Overnight the seasons changed. Winter, it arrived on a cold wind.

The evening before, I stood at the open door, watching as the first chilly breaths of the storm blew the last dried leaves from the trees. Giant, wet snowflakes joined the leaves and together they whirled in a wintery waltz.

I arrived here in late autumn; tucked away in my mother’s cabin of a house in the little woods, I watched the world around me Novembering.

No-vem-ber /nō-`vem-bǝr/ v. to change season from autumn to winter in Iowa.


Bare branches trace the sky and a lone leaf twirls and flutters its way to join its kind on the ground. My footsteps on the lush carpet of leaves stir up the aroma of autumn, gaseous compounds exhaled by the decaying leaves. Rounding the corner of the house, I startle the matriarch of a deer herd making their daily tour of the property. I stop and hold my breath. Still, her white flag tail flicks up in semaphore warning. She turns and, as one, the group goes bounding through the trees, the white fluff of their tails like the bouncing dot above the lyrics of a televised 1950s family holiday special.

I turn and go the other way, to continue my stroll among the trees. Painterly dabs of blue jay or red cardinal stand out in the surrounding dull brown and grey. Overhead, the geese fly in V formation. Stragglers hurry to catch up. Wild turkeys steal through the brush, looking over their shoulders.


Driving through the countryside I pass pale ochre fields, fallow after the harvest. Burnished copper and bronze clumps of native prairie grasses and brown yarrow line the roadside. Although the reds and golds of leaf-peeping time are past, this time of year, this season, sends a thrill through me. My skin tingles and my heart beats faster as I look around open-mouthed at this world readying itself for bed.

I remember, as a girl, how I loved to tramp through the shorn fields and empty lots with my little poodle. Fingers trailing the dried milkweed pods, their silky fluff still clinging. Saturday mornings alone with my thoughts and the nip in the air. Early morning chill giving way to the warmth of the sun. But that was another time, another place.


I wake to a frosty, white wonderland. The outdoor world tugs at me, the oaks and ash with their snow laden branches, the pines with boughs weighed down. A perfect, pristine, untouched snow-globe world. A thought, a word, forms in my mind. Play. Like a warmth spreading through my body, this word – play – morphs into a feeling of joy and surprise.


I have no choice but to pull on my boots and head outside. Mom keeps a stash of gloves for every purpose in the  cabinet by the cold and dusty wood-burning stove. I’ve found a thick wool pair, much better suited to the snow than the fingerless mitts I brought to this winter world from the land of summer.

My lungs suck in the cold, clean air. The scent has changed now, the leaves with their sharp aroma buried. The snow crunches under my feet as I make the first human footprints in this crystalline carpet, huge and awkward next to the cloven heart tracks of the deer. My toes already are chilling in fashion boots, impractical in the snow.

I haven’t seen any birds visiting the feeder I placed here days before the storm came through, yet when I check it, I find it empty. Not wanting the feathered souls to go hungry, I fill it again.

I look around, feeling the stillness and wondering how one begins to play. I make a snowball. The snow is good and wet. Memories come back. Dry flakes will repel each other like the positive ends of two magnets. I bend again, my arthritic hips complaining, place my snowball on a fresh patch and roll. It picks up the snow carpet through to the earth beneath, the crumpled sodden leaves there littering the clean snow ball. A dark track now mars the white carpet. I’ve made a mess of the this perfect ice world. I feel a too familiar irritation pricking at me.

I pick the leaves off, pack on some more snow and place my frosty man’s bottom upon a tree stump pedestal – the same stump where I found that turkey tail fungus years ago. I repeat my movements for the middle, the head.

“A corn cob pipe and a button nose.” The tune flits through my mind. I don’t have these. I remember the baby carrots languishing in the bottom of the fridge.

“Two eyes made out of coal.” I spy the grill still standing under a tree, away from the house, where my son stood grumbling last summer, grilling our independence hamburgers. Or was it chicken? Maybe brats.

I brush away the snow and lift the lid. Ash. Wait, no. There in the corner are two unburnt bits. Setting the first charcoal into the snowman’s face, it crumbles to dust. I do the next. He looks like a hollow-eyed wraith from a horror film. His body is dusted in charcoal.

That tendon at the back of my neck is twitching again.

Play, remember? You’re supposed to be playing. This is not a big deal. Just brush off the charcoal dust.

It smears.

OK. Breathe. You’re having fun. Get some fresh snow and pack it on. The snow has debris in it. Pick it out. He’s lopsided. It’s OK. Paint some white snow around his eyes. OK.

He needs a mouth. I find some bits of wood chips, probably left here decaying since the tree was chopped down. I scatter more birdseed over and around my snowman, imagining such a pretty sight.

Before me stands a snaggletoothed hillbilly of a snowman, but he’s my creation. I snap his photograph and retreat to the warmth of the house.


Bundled under the blankets, I sit up in my bed, writing. Through the second floor window, I see a deer colored lump out by the train tracks. Actually, the lump is the same color as the trees surrounding it, only softer, rounder.

Silently – to my ears – I peel back the covers and tip-toe to the window. The lump moves, raises his head. I count one, two, three, four… maybe five points. It’s hard to tell through the brush and branches. Do the small bits near the base count as points?

I wonder, why it is I never find shed antlers on Mom’s property. The deer are here in all seasons. Do two-legged creatures creep around unbeknownst to my mother, harvesting the riches of her little woods, the antlers and morels? She said she heard someone outside the other morning, before dawn. A man’s voice. A woman’s. Someone said, “well ok then,” and a car door shut.

I turn and reach for my camera. The stag stands, looks around, and pauses. He turns his head again. Freezes. He knows I’m watching. He takes silent, excruciatingly slow steps following the train tracks, stops to paw at the snow, looking for a snack. I hold by breath, hoping for a clear shot. Mentally I urge him to step into the clearing and approach the house.

He stays by the tracks, as is his habit. I only ever see him there; he doesn’t travel the daily circuit with the does and their young: the patch of trees at the west side of the house, the frozen lake of the bird bath by the front door, then across the drive and down the slope that runs to the road below. Once or twice I’ve seen a younger buck with fewer points traveling with the females.

The stag turns back toward the tracks. “No,” I whisper. “Come back.” He pauses again. Ears flick. Then, a sound heard only to him startles him into action. He moves from frozen to bounding away in an instant. Across the tracks he goes, through the trees, and crosses the field in the distance.


The sun sets earlier each day as we approach the solstice. It’s afternoon and the shadows are already gathering in the front room where I stand folding a load of towels. Mom sits at the table, gazing out the bay window.

“He’s eating your bird seed,” she says.

Expecting a chickadee or cardinal, I look up. A young deer, probably a yearling, is licking up seed from the bird feeder like ice cream from a cone. He looks up, watching my shadow as I move toward the window with my camera. He turns, nuzzles Mr. Snowman’s carrot nose, licks up more seed. He wanders off through the snow.


Through the window I spy two fawns chasing each other like happy dogs. They run a circuit from the backyard to the side and around again. They’ve worn a track into the earth. Their mothers stand by, nibbling at tree bark, and jumping out of the way when the wayward cannonballs come too close. The fawns pause to rest, check in with mama deer. They eye each other. Then one takes off running and the other charges after.


