Tuesday 30 October 2012

I need a wall

In fitness class sometimes I say “I don’t have any triceps”.  And in gymnastics years ago I was nicknamed “short arms” by the coach for complaining “my arms are too short” when I couldn’t stretch as far as he expected. 

But when I say “I have no wall” I really mean it.  More to the point: I need to get one! 

Regular readers know the background:

1)      I was dumped recently by my supposed fiancé as abruptly as if he were throwing out garbage: no warning, discussion, or (God forbid) kindness. 

2)      I was then shafted by my landlord who promised a long lease, got me to do extensive cleaning and repairs on his property in July on the strength of that promise, availed himself of my generosity to stay in the same property for two weeks (after playing the ‘friend of a friend card’) while I was overseas in October and he was passing through London… only to leave the house, not with a thank you card or financial contribution, but an eviction notice.  Apparently I’ve done such a good job on the place he wants to live here. 

Needless to say it’s awful, in either case, to be done over so comprehensively.  

More generally, though, I struggle variously with the ‘tone’ of London.  I love the theatres, galleries, intellectual stimulation and buzz.  But it’s a cold city in many ways; far removed from living in an Aussie beach town or surrounded by bonhomie, vines and olives in Tuscany.  For example:

1)    I found an old lady lost on the street late one Saturday night recently, and it turned out she’d been lost and disoriented for some hours.  She obviously has memory problems and was in no way a threat.  Yet not a single person she asked for help would pay attention, and she couldn’t find a policeman.  By the time a new friend, Dan, and I chanced upon her, she was anxious and confused, and an hour later extremely grateful we’d got her out of the rain, into a taxi, and worked out where she lived.  That experience at least left us pleased we’d been in the right place at the right time to help.

2)      By contrast, another night when the weather was suddenly cold and blustery, I returned home in the dark to find a woman and little boy at the front door to my apartment block.   As I approached with my key I could see the awning offered them no shelter from the rain.  “Hello”, I said “can I help you?”  She replied “no, we’re waiting for someone”.   “So they know you’re waiting do they?” I asked, as I lent beside her to get my key in the door.   “They’ll be here in a minute” she said curtly.  “Ok, so you’re alright then” I confirmed and moved into the doorway.  Just as I was shutting the heavy external door I heard her say to her little boy “how rude”.  I couldn’t believe it.  I opened the door again and stared at her.  “Madam” I finally managed to stutter “I was wanting to make sure you were alright as I thought you might have preferred to wait inside out of the cold.”  She stared blankly.  In complete defeat I added “what is the matter with Londoners? How could you possibly misinterpret such a genuine gesture…”  As I closed the door I heard her mumble “oh, sorry…”.

I went through the adjacent door to my ground-floor apartment, slammed and double bolted it. 

Living in London is like escaping a daily series of real or potential assaults.  London is aggressive so seasoned Londoners have personal walls.  Thick ones. 

Another day recently I was sitting in a café at the rear of the BFI (love that place) and two wonderful girlfriends arrive for a long late lunch just as I am being accosted by a teenage lad who wants some money for his youth club.  He holds up a piece of paper, like a petition, and gives a well-rehearsed spiel about how Arsenal used to fund them but no longer, and these inner-city youngsters need financial support to keep their activities going etc.  Requests for money are frequent in cities like London, but his pitch is polished.  He looks clean, bright, with a positive future if he can get a decent start.   I give him 5 pounds and say “that’s for the quality of your pitch… but make sure you spend it on what you say please”.  He smiles, runs away, and I turn to face my two girlfriends.  They are staring in disbelief.  Oh, oh.    

Turns out I was too far into it for them to feel they could stop me, but they point out quickly then that I have “been had”.  “Really” I ask “no chance he could be sincere?”  They shake their heads in unison.  Damn.  

Thus the “I NEED A WALL” discussion starts again (a recurring theme with close friends lately) and THIS TIME I agree it absolutely must be constructed!  It must be fitted ASAP and the “new Julie” will be more discerning, more judicious re who she trusts or puts faith in, for large and small matters.  After another bottle of wine it is jointly decided that I can still “choose” to “be nice” on appropriate occasions… “or generous”… but it will no longer be the “automatic default”… and I will give up any guilt or discomfort around allowing myself the freedom to “not be nice”… or “not to be seen as nice”… or better still, “be neutral”… “ignore people”… “look after myself” etc.

So what you need to know is that this ‘reprogramming’ is not an easy task.  I have my training wheels on.  Then yesterday, despite my best efforts to “KEEP UP THE WALL”, things don’t go according to plan….

I’m in a greasy-spoon café at 3pm, feverishly hungry and waiting for a big plate of bacon and eggs, as it’s the first chance I’ve had to eat all day.  The waiter puts down my plate and I grab my knife and fork, enthusiastically diving into the first of two naughty hash-browns.  Immediately I hear whispering from across the room but presume it isn’t for me.  Three mouthfuls in the voice grows louder: “can’t you hear I’m talking to you”.  I turn to face a woman alone at a table on the opposite wall.  With the egg I’m dying to taste hanging impatiently from my fork, she looks from it to me and says: “I’m hungry.  I’m homeless.  I’ve been sitting here for hours waiting for my brother to come and buy me breakfast but he hasn’t come yet.  Can you please get me something to eat?” 

The word sigh doesn’t cover it.  I simply can not believe how bad her timing is. 

I take another breath, looking from her to my fork and back again.  Instantly I feel bad.  Then I feel resentful.  Hunger wins out.  “Look lady, I’m sorry, but I simply can’t stop and respond to requests like that every single time… I haven’t eaten all day either.  Please, excuse me.”  I turn back to my plate as she mumbles “oh, sorry”. 

I could really swear about all the pathetic “oh sorry” I’ve been hearing lately, none of them sincere and too little too late.     

But I say to myself “remember the wall… THE WALL…” as I look longingly at my food.  But she’s wrecked it for me.  I simply can not eat now without feeling guilty.  Damn and double damn.  “It’s not your responsibility” I remind myself.  “She should’ve asked you at a better time… you can’t be expected to stop in the middle of your meal and rummage in your wallet.”  But every bite for the next five minutes is tasteless. 

Bloody London.  Bloody wall.  I’m going to need therapy or something.  But how can I eat now and enjoy it when she might be hungry? 

I do persevere until I’ve only got one piece of bacon left, and two halves of grilled tomato.  “It’s just bad luck for her.  I have a wall.  I need a wall.  And I’m only taking it down when someone deserves it” I whisper to myself – now clearly the mad one. 

