Real Luxury

In my old Singapore life, from the minute I woke up I had people tending to me. The kids would have been dressed and sent to school by the Fillipino nanny. From bed, I would dial the extension to the kitchen and place my breakfast order with the Indonesian cook. The driver would start idling the car when the cook cleared away breakfast, making sure the air conditioning cooled down the leather seats before I got in so my pampered little bum wouldn’t stick to the hot seats.

Didn’t that last paragraph sound  obnoxious? But I want to give you an idea of why my friends thought it was highly ridiculous when I announced that we were voluntarily moving to the middle of the Australian countryside to grow vegetables, wash dishes, cook 5 days a week and live 62 km away from a decent hairdresser.

When I announced I was leaving, one of my friends dramatically crumpled a piece of paper and smoothed it out over the starched restaurant table cloth to show me what my skin would look like if I exposed it to those nasty uncultured Australian sun rays. “You’ll regret it. Take care of yourself. ” he intoned ominously.

Another one came to visit and said “Well, you see The Good Life, and all I see is “lack of domestic help”’.

Anyway after nearly more than 3 years of surviving in the countryside and seeing me covered in everything from drake blood to chicken shit, I think they’ve finally accepted my crazy decision and every conversation with a Singaporean friend doesn’t need to be tinged with faint pity and concern on their part and a mild prickly defensiveness on mine.

It’s good because for the first time I’m anticipating going back to Singapore for a trip and just being happy to be myself without having to explain my choices.

Charlie Chaplin wrote “The saddest thing I can imagine is to get used to luxury.” And we do get used to it if we don’t watch out.

When I was a Singaporean I used to grumble all the time about petty little inconveniences. I come from a nation where your plane touches the tarmac at 12.01 a.m. and you can walk out of the sparkling clean airport bags in hand 8 minutes later. If real life dares to interfere with your plans, there’s hell to pay.

Now I may not have the freshly squeezed fruit juice and steaming fresh nasi lemak in the mornings, but I drink my homemade soup barefooted on our stone terrace looking out over the sea to Phillip Island. My home smells of fresh eucalyptus in the rain.

We don’t have a swimming pool in the countryside, but the other day Mark put the garden hose sprinkler on and Dylan shouted “This is the LIFE!” and the trees in the bush echoed “..life…”

True luxury is an inner sense of calm and being at one with the world. This I know we have. And we are privileged and lucky for it.

Tonight I fly to Singapore and around the world for nearly 6 weeks, but what I’m most looking forward to are the dinners with my family, good unpretentious home cooked food, trolling my younger brothers with annoying questions about their personal life, Mum holding my hand when we walk together just like when I was a little girl. And of course the nasi lemak. We can’t not have that.

(This post originally appeared on my business blog Thoughts of Legacy http://www.thoughtsoflegacy.com)

The day after my son turned seven

Finn turned 7 yesterday and we got him a skateboard. He was thrilled and insisted on going to the local skate park, a somewhat dubious part of town. Unsurprisingly, Finn immediately became fixated on reading all the interesting slogans on the walls.

“Hey Mum, that guy can’t spell ‘math’ correctly” said Finn, pointing to a big red spray painted ‘My mom does meth” artwork.

“And Mum, what does it mean by ‘Smoke weed and see god?’”.

Hmm. I wasn’t anticipating his 7th birthday to be such a game changer.

The wind was blowing strongly and all of us sat at the edge of the cavernous skate pit. We watched the skaters, a young girl in a pink helmet and frills, a grizzled grey nomad and two surfer dudes, teeter on the edge, waiting for their turn, before decisively swooping into the bowl, grinding graceful arcs, etching lacy designs in the smooth concrete.

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This whole week I had been plagued with separation anxiety. That familiar secret solitary ache.

Missing my little family pack already before I embark next week on a long half work – half 10th wedding anniversary journey to Singapore, Sumba Indonesia, Bhutan, Rome, Marrakech and London.

But sitting on the warm concrete, inhaling the liquid velvet air, heavy with the promise of rain to come, I was just happy to be there, with my family. Existing.  Moments of stillness and togetherness, I knit them into the fabric of my soul and rely on them to keep me warm when I am in the temple of my aloneness.

Sticky Beak Week – The Millionaire’s Walk

My very dear friend Alan from Singapore arrived at our door last week with a suitcase packed full of spices mixes (Dancing Chef – the quick & dirty secret of all good Asian cooks), 3 pairs of pristine white house slippers poached from luxury hotels and a capsule wardrobe sponsored by Prada Sport.

