I can’t believe it’s Sunday again. The time between when I created a post for last week’s Sunday Stills challenge and now has whizzed by!
As I have lots of other things to do – mostly marking university assignments – I thought I’d procrastinate a little longer and think about time for this week’s Sunday Stills challenge. Once again I’m inspired by my sister over at Deb’s World. Deb has a brand new granddaughter who is 7 weeks old already – and she thinks time is moving fast. My second eldest grandson turned 18 on Friday – boy oh boy, where has that time gone?
You might have noticed, if you’re a regular visitor here, that I take photos [that was weird … I was going to write “I’m a photographer”, but I felt a bit strange calling myself a photographer so wrote something slightly awkward … I wonder what that’s about??] … anyway, I take photos and one of the elements of photography is time.
Photographs stop time … they catch a moment that will never happen again. A moment in a baby’s life we look back on with fondness for ever after – the dimples around the knees, the chubby cheeks, the little hands balled into fists and, if we’re lucky, the firsts … first smile, first feed with Dad, first time nodding off on Grandma’s shoulder, first book, first Harry Potter dress. Those moments are cherished and we scroll through our photo album (no need to turn pages anymore because the photos are now locked away on our phones) to remind ourselves of the joy the little bundle brings to the whole family.
Over the last few weekends, Tim and I have been photographing flowers. It’s Spring after all, and there are plenty around. The flowers we photographed two weeks ago won’t be there anymore and the only way we can keep them fresh for all time is through our photographs.
Photographs capture time … they freeze it. The flower and the photograph of the flower will forever be different. One fades away while the other can live on through time.
So here are a few images of flowers frozen in time. None of them look like this anymore, but I was blessed to have been able to capture them in all their glory.
The first one is especially for Deb – who loves all things orange.
Time … it passes … so let’s make the most of it while we have it!
I’ve had some uncomfortable labels stuck to me in the past, but this is right up there in the uncomfortable stakes.
Well, partly because my sister Debbie is a runner, and when Debbie does something I tend to shy away from it.
Deb has always run. As a teenager I have a clear memory of Dad teaching her to run … and of the one time I decided to give it a go.
I came away with one … no, two … clear realisations.
1). I wasn’t a runner.
2). I needed to start wearing a bra.
So I left the running to Deb, and for the next 40-odd years was more than happy as a non-runner.
The other part of the reason is, of course, that a runner is someone who runs. And I don’t run. Not really. I shuffle perhaps, but I’m not serious.
Except … it seems that now I am.
In May this year I was challenged by my personal trainer to run a 7km Sri Chinmoy race. He sent me a text: ‘Hey Sharon. How about your weekly challenge be the Sri Chinmoy this Sunday? Let me know how you go.’
Without any thought, I signed up, turned up, and … well … ran.
I got 200 metres into the run and as every other runner ran past me I thought to myself ‘this is ridiculous. Why am I doing this?’ Fair question, but for some perverse reason I kept running, despite a very big part of my brain telling me to stop and just go home: ‘Look, you’re near the car. Just walk casually over to it, get in, and drive slowly away. No one will notice.’
But I didn’t. I kept running … although if you’ve seen me run I doubt you’d describe it as ‘running’. Plodding might be a better description.
I told myself I’d run, or rather run/walk, to the 5km mark (I’d done a few 5km fun runs before and knew I could make that distance), and from there I’d walk.
In October 2017 I’d run the 5.7km run as part of the Melbourne Marathon and my trainer at the time (Josh) had run that with me. He’d heard how nervous I was before the run, and despite already having run the 10km race earlier that day, he came to find me at the start line to run with me. Every time I stopped to walk, he’d tell me ‘don’t stop running. Just run more slowly.’
I have to admit to not listening to him. There were times when my breathing simply wouldn’t allow me to run any further. So I walked, and told myself that my running and walking speeds weren’t terribly different anyway. I finished that run/walk and said I’d never do another one.
But here I was, on a decidedly chilly morning in June, keeping left as every other person in the race ran past me, plodding along the banks of the Yarra hearing Josh in my head saying ‘don’t walk, just run more slowly’. I made it to the 5km mark, had a drink at the drinks station, threw my cup near the bin, and started walking the last 2 kms. Then Josh popped back into my head, so I started running again.
