La Delizia: My Story (sort of)

Every year, around Christmas, I make panforte. In a bowl I stir together flour; cocoa powder; toasted almonds, walnuts, and macadamias; nutmeg; cinnamon; ginger; chilli powder; and pepper. Then in one pan I melt chocolate, whilst in another I make syrup from sugar and honey. When both pots begin to bubble, I scrape them into the bowl and then it’s a race against time to mix it all together before the liquids turn back into solids. As the biscuit cake bakes in the oven and the smell of spices and roasted nuts and chocolate fill the kitchen, I think of Nonna. Not my Nonna, but: Nonna.

Nonna was my next door neighbour’s Nonna when I was growing up. Nonna – perpetually aproned – spoke always in rapid Italian (no doubt hoping her grand-daughter would pick it up better than her mother had) and moved in a cloud of faint flour dust that rose and fell with every gesticulation of her hands.

She also made the most magnificent food you have ever tasted. Her second-eldest grandson would go on to open a trendy cafe in the inner-city in her honour. In all of his press releases he would tell the story of how his Nonna taught him to cook. Reading about his hard-earned success from the other side of the world, I couldn’t resist a smug smile and the whispered thought; ‘yeah, same though.’ (And by the way, my pastas are also the stuff of legend).

I have no doubt that my memory of Nonna is romanticised. She was not my family, and she was also not a regular character in my childhood – it was rare that I would be at my neighbour’s house playing when Nonna was over; generally that was reserved for family time. In my more self-critical moments, I am fearful that I have simply amalgamated her from a series of Italian women who began making an appearance in Australian popular culture in the early- to mid-90s: Josie’s Nonna in Looking for Alibrandi probably would have made a heavy-handed appearance in my source material. But, at the same time, I also have no doubt that my memory of Nonna is genuine.

Nonna may not have been a regular character in my up-bringing, but she was nevertheless an incredibly important one. That smug, self-satisfied grin on the other side of the world was based in a deeply-personal truth: Nonna taught me to cook.

I come from a long line of women who couldn’t make a decent dish to save their life (and talent, ingenuity, and sheer dumb luck has meant they’ve never really had to either). My Yiayia was never the cook of her household. That honour went to her husband who – born in KL when it was still a British colony – would spend hours of a Sunday slow-cooking curries and kneading rotis. When it became necessary for Yiayia to cook, such delights were immediately replaced with over-boiled carrots (a dish that will still set me gagging at its mere thought) and hammer-and-chisel-tough strips of meat. For my mother – who lived through both the throwing off of the shackles of ‘women’s work’ that was the 70s feminist revolution and, less productively, the era of the ‘microwave dinner party’ – cooking was a much-dreaded chore frequently accompanied by ominous crashes and severe language warnings.

But in Nonna’s kitchen the crafting of a meal became an art form in which the simplest and easiest to manage processes churned out at the other end some brand new delight. She showed us how to prepare the vegetables; slicing them to different thicknesses to show us how surface area impacts cooking time, taste, and texture. She taught us how to balance simplicity with subtlety; never over-doing the number of ingredients, but always adding something extra – spice or salt or crunch – that could not be immediately discerned from looking at the plate. She taught us how to plan our order of battle; how to make sure that everything – from stews to pasta to salad – would be ready at the same time. She taught us how to balance the delights of flavour with the importance of being full, and watching her and her family delight in the eating of the food they had all prepared together, I realised that there is no ‘bad’ food.

Nonna taught me to cook, because she taught me to eat.

It wasn’t clear-sailing, and it still took me a long time to be confident in my cooking instincts; to not see food as a chore; and to realise that panforte is not ‘junk’ food: that it is love and family and sharing coated in honey and chocolate and nuts.

And so this year – as every other year – I will go to the spice shop around the corner and find the freshest ingredients I can. And then I will mix and melt and re-make them into my favourite Italian Christmas food. And then, once the cake has cooled and its exterior hardened, I will take a knife and run it through its middle. Then I will cut it in half again. And then I will find the middle points between those two cuts and I will slice two more times until I have my 8 slices of panforte. And then I will wrap them in cloth and ribbon and love, and I will distribute them to my friends and family. And together we will eat and live in joy.

“Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth”

It’s surprisingly rare to find a place that ignites all of your senses, and always a wonderful surprise when you unknowingly stumble into one. With its magnificent street art, bustling labyrinthine streets, orange sun bouncing off the sapphire waves and burning the skin, and life-changinglyndelicious food, Sicily is one of those.

Four cities in six days – the university student-saturated Catania (which also doubles as the aptly named cat capital); the wealthy boutique-lined Taormina; the sun-drenched coastal Syracuse; and, the Island’s energetic and crowded capital Palermo. Despite being clustered into a relatively small island, the cities of Sicily retain distinct characters. Indeed, the only thing that links them seems to be their people’s genuine love for and pride in their food.

Sicily is known for its food, so I was expecting tasty. I wasn’t expecting to leave questioning everything I ever thought I knew about food, taste, and cooking. The standard was set on the second night with a three-course meal at a local trattoria single-handedly run by a woman who makes her pasta from scratch, hand-sources all local ingredients, and can cook them to perfection. As an aside, I’m pretty sure she also makes her own limoncello.

At a Syracusan market a few days later, a man with a sandwich stall took great delight in allowing us to sample each of his 10+ cheeses as he made what was, quite honestly, the most magnificent sandwich of my life. Fresh crusty bread, olive pate, cheese, olives, cheese, chilli flakes, a smoked cheese, oh and some more cheese. The market itself was a cornucopia of giant fruit and vegetables and the wafting scent of Mediterranean and North African herbs and spices.

But it wasn’t all stuffing and gorging. There was also drinking to be done. Spritzers, dry white wine, and grappa drunk in some of the cosiest wine bars I’ve ever been in. NB Sicilian standard pours are very generous which lends itself to long slow evenings feasting and snacking, but can also flow to your head pretty quick if you’re not used to it.

Sicilian cities are also host to some of the most amazing ancient archeological and heritage sites. My personal favourites were a Teatro in Catania and a cliff-top castle in Syracuse.

But the thing I found most fascinating about Sicily was how seemingly similar it was to the Australian Italian community. In the mass wave of post-WWII immigration to Australia from Italy, many of the emigrants came from the south and specifically Sicily. And they brought their food and culture with them – two things which have adapted well to the Australian climate. Arancini balls, pepper and aubergine-based antipasto, and even pasta sauces found in Australia and Sicily but not elsewhere in Italy made for a very curious fish-out-of-water familiarity.

And on that note – photos!

A Rude Awakening: My Story

I have never been good with numbers. Maths; yes, but numbers as entities do not stick in my head. They float away before I can grasp them, and become muddled. When I used to work at the restaurant, closing the till on a late Saturday night required extra concentration, lest I fall into my old poor counting habits: 20, 40, 60, 80, 100 ; 20, 40, 60 80, 200 ; 20, 40, 60, 80, 300 ; … ; 20, 40, 60, 80, 700 ; 20, 40, 60, 80, 200 ; 20, 40, wait no… (2s and 8s have always felt the same to me).

I hate when people read phone numbers to me, always skipping too fast over the sequence, not pausing long enough for me to grasp what the number is and then re-formulate it; translate it from thought-image to written figure. I can do high-level mathematics, and working out budgets and savings or debt interest has never been an issue, but I avoid thinking of life in terms of numbers because it just gets too confusing.

And so – whilst I can tell the time – I find myself struggling with larger time-bound markers which are expressed in numerical form. I struggle with years, ages, and even months (did something happen in March or May ; June or July? The numbers are basically the same and their names too are similar).

And that’s basically how I lost my early twenties.

It started with the year of 21sts. Mine was at the beginning of the year; front-loading the celebrations and acting as a warm-up for the festivities to come. The rest of the year was a haze of work-days and uni assignments punctuated by weekends suffused with top-shelf booze, bizarre costumes, and nostalgic music. In what felt like the same year (but was really the following), I completed my final year of undergraduate and decided to move to Melbourne – a city which was strange to me, and in which I had no one: I shall be anonymous for at least a year, I thought. To justify what I thought would be my incredibly brief séjour to this ephemeral city I enrolled in an Honours degree, since it’s easier to meet people at a university (or so I believed at the time). For the first time in my life, I found that I had to buckle down and study hard and what with my studies and the distractions of a new town and new friends, that 9 months just flew by.