And then eventually - not because I’m a nice person but because my construction of the wall is still pathetically inadequate – I get up and go to the counter and pay the café guy a few pounds for the standard ‘all day breakfast’.  “What does she want” he asks “tomatoes or mushrooms?”  “Would you take her order directly please” I request, “I want to get back and finish my meal”. 

I catch another woman’s eye at the counter, who shrugs like I’ve probably been had.  I don’t tell her about the wall. 

I go back to my cup of cold tea and last spoonfuls of food.  I realise my problem is that I don’t feel free in this situation; to genuinely give or not give.  But what’s harder, I muse, to go against your instincts… or to get taken advantage of? 

Now the ‘homeless lady’ is at the counter and the conversation for some reason is protracted.  Gradually the volume increases and it becomes clear she is asking for more than I have paid for – she wants a fancy omelette with black-pudding and a cup of tea and toast, which isn’t in the ‘all day breakfast’ deal.  My jaw drops.  I catch the same woman’s eye.  She shrugs again.  “Is she trying to leverage my investment” I ask sarcastically, trying to cover my real mix of awe and disbelief.   She smiles and nods knowingly. 

Damn.  And then I hear the café owner say “ok, ok, the lady has paid for the ‘all day breakfast’ but I will give you what you want and I will make up the difference… go and sit down please”. 

My handbag is now on my shoulder and I’m preparing to leave.  The café owner shakes his head and shrugs. The ‘homeless lady’ says “God Bless you, thank you” and sits down with hungry expectation.  Only God knows the extent of her need. 

The door jingles as I walk back out onto the Fulham Palace Road.  My stomach is full but I don’t feel satisfied.

Bloody wall.    


Monday 29 October 2012

Sensory Terrorism

Have you suffered Sensory Terrorism? 

You’ll at least identify occasions of Sensory Abuse: when changing a baby’s soiled nappy; when in proximity to a smoker; sitting on the train beside someone whose overdose of perfume/aftershave shows she/he fails to understand the difference between hints of frangipani and toilet deodorizer; or when a stranger rocks up too close on the dance-floor, twirls around and sprays torrential sweat in your direction.  Eeewww. 

More difficult to handle are experiences where you can’t escape the nasal assault.  I was once trapped on an overnight bus from Paris to Toulouse with a bunch of increasingly drunk, rowdy, rugby players.  For every beer each consumed they let go a brutal number of farts.  If I could have slept, as they eventually did, or open a window for fresh air, I might not have been so traumatized… as it was, the percentage of atmospheric methane to oxygen was like accumulating napalm. 
Squashed near stale garlic breath, or yesterday’s alcohol coming out of someone’s skin, is never pleasant.  Nor is it easy to handle a work colleague who reeks of BO.  I mean it’s not like you can say anything, is it?  And if their odour issues are coupled with a lack of body-language awareness, it may mean they lean in the more you lean out… in which case you’ll be undecided whether it’s a good thing the windows on the 21st floor don’t open manually.  
A couple of years ago, while living in Tuscany, I experienced one of the more extreme forms of Sensory Terrorism.  First I did some casual work for a woman with so many deranged and scruffy animals the word menagerie was inadequate.  Regularly I’d arrive in her ‘office’ only to discover a cat had piddled on the desk; ruining all sorts of documents and making the space impossibly offensive.  That relationship didn’t last long. 
The following year I lived temporarily in an apartment, in the beautiful countryside near San Gimignano, with a lady who had two cats.  One cat spent its days roaming outside, like normal cats do, and my only problem with him was that he left annoying cat-hair everywhere.  So I kept my bedroom door permanently shut and refrained from sitting on the sofa or watching TV.  I went out every night or went to bed early with a book.  The problem was irritating but manageable. 
The second cat, however, was three thousand years old and should have been taken to the Vet and put down decades before.  I don’t say this just because I’m a dog person.  This blind, pitiful cat appeared to be constantly suffering - squealing day and night in a scratchy, high-pitched wail that regularly put my nerves on edge.  Her owner, however, was completely in denial and wouldn’t do anything about it.  Only later did we learn the cat’s fur was so matted and her nails so long that they were doubling back and digging into her skin.  Ouch.  This pathetic discovery explained the screaming - for which I managed to dig up a little sympathy (for the cat) - but soon the situation became dire. 
When the weather got warmer the three thousand year old cat lost all possession of her bowels.  Formerly she’d left puddles of pee here and there (though not on my desk), but as temperatures climbed she started leaving her extremely smelly cacca… merda, pooh or whatever else you want to call it… ALL OVER THE FIRST FLOOR OF THE HOUSE.
No exaggeration.  And she liked this new trick so much that she would embellish it - pirouetting in the cacca and walking little brown-footprints all over the lounge-room floor, including around and under the dining table. 
You may appreciate this was not only utterly disgusting from an aesthetic and health perspective… but gradually my senses were so totally abused and my personal comfort so compromised… it became difficult at times to locate the throbbing blob… especially if hidden behind a door or bits of furniture.  Most irritating was when she messed RIGHT NEXT to the empty kitty-litter tray - as if it were a shared joke. 
The final straw with this incontinent-excuse-for-a-cat, was when my flat-mate was away in August and the cat dumped a gross deposit immediately after I’d finished mopping and cleaning the entire house.  I found said sloppy pile of muck, melting in thirty-five degree heat, right in the middle of the kitchen tiles, immediately in front of the oven, and it was forty minutes before I had a guest arriving for what I’d hoped was a romantic dinner.  Ironically, this guest was a scientist and government-registered Health Inspector who closed down restaurants for less!
It also seemed something of a conspiracy the cat behaved worst when I was the only one home.  I had restrained the impulse to kick her, if only barely, and had been feeding her that week as requested.  How did she know I hated her?  Was her habit of messing, senility or disdain?  Phoebe from Friends’ sympathetic song Smelly Cat definitely did not apply. 
Near tears of frustration I phoned Allessandro, complaining about my sensory plight, and he said I should clean it up as quickly as possible, have a shower, then sit down with a vino and look at the beautiful view from the terrace.  Encouragingly, he offered to take over the cooking when he arrived, as well as ring around friends to see if he could find alternative accommodation for me until the house I planned to rent was ready in September.  He saved my life that night.  Or rather the cat’s!
To add insult to injury my flat-mate had been regularly putting offending blobs of cat pooh into the kitchen rubbish, spazzatura in Italian, which in that part of the world needs to be driven up the dusty road to central collection points.  I asked her repeatedly not to do this, as she didn’t have a car and it wasn’t fair I had to deal with her pet’s disgusting refuse.  However she was so long-term sensory deprived, selfish, or both, that she persisted doing exactly as she wished and several times I found the rubbish had leaked in the boot of my car leaving the most offensive grime and smell.  For weeks I had nightmares in which I was trapped in a hell of perpetual stench… and I’d wake only to imagine creative ways I could kill her and the cat in a satisfying double-murder. 
Ok, I exaggerate, but I was getting desperate.  The height of summer is not the easiest time to find accommodation in Tuscany, but the situation had become untenable.  I moved out that very weekend to stay with a friend of a friend for three weeks.  Though not before my brother, Brendan, told me I’d suffered from ‘Boiled Frog Syndrome’: which means I’d stayed stoic or patient far too long and not seen the consequences coming - the way a frog who’s been put into cold water fails to notice he’s boiling to death if the heat is turned up slowly, thus missing his chance to jump out and save his own life.  
At any rate, for weeks after I escaped this Sensory Terrorism the world smelt blissfully sweet… and my days were quiet and serene.  
But I’ll never like cats again. 



