Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Paris Hat

This writer wears many hats. Shoe devotee, novelist, classical pianist (who doesn't practise enough), gardener, cook, cleaner, short story writer, taxi driver, lover, mother, pet owner, swimmer, translator, English teacher... We all do, don't we? But one of my favorite hats is the Paris hat. Twice a year a fashion designer friend transports me from these soggy Veneto plains to the grey rooftops and tiled metro tunnels and exotic foods of one of my favourite cities in the world. Oh forget cranky Parisians and stiff monuments, this is buzzing mercurial Paris of colours and styles and energy fusions. All big cities have it and this country scribbler has had a giddy few days.

Anyone who scans ahead may be forgiven for thinking Catherine has been living it up in Paris at a four-day long rave. That's one way of looking at it. But these shots don't really show the difficulties in dragging racks of clothing up several levels of escalators, trying to write down orders in Italian while being spoken to in French and half-thinking in English, standing in heels all day (a personal and masochistic choice), living on peanuts apart from lavish Asian meals at night, staying in French Psycho Motels along the A6, drinking horrific French coffee and driving a van over the alps (in light snow) with windscreen wipers like oversized flippers.

They do, however, indicate some of the things that happened this week. For example:

Spending time with unexpected new friends (met up with some old ones too)

Being silly

Watching wild dancing from sparkling youth until there were tears in my eyes

Meeting entrancing people with weird talents (Yes this is the Etch-A-Sketch Princess who reminded me of Emily Dickinson in a way)

Oh and fashion, ho-hum, I didn't photograph any of that. Having had so many sneaky people sliding past trying to take surreptitious shots of Ale's clothes, I wasn't going to prowl the joint snapping people's work!

And here is the golden key, btw Downith, the famous BUBBLE CARD that made the three of us glow, giggle and trip sometimes.

And now - shock! horror! - I'm back at the farm. Another hat. A big woollen beanie. It's raining miles and the heating is bung. And Paris is where she is. Noble, dirty, full of poverty and power, bright kids and snappy ladies. Paris, je t'aime toujours.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Divorce in Top Gear

How do you roll? What are your wheels like? 

Do you think cars are for guys?

Well, just because I love heels doesn’t mean I can’t have a thang for cars. I was brought up that way. My Dad is a petrolhead and we always had a dashing family car. Anybody for some Starsky and Hutch? I thought our car was a copy of their flared 70s set of wheels. I am a freak for the 70s and never was this gal prouder than when her cool daughter confessed, Gosh Mum you’re sooo lucky to have grown up in the seventies (That was after a full indoctrination with Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Jimi Hendrix, Earth Wind Fire – usually to drown them out when I was driving.)

In Australia we learn to drive early. I still remember walking up the front driveway on frosty mornings in my school tunic, to my driving instructor called Greg in an orange Datsun. We drove up and down the suburban streets. Greg put his hand on my thigh. I was very shy and just looked at it. 

I failed my first driving test when I drove straight into a massive intersection bringing a big semi-trailer to a screeching halt. The examiner turned white.

my blue citroen and a crazy property choice
Now that I’ve been driving for decades I’ve clocked up a few miles and much more confidence. At twenty-one I hired a car in Paris and was swept around the Arc de Triomphe not having a clue what was going on. I drove south in the spring and ate strawberries in fields and stopped at towns with cathedral facades rising above the rooftops. Vézélay, Poitiers, Tours, Carcassone, Albi. I had little money and slept cramped in the back seat – I’d drive till the late dusk then put up a towel in the window and curl up. Is anyone else thinking I was nuts? One night a tinkering started in my dream and it was a guy trying to break into the car. I sat up in shock and the poor thief ran for his life!

I lost all of my photos of that trip in Mogadishu, where we left everything. I wonder what Somali soldiers might have thought of photos of cows and cathedrals, markets and my pale feet and shins in laced-up espadrilles.. 

the open road in east Africa
Later I drove in Africa – a lot. From our first trips outside Mogadishu to my long voyages from Accra to Ouagadougou and Bamako. Once I took a wrong turn at Ouaga and drove over sixty kilometres of sand. At the border we came upon a Swiss couple on a tricycle - my view of the Swiss swivelled at that point. We drove over the moonlit Dogan highland in Mali and the long stretchy roads to the Niger. We had a beaten Nissan Patrol with holes everywhere – after the desert we were all covered in fine red dust and belonged to a new race. Red eyelashes, red hair, red noses.

