Rivotorto.

Rivotorto.

Belting up the Autostrade from Rome in a navy blue Fiat yesterday, I shared the same will as the Little Red Engine chanting 'I think I can, I think I can, I know I can, I know I can' while being pushed (all to frequently and just as I thought I'd nailed it) to the other side of the dual road by powerful Audis travelling at speeds reserved for a jumbo jet.  It was two hours filled with a liberation experienced in the very best scenes of Thelma and Louise, just without Louise (or Thelma, as you like) and a much younger Brad Pitt.  Oh, and a murder scene with the day saved by Harvey Keitel as the cool headed cop.

Stopping at Agis more than once, I enjoyed coffees good enough to put the Melbourne hipster cafe scene to complete shame, before continuing on my journey to Rivotorto, a tiny little hamlet just outside of beautiful Assisi- an ancient town nestled in the Umbrian hills.

I eventually hit the Via Ponte Todero – an unsealed road with as many forks as your average kitchen drawer, lined by blooming olive trees and a thousand different types of spindly grasses. After almost an hour of reversing, and reversing again, followed by only two or three mutterings about ducks and ships (or words that might rhyme with duck and ship) while the GPS kindly assured me that I had to turn right, turn right, turn right, turn right, I turned her off and was thrilled to finally discover the sweetest little stone cottage flanked by a swimming pool and more olive trees with little stone pathways leading to geranium filled pots and a dried up stream below. A topless man named Mario greeted me as he scooped olive leaves out of the 'piscina' (just add an A in Italy) – 'I'm seventy,' he told me 'it's tough being 70,'  before he lugged my suitcase up the hill to the studio that I was to call home for the next three days.  I seem to recall thinking that Mario looked more like forty than seventy, before looking around my sweet little bedroom, feeling a type of perplexion that is becoming more and more frequent in my travels.

The website of this bed and breakfast boasts more than just the bed and shower that Mario had proudly shown me (much as they were both very appealing).  There was the promise of a tranquil silence (why is there a family squabbling right next door I thought to myself), a fully equipped kitchen with long rustic dining tables (the small shelf with a kettle and four plastic cups at the end of my bed was not going to cut it- where was the fridge for my wine?) and a swimming pool amongst established olive trees (tick, thank god).  I asked Mario (who I had, by now, established was the father of Arianna, the woman who runs this lovely little oasis) if there was a 'frigo' for me to store milk and wine, and where could I make coffee in the morning?  Mario scratched his head, now joining me in my state of perplexion, before taking me to the pool house where he dusted off an old fridge, surrounded by deflated pool toys and ancient furniture, and plugged it in, telling me that I was welcome to use it for the duration of my stay.  Had Mario not been one of the most charming men in the world who was making every effort to make me comfortable – all in English with smatterings of Italian, I would have picked up the fridge and thrown it into the pool.  Rather than being silly and getting bothered about the fridge and seemingly false advertising on their website, I smiled and took myself off to my room and emailed Arianna, thanking her for Mario's warm welcome and efforts towards making me comfortable, before noting (very gently) that I  thought that I had booked to stay in a 'fully equipped cottage,' a house, not a single dorm. 'But nevermind' I wrote, 'I am very happy here,' before going off to google 'places to stay in Assisi.'

A short while later, having decided that I needn't worry and I should just be grateful to be here (much as three days without a kitchen and the thought of a highly needed homemade salad not coming into fruition haunted me, not to mention the idea of NO coffee for three days while drinking hot wine as I type this blog bothered me), I packed a little bag and set off down the pathway for Rivotorto, a small village just a short walk from the bed and breakfast. As I reached the front gate, Mario emerged from under the olive trees, breathless, telephone in hand, while looking as though he'd seen a ghost, 'forgive me,' he begged, 'I made an error- my daughter phoned, you are in the wrong room, you must come with me and I will show you everything.'  With that, we walked back up the hill and he took me through the sweetest little cottage across the courtyard, forming the extension of my room (as it turns out, the squabbling family had moved into my cottage by mistake).  I was thrilled to see a fridge stocked with a large piece of salami which Mario insisted I eat (I may or may not have had a generous wedge last night), power points in abundance, more coffee pots and beautiful ceramic cups than I could ever wish to utilise, and a long kitchen table the perfect size for writing.  I thanked him just as profusely as he apologised, and he shook my hand before sending me down the garden path to Rivotorto 'you can walk, you have good shoes,' he said, waving me off with a triumphant smile, hands tucked neatly behind his back.

