Week 250 – winter escapism

It has been a bitter grey wintery week (indeed, we experienced Melbourne’s coldest day in 19 years – a low of 3 degrees, a high of just 9 degrees!). Therefore it was perfect weather for the Melbourne International Film Festival (which started on Thursday). I had to light-touch it this year as it mainly clashes with my trip to the UK – but I did manage 9 films on the opening weekend!

I started on Friday with ‘Yourself and Yours’, a new film by the Korean director, Hong Sang-soo. It was a sweet and charming relationship comedy with a unique angle. A young artist is passionately in love with a mysterious girl who rejects him. She is sweet and demure, but also, a drunken serial seducer, and the subject of much neighbourhood gossip. She picks up men in bars most nights but seems to instantly erase them from her memory. The film never clarifies whether she suffers from amnesia or is a pathological liar. But the lovelorn artist is determined to come up with a new way of being in order to win her back.

Next was ‘Felicite’, by Franco-Senegalese film-maker Alain Gomis. It was a compelling tale of a talented Congolese bar-singer (the music was fantastic!) whose fragile, hard-won, independence is crushed when her son is badly injured in a motorbike accident. To raise funds for his treatment she has to resort to increasingly desperate measures, which drag her down into the darkest recesses of Kinshasa street-life. But she survives, and her son survives, and their lives are rebuilt in an unexpected, and hopeful, new way.

Saturday started with the first of Maisie’s two weekend birthday parties. The first was a whole-class affair, but happily the girl’s parents had booked the Gym Bus, so while the kids bounced around in the old double-decker outside, us parents spent a quiet morning inside chatting over sophisticated entrees and champagne! It was hard to tear myself away, but I had 4 films to see that day!

The first was a fascinating documentary, made by Australian director Claire Jager, entitled ‘Guardians of the Strait’. It was about the Bosphorous Strait that runs through Istanbul. This incredibly narrow, winding (and densely populated) channel that links the Black Sea with the Mediterranean sees more than 50,000 container ships (and thousands more smaller craft) pass through it every year. Every day and a half a potentially catastrophic accident is averted by the coast guard, maritime controllers and pilots who bravely operate in an entirely unregulated environment. Local activists, environmentalists, journalists and fishermen also work tirelessly to protect this unique (and beautiful) stretch of water.

Next was ‘Loveless’, the latest by Russian director Andrey Zvagintsev. In the crumbling ruins of a splintering middle-class relationship, the parents both eaten up with their hatred and disgust for each other (and their selfish lust for their new partners), their disregarded 12-year-old son is emotionally lost, and then one day he literally disappears. In the ensuing days of an increasingly hopeless man-hunt, the consequences of the parents loveless lives and marriage are measured out to brutal effect. Brilliantly scripted, acted and devastating.

‘Sami Blood’, by Swedish director Amanda Kernell, was a beautiful and affecting, but slightly pedestrian, tale of a young Sami girl’s mid-C20th coming of age in the north of Sweden. Rejecting her traditional reindeer-farming culture, yearning for the arts and literature and education of the Swedes (denied her as an inferior indigenous girl), yet facing daily persecution, she nevertheless pursues her dreams with great energy and courage.

‘City of Ghosts’ was the American director Matthew Heineman’s remarkable documentary about the anonymous activists and citizen journalists of Raqqa, the Syrian stronghold of Isis. Risking death every day – wherever they may be in the world – they continue to report on the horrific atrocities committed by the world’s most brutal terrorist group. Hard to watch but an astonishing, vital film about bravery and the crucial importance of objective journalism in these dangerous times.

Sunday started with ‘I am not a witch’, Zambian director Rungano Nyoni’s clever, confronting satire about Zambian witch camps. A young orphan turns up in a drought-racked village one day and the locals don’t like the look of her, and brand her a witch. Sent off to a community of elderly witches, all tethered to long cotton leashes (so they don’t ‘fly off’) she is given the choice of joining them or being turned into a goat. Gawped at by tourists, used as a mascot by a pompous local government official in order to solve petty crimes/disputes, she makes her bewildered way through each day.

