Is it weird to be back?

The number one question I’ve been asked in the past two weeks is “So what’s it like to be back in Australia?”. And the best word I can think of to describe it is…. “Weirdses”. That’s Dylan’s word.

When we first came into the house, Finn ran straight to the living room, pressed his face up against the glass to look at the garden and said “Wow. That’s what a lake looks like.” He meant our little spring-fed dam at the bottom of the slope, that after 6 months of living in Singapore suburbia, had metamorphosed into a palatial body of water in his mind.

Dylan ran off to find if there were any of her toys still in the house and she came back clutching her old teddy bear and another little one that someone had left behind. “Look mama!” she said, “my teddy had a baby when we were gone!”.

Yes we kept our farmhouse but it looks different now that it’s been spruced up for rentals to holiday makers and event organisers and it has already had 3 weddings booked and a corporate retreat. Google Cable Car Estate and you’ll find us there.

It’s still lovely and some of the rooms have been decorated with vignettes straight out of Country Life magazine. But sometimes I keep walking into the living room, meaning to play something I’ve just thought of on the grand piano, and then realising there’s just a empty space where it used to stand. It’s a bit like having a phantom limb.

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The vineyard looks fantastic, thanks to our trusty vineyard caretaker Paul who is the most reliable person we’ve ever worked with on the Peninsula.

I’d almost forgotten how gorgeous the light is in the afternoons, when it’s filtered through the vines hanging off the eaves and you walk barefoot on the floor over the dancing dappled shadows.

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Of course we had to have a party and invited all our friends and neighbours around for the afternoon. Peninsula style. Bring a plate! (This means pot luck, it does not mean we’re out of crockery!) Bring your dogs! Bring your kids! Bring their pajamas! Don’t forget the hummus!

Remember Bruno? Our rescue greyhound whom we gave to our neighbour Jo? He came over to hang out and he was a little stunned to see us again. “Oh, you guys”, he said with his amber eyes and tentative sniffs. Bruno looked so well, it made us all cry a bit. I’d never seen his teeth so clean and he had put on a bit of muscle as well, probably from running around in Jo’s beautiful paddocks and lavender gardens.

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The cows in the paddocks were mildly surprised to see us as well. But they went back to munching their cud after a few minutes. Nature’s most definitive law – life goes on.

I spent an hour near the dam, tracing fox tracks, like I was taught by a local hunter. They had entered through the south-east paddock fence where you could see tiny tufts of russet fur caught in the lowest barbed wire strand, and then gone down to the dam to hunt the wild ducklings at the start of summer, but yet this summer we had 6 ducks on the dam who survived. Last year none of the ducklings made it, so the ducks had learned a thing or two in our absence.

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In a sense, we come to the Peninsula to feel small amidst the largeness of nature. When you spend too much time in an urban environment, you start to magnify your problems and your sense of self-importance. The scale of the architecture is human, and wherever you go, things cater to your needs. In Singapore, I can order a masseur to come to my house at midnight, have a roti prata supper afterwards, and then buy groceries at the 24 hour supermarket a 2 minute stroll from my house. We have no frustration tolerance because everything revolves around us.

But in the countryside, nature puts you in your place. You walk in nature and you are an ant amongst the towering gum trees and the craggy mountains. You come back after six months of being away on a farm, and in the bush, the paths you painstakingly carved and slashed have vanished. Nature does not care if you hit the unsubscribe button and fly off to Boca Raton.

But yet your spirit soars. There is a certain bliss in being reminded of your smallness, your mortality. When you know you can’t control everything, you start to let go of the reins that never led to anything much anyway, and your incessantly worrying mind starts to relax and stops drowning out your emotions and the senses of your body.

When you walk, there you are, just walking.

When you eat, there you are, just eating.

So simple, yet so hard.

Is it weird to be back? Yes. Am I happy with the choices I’ve made? Absolutely. To be able to call two extraordinary places home, is a great freedom and a lesson in letting go.

Somehow I have a feeling that the antidote for the Weirdses is a great gift, a state of mind, called “Surrender”.

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When the lights go out

Yesterday, ferocious winds of 130 kilometres gusted across the Peninsula. I drove home, feeling the car buffeted left and right by the waves of wind. It was like steering a ship. Power lines were down, the traffic lights were out and brave traffic police directed traffic in the lashing rain while cars flashed their hazards at each other to indicate fallen trees ahead.

A huge gum tree fell on the road outside our house but I managed to drive around it. Thank goodness for our reliable Toyota Prado which has had plenty of practice trampling through the thick bush surrounding our house to get out on the main road when the driveway has been blocked.