Twenty minutes later I reached the town of Rivotorto after having my ankles nipped by every dog in the village.  Old women smiled while slumped in their plastic chairs that were perched in gardens made up of concrete and vines amongst a conservative smattering of pots filled with basil and geraniums. Two little boys chased me down the street shouting 'ciao' before running in the other direction, choking on their own laughter.  Kittens emerged from underneath wood sheds and fireflies zapped around me.  The drone of the Autostrade could be heard in the distance, and the beautiful, ancient town of Assisi watched over the valley from above.  

Following a crisp ale at the bar in Rivotorto enjoyed amongst a concert of shouting from the local pool hall, after a successful trip to the supermarket, I returned to my new home last night just as the sun began to set in the distance, cicadas and fireflies keeping me company in the absence of the squabbling family who had gone out for the night.  This morning they departed, and with that, I took my lily white self to the swimming pool decked out in in the navy Monoprix swimsuit that hasn't seen the light of day since that day at the piscine in Paris. Mario visited with his beautiful wife Sylvia as they checked that everything was ok, and they left after at least half an hour of talking about Melbourne and all of their friends who now live there.

Tonight as I made the walk back into Rivotorto, every dog in the village attacked me (again) as Nonnas screamed at them from underneath the olive trees.  I've never been afraid of dogs, but these little Umbrian pupettes have got me dancing on my giant toes.  After fetching a much needed tomato from the supermarket for my second salad in as many days, I returned to the bar for a crisp ale under the evening sun and the 'protective' gaze of a man no younger than 564 years, before he mounted his three wheel Piaggio and chugged off into the distance.  Ancient Fiat Pandas puffed around the roundabout and children screamed with laughter in the distance. 

The cicadas started up again as I made my way back up the hill to this little oasis, newly quiet and all to myself until I make the journey across the hills on Saturday morning for Castello di Potentino- one of my most favourite places in the world.

Pictured: vines at the foot of the beautiful town of Assisi on my walk home tonight.

Glamping.

Glamping.

A few months ago I wrote a post as I swanned about a glamp site in Northern Goa.  Upon our arrival, beautiful men in white tennis shoes waded effortlessly through the sand that lay like an Arabian desert between the reception tent and the door of our tent, with our suitcases and endless bags atop their heads.  Palm fronds waved like old friends and I was filled with a welcome disbelief as I stepped out of the searing Goan heat and into a room awash with white.  A split system churned above and I concluded this was my type of glamping paradise.

~

Last Friday morning came about quickly after a busy week of farewells in Paris.  On Thursday afternoon I was thrilled to get a message from friends who happen to live in the same street as me in Melbourne, advising that they were in Paris for the night and would I join them for dinner.  The evening started with a refreshing Aperol Spritz before settling into the crispest white wine, steak tartare (with just enough zing) and non stop chatter which saw us adjourn shortly before midnight after a happy, laughter filled dinner- they to pack for their trip back to Australia the following morning, and me to prepare for a weekend of glamping at Curious Arts, a fabulous literary festival in Hampshire.  As the clock struck midnight I checked the weather, pressing shirts as I did so.  There was rain forecast, but my overactive and often impractical mind imagined a drizzled haze rolling off a crisp, white shirt, gin and tonic in hand as the sun peaked through the clouds that blanketed the British summer sky.  The warmth of the sun would blush my cheeks as I listened intently to those who inspire me, and the canvas teepee which I was to call home for the next three days would be warm and just a short walk from a hot shower.

My alarm sounded like a war siren on Friday morning just after 4.30 am. I'd performed the ingenious act of booking the 7.13 am Eurostar to London – one of those things that seems sensible at the time but in hindsight, and when the reality of getting to Gare du Nord before Paris has even thought about rubbing her own bleary eyes signalling the start of a new day, it is nothing short of silly.  Those sweet chortling morning birds that remind me long of nights where I didn't sleep (now a distant memory from my twenties), sang as I crashed down four flights of medieval stairs, suitcase in tow and out into the cool Parisian air set for the first metro of the day to Gare du Nord and then off to London.

~

When Bridget Jones' Baby was launched  last year, I went not once but twice in one week to watch it.  I found it extremely funny, but this is not the reason I went back for a second fix- that's not normal, and it's rare that I would even get to a cinema twice in one week let alone to see the same film.  The real reason (I promise) is that I'd promised two out of three sisters that I'd see it with them and somehow ended up going on two seperate occasions unable to coordinate all of us at once for a one off with Bridget.