Unfortunately the South Wing of our house (previously known as the carport) was still in the process of being turned into a habitable guest room, and the next morning Alan was awoken by the pleasant sounds of floor sanding and kids howling, a duet that surely must be the music of Hell’s waiting room. I tried to convince Alan that it was really posh to have to jump out of his bedroom window and walk along the garden path every time he wanted to come into the house. “Just like when you’re walking to your villa at the Four Seasons Maldives!” but it was rather tenuous.

I decided the best strategy was to distract Alan by taking him for a long drive to check out Portsea, the nipply tip of the Peninsula, summer playground of the Botox crowd, and a 30 minute sally from Chez Noisy. There are few things Singaporeans love more than a good nose around other people’s homes and I had wanted to check out this elusive Millionaire’s Walk since I read about it on Love the Pen. It was a fabulous late summers’ day and we drove all the way with the roof down chatting away like magpies on steroids.

The walk starts at the end of Lentell Avenue where we found an unmarked door on the left and set of rickety wooden steps straight ahead leading to the pier. This was a test. Signs everywhere said “Private Property”, but we were not daunted. With more than four decades of banking experience between us, we could definitely smell the filthy lucre wafting seductively through Unmarked Door #1.

Pushing it open, we found ourselves in someone’s front garden. Apparently this was the start of the 1.6 km Millionaires Walk, but it certainly has a very dodgy feel to it as most of it entails traipsing across pristine front lawns following a very very subtle poo-brown public trail which must be a thorn in several Cavalli-clad buttocks. Who wants to pay $30 million for a home when lying by the pool you could be gawked at like a zoo exhibit by any old Wang Chung? “And over here, a prime specimen of Richistanis Vulgaris sunning itself by its watering hole…” Anyway, their loss, our gain. We embraced our Chinese tourist roots and got the cameras out and went all slap happy with our trigger fingers.

Gardeners and house keepers were busy manicuring the lawns but no one seemed to be home. What a waste! You can bet your last dollar that if I had a house like that I’d be sunning myself in leopard print until my hide turned into Hermes Croc Porosus.

Imagine a front yard like this, leading to the cliff’s edge.

This was the view on the right hand side of the walk.

It felt like we were in Italy or the French Riviera at certain points.

Alan enjoyed himself tremendously and we had a great time voicing the concerns of our inner frustrated architects. “OMG if I see another Corinthian column, I might vomit in my handbag!” I cackled insincerely.

In fact, we had such a rollicking good time that I had the bright idea to continue the house gawking fun by popping over to our friend James Tutton’s house / estate to walk in his marvellous private Botanical Gardens. James very kindly took some time out from his very busy schedule of overachieving to show us around so we could ooh and ah over the garden in its full late summer glory.

I just love the amount of water James has on his property, this is one of several dams he has and it looks just magical at sunset.

A very contented Alan, sated on the reverse of Schadenfreude.

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I love these Pencil Pine trees. They remind me of the gardens in Rome.

And what a funny coincidence, the very next day, James’ house was featured in the uber hipster blog The Design Files. You can see more of his stunning house and estate here. http://thedesignfiles.net/2014/02/mornington-peninsula-home-james-and-imogen-tutton-and-family/ We were there first!

Now I’m off to scrounge behind the sofa cushions for spare change to put towards the lottery ticket fund, wish me luck!

Feb Randomness

It’s time for another randomness post. I haven’t been taking many photos recently as we have builders sanding, painting and plastering everywhere and the cameras have been safely tucked away in my bedroom, so here are the meagre few that I have for February.

The kids have just returned to school after almost 10 weeks of holidays. I was so relieved when they went back to school. I felt a bit like we were under house arrest because of the building work, and the kids were turning completely feral on each other.

I took this photo the other day when I found Finn meditating in his favourite tulip tree after school. It’s his latest thing. Apparently he has a new best friend at school who likes “meditating” too, although Finn’s idea of meditation involves rolling around on the mat and making alpaca sounds.

The rooms in the house are in flamboyant disarray due to the painting going on. It was fun choosing wall colours, but I think I let myself be unduly influenced by the paint shade names. My study got painted a calming Donkey Grey as velvety as a jenny’s ear, the powder room in Butter and Sugar, the mudroom in Rubble and so on…

I didn’t feel like cooking much with all the mineral turps in the air, so I ended up eating a lot of takeaway sushi in my car, windows rolled down, parked beside Mornington Pier.

Mark was away for one whole week in Singapore and Hong Kong, and it was a little nerve wracking because we were on alert for severe fire danger risk and I had to rehearse the fire escape plan in my head every night while the kids were in bed. Step One – Wet towels, then respirators, then kids and dogs in car, drive through vineyard into neighbour’s paddock etc. I’ll sleep a lot easier when our fire bunker gets put in.

