White noise.

White noise.

This morning I woke early to the sounds of revellers returning home after a night out.  I wouldn’t normally wake to such things as I’m an incredibly good sleeper, but following the earliest night had since I was probably about 11 years old, I was ready to go at 4am when the Marseillaise could be heard from the street below.

Don’t get me wrong, I can survive on the littlest of sleep, but last night after completing what felt like the millionth unpack since December, I spent ten minutes listening the BBC World Service bringing myself up to speed with the latest on Stormy Daniels and Polio (polar opposites, but in the same news segment), before falling into the longest and deepest slumber I’ve experienced in a very long time.

4am brought with it many thoughts and contemplations.  The news had shifted to Ebola, and Stormy had become to the newest holder of the keys to the city.  Trump’s lawyer was in question after a meeting with the President of Ukraine was found to be apparently fixed with cash, and the daughter of the Russian spy who, along with her father, was nerved agented in Salisbury earlier this year, had finally spoken. 

The birds were just beginning to chirp as I did a quick mental exercise of six verbs in past, present and future tenses.  In recent weeks, my French has slipped from almost bearable to completely unbearable, and as I took my first sips of tea I contemplated what could possibly be going wrong.

Language is a funny old thing, and as a latecomer to the joys of verb conjugations and being paralysed when spoken to, I am slowly beginning to join together some very important dots.  In situations such as the visits to the visa office or the highly glamorous podiatrist’s surgery, I find myself suddenly able to ‘do it’.  Yesterday on a trip to a store not far from home I chatted like a love bird at feeding time, making little jokes about being forgetful when I found myself unable to find the word for ‘I think’ which came to me ten seconds after I’d needed to say ‘I think,’ by which time we’d moved onto a completely different topic.  

I have no doubt that when I speak in my accented French it hurts French ears for miles around, but I am always incredibly grateful for those who just continue to speak – in French – which is far more encouraging than saying (in English) ‘sorry, WHAT?’, which is exactly what happened after I left the podiatrists surgery earlier in the week.  I won’t go into the not so exciting details about why I had to visit such a place, except that the large feet I’ve often written about have been known to deal me a less than savoury trial when it comes to many things, not just shoe sizes.   

Staggering to the door of the surgery that I’d often observed just a short walk from home, I placed a gentle knock on the frosted window pane and was overjoyed when a bubbly Doctor answered the door.  Explaining that I had a problem sans appointment, she patted the chair and hoisted it towards the ceiling, telling me smilingly that she had half an hour between appointments and she’d be more happy to help.  We discussed everything from my life in Paris – what brought me here and do I like it? before her eyes flung wide open when I told her of my plans to spend more time in Morocco.  Were my shoes from Morocco she wondered, and when I responded affirmatively she asked if I would fill a suitcase with raffia pumps and bring them back to her on my next visit?  We laughed about my abysmal French, but not once did she back down and offer even a lick of English, rather, she spoke reassuringly about the importance of just speaking and while many of her rapid sentences en français were as good to me as white noise, I can quite honestly say, I’ve never enjoyed a trip to a podiatrist more in my entire life.

Patting my shoulder and wishing me good luck, with the addition of an invitation to visit whenever I may need to, I left her surgery with a new found skip in my stride – and not just because she’d fixed my poor foot.  As I stepped outside, it began to pour with rain and I took shelter at a cafe just moments away.  

‘May I have a glass of water and a menu,’ I asked confidently (in French) which was met with ‘sorry, WHAT?’ (in English).  And there I sat as I do so often in France, polarised and spinning fifty miles backwards on the never ending road of progress, or lack there of.

Repeating myself, the waiter walked off returning five minutes later with an English menu and a glass of water.  

I contemplated telling him that I’d just had ‘a corn removed in French,’ (oh god, sorry, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t write that) but decided against it because chicken and sweet corn soup was the plat du jour and I didn’t feel like chicken and sweet corn soup, rather, I opted for a glass of wine and waited for my lunch date to join me- no one was going to destroy what had otherwise been a very successful first half of the day.