When I wake, frozen filagrees cover my bedroom windows. Each day a new pattern. The morning sun massages its way through the icy fog. The roadsides are lined now with windswept drifts. The fields are tweeded with snow woven amongst the chaff and clumps of dirt. An osprey sits high in a treetop, watching for dark shapes to skitter across the snow field. Inflatable snowmen and reindeer pop up in front of farm houses. Evergreen wreaths deck the fence posts. In the distance, sculptural columns of smoke or steam – I don’t know – hang motionless in the frigid air. Passing motorists raise gloved hands to give the Iowa wave.


Another small storm came through, a brief whiteout, enough to turn the little woods once more into a snow globe.

Just like that, this winter world is Decembering.

Looking Forward to a Slow Year

Another year has whooshed by. I feel like I stepped out for intermission, and when I came back the show was over. As this new year begins, I’m contemplating how I can stretch the time out, engage fully and be present through the passage of days. I’ve been thinking about this idea of slow living a lot. We have slow food, slow stitching, even slow travel. I want to live slow. I wondered if like the other slow movements slow living was also a thing.

Lo and behold! It’s a hashtag, and apparently has been for quite some time. Since moving to Australia four years ago, I’ve seriously unplugged from the internet, as is evidenced by my infrequent blog posts. I do a quick morning scroll through Facebook to see what my US or traveling friends are up to, then a glance at Instagram for a dose of pretty pictures, and that’s pretty much it. Rarely, I will get sucked into Pinterest, and I almost never read blogs anymore, unless there is some particular subject I’m wanting to know more about, such as slow living.

I started poking around to see what others were saying about the subject. According to Wikipedia, “Slow living is a lifestyle emphasizing slower approaches to aspects of everyday life.” That sounds good. Then I started looking for those hashtags that I usually ignore. That’s where I found the insta-version of slow living. This version seems to be about arranging your life just so, in order to be instagramable and beautiful, having the hip products and accessories to place in those photos. It’s more consumerism. One more ideal to live up to. Another good impression to be made for a faceless internet world. Something else to stress over.

Although it’s become a fad, I do believe that on some level it is based on a longing for a simpler, quieter way of being. People just got waylaid again by that need for outside approval.

My own idea of slow living is about ridding my life of the distracting clutter, not just the physical clutter that the blog posts tell us to tackle, although that is definitely a part of it, but the mental noise. It’s about defining my priorities and values, focusing on them, and letting go of the pointless activities that don’t support my goals. It’s losing the “shoulds” nagging me in my brain to live up to the perceived expectations of others.

It’s about being still.

My lesson in stillness began last May, while I wiled away the quiet hours inhaling the scent of my newborn granddaughter.

And then I lost sight of it again.

Upon returning home from ten sedentary weeks in the US, I was over-eager to get back to my exercise routine. A lapse in judgement led me to think I should take up running as well. I was very aware that this choice to run was based on a desire to metaphorically run away. I didn’t really want to run away; I simply wanted that feeling of breaking free from whatever was holding me back in life.

But, no. There would be no running anywhere. The Universe, Fate, my arthritic hips – something – stepped in to say, “yeh neh, you’re not going anywhere, mate. Sit right down and have a think about life for the next few months.” (read this with an Aussie accent)

I found myself mostly housebound from late September through mid December. Unless my husband drove me somewhere, I was staying put. No more treks about town, no hopping on trains to go explore this suburb or that. I was angry and frustrated and scared. I had lots of FOMO. I was going stir crazy and had to make the most of this enforced stillness or else fall into a depression. I was quite surprised that didn’t happen.

My doting husband took exceptional care of me. It was a marvel to sit back and allow myself to be cared for, attended to. This unfortunate circumstance that hobbled me allowed him to fill the space that opened up when I sat quiet. Through these long months he has been there, patient, kind, loving. The stillness made room for a new intimacy to grow between us.

The quiet time has allowed me to see what is truly important to me. I have had to learn that it’s ok to be idle and do nothing. I tend to buy into the busyness and productivity model of what a successful life looks like. I feel lazy reading books, even though it’s an activity absolutely in alignment with my priorities. Through intensive reading I both expand my mind and I improve my writing skills. Spending time on the internet researching Slow Living induced feelings of guilt, of wasting time. Doing even less can make me nervous indeed. In his book The Importance of Living Lin Yutang tells us that great ideas are born from an idle state. He writes about the art of lying in bed doing nothing. He says to curl up with big soft pillows and to place your arms behind your head. “In this posture any poet can write immortal poetry, any philosopher can revolutionize human thought, and any scientist can make epoch-making discoveries.”

As the weeks pass, I am becoming aware that as well as being allowed to spend time doing nothing, I also don’t have to do everything. The world isn’t falling apart and I feel happy. My new goal for life has become to live it, to embrace joy and fully engage with life, not rush through it. As I regain my mobility, I want to be careful not to lose sight of this new goal. I have another tendency and that is to get all excited about an idea, and then forget to actualize it.

In the midst of slowing down, I still have goals I wish to achieve. I still have a house to clean, a novel to finish editing. My challenge is to accomplish these things without driving myself crazy again. I want to be flexibly organized. I want rhythm, not routine. In her A-Z List of Simple Living, Brooke McAlary of Slow Your Home says of being organized, “You need to leave space for life to happen.” She also talks about the concept of “tilting.” This was a major takeaway for me. I’m always trying to achieve balance in my life, my days. “I’ll devote an hour to this and an hour to that and an hour to…” but there were never enough hours in a day or a week to do everything I thought I should be doing. McAlary says balance is a myth, that instead it’s ok to tilt toward one priority or another as the circumstances call for. Tilt the other way another day.

Right before my hips went out, I had jumped on the Bullet Journal bandwagon. I did see enough of the internet to hear of that particular thing. Mostly my entries in the journal have been about healing and pain levels. I’m ready now to delve a bit deeper into the process and use the method to stay on task and attain my goals. Sometimes I believe that the tools that are supposed to help us focus can become a distraction in themselves. Another bit of pop culture that has sifted through to my consciousness is the extreme decorating of Bullet Journal pages that people do. It seems like another time sink. Although, I can see how for some this could be a meditative practice and if that aligns with their values, then good for them. For me, there is the danger of it becoming another stress inducer as I buy into the belief that my BuJo needs to be pretty.

If I can follow the basic principles of the Bullet Journal method, I suspect it will be a great help. In his book The Bullet Journal Method Ryder Carroll says it is in the intersection of productivity and mindfulness where you find intentionality. Living with intention is what I believe slow living is about. Ryder says that “mindfulness is the process of waking up to see what’s right in front of us. It helps you become more aware of where you are, who you are and what you want.” The Bullet Journal is meant to be a method of bringing your actions into alignment with your values and priorities.

Both McAlary and Carroll talk about “knowing your why”. Why do I want to slow down and simplify my life? Because I want to be here now. I want to embrace life and live abundantly. I want to witness the small wonders, like watching videos over and over of my granddaughter laughing, or seeing the morning sun drifting through the kitchen window. I want to focus on my priorities of health, marriage, writing, family and friend relationships, and exploring this beautiful world.

As I move forward into this new year, I aim to take with me the lessons in stillness that I’ve been learning over the last few months. I’m going to make a card to hang where I see it often. It will list my values and priorities, and I will make a habit of reading it often and asking myself, “are my actions right now in alignment with these values and priorities?” I’m going to sit here at my desk, stare out the window at the swaying eucalypts, watching the antics of the butcher birds and magpies, and just be.