Next was ‘Lemon’, a highly stylised and arch ‘cringe comedy’ about an unlovely failing Jewish drama teacher, made by US director Janicza Bravo. Sadly it wasn’t more than the sum of its quirks. There were some great set pieces – a hellish family Passover meal was brilliantly absurd, and a cameo by Michael Cera, as a highly affected actor, hilarious – but the main protagonist was too limp and off-key to engage with on any level.

Happily the last film of my day (which I watched with my friend Natalia) was wonderful. ‘My Happy Family’, by Georgian directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross, was about a 52-year-old mother of grown-up children, who one day ups and leaves her family home. In a deeply traditional, patriarchal society, her relatives (parents, husband, children & spouses – they all live in the same poky apartment), are incensed, horrified that she isn’t fulfilling her prescribed role any more. She relishes her freedom but her emotions continue to be tested as life continues its messy daily course. A beautiful, wise, melancholy and wry film, further enlivened by some wonderful spontaneous musical performances.

Week 249 – flying high

On Tuesday morning Neil and I went on a scenic helicopter flight over Melbourne (Neil bought me the voucher for my last birthday, almost 12 months ago!).

There were storm clouds on the horizon (leading to some dramatic lighting effects) but luckily they remained distant and we enjoyed clear views and the occasional shaft of sunshine as we buzzed from the city centre over the container port to Williamstown and followed the line of the coast down past St Kilda to Sandringham.

Our return journey took us over the suburban sprawl of Brighton and Caulfield, and the parks and sports stadiums that lead back into town.

Inside the helicopter it was cosy – like being in a small car. It was so noisy that we all wore headsets (which actually made it pretty quiet) which enabled us to talk to each other.

There were a few bumps on the way up (the skyscrapers create their own wind tunnels) but otherwise the ride was very smooth.

We learned that our smartly-liveried red and gold helicopter was European-made and would have cost $2million to buy!

Neil had to head off to work afterwards, but I went on to the new Hokusai exhibition at the NGV. It is a survey of the Japanese artist’s career, made up of prints held by the NGV and a Japanese gallery. All his most famous series were well-represented.

The largest amount of gallery space was devoted to a full set of his most beloved, and most striking series, the 36 Views of Mount Fuji, including 2 prints of The Great Wave (the NGV’s own being the best copy). Having looked at all the wonderful images in the exhibition, it was this set that I kept coming back to. The radical composition and design of them is quite thrilling, still, combined with the wonderful evocation of time and place (all those fascinating, busy little people!).

The waterfalls were wonderful too, in their crazy abstraction, and with a gentler appeal, the more bucolic scenes captured in his series ‘One hundred poems explained by the nurse’ (see below – ‘the sadness of autumn’).

Also within the exhibition were a number of Hokusai’s Manga, which were full of tiny monochrome images of anything and everything, from self-defence techniques to deep sea fish to dance choreographies. And there was a small selection of his eerie images of traditional ghosts and demons.

On Thursday evening it was Melbourne’s annual ‘Art Nite’, when a number of the little independent galleries in the city centre open late. The event seems to get smaller each year. The first few galleries I sought out, whilst clearly operational, were shut, and when I did find a busy one, it turned out it wasn’t part of the event, I’d just stumbled on the opening night party!

There was a lot of bad art on show, but there were some fun things, including a colourful shopfront of Mexican outsider art (pictured) and a few atmospheric landscapes – I enjoyed a series of highly bleached-out photo-real canvases of Australian coastal vistas, and some interesting photo-collages of New Zealand glaciers.

In one of the poky rooms inside the prettily dilapidated 1930s Nicholas Building, an artist had set up an old-school sound installation, utilizing piles of antiquated electronic equipment. It beeped and buzzed and whispered and felt right for the space, which overlooks Flinders St station (see picture).

On Saturday it was incredibly windy – too windy to go running or risk flying debris in the park – but it was also sunny and bright and very mild. Happily Maisie had been invited to an indoor trampolining birthday party in Tooronga so she got the chance to burn some energy off.