And as I got closer to the finish line I started to gather a bit more pace – this was exciting. People were cheering me on, someone called my name, Tim was there at the the finish line … I crossed it and stayed upright. I’d just finished a 7km run!
I felt so proud of myself for finishing … particularly for finishing by running rather than walking.
So proud, in fact that I signed up to run the 5km Run Melbourne – which I’d done in 2014 and again in 2016 – held in late July each year. I had a time to beat from 2016 – I was starting to feel a sizzle of competition. And of anxiety. What if I didn’t beat it? What if I ran more slowly?
In the end I figured that the world wouldn’t end, so just did what I could.
I beat my 2016 time by 6 minutes! That means I shaved off more than a minute per kilometre!
I felt so proud of myself for beating my previous time and setting a new PB for myself that I signed up to run the 5km De Castella run. It’s held in late August and is very (very) hilly. I had run it in 2017 and so had some inkling about how tough it was.
I was invited to go on some training runs and so at 7am in the 4C cold I met up with a group of others at the start of the course on two Sunday mornings in late July about a month out from the run.
I hadn’t ever trained before or prepared in any kind of way, but I had a time to beat. I’d done the run the year before, so not only had that time to beat, but had the Run Melbourne 5km time to beat.
Not only did I do two training runs with the group, I also did my first Park Run. I was in Canberra one weekend and thought that a 5km run around the lake at Belconnen would help my training. It was great!
I also graduated from Saturday Walk Club to Saturday Run Club – something I said I’d never do – and on my first morning at Run Club ran an 8km tempo run with Courtney, one of the trainers at the personal training studio I go to.
I was in training … I was actually getting serious about this running thing!
I’d get up early on Tuesdays morning and run for 5, 6 or 8 kms depending on how much time I had. I ran more and walked less each time. I was assured I didn’t need to run a PB each time, but I could feel myself getting faster and stronger.
In late August I completed the De Castella run. Rob De Castella ran past and I heard him telling his running companion to run more slowly rather than walk when she got tired. My time for the De Castella was a personal best for any 5km run I’d done. That was really quite amazing given how tough the course is.
I got brave and signed up for the 10km run as part of the Melbourne Marathon. The longest distance I’d run to that point was 8.5km.
The Melbourne Marathon was set for Sunday, October 14. My training was going well, Tom my new trainer put together a plan for me and I was sticking to it. I ran two-three mornings a week, did leg strengthening exercises, bought snazzy running pants … I went the whole hog.
But the pain in my lower leg wasn’t going away and so I went to see Rob, my physio. He told me to stop running for a week as I had an over-use injury. So I cycled instead – two 18km rides where I had to push myself – or in Rob’s words ‘smash it’ – to help build my leg strength. I did calf raises every time I went up the stairs, my usual strength training, and cardio to increase my fitness.
I went back to see Rob a week later and he said I could run for 1km and if it felt okay I could run for another km … I was back!
We went to Tasmania on AFL Grand Final Eve, and the next morning was glorious. Cold, it has to be said, but no wind, clear blue sky, perfect! The path around the Tamar River was fabulous, and I felt so good I decided to run into the Gorge. At the 3km mark I turned around and ran back to the hotel. I felt fabulous when I finished. My leg didn’t hurt, I finished strong, and kilometre #6 was my fastest … I felt great.
I was confident about the 10km run. I still had two weeks to go and things were looking up.
That night, on the plane on the way home to Melbourne, I became very ill and ended up in hospital for six days. On Day 4 after my discharge I still couldn’t walk more than 500 metres without needing a nap. A week after my release I could manage 2kms, but it simply wasn’t enough. My body just wasn’t going to cope with running 10kms, or even 5 for that matter, and so my plan of running my first ever 10km event had to be put on hold.
I’ve been told there are plenty of other runs … and that I’ll be back into running in no time.
Tim messages me late on Thursday afternoon: We can get to Tassie for $750. Will I book it?
I thought for a nanosecond and despite not having been to Tasmania so far this year, and despite my usual ‘nothing will keep me away from Tasmania when I have a few days off’, this time something was different. I simply didn’t want to go.
Tassie is known and familiar and I wanted, desperately needed, intuitively knew I needed to be somewhere unknown and unfamiliar. And somewhere a long way away. As far as it was possible to go in the six days we had available to us. Somewhere we hadn’t been before. Somewhere where all the people were strangers and all the roads new.
