Secret highlights of an unknown rural gem

Recently I spent a week on writing retreat in rural NSW, near a place called Clarence Town.  I’d never heard of Clarence Town before. It’s a few hours north of Sydney, and has a population of less than 1000 people. It’s inland, and you have to turn down several side roads to get to it. It’s not a place you’d visit unless you had a reason to, which you probably don’t. But you’re missing out! Here are five excellent reasons to visit Clarence Town.

1. Experience the Williams River Cafe
The Williams River Cafe in Clarence Town, Australia
The Williams River Cafe wants to wish you a happy new year. Even in May, when I was in town. I wasn’t sure if they were still wishing me a happy 2019, or if they were getting in early to wish me a happy 2020. It must have been the latter, otherwise it would have read “Happy Same Old Year It’s Been for Five Months Already.”

Inside the cafe is as knick-knacky as your wildest dreams, with corrugated metal as a decorative flourish.
Inside The Williams River Cafe in Clarence Town, Australia
And of course there are the owl cookie jars.
Owl cookie jars in small town Australian cafe
When I popped into the Williams River Cafe, the only customers were one white-haired couple. They looked to be approximately 145 years old. They had driving maps of Australia open on the table between them, but I imagine them as permanent fixtures in the Williams River Cafe.

2. Visit Lovey’s Groceries – Two Local Blokes
I didn’t get to meet either of the local blokes, which is a shame. I would have congratulated them on having the world’s best IGA name, and also asked which one was Lovey. IMG_1499.JPG

3. Clarence Town is the seventh oldest colonial settlement in Australia.
If you win a pub trivia night with that fact, I expect a cut of the profits. Another Clarence Town fact: the local Aboriginal name, Erringhi, means ‘the place of the little black duck’.

4. This historic passive-aggressive photo collage
The Clarence Town School of Arts was built in 1915 ‘to last and withstand the ravages of white ants’. So far it has. A glassed-in bulletin board hangs near its front door. The bulletin board was my absolute highlight of Clarence Town, because it featured this photo collage, which reads:
Deb Ball 1993
On the 1st of May 1993 I put a Deb Ball on. I did it under the banner of the Fire Brigade, I did every bit of organising myself and the boys turned up on the day to help put up a few of the decorations – it nearly killed me. … I hired the “ALAN WARD BIG BAND” It cost $1,000 which was a lot of money then but they were worth it.IMG_1490.JPG
The ‘I’ in this collage goes unnamed. I assume the writer expects that her reputation as the woman who put on the Deb Ball 1993 precedes her. I love that she took this opportunity to publicly shame ‘the boys’ of the fire brigade (perhaps my scare quotes aren’t needed there; in 1993 the Clarence Town fire brigade was possibly staffed by children). I love that she concludes by big noting how much money she spent, but also that she seems to think $1,000 isn’t much money today?

Finally, I love that there is no indication how long this faded, curling photo collage has been on the Clarence Town School of Arts bulletin board. It might have been there since 1993, and I’m sure it will stay there as long as its author is alive.

5. Clarence Town’s reliable annual events
The photo collage wasn’t the only bulletin board highlight. I was also impressed by this poster. There’s an obvious narrative here: the flyer was posted in 2018, and this year, an efficient and eco-friendly organiser thought ‘Why print new flyers? The event is literally the exact same.’ And instead they simply visited the flyer where it has stayed all year (there’s not a lot of changeover in the Clarence Town School of Arts bulletin board),  whited out the date and final numeral of the year, and wrote over them.  IMG_1493.JPG

And that’s it. Actually, you have less reason to visit Clarence Town now that you’ve seen all the highlights. This is literally it. I wouldn’t recommend going there.

Unless you’re on writing retreat, and you want to lock yourself away with your laptop where there are as few distractions as possible. Then Clarence Town might be the perfect place.