In Mogadishu my ex had his sunglasses snatched from his face when he was caught in traffic. A policeman friend was paid and the prescription glasses were retrieved from the market.

In Brussels a woman sneezed and ploughed into the back of our old Citroen when I was nine months pregnant. I had my baby Omar the next morning. (Beware of Belgian drivers!)

In the Dolomites I learned to put on snow chains on my long slithering Merc station wagon in less than five shivering minutes - in a T-shirt.

Don’t we spend so much of our lives driving? I’ve gone through half a dozen cars, none of them Top Gear material, and these days my long drives are where I’ll think over my stories in silence, unless of course a teen has headphones plugged in and I have to listen to the fuzz of rap music.

And have I spoken about driving in Italy yet? Do I really need to? You of course know that big cars take precedence, pedestrians are disregarded and cars can veer across the road when a driver is sending a message. And here in the country the old men wear hats driving and must be dodged. And if you lose control at the rulebreakers and put up the finger beware of a big Audi breathing down your neck.

And I’m also a veteran of the car breakdown. I’ve had gazillions of breakdowns. To the ex I once said, You know that this crappy car is going to lead us to divorce. He didn’t believe me. That year I was driving a made-in-Nigeria Peugeot with the air-con fitted in Ghana. I broke down out of town on a hillside and limped home. I broke down on the way to the doctor’s with a very sick kid. It was endless. Reliable cars can help marriages.

This month I’ve finally managed to bring a new, safe reliable car into this household. It’s already mud-splattered and the cats go pattering across the hood. For us, it’s a new chapter. I can listen to Jimi Hendrix with two speakers. I’m no longer terrified the engine will pike out in a winding mountain tunnel. I’m now no longer spending more money on fuel than food! It will take me an age to pay it off, but this divorced writer is sailing along in Top Gear.

Any wheels stories ladies?

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Trouble in Paradise or the First Fight of the Year

New Year is full of resolutions that last about five minutes. I stopped making them years and years ago when I realised it's not years that are important, but days. Every day should contain a seed of better behaviour, clearer objectives, less swearing and more piano practice. Big sweeping declarations are for the theatre. Makeup, stage lights and surges of clapping. Bullsheet. None of us have any idea what we will be thinking in September.

One of my longterm resolutions, almost a twin sister of mine, has been to cut
out the freak-out. I mean, Don't lose your cool, Catherine. I mean, try to look through to the other end of the moment and see how frantic and uncontrolled you appear from the other side. Don't lose it. 

But I do lose it. I've just lost it now.

You wonder whether in disassembling a moment that has passed whether there is any lesson to be learned. When you see the jagged spot where you should have bitten your tongue and not lashed out. When you drive back along the glittery snowy road now devoid of holidaymakers. When you sit there in the silent car thinking, is it my fault that I have raised an ungrateful, demanding teen? Or am I just caved in, playing the victim, as was said?

As mothers we are always juggling plates and often - for me - at least one drops.  You are thinking about the jammed road all the way home down the mountain, the rent to pay, bills galore, your crappy work status, the homework to nag about, the dog on heat, the house now a male hovel to clean, the extra 150kms driving tomorrow to resettle Ungrateful Diva... and how the hell do we get to the end of the month.

And then to be pushed off a shelf. Told that, Why should you be any more tired of driving than anybody else? When you freak out at the bl***y long queue of public holiday skiers and tell a certain lazy teen to get out and walk the short walk to the ski slope. (And this after 650+kms driving lately, including midnight forays into the -10 night to heat up an ailing engine.)

Sorry doll but this was a red flag to this stomping steaming bull.

We all know that suicides and domestic violence surge when families spend too much time together over Christmas. Too much alcohol, sluggish digestion of rich foods, cramped kitchens and rubbish to be taken out, bright lights in supermarkets and the empty fridge. I was fine through all of this. I've had wonderfully helpful family members here on holiday, it's just my own damned kids.

But I could have a saviour. My hit-of-last-year writer Simon van Booy has written a philosophy book called Why We Fight. This book will be the first book I order this year.

How about you? Did anybody make you lose it over the silly season?

Read a great writer interview and review of Pelt and Other Stories on