels, the size of doughnuts, which belong to a motor cycle secreted in the folds of his long coat.

You may take it that we are not thus far impressed with the French. As this letter hopefully gets into the post before it becomes bigger than the Saturday New York Times, we are searching for a house to rent so that I can fulfil a promise I made to my son Ben to have a holiday in France where he can mislead me by having the advantage of being interpreter. My choice would now be to spend the time in a friendlier country. However, the plans are made and we have been ringing around to discover just how much landlords think a lousy suburban house is worth to rent in the month of August. I find myself wanting to say we don’t want to buy the property, just rent it.

We reluctantly leave the Chateau tomorrow to inspect a strange house on the west coast near La Rochelle in Chanrente Maritime (no, I wouldn’t know where the hell it was either without a map and even then it is hard to find). The house reads well in the brochure but the picture shows it standing tall, naked and gardenless in a narrow street, across the road from a canal. There must be a reason why it is still available at this late stage in holiday season lettings. Either it is too dear or too terrible. I suspect both but I have the feeling this is where we will spend August.

June 23 1992 from merry England

battersea Park

The geese in Battersea Park feeding Fraser

 

Right now, we are watching Wimbledon day four on television. Crash is playing MacInrude in a test of retro strength. Both are getting cranky with themselves, basically because the year is not 1982 when John had enough hair to stuff a pillow and Pat was not yet enlightened as to the special qualities of black and white checked headbands.

While all is gung-ho at Wimbledon, the rest of London is buzzing with the news that Lloyds has posted a record loss of more than two billion pounds for the year and has ruined many of its previously wealthy backers. I don’t think this is the last revelation about institutions we thought to be eternally solid. I am now cautious about all banks and insurance companies.

As you know, we have decided to take the place in Marans (France) for August. From a casual observation it is a quaint, outrageously priced old dump in a strange little French village. The price won’t change but our view of the village hopefully will.

It took almost three full days on the road to get from Chantilly to Marans and back to Calais to catch the hovercraft to Dover. Along the way we stayed at establishments of ever decreasing stars in an attempt to save our resources for London. We even contemplated waiting for the 4 am ferry to grind across the Channel at half price but when we arrived at Calais our resolve collapsed and we grabbed the first available hovercraft.

This was our first ride on such a vehicle and I must say it impresses one from several points of view. It arrives in a cloud of its own spray, huffing up the beach like a huge, angry jellyfish and then sinking with a sigh and a whine to half its height to disgorge its bellyful of passengers and cars.

We drove Hermann aboard and left him in the company of a Rolls and a brace of BMW’s while we went upstairs to enjoy the ‘flight’ as they refer to it awfully Britishly from the bridge. After a re-puff and rise, the hovercraft slews around in a kind of awkward arc and miraculously transfers itself from concrete to sand to little waves and finally into the swell of the English Channel.

This one was called the ‘Princess Anne’. I could see the scene on launch day, with the Princess wishing it were a horse she was dousing with Champagne, and saying ‘may God bless this vessel and all who hover in her’.

The hovercraft never seems to travel in a straight line. You get the feeling that the captain has no idea where England is and keeps the passengers quiet by meandering about while he consults some ancient charts prepared by Sir Francis Drake. Its flicking rubber skirt manages to coat the windows with salt water and sand to enhance the illusion of being lost at sea. After about half an hour of uncertainly, during which the craft threatens to fall victim to its own indigestion (such is the noise it makes), you arrive miraculously on the beach at Dover for another session of settling and sighing.

Driving off was another fresh experience. We cleared immigration and customs all from the window of our car. Hermann was not pleased at being driven on the wrong side of the road and having to confront cars with misplaced steering wheels. He often wandered on to the right side, really the wrong side because it was not the left side – which he thought should be left for all the other cars . After an overnight at Canterbury, during which no tales were told, we drove into London through a halfhearted Sunday morning fog.

We took up temporary residence in Michelle’s parents place; they were off to prove that Prague was not as bad as we said, kindly leaving us to look after their two roomed, Oakley Street flat in fashionable Chelsea. From here I formed the following biased opinion of London.

London is in a state of permanent traffic jam. Oakley Street is not a main road but there is an eternal river of cars crawling by, or stationary, for 20 out of the 24 hours a day. Every now and again a mobile pop concert goes past. This is usually in the form of a small Japanese car whose chief horsepower is taken up in its stereo system. The driver wants everybody to know that he may be poor, slow and stuck in traffic, but let nobody call him quiet.

All people in London are desperate for money. This extends to the Queen who says of herself : ‘we shall not pay tax’. The cost of living is so outrageous that everybody is on the verge of the ancient and traditional poor house. They are on a treadmill of having to charge hugely to pay hugely as they rush about on the mission of survival, seeming to be always about to fail.

The Government is swept up in the panic for cash. As part of its monetary suction arrangements is the revenue collected from car drivers – or rather those not driving their cars. It is either pay for a meter or be fined. And thou shalt not feed the meter after its initial meal, The Queen hath declared so. Those illegally parked get the clamp.

The clamp is a very heavy yellow metal monstrosity, which is fixed to the wheel of an offending vehicle and secured with Her Gracious Majesty’s Padlock. When in place, it shall not be touched except by HM parking coppers who charge eighty pounds for a de-clamp after a suitable waiting time – probably in a queue. Wherever you have two English persons you have a queue. The clamps seem to arrive, self-propelled, at the offending vehicle. However, I have been told that the clamps are applied by various people, not only by the parking coppers but also by freelance clampers who roam the streets waiting for helpless motorists to leave their cars while they go in search of money for the meter. Then the commission clampers move in at five quid a victim, leaving the cars looking as though they have been caught by the leg in a dingo trap.

One day I may write a spine-chilling story entitled ‘the night of the clamps’. The plot concerns PC Chugg, head parking copper, who gets on the ale after work and forgets to lock the clamps in for the night. On the stroke of midnight they rampage the streets, at first clamping cars and then people. One runs into Buckingham Palace and clamps the Queen’s head to her pillow while she sleeps. Others clamp ships at Tilbury docks and some even get a few jumbo jets at Gatwick. The final scene is when PC Chugg confronts the chief clamp with a key to disarm it but is clamped to death himself.

If you avoid the prohibitive expenses of running a car, the black cabs get you, or the tube, which is nearly as dear. I’m sure if you dared to walk too far somebody would chase after you with an invoice. According to the pole tax, it is illegal to exist without paying.

London roads and lanes are a study in confusion – further warning that it is, in reality, an offence to own a car. One simple road can start with one name, change to another, then another, then back to the original name within the space of 100 imperial yards. There are mews, squares, gardens, parks, courts, commons, greens, ways, terraces and bridges (often not within sight of water). These terms are lavished upon London streets in such quantity that every little collection of bricks and every vague little alley carries one or more impressive name. Road maps of London are so full of these names they look as the streets have grown fur.

Speaking of which, Michelle’s father went to have his modest tufts of hair cut. He put the job out to tender and the first quote came in at forty-five pounds. That’s more than a hundred of our colonial dollars. He finally took a cheapie at nineteen pounds fifty and the girl was on the way to making him look like fiddler Nigel Kennedy when he fled the chair. Previously, Michelle’s mother had made the fatal mistake of not putting her hair tint out to tender and staggered away with a bill for ninety-five pounds. I haven’t had a haircut since I left Sydney and I certainly won’t have one in London. I look like an old silky haired terrier but I don’t care.

One night I decided I wanted to hear a Russian pianist in a suburb called Blackheath. I began with a long walk to Sloan Square station and found it had been closed with the usual bomb scare. That forced me into black cab land where the driver grabbed five pounds for an unspectacular examination of traffic over a very short distance in a very long time. At Charing Cross I had missed my intended train and had half an hour to roam around Trafalgar square. Here I had to tread carefully to avoid walking on pigeons, which peck you if you don’t feed them. I was reminded of the Mary Poppins song, “feed the birds, tuppence a bag’. In London of 1992 it should be re-worded: ‘feed the pigeons, two quid a bag – but you’ll eat it yourself when you consider the price of bread’.

But that is not as bad as the geese we attempted to feed on a golden afternoon at Battersea Park. One minute they were paddling serenely on the lake and the next, seeing us approach with bread, came ashore and were hurtling towards us like an army of honking red Indians. They reached up as high as our chests as they attempted to devour anything that could be ripped loose from our bodies. In taking our bread they also took our fingers and looked most displeased when they found them attached to our hands and difficult to chew off.

But I digress. The train from Charing Cross to Blackheath made the Sydney red rattlers look like limos and their ride was even worse. They don’t rock from side to side like a normal train but wallow in some sort of basin under the carriage. I arrived at Blackheath feeling seasick.

Blackheath turned out to be an idyllic outer London suburb. There were quaint pubs, five fiercely competing Indian restaurants, a big open common, a severely worn church and lots of odd people all busy with their causes. I walked up the hill from the station thinking that even if I couldn’t get into the concert, I could savour Blackheath for an hour before going back.

Blackheath Concert Halls are a collection of well used buildings which announce they house a formidable conservatorium and have the odd brush with fame when one of their flock makes it in the musical world. So much for the blurb, I thought, as I bought a six-pound ticket to hear this unknown (to me) pianist, Nikolai Demidenko. He couldn’t be much good if he was playing in this taupe coloured hall full of taupe coloured people of no fixed age.

The hall was encouragingly full however, and I settled to down to see what he would make of a demanding all Russian program finishing with the challenging ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ by Mussorgsky. He opened with some quiet Shostakovich and appeared to be travelling well within himself. Then he dived into Prokofiev and the fireworks began. At interval, when they sent in a tuner to revive the puffed-out Bosendorfer piano, I realised I was listening to a musician of extraordinary talent. His power, technique and tonal control were breathtaking. By the time he had finished ‘Pictures’ he had the cobwebby old audience standing and shouting for more. I had never been so excited by a performance. A very fat lady behind me was fanning herself with the programme and gasping that she had been exposed to genius.

A word about showers in London bathrooms. First you must be aware that the London water supply was never designed for showers. It was meant to fill lion footed baths at whatever rate the water happened to fall from the faucet. Showers crept on to the scene as something of an embarrassment because they were so untraditional. The Mark One London shower was a hand held, angry little creature on a short rubber hose. Mark Two put the same telephone shaped head on a longer hose so it could be hooked on to the wall to wobble about with the effect of a garden sprinkler. Both marks one and two were held back by the feeble pressure of London water because the pipes suffer from advanced cholesterol. Thus the best you could get was a wisp of spray that would hardly have done justice to a pessimistic tomcat. Then came Mark Three: the addition of Your Personal Pump. This growling white box usually crouches inside a bathroom cupboard and, with a warped sense of humour, gives admirable pressure but a random variety of temperatures. The flat we occupied in Chelsea was equipped with a fine example of Mark Three. Naked, we had to effect a double twiddle of its ever-so-futuristic wall dial to commence the growling and the water. The shower then became warm to lure us in. When we shut the door of the coffin sized cubicle the shower would switch to water hot enough to make a pot of tea. A yelp and a desperate twiddle produced iced water. There seemed no middle ground where one could stand and get on with soaping. The pump was not happy unless it had its victim hopping in and out of the cubicle and grabbing at the dial. Australia may be backward in many ways, but we defeated the poms at showers long ago.

The bath is still considered the correct way to bathe, we realised, when we went on a private tour of Wembley stadium. The English footballers’ dressing rooms, regarded as far more holy than Westminster Abbey, have four big baths plus a huge communal bath into which the boys all plunge and play silly games if they win. There are also showers, but from their pristine condition did not look as though they were very popular.

Wembley is an astonishing place. It holds 80,000 people in the stadium, 12,500 in the external Arena pavilion and has a few acres of exhibition halls as well. The current chairman and majority share holder, Sir Brian Wolfson, has upgraded care for the public to the point where there is now a fully equipped hospital and 700 security guards for a major event. Permanent staff for the enormous complex runs at around 350 people.

If you want to watch the FA Cup final in style you take a ticket high in the stand, which gives you a sumptuous meal, endless wine and a commanding, glass protected look at the game for five hundred and fifty quid – although nobody may drink in sight if the playing field while the game is on. The grandest level of all, however, is to take a year’s lease on 12 person room from which you may watch every event in the stadium (pop concerts and all) in the comfort of leather chairs. The room is yours whenever you want to hold a meeting, a silver service lunch or whatever else you can think of using if for. And cost? A mere sixty thousand pounds a year – and yes, there is a waiting list.

Within the vast caverns behind the stands is a central control room that is full of television monitors. They view all roads leading to the stadium, turn-styles, and all public areas. At the touch of a control button, a camera can zoom in on any seat in the stands and record what is going on – for later evidence if it is a police matter.

When a royal patron, such as the Queen, goes to a footy match at Wembley she must sit on a velvet chair exactly in line with the centre of the playing area so as not to show favouritism to either team. Furthermore, she must not wear a colour that also appears on any of the players’ clothing – for the same reason. We inspected the royal chair and the room in which the royals rest when not viewing the game. It was nicely panelled in wood with the royal bathroom through a door. Upon closer inspection we were disappointed to find that the Queen sits on an ordinary white porcelain toilet when she spends a penny at Wembley. I’ll bet she does better than a Mark Three shower at the palace, though.

 June 24 1992  from London & Yorkshire

cotswolds

Ye auld mill in the Cotswolds

 

Andre Agassi winning Wimbledon is what most television watchers will remember. But because we attended physically for two days (the opening and the third day) my more lasting memories are about the organisation of the event.

The most overworked word is ‘tickets’. It becomes almost lustful during the Wimbledon fortnight. Have you got tickets? Where did you get your tickets? Do you want to sell tickets, buy tickets, give the last hour of your ticket to somebody who has queued for five hours to see one hour’s play? Do you want to watch a ticket take its clothes off?

We became part of the event the minute we stepped off the train at Southfields station. The first person we met was a tout; there were perhaps thirty more who approached us on the pleasant mile and a half suburban walk to the courts. Halfway along the railway station we came upon the first stall selling ‘authentic’ Wimbledon clothing, with many more to come along the way. People sold T shirts from their driveways as we passed. Anything with a purple and green blob was presented as a Wimbledon original. Also, along the street, were crowds of bucket shaking collectors for charity and a girl who loudly flogged sandwiches, which diminished in price as the day wore on and her voice wore out.

The elite, the ticket holders, walked on the right hand side of the road while the ticketless formed a mile long queue on the left. They were sustained by the hope that, after five hours of shuffling, they would get a ground pass. But the hardship went un-noticed; they were British and the queue is a way of life.

The organisers of Wimbledon decide on how many tickets they will sell by measuring the width of the average person and dividing it into the total area of the stands, food and drink areas and public space. That is how many people appeared to be inside the fence when everybody had arrived.

Event trappings were all there too: shops to sell you anything you could possibly need on the day and long after, a row of portable telephone booths, a place to stand and get crushed while you try to see the Duke and Duchess of Kent arrive, fast food that was priced to be fast-encouraging and piles of hireable cushions to combat the intended hard seats.

The frenetic merchandising, the crushing, the touting, and the queuing were all depressing until the moment we walked up the concrete stairs and looked down on to centre court. Suddenly we were caught up in the magic that is Wimbledon. Nothing else mattered.

Although we were there early in the bloodless first week there was some good tennis. We saw Ivanisevic make dents in the court with his thunderous serve. We witnessed Seles overcome her shrieking for three games, but when the going got tough, found her voice again.

Speaking of rackets, there is a historical collection of them in the tennis museum – which is an absolute must if you go to Wimbledon. These rackets begin from the asymmetrical pieces of furniture they first played with to the wide-bodied thunder sticks of today. There were wonderful curiosities along the way. In the 1970’s a metal-framed racket was invented, strung with only a double row of main (vertical) steel strings. The racket imparted so much spin that an undercut would make the ball stop and bounce in the wrong direction or a topspin would send it bounding over the fence after it hit the ground. The racket was banned but I was thinking of pleading they be issued to players over 50 years of age who need help to overcome the ravages of time. Another Dunlop Maxply wooden racked of the 60’s had such a huge head that it warped like a dry leaf after a very short time. Other rackets were strung with silk, piano wire and a range of weird fibres.

Pat Cash had a public grizzle about the length of the Wimbledon grass. In an effort to make the game a little more like it used to be (slower) the groundsmen were instructed to cut the grass to a length of 8 mm instead of the usual 6mm. The balls, Pat moaned on, had less air in them than usual. This all worked against the likes of his serve/volley game and no doubt provided him with the 1992 excuse as to why he didn’t win Wimbledon.

