Getting on with getting old

Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.

Terry Pratchett

One of the great joys of my new post-chateau, return-to-civilisation life is the photography club that I’ve joined. I’ve only met with the group twice so far but already its activities and intentions and the thoughtful observations of its members are changing my perspectives.

The first meeting that I attended was all about lighting. One of the group members, a professional photographer, had brought in some of her expensive equipment to show to the rest of the group. After giving a detailed tutorial on how it all works, she encouraged the Nikon users (whose cameras would be compatible with her equipment) to experiment with it. Canon users (for most seem to have a strong preference for either one of these two brands) could play around with the Canon-compatible lighting gear brought in by the organiser.

So my fellow photographers had cameras and lighting equipment and the requisite knowledge to use them both. But they didn’t have a subject. So I, having neither a Canon nor a Nikon nor any other kind of photographic equipment other than a trusty little point-and-press, volunteered.

“Modelling” was fun. All I had to do was sit or stand as instructed and be a passive subject for the light to bounce off. Nobody told me to smile and I wasn’t deliberately doing so (although when one of the group commented on the fact that I’d been smiling non-stop for 90 minutes, I was glad to know that the joy that I feel in life is apparently reflected on my face.) And I learned a lot about lighting while I sat there and listened to everything that was said about the umbrellas and soft boxes that were being moved around me, or I around them.

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(Thank you to Wilna Weeda for this photograph.)

But one of the greater lessons that I learned that day was, I’m afraid, more about the subject than the subject, if you see what I mean. Let me explain…

After the session ended it occurred to me that of the hundreds of photographs that were taken of me that day, there might be one that I could like enough to use as my profile picture on this blog. My current picture is, as I’ve explained, six years old now, and is starting to feel a little dishonest. Perhaps my new photography friends, I thought, might be willing to share some of their photos with me.

And then they did. And then I found myself struggling with the brutality of the truth.

You see, I’ve always wanted to embrace the process of ageing. Every birthday, rather than thinking, Oh my god, I’m yet another year older!, I try to think about what I’ve done/seen/experienced/achieved over the last twelve months and think, Well, yes, it takes time to do that stuff. Of course I’m another year older. It doesn’t always work but that’s how I try to think.

When we lived in Jerusalem, I realised one day that I was then older than my mother ever lived to be. In her mid to late thirties and early forties Mum was operated on, injected, zapped with radiation and filled with all sorts of odious medicinal concoctions, all so that she might be able to beat cancer and be granted more life. More years. More experience. More time with her loved ones. More lines on her face. And each one of those lines would have been a reflection of all that she’d lived and all the people that she’d loved. And in the eyes of the only beholders that mattered, those lines would have made her all the more stunning.

But cancer won. And Mum was buried young and beautiful. And because of that I recognise that every day that I live is a gift and a privilege. Why should I give a shit that I have lines on my face? I’m alive! Getting older, I learned at a young age, is far better than the alternative.

About 20 years ago I attended a Guardian literature event in London. That was, of course, pre-Google Images, and I had no idea of what some of my favourite writers looked like. I browsed curiously through the brochure about the authors who would be speaking that day. Among their pictures was a shot of the brilliant Hilary Mantel, young, blonde and slim. It came as a shock to me when she walked out onto the stage. Only the blondeness was still recognisable from her profile picture. I found myself feeling annoyed with her. The fact that she’d put on weight was beside the point – an author’s dress size is no more relevant than a tennis player’s attractiveness, as I wish the media would recognise – but I thought the fact that she wasn’t prepared to claim and proclaim who she was now was unworthy of her. (I’ve since learned that Mantel struggled with her body image after her rapid weight gain, which was caused by endometriosis, a hysterectomy and the prescription of high levels of hormones, all of which she’s written about in her memoirs, Giving Up The Ghost. No wonder she wouldn’t allow herself to be portrayed as she was; she didn’t know.)

I’ve never understood people’s nostalgic sighs of,  Ah, if only I could be 19 again… I wouldn’t go back to that age for anything! God, if we’re talking about the trials of body image, do you remember what it was like to be a teenager? Those years were tough! I’m so much happier now that I know myself a bit better, now that I’ve got some life experience under my belt. In some situations I can even be fairly sure of the best course of action to take because I’ve made so many mistakes before that I know well enough not to make them again. And finding new ways of fucking up is fun! We’re all human, aren’t we? That’s what it’s all about! What is it about our society that makes us value youth over experience?

