Sunday night melancholy cloaks me like a miasma. I blame the 1963 book The Collector which I ploughed through over the weekend. The last time I read it was 1982 when I was 17 and finishing school – three decades later it is still a recommended reading text for English. I am currently part of an Emerging Writers Program and my mentor suggested I might want to read it as I toil away at the latest iteration of my manuscript, and flesh out my narrator’s voice.
I went away for the weekend and happened upon it in my sister’s bookcase, plucked it out and dived in. I finished it on the drive home, its miserable conclusion colouring my view out the window. The lush green paddocks and lone farmhouses whizzed by the car. Instead of appearing charming and rustic, I kept picturing a forgotten Miranda locked into each one of their basements.
Trying to process the awful feelings from this book, I looked for reviews. Imagine my horror when I read in the author’s own words that the inspiration from the book echoed his own author’s own fantasies. Would this book even be published now, with the author confessing the origin of the book and spending half of it colonising the woman victim’s voice? I can only hope not…
If I remember correctly, I saw Michael Robotham speak at the Margaret River Writers’ Festival a few years ago – or perhaps the Perth Writer’s Festival. My memory is notoriously unreliable. For me, there’s nothing I like more than a Writers’ Festival where you can buy all sorts of books you may never get to read with a conscience as clear as rainwater. Because, supporting the arts, right? Plus once you have heard someone speak live, it would be churlish not to buy their novel. Then, you might get a chance to have a chat with the author as they scrawl your name and move to the next keen reader.
Michael Robotham seemed like such a personable man and spoke at some length of that moment in 2002 when his manuscript of his first novel The Suspect set off a bidding war, and how the resulting contract changed his life. He was also very candid about how he hadn’t fully looked at the fine print of this life-changing contract, which asked him to produce books in the same genre as The Suspect. His Great Australian Novel – a literary fiction unfinished potential masterpiece – has had to continue languishing in his bottom drawer. He was very self-deprecating about His Great Australian Novel but it got me thinking.
I am still a very long way away from any kind of publishing contract, with or without a bidding war. But when I find myself in the position of signing a publishing contract, I will be very careful not to sign away my creative licence to try – and possibly fail – at a number of different genres.
I happened to find Michael at the signing desk during a lull when he had enough time for me to very quickly outline my current situation of working almost full time and squeezing in writing on the weekends. He picked up his pen and with a flourish exhorted me to keep finding time to write. It just seemed so kind.
This is just one of the many instances I encounter in the writer’s world – just how generous and encouraging writers are to writers.
I keep this on my desk. I keep finding time to write.
“It will involve a free trip to Sydney”, I told my daughter. “All we have to do is air our dirty linen on national television.”
Luckily, I had her at “Free trip to Sydney.”
Clearly, I’m writing about long, long ago, in a pre-Covid world of 2018. Somebody from SBS Insight had read one of my Facebook posts which was on the topic of unplanned pregnancies, and she had replied and asked me to contact her. They were exploring the topic in an episode entitled “Unplanned”
Our dirty linen was that I fell pregnant with my daughter in 1998 on a third date with a tall (as in, 2 metres tall) Greek man when I was living and working in Greece. We did date for a while and even tried to make a go of it, but while we have stayed in touch over the decades essentially I have almost always been a solo mum.
After my first conversation with the SBS Insight researcher, who sounded interested she called me back and asked me if my daughter, then 18 would also come on the show. It was a free trip, and we did.
The travel together to Sydney was fabulous, as always. We sat in the studio for the filming which took two hours, only half of which made it into the program. At about the one hour 50 minutes mark into the filming we began to feel quite uncomfortable that SBS Insight had thrown their money away on us as they still hadn’t asked us a question. We hadn’t been bored in that time – we had been enthralled, watching the stories unfold. These were new and raw stories, with small babies or young children. We had been invited onto the show to give a longer-term view of the unplanned pregnancy scenario.
If you want to watch the episode we appear at the 47.23 mark of a 50-minute episode, and everything we said made it onto the film.
I certainly questioned why I had wanted to be on it, and also drag my daughter into the dirty linen airing too. But something came out of it I hadn’t anticipated. One of the featured stories – Catrina – with pink hair – messaged me afterwards. She said I gave her hope about raising her daughter alone. Ah, the power of the stories we share.