I wanted to go to Broken Hill.
Tim turns to me late on Thursday night: So. What are we doing over Easter?
It’s 9pm. I mention Broken Hill for the first time. Tim doesn’t blink an eye. It’s no wonder I love this man!
By 11pm our trip is organised, accommodation booked, distances calculated.
By 9am we are on the road, bags packed, keep cups full of tea/coffee, water bottles full, lunches tucked into the cooler bag along with a rudimentary first aid kit, snacks, tea bags and a tea towel – just in case!
I drive out of Melbourne – our usual arrangement – and then over the next six days keep driving.
Driving means I’m present, aware of ‘now’, focussing only on the road not on writing rubrics, determining how to publish the children’s stories I’ve written and had illustrated, responding to online discussion threads, reporting on how many law academics I’ve worked with, drafting journal articles and performance objectives, organising photo shoots, exercising, keeping up with social media …
… all left behind, all fading into the increasingly hazy distance as the road unwinds ahead of us.
Importantly we have a bag of CDs, all compilations we put together for my radio shows over 10 years ago. It’s only on day 6 we have to replay a CD. We have music for every part of our journey, even if it means pressing pause on Damien Rice’s Eskimo until we’re out of Wentworth because it’s a song that deserves space and the open road.
I drive and am present, focussed on this moment, on seeing new landscapes, new combinations of colours, new horizons, new destinations.
I drive and keep my eyes looking forward, into the distance, into the immediate future. I shed the city like a skin by the second day and there’s only the road and the wide-open spaces to contain me. I can feel myself expanding under the warmth and width of the bluest of blue skies.
The ribbons of road shimmering into the distance are my favourite – endless horizons full of possibilities and discovery, full of newness and unfamiliarity. Roads without curves, one line on the map, taking us to the edge of the outback.
The road stretches out before us. The compass says west and then north and they’re the only directions I want to head.
Warmth, colour, distance, the unfamiliarity of the landscape … the only place I want to be.
Away … so far away … into the desert where the hills gently whisper, and where, right before sunset the silence is audible. The desert where the horizon sits in some distant space way, way over yonder and where time and space mean different things. The desert where my grief for Dad pales against the vastness of the landscape, and I can drop it here, knowing threads of it will return to the city with me but also knowing that it’s safe out here in the warmth and almost limitless space between the far horizons.
It’s a hard reset on a hard start to the year – a chance to stay in the ‘now’, to not think beyond the next bend in an arrow-straight road, to simply be.
Away … so far away … and then home.
A few days after we came home, we made a book about our journey and published it on Blurb. You can see a preview here if you’re interested. I wrote the blog post above for the book, which also features essays Tim wrote and a selection of our photos from the trip.
It was one of the most significant and important trips I’ve ever taken.
I started this post a few months ago … and have added a sentence here and there in the time between now and then, but for some reason it’s been difficult to put together.
I’m not quite sure why, but I’m beginning to think it’s because it’s intensely personal and I’m not sure I want to share it.
It’s also more than that. I want to skate across the top and just describe our weekend, rather than deal with what lies underneath – and I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s okay. I don’t have to deal with the underneath here, in these posts that others (some familiar, some unknown to me) may read.
And there’s more still: I feel others’ judgements – the questions and voices I can hear from some of those unknown and some of the familiar: “Why blog about something so personal?”, “Why put this out there for others to read?” – questions and voices that I can choose to ignore, particularly as they’re in my head and therefore not real, and they’re stopping me from finishing this post.
So, here I am, on a sunny Saturday morning, finishing what I started months ago.
“The forecast is for rain all weekend”, my Queensland-based students reliably informed me during a web conference in early March.
“The forecast is for a hot weekend”, my Melbourne-based husband reliably informed me the next day.
I felt torn, but my ticket to Queensland was booked. I would just have to deal with the rain. At least it wouldn’t be cold, I thought.
I was wrong.
It was freezing!
I flew into Coolangatta on a Friday morning after an early start. Mum, Debbie and I talked and ate and talked at our favourite cafe – Mervyn Roy’s at Bilinga – then after a quick detour to Robina for some shopping, we headed into the hinterland.
We found our accommodation at the end of a tiny road, surrounded by giant trees being whipped furiously by the wind.