So there we have it – evidence that at points in my life I’ve occasionally had some good and worthy thoughts about life and ageing and appearance and expectation.

Ah, but it’s so very easy to be sanguine about ageing when you’re young! It’s so simple to say that you’ll never have Botox or plastic surgery when you don’t even understand what the word “elasticity” means when it’s used in the same sentence as the word “skin”! It so easy to look condescendingly at women who’ve gone under the knife when you’ve never caught a glimpse of an ageing person in a shop window and not recognised that ageing person as yourself!

(A side note to my 90-year-old self, by the way: I know that compared to you, I’m a spring chicken at 43, and when I say “ageing” I don’t mean that I think I’m very old now. I know I’m not. I’m just acknowledging that I’m older than I used to be. I’m trying to grow comfortably into the skin that you now inhabit. Be gentle with me please, older and wiser me!)

I was very grateful to my new photography club friends for sending me some images from our lighting session but I have to admit that my first reaction to them was, Noooooo! I can’t possibly show these to anyone! I look so old!

But now I realise that I can’t just talk the talk. I can’t just spout on about how I think our personal and societal concerns about the outward signs of ageing are beyond ludicrous. I can’t just say that I value the laughter lines as evidence of the laughter, and the sagging skin as proof of the much appreciated and ever growing number of days, weeks, months and years I’ve spent on the planet. I have to truly accept them. I have to put on a brave face. A brave ageing face. I have to put a brave ageing face on my blog.

So here it is.

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(Thank you to Catherine Hieronymi for this photograph.)

Take that, ageists. I’m out and proud as a middle-aged woman. Come back in ten years. In 20. Hopefully even 30 or 40. Then I’ll really have some stories to tell you. And all you’ll have to do to hear them will be to look at my wizened old face.

Confessions of an expat hostess

The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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I’ve always loved having people come to stay. Because I’ve spent my entire adult life living “away from home”, having visitors has always meant two things:

1)    A chance to spend some proper time with people that I love but get to see far too infrequently.

2)    An opportunity to show people around a place that they may not have visited before.

The older I get, the more I love playing hostess and tour guide. I decorate rooms. I draw up itineraries. I plan menus. I seem to have completely outgrown my old “let’s just book a flight and see what happens” holiday ways, as it seems to me now that if you just wait to see what happens, more often than not, nothing happens at all. I used to think that planning was the enemy of serendipity, but now I find that spontaneity arises more easily out of a loosely structured plan than out of a fog of optimistic indecision.

There are times when my planning works out well for me, and, I can only hope, for my guests. When M and I were living in Israel it was incredibly easy to show people a good time. After a trip to Masada, a dip in the Dead Sea, a day or two of discovering the historic sights and souks of the Old City of Jerusalem, and a walk along the sandy beaches of Tel Aviv, we’d suddenly find that a long weekend had passed with eventful (and sometimes even educational) ease.

There are other times when circumstances conspire to make me a less than relaxed hostess. Take the last year, for example. I would have thought, before moving into probably the biggest and most beautiful house that I’ll ever have the good fortune to inhabit, that welcoming guests into such an abode would be a doddle. And I’d have expected that living in the midst of the extraordinary beauty of Savoie would make it easy to decide where to take people. And that having easy access to some of the world’s finest food and wine would make catering for guests the biggest pleasure in the world.

Unfortunately it didn’t really work out that way and I can only apologise to the people who have come to stay with us in the Chateau de Collonges. Do you remember that scene in Groundhog Day where Phil and Rita built a snowman? In his frenzied desire to show what a fun-loving, likeable chap he is, Phil comes across as something of a weirdo. Let’s have some fun! he giggles. Come on! Ha, ha, ha, ha! Hey, here’s a humdinger over here! Hey! Wasn’t that great?!

I’ve been a bit like that.

Isn’t it beautiful?! Let’s go and see this amazing place! I know you’ve just flown from the other side of the world but forget about your jet lag! Stand right there to pose for a photo! No, not there! There! You love this fine French food I’ve found for you, don’t you? You don’t? But how could you not! It’s great! Yum! I love everything here! It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Ha, ha, ha! Aren’t we having fun?!