I couldn’t bear to hang around in the play-centre for long so braced myself against the wind and made it across a motorway overpass to a surprisingly lovely narrow stretch of native landscaping following the path of Gardiner’s Creek.

Down by the creek it was relatively sheltered, and the rushing wind in the tall eucalypts disguised the noise of the nearby traffic, and set up haunting harmonies in the great electricity pylons.

The warmth had brought out the sweet scent of the wild honeysuckle, and the zing of the yellow wattle flowers, swaying wildly against an azure blue sky was stunning.

I had such a tranquil little walk, it was quite hard to adjust back to the noise and sugar-fuelled rush of the play-centre when I walked back to pick Maisie up!

Later on, while it was still blowing a gale, and the clouds were drawing in, Maisie and Tommy decided to go biking/scooting so we headed down to the skate park and they had a fine time being buffeted around. Luckily there wasn’t any sand blasting in our direction!

The winds died down a little in the evening, and Maisie and I went up to Gertrude Street to see the annual Projection Festival. Despite her flagging energy levels (evening events are always a struggle for her), Maisie was very engaged with all the little animations and films screening in shop windows and alleyways.

Those that particularly took her fancy were a large wall projection of roiling pink and green bubbles, a black-and-white film of a bird-like Japanese dancer, and a charming naive animation of land being settled – from the cutting down of native forest, to early tin shacks, to a forest of sky-scrapers, which eventually all took off like rockets.

I enjoyed the usual display of mechanical holographic flowers, the spectacle of a VR lounge (I couldn’t be bothered to queue to try out the VR itself), and a simple shadow-puppet show of a procession of fantastical beasts.

On Sunday it was still again, the sea as pale as the sky when I went out on my run. Unusually the children played quite happily together in the house – long convoluted games about overseas travel (Tommy was set on going to South America) which involved packing many large bags full of stuff and dragging them from room to room. I didn’t feel too guilty leaving Neil with them for an afternoon as I headed out to see a few local buildings that had been opened up for this year’s Open House event.

The first was Eildon Mansion on Grey Street, one of St Kilda’s earliest houses, constructed in 1850 when St Kilda was still a colonial hamlet surrounded by coastal swamps. The original elegant Regency style house was aggrandized in the 1870s by its new owner, a prominent sheep breeder, who added sombre grey columns and porticos, bay windows and balconies.

The structure has a commanding presence, but it isn’t beautiful! The interiors didn’t survive the many years that the building was used as a boarding house, and the gardens (which used to run down to the sea) were sold off, piece by piece, during the last century. But the Alliance Francaise, which now operates the building, has sympathetically restored some of the rooms, including the airy ballroom, and the beautiful ornate quarry tile floors in the hallways and verandas.

In the basement is the old kitchen which they have left scruffy – preserving traces of the mid-century wallpaper and smoke blackened walls, and the low arched tunnels off to storage rooms still have a Victorian atmosphere. The local historians who ran the guided tour were full of fascinating facts about the building and St Kilda back in the day.

I went on to Christ Church in Acland Street, another building from the 1850s. Constructed from local sandstone, it was surprisingly light and generously-proportioned inside, the red-brown wood of the pews and rafters shiny and polished and the perky stained glass windows glowing in the afternoon light. Most spectacular was the altar, which had been beautifully restored (to its original design) by a Melbourne art school. The walls were patterned with golden fleur-de-lys, and the pipes of the little organ (made by the London firm of Hill & Son) were painted teal and terracotta.

I just had time to make it to one more place, a sprawling 1930s apartment block in Balaclava. Home to a number of creatives – including designers, architects and gardeners – the residents committee had decided to turn the building’s extensive flat roof into a garden.

Despite the soil/gravel substrate being only 12cm thick, it was so much more than a green roof, there were swathes of wild grasses and blue-flowering rosemary and carpets of tiny succulents. Little wooden box vegetable plots had been set up at strategic points (i.e. above supporting walls). It was such a calm airy space, a real oasis!