I laughed so much during the film and was quite happy to go back for seconds of 'that scene' where the handsome Patrick saves Bridget from a huge cow pat infested puddle at a festival inspired by Glastonbury and every other 'summer' festival that the British have become so good at putting together- wellies and all, and I will never actually stop laughing about 'that other scene' featuring Ed Sheeran rolling in a giant bubble  towards the portaloos.  So, you can imagine as I pulled in at Lymington Pier which sits at the gateway to the Isle of White and seemingly the end of the earth, my overactive and often impractical mind was channeling movies with unchieveable plot lines, but surely we can all dream of giant bubbles and Ed Sheeran?

A kind lady named Dora picked me up from the train in a black cab with its light brightly lit up in orange on top.  Her cheeks were flushed red and her hair was newly died yellow; she was kind in her questions – 'you off to the festival darlin,' she asked with a tone of sympathy in her voice, 'it's about to bookette dern and dun look like stoppin for the whole weekend,' she added, 'funny this wevver, it's been so darn ott all summer and then this weekend when you come to visit, she's goin to get rightly feral I'd say.'  Dora then proceeded to switch down a gear before driving me with a confidence I can only imagine would be reserved for a person in control of an army tanker, across a field filled with cow pats and quickly developing puddles, taxi light still bright as the view of bunting, flags, teepees and wellie clad legs began to emerge in the distance- all flanked by the grandure that is Pylewell House in whose fields and grounds the festival was taking place. 'I'll take you right to the door darlin,' she said before waving me off and wishing me luck.

My huge canvas teepee was in fact warm and only a short walk from hot showers and flushing loos.  A sheepskin mat lay across the floor and little solar powered fairy lights twinkled, providing a light for reading and a warm welcome home in the dead of night.  A double mattress was made up with real cotton sheets and two fluffy pillows sat neatly at the end.  The tent was completely watertight and I set about unpacking my impractically packed suitcase filled with ironed shirts and very little else.

~

I woke on Saturday early with the warmth of the morning sun a blessing after the previous night which was filled with teaming rain, seeing me huddled in a huge tent swilling champagne while avoiding huge plops of rain – I made chatter amongst new faces, most of them friends of Clare, a literary agent from London who curates Curious Arts. I met Clare at the beginning of this year at a very funny New Year's Eve party and it was she who taught me the saying 'good morning Mr Magpie, and how is your wife,' as she kept me entertained and on the edge of my seat on the way to the airport in Pisa.  'Come to my festival in July, you must,' she had said as we waved goodbye.  I knew if all went to plan and I did indeed end up back in Paris, of course I would.  A gorgeous group of her friends and contemporaries made me feel welcome on Friday night and as live music played into the wee hours of Saturday morning, I slept like a baby in my teepee, exhausted from my early start and day of waterlogged travel.

Saturday saw conversation groups with the likes of Joanna Trolloppe, Matt Haig, Eimer McBride and Valentine Warner.  I was particularly taken with Matt Haig who spoke of writing as a way of cheering himself up as he battled a long struggle with depression.  His new book, 'How To Stop Time – the importance of staying alive,' is a really poignent piece written straight from the heart where he uses interactions between his literary heros and his fictional character Tom, as a way of taking the mind from a dark place and into an imagined world in a bittersweet story about losing and finding yourself and the certainty of change, as well as the lifetimes it can take to really learn how to live. As I stepped out of the tent following Matts talk, more rain fell from the sky and I said a quiet prayer of thanks to the man from the angling store in Lymington who I'd visited earlier that morning in a quick emergency rain coat pittstop, for reducing his fishing range to 50% off.

Saturday night saw John Illsey from Dire Straights play a full set, followed by Birdy, one of my favourite singers.  I woke on Sunday morning ready for a return to London in preparation for my trip to Rome the following day, and as I packed up my tent, stashing a new collection of reading material into the corner of my suitcase once reserved for shoes, I made a mental note that as much as I had drowned in information and inspiration, the other drowning in the physical form of rain had me concluding that my festival days of glamping might easily be numbered to just a one off.  As I made this conclusion, heavy rain fell outside with very little promise of ever stopping.