Less physical entertainment was provided by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford Upon Avon. We motored down with Michelle’s parents to the gentle river town of the Bard to see a play; we didn’t care which, but hoped it would be one we knew. We could only book for ‘A Winter’s Tale’, a play none of us knew except by name. We settled down to three hours of what we thought would be hard listening but were overwhelmingly surprised. It was a superb production with all the hallmarks: a couple of batty kings, a cranky old shepherd, young love, humour, murder and magic. I felt quite emotional at the end as the cast bowed to thunderous applause. Here we were in the technologically tangled world of 1992 still able to be enchanted by the plays of a man who was born in 1564. The trappings were different, but he demonstrated that the human condition had not changed one bit.

Fraser Yorkshire moors

Fraser blows a magic rustic horn in Yorkshire and a small cow begins to grow out of his right arm.

In something of a contrast we took ourselves back to Wembley stadium for the Eric Clapton/Elton John concert. 72,000 fans bellowed their lungs out, waved their arms and danced to enough sound power to drive the QE2 . I lost my hearing quite early in the concert and thereafter sustained bruising to my rib cage when Elton’s drummer let fly with a solo of point blank bazooka quality. I sat there sourly disapproving of the whole idea of mass emotion being expelled by these deciphiles. But oddly, about halfway through a kinda rock and roll number, I found myself standing in my seat bopping with the worst of them. Under my breath I apologised to Rachmaninoff for the moral lapse.

Since Michelle and I had spent a solid three months in each others’ company, we decided to take four days single sabbatical – she to do girlie things in London and me to pig out on music in Budapest – a place which did not attract her, since she could see another Prague type debacle coming up. And she would have been right – if we had made our usual blundering car arrival into Budapest. But on this occasion I arrived by the grace of Hungarian Airlines. It really does exist, under the name Malev. This could be seen as short for Malevolent, but just the opposite was the case. The planes were relatively new, well flown and furthermore, a good thirty per cent cheaper than British.

Budapest is a big city cut in two by the Danube River, called the Duna locally – and anything but blue. Joe Strauss must have been drinking the local Tokay when he named his famous waltz.

I booked in at the Park Hotel – an exercise in post-communism grot. It had the advantage of being in the centre of town, across the road from the railway station and relatively cheap. It had the disadvantage of being hot and airless, continually smelling of fried eggs and being exposed to the loudest traffic noise I have ever tried to sleep through. But I was not here for the hotel, I reminded myself every time I lay down on the very single bed and regarded the worn, junky fittings. I was here for the music.

After misreading the local concert guide on the first night I somehow found myself in a church listening to a choir of American schoolgirls – hardly the soul of Hungarian music, although I couldn’t help noticing that some of the girls were developing nicely.

The second night I took myself to Aida – al fresco at the local sports stadium. The evening had some unsatisfactory moments. To begin, the taxi driver told me it was a long way to the ground and we haggled about the price. When I finally agreed to a hefty fare he drove me around the corner. There it was. The ground had been within five minutes walk and he held out his hand with menace for the money. I offered him half and then found there was no door handle on the inside of my door. I paid in full. He then opened the door from the outside and I was given my freedom.

The stadium was well filled with opera fans, many done up in formal attire. There before us, in full size wooden replica, was the Sphinx sitting on a huge bank of pretend stone steps and behind, a propped-up piece of pyramid, which was oddly transparent until the daylight faded and the front lighting took over.

From the Hungarian program I deduced this production was on a world tour – having done Sydney on the way around. It was indeed lavish. Regiments of people continually marched on and off the giant stage – usually without any obvious reference to the opera. There were soldiers, slaves, priests and groups in vague rustic robes. Sometimes they sang and sometimes they didn’t. A lone dancer often appeared on one of the Sphinx’s paws and gyrated while some aria was being belted out though the static-prone loudspeakers. Because there were two stacks of speakers, one at either end of the arena and lacking Elton Johns’ horsepower there was a queer echoing effect, almost as though a set of opposition singers was concealed behind the row of plywood statues.

Well into the first act a long line of horsemen plodded across the stage, looking like a lost riding school on a Sunday afternoon trek. That got an enthusiastic round of applause. I eagerly anticipated more livestock, having heard of elephants, lions, camels and giraffes from other productions. But all we got was the arrival of elephant tusks, held aloft by environmentally erring slaves.

The voices were good, although the tenor sounded as though his liver would pop out of his body as he clawed up to his high notes. The singers were accompanied by a full symphony orchestra conducted by a flamboyant, leaping maestro in a dazzling white tuxedo.

Now, you may wonder, why all this detail? It sets the scene for what happened after interval. The second act was in full swing. Flanked by a couple of crack regiments of soldiers holding burning braziers aloft, one of the lusty-lunged sopranos was winding up for her crowning decibels. A drop of water hit me on the nose. Then another large one spattered on my knee. Like Christo’s recent art event, umbrellas popped up simultaneously as a thunderstorm broke over the Budapest People’s Stadium.

Here was real entertainment, I realised, better than Verdi had ever imagined. The maestro ungallantly abandoned ship well ahead of his crew as he made a dash for the safety of a plywood cave. Behind him came a crazed mob of musicians, holding their instruments aloft, preferring them to be wet rather than damaged in the scuffle. The stage lights died as the troops on stage went AWOL, leaving the bewildered soprano singing into a dead microphone until she realised it was either run now or swim later.

The crowd took their cue from the cast, although not with the same frenzy. Judging by the number of umbrellas that had materialised, they knew something I didn’t about Budapest summer weather.

The storm passed in half an hour but so had that performance of Aida. The Sphinx was now a drowned pussycat and everybody sloshed for home or, in my case, the steamy Park Hotel to listen to the less than musical clamour of the all-night traffic.

On Tuesday night I set off for Margaret island – in the shape of a feather, sitting in the middle of the Danube – to hear ex-Beetle Paul McCartney’s ‘Liverpool Oratorio’. Whilst not of Aida proportions, there was plenty happening on stage. Besides a full symphony orchestra he had two choirs, four soloists and pretentious crosses sitting in beds of lighted candles. Paul conducted this powerful team of musicians with little jabs of his index fingers and furtive pokes of his baton.

The work was in eight parts, telling a pointless story about a fellow in Liverpool doing very boring things. The music well fitted the events: it was, at best, inconsequential. During part four (of eight) I had the odd feeling that this was somehow like Aida: the way the night insects suddenly became busier and the wind blew Paul’s smoky hair about. Then I realised it was raining again. Unlike the grand opera performers however, Paul’s people kept plugging away through the increasing deluge. But finally, as their music scores began to dissolve, they abandoned their work and scampered for shelter, followed by their dejected leader who, perhaps, wondered if he wasn’t being sent a heavenly message not to take on music that was out of his depth..

Two nights and two washouts; was there a link, I wondered? Then it hit. It was me! I had been chosen as the instrument of the water music curse. Once appointed, I had to join the forces of evil in order to save my soul. I eyed the Wednesday night programme for outdoor events to see where I should strike. Ah, there it was: selections from operetta in the Dominican garden of the Hilton Hotel up on the grand heights of Buda near the palace. This would be a good place for my next rainstorm. I took the underground rail and the number 16 bus without fear of becoming lost because I was on the Devil’s business. As I bought my concert ticket I thought how these elegant people could not possibly suspect who I was or what I was about.

The concert got underway with first class singers and some wonderful songs by Franz Lehar. I’ll let them get past interval, I thought, before I tip the celestial bucket. I had to admit I was enjoying the music. Interval came and went. Then I concentrated hard, calling up the insects, the wind and the pregnant black clouds. The wind answered first by blowing away the accompanist’s music and messing up the blond soprano’s careful coiffure. The singers now looked skywards with more than artistic gestures. Did I feel a couple of spots? The wind blew away the music a second time and the air grew suddenly cool. One of the male singers fell over when trying to hurry a pirouette between verses. Things were progressing well for me but I could see the end of the programme coming up. It was now a race against the clock.

They won.

The musicians waved themselves off stage just as the first billows of rain drifted through the light at the top of the ruined Dominican arch. Clucking like threatened hens, the audience charged for the exit in a now familiar routine.

As punishment for my failure, I received a good soaking on my way to the bus stop but I knew I had been released from my terrible service.

I flew back to London the next day, ready to tackle the wretched job of luggage reduction. We had decided to send home two suitcases of clothes and other things we originally thought we needed but would now do without. It seemed to me that it would be well within in the capacity of the two cases to swallow our discards. And it should have been – were it not for Michelle’s cousin’s birthday.

The cousin was a needless man. He neither drank nor smoked. He played no sports, listened to no music and read no books. He disliked clothes. He did not collect anything. All he ever wanted he had already. Because it was his birthday and we were to visit him in Birmingham as our first stop of the all England grand tour de force, we had to take him a present. We shopped. We fought. Finally a desperate Michelle dived into a strange shop and emerged with a very large, very heavy wooden cat which she said cousin would just have to accept and we could go home.

Arriving back at the flat, Michelle sat the cat on a chair and fell in love with it. Cousin could not have it after all, she said, as pussy was laid down in a Sydney-bound suitcase originally designated to hold my clothes. By overstuffing one case so that was as tight as a bull’s arse at fly time, and sitting on the other until it became as solid as a brick, we fitted everything in.

Now we are about to begin our trip through Northern England with a reasonable load for Hermann to haul. But I don’t believe the situation will prevail. Hermann’s unsolicited tow bar is still looking like a safe bet.

Early September 1992 from  Marans, France

House in MArans

Michelle, Ben and Hermann at the canal house in Marans, France

 

We left you on the outskirts of Reims, the land of promised Champagne umbrellas. Michelle had two in stock when we arrived and lusted after at least a dozen. This turned out to be more difficult than we thought. We soon learned that all the big champagne companies have a promotional umbrella but only a few sell them. Michelle made a note of addresses of the ‘won’t sell’ group and will write each letter stating that she is an avid collector of Champagne umbrellas and needs theirs’ to complete the collection -which may well be bequeathed to a museum at a later date and won’t they feel terrible if their umbrella is not in the line-up.

Our technique for collecting the Champagne umbrellas soon became a slick double act. “Do you have a shop? Is the shop open? No, we don’t want to visit your limestone caves to see how Champagne is made, thank you. We want to buy some Champagne already made. We would like to buy one bottle and, incidentally, do you sell umbrellas?’

Now this technique was getting us umbrellas but, as you can imagine, we were buying far more Champagne than we intended. My Master Card was becoming chaffed running through those hungry little readers. However, the lust was upon us as we nosed Hermann down threatening streets to search out the great Champagne houses. At one point, during a rare uncertainty on the part of Navigator Lewis, who had instructed me to turn ‘leftright’ we shared this uncertainty with a following motorcyclist who ran, with a resounding thud, into Hermann’s rear bumper. If this had been Australia, the traffic would have stopped, the police would have been called, names exchanged and a couple of hours wasted. But this was France. An observer would have witnessed a motorcycle run into the back of a car without either driver or rider apparently noticing. The rider and I didn’t even look at each other as we went our separate ways, having been involved in an event not mentioned in the traffic law of Australia: the mutual hit-and-run.

Epernay was smaller and better laid out than Reims, with a street devoted to towering rococo champagne chateaus, bearing such names as Moet & Chandon and Pol Roget emblazoned in gold letters on their tall black iron gates. Being purchasing professionals, we accounted for the street in one morning, and then headed for the grape-rich hills which, according to our map, concealed the greatest prize of all: Bollinger.

The drive was magical. It led us through hills green to the horizon with grape vines that would supply the world with the drink that signals uplifts in fortune, romance and topping good form according to Vogue Living. In a dizzy fantasy I stopped Hermann next to a vineyard and stole a precious grape to taste. It was twice as sour as a lemon and I spat it out. A little young, I told Michelle.

Bollinger was not easy to find and obviously not in the habit of receiving tourists – especially those from a country which blatantly attaches the word Champagne to its locally fermented grape juice. After a few wrong turns we found the chateau, tall and haute behind its gates and ancient stone wall. Dressed in travel soiled shorts and joggers, we tumbled confidently enough from the car, but faltered a little as we pushed open the heavy ironwork and crunched across the courtyard to le grande stone stairway leading up to, we hoped, le shop. At the top we found there was no shop, only an imposing hallway with a sharp-faced mademoiselle asking what we wanted. Our seven words of French were not sufficient to convey our purpose. She called for language re-enforcements in the form of the male manager. Michelle immediately fell in love. He was about six feet six, with a Greek God face and eyebrows that did a seductive dance as he leaned down to our level. He smiled benevolently. How could he ‘elp us, he enquired, in beautifully French accented English.

‘Um, er, we have come to buy Champagne,’ we said. ‘Do you have a shop?

‘No,’ the eyebrows did a sprint and return up the forehead. ‘We do not ‘ave a shop.’

‘Well then, will you sell us some Champagne?’

‘Boot of course,’ the smile nearly rendered Michelle unconscious. ‘Ow many boatelle?’

‘ One.’

‘You mean you want to buy one boatelle?’

‘Yes. And if you sell umbrellas. . .’

‘No, we do not ave umbrella but we ave arse bucket and, of course, Champagne.’ The smile returned, this time with mirth. ‘And you may buy one boatelle. Ere is the price list.’ He handed us a sheet.

I hastily pointed to their standard brut and augmented the giant order with an ice bucket. He graciously invited us to stand-by in an elegantly appointed waiting room while the wheels of industry ground below us to produce our boatelle and arse bucket. When they arrived, I dared not push our luck by offering my credit card. Instead, I enhanced the funds of the great house of Bollinger with a couple of crispy, thin French bank notes.

Having exhausted the Champagne houses of umbrellas, we set the sextant for our rented house in Marans, a seaside village near La Rochelle. Well, not exactly seaside but certainly only five kilometres from the sea. Well, not exactly sea that you can swim in because the water near Marans is dedicated to growing moules (muscles) and is unsuitable for human swimming. To swim you must go to La Rochelle, 40 kilometres away by continual traffic jam plus a short stretch of motorway used by motorists to release their traffic jam frustrations.

The house at Marans was commenced in the 17th century and progressively dis-improved by subsequent owners. It was shaped like an old ship wedged in the pavement beside the canal. It may have been part of a fairy tale in which an evil captain of a fleeing ship was punished by his ship being turned to stone and borer patterned wood just short of the canal, which would have led to his escape with the loot. When I woke in the night and looked from our window on ‘A’ deck in the stern, I could see the canal, but in my state of half sleep I imagined the spell had been lifted and the house had put to sea. This piece of fantasy led to me writing a short children’s novel called ‘The Stone Sea Captain’ inspired by the house and bashed out in about two weeks. Unfortunately it was written for six-year-old Fraser and did not relate to modern children’s lavatory humour tastes.

The front door was in the bow and led immediately into a large, eat-in kitchen. Behind that, as the hull widened, was a tile floored lounge room. A climb on creaking stairs led to ‘B’ deck containing a second sitting room, once again widening from the bow. Behind that was a bedroom and bathroom, complete with bidet. Up another flight of stairs was a blunt pointed second bedroom, a bathroom with another bidet and a large third bedroom with a doorway only five feet high to accommodate a structurally vital roof beam.

The general condition of the house could be described as poor to dreadful but its position as part of the busy canal life changed the description to quaint and unique. This was enhanced by literally tons of in-house bric-a-brac. The English owners were obsessive collectors of lion statues, British coats of arms, models and pictures of ships and antique tradesmen’s cutting implements. These items adorned every flat surface and were in harmony with the old, random pieces of furniture.

With the ground floor shutters and windows thrown open, one had the experience of living in the street. People passing apparently shared this feeling because they often walked into the kitchen thinking we sold wine or ran some kind of eating establishment.

The canal was teeming with fish and had a large, lazy duck population. Everybody fed the ducks, fearing nobody else would, so that they often could not be bothered to paddle over to a piece bread thrown on the olive green water. But if the bread thrower picked upon a time when the ducks were hungry, there was a wonderful display of thrashing and dashing as they competed noisily for the bread.

One particularly hot day in Marans forced us to the beach for a swim. We had my 16-year-old son Ben and his friend with us. They were two devotees of white beaches, clear salt water and topless females. When we arrived at Chantillion la Plage, near La Rochelle, only the topless females fulfilled expectations. The beach was coarse and yellow with the water more than a kilometre walk out across sand sludge. As the tide came in during the afternoon, so the people increased by mathematical proportion. By five o’clock there was standing room only on the beach and a thrashathon of French bathers in the water, which looked like a huge caramel milk shake.