Week 248 – dolphins!

Tommy had flu for much of the week, and spent his time sleeping curled up in a ball on the floor. When he awoke he reflected on dying ‘I don’t want to die, I won’t have fun any more’; he was also concerned that when he died he would have to wear nappies as he wouldn’t be able to go to the toilet. Trying to reassure him that he wouldn’t die for a long time didn’t help. Neil hit on the bright idea of introducing him to the idea of reincarnation, and that cheered him up!

On Thursday evening I went to an intriguing concert at the Recital Centre. Entitled ‘The Imperial Bells of China’, it was a ‘folkloric’ performance by the Hubei Provincial Opera and Dance Drama Theatre Ensemble. The sizeable group (immaculately clad in discreetly gold-embroidered red and black) was laid out like a Western classical orchestra, but made up of multiples of traditional Chinese instruments (with the addition of a couple of cellos and a double bass). There were 2-string fiddles, lutes of every shape and size, zithers, hammered dulcimers, reeded trumpets, mouth organs, bamboo flutes, and lots of drums and cymbals. The star attraction though, was a great ornate set of extremely ancient bronze bells (I think they were replicas!) which clunked and clanged through all the textures with their odd minor-third harmonics.

Most of the tunes were about happy peasants working on the land but there were some haunting melodies amongst the jolly romps, and when the group wasn’t trying too hard to introduce western-style harmonies the sinuous, reedy timbres were beautiful. For the most part, each group of instruments was involved in various layers/sections of the main melody. One piece in particular seemed to enliven the players – entitled ‘Silk Road’, it ferociously blended percussive tunes from Spain via the Middle East. The instruments lent themselves well to the very different tonal modes, and to the alternative playing techniques, and the timbres were just right.

There were various ‘star turns’ accompanied by the orchestra. A flautist impressed with his languid tones and lightning fast fingering in a ‘narrative melody’ from the drama ‘Madame White Snake’. A tenor in a magnificent white rhine-stone-encrusted suit gave a spirited rendition of a patriotic song. Most musically satisfying perhaps, were a couple of duets, one featuring a large zither and a set of crescent-shaped (metal/stone?) hanging chimes. Without the baggage of the other instruments, it allowed for the space, flexible timing and bending of tones which are such a striking feature of Chinese music, but otherwise not really in evidence during this concert. The encore was a lovingly orchestrated version of ‘Waltzing Matilda’!

Tommy rallied briefly on Friday and didn’t want to stay in the house any more, so I bundled him in blankets and tucked him up in the pram, and we made the most of a stunning utterly still iceberg-blue day by heading out on a coastal ramble [all this week’s blog photos were taken on this day]. There was a mist over the city and the distant towers were ghostly. Terns were soaring and dive-bombing the clear waters. After every precision white splosh they emerged with a tiny wriggling fish in their beaks. Scarlet-breasted house martins zoomed low over our heads in their pursuit of sandflies.

Shortly after turning back from our farthest point (Brighton Sea Baths), I noticed a dark grey shape breaking the aquamarine surface of the sea quite close by, and I looked again and saw that it was a dolphin, then three more of them (including a closely paired mother and baby) popped up. They weren’t in a hurry, and one of them occasionally leapt out of the waves in exuberant fashion (too unpredictably for me to capture in a photo). What a magical sight! Tommy was excited for a short while, but when it delayed our arrival at the nearby playground he started moaning loudly that ‘dolphins are boring’! However, later on, when we got home, he made a point of finding his little toy plastic dolphin and clutching it for the rest of the day.

Tommy was out for the count for most of the weekend, and Neil took on sick-bay duties. Maisie and I had a fun Saturday afternoon out, starting with a performance by Djuki Mala, a wonderfully athletic and exuberantly funny aboriginal dance troupe from the Northern Territories. Excited by the traditional dances of their culture, but also by Michael Jackson, Greek folk dance, Bollywood, and various hip-hop styles (their version of Missy Elliott’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’ was truly memorable!), they put on a show that contained all of this and more. In between numbers, video projections told their back-stories, adding an interesting and serious context to the (mainly comic) pieces.