Cobb St is my family home built in the 1960s. The photo above is how it looked in 1963 when my father was just getting started on six decades of home handyman projects.
I found a journal entry from this time last year, dated 26 Sep 2020:
“It’s the last days of Cobb Street and I stand in the driveway waiting for the slow steps of my mother, wheeling along behind the safety of her walker. I watch the sweet bobbing of a pair of birds, a species I don’t recognise. One is noisy, expressive, the other silent and focused on finding food. It’s like the noisy one fears it is missing out on the best morsels and protesting loudly while the quiet one gets on with the business of eating eating. The noisy one gulps down an indigestibly large nut of dubious calorific content. The quiet one flies away, the noisy one lingers.
In this space of inaction while waiting for my mother I loop back five plus decades and I’m ten again, a hostage to the dullness of childhood in this very same home my mother still inhabits.”
I have clearly gotten ahead of myself as Cobb Street is still going strong(ish) in 2021. In fact I have not long gotten back to my own home and unpacked after staying at Cobb St a week or so while we organised a new live-in companion for Mum. And it wasn’t even that dull.
I have been doing a bit of tidying hoping it may make it a little easier for an outsider navigate its eccentricities and execrescences of six decades of clutter. In doing I have sorted through documents that have flipped me back and forward between decades with that dizzying vortex feeling when I recognise that essential part of who I am never changes, but everything external does.
I have a habit of taking notes while listening to people speaking, which means I can end up with scraps of paper with random scribblings which no-one but myself can decipher. I found just such a scrap this week while cleaning my work desk.
It was from the keynote address at the February 2021 WA Council of Social Service conference by Hilary Cottam who said about social services “We catch people as they fall, but we don’t help them take flight”. I wrote it down because it had the absolute ring of truth to it.
Hilary Cottam is the author of the book Radical Help which sets out how to create services which help people thrive. Spoiler alert, the biggest factor is in working with people, co-designing the support they require. I have never forgotten one of the scenarios she summarised in the book where a woman had more than 80 agencies (think of the money…) offering her various services, all of which were set into the concrete of what their funding streams allowed, rather than what she really needed.
This woman had a separate mobile phone just to field calls from all the services. She had another phone for calls she actually wanted to answer. The concretised funding models of those 80+ services meant she had to tell different things to different agencies to access their “help.”
In a radical re-think, the funding for these 80+ services were channeled into a fund, and she got to choose the team of people to help her. The emphasis was on what her ultimate goal was – how she would “take flight” rather than controlling, corralling, chastising and keeping her stuck where she was.
The next thing I scrawled on my notebook was Hilary’s assertion that we need to see welfare systems as an investment, not a cost. Welfare systems represent an investment in people, and nothing is more valuable than people.
Imagine that. Seeing people as an asset rather than a burden. Being excited at the possibility of helping people take flight…
Sunday Blog 3. 12th September 2021 – winnowings from this week’s readings
This week there have been several books on the go, but Martha Beck’s latest book The Way of Integrity has been the one that has dominated, both in written and audio form. If you have never read anything she has written, you might want to check her out. Martha Beck is funny but she’s also hugely well-educated.
This latest book uses Dante Aligheri’s 1300s masterpiece The Divine Comedy as a timeless parable, still relevant today. Martha explores the simple premise that suffering comes when we act out of integrity – pretending we are who we aren’t, doing things to please others, living our whole lives on someone else’s pattern. When we act with integrity, suffering disappears. “Know what you really know, feel what you really feel, say what you really mean, and do what you really want.” (The Way of Integrity, page 191)
There are many many gems in the book, both comic and wise but it is the review of Karpman’s Drama Triangle that stars in this Sunday Blog. I hadn’t heard of the Drama Triangle prior to encountering Martha Beck’s work, but it’s easy enough to google. Or I can just add it below:
All of us can unconsciously choose the Persecutor-Victim-Rescuer triangle and chase ourselves around and around and around. Or as Martha says;
If you’re feeling wildly masochistic and want to create a drama triangle of your very own, it’s as easy as pie. Just choose a target of blame and cast yourself as the victim. Then sit back and relax, confident that the anger, arguments, cowering and threatening will go on forever unless you choose another course of action. (The Way of Integrity, page 183)
We can also free ourselves from this unconscious dynamic by just accepting that we are free to make our own choices. Martha suggests the provocative question in this blog’s top image – are we absolutely sure that we have no options whatsoever, that we are to forever be a victim?