The sailing hire establishment on the beach came to life as the tide rolled in and Ben decided to give them some business by booking a wind surfer for a hour. There was a steady on-shore breeze and, being a beginner, Ben found himself continually drifting into clumps of angry French swimmers all telling him to take his dangerous craft elsewhere. Every time he tried to heed their advice by pulling the sail out of the water he only succeeded in ramming more of them with the board or hitting them on the head with the mast as the wind got the better of his efforts. Ben abandoned his blossoming French vocabulary and told about 10,000 of them, in deafening English, his opinion of France and windsurfing. He then passed me the board to continue the mayhem while he swam for the shore. When I had run over enough people to make it obvious this new, adult maniac wanted some clear water, they made way and I sailed to freedom into a less frothy part of the caramel milk shake.

Which brings me to the national male French past time of urinating. From early childhood, male children are taught, with demonstrations from their elders, that it is not only a Frenchman’s right, but his duty, to piss in public places not designated for the purpose. During my visits to various beaches I observed many small boys solemnly urinating on the sand before going into the water. A young man urinated on the wall next to our house one evening while in sight of the public toilet. Michelle observed another hosing down the bushes opposite the supermarket and remarked that such an impressive flow must have come from an equally impressive instrument. On another occasion I saw an old man in a beret and smoking a cigarette get off his bicycle and, with his long baguette of bread under one arm, urinate into a corn field.

French women, on the other hand, do not appear to urinate at all.

Although I had been to Paris before, Ben had not and it was decided that he and I should train it up for a couple of days. We stayed at a well positioned but soggy hotel known as the Bernard and from there spent two days of sight-seeing based on the assumption that we were competing in a sightseeing race.

During summer, the sensible Parisians flee Paris and the far less sensible tourists move in. They stand in long, stifling queues to conquer the Eifel Tower, engulf the Pompidou Centre and stage pushing competitions around the Mona Liza at the Louvre. All this we did in two days, plus plough around the city on a sightseeing bus and visit endless sports shoe shops because Ben had a passing fixation with high fashion joggers.

It was a new experience for me being led around a city by my son, whose eyes could focus on the metro map far better than mine. I was continually running after him as he dived down holes in the pavement to catch underground trains. I found that he had an instinctive feel for getting about a strange city that he certainly did not inherit from me. Contrary to my expectations, he was also highly security conscious. It troubled him deeply that I carried a small wallet in my pocket. He kept telling me to thrust my hand into my pocket and clutch the wallet because from any apparently vacant piece of air a pickpocket could suddenly materialise and swoop away my precious credit card. For his part, he carried his wealth in a stout fabric flap which dwelt somewhere beneath his belt on the inside of his clothing. This was a secure arrangement but carried with it a disadvantage: whenever he needed money he virtually had to take his trousers off.

We learned some remarkable facts. For instance, the Eifel Tower was originally only a temporary structure with an intended two-year life span. Consequently I will never go up in it again.

There is only one vineyard left in inner Paris. It is near Sacre-Coeur and is about the size of a house allotment. Yet this little vineyard produces 20,000 ‘boatelle of ‘ighly prized wine’ each year. Ow? By buying in other wine in to ‘blend’ with the minuscule output of the vineyard. The resulting vintage is still undrinkable but Parisians buy it to display the unopened bottle on their mantle pieces. It sells out at about A$250 a boatelle.

If you have seen Phantom of the Opera you will remember that the Phantom and his beautiful female captive take a boat trip on a lake beneath the opera house. We found out that the lake actually exists under the Paris Opera House. It was formed as a back-up for the fire department’s notorious lack of water pressure coupled with the difficulty of getting through Paris traffic..

We returned to Marans. Ben felt less than fulfilled with the trip and I felt I needed bed rest for a week. We settled back into canal life with Champagne every night, courtesy of umbrella purchasing, rather ordinary local wine and an occasional drop of honeyed Cognac bought while on a day trip to the region. We played illegal games of tennis by penetrating the security of the tennis club gate, took a boat trip up the canal to find much more of the same and went to a distant ocean beach which offered dangerous rips, crashing clean waves and some unexpectedly fully naked people.

Then it was time to say goodbye to the house by the canal. We had started out loathing it but we finished up loving it. There was a lump in our throats as we pointed Hermann in the direction of Portugal and looked back at the tall, crooked walls and the strange ship-shape lit by the amber canal streetlights at four in the morning. The house had personality and Marans had taught us that there are friendly, good humoured French people after all.

We dropped Ben at the Bordeaux airport for his early morning flight home to Canada and headed out of France into Spain on our way to Portugal. This was the thick end of our trip, the time when we would settle in the one place in Portugal to soak up the culture of a once great European country.

By driving for 13 hours the first day and 12 the second, we managed to reach Portimao in two days. On the way we learned that French and German drivers are sane and courteous compared to Spanish and Portuguese. On motorways, where everybody goes more or less as fast as their cars will take them, you could be anywhere in Europe. But on lesser roads you learn what rally cross is all about. There is a deadly part in the middle of these roads called the overtaking lane. Whoever gets into it first uses it but when two cars travelling in opposite directions decide simultaneously they will use it, there is a terrifying confrontation at a closing speed of 200 km or more.

Overtaking in general is an affirmation of self-importance among the Portuguese. It is carried out on blind curves, on the crests of hills and anytime when there is a truck in front. After yelling ‘maniac’ at about a hundred Portuguese drivers making this move, I suddenly realised that I had the onus wrong. It is up to the oncoming, innocent car to get out of the way of the crazy overtaker. Once I accepted that, I stopped yelling – although I have not yet been game to join in the overtaking game, Portuguese style.

Next letter we’ll take a big breath and tell you about Portimao, one of those romantic looking names in the Algarve, Portugal’s the answer to the French Riviera, or Queensland’s Surfers Paradise.

 

September 11 1992 Vale do lobo, Portugal

FRASER 1991

We went to the beach to escape the depressing house

By the time you receive this letter we will have moved to our second address in Portugal, having not fallen in love with the first one. We intend to spend October and November at the new address (above) and then visit Rome, Florence and Paris during December. We want to fly home via Bangkok and be in Sydney first week in January. There are a few variables, however. It looks as though selling Hermann in Portugal would be almost impossible because of import duties. This could mean driving to France or Germany early in December.

Now, to get on with the current position.

If you look at the map of Portugal, it appears as thought somebody has etched a rectangle, standing on its end, out of Spain If you draw a line across the bottom of the rectangle about an eighth the way up, you would enclose the Algarve, where we are.

The Algarve has been the fastest growing beach resort in Europe and probably still is since the recession has slowed everything down. Big developers have come in and bought tracts of baked, scrubby land, some with magnificent Atlantic Ocean beach fronts. With bulldozer and water they have created little oases dotted with luxurious, marble floored holiday villas and units around golf courses, fitness centres, artificial lakes and regenerated parkland. Such resorts as Quinta do Lago were been born like this and are able to charge huge prices for peak holiday season letting. There are many such resorts, rising like white and green crusts on a burnt, thirsty landscape bordered by the sea.

But although Portimao, where we had our first month already booked and paid for, was part of the Algarve, it bore no resemblance to the above. Oh the folly of leasing unseen premises from the sister of the lady who cleans one’s lover’s mother’s house!

We drove into the brassy dust of the westerly sun as we picked our way through Portimao looking for the house. The terrain looked like the magnified surface of a crispy skin chicken. When we found the address we had to agree it was everything the owner said it was, plus a bit more the owner had failed to mention.

The house was a white concrete cube with white plastic shutters and the obligatory terra-cotta Spanish tile roof – which all went to make it look like a blind albino with ginger hair. Inside, it displayed no more character: all walls white, all floors parquetry, all furniture in dark carved wood straight from Le Pines Funeral Home. There were two barely adequate bedrooms, a small television room to view rare English gems like ‘The Saint’, two bathrooms that emitted a variety of smells – none of the them pleasant – a 60s pensioner kitchen and a small Le Pines chapel known as the dining room. The lounge room, of more generous proportions, had been locked against our use by the cautious owners who feared we might make off with some of their grandeur to Australia and become home decorating gurus. Their further caution manifested itself with the ‘low’ setting on the gas heater, which resulted in a tepid shower after a warming up period of some fifteen minutes. After a week of miserable ablutions I secretly tweaked it up and promptly emptied the gas bottle – which was getting to look like an antique anyway.

The ribbon of land around the house was all paved or tiled. Out through the kitchen’s Greek milk bar beaded curtain was the tiled patio, hot enough to bake a potato after sun-up. Underneath was a garage, also locked against our possible felony.

Lot 8, which we discovered had been changed by the local council to Lot 10 in order to prevent our mail getting to us, was on a quiet corner – quiet because opposite was a vast empty wilderness of scrub and discarded citizens’ rubbish. On this scrub land, and other plots like it around the city, were shanty towns where various races of black people lived. They were either Moorish or African and they put up houses made of other people’s discards. They had no electricity, running water or sewers. They ran feral chickens, ducks, dogs and children. And, of course, they had no jobs. Their principal source of income, we were told by the breathless, wide-eyed cleaning lady, was to rob houses just like the one we were living in. In our case, they wouldn’t have to walk very far with the loot. She said that our modest stereo and my little computer would be highly prized. They would know we had valuable possessions because we drove a Mercedes. But the Mercedes is well over 10 years old, we protested. How would they know that, she replied? A Mercedes is a Mercedes.

Even though we secured every possible lock on the doors and windows when we left the house, paranoia soon set in. We didn’t feel taking four suitcases, the stereo, the computer and my electric shaver with us to the beach every day. It would have detracted somehow from the carefree feeling one has come to expect at a beach. The answer was to hide the computer under a mattress of a single bed and let them have the rest. At least my brain children of the last six months stood a chance of survival.

The house faced east, enabling us to appreciate the rising sun when we didn’t want to. There were also two nearby but unseen roosters who competed each day for ownership of the dawn. Not happy with the result, they went on with their shrieking dispute throughout the day. In the distance was the promised ocean beach reachable by car but seldom parkable by anything larger than a small motorcycle of which there seemed to be a million in Portimao alone. We saw them carrying whole families: dad driving, mum at the back and the kids wedged in between. And there was a variant: a three wheeled motorbike with a little metal cabin at the front and a cartage tray behind. They were slow, offensively noisy, dangerous and unstable, but affordable.

As we inspected all this, Michelle’s usually happy face fell around her ankles. She immediately began a subversive plan to move to the green grass and marble dream she had of the Algarve – in Quinta Somewhere Else – as long as it was a resort protected from the reality of exploding development.

We fell into a minor time wrinkle. When we reached Portugal we didn’t realise that we should have adjusted our watches back one hour as we came across the border. This meant that the sun seemed to rise with great reluctance but then didn’t want to go down in the evening, that the supermarket lied to us when it said it closed at nine p.m. and that every time we arranged to meet anybody, they arrived an hour late. We lived in this state of alien anger for nearly a week until we discovered our mistake.

Portimao was typical of a once orderly seaside town overrun with development. White or yellow concrete blocks of units seemed to have been built haphazardly and strewn endlessly along the foreshore, looking like huge spent batteries plugged into the hot earth. They were in various stages of completion but all of them stood in sand and baked clay. The summer holiday makers who rented them could be seen wandering bewildered in the adjacent wastelands where grape vines had been planted but burned brown, their unpicked grapes shrivelled to sultanas.

After a week we found some saving graces. There was a bare but parkable beach ten minutes out of town and we made a daily pilgrimage to its refreshingly cold and clear Atlantic water. And not to far down the road was a large and remarkably well-equipped supermarket sitting as the jewel in a crown of some 100 shops where we could buy good basic food and eat well on Michelle’s ever blossoming skill at the stove.

Wine is a high point of Portuguese life. For less than A$4 we can buy a bottle of wonderful ‘vinho verde’ (green wine). This is a fresh white with a slight spritzig and is the only wine I have ever found to be guzzleable when one is thirsty. In Australia we can buy a version of it called Casal Garcia. The reds are equally impressive; their low and medium priced qualities leave the French for dead. Of course, the country is famous around the world for its port. You can pay up to A$1000 a bottle for a 1913 vintage, its label in the traditional form of a white painted stencil on a purposely ordinary brown bottle.

After downing some gallons of various countries’ beverages, I think Australia offers the best value in the world for lower to medium priced wine.

Fish is the national food attraction of Portugal. The main event is grilled or barbecued sardines, never a great favourite of mine at home but here I am now addicted. They are prepared by laying them in rock salt for up to half an hour, knocking some of the salt off, adding a drop of oil and throwing them straight on the grill or barbecue for about ten minutes. Every little beach taverna serves sardines. A plate of seven plus boiled potato and maybe a lettuce leaf costs about $7.

If I had to describe paradise in Portugal it would be to bathe in the cold Atlantic, dry off on the soft white sand and then have sardines and green wine for lunch at a little beach taverna overlooking the turquoise water. The country cannot offer better.

For the fist month here, we had every reason to be away from the underwhelming house. We fell into a daily routine of me writing from about seven in the morning and then us both going to the beach at about eleven and staying until four or so. Then it was home to the blind albino, shower and a visit to the super market. Afterwards, I wrote some more while Michelle tried a series of tricks to get the stove to obey her.

One day, as a variation, we took Hermann and went to Cape St Vincent, the most south-westerly point on the European continent. It used to be known as World’s End before mariners found there was a bit more and that if they kept going it all started again.

Cape St Vincent certainly was spectacular, jutting out into the deep blue/green ocean like a huge slab of crusty fruitcake. It was dangerous to walk near the edge because the wind can suddenly decide to send you for a sail into the sea many hundreds of feet below.

The road there and back was terrible and it followed that the driving was hair raising. I once again tried to fathom why the Portuguese, a normally sleepy lot, are so aggressive when it comes to overtaking. It must have something to do with the national ego. Each individual must believe that he or she deserves to get to their destination before everybody else. If the overtakers overtake other overtakers, where does it all end?

One answer was provided by a short article in the local paper. It told of one, M. Santos, driving to work early one morning recently and deciding to overtake three cars on a blind bend leading to a narrow bridge. A bus was coming the other way and the young, personable M. Santos was pulverised as his Honda charged into it on the bridge. Nobody could understand why he did it, the paper said. He was not late, or worried, or suicidal, or drunk. He was simply overtaking – Portuguese style.

Beside the habitual overtaker, another life threatening creature in Portugal is the domestic dog. Rabies is on the increase in Europe and nowhere is it doing better than in Portugal. I have never been unduly afraid of dogs but I am here. Every time I see a dog as I run along the beach I detour into the sea, swim out to where it cannot reach me and then describe a long arc until it is out of sight. Even when the small friendly old dog next door comes to urinate on Hermann’s tyres I vault the fence and hide in the house until it has sauntered away probably wondering why I do not pat it.

Portuguese people remind me of that story about the mule who keeps walking into the wall. Explaining why, the owner says ‘he ain’t blind, he just don’t give a damn.’ Because of language limitations we have not been able to talk to many locals yet, apart from shopkeepers. If they are any guide, nobody feels like doing anything much at all. Walking into a shop excites no facial change of expression or physical movement from the shopkeeper. At best there is a baleful stare and a grunt. If you have the gall to disturb the stock by buying something, the most important part of the transaction is whether you have the exact money or not. Giving change, even in the supermarket, is regarded as wretched.

I went to the shopping centre recently to buy a paper and some postcards from a newsagent. When the girl behind the cash register realised I needed change she clicked her tongue and threw up her hands in disgust. She would have abandoned the sale had not her supervisor mumblingly located some change in her own purse.

On another occasion I visited the only bookshop in Portimao looking for a novel by John Updike and another by my friend Ross Terrill who has just published his latest book on China. The woman running the shop was busy with a leisurely private conversation when I walked in and showed no interest in doing business. I had to interrupt her.

‘Do you have any English novels by John Updike?’ I asked.

‘Nor.’

‘Do you have a section devoted to books in English?’

‘Nor. All mix.’

‘Do you have any books on China?’

‘Nor.’

(Exasperated) ‘Do you sell books here?’

(Blank look from heavy lidded eyes) ‘Nor.’

Maybe when we explore more of the country or we risk dust poisoning by going into Lisbon, we may find a different attitude, but so far this is the reading.

That reminds me of some material I read recently on China which said it could, in theory, mount an offensive and sustain troop losses of 250 million men without being unduly concerned. In fact, the loss would be a welcome relief on its resources. And there are other ways its numbers could be used. Let us say China wanted Australia. All it would need to do is ship over the noble 250 million, unarmed, and tell them to surrender when they arrive. Jailing and sustaining them would conquer Australia without a shot being fired. Or better still; ship over 250 million women and children. Tell the children to beg and the women to take their clothes off.

China’s simple weight of numbers changes the entire concept of world sovereignty. There is no doubt in my mind that China will rule the world in the 21st century so be nice to the man who runs the local takeaway and don’t criticise the way Chinese drive.

By the time you receive this letter we will be set up at out new address. It is expected to provide superior accommodation, swimming pool, tennis, a beautiful beach, some English speaking people and a chance for me to get down to full time writing. My second novel will get its final re-write and I have some short stories to do. Also, I should have heard from Collins as to progress on Feel the Width.