We are not known for letting a little bit of wind (read lots of wind) deter us, so we dressed for the cold and headed out. Dressing for the cold for me meant putting on all the clothes I’d packed. Luckily one of those things was a jacket. Also luckily, it did up even though I was wearing all my other clothes. As you can see, my footwear left a little to be desired. When I got to the (very) muddy track, it become patently clear that my footwear left a lot to be desired!
Importantly, I was wearing beautiful earrings!!
We clambered (elegantly, it has to be said) down a short but very steep embankment and found our way to the proper track. It was getting dark, the wind was still whipping the trees, and it had started to rain. Undaunted, we soldiered on. We had a goal: find Purling Brook Falls before dark.
We had ten minutes before the sun set – although, to be honest, the sun wasn’t exactly on show – and nine minutes before hyperthermia set in. We dawdled as fast as we could – Mum really does need one of those hiking sticks – except Deb didn’t dawdle quite as slowly as Mum and I. You can just see her charging ahead in her red rainproof coat. I actually think the lack of rainproof coats was slowing Mum and I down.
A quick snap of the falls and we were back to the house and the roaring fire (thanks to Bernie for lighting it for us).
The rain continued to pelt the roof all through the night. I admit to not hearing it despite being upstairs, but Deb let me know the next morning as she’d slept in the sleep-out with its alsynite roof, not known for muffling any sound let alone the sound of continuous and heavy rain.
Despite her lack of sleep, she was up bright and early making pancakes and bacon for breakfast. Thusly fortified, we headed out into the rain and wind for another look at the falls.
We quickly realised the falls we’d seen the night before were not in fact the main attraction. We also quickly realised that we were no better prepared for the conditions than we’d been yesterday. Plus the rain was heavier.
We found the rockpools we’d bathed in many (many) years ago on a summer camping trip – and were reminded of the ‘soap incident’. When I say ‘bathed’ I mean just that. The rockpool was our bath – and so we’d taken soap and towels and worn our bathers (decorum is important in the bush, particularly when you’re 14) and gone to wash in the pools. What we hadn’t counted on was the water’s flow – it washed our soap over the edge, never to be seen (by us at least) again. I can still hear Dad yelling, “don’t follow it! Let it go.” Sound advice which I distinctly remember following.
We walked through one continuous downpour, neither Mum nor I were adequately prepared (as you can see if you watch the video).
We eventually found our way to a lovely (warm and dry) cafe, where moments later our brother Warren appeared.
Finally, we were all together.
We were all together to spend the weekend as a family celebrating what would have been Dad’s 80th birthday. It was a weekend of quiet contemplation, of reminiscing, of doing things that were slightly uncomfortable (walking on muddy tracks in the rain and cold is not something we generally do for fun) because we could hear Dad encouraging us to get out into the outdoors and enjoy them, no matter what condition the outdoors threw at us.
We spend more time in the rain – I had to take my glasses off as they were so wet I couldn’t see through them – walking through the bush, taking photos as we went so we can look back in years to come and remember how daggy we were (and how okay we are with that), how important and comforting it was to be together and how we could enjoy each other’s company even though we were all grieving. As hard as it was to acknowledge, it’s true that life really does go on.
The last time Warren and I had been to PurlingBrook Falls was a number of years ago when we were both visiting Mum and Dad over the summer – Warren from out west and me from Tasmania. For about five or six summers we’d gather at Mum and Dad’s with kids in tow and spend time in shopping centres and McDonald’s playgrounds because they were the coolest places we could find … and of course, much more time at Currumbin Creek estuary, a quick walk from where Mum and Dad lived at the time.
One year, Dad had the ‘good’ idea of taking the kids bushwalking. It’ll be fun, he said enthusiastically, but their faces remained sceptical. We headed to Purling Brook Falls and tackled the track from right of the falls to left, heading down the steep track (which is now closed for repair) one side, under the waterfall at the bottom, then up the other side. It’s a steep walk up and Emma, my youngest who was about 8 at the time, and Carly, Warren’s eldest, who was 7, complained the whole way! None of grandad’s enthusiasm or stories of the beasties lurking in the bush made an impact on their determination to hate it.
Despite the complaints, it was a lovely walk and I was sorry (kind of) that the track wasn’t open this time around, because I’m sure we’d have done the walk again. Although, really, we were being considerate of Mum – we didn’t want her struggling through the mud and rain – she’s getting on you know! 🙂
On Sunday, before heading home, we venture to the Best of All Lookout which generally has the most gorgeous views over the Tweed Valley and out to Byron Bay. Not this day though!