When Living in Australia Is Not a Day at the Beach

Storm over Bondi November 2015

This is a vent, a rant. Given the dark days we’re living in, if you don’t want any more negativity, and I don’t blame you one bit for that, go ahead and slip off this page. Come back another day when I have lovelier things to say. Today I’m going to grizzle and whinge.

I’ve been basically housebound for a good two weeks now. I’m going stir crazy. It all began with a stupid mistake I made, that was then exacerbated by a physio who fancied herself a physician. I’ve been to a real physician now and she instructed me not to go back to that particular physio, or leg wrencher.

Being stuck here at home gives me lots of time to ruminate on the glories of renting in Australia. We had our share of troubles back at our first rental. The place was riddled with mold, sheets of water poured down the entire expanse of upstairs walls when it rained and the property manager told us to put a bucket under it. There was the electric shocking shower issue that we were simply told wasn’t in fact happening, although we’d both experienced it several times.

When we moved into this place three years ago, we were convinced that it would be a different experience. At first, both the owner and property manager seemed approachable and responsive to issues. That was the first week.

A few months later, they did the first walk-through inspection to be sure we weren’t trashing the joint. They sent me a form to fill out with any repairs that needed to be attended to. I listed the loose stone in the front stoop that seems dangerous, the oven that only works on 4 of the 9 settings, and a couple other minor issues. They did send a guy out to look at the oven. He said, “just use a different setting.” That’s great as long as I don’t ever want to broil anything, or simply use the basic bottom burner oven function instead of air circulated heat. Air circulated is great for some things, but not all. He did also say that the door to the oven was broken and should be replaced. Not a one of the issues with the oven or otherwise were addressed.

About three months before the lease was ending, they started pestering us to sign a new lease. We didn’t plan on leaving yet, so weren’t too fussed, even if it seemed a little odd. According to Australian law, we only have to give two weeks notice to vacate.

That following summer we had some issues with the central air. They did send someone out, who told us that what he did was a patch and that the unit needed to be replaced and he would advise the owner of this, as he had done on a couple of previous trips out before we moved in. It wasn’t replaced.

When the first cold air of winter blew through, we turned the heat on and the fan went kerplunk kerplunk. They said they’d send someone out to look at it. They sent an electrician over to change a light bulb instead. We didn’t need a light bulb. For the next few weeks they kept asking us to send photos of the problem. The unit is up in the ceiling somewhere.

They finally replaced the unit just in time to turn it to AC. Granted, winters here are nothing like in Utah, but it is cold and wet and it’s painful to shave the legs when covered with goosebumps.

This year, on the evening of April 17, we were running the dishwasher, when we heard a loud pop. Once I switched the breaker back on I saw dark smoke started billowing out of the machine. I reported it the next morning. They replaced the dishwasher in late May.

There was the leaky toilet earlier this year. Small ponds were forming at the base. I may or may not have accused my husband of peeing on the floor. But, it happened even when I made that bathroom off limits for a day. The owner sent her own “plumber” out to look at it. He told me there was no leak. I pointed at the wet floor. He told me it was mop water. I told him I hadn’t mopped. He stuck his finger in the water, wiped it off, and said, “see? No wet.” I dipped a piece of toilet paper in the puddle and said, “see? Yes wet.” He wiped a piece of toilet paper through the puddle, folded it over to the dry bit, and said… yeah, you get the picture.

The owner does send a painter around about once a month to fix the bubbling paint on the balcony railing that no one can see.

Late last October the property manager started bugging us about the lease again. Mind you, it didn’t terminate until February. Knowing that our Visas were ending this year, we couldn’t sign a year lease. We didn’t know if we’d be here. We told them that we needed some time to see what was going to happen. They said ok. Then about a week later started questioning us about it again. And the next week. Finally, we offered to sign a three month lease and they agreed. One month into it, if that, they started in again trying to get us to sign the twelve month lease. Still no Visa, but “she’ll be right mate!”

After many phone calls and emails and explaining our complete lack of control over whether or not my husband’s company would try to renew the Visa or if Australia would even approve it, they finally agreed to a seven month lease with a “no penalty for early termination” clause. That’s up in December. Today is October 10. They started with the emails September 5.

We still have no confirmation on the Visas. The company is pursuing them, at a snail’s pace. As soon as they submit the application it will be up to Australia to decide whether or not we can stay.

My husband is threatening to have us move to another apartment, one where he hopes we can rent month to month after the initial twelve month lease ends. We do still plan on moving back to the US, and that flexibility would be helpful. Our landlord isn’t flexing that way. She’s not budging at all. Of course they raise the rent with each new lease, to pay for the repairs that took them months to make.

I have to wonder if her fixation on this inflexible lease doesn’t have something to do with all the incidents of arson we’ve had in the neighborhood. It could be hard to rent if we leave. And do we want to stay in a fire hazard zone? I’m pretty certain it’s the hoodlums next door who are the culprits. No proof of course, except for the photo I have of them out front vandalizing the share bikes. The primary hoodlum’s mother told me when we moved in that she was good friends with the owner. Maybe the owner is trying to get the place burned down in order to collect on the insurance.

I’ll shut up now. I have to go to my new physio. I hope he doesn’t hurt me.

Hidden 2018

It being the final week of the Hidden Sculpture Walk, Joanne and I journeyed out to Rookwood Cemetery in western Sydney. Things would have gone much better had I been brave enough to drive.

Remembering full well the struggles I encountered two years ago when I went to Hidden 2016, I still chose public transport over driving in the city. My (ir)rationale was that I’m in better physical shape for the long walk from the train station, across the vast continent of Rookwood, and then back again, and also thinking that I had a better grasp of the public transport routes than I did two years ago.

When I came back from my recent trip to the US, I was overly eager to return to my gym routine. Having spent a sedentary ten weeks, I just wanted to feel my body move. I overdid it and ended up hurting myself, making my first assumption about walking a complete fairy tale. And while my understanding of train routes has improved, I still underestimate walking distances and what I’m capable of.

Rookwood is one of the oldest and largest, operating cemeteries in Australia, and covers over 314 hectares. We entered the cemetery in the northwest corner, somewhere near the end of the sculpture walk. But where? The tiny map on my phone, pulled from the website, was a snapshot of the area of the exhibit. Hidden was truly hidden from us, but we stumbled about until we found the tail end of the walk. I will admit, it took entirely too long for it to register with me why the arrows were pointing the wrong way.

I should have taken my real camera, but couldn’t be bothered, plus I worried it was going to rain. The wonderfully tempestuous sky hanging over the crumbling gravestones deserved better than my i-Phone camera.

I was beyond pleased to get to the end that was the beginning of the walking tour. The uneven ground meant I was in a good deal of pain. Add that to my full bladder and worrying about my dying phone battery, and I’m afraid I was a poor exploring companion that day. Unable to figure out the disappearing bus schedule on Google maps, and too exhausted to walk the twenty minutes back to the train station, I gave up and called an Uber to the rescue.

Discovering Alexandria

After coasting along for nearly four years now, I’ve become intensely aware of the looming expiration date on our Australian stay. Granted, it’s still a fuzzy expiration date; kind of like buying a tub of yogurt and the sell-by date says, “ehh, sometime in the next year or so.” Anyway, my point is, I feel motivated to experience as much of Australia as I can before we leave. Day to day, I can’t travel far, can’t take a quick jaunt over to Ayers Rock or Darwin. What I can do is absorb all the interesting bits of Sydney and surrounds.