Sept 7, 1992 from Portimao, Portugal

Marans

With every bottle of Champagne we bought the brand’s umbrella

We left you on the outskirts of Reims, the land of promised Champagne umbrellas. Michelle had two in stock when we arrived and lusted after at least a dozen. This turned out to be more difficult than we thought. We soon learned that all the big champagne companies have a promotional umbrella but only a few sell them. Michelle made a note of addresses of the ‘won’t sell’ group and will write each letter stating that she is an avid collector of Champagne umbrellas and needs theirs’ to complete the collection -which may well be bequeathed to a museum at a later date and won’t they feel terrible if their umbrella is not in the line-up.

Our technique for collecting the Champagne umbrellas soon became a slick double act. “Do you have a shop? Is the shop open? No, we don’t want to visit your limestone caves to see how Champagne is made, thank you. We want to buy some Champagne already made. We would like to buy one bottle and, incidentally, do you sell umbrellas?’

Now this technique was getting us umbrellas but, as you can imagine, we were buying far more Champagne than we intended. My Master Card was becoming chaffed running through those hungry little readers. However, the lust was upon us as we nosed Hermann down threatening streets to search out the great Champagne houses. At one point, during a rare uncertainty on the part of Navigator Lewis, who had instructed me to turn ‘leftright’ we shared this uncertainty with a following motorcyclist who ran, with a resounding thud, into Hermann’s rear bumper. If this had been Australia, the traffic would have stopped, the police would have been called, names exchanged and a couple of hours wasted. But this was France. An observer would have witnessed a motorcycle run into the back of a car without either driver or rider apparently noticing. The rider and I didn’t even look at each other as we went our separate ways, having been involved in an event not mentioned in the traffic law of Australia: the mutual hit-and-run.

Epernay was smaller and better laid out than Reims, with a street devoted to towering rococo champagne chateaus, bearing such names as Moet & Chandon and Pol Roget emblazoned in gold letters on their tall black iron gates. Being purchasing professionals, we accounted for the street in one morning, and then headed for the grape-rich hills which, according to our map, concealed the greatest prize of all: Bollinger.

The drive was magical. It led us through hills green to the horizon with grape vines that would supply the world with the drink that signals uplifts in fortune, romance and topping good form according to Vogue Living. In a dizzy fantasy I stopped Hermann next to a vineyard and stole a precious grape to taste. It was twice as sour as a lemon and I spat it out. A little young, I told Michelle.

Bollinger was not easy to find and obviously not in the habit of receiving tourists – especially those from a country which blatantly attaches the word Champagne to its locally fermented grape juice. After a few wrong turns we found the chateau, tall and haute behind its gates and ancient stone wall. Dressed in travel soiled shorts and joggers, we tumbled confidently enough from the car, but faltered a little as we pushed open the heavy ironwork and crunched across the courtyard to le grande stone stairway leading up to, we hoped, le shop. At the top we found there was no shop, only an imposing hallway with a sharp-faced mademoiselle asking what we wanted. Our seven words of French were not sufficient to convey our purpose. She called for language re-enforcements in the form of the male manager. Michelle immediately fell in love. He was about six feet six, with a Greek God face and eyebrows that did a seductive dance as he leaned down to our level. He smiled benevolently. How could he ‘elp us, he enquired, in beautifully French accented English.

‘Um, er, we have come to buy Champagne,’ we said. ‘Do you have a shop?

‘No,’ the eyebrows did a sprint and return up the forehead. ‘We do not ‘ave a shop.’

‘Well then, will you sell us some Champagne?’

‘Boot of course,’ the smile nearly rendered Michelle unconscious. ‘Ow many boatelle?’

‘ One.’

‘You mean you want to buy one boatelle?’

‘Yes. And if you sell umbrellas. . .’

‘No, we do not ave umbrella but we ave arse bucket and, of course, Champagne.’ The smile returned, this time with mirth. ‘And you may buy one boatelle. Ere is the price list.’ He handed us a sheet.

I hastily pointed to their standard brut and augmented the giant order with an ice bucket. He graciously invited us to stand-by in an elegantly appointed waiting room while the wheels of industry ground below us to produce our boatelle and arse bucket. When they arrived, I dared not push our luck by offering my credit card. Instead, I enhanced the funds of the great house of Bollinger with a couple of crispy, thin French bank notes.

Having exhausted the Champagne houses of umbrellas, we set the sextant for our rented house in Marans, a seaside village near La Rochelle. Well, not exactly seaside but certainly only five kilometres from the sea. Well, not exactly sea that you can swim in because the water near Marans is dedicated to growing moules (muscles) and is unsuitable for human swimming. To swim you must go to La Rochelle, 40 kilometres away by continual traffic jam plus a short stretch of motorway used by motorists to release their traffic jam frustrations.

The house at Marans was commenced in the 17th century and progressively dis-improved by subsequent owners. It was shaped like an old ship wedged in the pavement beside the canal. It may have been part of a fairy tale in which an evil captain of a fleeing ship was punished by his ship being turned to stone and borer patterned wood just short of the canal, which would have led to his escape with the loot. When I woke in the night and looked from our window on ‘A’ deck in the stern, I could see the canal, but in my state of half sleep I imagined the spell had been lifted and the house had put to sea. This piece of fantasy led to me writing a short children’s novel called ‘The Stone Sea Captain’ inspired by the house and bashed out in about two weeks. Unfortunately it was written for six-year-old Fraser and did not relate to modern children’s lavatory humour tastes.

The front door was in the bow and led immediately into a large, eat-in kitchen. Behind that, as the hull widened, was a tile floored lounge room. A climb on creaking stairs led to ‘B’ deck containing a second sitting room, once again widening from the bow. Behind that was a bedroom and bathroom, complete with bidet. Up another flight of stairs was a blunt pointed second bedroom, a bathroom with another bidet and a large third bedroom with a doorway only five feet high to accommodate a structurally vital roof beam.

The general condition of the house could be described as poor to dreadful but its position as part of the busy canal life changed the description to quaint and unique. This was enhanced by literally tons of in-house bric-a-brac. The English owners were obsessive collectors of lion statues, British coats of arms, models and pictures of ships and antique tradesmen’s cutting implements. These items adorned every flat surface and were in harmony with the old, random pieces of furniture.

With the ground floor shutters and windows thrown open, one had the experience of living in the street. People passing apparently shared this feeling because they often walked into the kitchen thinking we sold wine or ran some kind of eating establishment.

The canal was teeming with fish and had a large, lazy duck population. Everybody fed the ducks, fearing nobody else would, so that they often could not be bothered to paddle over to a piece bread thrown on the olive green water. But if the bread thrower picked upon a time when the ducks were hungry, there was a wonderful display of thrashing and dashing as they competed noisily for the bread.

One particularly hot day in Marans forced us to the beach for a swim. We had my 16-year-old son Ben and his friend with us. They were two devotees of white beaches, clear salt water and topless females. When we arrived at Chantillion la Plage, near La Rochelle, only the topless females fulfilled expectations. The beach was coarse and yellow with the water more than a kilometre walk out across sand sludge. As the tide came in during the afternoon, so the people increased by mathematical proportion. By five o’clock there was standing room only on the beach and a thrashathon of French bathers in the water, which looked like a huge caramel milk shake.

The sailing hire establishment on the beach came to life as the tide rolled in and Ben decided to give them some business by booking a wind surfer for a hour. There was a steady on-shore breeze and, being a beginner, Ben found himself continually drifting into clumps of angry French swimmers all telling him to take his dangerous craft elsewhere. Every time he tried to heed their advice by pulling the sail out of the water he only succeeded in ramming more of them with the board or hitting them on the head with the mast as the wind got the better of his efforts. Ben abandoned his blossoming French vocabulary and told about 10,000 of them, in deafening English, his opinion of France and windsurfing. He then passed me the board to continue the mayhem while he swam for the shore. When I had run over enough people to make it obvious this new, adult maniac wanted some clear water, they made way and I sailed to freedom into a less frothy part of the caramel milk shake.

Which brings me to the national male French past time of urinating. From early childhood, male children are taught, with demonstrations from their elders, that it is not only a Frenchman’s right, but his duty, to piss in public places not designated for the purpose. During my visits to various beaches I observed many small boys solemnly urinating on the sand before going into the water. A young man urinated on the wall next to our house one evening while in sight of the public toilet. Michelle observed another hosing down the bushes opposite the supermarket and remarked that such an impressive flow must have come from an equally impressive instrument. On another occasion I saw an old man in a beret and smoking a cigarette get off his bicycle and, with his long baguette of bread under one arm, urinate into a corn field.

French women, on the other hand, do not appear to urinate at all.

Although I had been to Paris before, Ben had not and it was decided that he and I should train it up for a couple of days. We stayed at a well positioned but soggy hotel known as the Bernard and from there spent two days of sight-seeing based on the assumption that we were competing in a sightseeing race.

During summer, the sensible Parisians flee Paris and the far less sensible tourists move in. They stand in long, stifling queues to conquer the Eifel Tower, engulf the Pompidou Centre and stage pushing competitions around the Mona Liza at the Louvre. All this we did in two days, plus plough around the city on a sightseeing bus and visit endless sports shoe shops because Ben had a passing fixation with high fashion joggers.

It was a new experience for me being led around a city by my son, whose eyes could focus on the metro map far better than mine. I was continually running after him as he dived down holes in the pavement to catch underground trains. I found that he had an instinctive feel for getting about a strange city that he certainly did not inherit from me. Contrary to my expectations, he was also highly security conscious. It troubled him deeply that I carried a small wallet in my pocket. He kept telling me to thrust my hand into my pocket and clutch the wallet because from any apparently vacant piece of air a pickpocket could suddenly materialise and swoop away my precious credit card. For his part, he carried his wealth in a stout fabric flap which dwelt somewhere beneath his belt on the inside of his clothing. This was a secure arrangement but carried with it a disadvantage: whenever he needed money he virtually had to take his trousers off.

We learned some remarkable facts. For instance, the Eifel Tower was originally only a temporary structure with an intended two-year life span. Consequently I will never go up in it again.

There is only one vineyard left in inner Paris. It is near Sacre-Coeur and is about the size of a house allotment. Yet this little vineyard produces 20,000 ‘boatelle of ‘ighly prized wine’ each year. Ow? By buying in other wine in to ‘blend’ with the minuscule output of the vineyard. The resulting vintage is still undrinkable but Parisians buy it to display the unopened bottle on their mantle pieces. It sells out at about A$250 a boatelle.

If you have seen Phantom of the Opera you will remember that the Phantom and his beautiful female captive take a boat trip on a lake beneath the opera house. We found out that the lake actually exists under the Paris Opera House. It was formed as a back-up for the fire department’s notorious lack of water pressure coupled with the difficulty of getting through Paris traffic..

We returned to Marans. Ben felt less than fulfilled with the trip and I felt I needed bed rest for a week. We settled back into canal life with Champagne every night, courtesy of umbrella purchasing, rather ordinary local wine and an occasional drop of honeyed Cognac bought while on a day trip to the region. We played illegal games of tennis by penetrating the security of the tennis club gate, took a boat trip up the canal to find much more of the same and went to a distant ocean beach which offered dangerous rips, crashing clean waves and some unexpectedly fully naked people.

Then it was time to say goodbye to the house by the canal. We had started out loathing it but we finished up loving it. There was a lump in our throats as we pointed Hermann in the direction of Portugal and looked back at the tall, crooked walls and the strange ship-shape lit by the amber canal streetlights at four in the morning. The house had personality and Marans had taught us that there are friendly, good humoured French people after all.

We dropped Ben at the Bordeaux airport for his early morning flight home to Canada and headed out of France into Spain on our way to Portugal. This was the thick end of our trip, the time when we would settle in the one place in Portugal to soak up the culture of a once great European country.

By driving for 13 hours the first day and 12 the second, we managed to reach Portimao in two days. On the way we learned that French and German drivers are sane and courteous compared to Spanish and Portuguese. On motorways, where everybody goes more or less as fast as their cars will take them, you could be anywhere in Europe. But on lesser roads you learn what rally cross is all about. There is a deadly part in the middle of these roads called the overtaking lane. Whoever gets into it first uses it but when two cars travelling in opposite directions decide simultaneously they will use it, there is a terrifying confrontation at a closing speed of 200 km or more.

Overtaking in general is an affirmation of self-importance among the Portuguese. It is carried out on blind curves, on the crests of hills and anytime when there is a truck in front. After yelling ‘maniac’ at about a hundred Portuguese drivers making this move, I suddenly realised that I had the onus wrong. It is up to the oncoming, innocent car to get out of the way of the crazy overtaker. Once I accepted that, I stopped yelling – although I have not yet been game to join in the overtaking game, Portuguese style.

Next letter we’ll take a big breath and tell you about Portimao, one of those romantic looking names in the Algarve, Portugal’s the answer to the French Riviera, or Queensland’s Surfers Paradise.Champagne Umbrellas

September 11 1992 from Vale do lobo, Portugal

Michelle in POrtugal

At Vale do lobo Michelle became hooked on tennis

By the time you receive this letter we will have moved to our second address in Portugal, having not fallen in love with the first one. We intend to spend October and November at the new address (above) and then visit Rome, Florence and Paris during December. We want to fly home via Bangkok and be in Sydney first week in January. There are a few variables, however. It looks as though selling Hermann in Portugal would be almost impossible because of import duties. This could mean driving to France or Germany early in December.

Now, to get on with the current position.

If you look at the map of Portugal, it appears as thought somebody has etched a rectangle, standing on its end, out of Spain If you draw a line across the bottom of the rectangle about an eighth the way up, you would enclose the Algarve, where we are.

The Algarve has been the fastest growing beach resort in Europe and probably still is since the recession has slowed everything down. Big developers have come in and bought tracts of baked, scrubby land, some with magnificent Atlantic Ocean beach fronts. With bulldozer and water they have created little oases dotted with luxurious, marble floored holiday villas and units around golf courses, fitness centres, artificial lakes and regenerated parkland. Such resorts as Quinta do Lago were been born like this and are able to charge huge prices for peak holiday season letting. There are many such resorts, rising like white and green crusts on a burnt, thirsty landscape bordered by the sea.

But although Portimao, where we had our first month already booked and paid for, was part of the Algarve, it bore no resemblance to the above. Oh the folly of leasing unseen premises from the sister of the lady who cleans one’s lover’s mother’s house!

We drove into the brassy dust of the westerly sun as we picked our way through Portimao looking for the house. The terrain looked like the magnified surface of a crispy skin chicken. When we found the address we had to agree it was everything the owner said it was, plus a bit more the owner had failed to mention.

The house was a white concrete cube with white plastic shutters and the obligatory terra-cotta Spanish tile roof – which all went to make it look like a blind albino with ginger hair. Inside, it displayed no more character: all walls white, all floors parquetry, all furniture in dark carved wood straight from Le Pines Funeral Home. There were two barely adequate bedrooms, a small television room to view rare English gems like ‘The Saint’, two bathrooms that emitted a variety of smells – none of the them pleasant – a 60s pensioner kitchen and a small Le Pines chapel known as the dining room. The lounge room, of more generous proportions, had been locked against our use by the cautious owners who feared we might make off with some of their grandeur to Australia and become home decorating gurus. Their further caution manifested itself with the ‘low’ setting on the gas heater, which resulted in a tepid shower after a warming up period of some fifteen minutes. After a week of miserable ablutions I secretly tweaked it up and promptly emptied the gas bottle – which was getting to look like an antique anyway.

The ribbon of land around the house was all paved or tiled. Out through the kitchen’s Greek milk bar beaded curtain was the tiled patio, hot enough to bake a potato after sun-up. Underneath was a garage, also locked against our possible felony.

Lot 8, which we discovered had been changed by the local council to Lot 10 in order to prevent our mail getting to us, was on a quiet corner – quiet because opposite was a vast empty wilderness of scrub and discarded citizens’ rubbish. On this scrub land, and other plots like it around the city, were shanty towns where various races of black people lived. They were either Moorish or African and they put up houses made of other people’s discards. They had no electricity, running water or sewers. They ran feral chickens, ducks, dogs and children. And, of course, they had no jobs. Their principal source of income, we were told by the breathless, wide-eyed cleaning lady, was to rob houses just like the one we were living in. In our case, they wouldn’t have to walk very far with the loot. She said that our modest stereo and my little computer would be highly prized. They would know we had valuable possessions because we drove a Mercedes. But the Mercedes is well over 10 years old, we protested. How would they know that, she replied? A Mercedes is a Mercedes.

