Friday, May 28, 2010

Happy weekend

Much to blog about next week, but for now may these flowers (two from my garden!) brighten your Friday afternoon. Have a happy weekend!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Oh, and one more photo for the previous post

Wouldn't you love to see what's behind there?

Behind closed doors

OK, so this is a slightly strange blog post and it's much more about photos than words today. For some reason, I've been thinking about the mystery and intrigue of what's behind doors. As a traveller you get to see public spaces, whether they be streets, museums, galleries, gardens, markets or sites of historical significance. Occasionally when travelling you get invited behind closed doors to see someone's home. 
Whenever I'm travelling, or even exploring Melbourne's laneways or Ballarat's historic city streets, I'm fascinated as much by what I can't see as what I can. This isn't voyeuristic, I just want to make sure I'm not missing out on anything! Maybe it's an Alice in Wonderland curiosity. Sometimes, as in most of these photos, the door is so beautifully carved or painted that it just adds to the wonder. 
Well, we can't see everything and go everywhere so these images today are just some of the many doors I've admired but haven't been through. 
The photos were taken in Morocco, England, Sweden and Thailand.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In love with Luang Prabang

I recently went to the zoo and among the many animals we saw was the beautiful butterfly house. It evoked fond childhood memories but also made me think about one of my all-time favourite places - Luang Prabang in Laos, which has so many charms including exotic-looking butterflies fluttering all over town.
Luang Prabang is one of those places that on one hand you don't want anyone else to know about because it's such a unique and exquisite destination, but on the other hand you want everyone to experience a place of such marvellous beauty. Thankfully it's a UNESCO heritage listed town so hopefully the atmosphere will be maintained. 
The town is the former capital of Laos. It is full of graceful French-colonial era buildings, old wats and is situated between two rivers amidst dense jungle. The streets are strewn with frangipani and there's a palpable sweet smell in the air. It's easy to walk around and there's numerous day trips you can go on. We went on an elephant trek in the middle of the jungle and saw how mahouts are saving elephants from hard labour like logging and giving them a better life. We also swum in a beautiful, refreshing tiered waterfall, which was greatly needed after a long day in the humidity.
Because of its French influence, the town has many European-inspired bakeries and there's no shortage of delicious breads and cakes. The local cuisine however takes the cake (excuse the pun) and we dined on sumptuous lemongrass stuffed with chicken, dried river vegetable chips with tomato, eggplant dips and pastes, sticky rice, banana and coconut smoothies and the traditional Laos Jeow Bong (sweet chilli paste). Many of the guesthouses offer cooking classes and this is a wonderful way to experience the cuisine and savour it long after you leave.
There are many small businesses in Luang Prabang that encourage tribespeople to craft their wares and sell to travellers. Many of the menus in towns ask travellers to 'stay another day' in the town to give more. 
There is a beautiful night market in Luang Prabang that's unlike any other market I've been to in Asia. Usually the Asian markets are lively and bustling and full of vendors rushing around to chat or re-stock or sell. The night market in Luang Prabang is very sedate. It's a street of mainly women and children sitting under red umbrellas with their goods spread out on blankets and quilts before them. There's no pressure to buy and it's therefore absolutely delightful admiring all the handmade clothing, bags and linen.
One of the best endeavours I've ever seen was called Big Brother Mouse, a small Laos-run publishing house that asks travellers to buy books to give to the local children. It aims to increase literacy among local children and to help them to learn about their own culture and stories. I gave a few books to children on a long-tail boat out in the jungle. They looked delighted when they took them and then 'read' them upside down and back the front. We had a guide for that day trip and he told us the children would walk a few hours back to their village so they were worthy recipients in a remote area.
The other amazing thing about Luang Prabang is the monks. There are saffron-robed monks everywhere working and living in the wats, and each morning they rise at dawn to ask alms of the townspeople. This involves a long procession around the town and local women fill their bowls with sticky rice. It's a solemn affair and they ask that travellers don't donate unless they're Buddhist. The long line of robed monks is an absolute photographer's delight but something that I didn't want to impose on. They are there asking for food, not as a tourist spectacle.
The town is resplendent, regal and romantic. An amazing place to spend a week and a day.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Exotic, exciting, extreme and Essaouira