I blame the hormones. And the lack of alcohol. And I thank those of you who have visited from the bottom of my heart for saying that you’ve had a good time in spite of my frenzied regime of enforced fun.

Thankfully, there are also times when everything works like a charm in spite of my obsessive planning and feverish quest for amusement. Last weekend, when seven members of my family flew in from Inverness and Amsterdam to help M and I celebrate my birthday, was one of those times. Everything was so simple and so beautiful. My nephews, who are at ages where society might expect them to be sullen and withdrawn, were curious, interested, charming, intelligent and gracious. My niece, who at nearly-three could be forgiven the occasional temper tantrum, was cute beyond any reasonable expectations of cuteness. M and my brother-in-law coped valiantly with the inevitable emotional intensity of any gathering of my family that involves more than one person. And my siblings… Ah, they were my siblings. Having two of them around made me miss the other three even more intensely than I usually do, but apart from that, having them here, walking my Daily Walk and talking our incredible talks was the most fantastic of birthday gifts.

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There were many perfect moments over the three days that they were here but two, I think, will stay in my memory forever. The first was when we happened upon a guy on the shores of Lake Annecy who makes a living out of blowing giant bubbles. Using two sticks, a bit of old rope and his own secret-recipe solution, he creates what my sister Luli gorgeously described as magical trees in kaleidoscopic bubbles. He’s made sticks to suit people of all sizes so everyone got to have a go, as M and I stood back and watched the smiles of our family and of every single casual passer-by. I’ve had over a week to think about it now and still I can’t think of a better way to earn a living than by making big bubbles and beautiful smiles. Thank you, bubble guy.

The other moment was during our lunch in Annecy. I’d planned to make confit de canard for dinner that night, so rather than having anything heavy for lunch, we just bought sandwiches from one of Annecy’s fantastic sandwich stands. We had planned to eat and walk, but somehow, without discussing it, all nine of us ended up stopping at various points along a bridge across one of the canals that give Annecy the nickname of Venice of the Alps.

It was cold, and all of us, apart from my unbelievably hardy Scottish nephews, were wrapped in coats, scarves and gloves against the chilly wind. I looked across from my vantage point on the bridge and saw eight people that I love, quietly eating their sandwiches and taking in the gorgeous sights of this historic town. My twelve-year-old nephew was feeding crumbs to the seagulls, which swooped over our heads, their wings like sails taking them across the water and on towards tourists with tastier treats. Occasionally a couple of us spoke. My sister Luli, also recognising the gorgeousness of the moment, at one point took a little video of the scene. But mostly we all just stood there. Quietly. Just being in this beautiful place. Eating our simple delicious sandwiches and watching some of the people we love being together and apart and cold and warm and quiet and contented.

I was very spoilt for my birthday and was given many gorgeous gifts. And of all them, that moment was the one that I’ll keep inside and enjoy forever.

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Wonderlust

Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.

Ray Bradbury

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In La Chautagne, the area of south-east France that M and I currently inhabit, the weather isn’t so much a talking point as a cast of characters. In the last nine months I’ve had a brief introduction to all of them and I’ve been looking forward to getting to know them all better, to seeing how their temperaments might change from one year to the next and how that would alter their interactions with one another. But just as I make the reluctant transition from shorts and Birkenstocks to hiking boots and a Barbour jacket, and the landscape swaps its summer greens for the rustic oranges and reds of autumn, M and I have decided to pack up and move again.

In the line of work that M’s been in for the past decade, he’s always had to live in the accommodation that’s been provided for him, and that accommodation has always been in cities. So when we had a chance, on this mission, to put a roof over our own heads, we chose a big old roof in the French countryside. But man there are some drawbacks to living how the other half live! Yes the house that we’re renting is huge and beautiful and yes the countryside around it is spectacular (it’s amazing how much more bang you can get for your buck when you move away from the city) but it’s in the middle of nowhere and much to my own shock and amazement, I actually really miss having other people around!

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When we recently scoped out a possible new hometown and spoke with a potential new landlord, New Landlord told us about the highlights of the environs and asked if we’d seen them.

Have you been to the lake? he asked.