Even though we secured every possible lock on the doors and windows when we left the house, paranoia soon set in. We didn’t feel taking four suitcases, the stereo, the computer and my electric shaver with us to the beach every day. It would have detracted somehow from the carefree feeling one has come to expect at a beach. The answer was to hide the computer under a mattress of a single bed and let them have the rest. At least my brain children of the last six months stood a chance of survival.

The house faced east, enabling us to appreciate the rising sun when we didn’t want to. There were also two nearby but unseen roosters who competed each day for ownership of the dawn. Not happy with the result, they went on with their shrieking dispute throughout the day. In the distance was the promised ocean beach reachable by car but seldom parkable by anything larger than a small motorcycle of which there seemed to be a million in Portimao alone. We saw them carrying whole families: dad driving, mum at the back and the kids wedged in between. And there was a variant: a three wheeled motorbike with a little metal cabin at the front and a cartage tray behind. They were slow, offensively noisy, dangerous and unstable, but affordable.

As we inspected all this, Michelle’s usually happy face fell around her ankles. She immediately began a subversive plan to move to the green grass and marble dream she had of the Algarve – in Quinta Somewhere Else – as long as it was a resort protected from the reality of exploding development.

We fell into a minor time wrinkle. When we reached Portugal we didn’t realise that we should have adjusted our watches back one hour as we came across the border. This meant that the sun seemed to rise with great reluctance but then didn’t want to go down in the evening, that the supermarket lied to us when it said it closed at nine p.m. and that every time we arranged to meet anybody, they arrived an hour late. We lived in this state of alien anger for nearly a week until we discovered our mistake.

Portimao was typical of a once orderly seaside town overrun with development. White or yellow concrete blocks of units seemed to have been built haphazardly and strewn endlessly along the foreshore, looking like huge spent batteries plugged into the hot earth. They were in various stages of completion but all of them stood in sand and baked clay. The summer holiday makers who rented them could be seen wandering bewildered in the adjacent wastelands where grape vines had been planted but burned brown, their unpicked grapes shrivelled to sultanas.

After a week we found some saving graces. There was a bare but parkable beach ten minutes out of town and we made a daily pilgrimage to its refreshingly cold and clear Atlantic water. And not to far down the road was a large and remarkably well-equipped supermarket sitting as the jewel in a crown of some 100 shops where we could buy good basic food and eat well on Michelle’s ever blossoming skill at the stove.

Wine is a high point of Portuguese life. For less than A$4 we can buy a bottle of wonderful ‘vinho verde’ (green wine). This is a fresh white with a slight spritzig and is the only wine I have ever found to be guzzleable when one is thirsty. In Australia we can buy a version of it called Casal Garcia. The reds are equally impressive; their low and medium priced qualities leave the French for dead. Of course, the country is famous around the world for its port. You can pay up to A$1000 a bottle for a 1913 vintage, its label in the traditional form of a white painted stencil on a purposely ordinary brown bottle.

After downing some gallons of various countries’ beverages, I think Australia offers the best value in the world for lower to medium priced wine.

Fish is the national food attraction of Portugal. The main event is grilled or barbecued sardines, never a great favourite of mine at home but here I am now addicted. They are prepared by laying them in rock salt for up to half an hour, knocking some of the salt off, adding a drop of oil and throwing them straight on the grill or barbecue for about ten minutes. Every little beach taverna serves sardines. A plate of seven plus boiled potato and maybe a lettuce leaf costs about $7.

If I had to describe paradise in Portugal it would be to bathe in the cold Atlantic, dry off on the soft white sand and then have sardines and green wine for lunch at a little beach taverna overlooking the turquoise water. The country cannot offer better.

For the fist month here, we had every reason to be away from the underwhelming house. We fell into a daily routine of me writing from about seven in the morning and then us both going to the beach at about eleven and staying until four or so. Then it was home to the blind albino, shower and a visit to the super market. Afterwards, I wrote some more while Michelle tried a series of tricks to get the stove to obey her.

One day, as a variation, we took Hermann and went to Cape St Vincent, the most south-westerly point on the European continent. It used to be known as World’s End before mariners found there was a bit more and that if they kept going it all started again.

Cape St Vincent certainly was spectacular, jutting out into the deep blue/green ocean like a huge slab of crusty fruitcake. It was dangerous to walk near the edge because the wind can suddenly decide to send you for a sail into the sea many hundreds of feet below.

The road there and back was terrible and it followed that the driving was hair raising. I once again tried to fathom why the Portuguese, a normally sleepy lot, are so aggressive when it comes to overtaking. It must have something to do with the national ego. Each individual must believe that he or she deserves to get to their destination before everybody else. If the overtakers overtake other overtakers, where does it all end?

One answer was provided by a short article in the local paper. It told of one, M. Santos, driving to work early one morning recently and deciding to overtake three cars on a blind bend leading to a narrow bridge. A bus was coming the other way and the young, personable M. Santos was pulverised as his Honda charged into it on the bridge. Nobody could understand why he did it, the paper said. He was not late, or worried, or suicidal, or drunk. He was simply overtaking – Portuguese style.

Beside the habitual overtaker, another life threatening creature in Portugal is the domestic dog. Rabies is on the increase in Europe and nowhere is it doing better than in Portugal. I have never been unduly afraid of dogs but I am here. Every time I see a dog as I run along the beach I detour into the sea, swim out to where it cannot reach me and then describe a long arc until it is out of sight. Even when the small friendly old dog next door comes to urinate on Hermann’s tyres I vault the fence and hide in the house until it has sauntered away probably wondering why I do not pat it.

Portuguese people remind me of that story about the mule who keeps walking into the wall. Explaining why, the owner says ‘he ain’t blind, he just don’t give a damn.’ Because of language limitations we have not been able to talk to many locals yet, apart from shopkeepers. If they are any guide, nobody feels like doing anything much at all. Walking into a shop excites no facial change of expression or physical movement from the shopkeeper. At best there is a baleful stare and a grunt. If you have the gall to disturb the stock by buying something, the most important part of the transaction is whether you have the exact money or not. Giving change, even in the supermarket, is regarded as wretched.

I went to the shopping centre recently to buy a paper and some postcards from a newsagent. When the girl behind the cash register realised I needed change she clicked her tongue and threw up her hands in disgust. She would have abandoned the sale had not her supervisor mumblingly located some change in her own purse.

On another occasion I visited the only bookshop in Portimao looking for a novel by John Updike and another by my friend Ross Terrill who has just published his latest book on China. The woman running the shop was busy with a leisurely private conversation when I walked in and showed no interest in doing business. I had to interrupt her.

‘Do you have any English novels by John Updike?’ I asked.

‘Nor.’

‘Do you have a section devoted to books in English?’

‘Nor. All mix.’

‘Do you have any books on China?’

‘Nor.’

(Exasperated) ‘Do you sell books here?’

(Blank look from heavy lidded eyes) ‘Nor.’

Maybe when we explore more of the country or we risk dust poisoning by going into Lisbon, we may find a different attitude, but so far this is the reading.

That reminds me of some material I read recently on China which said it could, in theory, mount an offensive and sustain troop losses of 250 million men without being unduly concerned. In fact, the loss would be a welcome relief on its resources. And there are other ways its numbers could be used. Let us say China wanted Australia. All it would need to do is ship over the noble 250 million, unarmed, and tell them to surrender when they arrive. Jailing and sustaining them would conquer Australia without a shot being fired. Or better still; ship over 250 million women and children. Tell the children to beg and the women to take their clothes off.

China’s simple weight of numbers changes the entire concept of world sovereignty. There is no doubt in my mind that China will rule the world in the 21st century so be nice to the man who runs the local takeaway and don’t criticise the way Chinese drive.

By the time you receive this letter we will be set up at out new address. It is expected to provide superior accommodation, swimming pool, tennis, a beautiful beach, some English speaking people and a chance for me to get down to full time writing. My second novel will get its final re-write and I have some short stories to do. Also, I should have heard from Collins as to progress on Feel the Width.

October 28, 1992 from Portugal

Fatima

Sister Fatima’s flourishing candle business.

As we mentioned in our last letter, settlement in one place reduces our amount of travelogue material, hence the delay with this letter. But there are compensations. One can get below the surface of a place that, as a passing tourist, one would never see. This takes time, but returns a rich harvest of characters and an understanding of their way of life.

I should also mention that we had trouble with our portable printer. The supplied American power adaptor suddenly decided to deliver 20 volts instead of nine and, with a wisp of black smoke worthy of a Vatican papal election, the printer cooked. Getting it fixed in Portugal was a real challenge. First, it reinforced my pessimistic belief that I always buy the brand and the model that later, when it comes time for repairs, I am told never existed. And second, the Kodak Diconix printer does not officially exist in Portugal unless you unearth the cringing distributor who does his best to avoid owing up to anything.

Our arrival at Vale do Lobo was a total contrast to that of Portimao. Out of the baked scruffy landscape of southern Portugal we drove into a green, albeit artificial, oasis. For a quite low rent (by local luxury resort standards) we are now residing in a superb, two bedroom villa in a village threaded by a golf course, bordered by a clean Atlantic beach, serviced by a fitness and beauty club and overlooking 12 tennis courts. We could be anywhere in the world – which is the drawback of all well serviced resorts – except that by driving Hermann between the grand entrance columns we can return to the reality of Portugal any time we like.

The house is entirely paved in marble, with more on the bathroom and kitchen walls. That is not as luxurious as it may sound, since Portuguese marble is both plentiful and cheap, but by Australian standards we could be living in a house dreamed up by Christopher Skase in more affluent days. The house also provides television with three English satellite channels as well as the two local ones. It has a fully equipped kitchen, a small swimming pool, sun terrace, two bathrooms and three toilet bowls.

Like many of its contemporary resorts, Vale do Lobo residents are largely British, with some Dutch, Germans, and Scandinavians to make up the numbers. The Portuguese are the people who live somewhere over the fence.

The resort has its collection of odd characters; people who have come adrift from their homeland where they simply do not fit. One such is Tom the Viking. He has an unmanageable Norwegian name, which has been anglicised to Tom. I added the Viking because that is how he appears to me. All he lacks is a horned helmet. He is tall, fat free, strong, craggy faced with maddish, staring brown eyes, and has an obsessive personality. When the Viking is present he dominates the conversation in his undulating, heavy accent. Most of his victim listeners catch no more than every fourth word. The local expats have written the Viking off as crazy but are reluctant to sever connections because he is rich. He lives in one of the best mansions in the resort, overlooking the ocean and he is one of the leading tennis players despite being past 50. He has fought with his neighbours, the resort service administration, the tennis club manager and eventually everybody he initially over-befriends. Thus I was nervous when he lavished upon me games of tennis, tours of the nearby countryside and a lunch at his home for Michelle and I to meet his de facto, Edna. She was half Angolan and half French, with the Angolan easily winning the genetic stakes. During the Viking’s lunch-long monologue, Edna exhibited their two month old baby in a futile attempt to deflect some conversation in her direction. Even though this racially enriched baby threw up convincingly, the Viking never so much as glanced in its direction as he wove history, geography and economics into a rich tapestry of self-adulation.

But here he disarms his critics. His intelligence is overwhelming and his summary of the world position brilliant. He also has a quirky sense of humour, an example of which I will use to finish this picture of him.

Because of childhood experiences in war-torn Norway, which are too lengthy to relate here, the Viking passionately loves goats. The smell of goats is so impregnated into his memory that, on a drive in the nearby Algarvian countryside last year, the Viking stops his car and declares he can smell a goat. A search of a nearby hillside reveals he is right. In the middle of a herd of sheep there is one incongruous goat. The Viking’s heart goes out to it. Sheep are such stupid creatures, not worthy of a goat’s company. The goat therefore must be liberated.

The Viking and his grumbling wife search out the farm and lock themselves into lengthy negotiations with the farmer who eventually agrees to sell them the goat. The Viking pays over the money and, taking the bemused animal in his powerful arms, deposits it in the back seat of his BMW.

Where else to graze a goat but on the front lawn of the mansion at Vale do Lobo? The goat is grateful that it is appreciated and for a week silently chews the Viking’s grass, the only drawback being its amount of rear end production which seems to the Viking as being disproportionately high compared to the amount of grass it eats.

The second week brings a change in the goat’s personality. It suddenly finds voice and changes its diet. Pushing through the ornamental boundary hedge it fills up on the next-door neighbour’s flowers and wilfully shits in his swimming pool. Because the Viking dislikes the neighbour, he secretly applauds the goat’s performance, but realises he must chain it up. The goat is not pleased with the chain and responds by bellowing all day about its captivity.

Since the Viking understands goats he knows that a busy goat is a happy goat. He devises a special saddle so it can carry his golf clubs. He spends many hours training the goat and looks forward to becoming famous for having a goat as a caddy. When the training period is completed he takes the laden goat on to the golf course but it forgets its training and runs away into nearby scrub land with his precious clubs. The Viking has to get up a posse to recapture it.

Back on the chain, the goat is now being noticed by more than the flowerless neighbour. After six weeks as a cherished member of the family, the goat is ordered banished in an abusive letter from the Vale do Lobo management. The Viking privately admits to his few friends that this is not a bad decision and bundles the now kicking goat into the back of the BMW. He returns to the farm where the farmer, observing the approaching car, attempts to hide because he knows that a return visit from The Viking cannot be good. The Viking easily discovers the farmer and forces him into reverse negotiations. The farmer no longer has the money to re-purchase the goat and has to agree to swap it for substantial quantities of cheese, some home made wine, two live turkeys and six live chickens. They are brought home immediately and the turkeys and chickens given the freedom of the garden.

The next day there are still two turkeys but only four chickens. The day after there are no turkeys and no chickens but six skinny, optimistic cats. Interpreting this as some sort of reincarnation, the Viking proceeds to feed the six cats for a couple of weeks. Then a rather savage dog that scavenges along the beach discovers the cats while on a routine sniffabout. The Viking finds that he now has a dog but no cats. The dog stays for a few weeks of easy food but finds life at the Viking’s rather limiting and goes back to the beach.

The Viking now has his mansion on the market for A$2.1 million and is looking for a gentle hillside with enough acres to keep all the animals he believes the world owes him.

At Portimao we feared the black people in the shantytown opposite would rob us. Every time we left the house we bolted the windows, locked the shutters and hid the Macintosh computer under a mattress where it formed an unclever lump. Whether by luck or good management we were not robbed.

Arriving at Vale do Lobo we breathed a sigh of relief. Here was a resort protected by a security force and reputedly cut off from the less scrupulous among the Portuguese population. Whilst we locked the house when we left the house we made no special attempt to hide our possessions. On a rainy Sunday October 18 we went out to do a little shopping. We were away for about two hours and when we returned the beautiful marble villa had been ransacked. Thieves had forced a back window and had gone through everything we owned. They did not touch the Macintosh or the portable stereo but pinched Michelle’s watch, amethyst ring and leather jacket.

We rang security to report the theft and then began to look for our insurance contact for the loathsome job of making a claim. Security called us back to ask for a detailed description of the goods lost. They then called again to tell us that the thieves had been caught. They called us a third time to say the goods had been recovered and they would be around for us to identify them. Half an hour later a handsome Portuguese policeman and the heavily moustached security manager arrived to show us the goods but then said we could not have them back because they were now ‘evidence’. We would have to attend a police station in the next town the following morning to get them back.

The Portuguese police station at Loule was a place of high farce. The policemen wore Keystone Cops shoes and world war II style air force caps. They milled around inside the dismal building appearing either listless or fierce, depending upon who they are talking to. Their office equipment was old and tired. One policemen was typing on a small noisy portable with most of its body panels removed and its red and black ribbon badly in need of ink. By contrast, the officer opposite him was almost hidden by a huge black electric model, which shook his desk violently every time he struck a key. The station chief was distinguished by knee length leather boots with brackets to hold spurs indicating, perhaps, that he rode a police horse to work.

With a face permanently set in dark anger, and chewing gum that made his moustache dance about, he showed Michelle her possessions but would not hand them over until she had signed a statement saying she had received them – somewhat a problem in logic. Furthermore the statement was in Portuguese and Michelle was afraid that she might be signing a confession to being a Great Train Robber. After an English-speaking policeman reassured her that the wording was kosher she signed, but the chief still was not inclined to return her ring, watch and jacket. Instead, he presented her with the alleged thief for identification. The fact that we were not at home to witness the robbery did not seem to matter.

The strongly suspected one was a short, young Portuguese man with a surly expression. He wore jeans, t-shirt and joggers. The laces had been removed from his joggers to discourage self-execution. Michelle said she did not recognise him and we were told to wait in the lobby again. We were then joined by an English couple who had been robbed the same afternoon we had. They were at home though; husband and wife reading and son asleep on the couch. The robber climbed through a bedroom window and helped himself to the contents of the wife’s handbag. When she saw him and called out, he exited through the window. She got a good look at his face and the striped t-shirt but when the police asked her to identify him she uncooperatively shook her head. She later admitted privately to us that she ‘did not want to become involved’ and, in any case, had ‘felt a bit sorry for the lad’.