Maisie and I went on to my friend Natasha’s red wine and cheese-themed birthday party. It was an afternoon affair and there were lots of adults and lots of kids (mainly 5-year-old girls) and the children played happily in a big gang in one room while the adults, in another room, appreciated the fine cheese and wine and conversation on offer. Everyone had a lovely time!

On a miserably cold and rainy Sunday afternoon I snuck off to the Elsternwick Classic to catch a special preview of ‘The Trip to Spain’ (complete with complementary paella and red wine). As in the two previous series, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon set off on a foodie driving tour, bantering their way through plates of tasty-looking delicacies (lots of gambas and chorizo this time), trading ever-more outrageous Roger Moore impressions, debating their fame/popularity, and, in the most light-hearted manner, raging against the dying of the light. I thought it was wonderful, a return to the form of the original series (which is one of my favourite things ever!).

Week 247 – puppets and pools

Maisie started the week with a day at circus school (handily, the country’s leading circus skills academy is situated in a neighbouring suburb). She learnt to hula hoop and did lots of leaping, climbing and balancing – and she was very disappointed that she couldn’t go back the next day! But I was glad that we had a perfectly still sunny Tuesday to ourselves. The sea was like a pane of glass. I suggested that she come cycling with me as I went on my run. I wasn’t sure how far she’d manage to ride, but amazingly she did the whole 10 kilometres (the promise of cake got her through the last few kilometres!).

In the evening I went to see the new British film ‘Lady Macbeth’ (an adaptation of the novel ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’ by Leskov). It was a revisionist period drama, where the bartered bride effects monstrous yet calculated revenge on her nasty father-in-law and ineffectual husband. It was very stylish and the casting was boldly colour-blind, an unusual and effective choice, but I still didn’t really like the film very much.

Maisie and I went into town on Wednesday to try out the NGV’s current art activities for children. We popped into the Fiona Hall children’s exhibition at the NGV International, where Maisie made a paper collage of a fabulous animal (hers was a bird which she described as ‘always flying, only landing to have babies’!). We went on to the NGV Ian Potter (passing, on our way, the elegant yarn bombing pictured), to see artist Patrick Pound’s collection of collections (reviewed in Week 241). On my previous visit I had spotted an accompanying children’s questionnaire and had wondered whether it would interest Maisie. Happily, she was really engaged by it, running round trying to locate certain curiosities, finding things beginning with particular letters, listing all the birds she could think of, writing stories and drawing pairs of things. The final room was full of paintings and photographs of people sleeping (very eerie!) – the question here was to count how many you could see – Maisie gamely counted up to over a hundred before she admitted defeat.

On Friday, Rowena, who was enjoying a family ‘stay-cation’ at one of the plush Crown Casino hotels in the centre of Melbourne, invited Maisie and Tommy and I to hang out at the hotel pool with them! The kids were utterly thrilled by the whole experience, starting out with the swift lifts, followed by the huge view from Row’s 23rd floor bedroom window, a vista of the Yarra river winding towards Docklands, with glimpses, between closer towers, of the steady stream of container ships traversing the blue sea horizon. Later I enjoyed watching a slate-grey weather front rush in (and past).

The pool was even higher – on the 25th floor – and when we arrived we almost had it to ourselves. I wasn’t sure how brave the kids would be as neither of them have attempted to swim (i.e. been out of their depth in the water) since we were in Bali a couple of years ago, although they are both very comfortable splashing in the sea. Maisie had some armbands, and after wanting to be pulled along for a while, inspired by Sebastian (Row’s older son, Maisie’s age and completely confident in the water) she was brave enough to jump in and propel herself along on her own. Tommy was the revelation – clad in a borrowed floatation vest, his confidence knew no bounds – he couldn’t wait to barrel in off the side into my waiting arms, and after a few goes he didn’t want me to catch him, and wasn’t at all bothered by the plunge underwater. Holding on to my hands he splashed his way across the length of the pool countless times.