Wednesday 24 October 2012

A hike in the Chianti countryside

It seems from a recent growth in my blog audience, readers like the seduction angle or stories about breasts.  So here is a tame, though I hope humorous, extract from my yet to be published manuscript Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues.  
Naturally ladies and gentlemen I retain full copyright.

After packing a picnic this morning I set off for a hike in the Chianti countryside.  A few key roads are un-signposted, so I do a little back-tracking before arriving at my chosen hilltop village close to 10am.  Immediately I fall in love with Volpaia’s quaintness - the few people around making it feel like a real village rather than one overdressed for tourists.  I wander about taking photos of the Castello famous for good wine, so it isn’t until 10.30am that I set out on my walk. 

Clouds overhead promise rain so I carry a light jacket and, as always when hiking, plenty of water.  By midday the sky has cleared and temperatures climb gradually to over 30 degrees. The map for the walk, provided by Sylvia in the Radda Tourist Office, is simple but useful.  However it’s with some reluctance I find myself walking down, down, down from the Castello into the valley, well aware that means having to climb back up.  I pass orchard altars, as you do: the first dedicated to Mary of the Seven Sorrows (obvious from the multiple daggers in her heart); another to Santa Caterina (Siena’s revered patron).  I pass a closed church and, had it not been, I might have curled up on a seat and gone to sleep, such is the lethargy induced by rising heat. 

One trail takes me into thick bush where large numbers of insects are impervious to my Bushman’s Repellant.  Resorting to using my hat like a giant fly-swat, I feel rather like Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen but without Bogart to protect me.  When the time comes to climb a hill and get out of the swamp I am exceptionally pleased, if a little lost.  Two streams I am supposed to cross never materialize so I figure they must have evaporated, and with only a couple more mistakes I find the other principal landmarks, avoid the zap of electric fences, and follow the slope of many a vineyard unable to avoid the temptation to nibble on the grapes.  Finally I arrive back at the car, ravenous and in need of water.  Despite my exhaustion I am pleased to have done the walk.  Not only do I need the exercise but it’s given me more time than driving allows to truly absorb my surroundings.

I devour a packed-lunch, wishing I’d put butter on the characteristically dry Italian bread.  Then in an effort to cool off, I wipe myself all over with the Wet-Ones my clever mum dropped into my suitcase weeks prior.  I am preparing to go in search of a glass of Chianti Classico when the strangest thing happens. 

A young man appears on the little terrace above where my car is parked, and starts speaking to me eagerly in Italian.  There is no-one else around.  Amongst the chat I recognize two key questions: are you solo?; and are you married?  I answer yes and no respectively, as I’ve done many times since arriving in Italy, smile and prepare to leave.  It is then he becomes intent upon getting his message across, and bobs down so he is closer to my eye level.  I think at first he is pointing to my diamond necklace, only to realize I haven’t put it on this morning.  I ask him to repeat himself but alas I can’t understand and shake my head saying scusi non capisco.  After a few moments he moves his hand toward my right side, appearing to mime the action of cupping my breast.  Do I imagine it?  I must have done.  So I give him another chance to explain, during which he mimes the same action reaching in a little closer.  Surely he isn’t suggesting he touch my breasts?  Surely not?! 

Now I should make the point that this young man isn’t aggressive.  Indeed he’s surprisingly polite given he appears to be asking something outrageous: his demonstrations stopping within a centimeter or two of actually touching me.  Nevertheless I stand dumbfounded - gobsmacked to use a phrase immortalized by script writers on soap operas - while he pleads with excited but melancholy eyes.  Eventually I snap out of it to reply decisively no, no, scusie, no grazie, and I shake my head and begin to move away.  Yet he continues pleading, this time with more gesticulation, and offering, as I understand, to pay me for the privilege.  Again I say no… no, no wondering how the hell I can explain that the suggestion of money makes it worse.  Then in an effort to make me reconsider the rejection, the young lad assures me with great passion and earnestness that he only wants to touch one breast – uno he says hopefully, pointing at the right one.  “What’s wrong with the left one?” I instantly think, appreciating in spite of my ego that the poor dear genuinely thinks moderation will help him close the deal.

Now at this point, it all seems far too surreal and I desperately need to laugh.  Yet I don’t think it will help if he hears me.  So for some ludicrous reason I apologize profusely for disappointing him and make as quick a get-away as possible; heading up the path and around the corner to the village where I laugh out loud for a good five minutes. 

I am still shaking my head and giggling when I meet personable Gabriele in the tasting room of Castello Volpaia.  I tell him the story but he doesn’t believe I am serious – clearly not admiring my breasts as much as the young lad.  Oh well, we can’t please everyone I muse and start laughing again.  Indeed I can barely believe it has happened myself.  My breasts are quite good I’m told - damn good for my age, if perkiness counts as much as size - but until I came to Italy it hadn’t occurred to me they were my best feature.  Yet to Italians, breasts seem to matter more than many characteristics and I’m finding that out more and more as time goes on.  Today, however, all I can think is “wow, if that guy is anything to go by, my friend Hayley could give up work for good if she moved to Italy”.

Jokes aside, the strange thing about this encounter is that it wasn’t particularly creepy:  surreal yes, definitely odd, but neither aggressive nor threatening.  There was an innocence about this chap - somewhere between seventeen and twenty I’d hazard a guess - born more of curiosity than perversion.  I guess seeing me on my own and unmarried… and hey, he checked that first so you can’t say he is without morals… he gave it his best shot.  When he couldn’t persuade me there was no mouthing-off or obstruction; unlike many blokes full of booze whose egos are battered by rejection.  So in the end all I can really think is “good luck to him”.  

Ah, you gotta love Italy.  



