Monday, July 11, 2016

A bit of my life as a writer.

In my thirties I tried to be a working writer. I was teaching one three hour evening school VCE class a week. I had two children, sixteen months apart who occupied much of my time. Still, I wrote. Journal. Short stories. A novel. Well, best to call it a novella. The novella amounted to 45,000 words. It was about a young woman whom I initially called Meredith but shortened to Mere - to some derision - who had married a young Anglican minister and lived to regret it. Underneath it all, I was writing about my own experience of being a Christian. Writing the book was cathartic and it helped me, at 37, to finally disentangle myself from the hold that Christianity and church had over me. That was extremely liberating and I've never returned to it. I think I'm probably over the bitterness I felt at being trapped in religion for so long. Can't stand going to church services for baptisms and funerals these days. Interestingly, I can still sing or recite all the liturgy. (I can also sing about a million TV show themes and adverts too and recite Shakespeare. It's all about exposure and repetition.)
Stick to the point. The writing. I began a business and sought copywriting opportunities. With the help of a relative in the design business I got perhaps three lucrative projects. I say lucrative because for the few hours involved they paid heaps more money than teaching did.  I enjoyed playing with words to complete the projects but they didn't provide any ongoing job satisfaction, especially the advertising catalogue for a now defunct stationery company. Pfft. Writing a newsletter for a restaurateur was more fun but he went bust and I experienced how hard some people have it regularly trying to get paid for their completed work. He shrugged and told me he simply didn't have the money - $500 - to give me. It was a lot of money back then given I was getting $25 an hour under our agreement. 
With the paucity of copywriting opportunities I mainly wrote résumés, the occasional student essay and job applications responding to key selection criteria. I became quite a job counsellor. The internet hadn't really taken off at that stage. I industriously read the classifieds in The Age, getting some sense of the job market and developed skills in helping people get work. Really. But once they'd secured work I never saw them again. You don't want them coming back because that means you've been unsuccessful. A couple of sad souls kept returning for yet another cover letter. 
My workroom is at the back of our house and looks out onto a paved courtyard. The kids’ tyre swing used to hang from an old fir tree, long since cut down. But it looked nice out there. One young woman, a return client, with a big fleshy stubbly face and woolly hair scraped back into a pony tail, gazed wistfully out there one day. You're so lucky, she said, to have this job. 
Some of my résumé writing experiences weren't pleasant. One woman, who'd seemed perfectly nice at the initial résumé consult turned into psycho-bitch when it came time to pay for the final product upon which she cast unwarranted aspersions. She held it in her left hand and slapped at it with the back of her right as she scorned the way I'd written it. In my ignorance, I'd put a hyphen in the compound word, bookkeeper. It was easily remedied but this instigated her ire. I fixed the problem and printed out a new copy. She claimed she'd have to take the two page document to a better résumé  service to see if they could fix my inferior work. I snatched it back from her. You're not having it, I said. I'd rather rip it up than let you take something unsatisfactory. This made her reconsider and she handed me twenty-five dollars before storming back through my home and out the door. Heart beating in her wake, I realised that she was simply trying to get the document for free. Probably behaved like that all over the place.
I formed a friendship of sorts with an elderly semi-retired businessman. He'd seen my ad in  the local paper. He'd get me to type business letters for him. Suppose I was his clever little secretary. He was a gentleman: tall, white-wavy hair, well groomed, soft checked shirts and business pants but with a sort of horsey country air about him. He'd wait while I typed his mail and we'd talk. He told me the story of his son’s death. His face crumpled and almost broke as he shared his grief. His son had died when a drug-filled condom he'd ingested in a smuggling attempt had burst in his intestine. His son had attended a private Christian college; had been loved and nurtured. This man couldn't understand what had happened. It broke my heart listening to him.
That was the thing about the little job I had. Clients shared their stories with me. Something about my demeanour seems to invite that. However  it wasn't enough and at forty I decided to let it go and get back into secondary teaching. Interestingly, my first teaching position after having my own kids was at the same school that gentleman’s son had attended. I was going to send my own children there, having put their names on a list back in my ‘intense Christian’ phase, but my five months experience there made me get my money back. As an educator, memories of that school still make me shudder.
During my break from teaching I also had three articles published in The Age, and I was paid for them; it was probably one of the biggest thrills of my life, especially when the first appeared. About 800 words long, it was underneath an article by Bettina Arndt and a cartoon illustration accompanied my piece about an experience I'd had, as a newly diagnosed person with diabetes. I'd submitted the article to coincide with Diabetes Week but I'd been occupied with looking after kids and hadn't expected it to be published. I’d had no indication that it would be. I experienced a sort of fifteen minutes of fame: congratulatory phone calls; the school where I taught on a very part-time basis had photocopied my article and pinned it on a notice board. I was astounded that I received so much adulation for this, and two other pieces that were subsequently published. They'd taken little effort to write. The hardest part was having the audacity to think that anyone would want to read what I'd written; having the guts to submit them. 
People wanted to talk about my writing. Teaching, for me, is far more worthy and humanitarian and yet I rarely get accolades for having devoted much of my adult life to it.
I'm glad I've never had to earn a living through writing. I've recently read Ruth Park’s engrossing two part autobiography, A Fence Around the Cuckoo and Fishing in the Styx. She wrote to live and by god she worked hard. (Highly recommend those books.)
I teach and I write. I've written things for which I haven't been paid that have been published in magazines. I've had as much satisfaction from writing these and seeing them published as I have from the paid articles, although there was a certain prestige in appearing in the then revered Age broadsheet newspaper.
Fortuitously, I heard, from an English teacher colleague, about blogging. Blogging seems to satisfy my writing needs. I began my fraudulentteacher blog in 2005 and later began fraudstersmusings. Between them I've had more than 65,000 page views. Not heaps but enough to satisfy me. I gather lots of those page viewers might not actually read what I've written but lots of them do. 
Why this need to write my stories? It's just what I've always done.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The upside of travel. Happy meetings.

