Perfectly Happy

When I was a kid, I would sometimes catch myself in a moment where I would think “I am completely and utterly happy right now”. Strangely, I can’t remember a single one of these moments though I have wispy memories of our dog being involved one time, of an enchanted evening playing in a friend’s maze-like attic, and of a dressed up outing to the city with my mother to see the ballet. What I do remember is the feeling, a truly profound feeling, of everything being right in the world in a way that could simply not be improved upon. By my teens these moments had ceased. I hankered after them for a while, because this happiness, each a little bliss bomb, was like a drug. Gradually I almost forgot they ever existed.

I woke in the middle of the night a few nights ago and realised that I had one of these moments last summer. Last summer was special. Everything was infused with sepia as it happened. It was the last year where Chicago would be our home. We knew at Christmas we would be heading back to Australia after 6 and a half years. Everything was bittersweet.

In fact the whole year was a series of freeze frames. Walking home from the train station in the whisper white quiet world of a fresh snowfall. The first firefly of summer. The madness of our Halloween with friends. Every moment was inspected more closely, the awareness of enjoyment more heightened. This time with our friends and our adopted home so woefully finite.  In retrospect, the year was a gift.

The moment happened when we were in Michigan at our friends’ farm. A whole week of fun was drawing to a close. It was a hot day, there had been swimming and go carts, wood-fired pizza and song, but now only three of us were awake. My friend Emily, my daughter Petunia (as she has forever been known on these pages), and I. It would have been close to midnight and we were sitting outside. Emily and I drinking red wine. There was not a cloud in the sky, and being hundreds of miles from the nearest city, the stars were brilliant. The three of us sat at a table, leaning back in our chairs trying to spot a satellite or shooting star, and when our necks complained we decided to change position.

We got down on the ground and laid on the pavers beside the table. It had been such a hot day that the pavers were still very warm, a hot stone treatment under our bodies. After a few moments Emily got up and turned off every single source of light and walked carefully back to her spot.

We lay close, arms by our sides, like three french fries in the inky dark. Our chatter became softer as the dark saturated us. We watched the stars and became tiny. There were satellites, there were shooting stars, and just the three of us, alone in the universe.

It was perfect. michigan light

The House in Italy

It is in the countryside, close to a one horse town called San Carlo with its one bar, one tiny supermarket, and the Macelleria, butcher, with its white plastic strip curtains in the open doorway. It’s hot, and on still days the town has a rich soupy smell from volcanic earth and the foul river at the bottom of the hill. San Carlo sits on the side of a mountain, one of Vesuvius’ cohort, a view to the sea and Gaeta’s dramatic coastline in one direction, and endless olive farms, vineyards, hills, even a nuclear power plant, in every other direction. It is beautiful.

The house is 3 kilometres from town, marked only by a KM 8 sign, no street numbers necessary in rural Italy. Grand gates and a barking scrum of former strays guard the entrance. The house is old and big and solid. It could do with a spit and polish. Maria, who lives in the gatehouse, greets us and shows us around our ‘villa for a week’. Her English is broken. She strides into the house, up stone steps to a doorway and points “room”, then continues up the steps to more bedrooms – “room”, “room”, “room”. “Si” we say, “Grazie”, our more broken Italian in reply.

It’s huge and did I say old? Oil portraits of long lost brigadiers and ladies on every wall along with framed family crests and official documents. Antique tables are strewn with silver trinket dishes, candelabra, and photos. The photos seem all of a similar time frame, perhaps 1980’s? 90’s? A smiling family, older husband and younger wife, and their regulation son and daughter. No recent photos it seems. The clock is stuck.

The eyes in the portraits follow me around the room. One is of a serious man in a black cape, with a high black collar and glossy black hair. Are there Italian vampires? The spaghetti was laden with garlic that night.

On the first night one bedroom is summarily dismissed by the girls. There are two beds in the room and they are hard and small, with dusty pea green covers. They decide to share a bed in another, grander, bedroom (they are all grand). The lamps have been turned on in this room and now that is no longer needed it is time to turn them off.