Monday 22 October 2012

Starry Starry Night

Most of my readers are women.  I intend it that way.  But some new readers are male and they tell me they prefer funny themes to deep and meaningful ones; what women commonly call D&Ms.  So with Tortoise Sex and posts like this I’m hoping to humour them.
The title doesn’t quote Don McLean, though I like the opening bars of Vincent. 

I’m recalling the episode I mentioned in the blog Paros to Sifnos, which due to popular request I’m going to elaborate upon.

During my fifteen minutes of fame on Neighbours, I was in Melbourne doing a Celebratory Charity Fashion Parade.  I’d saunter up the cat-walk trying to look tall, as you do, then rush back-stage to change clothes.  For most of the day, during rehearsals and the show, I had been exchanging banter with a handsome man I hadn’t met before.  He was witty, amusing, athletically fit, and I supposed also something of a celebrity as otherwise he wouldn’t have been in the show.  As I left to go home that evening across the room he called out “what would you say if I asked for your phone number?”.  I grinned and said my number extremely quickly (something like 9607431).  Not for a minute did I think he caught it.  Then I waved and was out the door. 

The next day there was a message on my answering machine.  And the next.  And the next.  Each time his message was humorous - teasing me into considering ringing him back.  The fourth time he called I was home so I picked up, and we laughed about the fact that he was as quick with numbers as he was pursuing something he wanted.  We set a dinner date. 

He picked me up in a fancy car (actually every time he picked me up he was in a fancy but different car).  We went to a restaurant on the waterfront which I had admired but never dined in, and the evening began well.  He was smart, funny, entertaining.  He was handsome and tastefully dressed, confident and ambitious, and sometimes refreshingly self-effacing when discussing various career and business topics.  The wine was good, the waiters attentive and I was thoroughly enjoying myself.  I knew I was out with a player, but as he was being perfectly charming that was all manageable.  Though I was amused when he seemed surprised on occasion that an actress (a ‘soap actress’ no less) might also be educated or intelligent.

What kind of women did this guy usually date? 

Somewhere between mains and dessert, he lent over the table to whisper something tender.  The tables were fashionably large and the restaurant buzzing so I could hardly hear him.  He repeated himself, adding a little louder a phrase of sweet flattery.

Before the thought “oh, he’s good” could fully form in my mind… a blonde lady on the next table (until then with her back toward us) turned sharply around and eye-balling him said “oh, I’ve heard that one before”.   He froze.  I giggled.  And the other man looked from one to the other like a Wimbledon Referee. 

If it had been a cartoon we’d all have had frozen thought bubbles above our heads, and the hilarity of the moment is forever impressed on my mind.  Even more ludicrous, however, was that when my date finally found his tongue he introduced me to none other than his ex-wife!    

His ex-wife!  Go figure, what were the odds of that?!  

Well, talk about laugh.  I had a spoonful of something in my mouth at the time and it’s a wonder I didn’t choke. 

It emerged they were on fairly friendly terms, and she assured me he’d be good company and she was sorry to interrupt.  However when her date (a wealthy real estate agent from Toorak) asked us to join them and began to put the tables together… I didn’t know whether to hug ‘my guy’ for looking so forlorn or laugh again.

For the next hour through dessert, cheese plate, indulgent digestive wines and spirits, the four of us bantered about all and sundry, until we found ourselves back in the Porsche following the other couple to a Toorak mansion for port.  It was the funniest of nights.  And then not only was the house a modern design masterpiece, it was packed floor to ceiling with incredible works of art – seriously as good as some public-funded galleries.  I was having a ball. 

God knows how Mr Smooth followed up on that date but somehow he managed it.  Once we drove around the Bay for the afternoon with the top down on his car.  Another time had lunch in a chic ‘celebrity spotting’ café in South Yarra (not far from where I lived).  And each time I would kiss him goodbye on the doorstep. 

He clearly liked a challenge, but was disappointed when some Melbourne friends subsequently informed me of his infamous Playboy status.  (This may surprise someone not Australian, but we don’t get all the same news state to state.)  “Oh damn” he said when I asked him was this or that media report true.  “I told my old school mate the other day how lovely it was to go out with someone who took me on face value and didn’t know anything about me.”  Quickly I replied “I’m not judging you.  I really enjoy spending time with you.  But I’m not sure I’m looking for the same things you are”.   “We’ll see” he said, and again we went out and again he got frustrated when I said goodbye at the front door.  I really was attracted to him, he was sexy and intelligent (far more than his public persona suggested), but I didn’t fancy being a notch on the bed-post. 

Then came the date to top all dates: when after a nice meal we ended up back at his place.  His home was beautifully designed, cosy, with a clever blend of old and new.  After admiring the Italian garden, complete with rich-orange terracotta tiles and sculptured pot plants, hedges and marble figures, we moved to the largest and most comfortable white sofa you have ever seen.  It swept around the circumference of the enormous fire place, and when you sat down on it the little dress cushions fell around you like a flock of soft puppies.  He sat down beside me and we started to kiss.  Every so often a cushion would go flying this way and that, and we’d sink deeper into the fabric.  Shoes were lost, jackets, belts, we were approaching a precipice and I was nicely snuggled, sanguine.  Snap, my bra was undone.  Snap, crackle, pop, the fire blazed. 

Then after a particularly delicious nibble on my ear he whispered: “would you like to see the stars?”.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to move from the fire to go out to the terrace… but started to get up.  He pulled me back to him: “no, no, not out there, right here”.  And with that he swivelled up and forward to push a button on the side of the huge stone fireplace, before falling back down and pulling me into an embrace.  After a slight theatrical pause I heard clicking noises, sensed movement, and looked up to see the roof literally opening.  Shutters were moving, lifting and locking into place until a large semi-circle of sky was revealed directly above the sofa.  A reflection of the flames flickered in the glass sky-light and above that hundreds and hundreds of stars; a perfect starry, starry night. 

Reclining on sumptuous cushions, warmed by the fire, with Mr Smooth running his fingers through my hair, and my lips, neck and ears still tingling from his kisses, I couldn’t believe the situation I’d found myself in.  It was the most romantic and beautiful setting imaginable. 

But too much. 

I started to giggle.  Soon he looked crest-fallen so I started to kiss him.  I tried to calm myself, enjoy the moment, but before long I was giggling again. “Oh come on” he said “what’s so funny?”. 

“Well I’m sorry Mr Bond, it’s beautiful, really beautiful, but I feel like I’m in that final scene from the Spy Who Loved Me… you know, the one with the round bed when Bond uses a remote to shut all the blinds.” 

“No, I don’t know that movie” he lied.  And then I giggled again. 