At the end of the Honours degree, I decided to take a brief break which somehow turned into 5 months back-packing in South America and a 3-month road trip through the USA and Niagra Falls/Montreal (it seems weird to say ‘Canada’ when I only went to two places).

Although I had sworn-off the academic life after the raging stress of Honours, this time travelling gave me enough space from it that I decided that undertaking a year-long Masters degree in Comparative Literature was just what the doctor ordered (spoiler alert: the same thing happened post-Masters, but I still ended up doing a PhD – can’t wait to see what I decide to do next…).

So in between the Americas and the Masters, I returned to what-is-now-home (Melbourne) where I met my partner’s extended family for the first time. They are truly wonderful people, and from the start we hit it off, finding shared interests in literature, philosophy, and a general approach to life. As the conversation turned towards the more personal, my partner’s cousin asked me:

‘How old are you?’

‘I’m 21.’ I told her, without needing to think about it.

There was an awkward pause as my partner turned to stare at me.

‘Kali,’ my partner said, with a look of genuine concern and confusion, ‘You’re 25.’

 

“A good appetite needs no sauce” (Polish Proverb)

Late last year, a friend checked-in on Facebook to Melbourne airport announcing their impending flight to central Europe. After getting in touch to ask if a visit to London where we were was on their itinerary (it wasn’t: they didn’t know we were there as they thought we had been in Ballarat for the past 6 months – long story), J and I decided that a weekend jaunt to meet in the middle in Prague wasn’t a half-bad idea.

We’d both been to Prague before, but the city still manages to charm. This particular trip was in winter, and there were mulled-wine sellers on most corners, Christmas markets galore, and street festivals and live music performances to top it all off. And the chilly weather provided a wonderful justification to indulge in copious amounts of Pilsner Urquell, fried and fermented cheese, pickles, peppers, and of course poppyseed cake.

We didn’t just spend our time in bars and pubs (just most of our time), also taking walks through many of Prague’s beautiful parks. But, it being only a two-night stopover visit, the eating and drinking and socialising did consume much of the weekend.

Whilst our friend headed back to the Antipodes, we went on to Krakow – a city I had not been to before, but which was absolutely amazing. The central old city – bubbling with tourists, central square-facing bars and restaurants, and enclosed by beautiful medieval façades – was an absolute delight, and I spent much time strolling up and down its numerous thoroughfares and laneways, people-watching and window-shopping.

As the sun disappeared and twilight set-in, we took a stroll up to Krakow Castle which sits atop the hill that overlooks the city. The view of the city was amazing, and we also got to walk through the open part of the grounds of the castle before they closed the gates – an activity I can thoroughly recommend as you get to see the best bits of the site (the view and the buildings) without having to pay the entry fee.

As darkness descended and more and more people came out to play (Krakow is a city that likes to party), we returned to ground level and went in search of a bar. J had heard of a vodka bar just outside the central area, and we shared a 6-glass sampler whilst crammed into a loft-style attic packed with tables of other welcomingly boisterous drinkers. The vodkas were flavoured: earl grey; cherry; apple; and numerous types of berries. And we rounded the whole thing off with a deliciously bitter pickle.

Doing things slightly backwards, we next found ourselves in a wine bar where, feeling holiday decadent, we each indulged in a glass of sparkling. By this stage, our heads were feeling rather light and our tummies rather empty, so we headed out in search of food: pierogi to be exact. Polish dumplings filled with mushroom and cabbage, or potato and cottage cheese, or spinach and cottage cheese, or any other vegetable-based deliciousness. This is one of my favourite dishes, and we spent much time wandering up and down the main pierogi-restaurant street deciding which place to sample first, then ended up enjoying ourselves so much we ate everything we wanted and were too full to go anywhere else.