Not yet, we answered.

Ah, you have to see the lake! he said. There are people running and people swimming and people walking with their pets and…

There are people?! I responded? Brilliant! When can we move in?

And so we’ll be downsizing, erm, rather a lot. Our new home will be a third the size of our current one, we’ll have neighbours upstairs and down, our outdoor space will be measured in centimetres rather than acres and we’ll have to buy all our own furniture… And I can’t wait.

There are actually a number of practical reasons for our planned departure from the wilderness, not least being the fact that M currently has a one-hour-and-forty-minute commute into the office each morning, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there might be more to it than that for both of us. If I’m totally honest I fear that we might both have become infected with wonderlust…

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It’s no secret that wanderlust, our new condition’s close cousin, got into our veins a long time ago. I’m sure that what my Mum used to describe as growing pains when I was a kid was actually the gnawing ache for distant places that as an adult I’ve been more easily able to recognise, articulate and remedy. And M no doubt caught the affliction on one of the many trips he did as a child to the far-flung places where his Dad worked for the UN.

But if wonder is a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable and lust is an overwhelming desire or craving,*  then given the symptoms, I am self-diagnosing the lesser-known condition of wonderlust. The insatiable desire that both M and I have to see as much of the world’s gorgeousness as we possibly can during our short stint on the planet only becomes stronger as we slip inevitably closer to the time when we’ll shrug off this mortal coil, and so we have to cram in as much of the unfamiliar and inexplicable as we can.

I’ve read in several places recently that some sharks, including great whites, have to keep moving forward to stay alive, and there’s part of me, I think, that identifies. While the idea of perpetual motion is utterly exhausting and in some ways I’d love to just create a home and stay there, I fear that wonderlust would overwhelm me if I tried to stay in one place for too long, however much I might love the place and the people in it.

And so for now, as I count down towards the end of the three-month notice period we’ve given on the rental of our current home, I’ll start wallowing instead in that other affliction of the geographically restless – nostalgia for a home you’ve loved and will never live in again.

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* Thanks, Dictionary.com

All that bumbles isn’t a bee

Beware the barrenness of a busy life.

Socrates

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Chewing the cud.

My father is a very hardworking man. Even now, a few months before his 75th birthday, he struggles to say no when work is thrown his way. When my siblings and I were kids, Dad was determined to instil this work ethic in us as well, and he found it infuriating if ever he came home during a mid-morning break from work and found us still lounging around in our pyjamas. His determination on this issue bore fruit, too; none of his six kids could ever be accused of being workshy. My problem now, though, is where to channel that work ethic when I’m not working. Where is the line between enjoying an unexpected period of affordable unemployment, and becoming, to use my dad’s vernacular, a lazy good for nothing so and so?

On the last couple of days, when I’ve gone on my One-Hour Daily Walk, I’ve had the irritating feeling that I should be using my walking time constructively. Yesterday and the day before, I stuck my headphones on and listened to French podcasts as I walked. This morning, when I didn’t feel like walking, I realised it was because I wasn’t in the mood for studying French. OK, I thought to myself, I’ll use the time to think about a tricky plot point I’ve reached in a story I’m writing instead. So I headed out the door, my usual sunhat replaced by a serious frown and an ill-fitting thinking cap, and realised about half an hour into the walk that I still wasn’t enjoying it as much as I usually do.

Then the thought occurred to me. It’s OK just to be at peace.

Much of the average life, it seems to me from this lofty position of unemployment, is consumed by the sense that if we’re not crazy busy, running around and seeing people and getting stuff done, then we’re not achieving anything. But how much of the stuff that we fill our time with is actually necessary or worthwhile? Should we really be complaining that ironing the tea towels is stealing away our leisure time, or should we just not bother to iron the tea towels? Do we have to be doing something specific with our brain during a daily walk, or is a daily walk constructive enough in itself?

When I was teaching English in Japan, an easy way of starting conversation classes was by asking people what they’d done on the weekend. One woman, whose children were growing up and becoming slightly more independent, often detailed all the housework chores she’d managed to tick off the list. On one particularly busy weekend, she’d managed not just to wash all the inside walls, but also to clean every individual picket on the white picket fence surrounding her house. Really? People do that? Another woman almost invariably said that she’d spent Saturday morning shopping for clothes. When I commented that she must have a lot of clothes, given the amount of time she spent shopping, she said that most weeks she ended up taking back the stuff that she’d bought the week before! We truly are all busy fools!