I tried reassuring him with “you were actually doing rather well without that you know”… but the moment was gone.  The heat, ironically, had escaped out the sky-light.  And he didn’t ask me out again after that. 

I learnt something about myself though – I may be dramatic in many respects but I prefer less dramatic, more unique, tender, heartfelt seduction.

I understand the guy's got himself into all sorts of trouble since, and perhaps isn't the man he might have been, but it was fun while it lasted.




Friday 19 October 2012

I'm not comfortable

I love playing with words.  I love themes and narratives, stories and ideas.  I love to talk.  But for some reason the words “I’m not comfortable with…” have not often passed my lips. 

Recently a friend, observing me in a stressful situation, asked “but why didn’t you speak up and say I’m not comfortable...”.  I surprised myself by replying “I think they are words I should have used many times in my life… but haven’t”.  And no sooner were the words out I started to wonder why.

I am not shy.  On the whole I identify and express my feelings without difficulty.  On the whole I assert myself - oftentimes well, appropriately; sometimes, if feeling vulnerable or uptight, too brusquely.  That failing aside, could my failure to reach for this helpful sentence be a focus issue?  Or am I down-playing my right to feel comfortable the majority of the time?

Upon reflection I recalled a friend who came from London to visit me in Tuscany.  She witnessed a scene where someone insulted me, in a back-handed, jealous kind of way.  I wasn’t sure if the jibe was deliberately unkind or accidentally insensitive, so I responded to the put-down with a flippant retort and brushed it off; as if he hadn’t hit his mark.  When he left the room, my girlfriend said “why did you laugh then... his comment was horrible, didn’t it hurt you?”.  Knowing it had she added “I sometimes think you are too resilient.  You absorb a lot, laugh things off, and people don’t know how they’ve affected you.” 

I wondered if it was embarrassment which had silenced me?  Or surprise?  But her comments rang true so I filed them.  In the intervening years, however, I was never quite able to rationalise the gap between ‘my coping ability’, what she called ‘my resilience’, and my lack of a poker face.  I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, yet I am socially confident and good at rolling with the punches.  In a variety of situations I can absorb quite a lot of difficulty, challenge, before noticing it’s taking a toll.  So it took a while before I came to wonder: at what point would a discomfort such as that become evident to others?  Or, more importantly, become evident to myself?  For it followed that if I didn’t sufficiently register an uncomfortable situation, then how could I speak up or act to modify my circumstances? 

Obviously one can’t get obsessed about every single uncomfortable moment or experience, or you’d quickly become neurotic and tedious.  Yet what I completely missed in my analysis until more recently, is that even if one doesn’t wish to react to or change an uncomfortable situation - presumably because in isolation the incident is manageable or for a period of time unavoidable - that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid to register the event in one’s mind - to ‘clock it’ as we’d say in the theatre - so the contributing elements don’t risk building up and potentially catching you unawares.    

For if you ignore repeated discomfort, unreasonable discomfort… getting on as I tend to do, keeping busy… then the build-up can sneak up on you.  And your reaction to that pressure or discomfort, if and when it comes, risks appearing out of alignment, out of proportion, with the final provocation.

My friend in Tuscany had warned me “it’s all very well to roll with things, take a lot on the chin, but the problem is if you later lose your temper they won’t understand where it’s come from”.   

Yet only lately have I brought a few threads together to see that, in this regard, I have failed to protect myself many times over the course of my life.  I let things go a long way before I tend to register or object to an uncomfortable situation.  Or I speak about a discomfort, a concern, presuming the talking is the remedy and not actually doing something about it.  If the circumstances are accumulatively aggravating, neither approach does me any favours.

There must be a balance of course.  Many years ago I was playing golf with my brother and a friend.  After a time it began to pour with rain, and the build up of water on the green was such that it was impossible to putt.  I looked up from my tenth attempt to get the silly white ball in the hole to find my brother and his friend smirking.  “What are you smiling at?” I asked.  He replied “we can’t believe you’re still playing.  We’ve been waiting for you to complain or yell stop for ages”.  “Really, isn’t this what you do?” I asked stoically.  “Are you kidding?  Our girlfriends would have quit an hour ago.  They’d have hid under a tree and insisted we bring the car around to pick them up”.   It was an eye-opener that, by comparison, they found me less fussy, ready to ‘muck in’, and somewhere along the line I became aware that was typical of my style. 

In all likelihood I am more sensitive about a different range of things, but generally speaking I’m not precious.  With four brothers I’m used to being teased.  I am stimulated by challenge.  I can absorb a lot before being weighed down. 

But when the next important occasion arises, before I am taken advantage of, or before pressures unreasonably mount, I am going to learn to say “I’m not comfortable with…...”.  I am going to address the risk before I end up suffering.  I am going to do a better job of protecting myself. 

Because I’ve learnt the hard way that if you don’t, there are too many people who will abuse your ability to absorb, to think the best of people, to give, to be flexible, to work hard.  It may not be intentional or malicious but the effects can be just as debilitating.  And I owe it to myself to be comfortable when it’s in my power to do so.

Generally, I think, we expect or accept this more from men – albeit with different language.  No doubt there will be a cost for this kind of assertion, for some baulk at the honesty or self-possession of a woman.  But one would hope this is a gentler path to tread than one where you’re left so uncomfortable that you can’t cope.  Or when you find yourself in a situation where it’s too late to turn things around and are left simply with loss. 

So, if you’ve been like me, try it on for size.  “Excuse me, but I’m not comfortable with…” 
“I’m sorry, but I’m not comfortable with this situation and would like to do something to change it…” 
Next time it matters, throw it out there.  And don't be fobbed off.  Good luck.   

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Tortoise Sex

I’m sure I’m going to get a message from my mum saying my last blog-post was naughty and I should not be flashing around ‘the puppies’.  

However while I’m likely to be in trouble I may as well throw another sexual contemplation into the mix: this time about tortoises. 

Have you even wondered how tortoises, and for that matter turtles, have sex?  In the ordinary course of life why would you wonder?  But think about it.  They are both covered with an extensive and hard shell.  They don’t look at all flexible.  And the phrase “pull your head in”, as advice one should stop speaking or make oneself scarce, suggests tortoises and turtles are quick to withdraw.  Subliminally perhaps I presumed they were frigid; asexual; or hermaphroditic.  I knew they lay eggs because in travels I’ve seen them.  Or maybe I learnt it at school.  But beyond reading about Darwin and the Galapagos, I haven’t given these animals much thought. 