The next morning we indulged in a pierogi & bakery breakfast – a plate of pierogi, a cup of borscht, and a cherry tart bought from the bakery and hole-in-the-wall pierogi bar not 500m from our AirBnB room – before heading south to Kazimierz for coffee. Our plan was to head to the gallery and the holocaust museum, but we had slept too late and so only got to the latter before the complex closed for the day (it closes early one day a week).

The museum – a very interactive exhibit where you walk through numerous spaces – comprised an almost overwhelming wealth of information that ran the gamut from oral histories, journals and letters, to official and government documents, photographs, and material culture. Very well curated, the act of walking through the museum provided a framing narrative that made the information easier to understand and locate historically and geographically. Knowing quite a bit about the history of the holocaust, and having read the canon (as it were) of fiction and non-fiction holocaust literature, I didn’t ‘learn’ too much from the museum per se (though I was shocked anew at the sophistication of magazine printing by in-mates in the camps), but it’s always interesting to see new documents presented in a different way.

We spent much of the rest of that day in the south, which has seen an influx in recent years of a Jewish population returning to Europe from Israel. It’s also one of the best areas for food, coffee, and cake – which is basically what we did for the rest of the day. That night, we also spent a good few hours in a video game bar playing guitar hero and I am now convinced that a bar is not complete without at least three consoles.

Krakow is a fun city and it feels very young and energetic. The people are friendly, the food is great, and it’s just a wonderful place to visit. Basically, it’s everything I thought it would be and more.

The next morning – our last for the trip – we got up early and hired a car to visit the spectre of Krakow: Auschwitz. This was not a happy day, and is probably best left for another post. Suffice to say here that I would recommend a visit to the museum if for no other reason than to be awed and moved by the physicality of it. Much like how walking through the museum aided comprehension of the documents on display, visiting the physical sites of the atrocities of WWII does enable some sort of grasp on the overwhelming magnitude of death that was carried out and condoned across the continent.

And, on that note, photos:

Horror Show – My Story

Growing up in Perth, one of my favourite times of year was when the Royal Show came to town. Traditionally a time for farmers to meet and sell their wares and animals, the Show has since evolved into a week-long carnival where city-folk can pat farm animals, watch a wood-chopping competition, sample fresh ice-cream, ride roller-coasters, and take home as many Showbags as they can carry.

My favourite part of the Show was always Sideshow Alley – a 2km stretch of screaming lights and flashing sounds; a cacophonous wonder of bustling bodies, terrifying rides, and rigged carnival games. Every year there was a new ride to discover. It was here that I tried my first roller-coaster, here that I learned ghost trains aren’t scary, here that I fell in love with the simplistic terror of the chair swing and chair drop. And it was here, in Sideshow Alley at the Perth Royal Show, that I learned that “Dodgem Cars” is a very misleading name for a game where one must actually hit things.

I had never heard of Dodgem Cars before, but there it suddenly was in sparkling red letters in front of me – a new addition to the Alley’s collection. On a level platform below the dazzling sign, chunky black cars stood ready to ride. It was new, and it looked fun, so, pocket money in-hand, I walked over to the ticket window.

Being a rather well-read but still quite literal child, I believed that I had grasped the object of the game from the name itself. Dodgem Cars: obviously one was meant to drive the car around the platform without bumping into anything. Clearly the difficulty – and the fun – of the game lay in the fact that the car was so big, this would be a near impossible feat to achieve.

So I jumped into my very own Dodgem and, smug in my inferred understanding, released my competitive spirit: I would be the very best Dodger there. An alarm sounded and the cars whirred to life. We were off!

I did a few laps of the platform, sharply twisting the wheel on a few occasions when I came too close to another vehicle.

And then, all of a sudden, something rammed into the back of my Dodgem and threw me against the rubber-enforced perimeter. It was amazing to me that another driver could have been so lax in their driving that they hit me that hard. Somewhat startled, I turned behind me to see a Dodgem driven by a basket-ball capped teenage boy. I gesticulated my confusion at him: ‘How did you not see me there?’ I demanded. He smirked to himself and then drove off.

Unperturbed, I continued my exquisite dodging, wondering if there was a prize for the driver who hit the least number of obstacles – most of the other drivers seemed to be having difficulty with their steering wheels.

