Ghosts

I can still see it now – a large, proper china tea cup sitting on its saucer ever so gently shaking in her grasp. Her thin, spindly fingers are absent-mindedly caressing the flowers which encircle the cup, their interlaced folds of delicate petals surround the tight bud, blossoming, spilling outwards to unravel in an ordered chaos. Slightly shiny, crepe-like skin, so sheer I can see her veins. There is a small side table nestled up against the armchair but she is so focused on her tale that I think she has forgotten she is even holding the tea cup.

It is a day like any other in our house. My two young daughters are running around the garden picking flowers, chasing butterflies or something equally bucolic. I am pottering around my kitchen, baking biscuits for school lunches and getting a head-start on the week’s meals. The sun is streaming in the long windows, filtered through the over-hanging trees making it a place I’m very content to be.

It is through the kitchen door at the side of the house that people entered. In fact, when new people came to the house and approached the front door, they were stranded there for quite several minutes before we knew anyone was there. The wires to the front doorbell didn’t lead anywhere useful so it never rang even if someone managed to find the button.

The house had been extended multiple times over its almost one hundred year history so that its direction and focus had changed. With almost more hallways than rooms, the concept of good design had been bypassed as rooms were added one by one.

It is her firm rasping knock on the window, by the back door, that draws my attention. I hadn’t been expecting any visitors. Drying my hands on my apron, I shuffle to the back door. It’s the weekend and I’m wearing weekend-at-home-appropriate clothing. She isn’t.

‘Hello?’ I say upon forcibly sliding the reluctant door along its tracks.

‘Hello there,’ she replies.

I’m sure she would have introduced herself but more than ten years later I have no recollection of her name. I do, however, still remember being slightly mesmerized by her appearance. Multiple strands of pearls hang down from her neck, nestling into her rich velvet scarf. Layers of clothing in dark, gemstone tones jar at the bright sun in which she stands, leaning heavily on a walking cane. For a few moments we watch each other. I am wondering where, or rather when, she has come from. No doubt, she is sorting through her memory files trying to reconcile the many times she had stood at this door to be ushered in by her dear friend of many years. Not today though.

Although she knew the house had been sold, my strange face is still a disappointment. I don’t even have a chance to invite her inside, however. Stepping past me and into the kitchen, she explains how many years she has been visiting here. Not pausing in either the kitchen or the dining room, she moves deliberately and determinedly her 90-year-plus body onwards, so I have nothing else to do but follow.

As we arrive in the lounge room, she looks up and after a few moments, smiles. I can only imagine this room hasn’t really changed too much. The cherry-wood panels that line its walls, the large fireplace and mantle taking up an entire corner have not changed; only the furniture and its arrangement. Standing beside her, I can only wonder what she sees. I take the opportunity to offer her the armchair, its commanding position ideal to survey her domain.

Like a lady in waiting, I offer her some tea. She nods her approval and I disappear back into the kitchen to fossick for the supplies required – teapot, creamer, leaf tea, tea cup and saucer, a small plate of biscuits still warm from the oven. As the electric kettle takes its time boiling, I wonder who is this woman seated in my lounge room. Returning triumphant with my tray of tea supplies, I‘m unsure where to start but it turns out that doesn’t matter, as I’m not the one directing things here now.

‘I have been coming here for many, many years, you know.’

I had figured out my role as silent adoring audience.

‘Yes, I’ve known Nina and Clem since the early days. Stanhope was such an exciting place. The Russian Ballet would always visit when they were in town. The parties they would have,’ she pauses and points out through the west window. ‘Out there, under the cherry trees looking over Eltham. Tables laden with all sorts of food, they would play music and have outrageous arguments. So much life, so much laughter. I never saw Nina smile so much as she did then.‘ Her own smile slowly fades.

I hand her a cup of tea which is not so full that she will spill it with her trembling hands. I don’t want to interrupt her but I want to know who she is and what is she doing here in my house. Hopefully, we will get to that at some point.

‘How did you come to know Nina?’ I ask trying to steer the conversation somewhat.

‘My first husband and I moved in to the street behind ten years or so after the war. We knew everyone in the street back then. Stanhope used to be quite a large estate. It stretched all the way down the hill to the railway line. Being academics they never really had any money, so they would sell off a block here and there when they needed to. I can still picture them running down the hill to the station to catch the train into Melbourne University where they both worked. The driver would blow the horn giving them time to race down. Nina was head of Russian Studies and Clem edited the literary journal Meanjin.‘

She looks down at her left hand as if noticing for the first time that she is holding a cup of tea. I offer her a biscuit but she declines with a slight wave of her right hand. I feel obliged to take one as though that is the reason I presented them in the first place. My girls are a blur as they run past the windows, squealing.