 

It’s scary but nobody cares

I’ve never understood why Australians bother with the drop bear myth. It’s like a morgue trying to freak out visitors with a plastic fly in the complimentary punch bowl. If Aussies want to freak out foreigners, they can simply relate their own everyday encounters with deadly creatures, such as finding a funnel-web spider submerged in an air bubble in their swimming pool, or discovering a brown snake in their washing machine, or being bitten by a redback spider at the age of three and taken to the GP’s office to be told, ‘It’s probably fine.’ These are all actual experiences Australians have related to me, unsolicited.

There was once an African safari park outside Sydney that advertised its lions and tigers and bears with a commercial jingle featuring the refrain, ‘It’s scary but nobody cares.’ While I can’t imagine the phrase inspired many theme park visits, such nonchalance in the face of potential death would be the perfect national motto for Australia. Sure, some Aussies do care, but the national attitude is pride in not caring. Another local once told me – again, unsolicited – about the white-tailed spider bite that turned his arm the greyish pallor of a three-day-old corpse. He related the experience with underlying satisfaction, as though it ranked high among his personal achievements. White-tailed spiders are scary. This guy not only didn’t care, but was damn proud of it.

This is the opening to ‘It’s Scary but Nobody Cares’, an article about coming to terms with Australia’s reputation for deadliness, published by Griffith Review. It’s an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, How to Be Australian. The full piece is free to read now!

Here’s a little bonus I couldn’t squeeze in:
A Snakey handling a snake at the La Perouse Snake Show in Australia
Australians have a delightfully weird relationship with their deadly wildlife. The La Perouse Snake Show is a perfect example of this.

Running once a month for the past century, the snake show takes place inside this rather low fence. Visitors gather around and dangle their children’s legs tantalisingly into the arena, where a ‘snakey’ (the genuine professional term) hauls a variety of live snakes out of brown sacks and gives a little spiel about each of them.

Steve and I happened upon this by accident while visiting this historic part of Sydney, and we were captivated. Particularly when the man said, speaking directly to a potentially lethal snake in the cutesy voice used for puppies and toddlers, ‘You’ve got tiny little fangs, don’t you?’

This country will never cease to enthrall me. Also, I move that all writers be called wordies; it’s got a real ring to it.

Ashley
xo

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From euphoria to genocide

This month I reviewed the recently released Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad by Canadian author Wendy Elliott. Drawing on archival documents, including personal letters and journals, the book tells the incredible stories of a group of humanitarians working in central Turkey during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

From 1908 to 1923, Ottoman citizens endured ‘two coups d’état, four regional wars, a world war, a war of independence, and a crippling national debt’ – as well as an unprecedented modern genocide. Elliott traces these events with clarity, intrigue, and a wonderful attention to startling detail.

I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her time in Armenia, what drew her to these stories, and what she learned in the process.

1. What first took you to Armenia? What drew you back?
In 2006 I was asked by a Canadian international development agency to go to Vanadzor as a Volunteer Advisor to train a group of women in skills I’d acquired while working in various executive positions in not-for-profit organizations. I was welcomed by them so warmly I immediately felt at home, and I was eager to return. The next year I was invited to Gyumri, and in 2009 I completed two assignments in Yerevan. Canadian funding for the program was discontinued in 2010, or I would have returned regularly.

Author Wendy Elliot in Republic Square, Yerevan, Armenia
Author Wendy Elliott in Yerevan, Armenia, 2006

2. How did you come to write the story of Susan Wealthy Orvis and her fellow humanitarians?
In 2014, my one-time interpreter and now-friend Kamo Mayilyan heard about Susan Wealthy Orvis, an American missionary who had saved thousands of Armenian orphans after the genocide. We co-authored an article about her, and were contacted by her great niece who had seen it. She offered us access to a hundred-year-old trunk that contained Susan’s original letters from her time in Turkey. From then on, Kamo was determined I should write the book. For many reasons, it took several months of persuasion on his part and research on mine before I accepted.