At Charles De Gaulle airport with a couple of spare hours pre flight back to Oz via Abu Dhabi.

The best thing for me about travelling, and life, actually, is interaction with other people. (I'm still learning not to overreact to any perceived offence. 'Maybe it's paranoia, maybe it's sensitivity...' Joni Mitchell said that. Love Joni.)

One interesting interaction was on the train from Munich to Stuttgard. We shared a six seater first class compartment with Boris and his daughter, Josie. (See, I'm so nosy I get names.) We initially started talking because we'd been double booked in the same seats. It I didn't matter, given there were four of us and six seats available. He spoke perfect English with a slight accent. His daughter spoke with a flawless clipped British accent. Then they slipped into their native Estonian - I think. However, they live in Munich and also speak German. Boris, having been born in Russia to a Finnish mother and Russian father, also speaks both those languages. I find that amazing, coming from a country where speaking anything other than 'Strayan' - as the word Australian is often pronounced - unless one is a migrant, is unusual. It was the first day of Josie's three month summer break from the international school she attends. Given that her mother had to work that weekend, she and Boris were attending a seminar in Switzerland. On quantum physics. As one does. 

While Josie, a teenager, listened to music on her phone and sketched faces in blue ink in her visual diary, Boris told us a little about his life. A ship builder now, whose next contract doesn't start until October in Japan, Boris also did his time, aged eighteen, in the Russian army. 'It was bad,' he said, 'but not like prison.' He served on the North Korean border. The harshness was mitigated for him by his mother's insistence during his youth that he attend a music school. Consequently, he had learned the flute, having been 'no good, according to [his] teacher' at cello. Thus he played in the military band and was proud that he'd never carried a Kalashnikov during his military service. 'Only a flute.'

Boris, urbane and articulate, is a passionate ice fisherman. Said he is much happier if it's minus 30 degrees than anything over 25. 'You just drill your hole in the ice and it's wonderful,' he said. 'To keep warm you can drink some tea. I can stay out there - in Finland on the ice - all day. But the days are short.'

We shared the cabin for a couple of hours and the time flew. Sounds like I did some sort of interrogation but it wasn't like that. Boris was equally interested in our Australian lives and our travels. 

Yesterday, we went in search of something of Paris as I remembered it from 1980. That was a winter holiday and I don't recall the hordes of tourists we've seen in the summer months. So we took the métro to Sebastopol and walked through the Montorgueil area. There we found an arcade, Passage du Grand Cerf, and wandered through it. This arcade has greenery hanging from one of those high leaded glass-like ceilings and was lined with shops selling beautiful handcrafts and jewellery, amongst other things. And not one other tourist. How can this be, so close to the Marais which is crawling with tourists?

Chantal, a shopkeeper I talked to, explained that there's Paris for the tourists and Paris for the locals. We had wandered into her shop - Le Labo + filf; Objets poétiques et créations lumineuses - looking for some unusual gifts. Chantal's daughter, Maud, designed the beautiful bags I ended up buying. Chantal was lovely and more than happy to chat with me in French, something I crave. She asked where we were staying and how we intended getting to the airport. She lives in the arrondissement where our apartment was and was puzzled as to why the tourism office had directed us to Porte d'Orléans as the nearest métro station. 'Cité Universitaire is much closer, just a walk through Parc Montsouris. And it connects directly with CDG airport.' She laughed a bit at this. We'd not only walked out of our way to catch the métro each day but the train loops through heaps of stations adding about fifteen minutes onto a journey that otherwise takes about five. Ha. At least we found the local supermarkets.