‘Nina couldn’t have any children of her own but she would host birthday parties for the neighbours’ children. She loved having children around. She would be very happy to know that there is a family living here now.’

‘We’ve only been here a few weeks but we really like it here,’ I say trying to assuage any concerns. I bring the side table a bit further in front to make it easy for her to place her tea down. She pays it no heed. We both sit in silence and I think how to explain to this woman what I already know. I have met Nina. I can feel her over my shoulder, keeping an eye on me. “Just watching, darlink. Just watching.”

Nina is short with her long hair pulled back tightly in a bun. Always smartly dressed, she enjoys the company of me and my daughters. At times, she sits in the corner of the kitchen on the wooden bench next to my girls as they attack their afternoon snacks. In fact, both Nina and Clem love the life and energy we’ve brought to the house.

At some point, Nina became ill and with her strength ebbing day by day, she soon never left her bed. Clem would sit near her bedside reading as Nina dozed. She was grateful for the exciting lives full of love and laughter that she and Clem had shared. Sadly, too soon, she passed away.

Clem couldn’t cope with the great weight of sadness he felt at this enormous loss. He drank more and more whiskey from his favourite crystal low ball to help blur reality but upon waking each morning, the house was still cold and empty without her. Not too long after, Clem moved out and died a few months later. Colour had been gradually draining out of him without his Nina around.

I understand that our family moving in, with all the noise and light that a family with two young girls bring with them, stirred Clem and Nina.

It is only a few seconds between the sound of the back door slamming and my six and eight year-old daughters bounding into the room, puffing and laughing. But the spell is broken. My guest straightens up, placing her tea cup roughly on the table and starts her ascent out of the chair. I go to assist and get stuck not knowing how to help so just stand beside and watch.

Picking up the teapot, cups and tray, I follow her to the back door. She knows the way. I say goodbye as she disappears down the path and around the corner. I look down and see her still full cup of cold tea, untouched.

The Last Time

The last time

The last time I rode my bike to work, I didn’t ride it home. An ambulance took me to hospital instead. My bike had slipped on tram tracks (very Melbourne) and I tumbled down like a sack of potatoes. It took me 6 months to get the courage to ride again.

The last time I dyed my hair was over a year ago. I like that my blonds now shine through.

The last time I was in a St Kilda pub on a Saturday night, the bartenders ignored me while they clambered to serve a skimpily-clad 18 year-old. I guffawed so loud I startled them.

The last time I got married, I divorced him 13 years later.

The last time I took illicit drugs, I did so in a safe and comfortable environment with someone I trust to guide me through. The next morning he asked if I wanted a cigarette with my coffee. I said, ‘I don’t smoke.’ He said, ‘you did last night.’

The last time I took a pregnancy test it was negative. I was, and still am, very thankful for that.

The last time I lied was yesterday.

The last time I swam in the ocean it was off Magnetic Island and not really warm enough but I hadn’t carted my bathers from Melbourne for nothing.

The last time I slept solidly through the night was earlier this year. It’s so rare that when it happens I wake in awe.

The last time I went for a jog I was 12 years old and before I had finished developing fully. I don’t care what other people say about sports bras, bouncing is just too uncomfortable. So if you see me running, you’d better run too cause there’s something scary coming this way.

The last time someone asked me to get married, I said no to the marriage but yes to jewelry and a party.

The last time I raged against injustice was earlier this week. There seems a lot stuff in the world to rage at lately.

The last time I did yoga was this morning. It seems that if I don’t stretch and move daily, things start to seize up.

The last time I was able to use my phone without finding my glasses was over a year ago. I apologise for those on the receiving end of my typos. I now own multiple pairs of glasses that I have stashed in various bags and spots around the house.

The last time I used the phrase ‘in my day’ – oh no, that’s right I never have. Because I still think of things as being ‘in my day.’

The last time I wore high heels I got a blister. I’d like to say that’s the last time I wear high heels but I’m not ready to make that kind of commitment.

The last time I sang in public was – who am I joking, I’ve never sung in public and trust me you don’t want me to start.

The last time I experienced sexual harassment was – actually, it’s happened so many times in my life that I no longer bother to remember.

The last time I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone I came to a story telling night. I’ve been coming every month since. I’m hooked and reckon I’m learning and improving month by month. And tonight won’t be my last time.

Monday 27th August 7am Lenox Hill, New York City.

Monday 27th August

7am Lenox Hill, New York City.