One of my favourite books is a big photography book called Travelogues. It's published by Taschen, whose books I greatly admire for their high-spec production, beautiful photography and content that is full of wonderful places and people. The book chronicles the traveller, Burton Holmes, who journeyed around the globe in the first half of the twentieth century and funded his trips by telling his stories and showing his photos to a paying audience. Near the end of his life he reflected on his life and travels and on the difference between his memories and those of his friends who hadn't travelled. This is what he said:
'I, too, have nothing but memories but I would not exchange my memories for theirs. I have a secret treasure upon which I can draw at will. I can bring forth, on the darkest day, bright diamonds of remembered joys . . . a little journey made, an expedition carried to success, several circumnavigations of the globe accomplished.'
Burton Holmes was an extraordinary traveller travelling in that age before globalisation began. Travel wasn't easy and it wasn't cheap. It required months of planning, long sea voyages, and real culture shock. It's rare these days to go somewhere that you have never seen footage of. In these days of the internet and TV and a proliferation of books, we often have a sense of what we'll see before we see it. Global brands penetrate every corner of the earth and it's surprising in most countries not to meet other travellers or a local that speaks the same language. For someone like Burton Holmes, travelling to other countries must, at times, have been as foreign as going to another planet. 
When I first read Burton Holmes's great insight into travel memories, it really resonated with my own. I have been thinking the past few days of Essaouira in Morocco. I was lucky enough to travel to Morocco in 2006 on a three week trip with my husband and mum. We got to see a lot in that time and all fell in love with so much of the landscape - from the breakthtaking Sahara desert to the labyrinth alleyways of Marrakech and Fez. I'd really only read about Morocco before going there so for me it was a great culture shock, which I loved. I found it to be a wonderful assault on the senses. The culture was very exotic, the liveliness of the marketplaces very exciting and the heat extreme. I'd rarely had Moroccan food previously so the spices were tantalising to my palette, and I found the people fascinating to talk to.
Essaouira is on the Atlantic coast and known as Africa's windy city. It's set on ramparts overlooking the ocean and is picture-perfect with its whitewashed buildings, sea walls, and fishermen's boats. When we were there, there was a luminosity of light with the bright white of the town set against the blue sky. Compared with the cities, it was very laidback and charming and was a beautiful town to explore. 
We met an old man selling ceramics who had no voicebox and could only tell us about his wares in raspy whispers, we saw children sitting in the street grilling fish on coals, there were cats everywhere, we read books on our riad's windswept rooftop terrace, and we drunk a lot of mint tea with carpet sellers. I have a beautiful handwoven silk throw rug that I bought in Essaouira. It has reds and golds and greens in it and it's currently draped over my couch as a memory of such a rich place. 
Whether you're travelling to somewhere very different to what you know in your own culture, or just exploring locally, travel can change the way you think, make you look at the world differently and expand your horizons in ways you never knew.

The simple things in life

I'm someone who's always out walking, exploring, or visiting cafes, shops, markets or galleries. Even with a baby, I rarely just sit at home. However, yesterday morning I didn't feel like going out but I didn't want to stay indoors. Instead, I put a deck chair in a sunny spot under a pretty tree and sat in the garden while my baby girl slept in the stroller next to me. It was the perfect opportunity to read for a while and enjoy the sounds and sights of the garden. 
I'd highly recommend just slowing down occasionally and doing this. Sit in your backyard, take a picnic rug to a park or a towel to the beach, or read in a cafe or bookshop.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Thinking outside the frame