But then it happened again! I was hit by two cars – one from either side! It was that same boy again, but this time he had a friend with him and they had come at me from opposite sides. Obviously they had been watching each other rather than where they were going.

Then they reversed and rammed into me again!

‘Hello!’ I yelled at them, confused why they had not noticed me.

One of them manoeuvred his Dodgem in front of mine, and between them they pushed my Dodgem – bumping all the way – into the wall at the other end of the platform. I tried explaining to them that they weren’t meant to be hitting the car, but they couldn’t hear me over their cackling.

Suddenly, the ride was stopped and two of the operators walked onto the platform to remove the two boys. I shrugged at them sympathetically – sad for them that they hadn’t understood the game and had thus been disqualified. The ride started again, and off I drove in my obstacle-less circles.

At the end of the ride I walked triumphantly down the stairs to where mum stood.

‘Those boys were horrible.’ She said to me, ‘You did well to not let their bullying get to you.’

I looked at her in confusion, then looked back to where a new round of Dodgem Cars had begun behind me. Everyone was bashing into each other.

And then I realised.

The object of the game was to hit as many people as you could! The boys had been ejected not because they misunderstood the rules, but because they had ganged up together to bully me. The humiliation was too much to bare. I spent the rest of the day moping trough Sideshow Alley, tears streaming down my face.

“Culture is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs”

Last June, I was in Sydney for the Biennale. The 2016 theme was ‘The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.’ The title is a quote from celebrated science fiction writer William Gibson (he of Neuromancer fame), and – as is perhaps self-explanatory – acts as a thematic lynch-pin for art which challenges dominant social, political, and economic ideologies and which shifts focus away from centres of power and privilege.

Under this banner stood the Biennale’s seven ‘Embassies’: Embassy of the Real (at Cockatoo Island); Embassy of Spirits (at the Art Gallery of New South Wales); Embassy of Disappearance (at Carriageworks); Embassy of Non-Participation (at Artspace); Embassy of Translation (at Museum of Contemporary Art Australia); Embassy of Transition (at Mortuary Station), and; Embassy of Stanislaw Lem (the Biennale bookshop). Between each of these major exhibition sites, one could also keep an eye out for the ‘In-Between Spaces’; interstitial pieces by exhibited artists which lay hidden amidst the streets of Sydney – a magical treasure hunt through the city.

Scattered across the town, the Biennale makes for a great excuse to see almost all that Sydney has to offer on foot. Walking from Embassy to Embassy, searching through streets and up hidden staircases for the In-Between Spaces, catching the ferry out to Cockatoo Island – it was a brilliantly exhausting weekend.

For me, the smallest Embassy was also the most exciting: the Embassy of Transition at the abandoned Mortuary Station. Though, to be completely honest, I think my excitement had more to do with the venue than the exhibition itself. An abandoned train station through which funereal trains used to pass on their way to the Rookwood necropolis is just my kind of place. You can walk up and down the platform, admire the rusted tracks, and hang out in the still furnished waiting rooms. It’s a pretty special place.

In a similar vein, Carriageworks is a phenomenal exhibition space. Also related to trains (it used to be where they were built) the sheer size and the low lighting of the space makes for an incredibly eerie atmosphere that lends itself well to much contemporary art, especially video pieces and anything that requires audience participation. It feels like you’re really stepping into another world, and makes for a wonderfully different feeling from the usual white cube gallery space. It’s open for exhibitions year around, and I would definitely recommend a visit.

And then there’s Cockatoo Island (which I’m pretty sure is where Cleverman was filmed). An old industrial site turned tourist attraction, it is an overwhelming site in terms of both space and material. My words cannot do it justice. I recommend spending a whole day there if you ever get the chance. But take a packed lunch – the food vans are ludicrously expensive. And this in a town known for its pricey food!

One of my favourite places to go to eat in Sydney is a bustling Izakaya in one of the shopping centres. It has everything you can imagine and, the last time I was there, I gorged on natto sushi, wakame salad, noodles, inari, nasu dengaku, mushroom skewers, and agedashi tofu (for the record, I did share). And to wash it all down, there was white wine, beer, and warm sake – and yes I had them all at the same time as is traditional (I just sipped them all very slowly).