It is important to note that the age of the house and its many past inhabitants has my imagination running. It is flapping around like tape escaped from an old film reel – incessant, uncontrollable, and pointless.  Because of this, I turn the lights off in a particular order, from furthest to the door to nearest, to enable a hasty exit. First the ensuite light. Then the lamp by the window. Next the lamp closest to the door, and then a quick step out of the room into the well lit hall. Well done, me!

The girls are ensconced in their bedrooms, clothes already strewn across royal red and blue carpet, iPhones and iPads adorning the beds. I do not infect them with my imagination. They are getting ready for a swim in the spectacular pool in the garden and are happy.

I pass the unwanted bedroom on my way back downstairs. As I near I see light reflected from the doorway onto the terracotta tiles of the wide hall. I slow down and move closer to the other side of the hall. A lamp is on between the two small beds. It was dark when I left, I am sure. But maybe not. It has been two big travel days to get to this remote part of Campania. I am probably weary.

The living room is opulent but tired. Candy-striped satin couches, pink and cream, overstuffed and piled with cushions, but ripped, stuffing coming out one arm. And holes from mustachioed pipe smokers of the past.

There is a guest book with over a decade of reviews from Germans, Russians, the Danes, and the English. A heavy book with thick pages, it sits on a pulpit-high wooden pedestal against the wall.  I read a few reviews to settle my poltergeist qualms. Other people have stayed here. They had a good time! But then I notice that the most recent page has been torn out. Roughly.  It was just the hard beds, nothing more sinister. Right?


I fell out of Gorilla

Two years ago, at the end of my first winter in Chicago, which happened to be the most brutal polar vortexy winter in decades, I realised I had put on a few extra kilos (pounds!) than normal. And had reached a point where I really didn’t feel happy with how I looked. 

I was used to living in a climate where you’re outdoors all year round and inherently more active.  In Sydney, winter isn’t really winter. 

Anyhow, the thing is I decided I needed, really needed, to do something to get more active. Even though exercise had never been part of my world other than “hit and a giggle” tennis games with friends. 

And so I started Yoga. Crazy hot vinyasa yoga. 

The first time I stepped into the room on a still arctic March day in 2014 I felt transported back to Bali. It was hot and humid, wonderful soaking heat that warmed your bones, and I lay down on my yoga mat feeling excited now as well as a little scared. 

Within a month I was going 2-3 times a week. I had managed to conquer Vasisthasana, side plank; had fallen gracelessly forward out of Gorilla (ouch); and had yet to be able to “feel” the muscles in my legs – early on a teacher told me to tense the muscles in my back leg while in Warrior II and I was like “hmmm how, I don’t think I have any!!” (I can now!)

Fast forward 2 years and I’m still doing yoga multiple times a week and I’ve added spin classes as well.

So what’s the point you’re asking? The point is, well there’s a few. 

One point is that I had always been pretty terrified of starting exercising. It seemed like a  private club I didn’t have access to. There were languages I didn’t understand, clothing I didn’t have (or know what to get), and I felt that everyone else knew everything and I didn’t. Which is a horrible reason for not doing something. 

I know now that you just have to show up. That’s it. Show up once. Don’t expect much of yourself (and see what everyone else is wearing so you can get it for next time!). In short show up and be kind to yourself. 

The second point was unexpected and probably my favorite (autocorrect keeps removing the “u” Aussie readers!) thing about starting to do yoga. For the first time in my life I felt really in my body. Felt ownership of my body, pride in my body. I realised that I had lived my life in my head and had never really taken charge of my mortal self. Which is bad bad bad for a number of reasons – you’re far more likely to treat your body well if you’re grounded in it!

And then there’s stress. Exercise helping with stress is written about all the time in the press. It’s totally true. I feel calm and clear after a good workout, it’s why I usually go in the morning as it sets the stage for a great day. Then at the other end of the day I sleep like a baby as I’m physically tired as well as mentally. 

So if you’re not in your body, get in it! You won’t regret it. 

Ma Belle

Hello folks. I have to warn you that I am shamelessly commandeering my poor neglected blog for totally personal purposes.  It is my blog after all.