All day my phone beeped with messages from neighbours comparing notes on who had power and who didn’t. 76 year old Lilian called to ask if I had blown away in the wind. I thought it was funny that she was checking in on me. Then I called her back to ask if she needed to come over to ours for a sleepover. The water pump wasn’t working. I called the Irishman, who was in Darwin on business, probably sipping a pina colada, and he helpfully suggested that I “suck on a tube and siphon the water tank.”. I told him he could suck on his own fecking tube.

The dogs had drank the last of the San Pelligrino and were farting copiously from the sparkling bubbles. I ran to the grocery store and bought their last 6 bottles of mineral water and San Pellegrino.

We were one of the lucky ones, the electricity came back on at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, thus preventing Finn’s tropical fish tank from turning into sushi soup.

The first thing you do after your power comes back on is to fill up the bathtub with water so if it goes off again, you’ll have somewhere to do the dishes and wash things.

The second thing you do is to scream with horror when you see the disgusting kombucha tea like liquid pouring into your tub and realise that this is what you’ve got to drink for the next few months.

The next day, I dropped the kids at school which was still in black out mode. Teachers wrapped in beanies and layers of woollens stoked the wood stoves in the classrooms and the gleeful kids told stories about how they had to have a sleepover at their aunt’s house the night before, or how they had to read by candlelight or how they toasted their sandwiches in the fireplace. Half the families I spoke to said that their power was still down.

Finn and Dylan were thrilled, it was quite an adventure to see their school transformed into a shadowy cozy place and the teachers running around saying things like “The printer’s not working!” and “We’ll have to cancel cooking today!”.
As I walked out, I saw Finn sitting on the floor in the dark, captivated by the stories his classmates were telling about the various adventures they had in the dark. And then a teacher from next door burst into their class room with a scary face on and yelled “It’s a spooky day at school and all the teachers are wearing black and sneaking around so the kids can’t see them… Woooo!!!” and the kids fell about the floor in hysterics.

Back on the farm, I did a walkabout. Pooky the peacock seems to have had quite a few tail feathers broken off in the storm, but he was in good spirits and ate his oatmeal and the kids breakfast scraps gratefully. The ducks and chickens were fine, enjoying the muddy puddles in the orchard.

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Our courtyard garden is very sheltered so it was situation normal there. Some yellow daffodils had sprung up and were nodding cheerfully in the wind.

The forest was a different story. A few trees had come crashing down in the North East corner of our bushland, bringing down a large section of fence separating us from our neighbours property.

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The sheep were encrusted in bits of bark, twigs and brambles and glared at me accusingly, stomping their cloven front hooves when I threw them a fresh new biscuit of hay. The wind had blown the top off the pail storing the alpacas vitamin, grain and molasses mix and I gave them the sodden contents of the bucket as a special treat.

It’s funny but I quite enjoyed our little lock down yesterday. Whenever there’s a storm, our community pulls together and we feel that much more connected to each other, making sure that every one is ok, no one gets left alone in the dark. I read C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to the little ones at night and we wondered about passages to magical lands.

Sometimes when the lights go out, we go in, and there is magic waiting.

Real Luxury

In my old Singapore life, from the minute I woke up I had people tending to me. The kids would have been dressed and sent to school by the Fillipino nanny. From bed, I would dial the extension to the kitchen and place my breakfast order with the Indonesian cook. The driver would start idling the car when the cook cleared away breakfast, making sure the air conditioning cooled down the leather seats before I got in so my pampered little bum wouldn’t stick to the hot seats.

Didn’t that last paragraph sound  obnoxious? But I want to give you an idea of why my friends thought it was highly ridiculous when I announced that we were voluntarily moving to the middle of the Australian countryside to grow vegetables, wash dishes, cook 5 days a week and live 62 km away from a decent hairdresser.

When I announced I was leaving, one of my friends dramatically crumpled a piece of paper and smoothed it out over the starched restaurant table cloth to show me what my skin would look like if I exposed it to those nasty uncultured Australian sun rays. “You’ll regret it. Take care of yourself. ” he intoned ominously.

Another one came to visit and said “Well, you see The Good Life, and all I see is “lack of domestic help”’.

Anyway after nearly more than 3 years of surviving in the countryside and seeing me covered in everything from drake blood to chicken shit, I think they’ve finally accepted my crazy decision and every conversation with a Singaporean friend doesn’t need to be tinged with faint pity and concern on their part and a mild prickly defensiveness on mine.

It’s good because for the first time I’m anticipating going back to Singapore for a trip and just being happy to be myself without having to explain my choices.