Later that afternoon I organised a cab to pick me up from the front of the house- a short fifteen minute walk from my tent through ancient oak trees and across a field before reaching a sealed road.  The taxi company said 3pm, so I set off shortly beforehand.  Just as I emerged out of the information tent and into the wide, open field, the sky's opened once again and I spent the following fifteen minutes rolling my suitcase through puddles with gritted teeth and not a lot of sparkle remaining in my sense of humour bank – all as I took an unwanted shower and everything from my shoes to my suitcase filled with cool, British water fresh from the sky. A kind farmer painting his John Deer tractor tires in a barn not far from the oak tree where I needed to wait, greeted me with smiling eyes before reminding me that the weather had been so lovely in the south this summer.  A portly little man named Don showed up moments later, and as he revved his Vauxhall Opel down the driveway I imagined Rome the following day in all of her dry, 32 degree glory.

As the plane touched down on the tarmac yesterday following the flight from Gatwick to Fiumicino, the flight attended reminded us that we were invited to make a donation to the 'little children who suffered from Poor Leo,' and as I madly scrambled for loose pounds I wondered who Poor Leo actually was, before realising that she was referring to the relationship that EasyJet have with the UNICEF medical fund- another poignent reminder that life is not all that bad and a bag full of sodden and rather brown clothing was going to be easily fixed, with much anticipated access to the hotel laundry only hours away.

Seeing one of my dearest and oldest friends Stu round the corner at arrivals yesterday, fresh off his flight from Genoa to Fiumicino, was a joyous moment which was followed by an evening of Aperol Spritz and a delicious dinner filled with laughter, as we solved all the really big issues in the world.  We waved goodbye this morning when he set off for the airport to return to Australia and I turned back to my coffee in the courtyard of Hotel Locarno- a beautiful hotel that I discovered many years ago at about the same time that this beautiful city stole a big part of my heart.

Tomorrow sees me driving from Rome to Tuscany in a hired Fiat Panda and, after a pinningmywords hiatus brought about by unreliable wifi and waterlogged shoes, I invite you to watch this space.  And, while I didn't find 'my Patrick' to save me as I waded through the mud on my festival debut, nor did I roll in a giant bubble with Ed Sheeran towards the portaloos, my faith is restored, with tomorrow being an entirely new day.

Pictured: a quiet Roman street on our way home last night.  

A new silence.

A new silence.

I type this under a threatening grey sky as drizzle that has attempted to form rain all day makes fairly pitiful in roads,  bringing very little respite to the discomfort brought by the steam that hangs in the air.  Yesterday was so hot that my legs stuck together in a cafe and I had to waddle home like a duck, and today the promise of a cool change has yet to deliver.

In more glamorous news, I’ve spent much of today in the laundromat drying sheets and laundry, and about an hour ago as I jammed more coins into the machine, I was approached by a man with two bolts in his nose, a cap on backwards and a sharp spike emerging from his lip.  He asked for my assistance, and because I’m feeling so upbeat at the moment with my hair sticking to the back of my neck in an almost permanent state, I obliged.  Only half an hour earlier I had been searching online for local conversation groups to join as a means of improving my spoken French, so his questions were met with an internal glee.  I pointed at each section of the machine from softener to powder and everything in between, feeling quite chuffed with myself, before returning to my seat with pretty awful smelling fabric softener all over my hands.

The laundromat punk will never know that his very simple questions probably made my day.

Yesterday marked the end of two amazing weeks with my Dad.  We spent day after day whizzing around in our hire car on the Somme and parts of Belgium (me on my debut and he as a seasoned visitor), as well as covering each and every corner of Paris on foot during the days when he first arrived and then in a final, very memorable last week.

We got in a routine of meeting daily for an early walk around the beautiful Jardin du Luxembourg before breakfast followed by endless explorations around my new home city which I’m fairly sure, has stolen a little part of his heart.  We’d leap on and off the metro after whirling around underground, before walking for miles averaging about 17 kilometres a day.  Not a day went by where his enormous brain wasn’t boggling and madly making space for the next bit of information that was inevitably thrown his way.  His approach to the French was in English and they nodded furiously as he spoke furiously, and I loved every second of the time we spent together, where I threw all the silly little burdons I’ve carried about improving my French in timeframes and at a rate that are probably not even humanly possible.  Tiny jars of honey were transported in his top pocket to add to his daily café crème and a pen was always on hand to write down the names of people and places we’d seen.

On the Somme and in Belgium he showed me war grave upon war grave, each one with a story of its own and one that he’d diligently researched- I was as blown away as anyone would be and absolutely fascinated with the knowledge that he has of the seemingly hundreds of individuals he’s researched and who came to serve in the First World War.  I watched proudly as he lay a wreath at the Menin Gate in Ypres (fondly known as Wipers by the boys who were based there 100 years ago), and found my eyes tearing up as the last post was played before the end of the evening service, a daily ritual that has taken place each day with the exception only being during the German occupation of Ypres in the Second World War, and upon their departure, the horns sounded once again on the very day that they left.