Well, except for the time I found a large turtle on an island in the Pacific, turned upside down outside a beach restaurant hut with its little legs flailing in the air like a wounded cockroach.  I was as distressed to see this turtle’s disempowerment as I was to see the sandwich board emblazoned with “Lunch Special: Turtle Soup”.  So I waited under a nearby tree and when the guy having a smoko out the back disappeared inside, I turned the turtle up the right way (with some difficulty ‘cause he was heavy!) and shooed him along back down to the sea.  He’d nearly made the great escape when the guys spotted us and came running.  The turtle ran one way, I ran the other, and as far as I know they had to change the lunch menu. 

Seriously, true story. 

Ever since then I’ve had a quiet kinship with ‘Free Willy’ but failed to learn more.  Until, that is, I found three pairs of tortoises mating in Athens a few days ago.  The first pair were in the ruins of Hadrian’s Library, and I think they had the sweetest relationship.  The second were in the Roman Agora and though she was definitely playing hard to get with respect to the wild thing she seemed to like his kisses.  And the third pair were in the grounds of the Ancient Agora, behind the spectacular Temple of Hephaistos (still largely in tact from the 5th century BC).  This third mating ritual was positively rough.  He clearly did not appreciate ‘no means no’. 

My sailing buddy Emma and I felt protective of this female, distressed even, as the male tortoise bashed into his ‘mate’ from every angle like he was a front-row forward.  She turned every which way to avoid him, at times moving concentrically like a top, but still he dived repeatedly for her rear.  When he caught her top end, instead of kissing or nuzzling (as the other pairs were doing) he seemed to bite and head-bang her.  No matter how far she retreated, he would not quit.  It took all our powers of self-possession not to pick her up and run away.  He deserved to be ditched.

By contrast the other pairs were gallant.  A little courting accompanied by gentle foreplay, before the male caught her off-guard and climbed on top just as any animal would from behind.  But here’s where it got confusing.  How the hell was this position going to work?  I mean don’t you need skin on skin, soft bits on soft bits?  Hmmm.

The first time the pairs mounted, the female managed to wriggle and push the guys away.  They seemed to be saying “not in front of the tourists darling”… or “go away I’ve got a headache”.  Or perhaps “oh for goodness sake aren’t you tired yet?”  Whatever, two of the chaps were sufficiently evolved to bide their time with a little more flattery and nuzzling, before attempting to climb back up again.  I did admire the gal who really made him work for it – go girl! – but when the other lass relented she seemed sanguine which was nice.

The rough-guy tortoise in the Ancient Agora, however, bore no such refusal.  And the second he mounted the noises began.  We wondered, or hoped, it was the female getting some enjoyment.  But as their heads by then were shielded by a bush we couldn’t be sure.  On and on the noises went – a cross between a strangled sigh and an airy pumping noise – until we decided it was probably the man being selfish and we’d better leave them to it.

It wasn’t until I got back to London that I discussed the question of Tortoise Sex with my friend Grant who immediately found an interesting blog called 'How Animals Do It'.  http://howanimalsdoit.com/2011/10/23/how-turtles-do-it/   
Talk about laugh.  For though the blog’s video is of giant turtles, and we observed small tortoises, the principal is the same: the guy has a penis like a rear extendable hook, able to curve under the female’s shell and attach with the force of a powerful suction cup.  It is reproductively effective but far from pretty. 

In fact the male tortoise’s penis is the purple colour of an eggplant, longer than a digitally enhanced porn star’s old-fellar, strangely broad and more like a weapon than a sexual tool.  No wonder the females ran away.

Also gross, but interesting, is that tortoises and turtles have only one hole for all bodily functions – an opening used for number 1s, numbers 2s, sex, reproduction and, wait for it, respiration under water!  The name of this ‘super organ’ is the same for males and females: a cloaca.  And it is out of the male cloaca that the penis emerges. 

That’s certainly taught me something.  And though I’ve never been a fan of the ‘c’ word - due to the derogatory and misogynistic slang representation of female genitalia - I like this trans-gender and scientifically correct ‘c’ word.

I reckon, too, that you’ve got to give the male tortoise some acknowledgement for having a cloaca which at least goes some way towards being multi-faceted.  For in most species a bloke's sexual apparatus lags far behind in terms of a woman’s creativity, complexity and sensual colour.

So, perhaps those female tortoises were getting their rocks off after all?!




Tuesday 16 October 2012

Naughty but Nice

I was going to call this post Puppies and Porpoises… for reasons which will become obvious.  However it isn’t technically correct so I went looking for some other alliteration.  I’ll start with nice. 

Of the many enjoyable moments our crew of eight shared on the Beneteau Cyclades 50.5 foot yacht sailing the Greek Islands last week, a highlight for all was the arrival of a large pod of dolphins.  We were under sail and sun on route from Kithnos to Lavrion, packing a good rate of knots, when the large pod appeared around our bow with a fabulous show.  Along both sides of the boat they glided at speed under water, before jumping up and down, up and down surfing the waves.  Two, three or four at a time, as synchronised as an Olympic team, they dived up and out of the water with perfect timing.  Sometimes the arc through the air was sharp, fast, other times it was more languid… but still they kept in unison.  Were they brothers and sisters competing?  Friends having a lark?  They were certainly working it. 

Then suddenly they’d break away and swim wide, coming back at pace and passing under the boat so our eight transfixed spectators rushed to the other side – kicking our toes and struggling to grab a rope hold so we didn’t fall in the drink.  Ooh and ahs and shouts of glee accompanied each magical turn, then squinting eyes and spinning heads as we lost sight of them for a moment: “have they gone?”… “can you see them?”… “yes, look they’re ahead… yes, they’re off to the side”… and back our friendly mammals would come to treat us again with cheering, squealing, pointing and laughter.  Click, click of the cameras followed by greedy sighs: “oh, but they’re too quick for the shutter”… until a few switched to filming rather than stills.  Whatever we got by way of photos it was a memory to be filed and savoured.

As the dolphins glided within a meter of the boat, these much-loved creatures of the sea looked ancient, wild and untouchable.  As they broke the water with their pointy noses and sparkling eyes, flinging themselves wholeheartedly into the enjoyment of the wave, they looked like cheeky children or psyched-up surfers – at one with their admirers, accessible, tame.  Our faces were awash with smiles of delight and privilege; our skipper, Simon, assuring us in all his trips he’d never seen so many dolphins playing around a boat so long, so joyously.  What a gift for our last day, what an injection of innocent energy; an unencumbered connection with nature.  Naturally we reached for a celebratory drink, and as we moved towards Cape Sounion on the Attica peninsula, getting a terrific view of the impressive Temple of Poseidon at sunset, we felt considerably luckier than King Aegeus: who, legend has it, famously threw himself off this cliff after mistakenly believing black sails indicated his son, Theseus, had been slain by the Minatour - a tragedy of mistaken timing and messaging similar to Romeo and Juliet - for, in fact, Theseus had simply forgotten to unfurl white victory sails as he returned home from Crete after battle.