Today is a big day for my best friend.  It is her 40th birthday!  I don’t know how the hell this happened because I remember my parents turning 40 and the “over the hill/life starts at” cards.  It seems pretty bizarre to me that she (and I) are joining this cohort.  But, so it goes, as the esteemed Kurt Vonnegut would say.

We’ve come a long way, Michelle and I.  From our first meeting in the last year of high school where, although the term Frenemy was far from being invented, frenemies we certainly were.  We liked the same boy, Ben was his name – we were girls then ourselves – and as such real friendship was certainly not on the table.

Fast forward a couple of years and we were living separate lives in Sydney.  I was in Newtown living with a mutual friend and she was in Roseville in a household of sports-crazed guys.

Our mutual friend, Paul, found it inconceivable that we were not friends and set us up on a friend date. My first and only friend date turned out to be very successful. The short bus trip from the city to Kuleto’s for cocktails in Newtown, turned into a snorting with laughter affair within minutes.

And so we quickly became fast friends, BFF’s even, as my daughters would say, discovering our mutual love of live music, all music really.  And books and food and drink…!

Oooh I’m feeling all nostalgic now. Sniff sniff!!

Michelle was there for my marriage (at 23!), first baby at 25, and because we were 25 we took it all in our stride.  A Friday night party at our place would lead to a sleepover on the mattress on the floor with a 6 month old crawling all over her at 6.00am in the morning. Despite her sore head.

We’ve seen many friends and boyfriends enter and leave our lives.  Good jobs and no jobs and terrible jobs, which have over the years led to crazy great careers for both of us (I’m so proud of her).

And now we live on opposite sides of the world. Not forever though. And it doesn’t matter at all.  So although I would love to organise a(n impossible) birthday dinner for her with Johnny Depp, Audrey Hepburn, Bernard Fanning, Khaled Hosseini and a few other select people, it won’t be happening just yet.

Happy Birthday Michelle! You are the Crabb to my Sales, or is it the Sales to my Crabb? I’m not sure. I hope we get to celebrate together soon. xxx


24 Tips for Australians visiting the USA

So, the first time I visited the US, I had a fabulous time but came home complaining about the terrible food, and most especially, the weird orange cheese.  To help you avoid this experience, here are my tips!

1. Don’t drink soft drink! There is no sugar in soft drink in the US. Yes! No sugar.  The sweetener is high fructose corn syrup which tastes weird (to me), makes me feel a little ill, and is decried by many as being very very bad for you!

2. Tipping.  Tipping is so tricky when you come from Australia as we just don’t do it. When you live in the US, the only times you tip are when you are eating at a sit-down restaurant/cafe (20% on the pre-tax amount, remember this is largely paying your waiter’s wage), and in taxis. Generally, if you’re sitting down in a venue, you should tip when you leave. You don’t tip a take-away coffee at Starbucks.  You don’t tip a ticket for anything.  At hotels you need to tip bell boys etc, which is why I generally take my bags myself. Oh and if you’re travelling as a fairly large party, check your bill carefully as sometimes with groups of 6 or more they add gratuity (the tip!) to the bill and it would be very very easy to tip on top of the tip.

3. Restaurants have a funny hierarchy here.  Often you will get sat at your table by one person, offered drinks by another, and you order with another person again.  If you ask the drinks person for a menu item they will usually tell you they will send your server over to you. Just go with it.

4. At fancy restaurants, there is often a bathroom-attendant.  Pop a dollar note in your pocket when you use the loo so you don’t feel like a jerk when the attendant hands you a towel to dry your hands after washing!

5. While on loo’s, American’s never call the room you visit the “toilet”.  They think that’s kinda gross because to them it is just the thing you sit on to do your business.  It’s the bathroom, restroom or washroom! And they don’t say loo.  But they think it’s funny.

6. Americans LOVE Australians and Australia.  They will share with you where they went and when.  Be gracious, when someone tells you they visited a couple of years ago and drove from Cairns to Melbourne, it’s best not to say that Australia is pretty much the same size as continental USA as they will think you are an asshole who is implying they are ignorant. I know this because it happened to me today.  Oops.