Trucks finish up their morning deliveries before getting caught in the building traffic. Cream O’Land dairy products, Corona Ice, FedEx, R-Way, Seoul Glass, U-Haul, Absolute Electric, the synonymous yellow taxi cabs deftly weave their way around garbage compactor trucks which pause at the curb. It takes some time to get used to the piles of thick plastic bags of refuse which edge the pavement. Thick black plastic ones, clear plastic ones, stacks of cardboard tied neatly.

The balcony is on the north-west corner, 11 floors up. If I lean forward around one corner I can see the suspended tramway system that takes people over to the nearby Roosevelt Island. The Queensboro bridge runs high straight over the top of it. A quaint transport system it may be for visitors to the city but 8000 people live on the island and a university has been recently added. I’d choose RI as my fantasy residence: physically close but cut off by a river, New York but not New York, looking back at the city but not really a part of the city and catching a few cool winds off the Hudson River.

Clouds are sparse and high this morning, a cool breeze knock about the flowers and herbs which are setting their autumn seeds. A vapour marks the sky though there’s no trace of the plane that made it. Small flocks of birds dart around the skyscrapers. Shadows are shortening as the sun climbs. Curtains are opened on the glass behemoth opposite. Balconies are empty though if I lower my glasses and concentrate I can see the odd resident finishing their morning coffee before heading out into the world.

Cacophony is the only way to describe the mix of noise. High pressure cleaning off the pavement below, a masonry drill too close-by, horns in call and response, screeching brakes, that ever-present low hum of engines and other noises too foreign to pinpoint. It’s not the growing heat but the masonry drill that finally drives me inside to my air-conditioned cocoon.

South Carolina

Thursday August 23rd

Cowpens, South Carolina.

I think it’s mid afternoon but since I left Melbourne 30-something hours ago in the evening, I can’t really be sure. In front of my aunt is a large, icy gin and tonic. Condensation forms on the bottles of local craft beer sitting between my cousin and I; Fat Tire Belgian White Ale, Stone IPA, RJ Rockers Son of a Peach Wheat Ale. Good thing we bought the local sampler pack from the supermarket on our way through from the local airport.

In the near distance, a slow rolling hum of a freight train, drawn-out horns sounding at the three level crossings it passes. Cicadas are quietly murmuring in the settled heat. Waves of a soft breeze cascades through the mature trees which line both sides of the gully. A yellow, rope hammock sits abandoned down by the creek which snakes its way through the kudzu-covered underbrush. This large-leaf vine swiftly grows over anything that stands still. A problem in America’s South-east, it’s taking over 150,000 acres of land a year.

My aunt is peppering my cousin with questions about work and I’m only half-listening. His accent is the perfect blend of retained Australian phrasing and the local Carolina intonation. Every now and then, he pauses to explain who this Dave or that John is. I smile and nod and know that I won’t remember it but enjoy being included anyway. His wife sits opposite keeping an eye on the kids as they dart in and around.

We sit out back in the shade of the carport around a metal outdoor table, a well-used basket of chalk centre-placed. This could be my home – scooters flung by the back door, shoes lined up by the steps, coats hanging on hooks just inside. Three generations usually separated by half a globe but this afternoon we’re gathered around a table.

Friday August 24th

Cowpens, South Carolina.

A woodpecker goes about his business in a tree by the house next door. No one else even looks up from their morning cup of tea. I’m onto my second. And it’s in a full-size mug rather than those pissy little excuses of things that airlines give you. On the flight over I gave up asking for more tea after the third cup.

Other cheery chirps go on in the distance. A car drives down the road; it’s only the second one I’ve seen since I arrived. The kids scoot up and down without concern. Padded up, their knees and elbows protected by plastic and velcro. It reminds me of the year my siblings and I were given bicycles for Christmas and the entire summer we’d peddle around the top of the court where we lived. My brothers were more adventurous than I. They’d walk their bikes up the steep hill at the start of our road and let the bikes speed down the slope, feet splayed out, pedals turning madly. Aimlessly riding around and around never seemed to get boring.

As the morning plays out, the woodpecker falls silent to digest its breakfast of insects gleaned from the bark. It now snoozes as the next stanza of birdsong starts up. The occasional rumble of far-off traffic or a freight train punctuating the rustic peace.

Tamika and the kids go off to Forest school to scramble about in rivers and across rocks for the next few hours. David, Lynda and I are heading into Greenville to do some banking, organise a SIM card for my phone and have a general look around. David and Lynda go inside to have a shower and get ready. I take the chance to sit out here solo and absorb my surrounds. A third cup of tea helps. In the front yard of the quiet grey house next door, an animal of some kind attacks a tree, seeds, leaves or twigs fall to the ground. In the distance, a truck applies its air-brakes. Dogs bark in the yard, their sounds echoing off the hill behind. Other dogs further up the road respond.