Getting out of a triangle drama is also simple, though not easy. It hinges on one act of integrity: acknowledging that we’re capable of choosing our responses to other people and situations, no matter what. (The Way of Integrity, page 183)
Creativity, Martha advises, is the opposite of violence, and the way out of the Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer triangle. The Victim becomes Creator, the Persecutor becomes the Challenger and the Rescuer becomes the Coach.
So while I do hope you get to read Martha’s books, just in case you don’t this is a summarised gift of the way out of unproductive drama.
Now to see if I can really sign up to the book’s No Lie Challenge….
I am at my mother’s house on the first Father’s Day in Australia since my father died. I am here to oversee the ritual of a roast in his honour which will soon be in the oven. We will gather in several hours to eat the roast.
It’s not quite a year since he died in his bedroom at home, exactly where he wanted to be after more than six decades in his “castle”. I stayed in his room last night, partly to make it easier to do the catering today. His room has been referred to blackly as “the death room”, although I hasten to add the bed is different from the hospital bed on loan that he passed in.
As I dig out the roasting pan and prep the vegetables, I can see him in the last months of his life. He still wanted to be the one to cook the roast (he did most of the cooking for the last 30 years of his marriage) but he was no longer able to. He couldn’t manage the weight of the joint, the dexterity to slide things in and out of the oven. I am channeling him as I cook the roast, but adding in a few improvements, like over-catering instead of under-catering.
Mum has overseen setting the table and asks if I need any trivets for the many groaning dishes of food I am creating. “Get that one out of the third cupboard along, bottom drawer”, Mum says. “It’s one Dad made when he first bought his router.”
The process of the cooking wraps me up in a warmth as the different memories of him crowd in, both recent and ancient.
The pork is definitely done to a turn, the fish pies, cauliflower cheese and roast vegetables are piled on plates onto the table as people start to arrive. The meal moves on in a hubbub of chatter and the different micro dramas we are navigating – purchasing houses, juggling study and work commitments, life.
After the guests have all but left, the plates all washed, and returned to their well-worn niches in the cupboard, Mum says “He’s definitely here”.
The lunch was really for him, and we toasted him briefly over lunch, but life moves on.
Your average audio book takes between 6 and 12 hours to listen to. Think about it. Imagine if you could sit down over a weekend and talk into your voice memo for ten hours and knock out a book. Technically, you could, but in reality, books can stretch over years and even decades, snarled up in the dance with fear and its most recognisable face, procrastination. Procrastination only has left feet and it stomps like a bastard.
My first self-published book, a memoir entitled Not My Story took 14 years to finish. To be fair, in part the procrastination was waiting for change to happen in the victim services sector. I had to let that shit go and hit “publish”.
I started the next book project fairly soon afterward, so like, six years ago. It was as daring a project as I could imagine – a novel. Between then and now I have posted triumphant pictures of different stages of writing and editing. Perhaps I have not shared as generously the smoking ruins of my writing project after two different mentors, one year apart, deemed the manuscript both unpublishable, and well, unfixable.
Recently I read a Seth Godin’s latest book – The Practice – Shipping Creative Work. It’s impossible to read a Seth Godin book without feeling like a terrible slouch, an amateur procrastinator. I mean, the man blogs daily. Daily. But much as I hate to admit it, he is right. Creativity is a choice. You choose, you turn up, you create whether or not you’re inspired. He always highlights that turning pro means writing when you don’t feel like it, keeping on going when you feel defeated. Shipping the work means putting it out into the world. He insists creatives need to keep on shipping creative work because that’s what creatives do when they turn pro(fessional).