7.  Need a doctor?  Firstly, if you don’t travel to the US with travel insurance you’re a bloody idiot.  If you’ve got a minor ailment, look for “Immediate Care” in your vicinity, these are walk-in clinics.  Really minor things can often be dealt with at chemist chains such as Walgreens/Duane Reade and CVS. You can buy antibiotic cream (Neosporin is a brand) off the shelf at chemists in the US.  It’s also worth noting that paracetamol is called Acetaminophen if you need to find it!

8. There are lots and lots of healthy food options in the USA.  Chains like Native Foods (vegan), Freshii, Protein Bar, Pret-A-Manger (all over the world) are everywhere.  To help you find good options, it’s a great idea to download Yelp when you visit the US and search for restaurants/food near you.  Michelin has guides for many US cities too if you are serious about your food (you might need to book before you leave home).  Whole Foods is also amazing, it’s a supermarket that sells awesome organic fruit and veggies.  It also has takeaway food and often good coffee.

9. Coffee.  So the problem for us is that Americans generally drink drip-style coffee which we don’t understand or appreciate since we’re in the Italian-style coffee fan club.  For me, I find it hard to find a good coffee unless I’m in NYC. In Chicago, Intelligentsia is pretty good. Generally you’re best asking for a latte.

10. Bread.  Unfortunately most places put sugar in their bread in the USA (yuck!).  Sourdoughs or “Italian style” bread tend to be your best bet if you’re buying a loaf to take back to your hotel room.

11. Bad food is so so good in the US.  So while you’re in the US, you have to eat some barbecue (ribs etc), oh and Mexican food which is generally so woeful in Australia is, unsurprisingly, totally amazing in the US.

12. Starbucks and McDonalds have free wi-fi.  Buy a cuppa and figure out where you are, upload those photos to Facebook!

13. When are you shopping in the US, the price on the tag is not the price you pay.  I’ve been here for a year and a half and I still get tripped up.  The sales tax you pay depends on where you live but can be up to 10% on top of the ticketed price.

14. Americans seem to think that toilet stalls should have huge gaps on each side of the door so you have zero privacy.  It’s weird.

15. Most American clothing chains have great sales online so sign up for their emails before you leave and see if you can get deliveries to a place you’re staying just before you get there!  My kids like brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch and you can get prices online that never seem to happen in the stores.

16. If you can’t shop before you arrive, visit the Outlet Mall in the city you’re visiting.  In my experience they are really great.

17. If you can’t get to an Outlet Mall and want to bargain shop, find a Nordstrom Rack (outlet stores for the department store Nordstrom), TJ Maxx or Marshalls.  All sell great quality brands at bargain prices, they’re often located in the city too which makes it easy when you’re travelling.

18. If you are of the female variety, I highly recommend visiting Anthropologie stores.  Not cheap but beautiful clothes and homewares. I love love love this store.

19. Uber is huge in the US and gives you a cheap way to get around. Get the app! Although taxis are much cheaper here anyway.

20. This may be my Chicago experience talking, but research the neighbourhoods in the cities you’re visiting.  There’s likely to be great areas with really interesting boutique shopping, eating and cultural experiences – see a bit of the real city.

21. Despite all the press about the security getting into America, it’s pretty straightforward.  Customs officials generally barely gaze at the ESTA visa (get an ESTA visa before you go, it takes two seconds online!), and if they ask what you’re doing in the US, I generally find they’re interested in a chat rather than anything ominous! Getting through customs at Dallas or LA can take an age though if they’re busy, just deal with it, you’ll get there eventually…

22. If you have frequent flyer points, use them on domestic US flights because the taxes are just so little you won’t believe it.  Our family of five flew on points from Chicago to New York and back, and the taxes for all our flights totalled $40!

23.  Go and see a big sporting event in the US.  The NBA, NFL, NHL, whatever your flavour, Americans love their sport like nothing else and often the half-time entertainment is worth it alone!  Living in Chicago, you simply cannot help but become involved with their sports teams (Go the Cubs! Blackhawks! Bulls! Bears!). For any Chicagoans who stumble upon this, I live down the road from the Cubs so it was never going to be the White Sox.