The trouble with trying to find interesting things to do here is when you do a google search all you come up with is the same list of “ten best things to do in Sydney” over and over. Most of that involves drinking, beaches, or drinking by the beach. I love the beach, with or without alcohol, but I want more. I want to find all the quirky bits and curiosities Sydney has to offer. I want interesting neighborhoods to explore, with history and beauty. I’m searching for places that invite a deeper exploration, that spark wonder. I know they are there; it’s just a matter of finding them.

My exploring buddy, Joanne, is always eager to visit new locales with me. Because so many of our excursions involve shopping or running errands, or just eating, we’re making an effort toward a more creative examination of our city. We were all set last week to do something different by making the trek over to Rookwood Cemetery and the Hidden Sculpture exhibit, when my knee started screaming at me. My search for something interesting that didn’t involve too much walking kept coming up empty, so finally I said, “there’s this pretty little coffee shop I’ve been wanting to go to since I came here,” which took us to Alexandria.

Alexandria is an inner-city suburb, just south of the CBD (central business district). A historically industrial area, Alexandria is now experiencing the evolution to hip suburb. Completely by accident, we found one of those places I asked for, the ones that invite more exploration, and we barely scratched the surface.

The suburb is easily accessible by public transport. We hopped off the train at Green Square Station and headed toward our destination, The Grounds of Alexandria. It should be about a ten minute walk if you don’t stop at the Mitchell Road Antique & Design Centre, which we did. It took us a bit longer.

A smiling crocodile greets shoppers when they enter the massive space that is brimming with retro yumminess and a fair bit of Australiana, some of which is perhaps a little distasteful for modern sensibilities, but definitely a curiosity. I am by no means an expert on these things, but it seemed like much of their wares were priced quite a bit higher than what I’ve seen for similar items in thrift stores or my mother’s basement. Still, it’s tons of fun to look and say, “oh my grandma had that!”

A little dizzy from the smell of dust and old ghosts, we continued on up the road to The Grounds. I was expecting good coffee and fresh food, some sort of garden room and maybe a greenhouse or something. I wasn’t really sure. But wow! I wasn’t expecting what we found. I had read on the internet that people come from far and wide to experience this. It was clear why.

The lush garden atmosphere encompasses several venues in one sprawling location. The Cafe is a hopping place with a retro vibe, where you can get amazing coffees to go with your breakfast or lunch, and they have beautiful pastries to drool over. If you’re feeling more fancy, in The Potting Shed you can dine on fresh, local harvest, while surrounded by hanging plants and fresh flowers.

The Garden is an enormous space where you can sit at long tables under the flowering arbor, or in one of the many other courtyard or intimate nooks, and sip a cocktail or a fresh squeezed juice from the Garden Bar or have take-away lunch from the BBQ, or pizza from the Wood Fired Kitchen. To be honest, we couldn’t find the Wood Fired Kitchen. It’s in there somewhere, but the place is huge! And we were hungry. We had delicious design-your-own salad bowls from the BBQ.

Having a little taste of Alexandria, I do want to go back and finish exploring. The Grounds alone has so much more to experience! Just a couple blocks from there is the green expanse of Sydney Park where you can stroll the walking path, have a picnic on the grass, or bird watch at the wetlands. Another great spot for coffee and inspired breakfasts, that I have been to, is Mecca on Bourke Road. I’m keen to see what other treasures can be found on my next visit to Alexandria.

Searching for Home

“Home is Wherever I’m with You”, I painted on a 12x12x2 inch square of wood. That was four or five years ago, and I did mean it then. My husband and I were contemplating the idea of moving abroad, far away from Utah, something we’d often talked about in a “what it” kind of way. Now though, it had become a possible reality; we were actively taking steps to manifest this dream. The plaque was to demonstrate my commitment to taking this leap with him.

The plaque now rests on a bookshelf in the living room, or ‘lounge’ in the Australian vernacular. Like I said, I was sincere about the sentiment when I gave it to my husband. I wanted to learn what living was like outside of the US. My friend Joanne, another American expat here in Australia, says, “it’s real life, someplace different.” I didn’t know that when I was still back in Utah, but I was ready to find out, to make a new home in a new country and culture. I believed that no matter where we were, we could make it home.

We spent a year in limbo, waiting for confirmation that the relocation was actually going to take place. We didn’t know whether or not we should start packing or put our house on the market. We didn’t know how much we should tell our friends and family about our plans. Why stir things up if it wasn’t going to materialize? I remember I felt frozen, in a state of inertia, unable to move forward in my life because I didn’t know what my future held for even the next few months.

As we come up on the end of our four-year visa, I find myself once more in that limbo state, and pondering the meaning of home. Over the past three and a half years, I’ve come to realize that the concept of home is much more complicated and multifaceted than I understood when I made the plaque. I decided to poll my friends to get their take on the concept of home. Their answers reinforced the notion that home isn’t just one thing or in one place.

I’ve just spent two and a half months in the US, first in Texas, then Iowa, Colorado, and finally Utah, all places I’ve called home at some point in my life. When people here ask us where in the US we’re from – as soon as they hear our accent, that is the first thing they ask – we tell them we moved here from Utah, but rush to assure them (us really) that we are not from there, but consider Colorado home. Even when I say that, I have a question mark in my head.

Back in May, the plane I was on came to a bouncing landing in Dallas, Texas. I quickly pulled out my phone, seeking reassurance that my new granddaughter hadn’t arrived first. She landed in the wee hours, a day later. Over the next few weeks, I navigated the once familiar roads of the Dallas Metroplex, running errands and picking my elder granddaughter up from the same school my own children had attended. I had the oddest feeling of déjà vu, like I’d been picked up out of my world in the present and plopped back down at a point in my past that I had worked hard to escape from; this is actually a reoccurring nightmare I have.

Ellen, who responded to my polling question, talked about her parents’ experience immigrating to Australia from Slovenia in their 30s. “As an immigrant, you become homeless in a way. You have a past you cannot share with your new home and you no longer belong in your old home, because time has moved on.” She said that home for her parents is a point in time that no longer exists. My Texas home was certainly that. Driving around, the streets became more and more familiar; I remembered routes I’d taken regularly during my life there, and even a few times when I was lost in thought, I’d find myself on auto-pilot, taking one of those routes. Where was I going? Not home. Home doesn’t exist there anymore.

People and relationships were a common theme in my friends’ responses to my question. Maureen told me, “I consider both Australia (been here 16 years) and the US home. The hardest part for me and it doesn’t get any easier, is missing my family in the US. However, the love of my life is here along with my step daughters and 7 grandchildren plus lots of friends so that means home to me.” Sarah added, “Home is about feeling adapted to a place, rather than ‘out of place,’ about the connections I make with the people there, friendships I make, and the memories I build. But I think for me, my family is really what I think of as Home.”

After six weeks in Texas, I joined my husband in Iowa. I moved to Iowa as a young girl; my mother and brothers live there still. All these many years I have traversed the corn-field lined country roads, every summer taking my own children there when they were young, and now my daughter brings her daughters. I feel a comfort there in the nest of my family; they are ‘home’, but Iowa has never been home, even when I lived there. I never had that feeling of having adapted to a place as Sarah mentioned. Back then, I longed for the other home we’d left behind.