Charlie Chaplin wrote “The saddest thing I can imagine is to get used to luxury.” And we do get used to it if we don’t watch out.

When I was a Singaporean I used to grumble all the time about petty little inconveniences. I come from a nation where your plane touches the tarmac at 12.01 a.m. and you can walk out of the sparkling clean airport bags in hand 8 minutes later. If real life dares to interfere with your plans, there’s hell to pay.

Now I may not have the freshly squeezed fruit juice and steaming fresh nasi lemak in the mornings, but I drink my homemade soup barefooted on our stone terrace looking out over the sea to Phillip Island. My home smells of fresh eucalyptus in the rain.

We don’t have a swimming pool in the countryside, but the other day Mark put the garden hose sprinkler on and Dylan shouted “This is the LIFE!” and the trees in the bush echoed “..life…”

True luxury is an inner sense of calm and being at one with the world. This I know we have. And we are privileged and lucky for it.

Tonight I fly to Singapore and around the world for nearly 6 weeks, but what I’m most looking forward to are the dinners with my family, good unpretentious home cooked food, trolling my younger brothers with annoying questions about their personal life, Mum holding my hand when we walk together just like when I was a little girl. And of course the nasi lemak. We can’t not have that.

(This post originally appeared on my business blog Thoughts of Legacy http://www.thoughtsoflegacy.com)

Throwing tomatoes, ghost chillis and other heirlooms

I never thought I’d marry an Irishman. I’d never thought I’d move to the countryside. And most improbable of all, I would never have dreamed that I would be reading gardening catalogues in bed on rainy nights. Oh yes, it’s time to talk about our secret obsession that rears its nerdy little head this time of the year – The Diggers Club Garden Annual Seed Sowers Manual. This little baby arrives by mail at the beginning of spring, and is the bible of heirloom gardeners in these fertile parts. But this is no ordinary mail order catalogue. For a start, you have to be a member of The Diggers Club, a gardening group that prides itself on reviving long lost heritage breeds, and owns two beautiful heritage properties which showcase its vegetables, fruit and flower gardens. One of them, Heronswood, being just 15 minutes from our house.

I just love the illustrations and commentary in the catalogue. It is brimful of quirky Australian humour. Take “Granny’s Throwing Tomato” below for instance, which is advertised as “Perfect for throwing at politicians or mining magnates like Gina and Clive. This is Italy’s favourite tomato and is used in salads and pastas and for hurling at old lechers like Silvio Burlusconi. ” Heh.

After circling our family selections in the catalogue ;-  Edamame for Mame, Teddy Bear sunflowers, “Bonk Choy” and watermelons for Finn, Zucchini and beetroot for Dylan, heirloom potatoes for Sean and too many things to count from Daddy, we headed down to Heronswood to have lunch at Fork to Fork cafe and peruse the Diggers nursery.

Somehow Finn managed to sneak in 2 Bhut Jolokia Ghost Chilli plants. Which we found out later were actually semi-lethal, being the hottest chilli known to mankind and ranking at more than 1 million Scoville heat units (compared to Thai birds eye chilli which ranks 50,000 units.) In fact it was used by the military in chemical crowd dispersion bombs! It’s called the Ghost Pepper because of its deadly powers. All this was extremely thrilling to Finn, but I’m secretly planning to dig up the ghost chills and replant them outside the chicken coop to deter the foxes.

Our veggie patch #3 is doing very well despite Coco the greyhounds efforts at sunbathing on top of the seedlings. We have acquired a number of derelict items from junk shops to use as planters such as the vintage bath tub cum herb planter below. The zucchini flowers look beautiful and the spinach is extremely prolific.

In fact the Irishman has done such a splendid job I think I may forgive him for The Horrible Flowers he planted around our new driveway. I distinctly recall saying to him “I don’t mind whatever plants you get, but I DON’T LIKE dark reddish brown flowers at all. White, purple, blue or anything is fine darling, JUST NOT DARK RED.” Which he somehow interpreted as “Blah blah blah DON’T LIKE FLOWERS” blah blah EXCEPT DARK RED”…. which resulted in an entire driveway full of hundreds of Dark Reddish Brown Kangeroo’s Paw plants as far as eye can see.

Upon confrontation, the Irishman squeaked “Oh, I didn’t know those grasses had flowers honey!” . Right. Urgh.