We take the obligatory selfie, just to mark the occasion, and as there isn’t anything to see, we head back to the warmth of the car.
Even though we could barely see our hands in front of our faces let alone Mt Warning or Byron Bay, the Best of All lookout has more than views.
It also has a stand of antarctic beech trees. As soon as I walk into this short forest walk, I feel immediately at peace. It is these trees that provide me with the sense of consolation to which the title of this post refers. Each time I’ve been here, I’ve felt that same sense of consolation – the stresses of the outside world seem to slip away just a touch, my hands uncurl, my shoulders drop, and some of the tension I hadn’t known I was carrying in my body eases away.
It’s the same today. I can feel my grief loosening just a little, easing back on the tension I barely knew I was feeling.
We drive back to Mum’s the scenic way and she whips up a batch of scones for lunch in the way mothers have done for millenia: a no nonsense pragmatic approach to feeding her family. Jam, with spoons, cream, tea, a hodge-podge of plates, and the comfort of familiarity and togetherness.
We sit, as we always do, outside in the warmth and looking around I realise I’m not yet ready for Dad not to be there. I keep this in, and am convinced the others are holding their grief too, even though this weekend has been important and significant for us all. We each have our private grief, as well as the grief we share, and right now it’s still too soon to speak of it.
I know, deeply and intuitively, that while the consolation of trees soothes me, this time I need something more … this time I need wide open spaces, far-away horizons, warmth and unfamiliarity.
It was an important weekend for us all, spent in a place so rich in memory and remembrance, honouring Dad in our own way, mostly by being together.
My family’s good like that!
You can read my sister Debbie’s blog post about the weekend here.
Flicking through Instagram on Sunday morning, I came across a quote attributed to Winnie the Pooh.
There was something about the simplicity of that little sentence that touched me deeply and at that point my morning dissolved into tears.
When I remembered it was Tim’s father’s birthday, the tears threatened to overwhelm me.
You see, it’s my father’s birthday in a few weeks and it’ll be the first birthday he won’t be with us. Oh, there were birthdays when he was away – but he was always within reach of a card and after the Navy years he was always reachable by phone.
But not this year.
It’s one of those firsts I’ve been warned about but haven’t fully understood, in the way you just don’t until you actually experience it.
After big and comforting hugs, we headed into the forest to the north-east of Melbourne, into the consolation of trees.
As an added bonus, there was water.
Never underestimate the consoling power of trees … and a waterfall at the end of the path.
Dad lies completely still apart from the rise and fall of his chest, his breathing regular though shallow: a quick breath in, a just-as-quick breath out, count to four, another breath in. On the odd occasion his body misses a breath my heart races and I watch closely for the rise and fall of his chest.
Music wafts gently around the room Dad’s called home for the past 18 months and despite the scurry of nurses outside in the corridor there’s a sense of peace and calm here in this room.
I never imagined keeping watch over my dying father, but here I am, sitting on the hospital bed the nurses brought in and placed next to his, thinking about what I know and who I am because Noel Pittaway has been my Dad.
I know the importance of spit-clean shoes – polished and buffed till they shine. People notice shoes, Sharon, he’d say as I’d present them to him for inspection. Make sure they’re clean.
I know how to spell by breaking words into pieces and sounding them out.
I know that it annoys Mum when we do that (you’re just like your father, she says in that tone she has that indicates she thinks we’re clever but a bit show-offy.)
I know to eat my vegetables first before even touching anything else on my plate.
I know it’s best to eat cauliflower and cheese sauce while it’s hot.
I know how to swim because Dad insisted I stand in the shallow end of the Nowra pool and while all the other kids got to muck around I stood there and practiced my strokes and my breathing. I was never a fast swimmer but I had a nice style (just like your father, Mum used to say in that tone she has that speaks of admiration).
I have an eclectic musical taste because Dad had an ever-expanding record collection that ranged from Rachmaninov to Ray Charles via Ravi Shankar.
I know how to be comfortable with silence; that I don’t have to fill it with words and that in the silence there’s still warmth and togetherness.
I know that reading fiction opens up worlds I would never have been able to imagine on my own. Some of those worlds were beyond the comprehension of my 11,12,13-year-old self, but I discovered that being stretched imaginatively is important and immensely beneficial to a teenager’s developing mind and spirit.