In Ypres we drank Wipers Ale and feasted on moules de frites and back in Paris we started a pre dinner routine of gin and tonics and a dozen of the juiciest oysters from Normandy, freshly shucked and absolutely delicious.  Boiling hot days were broken with lunch of the coldest gaspacho and a freezing cold beer, and our dinner routine of Sancerre, plats du jour and non stop conversation was highly enjoyable and will always be fondly remembered. 

We arrived back from Ypres last Wednesday after experiencing endless road closures on our way to Amiens, where we were due to catch the afternoon train to Paris.  Expletives were muttered under our collective ‘breaths’ as we passed again and again under ‘that bridge’ which became tiresome after making an approach from seemingly ten different directions.  I’m surprised the GPS was still intact when we returned the car after it had decided (with about half an hour to spare), that having a sleep during a traffic crisis would be a good idea.  There was also the moment where Dad decided to help the leader of our bike tour around Versailles after ‘Grammar’ the grandma from middle America fell off her bike and sprained her wrist, unable to finish the ride.  I watched in a perplexed state as he wheeled her bike (while riding his), before sailing precariously towards a hedge.  To be continued…  Last Thursday morning when we met for our morning walk, I found him sitting up in the reception of his hotel looking fresh and ready to go, hair parted, shoes clean, shorts ironed and wearing his very smart pyjama top.  The laundry service had gone into meltdown with the following day being a big national holiday celebrating Bastille Day (leaving him with no clean shirts) and while I promised not to tell anyone and reassured him that he actually looked quite suave, I have sent the photo I took under the beautiful plane trees that line the paths of the Jardin du Luxubourg, to anyone who has shown an interest (available upon request).

And now I type this from Cafe de Paris which has always been a little neighbourhood favourite, reflecting on all of our conversations from our time together as well as the comfortable silences that are standard on long car journeys, filled with pensive thoughts designed to redesign ones life.  As I type, I experience a new type of silence, even though a man plays his clarinet on the street corner, bikes whizz past- their riders sounding a shrill bell as pedestrians scatter towards street stalls. My favourite waiter from the cafe across the road has just arrived for his night shift, and my neighbour who has an endless collection of bright tartan suits just walked by with his very beautiful wife. 

As sad as I am that the last two weeks are all but over, the things that are becoming familiar in my new life here excite me and I will forever treasure that incredibly special moment in time avec mon père.


Pictured:  its back to coffee for one, taken today at Cafe de Paris where I wrote this post.

Continued explorations.

Continued explorations.

As the sun spills in my window, I type this to the beat of the pianist who practices across the way- this time, in concert with a young woman who is frantically chasing his tune with a cello.  It’s the most beautiful scene on this magnificent day following yesterday’s Bastille Day celebrations.

Last night we returned from Versailles after a day of cycling around acre upon acre of gardens before becoming blinded by the vast amounts of gold used to decorate the gates of the palace-  so opulent and extravagant, the mind boggles.  The hall of mirrors and the kings chamber met our weary eyes just before 5 pm and I left with a much better understanding of why the the people overthrew the monarchy and took control of the government. Louis XV and Marie Antoinette signaled the end of the French monarchy in this country- their legacy (at least in an architectural sense), is nothing short of bold (which of course, rhymes with gold).

So much history is written on the grounds of a good revolt, and today as Dad and I schlepped around the Pantheon in all its grandeur (seemingly modest in comparison to our experiences of the day before), we were again reminded of the barbaric behaviours from a time long ago (so many years, that I always lose count and tend to mix my decades up), particularly through the huge works of Classicism that line the walls. 

 The Pantheon was comissioned in 1744 by Louis XV with a brief to rival Saint Peters in Rome (a bit of competition never hurts).  I always like to play a visit to this overwhelming monument which pays hommage to dignaturies of the empire; major authors and figures in the fight for equality; powerful voices who gave life to democracy and civic values at the dawn of the French Revolution, as well as those who have shown courage and resistance.  

In the crypt below it is a slightly more peaceful and dignified affair with names such as Scholelcher (responsible for the abolishment of slavery), Jaurès (the father of French Socialism), Hugo, Voltaire, Rousseu, Condorcet, Monge, Grégoire as well as Brossolette, Moulin and Zay – the latter three who resisted the Nazi occupier and the Vichy regime.  More recently, scientists Pierre and Marie Curie were laid to rest here in honour of their discoveries on radium after also dually receiving a Nobel Prize for this incredible work.