When my daughter and I arrived in Colorado many years ago, I immediately felt at home. The mountains gave me a feeling of being grounded, safety and comfort. This idea of feeling at home in a place you’ve never lived or perhaps never even been before, was something else I heard from my friends. Carmen told me that she feels a strong bond to Italy, the place, people, their behaviors. Her family is Italian, her parents having immigrated to Australia. She was born and raised here, yet when she goes to Italy, she feels like she’s arrived home. She tells me that she can be her authentic self there, and isn’t self-conscious about speaking loudly and animatedly. Everyone else is doing it, too! Sally says, “the first hour I was in Germany, the bus came up over a hill, and it hit me, ‘I am home.’ So what is that? I didn’t know people, culture or scenery, but felt a connection.”

Like Carmen, Merrolee spoke of the “shared values and experiences…ways of being and doing” that she finds when she returns to her New Zealand home. I, too, experience this when I return to the US, particularly Colorado. When I am there I can be myself in a different way than here in Australia. I’m not constantly aware of my otherness. And yet, while in the US this last time, there were several occasions when I bumped into a reverse otherness. I would find myself stumbling trying to perform some task, because I was doing things the Aussie way. I had to stop and say to myself, “oh yeah, it’s done like so here.”

When I’m here in Australia, I refer to the US as home, and when I’m there the reverse is true. I do feel like an outsider here in Australia. As much as I have adapted, I never really have a feeling of true belonging. And back in the US, I no longer feel I completely belong there either. I feel homeless in the way Ellen spoke of. And while I have shared experiences and memories while in Colorado, the place I keep referring to as home, I do wonder how much of that is just a point in time. Yes, my son is there, and friends who are family. They are home. But is Colorado home? When I look at those mountains now, it’s almost like looking at a postcard of a place I once was.

In Boulder, we held the gathering of “Americans who had met in Australia and just happen to all be in Colorado the same week”. As I sat there, sipping wine and discussing with these friends what home meant, I suddenly had the light bulb flash that I felt at home right there, in a way I hadn’t since flying away from Australia eight weeks prior. These people were my new normal, and they could be my “home” whether in Sydney or Boulder.

When we lived in Utah, each time we drove back there after visiting Colorado, as we came through the canyon and the Salt Lake Valley opened up before us, that song from the 1980 Popeye movie would play in my head, “oh sweet haven, god must love us.” That rust and sage colored landscape with the city nestled in the valley felt safe to me. During our renewed contemplation of moving across the waters, Utah has been part of that conversation. I did still consider it a possible sweet haven. Returning there after being away from that particular state for almost four years, I was much more aware of the ingrained passive-aggressive culture than I was when I lived there. There was nothing safe about it anymore.

At the end of ten weeks spent in the US, I longed for the quiet and solitude of this home, this room where I sit typing now, at this desk, this window with a view of the eucalyptus trees and the sounds of the currawongs and magpies. I was weary of sleeping in strange beds, sharing bathrooms with too many people, and cooking in other people’s kitchens. When the Delta ticketing agent told me there was a problem with my passport and that there was no proof that I had permission to be in Australia, I teared up and just about vomited on the counter. I was terrified that my return home would be delayed.

So here I am. Home. In limbo again, wondering what will happen with the visa; where will home be six months from now? When we left here to visit the US, there was no indication that the visa would be renewed, so we told people we were probably returning in the near future. Now I’m wishing I’d listened to my own advise from five years ago. It looks like the visa may be extended, after all. I do feel somewhat of a reprieve. The truth is, if my family were not in the US, I wouldn’t be rushing to move back there, even though I miss the seasons and the landscape.

My conversations with friends has helped to solidify the understanding that home is not a single concept, even for one person. Home is the people we love, it’s memories shared, a safe haven where we can be who we are, a feeling of familiarity and belonging. And home doesn’t have to be in one physical location. Perhaps understanding this can help me to move past the limbo and just be where I am. Perhaps I can do as my friend Joy, who I met when she lived in Australia and now lives in London, said, “we simply make our ‘home’ wherever we move to in the world.”

Breathing Room

My daughter just gave birth to my second grandchild. I’m staying with them, in the expansive state of Texas, for a few weeks to help out. Accustomed to a great deal of mental space and alone time, I must admit to struggling here in this small, two bedroom duplex where I’m bunking in the living room and sharing living space with two other adults, a nine-going on thirteen-year-old, an infant, and an Australian cattle dog who is constantly trying to supervise me. I find my mind turning to the idea of spreading out and comparing relative spaces in my world. I’m remembering Tasmania ranging before me last November, as we drove our rental car away from Hobart to begin our six day road trip around the island.

Secluded beach on South Bruny Island. Photo courtesy of Shaedow Photography

Having never been to Tasmania and not knowing if we’d get a chance to return, we wanted to sample all the diversity the island offered over its 26,410 square miles. In most every spot we stopped, we found ourselves wishing we had a full week to spend just there. First on the agenda was Bruny Island; we drove south from Hobart down to Kettering, where we boarded the car ferry to North Bruny Island. Tassie, as it is affectionately known, has a population of approximately 520,630 people, with well over half living in the greater Hobart and Launceston areas. Traveling south on the almost deserted main road that traverses North Bruny Island to South, I felt at times like we were the only people on earth. The bliss was palpable, as I felt myself unfurling into the open.

At home in Sydney when I think of America, I think of wide open spaces: streets you can turn a six horse hitch around in, spacious back yards, gargantuan grocery stores the size of big box stores in Sydney, McMansions housing single families, with kitchens large enough to park a car in. All that environmental space translates into large personal space, that inviolable circle we draw around ourselves into which only our intimates are invited to cross.

The total population of the US is somewhere around 325 million people spread out over 3.797 million square miles. Meanwhile, Australia’s population of 24.77 million is mostly concentrated into the eastern and south eastern coastal areas of a land that stretches for 2.97 million square miles, with a smattering of population centers on the western and northern coasts. Needless to say, when I’m running through Central Station in Sydney, trying to catch a train, I’m in much closer proximity to my fellow commuters than I’d like to be. Even when the station is not crowded, people will walk elbow to elbow with me when they could be a pleasant ten feet away, where I can’t smell them.

Fresh oysters at Get Shucked! North Bruny Island

With a population of barely over 600 people, Bruny Island is the perfect escape from the crowds, while still having plenty to offer its visitors. All of Tasmania is a foodie paradise and on Bruny you’ll find a full and varied plate: cheese, BBQ, oysters, chocolate, with whisky, cider, and wine to wash it down. There are secluded beaches for romantic sunset walks, a fairy penguin rookery on the neck between North and South Bruny, and a colony of fur seals off the coast, that can be viewed from one of the available cruises. On South Bruny, you can contemplate the site where Captain Cook landed in 1777 or visit the Bligh Museum of Pacific Exploration.

In Sydney and the surrounding suburbs, I often find myself frustrated over the lack of breathing room and the hoards of people invading my personal space. Even the sky seems squeezed out, because the built structures, though not high, are crammed in close together. From my vantage point near the ground, I don’t notice the sky unless I intentionally look up. A vast blue sky stretched over us in Tasmania.