3. What was the first thing that made Susan appeal to you as a character?
Elliot.jpgI remember the moment clearly. I was reading her unpublished manuscript about her journey to help establish a relief centre in Alexandropol (Gyumri), Russia in 1917. She travelled more than 7,000 miles from Dubuque, Iowa during World War I and the Russian revolution, and I was impressed by her lack of naiveté, her living-by-example style of evangelism rather than proselytizing, and her willingness to roll up her sleeves to tackle seemingly insurmountable problems. But what tipped the scales for me was when, under armed attack, instead of frantically praying for divine salvation, she thought about the psychology of William James and a bear! I was so startled, I laughed out loud. I realized I liked her very much and could spend the years it would take to write the book in her company.

4. Grit and Grace is full of details that range from surprising to shocking, like the man who treated the bullet wound in his leg by stuffing scrambled eggs in it. What details or moments stand out most for you?
I can instantly think of four:
1) nurses Rachel and Blanche’s befuddled attempt at removing tar caps from children’s heads to cure them of favus (a dreadful scalp disease);
2) the horrible conditions of the conscripted Ottoman soldiers in winter, without coats, forced to wrap their feet in rags or go barefoot, fed only a third of a ration, and housed in filthy, vermin- and disease-filled shelters – and still expected to fight battles;
3) the absurd incident in the Marash hospital when the pharmacist, who had once been in the Ottoman army, screamed across the courtyard at a group of Nationalists, “You know it’s not permitted to fire on a hospital! The Director Doctor Madame is very angry about it, and will hold you responsible. The Director says you are to stop firing at once!” and amazingly they did; and
4) the entire village of brave Armenians, Greeks and Turks who defiantly stood together against the gendarmes who tried to deport the Armenian residents, thus forcing the gendarmes to leave empty-handed.

5. What personal lessons came out of writing this book for you?
My parents, who grew up during WWII, always spoke of the duty of a citizen to pay attention to issues and to vote because society can rapidly change for the worse when there is apathy. I was reminded of that while writing about how the Ottoman Empire went from euphoria in 1908 to genocide in 1915 – only seven short years – and as I listened to daily news reports of radical changes occurring around the world, which continue today. But the most profound lesson was to be careful of my speech. Our brains are programmed to find the fastest, easiest way to do something, so it’s natural to make generalizations. However, I learned that saying everyone or always or never is not only not true, it promotes the concept of Us versus Them. And that’s the first step of a slippery slope towards violence. I was careful not to generalize in the book, but I now watch my words in everyday speech, too. I don’t want to contribute even in a small way to a negative or destructive society.

To read the full review of Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad, visit Newtown Review of Books. Learn more about Wendy Elliott on her website.

Brisbane: more than Discount Melbourne?

I travelled to Brisbane last week for the launch of Griffith Review 63: Writing the Country, which features an excerpted chapter from my current manuscript, How to Be Australian.

Despite living in Australia for eight years, this was my first time in Brisbane, the traditional land of the Turrbal people. I’ve visited all the other capital cities, so Brisbane had a lot to live up to. My first impression, with its yellowish river, walking bridges, and Southbank tourist hot spot, was ‘huh, Discount Melbourne’. Brisbane skyline travel photo by Ashley Kalagian BluntBut is Brisbane more than that?

One thing Brisbane has to offer is Wheel of Brisbane. It’s not the Wheel of Brisbane, just Wheel of Brisbane. This made me think that it’s a Queensland version of the popular game show Wheel of Fortune, but all the prizes are cane toads.

IMG_1215.JPG

Brisbane is also home to the world’s longest running science experiment. The pitch drop experiment uses bitumen (aka asphalt) to demonstrate the liquidity of a compound most people would consider a solid (few other liquids can be shattered with a hammer). The experiment is effectively an hourglass filled with bitumen instead of sand, and drops have been falling from the top compartment in the bottom since 1930, at a rate of about one drop every nine years. Thrilling!