It was almost impossible to drag the kids away from the pool – with the exception of a few brief breaks for snacks, and a blissful 5-minute trip to the sauna (I left Tommy in Ante’s capable hands – when I got back, Tommy had learned to pull himself along the side of the pool and climb out on his own) – we were in there for almost 3 hours!

Maisie’s main desire over the holidays was to hang out with as many of her friends as possible, so most days we ended up spending several chilly (but generally bright) hours in the park as she competed on the hanging bars with various little girls (some of whom she knew, others she had just befriended). On Saturday we met up with Lou and Eliza in the park, and the two girls mirrored what Lou and I were doing – we chose one sunny bench on which to sit on and chat, and the girls chose another. It was all going so well, that we decided to go on to a cafe for lunch. Maisie and Eliza had one table, we had another – and we didn’t hear a peep out of them. It was so civilised!

In the afternoon I went to see Edgar Wright’s latest classy genre piece ‘Baby Driver’. It was a tautly edited, superbly choreographed, heist movie. It was also (despite no-one actually breaking into song) almost a musical. Early scenes reminded me of ‘La La Land’, nimble sequences of movements and visuals all tightly cued in to one of the many classic soul tracks that powered the movie (all songs playing on the iPod of the film’s main character). The A-list actors provided some fine moments too – particularly Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx as two very mean and savvy gangsters.

On Sunday we all went to see some family theatre down at the St Kilda winter festival. Held in a big drafty wooden box, ‘Loose Ends’ was a wonderfully quirkily inventive one-man show about loneliness and friendship and what happens when you sabotage that friendship. The stage was piled high with carefully labelled little boxes (‘old toys’, ‘party’, ‘robot’, ’friend’, ‘hope’ etc.) and you never knew what might pop out of them. A revolving light produced a shadow-scape of a train journey into town, a ball of wool became a puppet, a little train whizzed round a track chiming bars to the tune of happy birthday, a trolley became a ship, and wired up bits of junk made unexpected musical buzzes when touched. Best of all was a wonderfully precarious bicycle-powered Heath-Robinson-ish machine, which rolled and blew and levered little balls on a magical mystery tour. Maisie was entranced, but Tommy was rather scared of the dark, cowering on my lap and asking ‘when can we go home’ every five minutes – although luckily there was enough to keep him curious, so he did make it through to the end!

We’ve also found time for some creative activities over the holidays – Tommy discovered the joys of water-colour (see his picture of a storm), and Maisie’s been writing more stories (‘This might be a little bit scary for you’ is about a witch who is disappointed when there aren’t many letters in her mailbox!).

Week 246 – a magic flute and a big wheel

Neil arrived back from Sweden late on Sunday night and it was great to have some un-kid-sapped energy back in the house (jet-lag didn’t seem to touch him) and to vicariously enjoy his cultural adventures in London, Gothenburg and Berlin! The kids were gift-focused, and Tommy, in particular, was thrilled by the two sets of model level-crossing barriers that Neil had managed to source! Barriers remain Tommy’s absolutely favourite thing (later in the week he enjoyed a half-hour spent hanging out by a level crossing that we stumbled upon in a nearby suburb).

Maisie and I spent a pleasant couple of days together while Tommy was in childcare. We bought her two pairs of new shoes and explored the imaginative little parks of Docklands (one of which was full of musical sculptures), and went to an art exhibition in the local council gallery. I’d told Maisie that the pictures were of polar bears, and she dressed up especially (see picture!).

On Wednesday Lizzie K and I went to see a new play at the Malthouse, entitled ‘The Heart is a Wasteland’. Going to see theatre here is expensive and risky, as the general standard is not particularly high. However, I’m a fan of one of the actors, Aaron Pedersen, whose performances I have admired in two recent Aussie films (Mystery Road and Goldstone) so I thought I’d give it a go. The play was a two-hander about a country singer-songwriter on a back-country tour, and a mine-worker who she hooks up with one night who ends up travelling with her. Both aboriginal, and with terribly damaged pasts, they flirt and argue and end up making a profound connection. It was an interesting take on a well-worn story, and the actors gave it their best, but the script was horribly clunky, lurching from lazy banter to earnest socio-political commentary, which didn’t mesh together at all. I liked the feeling behind it though, and given a rigorous re-write, I reckon it could have been very good.