This morning as I weighed up the news of the world and my thoughts shifted to my linguistic pursuits which feel as though they are in rapid decline, I tallied up my interactions had with Parisian natives throughout the week, before arriving at a total of about 25.  Ten of which have been successful and the rest, well, they’re the ones that see me more determined than ever to get my tongue around this language.  

Today I’m off to visit Guernica at the Picasso Museum along with a friend whose acquaintance I made at the Sorbonne last year.  We enjoy frequent hilarious lunches together where we thank waiters profusely and tell them they are so kind, before wailing with laughter when nobody is looking, agreeing that they could have just offered to send us to the guillotine and we would still respond with sweet offerings of ‘Vous êtes très gentil’.

C’est la vie, and today I’m wearing a pair of shoes that have stared at me blankly from the corner of my bedroom for at least a year – I’m happy to report that they feel like clouds on my feet.  More to come…

Pictured: the wonderful view from my bedroom – every day in Paris.

Being 39.

Being 39.

The phone rang on Sunday morning just as I was busying myself with the five millionth photographic update from the wedding.  No need to explain whose, unless (say) you’ve been without power for the past six months.

‘I’m just sifting through the Sunday papers,’ my sister told me, before adding that she was particularly interested in an article about a woman about to turn forty who packed up everything and travelled to India to have her future read by a Guru in Mumbai.

‘Oh I did that once, in Rishikesh when I was 23,’ I explained laughingly, ’a cross – legged man on the edge of the Ganges told me that I’d meet a nice man when I was 27 and he’d gift me three beautiful children by the age of 30.  After this rendezvous, thrilled with news of my bright future, I went for a long celebratory swim at the top of the river and a human skull floated past as I was performing a gentle breaststroke.  Three months later, in Istanbul, I was still keeling over with a most horrific stomach ache,’ I finished.

All that came from my palm reading in India sixteen years ago, was a brutal parasite.

It’s probably quite obvious that my palms didn’t tell the truth and when I explained to my sister that, ‘perhaps Mr 27 was kidnapped, and this is why he didn’t eventuate,’ she giggled and responded with a long ‘hmmmmm, maybe you should write about this’.

There’s not much more to say about Mr 27, or the reading overall, except that the cross-legged man did say that my palms suggested a long life blessed with excellent health – and not once have I questioned his integrity because I’m still alive and I feel exceptionally healthy.

On the eve of my own 40th birthday (just eleven months away and counting – do love a milestone), I returned to Paris last week which signalled the end of two and a half incredibly enjoyable weeks in Greece with my parents –  part of which I wrote about in my last piece.  Had I been blessed with one child per year between the age of 27 and 30, not only would I have been exceptionally busy in the birthing suite, but there is also probably slim to little chance that I would have been able to enjoy all the little things that have become very important in my life, now that I’m 39.

Arriving on Corfu from Crete via Athens, was like stepping back in time.  I’d visited Corfu ever so briefly at the age of 19 and had never returned.  In my teens, I read Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals,’ a book I revisited soon after my palm reading in Rishikesh.  Last week on Corfu I savoured for the third time in my life, every page of this paperback favourite.

Winding around wide boulevards from the airport as dusk edged its way into the later part of the day, my eyes darted from building to building with paint peeling off ancient facades and shutters stood wide open and obedient against tired walls. 

Throughout the ages, the Cavalieri Hotel has been a meeting point for writers, actors and poets, statesmen, businessmen and travellers. Originally built in the 17th century as a nobleman’s mansion belonging to the ancestors of Count Flamburiari, it opened it’s doors as a hotel in the late 1960’s.  The Cavalieri is situated on the edge of Durrell Park, home to the Corfu Cricket Pitch and Enoseos Square, all framed by the lush greenery of the Kapodistristou Boulevard.  

On arrival, I felt further transported into another era with the town’s Old Fortress standing proud just moments away, and as we enjoyed our first dinner on the hotel’s rooftop later that evening, I explained to my travel companions (also known as my dear parents, squared off with the added bonus of one of their oldest friends), that these types of places really have an impact on me.  It was a memorable moment made even more special by the company kept.

The week was spent exploring all that is the glory of the old town and island, in its unique architectural blend of Byzantine, Venetian, French and English influences – history would suggest that almost everyone has tried their hand on Corfu, and while the island looks (in part) exhausted, it is a place brimming with history and if each tired wall could talk, I’m sure we’d have heard some unbelievable stories. 