My Dad’s getting much better at chilling out these days. Next week he and I are meeting up in Amsterdam and we’re going to spend a week wandering around the streets of his home town, drinking Dutch gin and waving to the locals from our house boat. And I’m confident that not once will it cross my mind that I should be doing something more constructive.

People are strange when you’re a stranger

When you grow up as one of six children, as I did, A Room of One’s Own is an unknowable imaginary land. It didn’t even occur to me to fantasise about having my own room when I was a kid; our household was made up of two adults, six kids and four bedrooms, so sharing was just the way it was. That doesn’t mean, of course, that my little sister and I didn’t have the odd territorial dispute. Sometimes these arguments culminated in the drawing of physical boundaries, a line of masking tape separating my half of the room from hers. Figuring out where the border should lie was sometimes tricky, and at times I’d find myself separated from my beloved bookshelves, and once even inconveniently distanced from the door.

This desire for a space of one’s own does not seem to go away as one enters adulthood. The expression “An Englishman’s home is his castle,” while raising uncomfortable gender issues and frequently lending itself to the right wing in conversations about the value of life versus property, summarises what seems to be a fairly universal desire to have a little piece of the earth for one’s own exclusive use.

This is all very well and very understandable – who doesn’t have a strong desire for a place to call home? – but the problems begin when the issues of belonging and ownership are extrapolated out beyond our own four walls to include the surrounding towns, territories and regions in which we might wish to raise a flag, and from which we might wish to exclude anyone but People Like Us.

In my day-to-day life here in rural France, there is absolutely no evidence of the historical animosity between the French and the English which is sometimes still played out or parodied in modern politics. I’m sure that M and I are probably known in our village as That Foreign Couple on the Hill, but I’ve never experienced any antagonism and I feel just as at home here as I could in any place where I don’t speak the language. That’s why I was shocked, when out on my One-Hour Daily Walk a few days ago, to see a piece of graffiti which would suggest that I’m not as welcome here as I’d previously supposed.

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(For the few people on the planet whose French is worse than mine,
this translates as Foreigner, you are not welcome.)

To say nothing of the considerably less-than-Banksy-esque artistic quality of this message, Tippexed onto an electricity pillar box, the sentiment behind the scrawl is one that is so far removed from the international nature of my current existence as to render it almost incomprehensible. I’m Australian, born of Dutch parents, and cohabit here in France with someone whose British nationality I also now share. The couple from whom we’re renting our house comprises a Japanese woman and her Italian husband. This weekend we have some friends coming around for a barbecue and without giving it too much thought I’d guess that the passports they’ll carry with them when they cross the Swiss-French border will be from at least eight different countries and no less than four continents. So I can’t even imagine the feats of origami it would take to fold my mind small enough to fit into the cranial cavity of someone for whom foreigners are so terrifying that they would choose to ban them from their land.

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(Danger of death with Le Pen as president? Yes, I expect there would be.)

Many people born and brought up in Australia tend to think of borders as fairly immutable things; when your home is “girt by sea”, as our national anthem so poetically puts it, it’s difficult to imagine how the outer limits of the land could be challenged. But borders do, of course, change all the time, and while some countries are champing at the bit to form strategic allegiances with others, there are also still regions for whom separation is the ultimate goal. Our house here in France is in the departément of Savoie, but when we cross the bridge to get to the nearest major town, Culoz, we suddenly find ourselves in the departément of Ain. Until recently, there was a white line drawn on the road at one end of the bridge, with Savoie written on one side and France on the other. It turns out that there is a small but significant group which seeks regional autonomy for Savoie and Haute-Savoie. There is also a party, the Ligue savoisienne, or Savoyan League, which supports the independence of Savoy from France.

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(Go to the website and click on the timeline to get an idea of some ways in which the world has changed. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/themes/maps-interactive/maps-in-time.htm)

Separatism is not always a bad thing – the benefit of hindsight has told divorced couples and countries alike that two becoming one is often a bad idea from the outset – and the word should certainly not, in every instance, be lumped together with more divisive (as well as derisive) concepts like racism and religious segregation. But when the desire for separation is fuelled by nothing more considered than the fear of one’s neighbours, then surely some time spent getting to know one another would be better than time spent daubing blobs of mindless xenophobia on infrequently accessed public utilities.