As Atlas Obscura points out, this experiment not only outlived its creator, but will likely still be around when all of us are dead and buried.

I was hoping to visit the pitch drop experiment in person, but I was quite unwell in Brisbane (this is where I’m at with my chronic fatigue: well enough to travel, too sick to enjoy myself). No worries though: you can watch the pitch drop LIVE ON WEBCAM.

Tens of thousands of people have tuned in since the pitch drop went live. This digital connectivity is a far cry from life in Brisbane just over a century ago, when the flood of 1893 destroyed the Victoria Bridge, leaving no means of communication between North and South Brisbane. It’s a good thing the pitch drop experiment wasn’t happening then, that’s all I can say. There would have been riots.

My Brisbane explorations also included the Queensland Museum. In fact, this was the first place I visited, because I arrived in the city under a roasting noon sun and needed to find somewhere cool, quiet and dimly lit.

I was expecting to learn some Queensland facts and maybe see some taxidermied snakes. I was not expecting to see the most brutally violent museum display I’ve ever encountered in my life, but of course I did, because this is Australia.

(Maybe skip the next photo if you’re not into mummified animal remains.)

The display was in a single case. It stood alone from the main fauna exhibition, as if the curators knew it didn’t quite belong, but didn’t know where else to put it. It was at waist height, if you’re measuring by my waist, the waist of a fully grown adult woman. Which means it was at exactly eye level for the average child.

The case contained a dried-out goanna that had attempted to shove an entire echidna in its mouth, spines and all. The spines lodged in the goanna’s mouth and throat and ‘unable to swallow or disgorge, this unfortunate lizard choked to death. Locked together, predator and prey died, then mummified beneath the desert sun.’

IMG_1146 Goanna.JPGThe display’s sign concluded with the line, ‘This curious exhibit was acquired and displayed by the Queensland Museum prior to 1912.’

‘Curious’ isn’t the adjective I would have chosen. But then again, I’m not Australian. (Well, I am. Legally.)

What’s especially sad about this exhibit is that it memorialises the worst mistake that goanna ever made. Maybe up until the day he decided to cram an entire echidna is his mouth, he had a reputation among the local reptile community as being quite clever. I’d hate to have that time I put petrol in a diesel engine memorialised in a museum for well over a century.

I’d also like to meet the naturalist who chanced upon the mummified carcasses and thought, ‘That belongs in a museum!’

Much like all of Australia, Brisbane definitely has unique things to offer. Which is why I love this crazy country so, so much.

IMG_1166.JPG

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A new life of mud pits and stink water

I recently discovered Anna Altman, an American author with chronic migraines. Altman  perfectly highlights truths like this: ‘Our culture encourages us to think that, if we push ourselves hard enough, we can overcome whatever ails us.’

As she discovered when her migraines became debilitating, it’s simply not true. But we deeply want it to be true, which is why it’s such a pervasive idea. In an essay about living with chronic illness, Altman describes what felt like her ‘failure to bear up under average hardship’ when she could no longer work full time. Yes, I thought. Exactly.

After trying all kinds of doctors and treatments for years with little success, Altman says, ‘I ended up finding that giving in to my limitations and trying to find a meaningful, happy life within them helped a lot.’ Her mother counselled that in spite of what she had to give up, she could make a new life for herself.

Giving In To Limitations And Forging A New Life was definitely the theme of my recent trip to New Zealand. When I say ‘recent’ I mean two months ago, because this is yet one more way I’ve given into limitations.

Steve and I booked the flights early last year. I suppose we thought I might be significantly better after all those months. We were very optimistic, it turned out.

In the past, planning a trip to New Zealand would have involved researching all the best hiking trails, kayaking spots, and sunrise yoga on the beach. By November though, it was clear I wouldn’t be doing anything physical. We still refer to the mildest incline as my nemesis.