I look out through the balustrade and into the gully below. Heavily treed, there’s only the odd plant growing through the dense carpet of discarded leaves. Dappled sunlight brings out a rich variety of greens in the trees above. This late summer day warms my winter bones and only the sounds of traffic from nearby roads remind me that I’m not alone.

I entered my first writing competition

While I found the assessments for this subject a dense workload in an intensive format and also somewhat repetitive, I got an unexpected result out of taking this subject. I’ve seen writing competitions advertised and sometimes they don’t apply to my writing, but more often I just didn’t know where to start. It’s not that I felt my writing wasn’t up to scratch. It’s more that I didn’t know where to start talking about my writing. Like most things, you start by taking the first step.

For this particular competition, I needed to write a one page synopsis, a breakdown of subsequent chapters and a piece stating how winning the prize would benefit my writing career.

A one page synopsis? Bloody hell, I’ve only recently been able to construct one sentence about what I’m writing. “Eating America is an outsider’s look at the USA and its culture through the lens of food.” To flesh out the synopsis, I started with the who, what, where and why. Okay, done.

The chapter breakdown? Yep, I know where I’m going with that because it’s where we went in 2016. I name cities we visited, experiences we had and food we ate. In terms of the smaller story within the bigger story, I’m still getting there.

The third and final section regarding how winning the prize would further my career, I’ve got ideas on that too. I can honestly say that while the $10,000 cash prize would help, it is the 12-month mentorship with an editor from Hachette Australia that I imagine would be the most beneficial. Because that’s why I’m studying this course – to improve my writing.

Letter to my mother’s diabetes.

Dear diabetes,

I’m well, thanks for asking.

I’m not going to ask how you’ve been because I don’t care.

I wish I’d never met you.

You’ve robbed my mother of her sight. Not all of it, mind you, but enough to suck some of the sweetness out of life. I can picture her, many years back, sitting on the couch next to dad, crocheting a toy or blanket for one grandkid or another. Now she just sits on the couch, staring ahead at a fuzzy pattern of shapes and colours, hands idle in her lap.

Thanks to you, my sister and I have now inherited the abandoned craft supplies. The crates of fabric from under the stairs went to my sister who sews. My daughters and I happily received boxes of wool, knitting needles and crochet hooks. Yes, the cats do love chasing the wool but I am also relishing the chance to teach my daughters crochet.

Mum, like her mother, was always happy to let us kids have a go at craft. I can even see Nana sitting in her floral chair by the window so she would catch the natural light, knitting needles in hand. Somehow, she never was short with me as she attempted to figure out what on earth I’d done with the wool. It usually involved a drop stitch or three. So I’m not being sarcastic when I say thank you. The craft supplies that have been passed on to us means that we, too, allow our children to play around with creating.

The ability to have a go and fail is something my mother encouraged in me from a young age. She is not the type to take the pencil out of my hand to draw something for me. She would suggest I walk around it, pick it up and get to know the thing I wanted to draw. Her time at art school in the 60s was not wasted. Her paintings and sculptures filled the house growing up. But once again, thanks to you, diabetes, she can’t even paint. The half-finished canvases rested against a wall in the garage, blank faces poking out under a layer of dust and cobwebs, until they too came to live with me.

As a child, I remember my grandfather had a shed that smelled of wood shavings and engine oil. His tools hung neatly on shadow board which lined the walls. I recall stories of Papa making a home brew system from discarded fuel tins. My mother inherited her ingenuity from her father. She also inherited his diabetes, developing it late in life as he did. So damn you diabetes for cursing my Papa as well.

Whilst reducing my mother’s sight so that she can no longer drive, you have tried to curb her independence but you did not succeed. My mother simply upsized her phone’s display and downloaded a public transport app. So once again, I must thank you. Thank you for nudging her into the modern world. Buses, trains and trams have replaced her own car but she will not be hobbled. We are both viciously independent people and though you may try, you will not limit our wanderings.

It’s not just diet and insulin production you impact. You effect the eyesight, feet and healing ability of people who get too close to you. The strong genetic link looms over my life so I’m actively working to remain free of you, damned diabetes. I exercise regularly so that you can’t catch me. I eat well, so that you’ll not join me at my dinner table. I have inherited many things from my mother – my body shape, my love of creating and my independent streak. But I will not inherit diabetes. I will not inherit you.