But finishing a book and shipping it is hard. Really hard. I have cast about for support in all sorts of ways over the past six years. I have tried two different online writing courses, two different mentors, I am in an online writing group and have a buddy I catch up with. I have burned through several working titles and endless hours of writing and editing. These number hours of course have been dwarfed by the sheer volume of hours of procrastination and self-doubt. The draft has ballooned to 120,000 words, then been trimmed back to 80,000 words, before being eviserated to 35,000 words.
Recently the Four Centres Emerging Writers Publishing Program caught my eye. It offers workshops, mentoring and a path to publication over a two year period. I nearly didn’t apply. I didn’t want to offer up my crumbling, smoking ruin of a disembowelled manuscript. I am not sure if I have what it takes to realize the initial vision in no matter how many words. Thankfully I decided to apply and take it as feedback. If it was a no, then the shelved manuscript needed to be shredded.
But it was a yes. Yikes. So here I go! Not only am I back in the game, as I have read a Seth Godin book, I now have to blog weekly as well as breathe life into the manuscript.
That is my line in the sand, drawn 29th August 2021. Sunday musings, sharing the stumbles and the wins, closing with anything inspirational I have been listening to. Turning pro.
It was the third time he’d approached me in two hours. I was scratchy-eyed and still unclaimed, waiting at Thessaloniki airport from three o’clock in the morning. A particularly charmless airport in Greece’s second-biggest city, six hours north of Athens. He was yet to find the person he’d been tasked to meet, or so I gathered through our pantomime interaction. I had reached, then surpassed my thirtieth year without finding the right man in my life, and it seemed sensible to throw in a good job in the museum sector and try my hand at English Language teaching.
So here I was after six years, yet another Australian in London, moving
to Greece, with perhaps two words of the language under my belt. I’d finished a
month-long teacher training course the week before. Mortgage payments pressed
in on me from the flat I’d left behind in London – there was no time to delay,
another job must be found. Greece was willing to take me with my thin
credentials, so here I was. Apartment included.
The red-eye flight had been paid for by the tin-pot private English school I’d be working for, a fitting start to the quest (or ordeal?) that was ahead. I was due to be picked up at 5.30am by the school owner’s daughter, Katerina, and just had to while away the intervening 2.5 hours, longing for bed and repeatedly repulsing any efforts of this strange man to cart me off. I shook my head again at him, not realising that a different head gesture was called for to convince him of my denial. I was yet to understand that indisputable Greek no that looks like a gesture of disdain. I needed to thrust my head and eyes upwards, making a single “tsk” sound. Then he would have been in no doubt. But I shook my head with cultural ineptitude, and he kept returning.
The clock crept forward to 5.30 am and finally Katerina appeared, a
young, dark-haired woman accompanied by a tall, blond and fleshy consort, the
boyfriend. Kristos I think, the name wafted away before I could catch it.
Meanwhile, he took the handle of my suitcase from me and we marched behind him
to the car.
It was noticeably warmer than London, once outside the airport. In the car, I struggled to get a sense of this new home as we travelled the ring road around the city. The street signs showed destination names first in Greek – large lettering- then in English spelling, smaller – a necessary if reluctant concession. None of the names meant anything as they loomed up then fell behind the car. I knew little of this ancient city, founded in 315 BC and perhaps most famous for Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians. Once its skyline boasted minarets galore, but once the city returned to Greek hands, most remaining minarets were demolished and silenced.
The conversation had the stilted formality of strangers jammed into a
car together. Katerina’s English was heavily accented but fluent, Kristos (we
shall call him then) threw out some words of English, harder to understand as
they were more caught up in an impenetrable accent, and he clearly didn’t have
We turned off the ring road and the city began to reveal itself bit by bit. Perhaps too many trips to Italy had led me to expect something gracious in the buildings – not this endless expanse of almost identical concrete apartment blocks, with their ugly awnings and charmless street-level shop fronts. I mean endless concrete. Its sparse ancient ruins were lost within this sea of concrete, just flashing out here and there with sudden grace. A city wall, a remnant of an old church and then it was gone, sucked into the Greece Anywhere vortex of Soviet-style apartments.