If I couldn’t hike or kayak or swim, if I had to give into those limitations, what could I fill that gap with? What could this new life as a chronically ill person still desperate to travel look like?

Te Ika-a-Maui, New Zealand’s North Island, had a perfect answer: HOT SPRINGS. Living within the limits of chronic illness, traveling to hot springs

This photo from The Lost Spring looks incredibly relaxing, but what isn’t pictured is the chainsaw and wood chipper blasting away on the other side of that wall. It was actually intolerable, since one of my least fun symptoms is noise sensitivity.

But that was okay, because New Zealand has dozens of hot springs, and I’d planned to visit as many of them as possible. Hot springs are definitely within my limitations, as you can see here at Hell’s Gate mud spa, which was blissfully chainsaw free.  Traveling with chronic illness, hot springs in new Zealand

New Zealand is full of options. When you’re done slathering yourself in mud at Hell’s Gate, you can soak in this even smellier sulphur pool. It was super weird and I loved it. Traveling with chronic illness, hot springs in New Zealand, sulpgur

At the right time of day, you can visit Hot Water Beach in Hahei and get your able-bodied husband to dig a sand pit that will fill up with geothermically heated water. It seeps out of the ground at 65 degrees Celsius, so dig the pit carefully to make sure some cool ocean water seeps in also.  Traveling with chronic illness, hot water beach in New Zealand

Or just visit a traditional New Zealand cat cafe, where you can spend an hour sitting quietly, drinking a cup of tea, and feeding kibble to 17 cats. Traveling with chronic illness, cat cafe in New Zealand

I was able to see and do a lot while mostly sitting down and relaxing, which meant I felt especially good in New Zealand. I was still disappointed to miss out on sights like Cathedral Cove in Hahei, which was only accessible via a rather vertical one-hour hike or an expensive boat journey that would have been exhausting for me. I stayed in the shade on the beach and Steve hiked up on his own. Traveling in New Zealand Cathedral Cove

All that resting meant I was able to see some of the flatter sights, however. This was especially exciting in Rotorua, one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever seen. It’s an active geothermal area, which means all sorts of weirdness goes on. This is a park in the city, where there is a variety of steaming lakes and bubbling mud pits. This steam blows right onto one of the major streets. Travelling with chronic illness to Rotorua, New Zealand

I wasn’t kidding about the mud pits.

To see these sights, I had to walk around. This meant planning carefully and rationing my energy. It worked out. The highlight was Wai-O-Tapu. The website describes this ‘Thermal Wonderland’ as ‘a spectacular showcase of New Zealand’s most colourful and unique geothermal elements sculpted by thousands of years of volcanic activity’ and it is not wrong.

This is Champagne Pool, named for its bubbly constitution. Traveling with chronic illness, Champagne Pool, NZ

And this is Devil’s Bath, which Atlas Obscura describes as a ‘neon green pool of stagnant stink water’ and compares to ‘a cartoonish radioactive dump site’.  traveling with chronic illness, Wait-O-Tapu New Zealand

Trust me, I loved every minute of this. Even the minutes where my symptoms flared in the heat and I struggled to breath after battling a mild incline.

I’m very lucky to have been able to travel to New Zealand at all. Many people with chronic fatigue syndrome and other chronic illnesses wouldn’t be able to. Still, part of me insists that if I push myself hard enough, I can overcome my illness. Every time I try, I make myself worse.

So, welcome to 2019: The Year Of Giving In To Limitations And Forging A New Life … Again.

PS. In New Zealand, shopping carts are called TRUNDLERS. Really. Made my day.

 

Canberra: world’s most ludicrous capital?

Over my several years in Australia, whenever the topic of Canberra came up, people derided it. Australia’s capital is the epitome of bureaucratic blandness, people told me, a snake-riddled suburbia of confounding roundabouts, especially punishing to anyone stupid enough to try navigating the city by foot.