All of us would undoubtedly like to own artworks by famous masters or up and coming artists. I did once visit an illustrator in her home in London and among her many framed paintings, there was an original sketch by Matisse. How the other half live! 
My home has many vintage travel posters and dozens of framed photos, but today I thought I'd also tell you about a few ideas for interesting and inexpensive wall decorations.
I've included three photos to give you some (hopeful) interior design inspiration. One of my framed treasures is actually a teatowel. I saw it in a magazine and ordered it online. I couldn't resist the kitsch design and 'London, Lovely Home' writing. I just wanted to look at it, rather than soil it with dishwater! Another is a gorgeous cushion cover that I bought in a rural area of southern China. It was bought from a tribeswoman, and she was very reluctant to sell such exquisite work. It's all handmade and immaculately woven, and I imagine she felt emotional about parting with such a labour of love. I'd love to put a cushion in it and place it on the couch but I don't want it getting food spills, so instead I keep it safe in a frame where I can admire it on top of my bedroom mantlepiece. Another wall hanging is a piece of wrapping paper bought in Barcelona. It cost only a few euros but is very funky and fun and adorns my hallway. The great thing is that I can easily justify replacing it when I tire of it! There are a lot of gorgeous wrapping paper designs around, whether it be vintage ABC posters for kids, maps of cities or the world, or circus imagery, there's loads to choose from.
Oh, and a tip is that Ikea has tasteful, sturdy frames in a range of shapes, sizes and colours.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

To everything there is a season

May is one of those months when the change of the seasons is electric in the air. When I lived in England, May meant long drives in the countryside to see baby animals and wild daffodils. I remember driving through the New Forest and seeing foals trotting through villages and them being so bold as to walk alongside cars. Spring in England is palpable and long looked forward to after months of biting cold and short days.
Here in Ballarat, I've discovered that May means streets lined with russet and golden trees, crisp mornings, chilly evenings and luminous sunsets. 
I went for a long walk today to admire Ballarat, in what I imagine to be her best season. I haven't yet lived here a year so I haven't seen all the changes, but today the sky is bright blue, the sun is shining and with every step there's crunchy leaves underfoot. Winter is on its way bringing its own mood, but for now I'm enjoying the vivid colours, the relative mild weather and the opportunity to admire the picture-perfect scenery.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A little bit of London

The first winter that I lived in London, I was walking to work and it started snowing. It was one of those delightful moments when you feel a child-like excitement and glee. I hurried back home to get my camera and then spent the next half hour taking photos of the snowflakes falling in Holland Park and in front of the rows of terrace houses in Kensington. When I got to the office, the group of Danish people that I worked with thought it highly amusing and bemusing that the Australian thought snow was such a novelty and so worthy of excitement - especially when it was only a few centimetres on the ground. They were all accustomed to walking to work in Copenhagen in knee-deep snow. Just thinking about that day brings an unwitting smile to my face, and it was just one of many such moments of living in that city.
Living in London can have its ups and downs, like anywhere. You get annoyed with the tourists dragging their trolley cases up and down tube station stairs when all you want to do is rush past and get to work on time; you get frustrated by the rubbish; and disheartened by the crime; and you get sick and tired of the pre-packaged meals in every eatery. The winters are long and chilly and the summers are brief.
However, like Cairo, Istanbul, Venice, Shanghai, Rome and Hong Kong, you know that you're just one passerby in one moment in a city that's been at the forefront of the world. London: a once grand capital of an empire, where every stone has a history and a story, as melting pot of culture and the arts, as travellers' hub, as stoic survivor of war and terror, and with icons at every turn. London is one of those cities that for an expat, some marvel is around every corner. Of course the English are all trying to leave and come to Australia, but for those of us who haven't grown up there it holds countless wonders. 
Once in the early hours of the morning after a late flight from Europe, my husband and I got a taxi from Liverpool Street Station home to Parsons Green. The city was asleep but for the men unloading carcasses of animals from trucks in the Smithfield meat market streets. As we drove past the London Eye and Buckingham Palace and the lights of Harrods, I recall having to pinch myself that I lived in such a place. 
London is a city full of wonderful moments. From visiting the great galleries to lazy afternoons in former royal hunting grounds to discovering that antique means something more than a hundred years' old to long and lavish afternoon teas in posh palaces and grand hotels. Hearing a half dozen different British accents as you walk down the street, not to mention the same amount of languages. Seeing the amazing department store window displays and Christmas lights and realising that Christmas with its lights and heavy meal makes sense in the Northern Hemisphere. With Europe on its doorstep, and Asia considered the 'Far' East, London is geographically a long way from home, but somewhere that most Australians feel nostalgia for.
'Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford' - Samuel Johnson.
'Cast your eyes over London, that city which is forever reinventing itself' - Henri Alphonse Esquiros, 1884.
And now to my good friends, Claire and Tony as you set forth to live in London, my best advice is to explore and discover and marvel and wonder, for living even a little bit of one's life in London will stay with you forever.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The road less travelled