I know the thrill of the rollercoaster, big slippery dips and rides that spin and whirl and fling you upside down and inside out and the added thrill of experiencing that with your granddaughter. Again and again and again.
I know it’s wrong for a girl to swear.
I know how to snorkel. And not to be afraid of the ocean. And the delight of walking on the squeaky white sand of Jervis Bay.
I know that travel is an adventure to be indulged in whenever possible and part of that adventure is the spontaneity of a detour or an unplanned destination or heading down a one-way street the wrong way.
I know that creative expression is an important part of life, whether that expression is theatrical, literary, artistic, musical or photographic – and the importance of taking the lens cap off.
I know what love for your wife(husband) looks like because of the depth of love Dad has for Mum … and I know that romance is not dead.
I know that people are deeply complex and that an external quiet doesn’t necessarily mean an internal quiet.
I know that laugh-yourself-silly fun is contagious and being surrounded by your grandchildren and great grandchildren is joyous and delightful in ways that can’t be described in words …
and that when you’re in your 60s and you think you can still somersault off the 1 metre board at the Murbah pool and get up there only to find you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, that a poolside cheer squad led by your grandchildren will push the fear down and turn you into a hero as you run along the board and somersault effortlessly into the diving pool.
I know that the rougher the sea the more you enjoy the ride. Just hang on tight and ride the swell.
And I know that while the taste of beetroot is a flavour they serve in hell, Dagwood Dogs are a tiny taste of heaven.
I know that what your dad teaches you can be hard to learn and that you can fight against it (and him) and that what you learn might not have been the intended lesson, but I also know that Dad has influenced my life enormously and I am who I am in big measure because my Dad is Noel Pittaway.
The movement of Dad’s body … the rise and fall of his chest … stops in the afternoon of Thursday 25 January … but the movement of his life and his legacy have transcended his body and spread through his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren … it’s a legacy that moves invisibly yet steadily across and through the generations.
On February 14, 2016 Dad and I flew over Antarctica. It had been a life-long ambition of his. Here we are ready for our 14-hour adventure.
*Many thanks and huge appreciation to Alison Cosker for providing feedback on this post. It has been strengthened because of her input.
Much of the trip had seemed a little impossible at the planning stage. Convince Sharon to trek half way around the world, at a time when maximum temperatures were likely to only just edge into positive numbers? Impossible. Travel through so many countries, in such a short space of time, and still feel like we had a sense of each place? Impossible. Get up at 5am, make our way across an unknown city (Paris), find a completely new train station and navigate to our early train, just to journey for several hours at high speeds, to see a lump of land in the middle of the ocean? Yep, you guessed it; impossible.
And yet there we were, rugged up (as usual), Sharon with more layers than your average filo pastry, boarding the train to Mont-Saint-Michel. I didn’t have a strong idea about what to expect, but I was enjoying the adventure. And the first-class train carriage. My early advice about travelling in Europe is to always travel by trains if you have the time, and to always travel first-class if you have the money. It’s the only way to go…
The train pulled away smoothly from the station right on time, and the first half hour was spent zipping through a series of tunnels (I think? It was pretty dark outside, but these were definitely darker), each more ear-popping than the last. And then, whoosh, out into the countryside, past green-edged paddocks, tiny barns and houses with earthy coloured thatched roofs, a rather exorbitant number of powerlines, and so on, all punctuated regularly by a new ear-popping sound, that of the similarly svelte bullet trains going in the other direction. Sharon jumped a little each time, through the whole trip. At one point I looked at the speed indicator – 317 kilometres per hour. Yep, impossible, but there we were, in a smooth, air-conditioned bubble.
I’m a little hazy on the rest of this part of the trip, mostly because I might have napped a little to make up for the early start I suspect! But the hours passed impossibly quickly, and with just a short hop on a shuttle bus, there we were, at Le Mont.
When you get to Mont-Saint-Michel, you have a choice – you can hop on a shuttle bus (which is somewhat convincingly panelled to look like a wooden carriage, except for the diesel fumes and lack of a horse at the front end), you can ride a horse-drawn carriage (although the horses appeared to have slept in on the day we visited), or you can walk the 45 minutes to the island. Despite Sharon’s ongoing knee pain, we decided to act like pilgrims and make the journey on foot. I’m so glad we did. You walk along a nondescript gravel path for about 15 minutes, with very informative (I assume) panels about grasslands and birds and stuff, and then the path opens up, and there in front of you is the most impossible thing of all, Le Mont-Saint-Michel.