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Never mind. There are better things to worry about in Spring, such as our new alpacas, Blackadda and Mandate, the roses which have been decimated by the storms, the vineyard which has developed some strange new worrying affliction, the little swallows which have chose to nest perilously on an unstable ledge over the back door, the scrapping scamps, our busy international work schedule, the influx of Summer visitors… well really there are so many things I really think it is time to reach for a calming tea and that well-thumbed Diggers catalogue!

If you’re thinking of visiting the Mornington Peninsula, this weekend would be perfect. The weather looks to be sunny and the Red Hill Country Fair is on, this Sunday November 17th with plenty of good family things to do. See you there!

Rising moon, leaping trout

Last weekend was one of those perfect weekends, munificent with its bounty of delights, all laid out against a backdrop of perfect weather. And I say this with a twinge of nostalgia, sitting here amidst the incessant rain and hail that has plagued us for the past few days in Victoria while New South Wales burns to crisps around the edges. Crazy times.

Last weekend we made watermelon, feta, mint and shallot salad for the first time since last summer and brought it to Point Leo Boat Club. This is the definitive hot weather salad. Refreshing and unexpected, every mouthful is packed with a embarrassment of textures and tastes, the tart sherry vinegar marinated shallots, the green freshness of the mint and the succulent sweetness of cool watermelon. Every once in a while you get a splodge of kalamata olive or a crumbly cube of feta, just to spice things up. I am one of those people who hates fruit in anything but dessert, but I carve out a concrete exception for this salad.

We saw the craziest beautiful moonrise. It was brighter than the sunset due to the eclipse which occured the night before.

First the sun faded and sank away.

And then, as we sat on the deck eating charred greek lamb and That Watermelon Salad, we saw an iridescent copper orb float up from the horizon. I thought it was the sun coming back for an encore, and then realised that it was the moon.

It was the freakiest thing, as the sky grew brighter and more radiant, the rose gold moon suffusing the entire surface of the sea with rippling, flashing slivers of eerie salmon pink light.

The next day we went to one of the Peninsula’s best secrets according to our kids, the Ripe and Ready trout and cherry farm in Red Hill, for some trout fishing.

Finn was absolutely delighted as he managed to catch a beautiful golden trout not 2 minutes after he lowered his rod into the dam. There were so many trout the whole surface of the dam exploded like a field of squibs every time we threw bait into the water. We ended up catching about 20 trout and throwing all of them back but four. They charge you by the kilo at the trout farm, a very expensive pursuit if you’re as dedicated a fisherman as Finn! But we thought he deserved this little expedition given that he had been fishing for the last 6 times and caught nothing but one squid at the Mornington Pier.

The farm has about 20 varieties of cherries and the kids picked blossoms and checked the development of the cherries while we cleaned and gutted the fish.

They didn’t last for long and the kids declared they were the most delectable, freshest tasting fish on earth. We stuffed two of them chock full of herbs and limes from the garden and grilled them for dinner. And the other two were smoked over wood chips and had for lunch.

Then it occured to us that this past couple of weeks half of the meals we had eaten were from things we had caught ourselves – our Muscovy drake which became roast duck, duck quesadillas and then fried duck rice, and the trout. The kids are learning a lot about where their food comes from and all of us are treating meal time with a lot more respect and gratitude.

Spring means…

Spring is:

Lying in the garden with Dylan in mismatched floral bathers, watching clouds in the sky

Jade green avocado halves lavished with goats cheese and sprinkled with jalapeño slices

Heavy sheaves of wisteria unfurling along the eaves like a languorous yawn

Getting excited about baby animals on the farm

Early evening strolls with the dog to sniff out scurrilous fox holes. Four were found around the chicken coop today- this means war!

Reading Roald Dahl classics to two avidly listening little faces at night by the fire while it’s still cold enough to light it

Dreaming about summer days and buying a boat

Putting the roof down on the car for the first time and feeling the eucalyptus wind on your face while you drive, happy as a doggy

Planning, planning and more planning of paddock and vegetable patch configurations

Spring cleaning the library books of cobwebs and getting endlessly distracted by reading random pages

Stopping at the driveway to see if you can spy breaking waves on the beach

Airing out the camping tents in anticipation

Rabbit hunting with Sean and the local butcher at dusk

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and last but not least…

Discovering Dylan in her bathers, fur vest and wellies because the weather outside changes every 5 minutes!

Everything in its right place

This week was like a jigsaw puzzle. Frustrating at first but satisfying when the pieces finally started coming together. We started the week with Brad the Builder installing some big glass french doors to the patio. Well actually they aren’t strictly french doors, but we call them french doors because everyone gets what you mean that way. Never let the technicalities get in the way of a good story, as the Irishman likes to say!