Now that summer is kind of over, Finn’s Potion Stall had to come down. We did tell him that his pricing needed a bit of fine tuning although he did rake in about $12 of pity sales for little potions. “Listen up Finn, no one is going to pay $5 for potions that don’t do anything.” His eyes widened and he said “But they make your plants grow bigger! I took some of Dad’s fertiliser and mixed it into the potion. Not the exploding type you make bombs from, just the normal blood and bone fertiliser.” Good to know.

Coco got really really fat because the builders took the mudroom door and gate off and she kept breaking out of the house to raid the compost bin. She is on the strictest of diets now. Look what a scamp she was, she has white paint all over one shoulder after sneaking past a painter to get out of the house.

And… we have another round of ducklings! The first one died yesterday, then we had 3 today who look really healthy, and they have been named Itchy & Scratchy & Patchy.

We converted a crate into the Duck Penthouse on top of my formerly beautiful grand piano. The two yellow ones are Itchy & Scratchy because they fight all the time. And obviously the spotty one is Patchy.

Poor Finn got cut in the eyelid in a playground accident at school today but he was all smiles when he saw the little ducklings.

I had a million things to do today, but managed to scramble around town and find these little guys new duckling crumble feed and a ceramic infrared heat lamp to keep them warm during the chilly Melbourne nights.

3 chirping scrapping ducklets in a shanty town. An appropriate metaphor for our life at present. Can’t wait till the building work is over, but I know it will be chaos for a while more as we embark on the kitchen / wardrobe / mudroom reno, not to mention the fire bunker / pool installation. I’m trying to stay zen amidst the rubble and focus on the tiny sounds coming from on top of the piano, as fresh and delicate as hope itself.

Things we found in the fire

Usually I can’t wait to fling open the windows in the morning and get that first hit of cool dewy eucalyptus infused air, but fires are still raging across Victoria and the windows must stay shut for now. This summer has been a ferocious and erratic one. The tender herbs and vegetables have dried up into wizened crisps, the soft little berries didn’t stand a chance. The only things flourishing now are the ones with thick skins, swarthy skinned tomatoes, watermelons, zucchini, passionfruit. Such is life. A thick skin has served me well too.

Just the other day, I noticed that we had pennants hanging in our playroom, medieval looking Bhutanese prayer flags fluttering in the gum trees, raw silk banners hanging from the window frames, even the labels of our Cable Car Estate wine has a colourful bunting motif that I painted with watercolours.

Perhaps I have subconsciously populated my house with them, because of the metaphor at the heart of one of my favourite pieces of writing, by Jean Dominique Bauby, who was paralysed completely save for his left eye, and laboriously dictated an entire, extraordinary, astoundingly beautiful novel, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, through blinking the alphabet hundreds of thousands of times.

He wrote a passage about the letters that he received during his long convalescence, which I’ve never forgotten, not only because of it’s unvarnished, austere beauty but also knowing the painstaking process that governed the creation of each word.

“I receive remarkable letters. They are opened for me, unfolded, and spread out before my eyes in a daily ritual that gives the arrival of the mail the character of a hushed and holy ceremony. I carefully read each letter myself. Some of them are serious in tone, discussing the meaning of life, invoking the supremacy of the soul, the mystery of every existence…

“Other letters simply relate the small events that punctuate the passage of time: roses picked at dusk, the laziness of a rainy Sunday, a child crying himself to sleep. Capturing the moment, these small slices of life, these small gusts of happiness, move me more deeply than all the rest.

A couple of lines or eight pages, a Middle Eastern stamp or a suburban postmark…I hoard all these letters like treasure. One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship. It will keep the vultures at bay.” – Jean-Dominique Bauby

So many of my friends, acquaintances, and even people I have never met before, have written to me in the past month since my last blog post, sending me messages of encouragement and support. Sometimes the most prosaic words are the most touching. Thank you all, especially Robb, Pauline, Deirdre, Lisa Tainton, Tony Paul, Tanya Highfield and many more.

I think of my own half-mile friendship banner often, gusting valiantly while the winds of life blow fiercely, at other times, a gentle ripple in a calm breeze, and I know that I am loved. Thank you.

Finding a way out of the hole

ImageIt all started with a small comment at a party. Someone recognised me and told me a story. Apparently I had a stalker, not just a cyber stalker, but someone who lived within 10 minutes of my house. This person had trawled through reams of my old blog posts to extract details like my car licence plate, would spot my car at the local super market carpark and watch me from a distance, while i darted in and out of the shops with laden with paper bags of meat and flowers.

It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve been stalked before, but this seemed worse, a incongruity in this pastoral corner of the world we live in, where neighbours leave fresh avocados at your door, where the post office has a special corner for your parcels, marked with a cardboard sign and roadside stalls with honesty jars line the way home.

I didn’t feel like writing much any more. It was the New Year season, and for many reasons other than the stalking, I felt like I was stuck in a liminal space.