Frankly it’s a little hard to describe it, but just imagine your average tidal wetland. It’s flat, there’s some water but because the tide is out there’s not much of it, and a few small rocks creating something of a border or boundary for that puddly water residue, and then some muddy flatland that seems to go on forever. And then, rising out of this completely ordinary landscape (believe me, I’ve tried for several minutes here to make it interesting), is a rock. And on that rock is a wall. And behind the wall there are turrets, ramparts, buildings, flags, lights, seagulls, people, and rising above it all, seemingly perched on just a tiny triangle of land, impossibly small, is the abbey, which is everything except tiny and impossibly small. It’s quite an impression, and easy to forget where and when you are.
Once we’d picked ourselves up from the ground after being bowled over by this incredible view, we finished our pilgrimage and made our way in… Somehow we managed to find the back way to the abbey, past groups of people washing their feet after exploring the wetlands outside the walls as people have done for centuries, past armed men entrusted with keeping order as armed men have done on Le Mont for centuries (hopefully we didn’t look too rowdy), past dozens of tiny doors that seemed to lead to sheer cliff faces, or to tiny rooms with no clear purpose, up stone steps worn to smiles by generation after generation of tired feet, and miraculously to the front door of the abbey.
At this point, I’ll just share some general impressions, as the overall experience was quite profound and worth experiencing first-hand… There are still monks in the abbey. They live, work, and share their modest lives there, surrounded by swarms of tourists but somehow still able to live lives of peace, tranquility, and worship. And they have extraordinary singing voices, if (like us) you should happen to find yourself wandering through the main chapel as mass is taking place. Those voices and the whistling winds have been finding harmonies for an impossibly long time, and I feel extraordinarily fortunate that we arrived there at that moment so purely by chance. The abbey itself is almost impossibly complex, to the point where those trying to interpret the layout now are simply unable to describe why some rooms exist; there are chapels, refectories, crypts, a scriptorium, rooms with great wheels turned by the feet of prisoners held in the abbey when it was a prison, cloisters, gardens, great halls for receiving dignitaries and kings, and then there are other rooms, spaces that link these purposeful rooms, spaces with fireplaces large enough to hold entire trees, and spaces that… well, do something. It’s like a home improvement reality show has been running for centuries – “I reckon we could add another well here to really spice things up a bit”, and somewhere along the way, the reasons for that work were lost.
But this is perhaps an injustice, as the spaces that we can explain are extraordinary, and the design shows a level of sophistication and insight into not only the engineering required to build a remarkable space, but also the ways space can be shaped to create an emotional response (like the tall, slender windows in the refectory, that bathed the room in light but are invisible as you enter the room). This is an abbey of drama, prestige, intrigue, history, story, and time. And it is still unfolding, still being told…
As our shuttle bus groaned away from the kerb on our return journey, rain had started falling in earnest. A kind of light mist began to curl around Mont-Saint-Michel, softening the lines, reducing clarity, wrapping it up again, ready for tomorrow’s pilgrims, tomorrow’s tiny marks in the impossible pages of its time.
A slow morning as we pretend we live in an amazing Parisian loft. Tim had found a supermarket nearby last night and we started the day with a home cooked breakfast.
We found a laverie around the corner, in the cobbled laneway we’d walked through last night, and despite the instructions being in French we worked out pretty quickly how it worked. We were so adapt we were able to help a young French man who didn’t speak any English, and a young couple who didn’t speak English or French who were so appreciative of our help they bought us a Nutella crepe! I wanted to sit there for the rest of the day helping people, but once our clothes were washed and dried Tim insisted there were more interesting things to do in Paris than hang around a laverie hoping for Nutella crepes!
We were booked to go on a photo tour of the canals around the Bastille area (where we were staying) but the weather wasn’t good and just after lunch it was cancelled. We decided to head out in the rain anyway and made our way to Notre Dame, a wander through the Latin Quarter, an hour or so in Shakespeare and Company and a cruise on the Seine where the rain on the windows made for a great impressionistic shot of the Eiffel Tower.