I developed an affliction called Builder Love. Which is when the sound of power tools on your property in the morning puts a “Yeeha!” on your face. It means something is getting done at Cable Car Estate! If I had my way we’d have a builder live with us permanently. I actually got anxiety pangs when I heard that Brad had to go on holiday to Queensland. But why? I whinged plaintively. We live in paradise Brad! You love it here in our house! Please don’t go!!!

The wisteria is blossoming everywhere and the house looks a bit hobbity, in a good way.

Ok now that the un-french doors were installed, it was time to move the piano. This piano is one of my favourite things in the world, a handcrafted limited edition Shigeru SKIII Conservatory Grand which was an anniversary present, but it was languishing in a corner of the kids playroom never having had its own space.

The movers had to build a ramp for it over the stairs and roll it down precariously on a ramp. It weighs about 350 kilos or so and the floorboards creaked and groaned dramatically as it rolled through the house. It was a nerve wracking experience but it looked splendid when it was finally installed.

Ta da! My repertoire spans Bach to Zedd to Nirvana to Chopin to the Plants vs Zombies theme tune on any given afternoon.

Ok now the tricky bit. We had to get the 16th Century Burmese buddha head off the ground. It weighs about 150 kilos but is also incredible fragile as it is made out of crumbling bits of 500 year old sandstone. When we first moved from Singapore, the Buddha cracked to about 50 different bits in its padded crate. Luckily we had insurance and it took a team of museum grade restorers in Sydney 2 years to put it together again. They did such a beautiful job you actually cannot tell where the cracks are.

After a lot of deliberation between the Irishman and our plumber Ross (“The Boss”), a wooden H frame was built around the bottom of the base and four men lifted it up on top of the drum table. It’ll stay there for now until we finish building its real home at our new entrance way.

As Dylan would say, Ta Dah! A much brighter living room. In the morning the sunlight just floods in from those doors and the whole place literally glows.

Just to give you an idea, the photo below shows the old living room when we moved in. Notice all the lights were on in the daytime. It was cozy but dark. About the only thing that’s still there is the ceiling! We replaced those two windows with the doors, took down the fireplace and the mud brick wall to the right.

This new living room extension used to be the old guest room in the house which was a real waste as it had the most beautiful morning light.

Ok now comes the real gritty part. After all the builders, movers and plumbers left, I found myself annoyed at the messy speaker cables marring my lovely new living room. So I decided to thread the speaker cables under the floorboards through the holes left by the wall radiators. Couldn’t be that hard right? After all the pest control guy and the plumbers go down there all the time!

So it was thus I found myself under the house, crawling on stomach and elbows with a torch in my teeth, through the tiny 50 cm high gap between our floorboards and the foundations of the house. This was not what my mother had envisaged when she paid for my law degree.

It was basically great piles of rubble, insects, moths and water pipes under the house. I had to crawl 10 metres in either direction from the opening to feed the speaker cables to either side of the living room. Just when I found the light shaft which indicated the hole to feed the cable through, I realised that my elbow was on a rather large, mouldy desiccated rat the size of a New York bagel.

My natural ninja reflexes kicked in and I jumped up in fright, knocking my head against the underside of the floor, which thus started a chain reaction resulting in 8 hairy Huntsman spiders being dislodged and clouds of damp dust rising up from earth like a zombie horror movie.

When I finally extricated myself from the crawl space, I pulled myself up into the living room covered in cobwebs and rat faeces to discover two gleeful faces of the 4 and 6 year old recanting the new colourful swear words they had heard emanating mysteriously from under the house. “FUK!” Finn crowed!!! “Mum said FUK!!!!!!”

I pulled myself up with as much dignity as a person wearing a pink hat and a cobweb covered old Juicy Couture sweatsuit could muster and pronounced “You are ONLY allowed to say that word if you are a MAMA AND if you are fighting the zombies under the house!”. That is that.

Oh how the sheep laughed.

I think we should look at lovely pictures of our garden now to recover from that little unpleasant incident. Look at these beautiful magnolias and lavender sprigs I cut from the garden! Bright shiny things. Look here!

So I held a dinner party to celebrate our new mini-renovation.

We had portobello mushrooms with our own organic asparagus and an anchovy, miso, chilli sauce. Salt baked snapper stuffed with herbs from the garden. Japanese slaw with a sesame yuzu soy dressing. Imogen’s lovely berry pavlova. We stayed up till nearly 2 a.m. in the morning and I played the piano while taking sozzled bizarre requests like “The Hippotamus Song”, the Australian National Anthem and “Tiny Dancer”.

Everything was in its right place. Except for the rat bagel.