Also nice was our decision to hire dune buggies and quad bikes to explore a couple of islands: Paros and Kithnos.  Not only did this give the boys a chance to shamelessly show off, wherever possible scaring Emma and I sufficiently so we’d scream or hang on to them more tightly, it also let us explore the interior of these rocky outcrops which would have otherwise remained aloof.  The views over cliffs down to deeply blue Mediterranean seas were reliably dramatic.  But what we couldn’t believe was the unrelenting barren landscape; not a blade of grass or crop in sight. The only farm animals were a scattering of goats, donkeys, and one seemingly precious cow.  Some dry-rock fences separated some ancient terraces, and the proximity of decrepit windmills suggested grain had once been produced, but the only ‘active’ business was fishing, restaurants and tourism cluttered around the village ports.  How do they cope with so little rain fall?  How can they keep the cost of fruit and vegetables down with so few natural resources?  (Well, other than sun and sea of course.)  And how is it that an endless panorama of rugged brown contrasted against glaringly-white Legoland buildings with blue shutters, is so alluring?  Yet the more we traded places on our rickety vehicles and found another village or harbour to explore, the more we took the Greek Islands to our heart. 

Well, until two of the vehicles broke down about eight kilometres outside Mérikha, such that we had to be rescued by the owner who approached us with a shake of the head and a contrite “bad day”.  He had the smoke pouring out of my buggy to worry about, poor chap.  We, on the other hand, had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves; if quietly hoping the boy’s dare-devil speeds and 360 degree spins on the beach hadn’t contributed too directly to the current state of affairs.  Seriously though, does every bloke turn into Michael Schumacher given half a chance?  Jason certainly did and Mark was quick to follow his example.  It contrasted nicely, anyway, with Simon’s metamorphoses over the week as he took footage for the purposes of cutting a “how to” documentary… chatting to the camera about sailing, history, and even yachting cooking tips… his increasingly sun-tanned face and ebullient enthusiasm allowing him to slot comfortably into the role of the “Yachting Man’s Steve Irwin”.  

On the naughty side of this equation, we had the boy’s perpetual cheekiness – leaving the girls never quite sure whether it was best to match their provocative retort, or withdraw as ammunition would only give them encouragement.  For better or worse I tend to come in on cue (theatrical training no doubt), and after growing up with four brothers and years of experience dealing with back-stage crews, I am happy to banter.  But I also take the bait far too predictably (damn it), so of course they reeled me in again and again, joke after joke.  It was funny.  I have no complaints.  But when Simon, aka the Yachting Man’s Steve Irwin, arranged for us to get behind the boat in the middle of the open ocean and grab onto a long rope, thrown out from the stern to form a drag line, it would appear he knew he could stir up trouble.  I was wearing an old bikini with a weak latch at the back.  When I’d dived in the water before I had nearly lost both top and bottom, but thankfully no-one was looking in my direction to witness it.  As soon as I got onto the rope drag, however, and the boat started to go faster, I swung around in the wash like a bobbing cork – my legs and arms flying this way and that, depending on how dramatically Alex steered the boat to shake things up.  Angela fell off the tow, so I held on tighter.  Emma was barely clinging on but our legs were banging into each other.  Simon was behind me encouraging us not to let go and lie on our backs for better balance.  Then my bikini latch snapped to hang loose from one shoulder like a fallen scarf.  “Yoo hoo” Simon shouts to the boys on the boat “we have the puppies out”… by which time I am lying on my back in the boat’s wash, holding on for dear life, and reluctant to roll over (even if I could have managed it) as that had already resulted in mouthfuls of water.  Of course Alex then sped the boat up more so I had to hang on or risk being left a long way behind in deep, open, ocean.  I’m used to doing quick changes back-stage so it was no biggy, but of course the boys milked it as I eventually climbed back up the ladder onto the boat with puppies in full view.  “Well, that was worth it” they grinned.  “Rope drag works every time” added the skipper.  Hmm, was Steve Irwin that naughty?

Things had clearly relaxed between all of us by the last day; 'cause later the boys ‘topped me’ while I was off-guard watching the dolphins.  So soon I figured “to hell with it”.  I’m going back to London’s awful weather, I may as well lie on deck now, drink a nice white wine and sunbake topless.  Later Mark took a picture of me positioned on the bow like a mermaid, to which a passing yacht seems to have been amused.   

We may not have known each other a week ago, but once the puppies have been out there’s little point going back in the closet.

Naughty but nice.



Saturday 13 October 2012

Paros to Sifnos

The translated spelling of those islands is variable but the Autumn weather on the Aegean Sea, early October 2012, is beautiful.  Eight of us are sailing on a Beneteau Cyclades 50.5 foot yacht and on the fifth day we hit an atmospheric high – no sea sickness, no sailing dramas, deep ocean swimming, music, jokes, laughter, dolphins, sun, ease and familiarity.  We’re finding our collective groove.  As we approach a small marina nestled on the southern side of Sifnos, with a beach called Plati Yialos and a village as charming and classically blue and white as a Greek postcard, there’s blossoming competence, confidence and conviviality.  The anchor drops, fenders tied, ropes thrown ashore and beers pop to celebrate our Oceanic Yachting Mojo.

I didn’t know what to expect when a charming but cheeky friend, Simon, invited me to join a group to sail the northern and mid Cyclades Islands for a week.  Most people growing up in Sydney have sailing experience, but I’m not immune to motion sickness if conditions are rough.  Nor have I slept on a yacht for an extended period or shared a cabin with a stranger.  So, though tempted, after only recently suffering a heart-wrenching dumping, I was feeling far from my best.  In fact I was unusually nervous.  When I heard the weather report in London, however, compared to the predicted 22 to 32c temperatures in Greece, I sensed a sunshine life-line that couldn’t afford to be missed.  I sealed the deal on Easy Jet.  I would give myself space and new horizons.  Tapping my curiosity and sense of adventure may be just what the doctor ordered. 