24. Check what concerts are on in the cities you’re visiting while you’ll be there.  You may be in for a treat.  Websites such as Time Out in each city are helpful. While you are in town, check Hottix, Halftix or whatever it’s called in the city you’re visiting (Google it!) to get discounted tickets for the days you are there.

Oh and the orange cheese is called American cheese.  Ask for swiss, cheddar, anything else!

A Life’s Work (fiction!)

It’s the perception that’s important.  It’s shaping up be to my life’s primary recorded work so I feel it imperative to make it entertaining. And, of course, impressive.

The fact that I hate Spain and simply loathe Gaudi is immaterial. Towering Catalan gothic architecture photographs really well. And how often do most people get to Spain?  Exactly.

It’s important to eat well.  I’m totally over truffles, in fact the smell of them right now makes me dry heave.  But they’re expensive and you can only get them in the right places.  A well-placed photo of fresh truffles grated over a housemade tagliatelle really hits the nail on the head.

Sharon? I know she’s mentioned a lot.  No, I do like her, I do.  It’s not just the free invites to party of the week #LeonardoDiCaprio #TrumpTower.  She can’t carry a conversation? Really? I honestly haven’t noticed that.  Well maybe she’d just had her lips done, it makes it hard for her to talk for a few days.

It’s a nice idea to pepper a few positive affirmations around the place. It’s not like I’m Buddhist or anything but I feel it helps me appear more well-rounded. Very rarely I’ll share a charity piece, I don’t want to people to think I’m moping around worrying about the world.

Yes, my mother is ill. Yes, very. Christ, you think I’m going to post that? I’m off to Paris this weekend. It stinks at this time of year, dog shit everywhere as well, but it’s Paris you know. Nothing beats an Eiffel selfie.

 Sorry? Oh yes, I’ll visit her soon. It’s only been a month or two.

No, I’m not lonely, are you kidding me. Look at my life, it’s fabulous. Just scroll down a little more. Doesn’t it look great.

Smooth Criminal

So yesterday I’m walking home from the train station and I’m only a few steps behind a fellow commuter.

Prior to my trek I had removed my clippy cloppy heels and donned unattractive but very practical and comfortable winter boots with thick rubber soles.

As I headed swiftly home I realized that even though I was walking at speed, my footfall was almost undetectable, and that the fellow in front of me had no clue I was walking only just behind him.

Which immediately made me think.

“Why! These would be fantastic boots if I wanted to rob somewhere!” I thought.

“I could break into a house completely undetected. They make NO sound at all on the ground! They’d be perfect!”

To which I added “But the laces are long, they would possibly swing into something and make a noise (Perhaps they’d graze a laser beam?! Really, what was I thinking!) SO I would have to tie the laces firmly around the tops of the boots to ensure they don’t flail about”.

Which then led to “But this outfit wouldn’t do, what else would I wear?”.

At this point, the halo-ed creature on my other shoulder pointed out that these musings were completely ridiculous. I don’t rob anything ever.

And so I continued to walk home, sans criminal intentions.

A Magical Evening

Matilda London

Matilda London

This December just gone my family spent a week in London. We had a blast. London was in full Christmas mode and we enjoyed the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, travelled out to the Harry Potter Studios, and visited the Tower of London.

In the midst of this, we had a magical evening. Now to be clear, this was planned to be a great night out but in my experience such planning can be hit or miss. And there were additional unexpected events which added to the magic.

The planned portion was an indulgent evening. We had booked front row tickets to the musical Matilda (based on the Roald Dahl book of the same name) with dinner prior at a restaurant nearby. We had been looking forward to this evening for quite some time.

That afternoon in London it started to rain. It was an uninspiring start. Because of this we hailed a black cab outside Hamleys to take us to the theatre area.

As the driver went to turn into the street we needed he realised it was closed. “You’ll have to walk from here” he said, and we all tumbled out into the drizzle.

We quickly gathered that the reason for the the road closure was a Christmas shopping night around the Seven Dials area. The Seven Dials is where seven little cobblestone streets meet and there is a large pillar with sun dials in the middle of the road junction.