It is always sobering to pay a visit to the ‘Plaque of the Righteous’ in the crypt, which honours those who helped Jews hide during WW2- this wall serves as a reminder that in our crashing past there has also been humble acts of kindness and relative peace.  Paris is incredibly interesting like this, and another place that fills me with a similar feeling of reassurance is the Grand Musquée located in the 5th Arondossiment – it too has played a recent role in protecting the vulnerable throughout the Second World War (I wrote about this in an earlier blog post titled, ‘La Femme Parisienne’ January, 2017).

This post will be shorter than normal as I have an important date with my travel companion tonight and I need to go and ready myself out of my exploring gear and into something more decent, but I will leave you with an image of Dad and I belting up to the Somme again tomorrow for a day trip (with our cousin Saskia Holloway).  He, in a brand new pair of snazzy blue braces (replacing his yellow ones which have served him well on our travels) and me at the helm of a Fiat 500.  

As I finish, the pianist hits a rapid, frenzied crescendo and his cello playing friend has disappeared off the scene- hopefully for a well earned Aperol Spritz.  I know that’s where my mind is currently located.

Pictured:  Marianne- the national symbol of the French Republic, a personification of liberty and reason and a portrayal of the Goddess of Liberty.  Today as we visited Place de Republique she stood tall under a blue sky, jet-stream included.

Peace.

Peace.

There is something to be said for the sounds that become familiar in a new dwelling.  For me, this is the screams of sirens that are almost as common as the signs that mark the streets they whiz down, atop the emergency vehicles they inhabit.  I love the sound of a European siren, but do always feel a pang of sadness for their very reason for being.  

Last night mon père et moi returned to Paris after a peaceful few days up on the Somme followed by a couple of days in Ypres just over the French border in Belgium.  I was struck by the sheer slilence we experienced for a whole week as we meandered down country roads in our hired chariot – it was bliss.  As we stopped off at memorial after memorial and graveyard after graveyard on our pilgrimage to visit those who served in WWI, we were met with nothing but smiles on the faces of farmers and townsfolk who tended to their crops and sprawling vegetable gardens.  We both commented on the peaceful life that the people live up there, away from the big cities and industry that sit just hours above and below on the French and Belgian maps.  

Last night, as we made our way to dinner at the beautiful Le Procope – one of the oldest standing restaurants in Paris and a must see for visitors to this city, we almost lost our hair as cars whizzed past, sirens a blazing and as I type this, I can hear them sounding in the distance.  Trump is in town which is disappointing, and I can only hope that those sirens form part of an ample sercurty process as Paris prepares for her Bastille Day celebrations tomorrow.

We had the most amazing time up on the Somme with a wonderful group of fellow Australians who had also made the pilgrimage for our 100 year dinner last Friday.  I have learnt so much during the past week and returned last night with a satchel laden with new books- poetry from the trenches, letters turned into novels, and at least a few texts documenting the history that was made up on the Somme 100 years ago to the day- I have a new found fascination for this subject.  It pains me to think that the peace we experienced over the past few days sits at the opposite end of the scale to the chaos that reigned all those years earlier, and as Dad so aptly put it in his journal last night ‘Pin was taken by the sheer horror that are the memories and the bloodshed.’

I sat in the window of my apartment last night while the washing machine made its keep churning out endless loads of clean clothes, and I reflected on how much we’d seen and done in just a short few days that made up the last week. As I reminisced, I was treated to a private concert under a clear Parisien sky as the piano scholar who lives in the apartment across from mine, played endless Mozart.  He is the same scholar who was treated to a impromptu performance of my own when I was last here in January, where I peeled off layers of woollens and prepared for a hot bath to fight the cold winter temperatures that had fallen to just 2 degrees.  

As I went to sleep last night, silence fell and I said a little prayer that the pianist doesn’t  have a good memory for faces- our eyes had met only briefly when I pulled the curtains closed to block out the sirens and get enough sleep in preparation for another day.

Pictured: Dad and I have been enjoying a morning stroll each day before breakfast. This morning on our meander around the Jardin du Luxembourg we found this treat preparing for tomorrows Bastille Day celebrations. 

Thoughts from Ypres.

Thoughts from Ypres.