On Thursday Maisie and I enjoyed a children’s performance of Mozart’s opera ‘The Magic Flute’ at the Recital Centre. It was an imaginative hour-long show devised and performed by Opera Australia featuring five costumed singers (one of whom was a master of quick change, as she played multiple characters), a pianist, and a modest set. The singers acted out the story, mostly utilizing spoken dialogue, but occasionally breaking into song. All the best bits were there – the Queen of the Night aria, the Papageno/Papagena duet etc. With the exception of a weak baritone, they were all good singers, and fun and lively actors too. I think I preferred it to the real thing! And the kids seemed very engaged too (I know Maisie was) – the hall was packed, but there was virtually no fidgeting or audible complaining.

In the evening I went to see a new documentary entitled ‘Chicken People’, following a year in the lives of three competitive chicken breeders. In Tennessee and Ohio, annual shows pit poultry breeders against each other in the quest to produce the most perfect specimens of every variety of chicken, according to the criteria set forth in the late C19th ‘American Standard of Perfection’. The movie had a ‘Best in Show’-type vibe but was all true, and happily, the individuals the film-maker followed were fascinating, talented, self-aware people. And the much-loved (often bizarre-looking) chickens, were pretty intriguing too!

Having been gently trying to persuade Tommy to toilet-train for some months now, to no avail, on Thursday night he suddenly decided that it was time, and demanded to wear pants. So over the weekend we weren’t able to stray far from the house.

On Sunday we strolled down to the St Kilda sea-front car park which is the site of a new winter festival, incorporating an ice-skating rink, a couple of cabaret/comedy venues, a restaurant/bar and food stalls and two large fairground rides, one of them being a giant ferris wheel.

The kids have been very excited about this for some time, and I had promised them a ride once Daddy was back!

The cars were well-caged in, but open to the wind, and it was pretty blustery and exposed when we were up high but the kids weren’t phased at all.

The wheel went round surprisingly swiftly (Tommy carefully studied the mechanism as we passed the spurs), and Maisie wanted it to move faster! The views along the bay and across to the city skyscrapers and the distant Dandenong hills were lovely.

Week 245 – train adventures

On Tuesday morning I joined a silver-haired crowd at a Brighton cinema to see the recent release ‘A Quiet Passion’, a dramatisation of the reclusive life of the American mid-C19th poet Emily Dickinson. It was a very moving film: life and death, love, sickness and pain, prejudice and frustration – all were experienced by Dickinson within the confines of a comfortably well-off Bostonian family home, and brought to life in her eloquent, passionate poetry (most of which was not published until after her death). Cynthia Nixon was wonderful as the fiercely intellectual yet fragile poet, and Jennifer Ehle as her beloved sister.

On Thursday night I hosted a dinner party for my local mum friends. It was a cold night, and a good opportunity to get a pan of mulled wine brewing – it’s been such a long time since I last made it (it used to be a winter-time staple) I’d forgotten my recipe! Everyone brought a dish, and we spent a happy few hours eating comfort food (soup, cheese and chocolate) and putting the world to rights.

Maisie’s second term of school ended on Friday. We went for a play in the park afterwards and she promptly fell face-first out of a tree! She was a bit shocked and sustained some impressive grazes, but luckily, nothing more serious. She also received her first school report, which was all positive, with the one caveat that she isn’t always keen to let others take a turn to lead activities!

On Saturday the kids were invited to a party, but as it didn’t start till 1pm, and they were up, raring to go, at 6am, it was a hard task getting them through the long morning! Happily it was chilly but bright, so we headed out to the park.

They decided to go on an adventure, exploring every corner, then spent an hour digging holes in the sandpit (co-operating very well together!). I tried to find patches of sunlight to stand in to stop my body gradually numbing with cold!

