Summer.

It’s the second last week of the summer holidays and yesterday we swam and swam, the water a pale green that deepened the further down we dived until it became the exact colour of grass. We went out again in the evening, just down from our house, slipping and sliding on steps slick with moss, and then diving straight in, the sun low in the sky and the colour of the water now a darkening blue.

Landeli

The day before we got the ferry across the lake and caught a bus up into the hills. We walked through a tiny little village full of houses covered in flowers and Swiss flags, before descending into the forest and then under the freeway to a park with views of both ends of the Zurich lake, one end the city and the other end the mountains, and we ate our lunch while we watched sailboats dodging the ferries and zigzagging on the water like dragonflies.

forest

And today? It’s raining, so there’s ping pong and piano and baking and reading and pizza for lunch, and my daughter licks the bowl from the chocolate cake while the cat demands dinner at least an hour before she usually gets it, and it still feels like the holidays because doing not much at all or a little bit of everything feels exactly right. (So take that, Phd…)

 

 

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Independence Day.

My baby’s leaving me for another week. This time it’s a Ranger Tour, a week-long camp in the mountains for a bunch of ten to twelve-year olds from all over Switzerland. They’ll do overnight treks, cook all their own meals, sleep in tents and yurts and shelters they’ve made themselves, use their magnifying glasses to spy on ants and spiders, and generally have, I hope, an awful lot of fun. My brave daughter, still sometimes painfully shy at school, won’t know a soul but seems undeterred, unlike her mother who, at that age, would have flatly refused to go, scared witless at the thought of all those strangers.

(What does worry her is the thought of a whole week without reading, this girl who devours books, just like I used to. And look where it got me…)

I’m in the thick of researching and writing about colonial Australia, a vicious, dangerous and merciless place (particularly if you were being colonised instead of doing the colonising, and no matter how it has been – and continues to be – too often portrayed), and I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think I would have coped very well, had I lived back then. I like to think that my daughter might have fared a little better, much like Nana, her great-great-grandmother, who lived for a while on a goldfield in Far North Queensland in the very, very late 1800s, a resourceful woman by all accounts, sifting through the tailings (the residue of the mining process, which, back then, was very rudimentary indeed) for anything left over, and working in a pub, as well as marrying at sixteen (not what I envisage for my daughter! ).

Still, I like to think that there’s a little bit of Nana running through her blood. It might have skipped over my generation but it’s heartening to think that there’s still someone in the family willing to put up with a little dirt and discomfort, someone who, when she was about five or six insisted that when she grew up she wanted to be an explorer. And now here’s her opportunity. And not a moment too soon for someone who’s on the cusp of teenager-hood, a whole new world in itself, the exploration of which will, I suspect, leave little time for anything else.

Meanwhile, back home I’ll revel in a whole week without parental responsibilities or teaching and just plenty of time to study and write. Which is also a little like exploring, just without the sleeping-in-a-tent bit, and with more gin-and-tonics.

 

A photo of the explorer in her formative years:

Young explorer

 

 

Dance Box

It’s Sunday afternoon, the sun is shining, and we need to get out of the house. There’s a dance festival in Zurich, spread across the city, with opportunities to learn to dance as well as watch the experts. What could be better?

‘I don’t want to dance!’ my daughter cries when we reach the city. It’s as if we’ve suggested jumping in a vat of boiling oil instead of learning how to salsa. Her shoulders slumped, she stumps along beside us with a frown on her face, and I can feel the day slipping away from us and we contemplate getting back on the train. But we compromise, agreeing to try just one event with the promise of ice cream at its completion.

And so it is that we find ourselves at the Dance Box, and it’s not what we expected. At all.

It’s a tiny, yellow caravan, with a sign on top. There’s a red lightbulb above the door that glows when the caravan is occupied, and two slots, one for payment of a franc and the other for you to insert the card upon which you’ve ticked the box of your preferred dance.