In response to this unanimous negativity, I developed a perverse desire to like Canberra. (This is further evidence that my brain’s main goal is to sabotage me.) I’ll show them, I thought. When I visit Canberra, I’ll see it from a whole new perspective.

I even tried to navigate the city by foot. This experience is best captured by this actual Canberran sidewalk to nowhere:

Sidewalk to nowhere, Canberra, Australia
This stretch of pavement may as well end with a sign reading, ‘That’s what you get for walking, you two-legged idiot! Regards, Canberra.’

The more I learned about Canberra, the more ridiculous it became. The city’s name comes from nganbra, a Ngunnawal word supposedly meaning ‘meeting place’. However, according to local elders, writes my favourite Aussie historian, the word actually means ‘breasts’. As David Hunt put it in True Girt, ‘Australians are the only people in the world who would name their national capital “Tits”’.

This is typical of the national tendency to appropriate Aboriginal words without grasping their meaning, Hunt adds. In this way, Canberra is somehow more, rather than less, appropriate as the name of the country’s capital.

Or, consider this: front and centre over Parliament’s main entrance is a stainless steel rendition of the Aussie coat of arms, kangaroo on the left, emu on the right, each leaning in to support the shield. According to Justine van Mourik, Parliament House’s art curator, when artists submitted coat-of-arms designs during the building’s construction, at least one was rejected because the kangaroo was ‘not visibly male’.

The kangaroo now poised above Parliament is definitely visibly male, its hunk of maleness the same size as its snout.
Visibly male kangaroo, Australian Parliament Coat of Arms

Van Mourik offered no explanation for this criterion in Parliament’s coat of arms; there’s no mention of animal gender in the charter that dictates the design, and it’s definitely not a standard feature. Here is another rendition of the coat of arms I found in Canberra. Note neither of these animals are visibly male. Also, they’re rocking some A+ googly eyes.
Australian coat of arms with googly eyes, Canberra

Another Parliament fact: if you take the guided tour, you’ll learn that the monstrosity holding up the flag is ‘the largest stainless steel structure in the southern hemisphere’. So there’s something to inspire national pride!
Parliament House, Canberra, Australia

I’ve also read conflicting accounts of the city’s design. The American town planner responsible, Walter Burley Griffin, may have based the layout on occult symbols, maybe Freemasonry or Kabbalah. National Geographic observed that, seen from above, Parliament House looks suspiciously like the Illuminati’s all-seeing pyramid eye, and some people believe the double ring roads encircling Capitol Hill indicate the area is a consecrated temple. National Geographic went on to note that these suspicions are baseless – but that’s exactly what the Illuminati would want you to think, isn’t it.

And one more thing, which isn’t exactly a civic issue, but I’m including it anyway. Canberra is home to the gang-gang cockatoo, nicknamed the squeaky gate cockatoo. This is because their call sounds exactly like you’re in a horror movie and a deranged man wielding a blood-soaked chainsaw is creeping up behind you through an unoiled door. Which, I can say from experience, is especially unsettling to hear when you’re walking through the bush alone.

I first visited Canberra in 2012, and I’ve been back a few times. Though I now accept that it’s a ludicrous city in many ways, I actually like it more for all these reasons. And sometimes, it’s also quite beautiful.

Swans, Canberra Australia
Black swans on Lake Hurley Burley, sunset

Just don’t expect to get anywhere on foot.

Pose with my grave and skeleton

NewSouth City Series travel books

Before visiting Melbourne in September, I read Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. It’s one of the City Series from NewSouth, ‘travel books where no-one leaves home’. I’ve spent several years working my way around Australia while reading my way through this series. Melbourne has been my favourite yet.

Melbourne travel book in Melbourne Laneway
Look how almost perfectly I lined up this shot, thanks to the help of a very patient tour guide.