Throughout the week, we followed narrow alleys lined with pots filled with healthy geraniums and enjoyed lunches in the beautiful, warm spring air.  One afternoon, I found Mum positively breathless after an impromptu meeting with a group of women at the incredible Municipal Art Gallery of Corfu.  A new book, ‘The Gardens of Corfu,’ carefully curated by English writer and Corfu resident Rachel Weaving, and beautifully photographed by one of the worlds finest garden photographers, Marianne Majerus – was due to launch at the gallery later that night.

Following an early evening apéro at the old Liston Hotel, where Mum, Dad and I chatted about life with even more vigour than a man bowling a ball on the cricket pitch across the road, we attended the book launch before enjoying a glass of retsina with Corfu locals, both English and Greek, under ancient fig trees in the gallery gardens.  Here, we were further spoilt with breathtaking views across the Ionian Sea towards mainland Greece and to the left, the mountains of Albania.

One morning we visited the Reading Society of Corfu, founded in 1836 by a group of intellectuals whose principal goal was to stay informed about European scholarly and cultural developments. Today, the core of the Reading Society is the main reading room and valuable library of over 30,000 volumes in seemingly as many languages, including the important holdings in the Ionian Island collection and the Guilford Archives.  Chalk pink hallways lined with maps and pretty light fittings and a reading room in perfect Giverny green, had me in further conniptions. 

Days later, Mum and I travelled to the village of Old Perithia, a tiny, rambling town built in the 14th century while the island was under Byzantine rule, and one which sits on the northern flanks of Mount Pantokrator at about 400 meters above sea level.  Our driver, Giannis (you can call me John), was not only one of the most heavenly people I’ve ever met, but also incredibly informative when it came to the history of the island, and patient with every request to stop and photograph another wildflower or sweeping vista.  On the way home, he insisted on shouting us a cup of tea at the White House, the last Corfu home of Lawrence Durrell and his wife Nancy.  

The following morning, Dad and I set off on foot to Mon Repos, a villa built in 1831 as a summer residence for the British Lord High Commissioner of the United States of the Ionian Islands, Frederick Adam, and his second wife Diamantina Palatino.  Adam and his wife had to vacate the villa soon afterwards in 1832 when he was sent to serve in India, which saw the house rarely used as a residence for the later British governors. In 1833, it housed a school of fine arts, and in 1834, the park was opened to the public. 

After the union with Greece in 1864, Mon Repos was granted to King George I of the Hellenes as a summer residence.  

Empress Elisabeth of Austria stayed at Mon Repos in 1863.  Here, she fell in love with the island, which resulted in her building the Achilleion Palace, another wonderful villa and surrounding garden that we explored during one of our first days on Corfu.

At Mon Repos, Dad and I wandered around the now wild gardens, agreeing that it wasn’t hard to imagine generations of children running free along winding pathways amongst established, European trees with views across the Ionian Sea flanked by tall pencil pines.

Towards the end of our time on Corfu, we sailed to the tiny island of Paxos for a day trip.  On our way home that afternoon I gazed out to the horizon, one that holds a future not yet known to anyone, perhaps not even a cross – legged man on the edge of the Ganges.  

As we approached Corfu at dusk, I sat between my parents (quite literally my oldest friends), and contemplated the words of Lawrence Durrell who described Corfu as ‘this brilliant little speck of an island in the Ionian with waters like the heartbeat of the world itself’.  

When it comes to understanding tomorrow, I quite like the idea of relying on the ocean, nature, history, beauty, friendship and laughter – all of which I’ve been delivered in spades during two and a half incredibly special weeks.

A Cretan odyssey.

A Cretan odyssey.

Dad was in, so was Mum.  I’ll come too, I agreed, after the email was sent to Dad’s sister Janet and her husband Lachie, along with another friend Dougie and his brother Norm, their wives Jule and Joy – they wanted to walk in the steps of their uncle Doug.  Jo and Paddy were on their way from Perth to a sixtieth in Rome – Crete wasn’t too far out of the way, Steena and James live in London, they also thought it was a good idea, as did cousin Sophie who would be in London at the time, and another dear friend of the family Julie, she was also in and then there was Russell, he’d be driving around Italy at the same time, he was keen too.