I have never been a fan of war, and I don’t suppose anyone in their ‘right’ mind really would be. The casualties, desperation, hunger, sickness and downright sadness that has prevailed as a result of seemingly selfish megalomania after centuries of war, doesn’t really sit well with me. Over the past week I have spent time trying to make an arm and a leg of the First World War- an epic and devastating cataclysm which saw a century of relative peace shattered in the summer of 1914; from the escalation of the slaughter to when the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front in 1918. The ‘war to end all wars’ can only be described as a deliberate political act and one whose legacy continues to haunt us.

Yesterday, at the British Memorial at Thiepval, I stood under a grainy photograph of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, taken just five minutes before the assassination of he and his wife in 1914.  It was here that I listened intently and gathered a better understanding for the reasons behind the millions of deaths from both the Allied and Central Powers.  Names such as Haig, Churchill, and King George V opposed the Central Powers, just as the likes of Monash did for Australia, a loyal and firm allie of the British Empire.  The Central Powers were made up of Germany, Austria- Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, and at a time where Germany had been united as a country for just over 30 years.  

My knowledge of history is stretched, but what I do feel perplexed with is the loss of so many young lives at the hands of the leaders of the superpowers, driven by greed and a sense of entitlement for what they deemed to be ‘theirs.’  On both sides of war. 

100 years later I write this from Ypres in Belgium trying to make sense of the casualties from all facets of combat.  Young men from as far and wide as places such as the Riverina in Australia volunteered their lives – answering a call from afar to make the trip of a lifetime to a land far away.  Almost every fit young man in Britain was conscripted, making six of ten million available- too many died, most of them unmarried men but not forgetting the hundreds of thousands of women who lost their husbands, and children their fathers.  

There are countless stories of the German soldiers and their allied troops fighting a brutal and sophisticated fight in the name of industrial and economic power, and the British Empire with their allied troops from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France and the United States doing all that they could to, quite literally, combat this.  It is a story of power, greed, ill made decisions which resulted in incredible loss.  Overwhelming loss.

Communication was limited- letters of love were received months after the deaths of their sons and daughters were made final; there are endless stories of mothers who mourned their sons for years after the war had ended and young girls who never married because their hearts were broken forever.  From the trenches came poetry and stories of the strongest of mateship and survival, only to be shattered by the inevitable – death from illness such as influenza. These young people fought for days, weeks and months, often having not eaten for such long periods of time that they became so malnourished that their bodies couldn’t fight a moment longer in the battlefields where fighting was the ultimate game.

The sacrifices made by young people from each corner of the globe were huge- they were as naive as they were determined and the photos lining the walls of the many memorials built to make sure they are never forgotten, are of baby faced boys- a cigarette hanging from their mouths as their eyes roll into the backs of their heads completely shell shocked and exhausted.  The letters written home to each corner of the globe speak of the kindness of the French, ‘they greet us with flowers and chocolates, their country is so beautiful- I can understand why they would want to protect this magical part of the world.’  Then came the crippling voids of silence followed by the letters of condolence.  

Driving through towns in Northern France and Belgium, I’ve read endless plaques and pamphlets about the rebuilding that followed the war after entire towns were wiped out, buildings were shattered and also, of and the enormity that is the feeling of being displaced, never to return home.  The locals who are descendents of those who returned home after fleeing the war, speak of the love they have all these years later for the boys who fought so hard to save their land and of the care they will always take of them- their lives ended on this soil, they lay here and they are not forgotten.  

They are Indigenous Australians (still without the right to vote but willing to leave Australia and fight), Indian and Nepalese Gurkhas fighting for the British Empire, Chinese men who were sent to dig trenches, career soldiers, school boys with their lives ahead of them who lied about their age, countless nurses who worked tirelessly to save lives, photographers who documented the brutality and the human faces of war – the list is endless.  I struggle to make any sense of it and as Dad and I go from graveyard to graveyard in the heat and the rain, planting a little bamboo cross at the headstones of the fallen, I cant even begin to come to terms with the reality that is the ‘innocent’ fighting for the ‘madness’ that are the decisions made by people I imagine puffing on cigars in the comfort of their bunkers and grand buildings, a long way from the war zone.

Last Friday night we had a reunion dinner in Albert, France, to honour a dinner held on the same site, on that same date, to the very minute, 100 years earlier.  36 young boys had sought leave from combat and, (in their words) ‘got all a bit inky pinky.’  We feasted on the same menu and listened to tales from the original dinner.  It was a sobering evening  – most of the boys who attended the original dinner had only left school in Australia months or a handful of years earlier.  They fought hard – as hard as their brothers and sisters from each other corner of the globe and who’d also been sold a romantic and gallant tale of  a war that they would never second guess fighting, but one that destroyed so many lives as a result of even occurring.