There’s a moment in the book where Cunningham is learning letterpress at a workshop downtown while listening to AFL (Aussie-style rugby) on the radio and taking soup breaks to stay warm. ‘I realised,’ she writes, ‘that I felt about as Melbourne as it’s possible to feel. It was a good sensation, one akin to (but colder than) waking up and taking an early morning dip at Bondi Beach and consequently feeling very Sydney.

This is my favourite description of both Melbourne and Sydney.

Travel to the Nicholas Building Melbourne AustraliaThe letterpress workshop took place in the Nicholas Building. I was keen to visit it because of Cunningham’s description of the three ‘lift operators’ that work the building’s elevators. ‘Joan has been spending her days in the lift for thirty-five years, and its walls are covered with newspaper clippings and photos of children, grandchildren and animals. Some of the animals are her pets, others belong to building tenants.’

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to ride in a lift like that? It seemed too good to be true, and it was. Melbourne was published in 2011. Sometime since then, the lift operators have vanished. There were no newspaper clippings or photos, and I had to push the lift buttons myself.

Still, I was already inside and decided to wander around the Nicholas Building, which had the vibe of a curious relic. I was immediately rewarded with this sign on a seventh-floor door: The Royal Over-Seas League in Melbourne, Australia

What is the Royal Over-Seas League? I’ve entertained myself by tossing around possibilities for days, and I’ve come to hope they’re the Avengers of the Commonwealth, like the Justice League but British, knighted by the Queen maybe – and I had stumbled on their Australian headquarters!

I was also rewarded when I reached the top floor. Travelling in Melbourne Australia, discovering graffiti

Amid the mess of graffiti, I found a real gem: Graffiti in Melbourne Australia

So now I know what I’ll carve on my tombstone. I’m even toying with the idea of having my skeleton put on a pole, like one you’d find in a science lab, and positioned beside my tombstone, perhaps holding a sign inviting photos. Could be a real tourism opportunity for whatever lucky city I’m buried in!

Being sick, I wasn’t able to do a lot in Melbourne. In my wanderings through the Nicholas Building, I went through the wrong door, got trapped in the stairwell, and had to walk down several flights to exit on the ground floor. The exertion of walking down stairs made me nauseous. And when stairs make you nauseous, that’s when you know it’s time to return to your hotel and go to bed at 4:17 pm.

Still, it was a treat to wander along different streets, sit in different cafes, and catch up with some the many friends who’ve moved to Melbourne. The theme of this catching up was definitely Let Me Tell You About How My Body Has Turned On Me, but that’s fine. I’d much rather people ask about my crazy illness than pretend everything is normal. And I’m slowly slowly slowly (like a sloth through tar) getting better, so I feel optimistic. I know I’ll eventually visit Brisbane and Adelaide and even Alice Springs, and read those books. Who knows what unexpected wonders I’ll stumble upon. ~

PS. The tour guide who helped me out was Local Guide to Melbourne. Highly recommended!

 

Brain worms: A Love Story

I’m in The Moth GrandSLAM this August – and here’s the story that got me there. It’s probably the greatest love story of all time (and my friends’ favourite story about me, ask any of them), so no wonder it won The Sydney Moth StorySLAM in April 2016.

This was the start of the now classic genre, a story in which I almost die, featuring my husband in the role of himself. This one takes place during my travels through Armenia.

The Moth is a live storytelling event that began in New York in 1997 and now takes place internationally. The theme was kin (the caption says jokers, but the caption is wrong).

A few things I particularly like about this video are how it feels like the camera is pushed flat up against my face, at what is definitely my most flattering angle. Also, that I’m sporting my trademark hairstyle, the clump. It’s gonna catch on, trust me.

 

How not to be Australian – part 3

Cradle Mountain summit, Tasmania by Ashley Kalagian BluntDespite becoming delusional, I was making steady progress up Cradle Cliff. Steve, of course, was thirty metres ahead. I stared daggers at his steadily receding back. Despite being far more athletic than me, he’d been keen on Dove Lake trail because he’d somehow gotten the impression that this was a holiday, not an intervention.