Bend, OR. Wednesday 24th August 2016

The Victorian Café at the top of the Main Street of Bend posits itself as offering a brunch worth waiting for. Thankfully today being a weekday we manage to skip that part of the process even though it’s well after 10am by the time we arrive. Clad in red painted timber, iron chairs and tables spread out in front and to the side under the looming sequoia trees. Upon seating us outside, our server hands us the menu cards. ‘Can I tempt you folks in one of our famous 23 ounce Bloody Marys? Comes with charbroiled prawn, Andouille sausage, pepper jack, olive, and pepperoncini skewer. Double shot of house-infused pepper vodka too.’

‘Ah, no thanks. I’m driving shortly.’ Steve shakes his head.’Just coffee for me.’

‘And for you ma’am? A mimosa or Irish coffee perhaps.’

‘Ummm. I’d love an orange juice – no ice – and some English breakfast tea with milk on the side.’ I’m getting better at ordering in America.

‘So that’s coffee, a juice and a tea.’

Around us groups of mostly young adults chat and pick casually at their meals. No one is in a rush to be anywhere. Drinks delivered and meals ordered.

Biscuits with sausage gravy and easy over medium eggs (soft yolks with cooked whites) for Steve. Hobo potatoes for me. Hobo potatoes as I discover are crispy potato chunks with diced capsicums, red onions, tomatoes, mushrooms topped with American cheese (an industrial style all of its own) and spring onions.

 The server swings past multiple times filling the stout coffee mug which rarely leaves Steve’s hand.

‘So from here I was thinking we would head over to south west Bend to a place called Crux. Over twenty beers on tap on the tasting room. We may have to stay longer in Bend.’

‘That’s assuming we ever get our breakfasts and get out of here,’ I add. ‘Funny how you can never find a waiter when you want one.’

When I do track down a waiter, she apologises repeatedly. Moments later a mimosa is delivered to our table as an apology by the manager. The flaccid tea sits cold and I sip on the mimosa as a head start my day’s alcohol consumption. Feeling a little buzzed by the time our meals arrive, I can’t be bothered mentioning that I order my dish without the scrambled eggs. I do my best to eat around them.

Another thing I’ve added to my list of life in the United States of America is that alcohol at breakfast is completely acceptable. I’m not pointing the finger at anyone here; I happily admit to consuming alcohol prior to noon. Iced tea with bourbon to go with my smoked meats and salad at 11am would prove to be the perfect beverage choice a few days later. A bloody Mary (vodka, tomato juice and more) and breakfast taco in Los Angeles. My mimosa (sparkling wine mixed with orange juice) to accompany this morning’s breakfast.

I can’t say it is something I often see in Australia. In general, I see more spirits consumed in America. Cocktails are offered at all times of day and up-sized for a only a dollar more. I’m wondering about Prohibition’s influence of how alcohol has taken hold in American culture. Distilled spirits, as opposed to beer or wine, would have been easier to conceal and transport from legal authorities at that time. It makes sense.

Prohibition had other effects on American society including loss of tax revenue and increase of organised crime but also not insignificantly, a loss of wine-making knowledge and skills. I blame this for my exasperating efforts to track down affordable, drinkable American wines. Having spent too many years working in one of Australia’s premier wine regions, the yellow, oaky and sweet American wine is almost enough to turn me to beer. Luckily, a chance meeting with a San Francisco restaurant manager leads to a Californian wine masterclass and hope is redeemed.

Breakfast completed, we manoeuvre our way past oversized pick-up trucks and SUVs. Ten minutes later we are driving in circles in an industrial estate, Steve hell-bent on tracking down the first of today’s breweries. At the edge of an ill-signed industrial estate, we find Crux Fermentation Project in the home of a former transmission shop bound by the railway and an aqueduct.

Reclaimed fixtures and furnishings pay homage to the building’s history. Sitting at one of the communal bar tables mashing tanks, fermenting vessels and ageing casks surround.

‘Imagine a set up like this at home.’

‘Do you mean in Australia generally or actually in our home?’ I question, unsure if I want to know the answer.

‘A little bit of column A. A little bit of column B.’

The extensive beer tap list is outlined on a photocopied sheet on the table in front of us. Lagers, ales and all the way through to dark beers. There is even a couple of ciders and kombucha on tap. These guys are more than a fermentation project in name only.