Salvation at the Crossroads in Ross. Photo courtesy of Shaedow Photography

Way too soon, we left the solitude of Bruny and headed back north, past the metropolitan area of Hobart, through rolling countryside, on our way to our next stop, the sleepy village of Ross. This little town is a gem often missed by tourists because of its location off the main highway. Convict labor built this English-style village in the early 1800s, and today it remains well preserved. The center of town is known as the Crossroads. Here you will find Temptation, Recreation, Damnation, and Salvation on the four corners. You’ll find typical pub fair at the Man O’Ross Hotel (Temptation), and don’t miss the bakeries for a tempting breakfast. We had scrumptious meat pies at Bakery 31. The Tasmanian Wool Centre was an interesting stop, and I’m sure the Female Factory would have been had we remembered to go.

Convict built bridge in Ross. Photo courtesy of Shaedow Photography

Tasmania is reported to have the cleanest air on earth. It was in Ross that this was most apparent. We were walking down tree-lined Church Street that first evening, when I became aware of the sensation of oxygen filling my lungs. It was like drinking a cool glass of water on a parched afternoon. I had to just stand there on the sidewalk and breathe for a few minutes, until my husband finally got bored with that and urged me on.

Ross is a place I would love to spend a writing week or two holed up in one of the darling lace curtained bed and breakfasts housed in a historic sandstone building. I would wander out every now and then to eat at the bakery or visit one of the antique shops. On we went though, to Launceston.

From my experience of the U.S., there is room to stretch out even in large urban centers, mainly because those urban centers themselves expand over more territory. The exception would be places like New York City. As you leave the city centers, the space rapidly opens up. It’s not uncommon to find large stretches of open land outside of cities. In Sydney, by contrast, although I live in a suburb (even that has a different meaning there) I can still smell my neighbor’s deodorant when she applies it. The downside to all that U.S. space is it takes forever to get anywhere, and walking is rarely an option. Every time I come back to the U.S. to visit, I feel like I spend half of my time in the car. I love a road trip, but it’s not the same thing at all.

On the Launceston Ghost Tour. Photo courtesy Shaedow Photography

Compared to Sydney, Launceston is a small town, but after Bruny and Ross it was a thriving metropolis with entirely too many cars. Gone was the clean air, replaced with exhaust and pedestrian passersby blowing cigarette smoke in my direction. The internet descriptions of the town read better than what my experience turned out to be. A big part of that is owed, I believe, to the fact that the afternoon we arrived, I completely neglected to consult my itinerary of places to visit. For some odd, completely unlike me reason, I decided to totally wing it. While I don’t like a rigid itinerary, I do find some planning helps make the most of a visit and this experience cemented that idea for me. The one highlight of our visit was the ghost tour. Sign up beforehand, and meet on the corner outside of the Royal Oak Hotel, in whose basement the tour begins. From there, you’ll wander around the city, your skin crawling as you visit plenty of creepy places like churches and the old mortuary, while learning the history and lore of one of Australia’s oldest cities.

The next day, I was happy to escape the “city” again, and head west on the Cradle to Coast Tasting Trail. Here is where my fellow rover and I butted heads. I wanted to stop at each and every destination, sampling the tastes and filling my suitcase with jars of hazelnut butter and bottles of whisky. He wanted to arrive in Penguin and relax at our AirBnB. We compromised. Next time though, and there must be a next time, we’ll book accommodation in Penguin for a week, and take foodie reconnaissance missions out from there.

Our light-filled AirBnB looked out over the rocky northern coast, a popular location for sighting bioluminescence. That night, after dinner, we headed out to find the rare phenomenon, one that depends on perfect conditions that you can’t plan for. We followed the map to Preservation Bay, and then we were stuck. It was pitch black out there. Blind in the darkness, away from city lights, we couldn’t see any way to get down to the beach or even near it, and our view of the water was blocked by a brushy hill. We continued on the road back toward Penguin until we found a drive cutting off toward the beach, where we got out and walked. This spot was closer to light pollution and hard to determine just what we were seeing. We may or may not have witnessed the illusive bioluminescence, but we had a fun adventure none-the-less.

Imaginative letter boxes on the road to Cradle Mountain.

It was time to leave the coast and head to Cradle Mountain. On our drive across Tasmania, we’d noticed how the colors of the landscape had changed. On the road to Cradle Mountain, the tilled farmland turned rust-red. English-style flower gardens had been prevalent across the island, and on this drive I was thrilled when I saw a sign proclaiming peony bouquets for $10 or maybe it was $5. I know it was very little. “Go back! Go back!” I urged my accommodating husband. We pulled down a gravel path to find peony paradise. I chose my bouquet, and she kept adding more to it! I walked away with an armload of peonies and no idea what I was going to do with them.

On the road somewhere between Moina and Hobart. Photo courtesy Shaedow Photography

After a night in our wooded cabin getaway in Moina, we reluctantly got back on the road to return to Hobart, to ease back into city life. Hobart is the second oldest city in Australia, and actually a place I’d like to experience more of. It’s a lovely city with its waterfront and historic sandstone buildings. The Salamanca Market on Saturdays is body-to-body crowded again; I think the entire population of Hobart shows up, but full of fun finds from unique, tasty bites to beautiful handcrafted jewelry.

Salamanca Market in Hobart. Photo courtesy of Shaedow Photography

Our week in Tassie came to an end, and we were once more on a plane returning to real life in busy Sydney. Here in Texas, this cattle dog is herding me back to the present space and time, and I’m being handed a baby. Newborns smell every bit as good as fresh air, and this little one is welcome in my personal space.

What to do while in Tassie

Get Shucked! Fresh and delicious oysters on North Bruny Island

Bruny Island Cheese Co. Enjoy a beer and a cheese platter on the patio. They also have delicious cakes, coffee, and things in jars that you can take home.

Hotel Bruny where everyone gathers. Make a reservation to enjoy great seafood and a view of the sunset over the water.

Get spooked with the Launceston Ghost Tour

The Cradle to Coast Tasting Trail is a must! Chocolate and cheese and whisky, oh my!

Find treasures and eats at Salamanca Market in Hobart

The Human Element in Travel

What I remember most about wandering through historic Ponsonby, following the self-guided walking tour of the heritage listed houses and buildings in this Auckland, New Zealand suburb, was thinking how much more fun I had when I did the walking tour of Balmain with Merrolee. Without someone else to ooo and ahhh with, they were just old houses.

Over the past three-plus years, I’ve had the opportunity to tag along with my husband on his work trips. He goes to meetings, and I go explore the city. As I look back on those trips, I’m wishing I’d had someone to share more of the experiences with. My explorations in New Zealand could have been enhanced by more companionship.

If you Google “the advantages of solo travel”, you’ll find pages of lists enumerating the benefits: self-actualization, pushing your boundaries, the opportunity to be in total control, and the always popular – you’ll make new friends more easily.

While I’m not technically traveling alone on these tag-along trips – I have a built in dinner companion and someone to crawl into bed with at night – there are many similarities. When the husband walks out of the hotel room, I am on my own. Some aspects of solo exploration do appeal to me, some especially to my introvert self. I can wander around aimlessly observing the world around me. I can take as long as I want getting ready to leave the hotel. I can sit alone in coffee shops and read or write or people watch. Anytime I get tired I can rest, go back to the hotel for a nap. I can go to as many book stores, yarn stores, or fabric stores as I want, and I can dawdle there. I can try out all the coffee shops and I can even sneak a pastry and no one will be the wiser.