With a shared interest in botany, literature and history, suddenly we were a team of 16 on the island of Crete staying at the Hotel Doma.  Each morning we’d arrive one by one to the most heavenly of breakfast rooms with cedar chairs bound in raffia complimented by jars of homemade marmalade adorning each table laden with the whitest of linen cloths.

At Doma, if you’d slammed the loo door shut you’d almost expect to see graffiti reading ‘Truman was here’ or ‘Paddy L-F lives,’ or perhaps ‘Ernest H, ‘57’.

It’s just that type of place.

Each morning after breakfast, I’d take the last sips of my coffee down to the garden where I’d find Ioanna weeding pots of geraniums in her dressing gown.

As I wrote last week, the Doma Hotel was built in the late 19th century and overlooks the Bay of Chania.  The hotel started its life as the Austro Hungarian consulate before being purchased in 1933 by the grandmother of the present owners, Irene Valyrian and Ioanna Koutsoudaki.  In 1940, the British Consul took a shine to the property and persuaded the reluctant residents to move out, leaving most of the furniture behind.  The house was finally returned to its rightful owners in 1955, following the German occupation throughout the Battle of Crete in the 2nd World War.  To this day, Ioanna and her sister Irene run the hotel, both are well into their 80’s and it is hard to imagine them ever not being there.

Another final piece in the puzzle is Jim Carstairs, a second cousin of my grandmother (Dad and Janet’s mother), and great uncle to their cousin Sophie.  Jim died in Australia in 2007, but spent six months behind enemy lines in 1941, including four weeks at Patsos where at times he hid out in the same cave that was later occupied by famed English writer, Paddy Leigh Fermor and the kidnapped German General Kreipe, in 1944.  This tale has always rather fascinated me, but it wasn’t until we actually arrived and began our travels around the island, that I realised just how incredible the early 1940’s on Crete really were.

Jim wrote each and every detail of his endeavours on Crete in diaries, on slips of paper and also into the insides of cigarette packets, all of which were later built into the walls of a Cretan family home in fear that had they been found, they’d jeopardise the propaganda machine and overall efforts that are the reality of any war.

Historian Mike Sweet writes of Jim relating that, ‘after spending about four weeks at Patsos, by November he was told to move to a holding area close to the south coast. A key figure in arranging this was the famed resistance leader Kapetan Petrakogiorgis, based in the village of Magarikari, who controlled the area where the Amari Valley joins the Messara Plain.

It was this area that became the vital route, not only for Carstairs, but for scores of later evacuations and insertions of agents and supplies for the resistance, linking villages in the Amari with landing beaches on the coast.

In his diary, Carstairs relates details of how he conferred with the resistance leader, giving a unique insight into the workings of such relationships. This period was a fraught time for Carstairs, and his journal records how his leadership skills were sorely tested.

He faced enormous challenges. They began with leading more than 80 men safely from Patsos to Magarikari (a three-day trek), keeping them secure and fed when they arrived (for at least three weeks), and then making another, even more gruelling three-day trek to the coast.

The final leg involved crossing the Messara Plain, heavily-garrisoned by the Germans, and then up and over the towering Asteroussia mountains, to the isolated beach of Treis Ekklisies, 60km due south of Heraklion. This is where Carstairs’ Cretan odyssey reached its dramatic conclusion. In the dead of night on the 26/27 November, HMS Hedgehog embarked 90 passengers, almost all of which were the group Carstairs had led.

The nominal roll for the voyage to Alexandria identifies 28 Australians, 28 New Zealanders, 11 British, 11 Cypriot, four Greeks and eight others. One of the passengers was Evangelos Vandoulakis who Carstairs had smuggled on board’.

In Mike’s notes the part that struck me the most, was that it was Evangelos Vandoulakis who had cemented Jim’s war notes into the walls of his family home.

Shortly after the war Jim’s tattered notes were returned to him and following this, he typed a memoir of his incredible WW2 experience.  In 1991, Jim made the journey back to Crete where he rekindled friendships with the families and friends who had aided him in his Cretan exile.