No routines, no structure, the rictus grin of inane festivity.

And then one of the children did something deeply upsetting and required extra care and especially mindful parenting.  The cure to everything is love. What if it doesn’t work? Increase the dose. Simple, but not easy.

Out of nowhere came the horrible heatwave in Victoria, a week of incendiary temperatures that swept through our area, leaving fires and parched grass in its wake. We were lucky to escape unscathed, but the damage was everywhere. Our friends olive grove where we camped at last year was wrecked by a violent fire tornado, and our favourite cafe burned to a crisp.

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We started drawing up detailed fire escape plans, realising the perils of the beautiful acres of native bushland surrounding our house, the only sizeable thicket of trees for miles around us. Each tea tree, gum tree and olive tree a miniature explosive device.

Everyone has little routines, secret poker tells, which are leading indicators of their well-being.  If they’re doing them, you know everything’s alright in their world.

For my husband, it’s exercise.

For me, it’s cooking, having friends over, taking photographs, putting on lipstick in the morning, and most of all, writing.

But the writing dried up and the usual wash of morning shower ideas thinned to a weak trickle, not worthy of documentation or even rumination.

The difficulty of getting your groove back is an exponential curve. If you make constant small adjustments and regular maintenance, the wheel keeps turning, the momentum goes on. Once you stop, the effort it takes to start again is painful.  Writing this post has been torture. Five words forward, four words deleted.  It was the same when I went back to work after having children. Self-doubt is a familiar stranger.

At times like these I go back to basics. One foot in front of the other. Meditation to Sogyal Rinpoche. Playing music that gets me going. Light a candle and sit in front of my desk. Go outside and watch the prayer flags flutter in the wind.

One of the lines from a book I love (American Dream Machine by Matthew Spektor) -   “If you live long enough, you get to play all the parts. You get to be every person in the play.”   Everything comes and goes. Everything is a phase. This too shall pass.  And I am slowly learning to be cool with this.

Unplanned perfection

Living in the countryside is learning how to dance with chaos. Where our life in the city was a tightly choreographed ballet of appointments and plans, our other life in the countryside is improvised, loose, freeform.

You never know what the day has planned for you when you wake up.

A tree blown down in the middle of the night. The sudden arrival of snowy cherry blossoms. The death of a beloved chicken (RIP Explorer Biscuit) or the smallest peeps and flurry of activity in the coop signalling the arrival of a new duckling.

Walk into your kitchen and there could well be your plumber who’s popped in for a cup of tea and to collect a cheque. Or you could find your eldest son missing, having been taken to the movies by a neighbour since they were passing by your house on the way there.

I’ve learned to make it up as I go along. And also to always wear a nightie around the house (although the plumber did give me a generous discount that one time…).

Now I “plan” my dinner by surveying the vegetable patch and what’s left in the fridge. This week we had an abundance of zucchini in the garden. Masses of papery lantern like blossoms on shiny car-enamel yellow stalks. When you have zucchini, you really have zucchini. It’s like that old country joke that you know you have no friends if you’ve got to buy your own zucchini. I’ve been known to push eggs and veg on my friends until one of them shrieked “Stop! You’ve become a produce-pusher!”

So I made a feathery light tempura batter spiked with curry powder and sea salt and fried these gorgeous flowers up. The secret is cold cold sparkling water and mixing it in a lumpy fashion.

The kids loved it, I’ve never seen them fight over zucchini before!

Another improv memory – we came back from an overseas trip and realised we had nothing to eat. Then my friend Imogen texted me to say that she had seen a huge smoked eel at the fishmongers and bought it for me and dropped it off in my fridge as I was the only person she knew who would appreciate such a cadeau. I was overjoyed! That night I made smoked eel cakes, mashing the eel with potatoes and onions and then fried up some silver beet from the the garden with tomato passata, red wine and simmered lentils. The Irishman declared it one of his favourite meals ever. (That’s Imogen below saying “The eel was THIS big!”)

And one of my favourite unplanned memories of 2013 was our pop-up lunch party. We were supposed to go to our neighbours house for a long lunch, when their water tank broke. “What shall we do?” said Anne. Well the answer was obvious. So we ended up hosting a party for 20 or so adults and children on a magical sunny afternoon.

The kids borrowed swimsuits and played in the sprinklers, rowed in the dam, chased the chickens about and picked sugar plums in the orchard for dessert.

There was a race and a talent show.

And of course there was much rolling down the hill in billy carts, bikes, ride ons, skateboards and tractors.

“This is magic!” one of the kids shouted. Dylan stood in the wind, arms outstretched as if trying to harness the wind.

Can there be anything better than unplanned perfection? Cheers to 2014 and to all the surprises it holds, I can’t wait.