Kristos suddenly halted his car at one of the incomprehensible shops and
proudly announced that without delay I was to sample Thessaoloniki’s finest
bougatsa – pie. He especially recommended cream pie, which at 5.30 in the
morning was the last thing I wanted to face. I longed for a shower and some
solitude from the press of politeness, and perhaps a cup of Earl Grey tea and
Our conversation grew if possible even more stilted, as Kristos,
released from the chore of driving could turn his attention to murdering the
English language more thoroughly. Eventually, having satisfied his substantial
pastry cravings (I nibbled at a spinach pastry while he wolfed down endless
triangles of oily pastry with a sliver of cream sandwiched between the crusts)
we returned to the car.
We passed street after street, all an identical and disorientating blur
until the car stopped again, but this time Kristos announced we were at the
school. I murmured admiration, listened carefully to Katerina’s instructions on
how to walk from the school to the apartment, and reiterated them as we drove
the same route to the apartment. Finally, finally we made it there. I sounded
as confident as I could about the directions, knowing I would have to strew
breadcrumbs all the way in order to find my way home again at the end of the
Katerina opened the door to the apartment complex and Kristos lugged my
suitcase up the two flights of stairs despite my weak protests. A wooden door
swung open to reveal a surprisingly light and pleasant interior, perfectly
camouflaged by its concrete exterior. Perhaps a good landing spot after
She advised me my flatmate, who had arrived the day before, was still
asleep. She gestured to my room, gave me my copy of the keys and they vanished
In the silence that followed I crept like a burglar to the kitchen,
opening the fridge door gingerly, spying items I didn’t quite understand. I
couldn’t know then how I would discover the glorious, thick Greek yoghurt, how
well it blended with nuts and honey. How good the tomatoes at the corner shop
would be, and fresh flat-leaf parsley I would at first mistake for coriander.
But now I was prowling around, waiting to meet my new flatmate and
feeling much too old for house-sharing with strangers. It had been some years
since I had consented to live with someone I didn’t know, and I was far from
sure that this would be a trend worth breaking. I unpacked, washed, lay down
Sleep had overtaken me when at about 10am I heard stirrings and got up
to greet my housemate. A fresh-faced, youthful blond woman emerged from her
room, a good decade my junior.
“I’m Emma,” she greeted me.
“Lovely to meet you. I’m Pip.”
We launched into the inanity of first conversations and by the end of
half an hour I allowed myself a hint of relief that this seemed doable. Sure, I
felt old, I was old for this kind of venture. But I was here,
I needed to make the best of it and my flatmate seemed a good sort.
Lured by the unknown, we ventured out together into the incomprehensible
streets – her school was just across the road, whereas mine was further away,
down the street. I surprised and delighted myself by being able to find the
school again and we walked past it.
Emma knew all sorts of things I didn’t, including that there was another
pair of English teachers living closer to the centre, and we continued walking
past the school, down the steep hill to find their house. One of them, Sarah,
had lived at our apartment, taught at the school Emma was about to start in.
The other, Bec, had lived in a small Greek village with her lover, but they had
split, and she had retreated to the relative safety of Thessaloniki.
They welcomed us in and shared tales of the school Emma would be
teaching in – not encouraging – and warnings about Katerina’s mother, Kiria
Sonia who ran the school where I would be teaching. A cold hand clutched at my
will, squeezing out all the juice, courage and vigour of my career change
All four of us went to the nearest taverna for a 3pm lunch and I
promptly fell in love with the wonders of Greek cooking. All garlic and olive
oil, what was not to like? Bec and Sarah warned us that food would come out in
any order, and that all plates were shared. We had forks to dip into the shared
plates of goodness. The reticence of six years in London was sloughing off more
and more with the intimacy of this eating style. We washed down the heavenly
food with retsina, like cheap white wine laced with pine household cleaner. I
was advised it was slightly better with a dash of coke. Ewww. But it was, kind
We four women were outnumbered by the old men that sat about the
taverna, twiddling their worry beads, clicking at backgammon, talking loudly to
each other. Bec was awash with indignity about the selfish cruelty of (all)
Greek men, savouring her release from the village and doomed relationship.
Bec’s timely warning would not have the desired effect of preventing Emma and me from having skirmishes with Greek men, as alas, most of us cannot heed the warnings that would save us.