It felt much colder today than when we were here before Christmas – it got to 4C (felt like 1.4C) but I still didn’t complain. I was actually warm, probably because I had so many layers on – only my nose and eyes were exposed to the elements, and walking back from the cruise I pulled my buff over my nose so not even that was cold. Weirdly, my hands stayed warm even when I wasn’t wearing my gloves!
The rain didn’t appear to be stopping, so we headed back to our apartment where it was cozy, warm and amazingly comfortable.
Mel wrote to say it was snowing in Cheddar! It feels cold enough to snow here … wouldn’t that be good?!
People have been doing this for years (celebrating Christmas in very different time zones than their families) but for Tim and I it was a first. A very different day from this time last year when Rochelle hosted a family Christmas with all the noise and excitement you’d expect with more than 11 children under 10 in the same house!
Phone/FaceTime calls punctuated the morning: Hunter and Lily excitedly showing me all the gifts they’d received; Felicity sleeping peacefully in her cot after a relatively quiet day; Emma getting all the kids bathed and into bed; Daniel’s relief that Ziggy was recovered; Mum’s delight that Dad had recognised her; Deb’s cool-ish day at the beach (though still warmer than the 4C we were expecting); Ben’s day spent with friends in far-off WA (too far away when we’re home, let alone now) …
We were keen to explore Cheddar but given the weather decided a walk up/through the Gorge was out of the question. A bacon sandwich fortified us for a stroll through the village and, once we’d added another three layers of clothing, we headed off.
What an interesting place. Tiny laneways, houses whose front doors open straight onto the street, stone cottages, old old pubs, and above all the Gorge looming overhead. I can see its appeal.
Craig spent hours in the kitchen and around 4 in the afternoon produced a Christmas meal unrivalled in my many years of Christmas meals! It was a Christmas meal that made sense. It was hot and hot makes sense when it’s 4C outside. Honey roasted parsnips, the most deliciously crunchy roasted potatoes, Yorkshire puddings (who knew they were so good!), rosemary and sage stuffing, pigs in blankets, turkey (beautifully moist) and more … much, much more.
We ate and ate … such good food … and then snoozed away the rest of the day in the warmth inside. It was raining outside and so spending a quiet evening in was just what the doctors needed!
When Tim mentioned he’d like to go to Paris for Christmas, I have to admit that my response was not one of enthusiasm or excitement.
Christmas in Paris means winter.
Winter means cold.
I hate the cold.
No, you don’t understand.
I really hate it!
But I said yes anyway – who could say no to Tim’s obvious enthusiasm and excitement, and I made a promise to myself to limit my whingeing about the cold to a bare minimum.
Luckily for Tim, it hasn’t been too cold so far. 10C each day – which I’ve been able to live with quite comfortably. It helps that we stocked up on merino tops, merino thermals, merino socks, merino buffs … and, for me, fur-lined boots. Sharon, a colleague from work, lent me her duck down, knee-length puffy jacket and matching beanie … so with multiple layers, and thus, nowhere for the cold to touch my skin, I’ve actually remained surprisingly warm.
For both of us!
The l’Orangerie was on the agenda for today – a Christmas gift from Daniel and Cathy – and sitting (calmly – as the sign asked us to) taking in Monet’s waterlillies was a fabulous way to spend the morning. One of the things I love about Paris is the ready access to artworks we often don’t get to see in Australia – except for travelling exhibitions. Downstairs from Monet’s waterlillies were works by Picasso, Modigliani, Renoir and others … a visual treat!
We find our way to No Glu – a gluten free cafe (thanks Michelle) – for lunch (our first meal for the day) and do a lot of Google translating to work out the menu before the waiter brings us the English version.
It’s started to rain but we are warm and dry inside our layers as we make our way to the Louvre – ready to laugh our way around it. Cedrik is our guide – a historian and stand up comedian. It’s an entertaining way to see key works in the world’s (second?) largest museum – apparently, if you were to spend two minutes looking at each of the art works, you’d be there for 150 days!
It’s an overwhelming place – so much history, so much art, so many people and selfie sticks and pushing to get a photo with the Mona Lisa. We didn’t push, but we also didn’t get selfies with her. Her smile was enough thanks.
On our way to and from the Louvre, we make some of our own art works – works of a photographic nature. Here’s a small sample of mine. As you can see, it’s a very wintery day!