Seattle, WA – Monday 29th August  2016

Seattle, WA – Monday 29th August

Minimal cloud and a glorious mid 20s Celsius has got to be the perfect weather for visiting a city. The buildings look that little bit shinier in the sun, and it’s easier to walk a city without working up a sweat. This morning we join a market experience walking tour. Just before the tour starts at 9.30am we sneak into a joint called Piroshky Piroshky Bakery. Unsurprisingly we order a couple of piroshky. These are hot pastries filled with all manner of meat or vegetables and even sweet fillings. I choose the sauerkraut, cabbage and onion while Steve chooses the beef and cheese. Still warm from the oven, these take the edge of our hunger while we wait for Jake and his waving flag.

With a ‘pay as you feel’ policy, these walking tours could be a real hit or miss from an operating point of view but Jake has the personality to make it work. Knowledgeable and incredibly personable, he is a great touch point for visitors to Seattle. Green and white flag turning to and fro, Seattle Free Walking Tours, Jake draws a range of people hovering awkwardly at the meeting spot. Also in the park by Pike Place Market’s north entrance is a group protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Under the guard of two tall totem poles, a group of Native Americans with bullhorns in hand, are addressing a small crowd that has gathered. Between the accent and the distortion, I’m having trouble understanding what is being said. Large banners give some context. NO PIPELINE, NODAPL, WATER PROTECTORS, RED WARRIOR, KEEP IT IN THE GROUND, WATER IS LIFE, I STAND WITH STANDING ROCK. 

Reaching into a small grey backpack, a clipboard is produced. Smiling and chatting, he repeats our names as he checks us off his list. 

‘Hi there. You here for the walking tour?’ His eyes light up as they connect with mine.

Implicitly I volunteer, ‘I’m Amanda. This is Steve.’

‘Amanda and Steve? Steve and Amanda. I’m Jake. Where you guys from?’

‘Australia.’

‘Oh yeah, where in Australia?’ he asks sounding genuinely curious.

‘Melbourne,’ Steve answers rather ironically as he was born in England and lived in Western Australia for 13 years.

‘Mel-born?’

‘No, Mel-bun,’ I correct him.

‘Mell-bunnn’ he repeats confidently. ‘My wife and I were there a few years back. BC, before children. Great city. Fabulous food from memory.’

From this accurate concise comment he turns to face the couple who’ve appeared at our left with the same appealing smile. Steve and I stand abandoned not knowing what to do next. A few moments later we step aside, look around the park and at our feet.  

‘So what’s the plan after this?’ I ask knowing his almighty spreadsheet holds many possibilities.  

‘I don’t know. What do you feel like?

How can I know what I will feel like in a couple of hours? I’m not really sure what I feel like now. There’s a a freedom in not being responsible for planning a holiday. Steve has added every attraction he’s even slightly curious in visiting as a gold star on his google maps. Those attractions that are more insistent have made it as an entry on the daily spreadsheet. To have a question thrown at me as to what I want to do is at once an opportunity and a pressure.

‘Well, I’m still hungry so if we don’t pick up anything on the tour, how about we go for second breakfast,’ I venture. 

From his pocket in an instant appears his phone. I don’t have an American SIM card for my phone so I’m reliant upon free wifi and it appears we are just outside the market’s range.

‘Just around the corner is Biscuit Bitch,’ he says enthusiastically. ‘It’s supposed to be one of the best biscuit places in America. Real southern style biscuits even though we are in the Pacific Northwest.’

I’m simultaneously impressed and not surprised that he has this information so readily available.

‘Sure.’

I’m happy to be lead to new places and even happier not to have spent the hours researching it.

Slowly more people are gathering around are tour leader. Rainproof jackets on, cameras slung around necks, day packs on back and phones in hand. Seattle feels as though it could rain or burst into sunshine at any moment. From this elevated position, we look past the working port, over the Puget Sound to a snow-covered Mt. Rainier in the distance. Seattle rises sharply from the waterline of Puget Sound. Even though city planners tried to tame its hills early on, the incline of some streets challenges visitors and no doubt keeps local brake companies in business. As in San Francisco, some streets require cars park with wheels turned into the curb.

‘Welcome everyone from around the States and around the world,’ Jake says in a raised projected voice . ‘Let’s move a little closer to the market entrance so you can all hear me better.’ Dutifully we follow our leader. The protestor’s speech fades as we cross the chaotic intersection and try to avoid the shoppers emerging from the market. A short explanation later, Jake leads us down into the multilevel labyrinth that is Pike Place Market. Like markets all over the world, a loose organisation of stalls exist based on type and historic precedence. No matter how we try, it’s hard not to be in the way of the genuine market shoppers. 