And then there’s brunch. Ah Sydney – you do get brunch. Seriously, have brunch in Sydney. It genuinely is a breakfast/lunch replacement (and this coming from someone who can eat so much at a breakfast buffet that even the staff will ask if I’m sure I want another helping). My recommendation: Israeli brunch. Falafel, hummus, sabzi, shakshuka – what more could you want?!

This post is fast turning into a food tour (which is kind of not what this blog is meant to be about, and yet it keeps happening…) So I might just leave it there for today. Pics (mainly of food) below!

An Eye For An Eye – My Uncle’s Story

Across my uncle’s three-decade career as an academic, he has supervised many a graduate student. Some of these students he has kept in touch with after they have graduated and gone on to do other things. Sometimes these students are international students, and when he finds himself in their home city for work, he will look them up.

And so it was that my uncle, whilst on a work trip to Singapore, found himself invited to a formal dinner with an ex-student and his family. Dinner was a banquet – an endless succession of intricate delicacies and local favourites. Then, as the meal reached its climax, the main event was brought to the table – a whole fish.

In Singaporean culture, it is apparently tradition to show respect to the guest of honour by allowing them to eat the juiciest, most delicious, most delicate part of the fish: its eyes. (Perhaps it’s also just a fun way to mess with friends who are new to the city.)

POP! went the eyes as they were scooped out of their sockets and placed on my uncle’s plate.

And so my uncle – who will devour cow tongue with a relish bordering on grotesque and yet who is surprisingly squeamish about other body parts – found himself staring at his plate whilst the rest of the table sat smiling encouragingly at him.

I think he might have just swallowed them whole.

“What hath night to do with sleep?”

For a long time, I’ve wanted to go to Singapore but each time I planned a trip something would come up just before I booked flights and make it impossible for me to go. This has happened four times, but fifth time’s the charm and a few months ago I managed to sneak in a two-night trip.

I’ve known a lot of people who have moved from Singapore to Australia, so my expectations of the city were largely based on what they as (sometimes disgruntled) expats told me of their hometown. I was expecting a city of concrete and towers, of conformity and order, and of amazing food. The food certainly did not disappoint, but the city surprised me in many other ways.

Although concrete and towers are certainly pervasive, I was shocked at how beautifully green the island city was. Although it was incredibly humid whilst we were there, the innumerable parks which join each neighbourhood made the 6-hour+ walking days incredibly pleasant. And each neighbourhood certainly had its own charm.

A bit like Kuala Lumpur, the diversity of Singapore makes for a hodge-podge of a city, and the compilation of all the different neighbourhoods makes it feel like multiple cities in one. On the second day, we took a walk through the heritage-listed streets of the old town where multiple stalls and tiny shop fronts sold everything from touristic knick knacks to bags and clothing to incredibly beautiful antique furniture. From there we headed to little India where we stumbled upon an insipid-looking but incredibly popular eatery where – encouraged by the large local crowd and the obvious enjoyment of the diners – we ordered a dosa masala (freshly made) and sour lassi. Words can’t even begin to describe how amazing that meal was, so I’m not going to even attempt it.

Despite its deliciousness, we found ourselves unable to finish our dosa. Actually, we struggled to finish most of our meals in Singapore. The wide variety of the food, its continual availability and surprisingly low cost meant we spent most of our time eating. It’s entirely possible that I consumed my body weight in dumplings, and that was before we even got around to trying all the dishes Singapore is known for. All the different types of noodle dishes, daikon cake, murtabak – it was all good. Despite our incredibly short visit, I also really got into ordering coffee like a local (kopi-O-peng kosong!) which meant very high caffeine levels and so made getting the most out of our 40-hour trip a breeze.