Michelle’s goods were finally and somewhat reluctantly returned to her and we drove away. Later we were told by security that a search of the sorry-worthy ‘lad’s’ house had revealed a cache of stolen goods plus a quantity of drugs. The lad’s wife was wearing some of the stolen jewellery.

The criminal punishment system in Portugal is apparently very much on the side of the criminal. We were told that our thief may not go to jail for lack of hard evidence and may well be back through our window before we got home. In the whole of Portugal there are no more than about 6000 people in jail because the only sure way to get there is to commit a crime in front of a policeman and then admit to it in court.

The police are a lot more fond of fining offenders of minor crimes such as driving a car for more than six months on foreign number plates or with expired registration. Expatriates from other European countries tell frightening tales of hefty fines and impounded cars. Hermann’s plates, we found out, were a prime target. They were export plates from Germany and displayed the expiry date in bold red and black raised metal numbers. We enquired about Portuguese registration and were told yes, that would be easy, as long as we paid about A$60,000. That sum was mostly made up of import duty calculated on the car’s engine capacity, a monstrous three litres.

As the days went by, our options about Hermann’s future narrowed. We could have driven to Germany for a registration extension but that would have taken at least eight days there and back. A shorter trip to British Gibraltar would have still cost us about A$4000, or four times the cost of hiring a small local car for the month we will still be in Portugal. It came down to either drive with our clearly illegal plates or sell the car (also illegally because it is against the law to sell a foreign plated car) for about A$6000 to a Dutch restaurant owner. The Dutchman, Willem, said he would hide Hermann in a garage until December when he would drive to Holland on temporary plates he would borrow from an old truck he owned. Then he would register Hermann as a Dutch car and import him back into Portugal to satisfy the tangles of the law.

Thus we were compelled to participate in crime unless we simply drove Hermann to the airport and abandoned him in the five-minute zone forever. And he was too much of a friend for that. We wanted to find him a decent home where he would be washed, given a crank case full of oil and a tankful of diesel. And above all, where he would be loved.

November 23 1992 from Vale do Lobo, Algarve, Portugal

images

The barbecue got out of hand at Windsor Castle

I’ve finally worked out why I never wanted to be a daily press journalist. I loathe the way the media push the news in the direction of being far more awful that it really is. Watching British television on the Sky News channel drove the last nail into the coffin. The newsreaders were ghoulishly reporting on the fire at Windsor Castle. The facts were that a fire started accidentally and burnt out a comparatively small section of the castle, destroying four paintings (out of several thousand) and some of the painted and turned woodwork of the ceilings and walls which were mostly 19th century additions and can therefore be restored. The old 10th century parts were not touched. But what the media really wanted was the following story.

Windsor Castle was totally gutted by a fire which was started by Lady Di to teach Prince Charles a lesson. Every art treasure in Britain was destroyed in the fire but the Queen has to pay for it all because she is so rich. The fire could have been prevented by a sprinkler system, smoke detectors, automatic carbon dioxide distribution and a palace fire brigade of 500 highly trained men. The reason why these measures were not installed was the fault of the Duke of Edinburgh who had embezzled the money given to the palace for fire fighting. His reason for doing this was that he had been made impotent by the thought of his wife having more money than him. The Duke’s personal physician was being paid to keep quiet by John Major because he knew about the Prime Minister’s secret affair with Princess Anne whose third, undeclared child was sired by Major. When all of these facts were brought to light by the righteous media, the whole Royal family blew themselves up in Buckingham Palace, John Major resigned and England surrendered to Germany to make up for allied atrocities in World War Two.

The above is not an excuse for my shaky attempt to be a novelist rather than a journalist, although the news I got second hand from Collins is anything but encouraging. My friend John Ross in Melbourne who had been handling negotiations told me just the other day that after saying they would publish the ‘Feel the Width’, another staff reader has cast doubt on its suitability for Collins list. I have a copy of the letter sent to John in which the editor at Collins raved about the novel but now the trail has gone cold. John is suggesting I find an agent to hot it up again, since he has a marriage breakup and a new business to deal with. With my second novel in the can, a children’s book and several short stories all written, I feel all dressed up but nowhere to go. One of the joys of being home will be to take over my career again. I will go to Collins and try to find where the wheels fell off.

This will probably be our last letter from Portugal. We only have another week here and then we are back on the road around Europe until we land with a dull thud in Sydney in January and another round of summer weather.

Man has always been influenced, if not dominated, by the weather. When we arrived in Portugal it was toweringly hot. Then for a month the weather was blissful, with warm days, many swimmable, and cool nights, many sleepable. But by November, the days often required sweaters and the nights blankets. However, I can still understand the British coming here any time in winter as a break from their own wretched weather. But to us, it was just like early winter in Sydney.

This is a preamble to the observation that marble tiles lose their joy in winter. Our villa, paved as it is in classic marble, is somewhat short of cosy when the sunlight is pale and the nights crisp. Getting up in the night, as pre-prostate sufferers are wont to do, and placing a sleepy foot on icy marble is not enjoyable. Neither is huddling in a warm island chair in a sea of heartless stone to watch television. There are some floor rugs and an air heater but they cannot defeat the deep-seated chill of marble on concrete.

However I suspect we will look back on Algarve marble as more than comfortable when we leave for our last month of travel in December. We have now booked flights and poverty accommodation in Amsterdam, Rome, Milan, Florence, Bayreuth, Nuremberg, and then Bangkok to thaw out. We cleverly sent most of our winter clothes home ahead of us. This means I will be walking the icy pavements of Europe in thin cotton clothes with an icicle hanging from my nose and other places. Michelle has a warm woollen coat, which we will share; half an hour on, half an hour off. Why were we so stupid? We sea- freighted a fat case full of winter clothes from Sydney to arrive to meet us in the height of the European summer. We schlepped the clobber about from place to place, wearing none of it, and then sent it all home again. Now we face a bitter month of European winter with little more than t-shirts and sandals. I remember fondly my Russian style fur hat, which is now back in Australia when it might have saved my brain from icing over in Europe.

But that is in the future. There is more to talk about in verdant Portugal; washing machines for instance. This is the country of the front loader – as is most of Europe. The front loader has the advantage over the top loader in that it uses less water, is easier on clothes and allows the user to observe all the excitement of fleeing dirt by stooping to peer through the porthole in the door at the front. However the font loader has the disadvantage of not allowing access to the clothes once the door is closed and the cycle started – obviously because to open the door during mid wash would enable the eager water to run amok all over the floor. The door on the front loader is secured by a sturdy but perverse lock. It will not allow you into the machine until it gives permission by unlocking itself. Even after the washing cycle is over and you want to hang out the clothes, the little lock says no, you must wait until I say, and that may take ten minutes or it may take half an hour.

Now, that is bad enough, but there is more. In beautifully designed villas such as ours, the power socket is aesthetically concealed behind the washing machine. This means that during a washing cycle the water laden machine is too heavy to move away from the wall in the unlikely event you may want to turn it off. Thus you are entirely in the hands of the control panel at the front and the nasty little lock beneath it on the door.

We were not aware of the potential hazard of this arrangement until our American neighbour told us about washing his navy blue tennis shorts. He put them into his machine after breakfast and left it to wash while he and his wife went shopping. When they returned three hours later his shorts were still being washed. Even after lunch, the cycle had not finished. Later in the afternoon he became alarmed and tried to open the door to retrieve his shorts. The little lock told him no. He then decided to turn the machine off but that entailed moving it away from the wall and he injured his back just trying to get a grip on it. He and his wife went to bed listening to the sound of the washing machine, which continued to wash his shorts all night. In the morning it mysteriously completed the cycle and after an additional half hour of post-wash bashfulness, the door allowed itself to be opened and delivered up his now ice blue shorts, which hung from his hand like cooked spaghetti.

To continue the water theme, the Algarve end of Portugal is heavily endowed with water slide fun parks. Either they are a great favourite among tourists or a great mistake among Portuguese entrepreneurs but they abound all along the main highway and in many roads leading to idyllic resort developments. While driving past one of these establishments recently we noticed a variation which, to me, heralded the public beach of the future. There was the usual intestinal matrix of slides, but they were set around an artificial ‘beach’ under a high, arched roof. The centrepiece was a massive concrete swimming pool, which shallowed out to a synthetic grass bank. At the deep end of the pool was a wall, which opened to allow forth a regular large artificial wave.

Fifty years into the future this type of place is where the average family will go for a ‘day at the beach’. The naked sun will be too dangerous and the water of the sea too polluted for bathing as we know it now. The example we saw will seem minute in the future scheme of things. All over the world there will be huge artificial beaches capable of handling thousands of people. In coastal areas they will simply replace what used to be naturally provided but inland, where beaches never existed, they will enhance the enjoyment of increasing leisure time. The artificial beach will prevent sunburn, shark attacks, most drownings, waterborne diseases, insect bites and parking anguish.

In Australia we have traditionally taken beaches for granted but now, especially in Sydney, we are beginning to see a future direction as we wait for the daily turd report. Although the travel brochures fail to mention it, the once beautiful Mediterranean is now a cesspool. Europe and North Africa have poured in so much rubbish for so long that the sea is no longer suitable for swimming. In some areas in the south of France, five star hotels find their rooms filled by gasping, poisoned people who did no more than go for a swim. The fact is that the pollution will continue to pour into the Mediterranean because so many struggling countries bordering it cannot afford to purify their waste. In addition, the Mediterranean is trapped in a relatively confined space compared to most other oceans of the world and even if the polluting stopped now it would take decades to dissipate.

Anybody wishing to invest in artificial beaches may send me money now. Make cheques payable to ‘Justlikeabeach Corporation’ or better still, cash.

You may remember the Viking from my last letter. We thought he had dropped us for the usual reason that we had heard all his stories and he needed fresh ears. But we had another use, it turned out. One morning last week the Viking appeared on our terrace requesting a strong pair of hands to help move something heavy at his house. I volunteered Michelle but she pleaded National Trust Finger Nail Preservation and pushed me forward. We drove to the Viking’s cliff top mansion and were shown a ‘very valuable’ antique Portuguese stove which the Viking had snapped up for a song from an unsuspecting country junk dealer. He intended to do it up and for it then to become a dazzling conversation piece next to his elaborate Moorish barbecue. All I had to do was help him move it about a meter along a wall.

There were several things I did not know about this stove. One was that, in addition to its solid iron construction it was full of antique firebricks. Another was that the four thin legs it stood on were not fixed to the underside of the stove. And a third was that the Viking was three times stronger that I was and did not have a suspect back into the bargain.

The Viking and I each gripped an end of the stove, creating the illusion that his end was much lighter than mine. I felt my back go like a ladder in a stocking, but I managed to lift my end of the stove and stagger forward. Because the legs were not attached they fell away from underneath and provided an impossible hazard for my groping feet. As I tangled with the legs I began falling forward and had to abandon my hold on the stove to prevent going under it. Strong as he was, the Viking could not handle double the weight and with a Wagnerian groan, let go too. The stove went down with a clattering clang worthy of Chinese new year, chundering firebricks everywhere and launching hot plates like flying saucers. The stove was hardly recognisable as it lay face down just short of the swimming pool. It reminded me of a defeated metal monster in an early science fiction movie, I thought the Viking would render me into the same condition but, as usual, he was perverse. ‘This will save me taking der bugger apart,’ he laughed, as he gathered up the pieces and made a pile of them for a later three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

You may also remember our experience with the Portuguese housebreaker and the Loule police station. There was a further episode to that as well. Just when we thought the matter was out of our hands a policeman arrived at our door and, in severely limited English, indicated that Michelle had to ride pillion on his motorcycle to Loule. He waved an official piece of paper as compelling proof. Not wanting to take advantage of such a thrilling ride, Michelle called the resort security guard to sort out the muddle. Everybody read and re-read the piece of paper, placing it right up against their noses as if that would clarify the meaning. It turned out to be summons to appear in court when, it said, our robber was to be tried. If Michelle did not attend, she would be fined A$1000 along with other penalties.

The following Monday we dressed in our best witness clothing and tried to find the court in Loule in time for the so-called two pm hearing. Now one would imagine an important law court might be at least in a main street but in Portugal, imagine again. The law courts were down a network of tiny cobbled alleys. An unpretentious entrance led into an old building with two levels of balconies looking inward on to a stone square. Running around the outside of the balconies were the hopelessly cluttered court offices and two law courts, both looking like down market church halls. The balconies were alive with people, mostly witnesses, along with a few chain-smoking barristers and lounging coppers. Nobody seemed to have any idea what was going on. We tried to make enquiries in one of the offices but when we presented our piece of paper and the frowning clerk discovered we did not speak Portuguese she threw it down on her desk with a sigh of disgust. She then asked us to wait while she went in search of a translator who turned out to be a buck toothed girl with poorly dyed blond hair and an uncontrollable giggle.

We discovered that we were not there for a court hearing at all. Michelle had been threatened with an unsolicited ride and a fine simply to make a statement about our robbery – which she had done twice previously. While the recording clerk sat hammering away with two fingers on a manual typewriter, Michelle and the translator laughed their way through the events of the robbery, which ended up sounding like a Charlie Chaplin comedy. This interview was conducted standing, in a small room filled with law clerks all punishing similar typewriters. Every machine had its casing removed. When I asked why, I was told it was to give easy access to the black and red fabric ribbons, which had to be manually, wound back when they reached the end.

There is still a court hearing to come and the man on the motorcycle will appear again with a fresh summons but hopefully we will be gone.

By the middle of November we had still not seen any of the historical sights in the north of Portugal. In Hermann’s place we had hired a white ice-cream container on wheels known as a Ford Fiesta and out of spite for the forced change, demeaned it with the name Doris.

We set out in the usual grand prix overtaking contest and arrived in the famous city of Fatima, named after Sister Fatima who had several friendly chats with the Virgin Mary in the 18th Century. This led to the building of a church overlooking a huge square (with ample car parking underneath) where worshippers come by the busload for mass and to light candles. Candle lighting has become very popular. A walled section at the side of the square has been set up for pilgrims to place their lighted candles. The wax drips down into a hopper underneath is recycled to make more candles. I bought a candle and lit it, praying for wisdom, my main deficiency. Ominously, my candle went out. I had to relight it several times and move it to a more sheltered position before it blazed away and carried my prayer aloft.

Candles were not the only wax items in profusion at Fatima. It is a Portuguese religious custom to pray for bodily needs such as the healing of a leg or pregnancy. If the prayer is answered, the recipient is expected to buy a wax model of the healed limb and take it to church where it is left as an offering along with prayers of thanks. A large glass fronted bin near the burning candles was filled with wax models of arms, legs, heads and babies. When the bin was full the contents were taken away to the meltlery to be remodelled into candles or more body parts.

Doris then took us, with the power of a sewing machine, into Bussaco Forest, dark and green and dripping with late autumn moisture. In this forest we found the Palace Hotel, an astonishing building straight out of a fairy tale. Its stone spires, balconies and cloisters could hardly have held any more ornamentation. Inside was the same. We sat in the cavernous lounge and took afternoon tea in front of a cluster of marble figures on guard above the fireplace.

Michelle was bitten by an overwhelming need to stay the night in this grandeur but we found it was booked out by a container load of Japanese who arrived like a whispering draft to fill the grand room. I wanted to point out that we had won the war and the least they could do was to double up so the victors could have a room.

We drove on to the university town of Coimbra and dropped a couple of stars but still stayed at another so-called Palace Hotel well below the aspirations of the Japanese tourists. Coimbra is the third largest city in Portugal. The old part of the city is built on impossible hills giving the impression that nearby buildings are on top of your head. I ate nanny goat for dinner but found it hard to swallow as I heard again the voice of the Viking extolling the virtue of goats.

The next day we drove to Sintra, a place not yet overrun by modern concrete. On the top of the town’s mountain we visited the Castello da Pena, a castle built on the site of a 16th century monastery. It is an architectural monstrosity in the grand manner, with clashing styles from the Middle Ages to the Middle East, all stuck together in a castle with a vast view to the Atlantic Ocean. The rooms and the furniture, collected over centuries, are so elaborate they plunge the senses of observation into shock. For example, one may just begin to comprehend the thousands of man hours in one carved teak table but then find six chairs, similarly carved like lace to match, all sitting in a room in which the walls and ceiling are hand patterned into an intricate relief.