In 1837 two brothers, Somerville and Thomas Learmonth, migrated from Scotland to Australia to search for suitable farming land. They were aged eighteen and nineteen, young pioneers travelling to an unknown land. They certainly took the road less travelled. The homestead they founded is called Ercildoune and is located near Burrumbeet just a short drive from Ballarat. 
This weekend the property is open to visitors, and today we had a lovely time wandering the gardens with family. The house is grand and was modelled on the brothers' 13th century Scottish keep. The gardens are romantic, beautiful and perfectly preserved in their Australian arcadian setting but with strong English garden influences. There's an ornamental lake, a walled garden, expanses of lawn and a lily pond. The garden features urns, a sundial and an ancient well believed to be 2000 years' old from Palestine! Among the lawns and trees are winding pathways and small wooded areas and it was delightful to meander down them and take the road less travelled from the other visitors.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Love the house you live in

I've been thinking about our homes a lot lately, and contemplating how much space we need. I live in a decent sized house with two living areas and three bedrooms, but a few years ago I was living in small flats in London that would fit three or four times into my current house. We seem to fill the space we're in, and we seem to think that we need the space we have or more. When I was in London, I loved the cosiness of the space, the small rooms that were easy to clean, the fact that furniture came with the rented flat so I didn't have to decorate. Now I love that my house is full of treasured possessions collected from travels and markets and given by loved ones, and that the space is my own canvas to create any style I want. I subscribe to a few homewares' magazines and am always inspired by other people's houses, but I do wonder if we put too much emphasis on 'needing' a bigger space or a big backyard or an entertaining area or a study or whatever. In reality these are all luxuries and in so much of the world, people are grateful for a roof over their heads and running water. I've been into houses built out of poles with dirt floors in Vietnam, where the family sleeps under the same roof as their animals, and the people seem joyous. I've been into little mud brick houses in Morocco where the only comfort and decorative item is a kilim or carpet. Here I attach a photo that I recently found from Cairo. It was one I took and then never printed and it's been hidden away stored on CD. It struck me because of the washing hanging from each window. Each line of washing represents a family, a story, a life. Behind those windows are love and laughter and treasured possessions, but I can't imagine any of them appearing in a posh homewares' magazine. So, wherever you are, whatever space you inhabit, love it, make it your own, and fill it with love and laughter.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Clunes Booktown

We drove to Clunes on Saturday morning for their annual Back to Booktown second-hand book fair. Clunes is a perfectly preserved gold-rush town. It was alive with bookish types browsing and buying every type of book imaginable. From vintage children's books to the latest paperback novels to collector's edition travelogues from the 19th century. There was also literary events with authors speaking about their work, although unfortunately I didn't attend any - it's a little tricky with a small girl in tow! So, if you're a book lover, mark the first weekend in May in your diaries for 2011!