My solo adventures have encouraged me to be more self-reliant I suppose, although even when out and about with another, I like to have a fair amount of control over the situation. When I’m out alone, though, if I get on the wrong train, it’s completely up to me to find my way back. It’s helped me to step outside my comfort zone as well; wandering around Hong Kong alone, in a city where I didn’t speak the language and few people spoke mine, was vastly different from anything I’d done before.

Whether traveling alone or with a companion, it is the human connections that create the best memories for me. Shared experience, feeling a part of something with another human, is more impressive. On the New Zealand trip, my husband and I spent the non-working weekend together on the island of Waiheke. Those couple days spent wandering around the vineyards, drinking wine, eating delicious food and getting stranded when the bus didn’t come, are so much more precious because we can remember them together. And who would forever tease me about peeing behind a bush at the very closed and locked up whiskey distillery, if he hadn’t been there? (Note to self: call ahead next time.)

During the following three days spent wandering solo in Auckland, I found myself rather bored much of the time. The bits that do stick with me are the conversations I had. I was bored looking at the old houses in Ponsonby, so popped into the bookstore, where, chatting with the bookseller, I learned about local New Zealand authors. Back in Auckland city I remember a funny interaction with an American man at the yarn shop, who was trying to choose wool for his wife back in Utah. I pointed out to him that he was going to have to buy an awful lot of yarn to make up for not bringing her along on the trip. The shop owner liked that; the yarn buying husband, not so much.

On one of my solo excursions, I set out for the traditional Māori village of Whakarewarewa in Rotorua. The early morning bus bounced along through the emerald green expanse, en route to the village, where the heavy, yellow smell of sulfur greeted me as I arrived.  I presented my online payment confirmation and was pointed toward the cafe where I was to lunch on a hangi meal, cooked in an underground geo-thermal steam box. I was handed a plate with enough food for at least two people, maybe three, and took a seat at a small table, where I was joined by a cat who wanted to share my lunch. At least it was some companionship.

After lunch, I followed the crowd of tourists to the cultural performance replete with Haka war challenge. After the scary faces, that I wished I could make and get away with, we were taken on an educational tour of the village. I breathed in the sulfur vapors from the steam shooting up around me and the boiling pools we passed, contrasting sharply with the chilly late winter air. Even though I was with a group of people, I felt my solitude intensely. I remember wishing my husband was there; in my head I planned for future trips that would include him and a mud bath.

According to those online lists of solo travel benefits, I should have been making new friends with my fellow tour companions. I’m not a standoffish person. I join in conversations around me. I make eye contact, smile, and say, “hello.” But I don’t collect friends when I wander alone. I don’t really put myself out there and strike up random conversations. Neither do I ask people to be my facebook friend.

Here at the keyboard, trying to write a blog post almost two years after that New Zealand trip, I find myself with almost nothing to say about it. Yeah, I saw some shit. Sadly, peeing behind the bush is my most memorable experience of that week. This got me to thinking about how some of my traveling friends approach solo adventures, so I asked some questions.

Stephanie often finds herself in my same situation, accompanying her husband on his work travels. She told me she finds it rather boring to explore on her own. Stephanie is a person who has an extensive social network, both in person and online; when she is traveling, she looks to that social network to find people to meet up with who are either locals or tourists to the area, and plans these meet-ups in advance. She tells me that, meeting up with locals especially, she finds herself having experiences that she never would have done alone. “The days I don’t have something lined up, I don’t enjoy so much,” she tells me. There are places she returns to again and again, like Singapore and Japan; she says when she has locals to hang out with, “it’s like peeling off layers of an onion. I learn something new each time I go.”

On my first trip to Melbourne, I was lucky to have a local friend there who took me around and showed me her favorite parts of the city. On that same trip, Stephanie was also in Melbourne with another one of her friends; we were able to all meet up and have a grand time exploring the city. I’ve had a few trips back to that city, some where I’ve explored on my own, and some where I shared the visit with another tourist. Having been there a few times now, I both enjoy the experience of being alone in the city drinking coffee and reading, and at the same time feel like there must be things I’m missing, that if I had a local friend there still, I could find the hidden bits.

I did feel much less of a recluse when Stephanie told me that she doesn’t tend to make new acquaintances on her travels either. Like me, she also questions the plausibility of that idea. “It’s hard enough to make friends in the place where you live, much less on a four day trip.” Again, like myself, she is not technically traveling alone, and so may not be as motivated to pick up some new acquaintances. Perhaps for someone who is traveling solo, there is more drive to make those connections.

Another friend, from the Millennial generation, has done a lot of solo travel around the world and seems to make friends everywhere she goes. That generation does appear to be more outgoing and collect friends more easily than older generations, so perhaps it’s an age thing as well.

I do know that when I look back on my Australian explorations, it is the people that I’m going to remember the most. I relish the adventures I share with my expat friends exploring the various Sydney neighborhoods, the weekends away and visits to historic sites with our Kiwi friends, seeing Perth through a dear friend’s eyes, and of course the places I’ve explored with my husband by my side. As my time here wanes, I’m driven to fill it with as many friend-filled adventures as I can fit in. I want to build more memories, and the human connections that make them so much sweeter.

How to Eat a Fried Prawn in Hong Kong

bird cages hanging from ceiling in hong kong restaurantMy feet were swollen and it felt like there were hot coals stuffed in my shoes between my toes, after having spent the day traipsing around Hong Kong City searching for silk. Our dinner companion said we couldn’t take a taxi because the driver would get mad at us for such a short trip. “It’s just around the corner,” she said.

Fresh out of the shower and dressed, already my clothes were sticking to my sweaty body. My companions took off ahead and left me limping along behind. I tried to keep them in my sights, even as the busy world around did its best to distract me. I moved along the current of people who were free after a day of work, now off to socialize with friends or run errands on their way home to cook dinner. I tried not to get swept away in the riptide. Around me, visual chaos, neon signs with Chinese characters, here and there splattered with English words. Color everywhere, lots of red and pink. Advertising surrounded me with huge billboards plastering the sides of buildings, brand logos some recognizable and some not. We travelled up one street, dashed down another. turned this way and that. At a corner our leader paused, finger in the air, deciding, then pointed, “this way.” and off we went again.

To the relief of my burning feet, we finally arrived at our destination, her favorite seafood spot. The door opened and welcome air conditioning hit my face. We were soon seated in one of the close packed tables filled with families and large groups out for the night. The discordant clamor and clang of stacked china, and chairs scraping the floor was trapped in the small space, and the riotous babble of conversation bubbled up around us.

Perusing the menu, we salivated over each delicious looking offering. Our companion and soon-to-be etiquette teacher suggested favorites and morsels she thought we’d enjoy. One of the first items to land on the table were deep fried prawns in the shell. Huge, whole prawns, dipped in batter and fried in a vat. My husband pinched one with his chopsticks (he’s quite adept) and placed it in the center of his plate. When he then picked it up with his fingers and started to peel it, she tut-tutted, mildly appalled at this uncouth behavior. She explained that it just wasn’t done to eat with your fingers, and besides, you don’t want to miss all that yummy, crispy coating he was peeling off.

She demonstrated the proper way to eat a prawn. Pick it up with your chopsticks, suck and nibble at the batter first. When that’s done, stick the head in your mouth and bite it off. Now drop it from your mouth, onto that side plate. Now, use your teeth to peel off the skin and legs. Spit it onto the plate.