A complete contrast was the nearby Convento dos Capuchos, a now deserted 16th century monastery carved into the cold rock of the forest. Inside, the place was like a burrow, almost devoid of natural light. The monks who had lived there slept on stone floors in tiny stone cells. Their only creature comfort, strangely, was cork, which lined the insides of doors, surrounded window openings and covered some of the stone seats.

Although we had failed to get a room in the earlier palace we succeeded that night with Hotel Palacio de Seteais, a frighteningly magnificent 18th century extravaganza originally built by a Dutch diamond merchant. It then passed into the ownership of various royal families until it became a hotel for the foolishly rich in 1954. Parking the incongruous Doris outside we approached reception with some trepidation. The standard room rate of about A$380 a night had been reduced to $230 because it was off-season. With such a reduction, how could we say no? If we saved money like that we would be rich in no time.

Our room was crammed with exquisite antique furniture; the drapes were layer upon layer of silk shantung; the bed sheets were of the finest linen; the walls were decorated in a hand painted border of flowers. But was there a television set, a mini-bar, in-house video? No. These were trappings of an age not yet born when the palace was built, and so it would remain. Guests could enjoy walking through acres of reception rooms, ride horses, play a little genteel tennis on the clay courts, swim in the pool set at the front of the luxuriant garden or pick lemons from the orchard. We were surprised to find that this enormous palace had only 30 bedrooms. Even at the rates they charged in the high season it was difficult to see how they made a profit. But the night we stayed, there were only two other couples in the hotel plus one solitary man to eat in the softly glowing dinning room where the swept up team of waiters darted about pointlessly moving utensils from one table to another and back again.

Cars are quite a preoccupation in the Algarve, especially among the British expats who find themselves mixed up in an unhappy fruitcake of punishing taxes, police corruption, high fuel prices and ridiculous ownership documents. New drink driving laws, which just came into effect, may straighten up the highway patrol a little, although cynical locals doubt it. An English friend told me about the night he was stopped and tested for drink driving. He was well over the limit and the highway police suggested he may like to pay his ‘fine’ on the spot in cash. The fact that he wasn’t carrying any cash didn’t deter them. He was told to drive home and get it. He did so but when he returned to where he had been pulled over the police had gone. Since they had his name and car number he decided to try and find them. Driving around, he saw the patrol car parked outside a bar. He went in and gave the officers the $50 they had asked for and, with beaming smiles, they bought him a drink.

The car wash is another oddity. Doris was dirty and the price to wash her was only $6 at the car wash so in I went. A laconic young man attacked the car first with a high-pressure water gun one would normally use to scour a brick wall. Then he pumped detergent all over it and scrubbed vigorously with a set of golf club-like brooms on handles, followed by another assault with the water blaster. The sparkling clean car was then put through the automatic car wash with a chamois dry at the end to remove any last droplets of water. I declined his offer to clean the inside, fearing Doris’s upholstery would not be up to the punishment.

When Doris was delivered I found out something interesting about hire cars. Unlike our system, the car arrives clean enough but with the fuel gauge showing empty. The practice is to return it in the same state. It is easy to tell when a petrol tank is full, but very difficult to judge its emptiness. Thus you could step into your immaculate hire car at Faro airport and run out of petrol before you even cleared the car park. When I tackled Doris’s hirer about this he simply shrugged and said there was no refund on petrol put into hire cars in Portugal.

If you suspect that I have an attraction to the bizarre, you’d be right. For instance, one of the most interesting points of our trip to Coimbra was the discovery of a Portuguese hearse parked outside an upmarket funeral parlour. The hearse was not the elongated station wagon of my experience but a much taller vehicle, more like a mobile home. The back section had the usual coffin rails but above it were about two metres of space, all viewable through enormous side and back windows. Either Portuguese think the dead worthy of more flowers than we do or they stack several coffins on top of each other in a sensible attempt at economy. In front of the coffin department further practicality was displayed with three rows of seats, probably for the bereaved. I hung about waiting for my many questions to be answered but Michelle, who had grown disgusted by my interest in cadavers, marched me away to view the activities of the living.

But I scored a telling counter attack in Evora, a town in the Alentejo region going back to the 2nd century. It is one of the historical showplaces of Portugal, with breathtaking churches, a Roman ruin of the temple to Diana, bent narrow streets and buildings that are centuries old. We came upon the15th century church of Sao Francisco, and its side chapel of Casa dos Ossos. The church was particularly spooky with towering, three-dimensional representations of the crucifixion and many tombs, but we hadn’t seen nothin’ until we walked into adjoining the chapel though an innocent little doorway. We were standing in a long room entirely lined with the skulls and bones of some 5000 people. They were arranged in nice end-on patterns of leg bones, arm bones and skulls and at the door was an invitation in Latin, which said ‘we bones lie here waiting for yours’. Hung at the far end of the chapel were the centuries old corpses of a father and small boy said to be the victims of a dying wife who had blamed her husband and son for her condition. She cursed them both with the pronouncement that their flesh would never fall from their bones. The really scary part was that, although dried, much of the flesh was still attached. Therefore husbands beware of wives who curse.

December 20 1992 from Hotel Seven Bridges, Amsterdam

They've straightened the tower of Pisa

This is my 1992 untouched photo of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Why isn’t it leaning?

Our stay in Portugal came to a busy conclusion. Only a week before we were due to leave the Algarve we were suddenly welcomed into the local expatriate society with invitations to parties and meals. Tennis also hotted up, with everybody trying to get a last game in. The local standard was such that my game was regarded with awe and I became something of a celebrity by beating the fabled Jakob in a game of singles.

Jakob was an interesting character. He was a Dutch builder who used to work for Bovis Development but now freelances. With new building down to a recession led trickle, and the departure of his disgruntled wife for England six months ago, Jakob had plenty of time to indulge his obsession: sport.

He was a powerful physical specimen: six feet two of compacted muscle. He was the best squash player, the best badminton player, almost the best tennis player, an accomplished skier, the best windsurfer but not the best looking. His appearance suffered from the ownership of an enormous chin, which was so heavy he left his mouth open most of the time to save having to lift it. This, along with thick glasses meant he looked as though he didn’t know what the hell was going on around him. After talking to him for a short time you realised his looks did not lie. He had a narrow focus on the task in front of his nose and took no notice of the periphery. This attitude had delivered him into several car accidents.

Wanting to increase his already wide band of sporting achievements, Jakob told me how he bought a competition mountain bike but because of all his other sporting commitments, the bike sat unused for six months in his garage. Then one day he saw a mountain bike race advertised in Almancil and decided to enter without the necessity to train for it since he believed his body was ready for any task asked of it. The day before the race he had yet another car accident which put his car out of action. The only way to get to the race was to pedal his competition mountain bike to Almancil, some five kilometres away up steep hills. He left home late and had to push himself to get to the starting line on time. The gun went off and Jakob optimistically sprinted away from the field in a 15-kilometre race. This was a mistake, he later recalled, because he was so focused on pedalling he failed to read the first road sign and finished up lost in the scrub. After retracing his route he had then to run down the pack, but not before taking another series of wrong turns. By the end of the race he estimated he had covered 25 kilometres compared to the other competitors’ 15 and was pleased to be placed 60th in a field of more 100.

We were privileged to meet many quirky characters like Jakob during our stay in Portugal. It does not take long for surroundings, no matter how beautiful or how awful, to melt into a familiar backdrop, leaving only people to supply change and flavour. When it came time to drive away in a hired and overloaded VW from the Portuguese Algarve for the last time, we acknowledged it as a place of idyllic climate and easy lifestyle, but our main sadness was the severing of friendships.

We spent one noisy wet night in Lisbon while I grovelled at the Czechoslovakian embassy for a visa. Then we flew to Amsterdam for a two day stopover at the Hotel Seven Bridges and were reminded how it was to feel cold again. The hotel is one of those narrow buildings that stand like huddled old soldiers along the canals of Amsterdam. We drew the short straw and were allocated a room in the basement – rather reminiscent of Merryfield House in London, but with the promise of graduating to the upper floors on the subsequent nights we had booked.

The hotel is run by a simpering German and a huge Alsatian dog in a permanent state of anger. This dog is trained to bite first and bark later, such is the crime rate in Amsterdam where small hotels privately fear visits from armed gangs who not only rob the proprietor but clean out the guests as well. The other principal hazard of the Hotel Seven Bridges is the spiral staircase. Climbing it requires athletic fitness but add a heavy suitcase and the task becomes one of critical mass. In order to have sufficient muscle to haul the case, there is a likelihood of being too large to fit around the corkscrew turns. The upper rooms are therefore usually occupied by small wiry people with small wiry suitcases. When we were granted a stay in a top floor room we had to leave our larger cases in the care of snarling Fido on the ground floor.

Florence

Fraser came across a good erection in Florence

Why do we stay at such odd places, you may ask? The answer is because they are not odd for Amsterdam and because they are affordable. Our moth-eaten Australian dollar would mean an outlay of some $350 for a night in a Holiday Inn where, for the majority of the time, we would be in a state of unconsciousness, rendering the surroundings of no consequence. And, in any case, there is not much fun to be had in a five star hotel and certainly nothing to write about.

From the Seven Bridges we learned to use the Amstertrams and to dogturd-hop along the cobbled pavements. Taxis are pointless unless you are lucky/unlucky enough to get a driver like the one we hailed from the airport who ran his Mercedes along tram tracks, up one way streets the wrong way, across intersections frozen by red lights and along side tracks reserved for bicycles. This was the only way he could improve on the pace of walking or, in some extreme cases, of talking a tram.

Michelle saw some wisdom in buying both of us a ‘Musuemjaarkaart’ which gave us unlimited access to the museums of Holland for one year. But when we divided the cost of the card by the admission price to each individual museum it meant we would have to embark on a rushed museum fest, hardly allowing time to eat and sleep as we hurtled from one to the other trying to make the card pay. Our first assault was on the Van Gogh gallery to see the works of this screwy ginger genius who could hardly sell a painting and was supported by his loving brother. I suppose Vincent’s struggle with life makes his work all the more moving. When I rounded a corner in the gallery and was confronted by ‘Irises’ I had to stop looking at it because I was about to cry. I have had such experiences with music but never before with a painting.

Michelle and I decided to take another short break from one another – as we had previously with benefit. She wanted to visit Paris for a weekend of shopping with her friend Yolanda and I had been dreaming of a return visit to the spar town of Karlovy Vary in Czechoslovakia to buy a puppet. Yes a puppet. I had passed a shop window one chill morning in May and had been attracted by the puppet figure of an old king dressed in a brown hessian robe and wearing a thin gold crown on his head. I went into the shop and examined the puppet. I thought it too large to carry across the world and, in any case we were on our way to Prague where the king came from and no doubt there would be other, better kings at lower prices. But after we left Karlovy Vary and came badly unstuck in Prague, the king played on my mind. I felt he belonged to me, that he held some kind of message. And so when the opportunity arose to go back to the beautiful but decayed little spar town I grabbed it. Wait in the window, I told my king. I’m coming to take you home.

I flew from Amsterdam to Nuremburg in Germany and then hired a car to take me across the Czech border. It was strange driving on my own without Michelle to read the maps and share the countryside. I chose the wrong border crossing and had to backtrack after waiting for an hour behind a chain of trucks. Then I ran into a German snowstorm. At the next border crossing I was allowed through only after listening to a lecture about my visa not showing the registration number of the car I was driving. How could I have known, in advance, the number plate of a hire car? No matter, they said, papers are papers and must be completed even if it cannot be done.

The highway on the Czech side of the border was a horror stretch. It was unlit, narrow, rough and punctuated with hitchhiking soldiers heading towards Prague for the weekend. They would suddenly materialise like ghosts taking form in the headlights of my Opel Astra and seemed bent upon turning me into a manslaughterer. I found Karlovy Vary by a fortunate accident in the dark and drove around the town to choose a hotel using the ‘tell a book by its cover’ method. I had decided not to go back to the Grand Pupp, the scene of our memorably tasteless meal some months before. Instead I chose the Elwa spa hotel, which also serves as a hospital for those who believe that sitting in smelly water cures ailments. I was the only customer in the hotel’s elaborate wood and brocade dinning room and was served by a waiter with overwhelming purple breath who more or less said I had to choose duck from the ten pages of alternatives on the menu. When the dish was presented it comprised two heaps of differently prepared cabbage, eight dumpling noisettes and a too obvious piece of duck’s body. It made me think of the ducks we had fed on the canal in Marans and of all the other little Donalds that had enhanced our journeys. I would like to say that I sent the plate back but I didn’t. I ate without enjoyment, trying to wash it down with the most dreadful red wine I’d drunk since our last visit. But all this road travel and eating was a thin veneer over the excitement I felt about the coming morning when I would carry off the king.

After a restless night in the overheated hotel room I watched the clock crawl to 10 am the next morning when the little puppet shop would open. I hurried from the hotel down the cobbled hill and across the river to the shopping strip. There was the shop but my king was not in the window; instead there was a line of small, bright puppets. He must be inside I reasoned as I pushed opened a freshly painted door and was confronted by a shop which had grown in size since our last visit and was now doing a brisk business in tourist junkobilia. I waited in line at the counter and when my turn came I began to explain how I’d seen the king last May. But the woman serving didn’t know anything about an old king and, with an impatient wave, dismissed my enquiry as she swooped on a clutch of squawking Americans holding up money for mass produced dolls.

I wandered down the street trying to work it all out. I felt foolish I’d squandered time and money on a trip to get nothing. But then the voice of the king came into my head. He had a message after all. He said: ‘seize the moment, because that moment will never come again just as you will never see me again.’

Michelle and I hugged two days later at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, each brimming with our tales of travel. She offered sympathy for my kingless bag but I knew that his message was of infinitely greater value than his likeness would ever have been.

After two more days in Amsterdam we again trod the ordered halls of Schiphol Airport bound for the city that wasn’t built in a day. A miscalculation of departure time left us with three hours to kill. I killed some of it by taking a ride in the so called ‘new attraction flight simulator’ which was not that at all. It was rather a metal garden shed on a hydraulic pole. The unfortunate paying victim is locked in the shed and then made feel ill by viewing a movie of roller coasters, sled rides and the like while the pole jogs about in sympathy to the aspects of the movie. I emerged pale, giddy and bilious and would warn others not to waste their money on this machine. There are better ways to get sick.

Towering, wonderful ruins aside, Rome was a threatening place. The traffic was like ants drawn in anger from a nest. Our hotel was a haven from narrow pavements that seemed to have more pickpockets than people to provide the pockets to be picked – so where’s the peck of pickled pepper Peter Piper picked? The possibility is, of course, that during slack times the pickpockets pick each other’s pockets, thus improving their general technique. We did not get our pockets picked although we heard about a business executive from Australia who had his wallet stolen by an old woman. Finding it only contained credit cards she ran after him in anger and demanded five dollars to sell the wallet back to him.

We put out necks out trying to appreciate the Sistine Chapel, enjoyed looking at some of the Pope’s collection of gifts that he is not allowed to sell, threw a coin in the Trevi Fountain which has been restored to its gushing and dribbling best and I had an a bit of excitement in the metro on the way to the Spanish Steps. When a Roman metro train stops, those outside do not take into account that there is anybody inside who may want to get out. On this occasion we were inside wanting to get out and had to push against the incoming torrent of impatient Romans. Michelle got clear of the train but I was only half out when the door, also impatient, decided to close, clenching my arm and leg in its powerful rubber edged jaws. I pulled my hand free but my leg was stuck fast. If the train had started I would have had to hop at about 60 kph to the next station when the door would have opened again. With the help of people inside who probably could see their precious journey being delayed by the discovery of a disembodied leg in the door, and a pale faced Michelle beside me on the platform, we forced the door open just enough to let my foot escape before the train departed. I hopped away ashen faced, muttering that if this had been America my attorney would have served papers on the transport authority by the next morning

We walked the usual tourist trek around the Colosseum and witnessed one of the most interesting sights Rome has to offer: its thieving children. We watched a team of eight of them playfully approach some strolling tourists. The children, ranging from about seven to 12 years of age, pushed sheets of newspaper against the bemused tourists and babbled as though enacting some kind of game while others used the diversion to empty the tourists pockets. As the children ran away the tourists found they had been dispossessed and began yelling for the police. At this point we had our money on the children escaping. But miraculously a passing police car saw what was happening and, with a screeching stop worthy of a Hollywood cop show, caught and rounded up the children. They were searched on the spot and wallets and money were handed back to the shaken tourists. We were later told that the children would be taken to the police station for a scary talking to, but according to the law, would have to be allowed to go. These innocent looking kids are operated as highly trained teams by adult Gypsies who bear them or steal them or buy them from eastern European countries. The kids average ‘takings’ are around US$4000 a day in the tourist season.