It was a fortuitous meeting, Chantal, should you ever read this, you greatly reduced the stress of our trip to the airport this morning. (Chantal and I did actually swap email addresses and I've already composed the email I'll send her as soon as we get back home. I haven't been able to send any emails while I've been in Europe, for reasons I don't understand.)

By the way, there was a four day haute couture fashion event during our week in Paris. Twice we've stumbled upon the glitterati and their entourages. The other day we walked along the red carpet being set up in Rue Montaigne. Yesterday we were amongst the buzz and press of the Jean-Paul Gaultier show. I know this from another of my sources, haha, a freelance photographer sitting outside a café near the mêlée. He was nice. I told him I'm a writer, of sorts, and he was keen for me to hang around and soak up the ambience. 'This is a big thing. You have Jean-Paul Gaultier. Use that as a label in your blog and you'll have more readers,' he suggested. 'And you have the fashions and the chateau here.' Yes, there was a chateau. Beats me if I can remember the name of the street we were in. (Perhaps I'd look it up if I wasn't up in the air courtesy of Etihad Airways.) Hard to see through all the posh cars with their tinted windows. At that moment an emaciated model fell off her six inch stilettos right in front of us. All caught by the nearby paparazzi. She didn't miss a beat. Picked herself up and continued wobbling along the cobbled path.

More interested in sausages than fashion, I moved on in my Target blue jeans, home-made haute couture shirt and running shoes.

Now Porte de la Villette sounded interesting in the Paris tourist guide. It's where two canals converge. It was almost at the end of the métro line it was on. No one else seemed to be going there. We emerged from the métro into a dodgy looking street, walked a bit, then crossed the road into an enormous empty 'parc'. Well, there was a science exhibition centre if you're into that sort of thing, which I'm not. We wandered over relatively modern - 1983 - cobbled pathways to check out the canal. Yep. Canal. Straight. Flowing. There was a sort of 'fun fair' but no one really seemed to be having any. A carousel was going around playing the Danube waltz. A guy was leaning idly on the counter inside the office of the unused dodgem cars. (I was slightly tempted, but then thought of the camping car and decided against it.) Quite bleak, really. A handful - six? - other tourists were wandering around with bemused expressions, like wtf am I doing here? (I'm perhaps being unkind about this place. Al compared it to Melbourne show grounds when the show's not on.)

I used - needs must - one of the grottiest 'bathrooms' since the back blocks of Vietnam. Two, let's call them ne'er do wells, male, were hanging around inside the unisex facility. The toilet wouldn't flush, no paper. Just a stench of old urine. (Not mine.)  Suppose it could have been worse, I thought as I swabbed the backs of my thighs with antiseptic handwash.

Happily, the Champs Élysées is only a métro ride away. We came up into the sunshine and the glorious view of the arc and right into the middle of a great hip hop dance performance. You can knock your tourist haunts but this is where you can enjoy a bit of street entertainment, for free if you're a bit short on spare change. It was wonderful.

I'm on the plane now, having an early Chardonnay - it's 11.45 am Paris time - and I'm sure I've tested your stamina with such a long post. Thank you again for reading.

PS. Do you know how effectively writing passes time?

Reflections on our last night in Paris

Sadly, we're leaving Paris early tomorrow morning after six days here. It's also the end of our six week vacation. (Don't think I've ever needed a complete break so desperately before. See previous posts re me and my old mum.) This holiday, torrential rain notwithstanding, has been wonderful. And I'm writing that despite all the anxiety incurred renting and driving a whopping great 'camping car' - let's call it a truck/lorry/camion - from Munich across France to the Atlantic coast and back. Not to mention the €700 bill for the damage I caused to the van by navigating Al into a hedge. (This was our fifth camping car rental, by the way. We've only managed to return our van once without damage of some sort. Hehe.)

Al and I have been to Paris five times now. This time we had no real plans of what to do for six days. I had a vague idea that I wanted to return to a fabric store - Sacrés Tissus - because I'd bought some lovely unusual  fabric there a couple of years ago. (Went. Didn't find anything.)

I'm making myself gag now. Here I am in the 'city of light' and all I want to do is buy a couple of metres of fabric. But, I'm a dressmaker and that's what I like to do. Suppose one should have sympathy for Al, who follows me around; hangs around at shop entrances in his Aussie cowboy hat pretending he's a tall Crocodile Dundee. (He looks quite cool, I think.)