The rain stopped and the magical evening started.

The road closures created the atmosphere they always do for me: the glee of strolling calmly along roads across which you would usually dart.

We headed down the street for an early dinner at the restaurant and then headed back to the shopping night.

The first magical thing happened to my husband. At this point in December 2013 he had mostly been away from Australia since February. There were many things he missed from home and one of them was Coopers beer which is almost impossible to find when you’re off Australian shores.

So, as we strolled along the roads that night we walked past a newly opened Industrie store. And on a bench just inside the door he caught sight of an icy cold bottle of Coopers. It had a halo of light around it. Well not really, all I knew is that my husband disappeared off the street in front of us and when we entered the shop he was happily nursing a bottle of Coopers Sparkling Ale.

It was his golden ticket.

After this beer was polished off we returned to the street, ducked into another shop where the girls each received a cup of rich, warm hot chocolate delivered straight from a saucepan and then found ourselves standing in the middle of the Seven Dials junction.

There were a lot of people milling around and we had only been standing there for 60 seconds or so, considering our next move, when from nowhere a sound system started. “I don’t want a lot for Christmas” came the first bar and out of the crowds there appeared 3 then 10 and then finally 30 dancers. It was of course “All I Want For Christmas”. And we were right in the middle of this flash mob.

It was absolutely fabulous.

The whole crowd stopped and stared and probably stood there with stupid grins on their faces just like the one I was sporting. It was ridiculously festive.

As the flash mob ended a time check resulted in a swift entry into the theatre for Matilda, and the last magic of the night.

We were front row. The show was perfect despite being in range of the fearsome Miss Trunchbull’s flying spittle. Our three girls were spellbound. I also loved it, being a fan of both Roald Dahl and Tim Minchin (who wrote the music and lyrics) it was pretty much a sure thing.

For the rest of the holiday our youngest daughter, Petunia, would often whisper in my ear “Some people say I’m a little bit naughty”.

Which is, of course, true.

Stitches and Needles

Do you remember ever thinking, when you were a small creature, that one day you would be grown up and that everything would change?

In my head, it was a fixed line, a line I would walk over one day and Wham! Bam! I would be a grown up.

And what a fantastic day this would be!

First of all, on this first glorious day of my new adult life, I would no longer be afraid of needles. Wouldn’t that be great!

“Yeah Doc, just stick it in my arm, I’m really not bothered” I would say airily with a grand smile.

Oh and if I had some nasty accident with a knife and needed stitches, the thought of which nearly made me faint, then that would be fine too. On this day, this day of all days when I had become a grown up, I would no longer care.

“Stick that needle through my skin and sew me up and I will be on my way” I would say, and I would mean it.

What a fine thing it would be to be a grown up.

Life would be so much easier.

Monday Morning: A True Story

She sways slightly.

One girl on a train carriage filled to the brim with over-heated, down-jacketed commuters.  Those sitting pretty around her look up in horror.  They register the bloodless face, the sway becoming deeper and know they have to break the commuters’ code of non-communication.  

The two women sitting closest share a pregnant glance.  “What do we do?” and “Do I really have to stand up on this blasted train?” and “Which one of us is it gonna be?”

One takes the lead.  “Would you like a seat” she says, falteringly.  As the girl’s sway becomes deeper and she appears on the precipice of becoming wholly horizontal, the woman jumps up.  “Here, sit down, sit down” she says, guiding the girl downwards to safety.

The girl sits, head cast down, pale and fearful.

Others pipe up.  

“Has this happened to you before?” ventures a classic paperback reading fellow dressed older than his years.

The girl looks up, huge brown eyes confused.  “No” she says.

“Do you feel dizzy or faint?”

“Both” she says.

The man returns to his book.

One woman, the one who did not stand, fumbles in her bag for some water.  “Here have some water.  Do you want a granola bar?”

The girl’s arm reaches out for the water and she takes a few slow sips.  “I have a granola bar in my bag” she replies.

She sits quietly.  The man continues reading.  The other women go back to their phones.

The carriage relaxes back into comfortable silence.

As the train draws into the city, the girl rises with the throng and continues her way to work.