But that first night of innocence and novelty, as Emma and I wobbled back up the hill home, the glory of Thessaloniki revealed itself in mountains on the horizon, backlit by a beautiful sunset. We stopped and admired several times.
Plus, we couldn’t believe how easy it was to access cheap cigarettes and alcohol around the clock at the kiosk-style peripteros, and we bought just a few beers to finish off the evening as it was off to work the next day.
There was something special about being dressed for a day’s work,
satchel swinging jauntily in hand as I headed down the hill. To be in a country
where you had no idea where you were, could not even have the simplest
conversation, and yet to be gainfully employed, what an exciting privilege. So
superior to being a tourist.
As I approached the school building I saw Katerina waving at me through
the window, then heard a piercing voice calling out Katerina’s name. She smiled
at me briefly, indicated the seat I could wait in before scuttling in to hear
her mother, Kiria Sonia’s commands.
Her mother’s seat of power was a glass office that allowed for
everything to be monitored.
“My mother is ready to see you now,” Katerina re-emerged from Kiria
Sonia’s lair, motioned for me to enter.
A woman with cold green eyes, a large, light-brown bouffant hairstyle,
chunky jewellery, an arresting patterned, shoulder-padded business suit, and
significant amounts of makeup sat in a chair behind the desk. A pampered pooch
also eyed me coldly, a threatening growl emitting from its miniature
She held a cigarette holder in her right hand, the cigarette smoke
spiralling from its end. Her eyes never left mine as she drew it to her mouth,
inhaled fully, then exhaled an impressive cloud into the smallish office. There
was absolutely no hint of a smile. She finally spoke.
“Whhelcome.” The word whirred out of her in a Greek flourish. Nothing in
her tone or her eyes indicated any sincerity in the sentiment.
“Hello,” I answered with manufactured bravado and a smile, just in case
it worked. It didn’t. She drew on her cigarette again, still fixing me in her
stare, weighing me up, finding me wanting. A pause, another exhale.
“What is your name?”
“Pip,” I answered. Then in the pause, said “Pippa” as this is
sometimes easier for people to understand.
If anything, the look hardened as she drew yet again on her cigarette.
Perhaps this cloud of smoke was even bigger than any other emitted as she
asked, “Do you hhhave real name?”
“Philippa.” How I hate this full name, only used in my childhood by my
parents when I was in trouble. I have always been known as Pip. She continued
to fix her green stare on me, inhaled again. On the exhale, the small room by
now having more carbon than oxygen, she announced;
“We will call you Philippa.”
I agreed immediately, I could not imagine any course of action other than complete submission. I endured further questioning about my credentials, then Katerina was brusquely summoned to fetch me for my orientation.
She proudly showed me the new textbooks I would be teaching all year and I looked at their amateur drawings and clunky exercises with dismay. Here it was, the dislocation that comes to those fresh from study and theory to reality. The textbooks were completely different from the pedagogically recommended kind, the classrooms had bolted down chairs and desks, making it impossible to undertake the many different interactive language learning activities I was trained to facilitate. But then, it had been a four-week course on how to teach adults English as a Foreign Language, and here I was, facing 7 to 16-year-old Greek children, with zero parenting or crowd control techniques. What could possibly go wrong?
Katerina advised me that there were in fact two small schools, and I would move between the two to teach my classes. My timetable was produced, and here was an incredible stroke of luck. There were just 12 contact hours of classes due to low enrolments, but my contract was for 20 hours. I would make up the time with whatever was required – marking, administration, anything. I was permitted to prep for my lessons as well in this time after everything else was done. As such a greenhorn teacher, it took me several hours to prep for each one-hour lesson, so I was indeed a very lucky person. Like a sort of cosmic trade-off for having scored the school with Kiria Sonia at the helm.
Katerina took me to the second school building, a humbler one with no
Queen Bee office or fancy reception area, just a simple desk. She introduced me
to the Secretary, Anna, and left me with a pile of tasks to complete. Anna
began to ask me questions in the space that Katerina’s departure created.
“Hhow old you are?” Anna asked.
“32” –I never dissembled about my age, but truth be told, I was smarting
from my lack of marital and maternal status.
“And whhere is your hhusband?”