One of our fist stops on the tour is a fish stall that is renowned for fish tossing Wild Atlantic salmon. Originally as a gimmick, these hefty beauties are tossed gracefully over the counter to the shrieks of delight from tourists. Clad in rubber orange overalls and gumboots repeatedly shouting orders to each other, the fishmongers occasionally lob a fake fish into the gathering audience. Underneath a sign that reads Caution – Low flying fish on thick beds of ice lay mounds of Halibut, King Salmon, Wild Alaskan Coho Salmon, jumbo Gulf prawns, Black Cod, oysters, mussels, squid, Dungeness crab and King Crab legs bigger than my arm. Amongst the rows of own brand condiments stands their recipe book – In the Kitchen with the Pike Place Fish Guys – 100 recipes and tips from the world famous crew of Pike Place Fish. Happy to stand near the back avoiding audience participation, as the group moves on I linger running my eyes over new species of fish creating a seafood banquet in my head.

By the time I’ve crossed the street and caught up with the rest of the group at a stall in the greengrocers section, I’m just in time for a slice of new season apple that tastes of lemonade. Dark purple grapes, yellow/green round grapes that taste like cotton candy, stone fruit bigger than my fist, berries, figs, tropical fruit, bags of rainbow of new potatoes and garlands of chillies and garlic drying overhead.

We avoid the growing line outside the original Starbucks location, as people who should know better queue for a coffee that surely tastes just as average as the ones from the cafes that surround it. I can’t even bring myself to take a photo of it. Not incidentally, I experienced a perverse joy in the initial failure of Starbucks to gain a foothold in Australia. Coffee culture had anchored itself in Australia with the European post-war immigration wave. Espresso machines soon began to make their way into Australian cafes and restaurants. We buy coffee from our local independent café, not an international corporation. If you don’t like the flavour profile of the bean at your local café, you can walk the next block over. Like McDonalds, Starbucks success was based upon a predictable formula regardless of geographical location.

America is an incredibly patriotic nation, occasionally prone to global blindness.
The globalisation of American culture from hip-hop music to clothing, food and drink worlds are no different. Tex-mex tacos are easily found on every food truck corner of Australia’s major cities. Shopping centres host chain stores familiar to US citizens as the muzak playing over the public sound system. It may understandable that when Americans travel they get confused where America ends and other countries begin. 

Before leaving the market we sneak in a couple of mini maple and bacon donuts, hot from the fryer at Daily Dozen Doughnut Company but it’s not enough to assuage our hunger so it’s up the hill we climb towards Biscuit Bitch. Rounding the corner, I think I’ve spied the place while Steve has paused to check the location.

‘It should be just up here on the right,’ he says without looking up.

‘Where that massive queue is then,’ I say pointing ahead.

Head up, ‘Ah,yep. That’d be it.’

He walks closer for a better look and I move to the edge of the footpath. It is mid-morning so really it’s no surprise that the joint is pumping. It’s a small store and the queue hosts twice as many people as there are customers inside.

‘I did see a biscuit place inside the market when I went to the bathroom if you want to try that place,’ I offer.

‘What’s it called?’ he asks phone in hand still.

‘I don’t know. Let’s just go.’ I turn go back the way we came, Steve trailing behind trying to look up our new destination online.

Turns out Honest Biscuits, in a quiet corner of the bustling market, produce a very decent Dungeness crab and cheddar biscuit sandwich. Teamed with an IPA from Pike Brewing IPA, our hunger and mission for good biscuits were satisfied in one hit. A crunchy outside and fluffy middle, the biscuit sandwich has chucks of local crab meat under melted slabs of cheddar from Beecher’s cheese stall also in the market. Sprinkle of spring onion on top and happy days are here. We perch on bar stools overlooking the atrium to enjoy a few moments resting the feet and enjoying the relative quiet.

Peace is a thing that can be hard to find when travelling. By its very nature, travelling usually involves close contact with other people. I’m an urban traveller not a wilderness traveller. I enjoy the bustle of cities and the excitement of their hectic environment. Balance must be present though in some quiet moments. I find journal keeping is one of those things helps me find that equilibrium. Art galleries, museums also help. Ideally, I prefer to head out in the mornings and walk the streets finding new places along the way. In the afternoons, I like to retire to my abode for a few quiet hours, reflecting and writing before heading out again for the evening. Of course, travelling with a partner doesn’t always mean things are ideal.

Feeling at risk of overdoing art museums, I suggest to Steve that we skip the Seattle Art Museum and visit the Aquarium instead. I’m glad we do. The Seattle Aquarium is located right on the waterfront, a short walk down a few flights of stairs from the market. The waterfront is a mix of wide board walk, kitschy seafood cafes, buskers, public art installations, ferry terminal and the Seattle Aquarium. Stepping past prams and wayward small children, we pay the admission fee and collect a map. Just inside the entrance is a large foyer with a six metre high cantilevered glass wall onto an enormous tank at one end.