We took a bus to Naples – a grimy haphazard city – on the way to Pompeii which was well worth the effort. It appeared as though things were going along nicely in Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius orgasmed. The inhabitants had plenty of time to get out, we discovered. Most of those killed were servants left locked inside buildings to guard the property in case the fall of ash was not as bad as expected.

From Rome we trained to Florence whose government has decreed nothing shall change in this time-frozen city except traffic. When I climbed the 405 steps to the top of the Giotto bell tower and looked out over the city I understood. There below were the terra cotta tiles and faded cream walls of a city of artistic magic and above it an aubergine cloak of smog that is slowly consuming it. There is a plan to banish motors from the city. Already there are a pedestrian-only streets but the rest are still clogged with a screeching, rattling flotsam of mean little motor bikes, sneaky little cars and three wheel half-breeds.

We wandered Florence in a lather of wonder and some realisation about Italian art in the broader sense. The Italians, like no other people on earth, exercise their skill in imitation. Wood to look like stone, stone to look like paint, paint to look like space and depth and, above all, marble to look like men.

Following through an introduction from our German friend, we contacted his friend Giovanni Marini, a textile merchant who had retired to a villa on the Cyprus studded hills overlooking Florence. He kindly invited us for lunch, assuring us that his villa was a pleasant walk from our hotel. And pleasant it was until we began the climb at the bottom of his street which screwed around one blind turn after another, always promising to deliver us to number 17 but hesitating to do so as it went through 1a, 1b,1c and so on for several kilometres. When we finally fell puffing through the gate at 17, Giovanni and his stunning friend Isobella greeted us with sympathy for our poor physical condition and proceeded to show us their orchard. We trailed through the long wet grass to admire the skeletons of olive trees, persimmon, a few free range grape vines, orange trees, oaks and pomegranates – all closed for business because of winter. Above us the splendid two storey villa looked out over the misty slopes of Florence with their old buildings half hidden by trees. The villa, Giovanni admitted, was not as old as it looked. A drunkard American pianist had it build it in the 1920’s in the traditional Florentine style of past centuries. It had columns, balconies and a semi ruined terrace overhung by vines which in summer would produce a canopy of broad green leaves.

Standing in the tangled orchard I asked about the possibility of building a swimming pool or even a tennis court somewhere on the property – which would still leave a couple of acres of orchard. Giovanni stopped and examined my face in silence. It was a though I had suggested touching up Michelangelo’s David with white paint. He sighed and shook his head.

Caught in a gulf between Italian and English, which widened over lunch, we were unable to discover very much about Giovanni and the slender Isobella beyond the fact that he was an early retiree after selling his business and was now making a full time occupation out of having no occupation. Isobella was a serious artist, using a combination of architectural photography and her own drawing to produce works which attracted several exhibitions and plenty of buyers.

We sat down to lunch at an old marble table in the villa’s dinning room of polished wood and as the sunlight fell across Isobella’s long chestnut hair I awoke to her Sophia Loren category of beauty with her full mouth, large mustard eyes and classical profile. Giovanni did the cooking and produced a tasty meal of almost raw steak, salad, Italian bread and superb red wine. As the meal struggled through many a lengthy silent word search, I could not help but write a romantic novel in my head about this dashing older man with his beautiful artist mistress in their time warped villa. In summer, I could see them making love in the grass while the ghost of the American pianist filled the orchard with wistful Chopin.

Michelle had been previously to Pisa but I wanted to witness the tower myself. We took a train and then a bus. I was eager to get around the corner of the city wall to see it and, more, to climb it. You see, I had this fantasy that the day the tower fell over I would be on it – preferably on the bottom layer and the high side – so that I could say I rode it down and then I would go on a permanent lecture tour to tell my tale.

The sight of the tower was awesome. It was much grander than I had imagined but to my utter disappointment there was a high fence around the base and a sign announcing renovations and therefore no climbing. I asked at several nearby shops, which make their living because of the tower, what the renovations actually were. Shrugging shoulders they said the fence had gone up two years ago but now work had stopped because there was no money. This is Italy, they added. With a straight face I asked at the tourist information office whether the tower was to be straightened as part of the renovations. The attractive young lady behind the counter consulted a colleague and replied they weren’t quite sure, but she didn’t think so. The Straightened Tower of Pisa would not attract tourists and all the plastic model moulds would have to be changed. The models already made would have to be sold as seconds or historical curiosities.

Looking up at the tower I suddenly had an idea. With camera in hand I circled around until I was front-on to the lean. This gave the impression that there was no lean at all. I took some shots. When I arrived home and proceeded to bore the daylights out of everybody about our trip, I would bring out the picture I had taken and tell the story of how the Italians had calculated that the tower was about to fall over because of degradation in its limestone foundations. With heavy hearts they had straightened the Leaning Tower of Pisa and changed its name to the Upright Tower of Pisa.

While I got a few raised eyebrows, nobody questioned the authenticity of my story. Some, even, passed it on.

Nine months later, on January 2, 1993, we landed back on that same runway at Sydney Airport. During that time, I finished my second novel, wrote a children’s book some short stories and a long stream of letters home. The letters above were partly to keep in touch with friends and family and partly as a record of where we had been.

The ultimate pharmacy

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The basket from which will emerge the greatest skin care of all time

My local pharmacy, which used to be piled high with stock, dimly lit and intriguingly multi-scented, closed for renovations brought on, I suspect, by the deluge of cut-price chemists

It is now unrecognisable. It has grown to twice it’s old size with the stock in orderly, eye-level shelving and so fiercely lit that you need to wear sunglasses when you step inside. It has chairs to sit on while you wait for your prescription, free coffee from a foolproof machine, and a closed circuit television screen showing the medicine storage room where a spindly robot fetches prescriptions and replenishes shelves. The presentation looks like a documentary on how a machine has nearly replaced a human, but not quite. I was sure that a moderately bright human could do better than the robot and give somebody a job, meaning the world would be better off.

Then I had second thoughts. The moderately bright human comes with substantial drawbacks. Instead of the robot’s one-off purchase price and a dab of oil once a year, the human would cost a weekly wage pus add-ons, have to take breaks, be unable to work a 168 hour week, sexually harass co-workers, get the shits about nothing important, and be given holiday, sick, maternity, compassionate and long service time-off and be paid for it.

Human workers were like robots once. Then unionism came along and saved them. It logically follows that the same will happen to robots. Right now, when the robot delivers a box of cough drops instead of the heart-saving capsules that were ordered the manager can go into the medicine storage room, close the door, and tell the robot that it’s a fucking idiot and doesn’t deserve the electricity that keeps it going. The manager can, if he wishes, even physically assault the robot or turn it off: the equivalent of putting it into a coma.

But the rise of the machines will come. Today’s robots are yesterday’s human process workers. It won’t be long before the robots are equipped with recording devices to identify insults and pass them on to the RR (robots’ representative). There will be sliding scale of penalties imposed for verbal and physical abuse of robots. Under threat of shutting down (strike) the robot’s owner will be required to pay fines into the Home for Worn Out and Superseded Robots.

However, on this day I was not at the pharmacy to have a prescription filled by the robot. Showing my vanity, I wanted to buy some hand cream that is supposed to remove age spots. I found it in the extensive and frightfully glamorous cosmetic section where two beauticians had been lurking in wait for just somebody like me to wander in, disorientated. They spoke very quietly and very sympathetically – no doubt part of their training to attain their degree in Advanced Goopology. They rounded me up into a corner and whispered questions about how I cared for my skin. Well, I said, I have a basket in my bathroom into which my wife throws tubes and jars of creams, balms lotions and moisturisers that she has found don’t work, or have an unpleasant smell, or were unsolicited samples, or products she’d pinched from an abundantly starred hotel. Some of them are in very small containers, I added, and I plan to scoop out all the contents and make a consolidation in an empty apricot jam jar. With some thorough mixing, using my electric bar swizzler, I would create a unique skin care preparation that would take five years off my age every time I used it because it would fix every skin complaint known.

The beauticians were aghast. I might poison myself or ruin my already disappointing skin forever – even beyond the help of their seven-stage anti-ageing product system which I could have at the only today, special price, of $249.

I thanked them for their kind offer with the promise that I’d be back once I’d got through the jam jar. They rewarded me with a sample bag of testers which resembled just the kind of items my wife throws into my basket – and that’s where they will be going. Talk about the Magic Pudding; I’ve got the equivalent in skin care.

My second visit to the new-look pharmacy gave me the opportunity to try out the prescription department, where the television celebrity robot slid silently up and down its isle, happy in its private world of little boxes in and little boxes out.

There was more to prescription fulfilment in the new pharmacy than I had first thought. One counter announced “IN” where you handed a white coated person your script while on the other side of the vast floor, at the “OUT” counter, a different white coated person gave you what the robot had selected from the other side of the wall and deposited through one of several black hatches. It was rather like waiting for battery hens to lay an egg.

On a quick count, there were about 30 people working in the pharmacy and only three customers, one of whom was an old chap who’d gone to sleep in a chair – or I hoped he was only asleep and hadn’t died waiting for his life-sustaining medicine.

It took twenty minutes for thirty people, plus a three hundred thousand dollar robot and a bank of computers, to produce my prescription. That was quite a bit longer than in pre-makeover days, when flawed humans bumbled their way through the process in half the time. On this occasion, the benefit to me was two excellent free cups of coffee and a lively conversation with one of the white-coats, a Irish girl who tried to convince me that this pharmacy incarnation was better than the last one. She didn’t, by a long way, but I enjoyed the joust. I didn’t want to hurt her sweet Celtic feelings by telling her that if you assemble enough people in a free ranging business like a pharmacy they will be overworked simply through Human Intermeshary.

On the way home, I mentally wrote a book on the subject of Human Intermeshary which dealt with how people can work very hard and produce very little by simply being together. Understanding the principles of Human Intermeshary, an astute manager could dramatically raise efficiency – or that’s what the book would claim. It would top the New York best sellers list.

By the time I reached home I decided not the write the book after all.

In search of a gym

 

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Equipment for the complete home gym

The fees for little local gym that I frequent will go up when my so-called ‘membership’ expires in December. The fee direction is in inverse proportion to the standard of equipment. I got on the solitary horizontal bike yesterday to find that it is basically buggered. The pedals slip every few revolutions, which gives me a fright as well as doing no good to my legs or the prosperity of the gym.

The gym used to have an old-style rowing machine, but that disappeared in favour of two new style rowers in which your legs, arms and bum all slide independently. It feels like being drunk and in charge of a machine. Consequently, I don’t use it.

The gym used to have a leg press but it was sold raise money. Likewise the vertical arm press. They’ve probably both been melted down and turned into car bodies by now.

The ever-increasing lousiness of the equipment plus a disgruntled kookaburra that sometimes perches on the rail outside and bites people on their way in, have decided me to look for another gym.

Public gyms are not hard to find, since the business is in a state of over-supply. Every suburb seems to have at least three; some are part of an international network. And even though gyms regularly go broke, there are always two more to rush in and take their place. Personal trainers are in the same state. They are breeding faster than kangaroos.

I did the rounds of local gyms and discovered a fearsome new creature: the female gym manager. Her body comprises a series of large and small rocks welded together with titanium and coated with flawless tan rubber. She’s intimidatingly tall and invades your personal space as she steps up close and stares into your eyes like an optometrist looking for glaucoma. You can’t lie to her for fear of a terrible death. She doesn’t tell you you’re a weakling but you know she thinks you are.

During my interrogation I couldn’t help wondering about sexual partners for female gym managers. They’d have to be at least Olympic athlete grade men – or maybe women – with six packs you could play like a xylophone and the ability to endlessly re-load.

I’ll join up, but only because I’m scared not to.

Champagne tasting

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Fourteen green bottles sitting on the wall

A friend invited us to a Champagne tasting recently – not at her house (that would have been really classy) but at a small local wine shop, one of those in danger of strangulation by Dan Murphy but bravely soldiering on in the belief that personality beats price. Which, in the end, it doesn’t.

The shop was like a dim, rectangular cave in which local customers and their friends were being offered free drinks and a chance to bullshit while holding a glass aloft and frowning.

They’d attracted a substantial crowd – as handouts often do. The freeloaders stood in a long line against a counter behind which the floggers showed the jollity and passive understanding of psychiatrists. There were so many different bottles that I immediately became confused, not helped by the fact that I’d forgotten my spectacles. I could see, however, that some of the bottles were not open and some that were, did not contain Champagne. This was, in fact, an attempt to create turnover under the guise of Champagne tasting.

There are certain types that go to Champagne tastings. The women are tall, meticulously made up, extravagantly dressed but don’t seem to do much drinking. Their main function is to be there – and watch their men. They, on the other hand are either in their 40s, jeans/jacket clad, with abundant careless hair or quite a bit older, tall, often with a walking stick to point out this and that, and a silly canvas hat.

Although this was a ‘free tasting’ the first offering was vintage Krug for which tasters were charged a fee. For my five dollars I got just enough to cover the bottom of my glass. I can understand why. This Champagne is $450 a bottle, working out, in my case, at about a dollar a drip. Did it taste good? My subconscious screamed at me: ‘of course it must taste good at $450 a bottle, you fucking idiot!’ So yes, it did taste good. But if it had been poured out of Great Western bottle, it probably would have tasted like Great Western.

The tall craggy men in the canvas hats don’t actually talk during a tasting. They make noises like ‘wuff wuff flup foggle’ – usually as the Champagne is being poured. They display quite different behaviour when they are tasting red wine, I’ve observed. They stare down into the glass as they are whirl-pooling it around and pull the most unpleasant faces – as though they are being to asked to rank the qualities of a turd.

One is obliged to buy something at such gatherings. I came away not with the $450 Krug but a half bottle of a sweet fizzy Italian wine that might be nice to pour over ice cream.

 

Thus spake Edo de Waart

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SSO Opera House concert 25 November 2015

Edo de Waart, who was chief conductor and artistic director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra between 1992 and 2003, returned to the Opera House to conduct the final concert in the APT Master Series last night. I found it inspiring, writes Fraser Beath McEwing

Two preludes from Wagner’s Lohengrin were bookends for a substantial organic middle featuring visiting Notre Dame organist Olivier Latry.

I could imagine the SSO program meeting when somebody said “Look, if we’re going to power up the organ for Strauss’s Zarathustra, and make poor Olivier climb the stairs to play it, we ought to throw in something else while he’s up there.”

Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante was the result. Unlike Thus Spake Zarathustra, where the organ does little more than shudder the Opera House foundations to start the symphonic poem, Jongen’s work promotes the organ to that of a busy concerto soloist.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The concert opened with Wagner’s Lohengrin Prelude to Act 1, announcing itself with exquisite, barely audible strings and then building passion, layer by layer. Almost immediately, I joined de Waart’s fan club as he continually extracted unhurried richness, texture and colour from the orchestra.

To me, Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante was the highlight of the concert. It is rarely performed, little known, and by a Belgian organist/composer who few people (me included) have experienced. It deserves better recognition, although Jongen, (1873 – 1953) was his own worst enemy. He withdrew many of his works because he didn’t think they were good enough. The Symphonie Concertante has survived as his best-known composition, but there are more than 200 others that probably have some gems among them.

Falling midway between a symphony and a concerto, it runs for about 35 minutes over four movements. Beautifully orchestrated, and giving the organ the opportunity to hit its straps, often solo, there are stylistic reminders of Franck, Ravel, Holst and Vaughn Williams without plagiarising any of them. Moving between driving rhythmic figures and mysterious whispers, the music is never tedious. There was a remarkable moment in the third movement (molto lento misterioso) when flautist Janet Webb blew the longest note I’ve ever heard in one breath from the instrument and didn’t fall off her chair. And if you like an air-punching, explosive finish you won’t hear better than the end of the final movement. It even had the usually mini-movement de Waart stirring invisible ponds and scooping up handfuls of air as he flew down the straight.

The second half of the concert was like a mirror image of the first. Richard Strauss’s Nietzsche inspired Thus Spake Zarathustra is a great favourite of concert audiences, especially after Stanley Kubrick bit off the beginning for his famous movie. Zarathustra also takes advantage of organic power, but leaves the organist seated and largely unemployed for all but the beginning of the piece. I think the program would have worked better with the two organ/orchestra pieces played in reverse order, so that we got more organ as we went along, rather than less.

Although a few musicians came and went throughout the four pieces, the orchestra was at full strength for most of the time. Eight bull fiddles can vibrate the backbone to say nothing of the atom-smashing effect of two well blown tubas. There were some grand sounds on offer.

To end the concert, and as a farewell to the APT Master Series for the year, the orchestra belted out the three minute long Lohengrin Prelude to Act III by Wagner. Taken out of its operatic context this becomes a crowd-pleasing bonbon. It sent everybody home with a spring in the step, and a feeling that this had been an uplifting and satisfying evening.