I will always maintain that war is not the answer, and this week has only further strengthened this in my mind. 100 years on, we continue to see sadness around the globe and today, I feel helpless for all of the lives already lost in war zones and for those which are inevitable in the future. 

I feel a continued helplessness for civilians set to become displaced as a result of war. Wars that are not designed for the direct benefit of  civilians – sadly, they too are derived from political acts and whose legacies will continue to haunt us.

Pictured: the joy on an Australian boys face at a letter from home, France, 1917.

Albert.

Albert.

I type this from a sweeping garden in the north of France after arriving in a little town called Albert just yesterday.  A commune in the Somme department in Hauts de France, Albert was founded as a Roman outpost in about 54 BC. Many, many, many years later it became a key location in the Battle of the Somme in World War One and it is this very piece of history that forms part of the reason for my visit.

On the 7th of July, 1917, a group of 35 young Australian men who were posted here took a days leave and gathered for dinner together as much needed respite from the gruelling action of war.  Two years ago in Australia, the menu from this dinner was unearthed complete with the signatures of all the young men who had attended the dinner – many of them boys who had arrived in France not even a year out of school and, upon this discovery a plan began to unfold.  Today, over 50 Australians have decended upon the town of Albert, many of them descendants of the original dinner attendees. 

My father arrived in Paris four days ago after spending much of the past 18 months assisting in any way possible towards bringing this reunion together.  As a self taught WWI (and WWII) history buff, the Somme is something of a Mecca to him and so many of the tales he’s shared with me over the years- romantic as they are tragic, came alive on this soil.

Yesterday, after a short journey from Paris on a high speed train, we arrived in Amiens and collected our hire car before setting off for Albert.  As we drove through the pretty countryside painted with rolling hills and endless, wide open fields, Dad give me a brief history of all the different towns whose signposts stand tall on the edge of the road.  I was concentrating mainly on steering our hired ship on the ‘other’ side of the duel carriageway, but was not so distracted that I couldn’t observe how frightening it must have been for the young boys who went to battle in those very fields 100 years earlier.  Open and heavily exposed, the cropped pastures that swept by as we navigated the road to Albert, are the custodians of so much history and it is amazing to think that it was in these very crops that battle lines were drawn – determining the path which we tread in the world as we know it today.  Sadly, it was only a matter of years before more young men and women were engaged in a second world war, and if history were a currency, France alone would be a billionaire. 

When we arrived at the hotel just after lunch yesterday Australian accents filled the foyer, shirt sleeves were rolled up and sun hats were wedged firmly onto heads as the Antipodean aggregation readied themselves (fresh out of the bitter cold of the Australian winter) for a trip to the centre of town to the museum- a place that pays hommage to the history of the battle as well as to those who fell, and survived on this very soil.

We gathered for an informal meal last night with the reunion dinner set to take place this evening.  Dad delivered a welcome address and as I type, I cant help thinking of all the stories he told which put chilling context around the reason for us being here. One tale, (of the many that he delivered in his address) that has had a particular impact on me, was of a young boy who wrote regularly to his family in the Otways in Victoria, Australia.  He spoke of ever present danger and the loss of mates towards the end- particularly with the looming threat of influenza but, through his letters his family were reassured with a mood always upbeat; he shared the joy of the Armistice of 1918 and the thrill of having a Christmas in peace time with the Belgium families, who were so appreciative of the soldiers from the Antipodes who had come from the other side of the world to fight a war for five years.  In his final letter, he asked his brother to ‘get a suit of civvie clothes made to your measurements,’ going on to note ‘I think we are about the same size.’  He requested that he have them ready in Melbourne for his imminent arrival home- ‘I am longing for the day I can get out of this clobber, I have been in this colour for too long for my liking.’  Then came the awful void, and the letters of condolence written by fellow soldiers- this young man had made it through years of war and was almost home, before being taken by the Spanish influenza which wreaked havoc amongst the exhausted and undernourished soldiers.  

The Somme is a sobering place to visit and it remains a beautiful piece of the puzzle that is this country- picturesque like a postcard, industrious as ever and full to the brim with history.  Through the many stories of survival and  loss at the hands of  that horrific war, it is particularly sobering to realise that had all of those tales, now told peppered with a whistful pang, not actually occured over 100 years ago, the world could be completely different place to the one we know today. 

As I finish this post, Waltzing Matilda sounds in the distance through the drone of bagpipes and at the helm of the pipes is a doctor from Camperdown, Australia.  This signals lunch.