Last Sunday, we ventured to Patsos and met the Harokopos family who are the second family in Jim’s story, and the same family who protected Paddy Leigh Fermor in his own Cretan odyssey.

George Harokopos was a school teacher in Patsos.  A proud man, and by no means wealthy, he owned a small house in the centre of town in the province of Rethymno.  When we arrived last week, his nephew, Vasillis led us straight to Jim and Paddy’s cave which has been widely documented in Paddy Leigh Fermor’s writing.  Later that evening George’s sister Maria (Vasillis’ mother) made us a delicious dinner to mirror what they fed Jim when he was hiding from the Germans in their attic just above the kitchen.  As the night drew to a close we enjoyed a highly necessary glass of raki straight from a 150 litre plastic barrel (no fine oak here) posititioned under that very attic. We made to toast to Jim before collapsing into beds decorated with a million stuffed teddy bears in two village homes, each belonging to Vasillis’ brother and cousin.

Even though George is no longer here, his sister and her son took us in for the night showing the same hospitality and kindness that both Jim and Paddy were recipients of over 70 years ago.

In the days leading into our pilgrimage in memory of Paddy and Jim, we also enjoyed meanders through Cretan gardens organised by my mother who has a Mediterranean thumb, after building her second garden in the harshest of climates on the south west coast of Australia.  These gardens and the people who have built them in earth so ancient, were a highlight as we took in sweeping views across land and sea brimming with history.

Our week on Crete was not an organised tour assembled by anyone in particular – rather a coming together of people with varying interests, brought together by friendships dating back many years.  As the youngest of the group, I have learned a lot from my Best Marigold Hotel experience and I will never forget the stifled laughter teamed with moments of sobriety and wisdom brought about by gruelling memories and the beauty found on an island that has survived the harshest of conditions in both a military and climatic sense.  The botany in Greece is beautiful, as are the people with so many stories to share.

I arrived with Mum and Dad, my aunt and uncle, and a handful of their very dear friends and I finish typing this on Corfu.  We have formed precious memories out of much laughter, lessons learned and overall the importance of camaraderie.

This is for Mum, Dad, Janet, Lachie, Julie, Soph, Dougie, Joy, Normie, Jule, Steena, James, Paddy, Jo and Russell.

For those in our convoy, I will say one last time – ‘where is Russell?’.

Pictured: the beautiful breakfast room at Hotel Doma.

Harvesting Lavender.

Harvesting Lavender.

‘So you’re moving to Athens as well,’ they laughed, before chinking another glass in recognition of my apparent inability to sit still at the moment.

‘No, I’m not moving to Athens, just Tangier this year,’ I assured them, before we settled in for dinner.  

I know, it does seem as though I’ve been on the move quite a bit lately.

Those taunts in jest were made a week ago in Paris, at what was supposed to be a quick dinner and a catch up over drinks before I hit the shores of Greece.  A long night of laughter and too many glasses of wine followed with friends whose acquaintance I made at the Sorbonne towards the end of last year – an understandably pessimistic bunch, they listened intently as I told them all about my journeys through Morocco and plans to spend more time in Tangier over the next twelve months. 

The following morning, before the birds had found the chance to tune their voices in time for morning song and the sun had woken, stretching her arms in time to deliver a new day, my alarm sounded at 3.58am with the ferocity of a fog horn, or a siren hailing an emergency.  I was bound for Athens to meet my parents for two weeks in Greece, in particular Crete, on a trip that was born from a dinner of fresh salmon and salad in Australia just over two months ago, before I returned to Paris for (what was supposedly) another year. 

‘Shall we do it?’ we sang in unison between bites, resulting in a spontaneous email being sent to a smattering of their friends who had shown an interest in retracing the steps of the likes of Paddy Leigh Fermor and Australian, Jim Carstairs, on an island littered with wildflowers, goats and sheer cliff faces. 

In that moment we weren’t to know that Tangier would kidnap my heart just a handful of weeks later, and that our journey to Crete would become not only a special reunion together but also, perhaps our final rendezvous for 2018.