Another couple were scrambling over the rocks, making their way down. They were two fit young people in brand-name workout clothes and trainers – trainers, not even proper hiking boots. They jumped from rock to rock like they’d both been bitten by the same radioactive spider.

‘Hey, did you make it up?’ I called. ‘How far is it?’

The guy shrugged. ‘Maybe 30 minutes?’

I nodded, clinging to the edge of the rock face to let them pass.

I can handle 30 minutes.

Five minutes later, I asked another lanky guy the same question.

‘It’s probably an hour, I think.’ He consulted his watch. ‘Yeah, it’s been an hour since I left the top.’

By that time, the optimistic part of my brain had been in overdrive far too long. I gave into full-blown pessimistic fear like the embrace of an old friend: not only was the top at least an hour away, but I was also, right at that moment, actively developing skin cancer.

Tassie hike
The rocks continued straight up. There was no longer any slope, just a cliff face of giant boulders. I’d come so far, and my brain was determined to reach the summit – Year of Success, symbolism, etc. My body, however, did not give a scrub’s tit about success. My body knew I shouldn’t be climbing a chaotic mess of appliance-sized rocks over a 500-metre drop. My body knew I had been out in the heat with limited water for many hours. It knew I often cut myself with dull kitchen knives and had more than once managed to trip and fall over while standing still.

Based on that preponderance of evidence, my body decided that if it couldn’t override my brain by broadcasting its increasing fear, it was going to shut this expedition down the only way it knew how: DEFCON 1 panic attack. My legs and arms trembled. I started hyperventilating. Anxiety threatened to choke me.

‘Steve,’ I called. ‘I don’t think – I don’t think I can do it.’

He turned to look down at me, hanging one-handed off a boulder with the grace of a shaved orangutan.

‘Are you sure?’

In response, I started to sob.

At that moment some of the hikers that we’d passed earlier caught up with us – a family of five, mom and dad and three boys.

The oldest boy might have been 12 and the youngest seven or eight. They were scampering up the rocks like monkeys on a jungle gym. Their parents called to them to wait without actually expecting them to do so. Both parents showed the level of exertion you’d expect from – well, from people on a great short walk. They didn’t look or smell like they’d just poured a bottle of last week’s sweat over themselves. They didn’t seem overly concerned that one of their kids might tumble from the cliff face to an abrupt death below. And what I particularly noted was neither of them was clinging to a rock ledge weeping because their whole year was over before it started.

Steve worked his way down to me. We waited while the parents ambled past us, chatting cheerily. Other hikers were coming down the rocks, and we could tell from their beatific faces that they’d made it to the summit, taken in the 360-degree view, and achieved a meaningful personal goal. More people were making their way up as well, including several other primary school kids who were clearly my physical superiors.

These were Australians – fearless, physically fit, blissfully unconcerned over their children’s daredevil antics. No matter where they were actually from, in that moment, on that mountain, they were Australian – and I, definitively, was not. I might fancy myself a bit of an outdoorsy type, I might genuinely enjoy a great short walk – but so help me, I was going to cling to the Canadian definition of ‘walk’, even if that made me an un-Australian wuss with piddling career prospects.

Sitting on the cliff ledge, I cried for a while.

Steve sat beside me, patting my hand. ‘It’s not a big deal,’ he said.

It was a big deal.

We headed back down. I accepted that I’d have a meandering, futile year just like every other year. Despite my passport, I’m not very Australian, and maybe I never will be. If I do get skin cancer from the vicious Aussie sun, I’m sure I’ll be among the over-anxious minority who don’t survive.

But in the meantime, I might be able to at least find a scrubtit.

 
Lane Cove Lit Awards 2017

This excerpt from my current manuscript-in-progress, How to Be Australian, was shortlisted for the Lane Cove Literary Awards and first published in the 2017 anthology.