I found myself in awe, not only of the amazing dexterity this takes, but of how widely different proper etiquette is viewed across cultures. By the time the meal was finished, my fingers were cramping and bumbling as I dropped food from my chopsticks. This eating lesson had pushed all kinds of buttons for me about how to behave at the table. It’s ok in the US and Australia to use your fingers in certain circumstances: pizza, chicken wings, french fries. You do not spit food out of your mouth. If you absolutely have to because of a bit of unchewable gristle, you delicately spit it into a napkin – excuse me, serviette – hopefully without anyone seeing you do this.

While the server poured the tea, our teacher inconspicuously tapped her fingers on the table. When my husband refilled the tea, she did it again. Another learning experience! During the Qing Dynasty, the emperor liked to travel the countryside in the guise of a common man. One time, he was in a tea house with his accompanying officials. When he took his turn to pour the tea, the officials didn’t know how to act; they needed to show their respect without giving him away. What they chose to do was to tap three fingers on the table; one signified the bowed head, the other two the prostrate arms. Today, when someone pours your tea, say ‘thank you’ by tapping your fingers on the table top.

Well fed and feeling full of knowledge and a new glimpse of the world, we readied to go. Our companion caught the eye of a server and mimed writing in the air – the signal for the bill. I won’t be spitting in my plate, but this is a dining tradition I’ve brought home. It’s quite handy. I don’t know if it will work in the US. “What? What do you want? Why are you writing in the air? Do I need to call the police?”

More Hong Kong Stories: The Silk Road

Our first morning in Hong Kong, I headed north to Hong Kong City. Thoughts of silk had been running around my mind since the moment I first found out we were going to Hong Kong, so had done my research. I’d read a great deal about Cheung Sha Wan Road in Sham Shui Po being a mecca for fabric and embellishments. This area is considered the fashion district and is where the designers go for supplies. I’d also read several accounts of a silk merchant named Angus, who was over in Ho Man Tin, who was said to have quality silk at the best prices.

I emerged from the subway onto Cheung Sha Wan Road and set off to find the fabric shops. I walked up and down the road and couldn’t find them. I found lots of fashion retailers, with merchants that looked askance at my large American size body in their shops full of size zeros. Those clothes were so pretty though, dresses the color of the ocean, with filmy, floaty layers that brought to mind frothy waves lapping the shore. But I was just looking for someone who I could ask where the fabric was. I was learning that English wasn’t going to get me very far.

I had read that most shop owners or clerks in the city had enough English to make a sale, but that wasn’t my experience. One woman told me it was two streets over, so I went in that direction. On the way, I stumbled upon a market street, filled with vendors selling all sorts of things. On one table I found a small, but very heavy, bronze statue of a mermaid. I wanted it really bad, but knew that carrying that in my bag all day would be a pain. I reluctantly put it down and turned to go. The seller chased me down, punching numbers into a calculator, jabbing his finger at it insisting, even as I walked away shaking my head. I had no language to explain my dilemma. Now I’m wishing I had sucked it up and carried it. At the time I was saving my bag space and carrying muscles for silk.

ribbon shop Hong Kong cityI turned my attention back to the hunt. I wandered into a shop selling handbags and found a very helpful English speaking woman. She told me I could find what I was looking for over on Tai Nan Street. Along the way, I found shops that specialized in ribbons and others in buttons or lace, the goods spilling out the doors and onto the sidewalk. As I approached Tai Nan Road, the smell of leather grew strong. I realized then that she must have thought I was asking where to buy leather to sew my own handbag. Tai Nan was one long street full of leather shops.

I continued to wander. I finally found fabric on Ki Lung Street. Shops lined each side of the road and canopied stalls filled the sidewalks with more fabric. Many of the stores just had swatches for the customer to peruse. You make your selections, then have the fabric lengths delivered to you (so I’m given to understand from what I read online). I had also read that most of the fabric stores were wholesale, but that many will sell to the retail customer.
I didn’t see much silk, and what I did see, I really had no way of knowing if it was real. Not without a match to burn it with and I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have gone over well. I was already guilty of being American. Again, I had no language to discuss fabric content or prices.

I did find a nice piece of Japanese linen printed with owls. It was hanging on a rack outside of a shop and had a sign with a good price. I carried it inside to pay. The clerk punched a price in a calculator that was not what the sign said. I turned to go point at the sign and the guy came running after me. He may have thought I was stealing it, or then again, he did have his calculator. I got it for the published price.

The day was hot and humid and my tongue was dry. I’d brought one bottle of water, not accounting for the liters I would sweat out. I had passed a couple of convenience stores on my journey and the thought of getting additional water flitted in and out of my head. Now, I was done looking at fabric and ready for the next stops on my itinerary, as I made my way toward the silk merchant. I couldn’t even be bothered to buy a length of ribbon or packet of buttons; I needed water.

Hong KongAs I wandered on foot to Flower Market Road, I was moving away from the more commercial district. Hot and thirsty, I finished the last sip of the water I carried. I told myself I’d stop at the very next convenience store I found. Except I couldn’t find one. I must have been getting delirious with dehydration and heat because I could see on the map a fairly straight shot from the flower market to the bird market but I seemed to have gone in a big circle out of my way.

I finally found the bird market, but still no water, and by this time I was really questioning my reasoning of “I’ll be fine.” I’ve been in Australia too long; I’m starting to fall for the “she’ll be right” line of thinking. After winding my way through the birdcage-filled lanes, and considering drinking out of their water cups, I turned in the direction of the silk merchant’s home. I saw on the map the MOKO shopping mall sat between me and the silk, so I headed there first. On the way, I was blessed with a brief misting of rain. I had to fight the temptation to turn my open mouth to the sky, and tried instead to imbibe the moisture through my skin.

I decided to have a liquid lunch, but not the fun kind. I sat at a table and pointed to the liquidy looking items on the picture menu. After a bowl of soup and a pot of tea, I was ready to continue my quest, but not before finding another bottle of water.

I walked out of the mall, heading in the direction of the silk. Sometimes I am amazed at the difficulty I have with simple tasks. I could not for the life of me find a pedestrian path across the street I was on to get to the street I needed to traverse. It appeared the only way to do it was in a car. There were no sidewalks, no room to walk between brick walls and the busy road, and a tall wall stood between the east and west sides of the street. I kept going, hoping not to be run over, and finally found my way out of the maze.

fabric shop in Hong Kong cityThe silk merchant was at 8 Soares Avenue. “Go up to a penthouse apartment and knock on the door,” were the instructions I’d found on the internet. OK, except you can’t just walk in, you need a key for the front door of the building. As I stood there wondering what next, someone else came along and held the door for me. There was a woman sitting just inside in a small, dark foyer, at a tiny table, who appeared to be the gatekeeper. I told her the name of the person I sought and she sent me up a rickety lift to the penthouse level. At the top I stepped out. There was a door to an apartment, some stairs leading to the rooftop and a confusing sign that made it sound like the fabric sales took place on the roof. But that didn’t make sense, so I went back and knocked at the door. Mrs. Silk Merchant opened the door, and wiping her hands on her apron, told me that Angus had retired from the silk business just one year ago. I think she questioned the sanity of this strange American woman laughing hysterically in her hallway.