Central Europe is currently in the throes of a heat wave and I noticed, on my Daily Walk earlier, that the cows are sheltering beneath the trees to avoid the burning sun, the cats are refusing to come out of the shade and even the scarecrows seem reluctant to be Outstanding in Their Fields. I’m hoping that the bigots, too, are hidden somewhere in the shadows, and that by the time they come out into the sunshine again they’ll have thrown away their masking tape and learned to play nicely with their little sisters and their foreign friends. Until then, though, I can only feel sorry for them… There shall be no shrimps on the barbie for them this weekend.

Give us this day our daily walk

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

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I don’t know what they’ve been putting in the water in England lately but I’m not sure that I like it. It seems that all the people that I could previously rely upon to be slovenly sofa-dwellers like me have taken to…eugh, I can barely stand to say the word…running. In fact, it’s not just in England. My six-year-old niece in Australia did a 5k run for charity the other day. Six years old! Five kilometres! What the hell’s going on? Where is everyone suddenly getting their energy and motivation from?!

OK, I have to admit that I’m a little bit inspired by all the activity I’m seeing around me. I draw the line at running, mind – my two friends whose running shoes jogged them straight into the operating theatre for major knee surgery last year are proof enough to me that running is just not natural – but I guess I can be driven enough to walk. In fact I have few excuses not to. Job? Er…no. Kids? Uh-uh. Dangerous highway on my doorstep? Not so much. All right then. Walking it is.

I know that two walks do not a habit make, but having donned my hiking boots yesterday and today and found a perfect one-hour walking circuit that starts and ends at my front door, I’ve realised what a fool I’ve been to neglect this opportunity for the last six months. It’s gorgeous out there! And I feel great when I get home! Why didn’t I do this before?!

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When we lived in East Jerusalem, our lovely apartment was six kilometres from town, so all the things that we spent our leisure time doing required at least a brief stint behind the steering wheel. (I did occasionally go walking around where we lived but the requisite consideration of the modesty of my attire followed by the inevitable attention of locals curious about the obvious outsider meant that my strolls were rarely leisurely.) So when M got a new job in Geneva, I was determined that we’d live right in the thick of things, so all I’d have to do to get to where I wanted to go was step out of the front door and start walking. We had that for a while, too. For a gorgeous four months, we lived in a lovely apartment in Jonction, Geneva, (so named because it’s the point at which the Rhone and Arve Rivers meet), and our feet and the occasional tram took us to all the lovely places we wanted to visit. But then, of course, this house came up for rent and all my plans for inner-city living went up the 18th-century French chateau chimney in a majestic plume of smoke.

People who regularly indulge in this exercise thing often say that physical activity gives them the time and space to think. I’ve never really got that – all I used to think about on the rare occasions that I panted and sweated my way around the gym in Jerusalem was the fact that I couldn’t wait to go home – but my new Daily Walk might, it seems, be a step in the right cognitive direction. For example, it occurred to me as I walked today that all the things that I want to do are still on my doorstep, it’s just that the things that I want to do have changed. Nice, huh?

I keep watching as my friends keep running further and their running times on given distances improve. Have no such expectations of me, please. My One-Hour Daily Walk, for as long as the scenery around here remains so utterly breath-taking, will remain my One-Hour Daily Walk, and will continue to start and finish at my front door. What I can promise, however, is some pictures of the ever-changing but always beautiful scenery, and a bottle of wine on the finish line to anyone who’s prepared to come and join me as I go up the hills and down the dales of this gorgeous corner of rural France.

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There’s no place like homes

“This is your home. This isn’t nowhere. And it’s not dull.”

Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller

It took some time for me to appreciate it but the truth is that the tiny corner of the world that I grew up in is rather beautiful. With a population density of one person per square kilometre, Western Australia has plenty of space to roam around in. And if Perth, the nearest metropolis to my hometown is arguably the most remote city on Earth, then Northam, where I spent my childhood is… Well, let’s just say a bit on the quiet side. Its isolation, gorgeous weather and easy security made it a great place to grow up and, so I thought when I was seventeen, an even better place to leave.