At such a direct invasion of my privacy, there was nothing left to do
but look behind me to the left, to the right, and then say, “He was here a
minute ago Anna, but he seems to have disappeared.” We laughed and I clung to
this little piece of kindness and informality. We would have many cozy chats
over the coming year when others weren’t listening. She was not so unfortunate
to be boyfriend-less, and together we dissected and analysed many an
interaction with Babbis. He sounded like a pill. Anna’s life was given meaning
by George Michael, still very much alive at that time. She was not at all
dissuaded by his stated preference for men. When she met him, he would finally
understand what sex was all about.
Emma and I compared our first day at our respective schools and I could
answer with some honesty that it hadn’t been too bad, apart from being renamed
Philippa. Emma was incredulous at my lucky break of just 12 contact hours, her
dance card being completely full – 20 contact hours.
Life became a series of baffling encounters, like the lung X-ray all new teachers needed to have taken, as we were Aliens in Greece. Kiria Sonia’s son took me on the back of his moped to an appointment at a hospital at a very inconvenient distance away from the school. He barely deigned to talk to me, being five years younger and having a just-so Jesus beard to mirror his mother’s views of his perfection. But he was a competent translator, and eventually, we sat in the waiting room of the physician who was perusing my lung X-ray, looking for alien diseases. He barked at us to enter the room, and casually smoked his cigarette as he gave me the all-clear for my lungs. I had known that Greeks smoke everywhere, I just didn’t think they would smoke everywhere. Clearly even the medical establishment thought the links to cancer were spurious.
The school opposite our apartment had a very loud loudspeaker, and the children would chant something every day. Many months later I found out it was the Lord’s Prayer – it had a jaunty, repetitive cadence in Greek.
But perhaps the most baffling encounter of all was my very first Parent Night at the school. There I was, very uncertainly having to talk to parents about their little darlings, using strings of inanities and grappling for some kind of meat to put on the bones of my sparse summaries of their children’s stumbling English. I then had the humiliation of standing by while a poor colleague translated my inanities into Greek. I could only hope she added in something more useful than whatever I had said. Kiria Sonia looked on at us all from her glass throne room to complete my discomfiture.
While I wasn’t sure of the exact issue – best guess was a student accused of cheating – and the indignant mother entered Kiria’s throne room and began shouting. Kiria Sonia leapt from her chair, also shouting. The two carried on their din, moving into the foyer where we teachers and parents milled. There was no privacy or shame in this display of mutual rage. Instead of placating the indignant mother quietly and containing and dismissing her, as would have happened in England, here it was a Greek slug-it-out shouting match for all to see. My colleague was now having the put her lips right up against the mother’s ears as she translated my nonsense. The show had to somehow go on. The indignant mother suddenly retreated, and the cyclonic storm ceased. I held together my shredded nerves for the rest of the Parent Night, seemingly alone in my perturbation.
Such displays fuelled my fear of Kiria Sonia, and I was always eager to
escape to the second school building where she couldn’t see what was going on.
I had dubbed Kiria Sonia The Gorgon. The unsmiling, stone-inducing green eyes
had not softened at all towards me, no matter how I toiled at my lessons and
marked endless exercise books.
Meanwhile, after hours, Emma and I had found the ex-pat community and
the right bars (such as the subtly named Boozer) and tavernas, familiarised
ourselves with the main streets and waterfront walkway. We made the best of the
beautiful ugly city that is Thessaloniki. Entertainment out of home was a must,
as Greek television was almost universally bad. If you liked either subtitled
or, even better, dubbed Chuck Norris or Bruce Lee movies, you were in luck.
Soaps were also very popular, the kind where the set really does look like it
will wobble and fall if any of the coiffured stars venture too close. Often
there were long airings of obscure gymnastic competitions where station owner
Kostas’ daughter twirled and stumbled across the mattresses. Soft porn was
there too, just to mix things up, but mainly it was American movies and
sit-coms with Greek subtitles. English and inanity constantly poured out of
Greek television sets.