On Sunday Ben and Myomi drove Maisie, Tommy and I to the Diamond Valley miniature railway, a popular family weekend destination.

Set up by enthusiasts and staffed by volunteers, it’s an extensive network of tiny tracks, junctions and tunnels laid out in a pretty area of rolling woodland, complete with to-scale signals, bridges over tiny creeks, engine sheds, functional level crossings (Tommy’s favourites!), control towers etc.

The extensive fleet of engines and carriages (both ‘passenger’ and freight-style wagons) are all replicas of full-sized American and Australian models, perfect to the smallest detail and all immaculately clean and shiny.

As it was a busy day they had four or five different trains in constant operation (and they often brought other models out of the shed) so you never knew which one might whizz past in the other direction, or suddenly race you down the track.

Tommy was, of course, thrilled from the get-go, studying everything closely, pointing things out and excitedly naming them.

Maisie wasn’t too impressed after the first ride, and was more engaged by the nearby playground (heaving with toddler birthday parties, show-casing an impressive array of railway-themed cakes!).

But after we’d had our picnic lunch we went back for more train fun and she loved the ride so much she demanded we immediately went back round again!

Week 244 – the trolley song

It’s been another long week of solo parenting! I needed my 6 child-free hours on Tuesday to recharge, and happily it was a fabulously bright mild day. I started it with a run, and then decided to explore the further reaches of the Yarra estuary, beyond the mushrooming glass towers at the city end of docklands.

I walked under the elegant Bolte Bridge (not so grand from this particular angle) into a liminal area of container-filled lots, rusty pylons, cement works, abandoned railway sidings, blank business parks full of obliquely named concerns, a Boeing plant, and the heavily secured Australian Ministry of Defence Science Division.

At the furthest point, just before the new super-container port begins, and in the shadow of the harbour-spanning Westgate Bridge, is an extensive stretch of native-planted parkland. It was lovely, all rolling hillocks, bushy grasses, and crusty, spiky, shady trees.

Although there was a constant rushing of overhead traffic, sometimes the croaking of the frogs was louder! There were various ducks on the (freshwater) lake, chirruping in the trees, and fantails dancing along the pathways.

There was also a murky coppery-brown salt lake (which is apparently sometimes pink!) fringed by red/yellow sea-weed. There weren’t many people around, but just enough to not feel worryingly isolated.

The views of the bridge emerging from the trees, and the city skyline shimmering beyond the vivid greens and blues of the park, were striking.

I managed to catch a bus back into town, and the roads we travelled felt oddly familiar – the architecture (all 1930s semis, warehouses, and low-rise brick apartment blocks) reminded me so much of London’s north circular!

On Saturday I took the kids to the tram museum. Last time we went there Tommy was barely walking, and now trams are one of his favourite forms of transport (almost up there with trains!) so I knew that he would be thrilled.

The place is still a draughty old (decommissioned) tram depot crammed full of old-model trams (from the late 1800s to the early 1970s), but what’s great about it is that visitors can fully explore and pretend to drive every single one of them (and ding the tram bells as much as they like!). Tommy and Maisie spent 2 hours dashing around from cab to cab turning all the wheels and twiddling all the knobs. It was exhausting keeping up with them.

One of the 1960s trams had been fully kitted out Pakistani-style and it was a wonderful riot of colour and decoration and flashing lights, complete with beaded hangings and bouquets of fake flowers.

Others were memorable for the wonderful craftsmanship – beautiful (uncracked) leather seats, with heavy adjustable seat-backs that still swing easily to face forwards or backwards.

And some had been beautifully restored, their wooden benches glowing golden, stained glass panels twinkling and ceilings elegantly panelled, inset with pretty glass lanterns.

On Sunday Michele and Daniel kindly offered to take Maisie off my hands for a couple of hours, and Tommy and I enjoyed a leisurely cafe breakfast. He had no toys with him, and waited patiently for his food, carefully studying and remarking on everything around him, then methodically eating an entire adult portion of eggs on toast!