Which was a good thing, because Singapore really comes alive after dark. It’s a city of roof-top bars and trendy nightclubs where young professionals in designer clothes sit in booths sipping top-shelf vodka or champagne. Or so I’ve been told by those same expats. With a historically conservative culture around drinking, alcohol in Singapore is expensive and the dress-standard entrance to clubs and some bars is prohibitively high. So we didn’t really ‘go out’ while we were there. We just wandered the streets hour after hour soaking up the atmosphere. Content to be anonymous revellers tripping the light fantastic down brightly lit boulevards where billboard advertisements move and beckon, inviting you into the eternally-open shopping centres.

 

 

 

Better Than Chocolates

Just a short post from me today.

Last year my uncle headed over to San Francisco for work and opted to stay in a small B&B-style place at the Grant St entrance to Chinatown. His email to me from his trip reads:

“Each night when I came back, there was an arrangement of a towel on the bed. Attached are photos. Have to say it was quite wonderful and in all my years of travelling I have never seen anything like it.”

Enjoy the photos below. (My favourite is the elephant.)

An Australian Diner in Paris

The title of, and setting for this blog post may seem odd given last week’s post was on San Sebastián. Since last week’s post was inspired by preparations for my own birthday, this week’s was inspired by another’s. Enjoy!

***

While my mother’s approach to travel was an open-ended one-way trip to London, my uncle’s was to remain based in Perth – where he was gainfully employed as an academic – and take short trips to new destinations each year. Being the 1970s, their primary means of communication was letter writing.

One day, after she had been away from home for a number of years, my mother received a letter from my uncle informing her that he was planning a trip to Europe and – since she had been absent for a number of consecutive birthdays and Christmases, and since he had unfortunately missed a few travel opportunities – he would be using his bourgeoning savings to treat her to a rather extravagant gift: a culinary tour of three of the finest Michelin-star restaurants Paris had to offer. Although it’s entirely likely that my uncle’s altruism was in fact motivated by a desire to not dine alone, my mother – who had hitherto flitted between jobs as a bar tender, cleaner, and shop assistant, and who often found herself pinching pennies to pay for coffee – found it within her to magnanimously accept the gift on the generous face-value terms in which it was offered.

My mother, along with some of her friends, organised a trip to Paris that coincided with the dates my uncle had given her. They travelled in the (still-trusty) combi-van and spent their nights in campsites and youth hostels, running to the ablutions block with their bathroom bags at first light to avoid the morning crush. They spent their days wandering the city, sharing small morsels of flakey pastry between the group. My uncle stayed in guesthouses and spent his days riding the metro between all the amazing sites that Paris has to offer.

At dinner time, my mother’s friends would drop her at the restaurant specified, making sure to park the combi van around the corner so that her exit was not noticed by the other diners. My mother had dressed in the best clothes she possessed – not an easy task for a professional traveller. It being a rather cold autumn, she was also forced to don her much-used, second-hand-when-she-bought-it, generally-left-at-the-bottom-of-the bag coat which had seen the worst of European winter. Bought for durability and comfort rather than style, it definitely drew attention.

At the first restaurant, my mother and uncle caught a glimpse of what was to follow at the next two. Whilst my uncle – in shirt, paints, and casual jacket (most likely his every-day work outfit) – had been greeted warmly, upon my mother’s entrance the Maître d’ gave a start:

“Are you lost, Madame?”

My mother explained she had a booking and gave the name. It wasn’t until my uncle – catching sight of her across the restaurant – gave a wave of recognition that they relented.

“Shall I take your…” he paused and my mother tried not to laugh, “…coat, Madame?”

He used a serviette.

Whilst my mother enjoyed the finest cuisine the city had to offer, her friends remained around the corner, huddled in the van with their simple cheese and baguette dinners, sharing jokes and carafe wine.

My mother would always try to sneak something of the meal back for them. At one restaurant the cheque was brought out with a bowl filled to the brim with house-made chocolates. One could, naturally, take as many as one wished, but given the surroundings and the considerable meal which had preceded them, it was understood that ‘as many as one wished’ would not be all that many.

When the waiter returned for my uncle to sign, he found the bowl bare save for the two empty chocolate wrappers from the pieces my mother and uncle had tasted. They had been divine. The rest were in my mother’s handbag. The waiter – though naturally, respectably, silent – was clearly not impressed. My mother’s friends – squealing with delight upon her triumphant return to the van – clearly were.