So I rarely bothered the television. Except for one night, about three
months after my arrival, I found myself watching a ubiquitous American movie
with Greek sub-titles. I had elected to stay home while Emma was out for
another punishing night at Boozer. Surely the TV wasn’t that bad? I found a
watchable American movie and entertained myself by trying to practice my
fledgling Greek to read the subtitles. While they often lagged a little, it was
unmistakable. The American actor had used the word “blow job” and there it was,
the Greek word for blow job. Pippa.
Sure, The Gorgon was not friendly by any stretch of the imagination, but
if it was not for her, I could have walked into a classroom of 14-15 years
(eventually known as Bastard Class) and gaily announced: “Good morning, I’m
Miss Blow Job and I’m your teacher for the year.”
Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards. Soren Keikegardd
Going to London in 1979 from suburban Perth was literally like going to the moon and looking back at the earth. I was 14 years old, and from then on I knew I would return and live in London. The 1979 photos are strangely red and capture both the hideousness and the wonder of London. I had never seen anything as foul as the Thames at low tide. I had never seen anything as magnificent the Thames at high tide, the statuary on every lampost, the Houses of Parliament in real life, not the 3D cut-out in a book that I had pored over as a child.
I did return to London, but not until 1990 when I was 25 and professionally qualified. I was on the hunt for a job in the museum sector, no less, and dreamed of making London my home at least for a little while. Through great good fortune I did get a job at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, but in its far-flung satellite site in Woolwich. This was me, living in Plumstead, working in Woolwich, not quite sure if I had really achieved my goal of living and working in London. Greater London, yes. The trendy inner part absolutely not. I lived in London until 1996, eventually purchasing a flat in the lesser known and newly gentrified suburb of New Cross. By then I worked in the main building in Greenwich. While much better, it still was a very out of the way London experience. Most Londoners had no idea they could catch a train from Waterloo East and be there in a quarter of an hour. They all thought they had to spend hours on a boat getting there. But it was a very far cry from the Kangaroo Valley Earls Court experience, and that is what I prided myself on at the time.
When I left London for Thessaloniki in 1996, I realised what many people come to know – that six years in London counts for nothing, you will be expelled as a stranger as if you had never arrived. On other London trips I have scurried through as a not-quite tourist but certainly not a resident – to farewell friends in 1998, when I was pregnant unexpectedly, about to fly back to Australia. The exodus through London on the way through from Thessaloniki in 2000 with my 15 month-old daughter when I abandoned any hope of trying to make it work with her father. Racked with guilt, knowing only that I couldn’t stay. The redemption of the glorious 2009 trip with my ten-year-old daughter as we touristed through all the major attractions together, having found a way through to remain in touch with her Greek family but not sacrifice every ounce of enjoyment in my own life.
How I love the privilege of travel. The mystery of having your body back into the same place, but there you are, changed beyond recognition. For me now, with no dependents and more disposable income then I’ve ever had, London trips are about staying in places I could never possibly afford. Familiar and foreign London, with old friends to catch up with and streets and favourite places to revisit. I know I will forever be someone who passes through London, not quite tourist, not quite resident. I have settled on calling London a beloved place to return to. And in 2019 I decided that any of my snobbery about staying in Earls Court was overcome by the convenience of getting to and from Heathrow.
For my 2019 trip to London, I was all on my glorious own – just me and The Muse. I couldn’t work on the novel as it was out for comment, but I could keep on with my back-up writing project – typing up old journals. I deliberately did not read them first, I was typing and wondering what might happen next. I pondered many times about who different people might be, as only a first name was offered and I scrambled through my memory, often failing to return with the correct person linked to the diary entry. Sometimes they were just gone, gone, gone. I batted back and forth between 1990 and 2003, dislocating myself across the decades, warping time and watching it fold back on itself as the same life challenges were tackled. It was not until I went back through these journals that I realised how consistent my quest for creative pursuits was. It’s a golden, unbroken thread.
I left the cafe at Earls Court, jumped in the tube to Embankment and emerged, fancying a coffee by the Thames. London, however, had other ideas – the cafes were either not open or non-existent. I walked along, Facetime-calling my daughter and it was almost as good as having her there to walk alongside with me. I had to stop to take random photos such as the man’s face in the dolphin lamposts at London Pier. Because I was back in London, the same human, the same buildings, but I was completely transformed. I was back to claim my author self, lost in the pages of the journals.