On Sunday morning, my father rounded the corner of the Athens Gate Hotel in all his colourful glory, followed shortly by my mother – chic as ever, who immediately requested a mineral water upon learning of our preordered gin and tonics.  It was heaven to hug them tightly and enjoy rapid chatter, no one daring draw breath in fear that we miss something.  Later that evening we enjoyed dinner overlooking the temple of Zeus under a perfect night sky, joined by my aunt and uncle as well as a very dear friend of our family who had all flown in that day. The following morning, joined by another wonderful couple who’d arrived late the night before, we returned to the birth place of civilisation, as we paid a visit to the ancient ruin of Delphi on the same day that I celebrated my 39th year.  This was a moment so special and one that will be hard to forget, as will the conversations had in the car that transported us there and back.

Athens is a magnificent city that I’d not visited for 20 years, and as I rounded corners in the beautiful, private garden of Sparoza on Tuesday morning, enjoying views towards the mountains in the company of the garden’s custodian Sally – a charming Englishwoman of more than 80 years-  I was reminded of the beauty that is earned with age, in both people and landscapes.

At Sparoza, paths were strewn with cuttings of lavender – ‘I grow tired of making piles while I harvest the lavender’ Sally quipped, as she trod on clippings under foot releasing a scent that transported me back to childhood-  before adding that the olive trees in her  garden are simply ornamental, ‘talented hands are required elsewhere- there is little time to harvest the olives’.  I pondered their age, ‘are they old?’ I thought out loud, ‘Oh no, they’re only 50 years,’ Sally replied, as she took my hand and showed me more plantings in her Mediterranean garden designed to survive the harshest of conditions – allowing it to retain an effortless air in keeping with all that she is, and remains determined to embody, in all of her work.

The past few days have seen our group double in size, with more arrivals of friends as we reached the island of Crete and better still, the Doma Hotel late on Wednesday afternoon.  When I spoke to one of my sisters during the week, I explained that my life is becoming reminiscent of the Best Marigold Hotel, one of my favourite films and one that I could watch over and over after developing a deep love for all of the characters following my first viewing a handful of years ago. 

Built in the late 19th century, the Doma Hotel overlooks the Bay of Chania.  The hotel started its life as the Austro Hungarian consulate before being purchased in 1933 by the grandmother of the present owners, Irene Valyrian and Ioanna Koutsoudaki.  In 1940, the British Consul took a shine to the property and persuaded the reluctant residents to move out, leaving most of the furniture behind.  The house was finally returned to its rightful owners in 1955, following a brief German occupation during the Battle of Crete in the 2nd World War.  

‘We must stay at Doma,’ Dad announced as we began planning our journey, ‘it’s one of my favourite hotels in the world’.

By Wednesday afternoon, cars began to draw in and the characters reminiscent of those from the Best Marigold spilled out.  Sensible walking shoes, greying hair, suitcases lightly packed and loud voices filled the foyer.  Breakfast of homemade marmalade will be served on toast from 7.45am each day, gin and tonics are enjoyed from 5pm, do we need a car, yes we do, or do we?  Are you happy to dine out each night, yes we are, but where?  

Following check in, I ricocheted to my room where I was met by the young manager of the hotel.  Dying to lie down on my bed I stood instead, swaying upright, as he explained that he understood me well, ‘You are so young’ he told me, as I eyed off my single bed under sweeping shutters dying to be opened, ‘all of these people older than you, they ask so many questions!’.

 Crete is a wonderful place, made even better by my travel companions and the two, incredible sisters who live at Doma and still have an active role in the day to day running of the hotel. On arrival, I spotted someone in a dressing gown gliding down a hallway well after midday, hair damp following a swim in the ocean below (I suspect Ioanna), and this morning at breakfast I enjoyed the most delicious toast and homemade marmalade I ever did eat.  

As we drove around the island on Thursday, spilling down gorges before stopping for   moments of reflection for those who fell during times of war – Crete is a place of harsh conditions and ultimately, survival- it became more apparent than ever, when harvesting lavender and life en general, there is so much to consider.  Brakes were slammed on, causing a near rear ending of our convoy of cars, as an exotic wildflower emerged from ancient earth, or a goat trod in our 21st century path.

All worth admiring, all worth pondering.

More to come…

Pictured:  with two of my favourites, reunited in Athens.