We wait in line, all of us giggling, laughter erupting when the caravan starts to rock from side to side or the sound of stomping is heard. Each time the red light goes off and the door opens people emerge with big grins on their faces and the rest of us crane our necks to see inside.

Finally, we’re next, and my daughter inserts the coin and the card in their respective slots. The door opens and my husband and daughter climb aboard, because there’s only room for two. But I’m happy just to be there, the whole experience so different to anything else I’ve experienced. The caravan rocks and sways and the whole line laughs and I wish I could hug the person who came up with this idea.

After a few minutes the door opens and they emerge, laughing, their faces lit up with what can only be described as joy. They can’t wait to tell me all about it, about the two tiny chairs for them to sit on, and the dancer who danced without music, who came right up to their faces and swayed and jumped and moved her arms and legs and seemed to take up all the space.

Our afternoon has been transformed and I can see it’s the same for everyone else, too. We lick ice creams as we wander along the river until we reach a playground and my almost-teenage daughter climbs and swings as if the grumpy girl from earlier never even existed.

That an idea so small and simple could be so powerful is a revelation. It’s also inspiring, because it strikes me that this is what the essence of the creative arts should be, something transformative, no matter the size or cost or seriousness or anything else, whether a novel, short story or blog, an orchestra or single voice, an oil painting or pencil sketch, or a whole ballet by a company of people or a single dance by one person.

Such is the power of one dancer, no music, and one very tiny, very yellow caravan.

dance box

 

 

Teenagers

I’m spending a lot of time developing the character (based on a real person) of a fourteen-year old girl living in colonial Queensland in the late 1880s. It’s hard to imagine what a fourteen-year old was like back then, because teenagers didn’t exist, or at least not in the shape and form with which we are currently so familiar.

I think about my own ten-year old daughter (a tween??), still clutching Ruby, her stuffed horse, as she goes to sleep each night, and still racing towards the swings as soon as she spies a playground.

But the signs are there!

She’s forsaken pink for darker colours and kindly and freely offers her poor mother advice when she thinks I need it, which seems to be quite a lot of the time.

And then this morning she staggers to the breakfast table, headphones firmly in place, iPod in one hand, grunting and rolling her eyes when addressed. Her father and I roll our eyes at each other. Is this the beginning of the end? Is this the first real sign that our daughter is becoming, gasp…a teenager?

Ah, but then it turns out that instead of the mangled and inappropriate words of a scantily clad pop star our daughter is listening to Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Yes, George, Julian, Dick, Ann and Timmy the dog, as they go on jolly, wholesome adventures through the English countryside, complete with lashings of ginger beer, their socks falling down around their ankles and all adults gloriously conspicuous in their absence.

Life for my very own would-be teenager could not be more different than that of a young girl more than one hundred years ago, but I suspect they’re probably not as different as I think, ipods and Enid Blyton notwithstanding. Like that whiff of independence that makes them lift their heads, that realisation that family is not everything and that the world outside is only a few steps away.

Yet in my novel (and in real life, too) my colonial teenager has already sailed across the world from Cornwall to Queensland. She’s witnessed things my daughter will never, I hope, have to see and she’s partly grown up in a colony characterised as much by violence and racial hatred as that much-lauded pioneer spirit, however much we might wish to deny it.

There is much I would wish for my own daughter as she continues to grow, but the understanding that history is not as clearcut and neat as some books would have it, that the world is not as perfect as she might like it or as she’s been told, and that there are some lessons that will never be learned so she should keep on trying (always) are definitely on the list.

In the meantime, I’ll try to imbue my colonial teenager with that same growing sense of wonder and scepticism I can see in my own daughter, no matter the hundred or so years that separate them.

And I’ll try not to smile when I shouldn’t (nothing makes my daughter crosser when she’s in a bad mood), or cry when I shouldn’t as Ruby the horse and I watch my daughter move from being small to not-so-small.

Tilda asleep