To summarise a bit of our week in Paris:
It's always an immense relief when one arrives at one's Airbnb rental and discovers it is as described and more. This is our third Airbnb rental in France and second in Paris. Seems there are a few more service charges than there were when we rented in Bordeaux in 2013, but back then the company wasn't advertising on television as it is these days. (Hope they haven't got too big for their britches.)

You don't need a description of our apartment. Let's just say it's near Porte d'Orléans and on 'our' corner we have a couple of decent restaurants and the beautiful Parc Montsouris to wander through. The closest métro, at the other side of the park, is also a direct line to Charles De Gaulle airport. Should prove useful in the morning. The apartment is close to boulangeries - croissants! Tartes aux champignons! Etcetera! - markets and supermarkets. Parfait - perfect - as I've just written in a note to our host, Françoise.

Over the last six days we have walked our feet off. I don't care if I look like a tourist. My expensive  running shoes, and my regular jogging back home, ensured that despite having walked countless ks I have remained blissfully blister free. Decided against chancing Velib - the bike rental system - this time. Have already fallen off my bike once (good sight gag, I imagine) - cycling around beautiful Bodensee - Lake Constance - and nearly cycled myself under a bus last time I was in Paris.

So much for a summary. Too much information, I know, but indulge me, dear reader. I'll be teaching surly adolescents six days from now.

Last Saturday, several bridges across the river Seine were closed due to the massive gay pride march that we just happened upon. Massive crowds. Uplifting experience. Enormous police presence - and not just in the march. Our bags were searched by police carrying rifles as we crossed the Pont Neuf to see what was going on. 

Very conspicuous armed police and military presence all week in Paris, especially yesterday when there had been a demonstration - if I understood my French source correctly. Yesterday was the day that the government implemented its changes giving more power to the bosses and less to the workers, according to my source. Walking along the Seine amongst hundreds of armed police in full on sci-fi riot gear was somewhat unnerving but if there was any shit going down, I'm glad they were there.

On Sunday, we spent a long time on the métro and SNCF - the railway - going to and from Claude Monet's house and garden at Giverny. Guess what? It rained the entire time. Still. So beautiful. I read somewhere that Claude Monet said his garden, developed over 40 years if my memory serves, was his greatest achievement. It was wonderful. It really was. But, and I know I'm one, tourists. Blerk. We queued, and shook our sodden umbrellas over each other and poked each other in the eyes with them. We shuffled around those tiny paths blocking each other's views of Japanese bridges and lily pads. We tried to absorb a sense of the place; to have impressions - pun intended. Wonder what Monet would have made of us all disturbing his place. Could he ever have imagined the travesty that we tourists would make of his creation?

The hour train ride back to Paris was interesting. It was so packed that I couldn't even place my feet in such a way that I could balance. I clutched Croc Dundee by the chest hairs and tried not to cry. Really. That bad.

Still, glad we spent the money - about €100 for two of us counting a 'light lunch' - and visited Giverny.

(If you want to see extremely glorious medieval French villages and towns though, try the Alsace region - Colmar, Kaysersberg - birth place of Albert Schweitzer - Strasbourg. Actually, lots of France if our experience is any indication.)

Revisited Sacré Coeur on another day - it's close to my fabric shop!  I'd hate to be a physically impaired tourist in Paris. The climb to the cathedral is quite a challenge. Suppose you could catch a bus, or tootle around in the ubiquitous little white tourist train. Another word on sodding tourists. Yes, sod them. There are clear signs in about four languages forbidding the taking of photos inside the cathedral. Completely ignored. What is wrong with these people? 

Sacré Coeur highlights: lovely music in the lane outside. Three musicians, all harmonising, one guitarist, one beating out a rhythm, one mc-ing. So good.
Second thing? A delicious hotdog with onions and hot mustard. (A few trips to Germany and I've become quite the sausage aficionado.)

A word on Parisian hospitality, and I've probably written this before: people have been so helpful. Note well: I can speak French. In fact I speak it really well. My problem is my aural comprehension. I fool people and then I haven't got the heart to interrupt their responses to ask them to slow down. Croc Dundee, Al, understands French but can't really speak it yet he meets with neither aggression nor arrogance should he ask a stranger for assistance. I don't understand these scathing commentaries I've read here and there about people having trouble communicating with the French. In fact, all the young people seem keen to practise their English

Look, you know what, there's much more, but it's getting late and I have to get up at five. Thanks so much for reading.