I was twenty years old when I graduated and had my first chance to do any independent travel and I was desperately keen to experience culture shock, a novel concept in a country whose landmass is a whopping 7,617,930 square kilometres. If you get in a car at my childhood home and drive for two hours (or even two days), the landscape might change (or possibility not, depending on which direction you’ve driven in), but the people, language and culture will be pretty much indistinguishable from the place where you started. There’s no shortage of beautiful things to see, but the vast distances between places means that you need a lot of time to see them.

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(Thanks to mypostalcards.wordpress.com for this image.)

So one of the things that I love about where I live now, in the southeast of France, an hour’s drive from the Swiss border, is the proximity to any number of extraordinary places. If culture shock is your kick, you really don’t need to go too far for a fix, and there are concepts of language and nationality here that would have blown my tiny landlocked Australian country kid’s mind if someone had gazed into a crystal ball 30 years ago and told me where I’d be laying my hat at the age of 42. For example, when my partner and I drove down to the French Riviera for four days over Easter, the fastest way of getting there, from our starting point in France, was through Italy. And if that didn’t blow my mind surely the fact that we live in France but my partner works in Switzerland would have. And the thought that Switzerland has four national languages would have done for me.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day in France and Switzerland (you know, the day when Jesus rose body and soul into heaven; anyone who wants to discuss secularism at this point should be reminded that we got a national holiday out of it), so, as ever, we seized the opportunity to point the car towards somewhere new. (Well, new for us, that is – the place that we ended up in was, according to the signs on the buildings, already rather well developed in the middle of the sixteenth century, another concept which is almost unfathomable to this child of the New World.)

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Biel/Bienne, a town so bilingual they named it twice, prides itself on its linguistic prowess. All of the street signs are in both French and German, six per cent of the population speaks Italian, and to cater for the tourists, many shop owners will also be sure to make themselves understood in English. The first place in which we tested the veracity of these claims to multilingualism left us unconvinced, as the waiter was dumb with incomprehension when we ordered café au lait and pain au chocolat. But the town earned its stripes when the waiter in the restaurant where we had lunch welcomed us in French, took our order in English, spoke to the customers at the next table in German and bid us a fond farewell in Italian, all without breaking a sweat.

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Biel/Bienne is a beautiful three-hour drive away but happily for us there are also sights of historical and natural significance much closer to our doorstep. On Saturday we had some visitors to Ruffieux (I’ve been told that Canadians are like Australians but with culture and this couple are the living proof!) and we decided to show them one or two of the sights around our current home. The four of us jumped into our Golf and drove the ten minutes down to the Lac du Bourget, which is the largest freshwater lake in France, and then around its shores to the Abbaye d’Hautecombe.

Churches are, of course, nothing new to me – my partner says that the years of church-going I endured as a child earned me a black belt in Catholicism, though I’ve long since rescinded my claims to the title – but the Abbaye is something pretty special. With its origins in a religious community that can be dated back to 1101 and its claim to fame as the burial place of the great and good of the House of Savoy, the Abbaye’s history is almost as impressive as its position right on the shores of the lake. It’s no wonder that, after being overwhelmed by the beauty and history of this place, we had to retreat for a drink at O’Lac, in the shadows of the Chateau de Chatillon, before heading back to our humble abode for drinks in the view of the setting sun.

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I’m so fantastically glad that this little piece of France is kind enough to welcome us as temporary residents. But home is, of course, a relative concept. These days I still have the privilege, whenever I go back to Australia, of being able to visit not just the town that I grew up in, but also the very same house, as Dad remains steadfastly in the abode that he and Mum built to accommodate their growing brood in the sixties. My nieces and nephews still swim in the pool that I practically lived in as a child, and when I sit in Dad’s study showing him how to navigate his way around the Internet, the passageway outside of the room is still dimly illuminated by the nightlight that used to quell my fear of the dark when I saw it from my childhood bed.

Dad objects these days when I refer to Northam as home; fair enough, I guess, as I haven’t lived there for 25 years. But for as long as that nightlight continues to burn outside of my old bedroom door, Dad’s driveway will always remain a place that I’ll set my satnav to return to.

 

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