‘This would make an impressive function space,’ I say to no one in particular. Behind the thick glass water surges steadily in and out, mimicking the waves of Puget Sound. Kelp sways, fish dart around the coral and eels poke their heads out from rock crevices.

‘I think we are the only ones here without kids,’ Steve notes. I nod, thankful. Hoards of children are running around and I’m exhausted trying to avoid them underfoot. We head past the interactive exhibits complete with kids tormenting sea cucumbers, the tubular jellyfish tanks, and out back to the where the aquarium and sea waters overlap. There’s a 360 degree underwater concrete and glass dome that juts into the bay. Here we sit for a few minutes, the only visitors listening to the gentle sounds of waves on glass, the odd harbour seal frolicking amongst large kelp forests. Sunlight streams through the clear waters, lending the room an eerie blue-green light. Rockfish, sturgeon and more dart their sleek silvery bodies past the windows.

We make our way along past the outside tanks and find my favourite exhibit – the sea otters. Yes, they swim a repeated loop like so many animals enclosed in zoo exhibits but I find them irresistibly cute. #ottersarethenewcats I banish all concerns about the ethics of zoos and keeping animals in captivity which is one of the reasons I often struggle with aquariums and zoos. Almost seemingly as a reward, we are fortunate enough to witness the otters during a special grown-ups only cuddle time. Quickly we see parents directing the kids’ attention onwards to the next exhibit.

Monday May 1st 2017

Monday May 1st

 

Technically my day started at 1.16am when I gave up sleeping in the same bed as Steve. Gradually, his snoring stirs the whirlpool of anger deep inside me until I envision me smothering him with my 100% goose down pillow. Instead, I snatched my doona and pillow from my side of the bed and went to join the cat on the couch. At least she doesn’t snore.

 

At 7am, my youngest daughter Isabel stomped up the stairs to the kitchen to make her lunch. Surprising her with ‘Good morning’ from the other side of the couch cushions, she then asked for a lift to the station, which I agreed to since my slumber appeared to be cut short for now. I managed to keep my eyes open wide enough for safe driving and promptly collapsed into the now vacant bed upon returning home.

 

After a few more stolen hours, I dragged myself a little more willingly from the oasis and fixed a strong cup of tea – white, no sugar cause I’m sweet enough – as a foundation stone for my day. The pantry produced the last hot cross bun of the season, which I toasted and liberally buttered while I sat at the kitchen bench and read emails, checked Facebook and looked at my week’s calendar on my ipad. With only the cats to keep me company, the morning was shaping up ok.

 

Breakfast done and the obligatory short yoga routine completed, I dressed and gathered my bits for school. Leaving later than I had hoped, I rode the shorter yet more difficult route to Uni and arrived puffing and sweaty. An hour or more was then spent revising missed lessons. At 1.30pm with another cup of tea, I joined the afternoon class to learn all about making a WordPress website. This was actually very interesting and I started expanding on my own WordPress site during the session and know now where I want to take it.

 

Finishing up slightly early was great as I was able to do some homework when I got home. Organised me had made dinner (the ever-popular lasagne) the day prior as Mondays and Tuesdays are always somewhat chaotic in our household. At about 7.30pm I headed out to Buff Life Drawing at the Union Club Hotel. I hadn’t been for too many weeks and I wanted to get back into the habit, especially as I’ve been asked to model there in a few weeks.

 

A pint of ale in hand, I set up my watercolours and paper on a bar table and was looking forward to the session. Life drawing sessions are like going for an artistic jog. They use the muscles – both the hand and the eye. It’s practise rather than outcome. Sometimes you get something good and sometimes you don’t. Poses move from 1-2 minutes, 5 minutes then 10 and 20 minutes duration. I’m best at 10 minute poses. 20 minute poses see me over-thinking and over-working pieces. I’m learning not to be pressured to keep at my 20 minute pieces but rather leave them be at the place I think best.

 

It was a good turn out (about 15 people) and I’m hoping my modelling session will involve a similar number. Modelling for just a few might feel awkward.

I messaged Craig to let him know I’ve got my first gig and he was most supportive. Not sure if he’ll turn up to draw. It’s only fair, I’ve seen him naked enough times.

 

Upon coming home, I dumped my bags on the kitchen table and, turning off extraneous lights as I passed, undressed and climbed into bed. Phone plugged in and alarm set, my Coco cat found her spot on my chest and we both closed our eyes on the day.