A week later, after changing my mind multiple times re the wisdom of leaving the safety of my apartment while feeling emotionally raw, I landed in Athens.  Instantly my shoulders lightened.  Jason met Simon and I at the airport.  Escorted by two handsome Australian men, I didn’t have to think.  They led me to the train and then to our cheap, clean and surprisingly comfortable hotel room in the centre of the old city.  After changing into shorts and thongs (aka flip-flops) we were soon stumbling past the ruins of Hadrian’s Library and seated in a bar with a cold beer and a stunning view of the towering Parthenon.  Hours later Jason, Simon and I, and another of their friends, Alex, were eating grilled octopus in a colourfully decorated restaurant on the Piraeus Marina.  “See that yacht, Julie” Simon grinned “ours is like that but bigger”.   I suppressed a shot of nervous adrenalin with a large slug of wine from a frozen metal tankard.  Slamming it back on the table with satisfaction I reminded myself “when the going gets tough the tough get going”.  I’d find my sea legs if it killed me.

The next day was all about getting up close and personal with the Acropolis, every stone ancient and inspiring, every myth and historical piece of detail sufficiently meaty to get my brain absorbed by new thoughts.  An azure sky dotted with white fluffy clouds complimented searing sun on golden rocks, and the boys teased me like an Aussie bloke teases a sheila.  The familiar style was comforting.  As we watched the mighty All Blacks beat South Africa in the Rugby Championship that evening, a little more weight fell from my shoulders. 

Next morning at the Port of Lavrion we stocked up on groceries and met the rest of the crew: Mark (a dashing and polite Englishman whom I’d met briefly over lunch once in Putney), Angela (the talented Kiwi-Thai-Filipino videographer), her laidback boyfriend Jim (from Norwich), and Emma, another down-to-earth Aussie with whom I was to share a bed.  Phew.  None of them were weird.  Well, no more than me.  Then our temporary skipper George, a lovely Greek man who was going to see us safely to the first island of Kea, took the boys over the safety-features before leaving the mainland in our frothy white wake.  No turning back now: the deep blue Mediterranean spreading before us like an inviting but serious contract.

The thing about boats is that they’re exposed to the elements of sea and sky.  Changes in conditions can be as slow and gentle as a caressing waltz, or as intensely rapid as a dizzying jive or powerful tango.  I was relieved on the first day to find the former, and as I lay on the deck beneath elegantly filled sails, reading a book and basking in the sunshine, I felt reassured and grateful.  Hours tinkled by, my thoughts roaming too often to matters of the heart, but buoyed by my location’s expansive beauty and skin-soaking warmth.  Sometimes the boat was awash with pumping music, people’s playlists competing for favour; other times it was switched off, the comparative silence of the breeze as soothing as the music had been invigorating.  Eventually our first harbour came into view and I watched in admiration as the bronzed buffed boys pulled in the sails, navigating between boats to drop just enough anchor to allow us to reverse gracefully up to the dock.  I jumped off the boat onto dry land with a spring which telegraphed I was pleased to have made it, but by all measures this introductory day had been mild.  There was civilisation to be found in these arid islands: at little Ormos Vourkari, opposite the lighthouse and larger port of Áyios Nikόlaou, in the form of a pretty stretch of bars and restaurants.  Though happily, being ‘out of season’, it had a relaxed vibe and a complete absence of crowds.

One really does enjoy that first drink after you’ve docked your yacht for the night.  Even if spending the day doing little more than serving refreshments, tying the fenders, or languishing in your bikini, there’s a shared sense of achievement. 

Alex with a Greek heritage and a modern Aussie man’s flair for cooking, made a tasty fettuccini on board the first night.  The following night, after docking in the sheltered Finikas Harbour on the south-west coast of Siros, the eight of us went out for dinner.  We were still getting to know each other but the day had been warm and tranquil.  We felt pleasantly chilled out, and began with a few drinks at a pretty terrace-garden restaurant overlooking the harbour.  I found myself telling an amusing and somewhat exposing (or self-effacing) story about an encounter with an infamous Melbourne celebrity.  The more engaged my audience became the more the details of the experience came back to me, and I shamelessly hogged the floor as they appraised my performance with generous laughter.  The boys, cheeky wits that they are, have regurgitated elements of the story multiple times since, extending and building on the scene’s humour with a healthy Aussie jibe and an occasional touch of flattery.  Jason, in whom I’d confided my more recent romantic troubles, encouraged me later saying “you just have to get your mojo back, Jules, then you’ll be right”.  Whatever the realities of that, it was mighty good to have a laugh.

The next day our passage to the island of Mykonos was a different story.  The conditions comparatively challenging, I weathered a few hours feeling nauseous, hungering for land but managing not to be sick.  Yet it was tiring beating endlessly upwind, until the boat peaked at 9.1 knots with real wind speeds of 21 knots.  Angela, Jim, Alex, Emma and I clutched the upper railing of the yacht, the girls wishing our butts were five times heavier so the boat would ride on less of a dramatic heel.  For a while it was fun. But when the jib dipped multiple times into the water, fear replaced adrenalin.  Could we ride out this angle without flipping over?  Regrettably, I didn’t understand anything about the balancing weight of a deep keel.  When Alex and Emma asked “are you ok”, I could barely reply as my vocal chords were as frozen as my knuckles. 

During what to me was an ordeal but to the boys a thrill, Jason, Simon and Mark took turns at the helm.  Tension mounted in their legs and arms as they fought to keep the boat steady, explosive grins on their faces revealing they loved the high, the speed, the (managed) risk… then whoops of joy as our yacht’s tactics proved competitive and we beat another yacht into Mykonos harbour.  I was told to expect calmer waters when we passed the headland.  So I held my breath.  Finally we were nearly there.  But as the boys tried to furl the sails the wind hit us from a different direction.  Ten minutes of flapping sails, ropes flying, confusion and fiercely bashing waves, threatened to tip me over the coping threshold.  Then no sooner were the sails sorted than we set out to sea again in search of a more protected bay.  I couldn’t contain the adrenalin ‘come down’ and a few tears of anxious relief flowed.  Jason stepped up, wrapping his warm coat and arms around me, and I snuggled safely until my nerves settled and I could re-engage with the sailing regime.

After dropping anchor in a secluded bay with white sand and turquoise water, we were ferried to shore in a rib (rubber inflatable boat) to enjoy a tasty dinner cooked by the winner of Greece’s Master Chef.  Then knocking back a bottle of caramel vodka as an excuse for dessert, we jumped into taxis and headed into the old town of Mykonos to potter in pretty jewellery shops and drink cocktails by the sea beneath her famous windmills.  The boys said we should see the day as a sailing right of passage, encouraging the girls to feel proud of ourselves.  We thought them rather sweet - this collection of people unknown to each other days before, but quickly showing kindness and consideration.  I guess that’s what they mean when they say “we’re all in the boat together”.

Rewards aren’t always given on cue, but our perfect conditions returned and the next day we sailed off to Paros.  After pleasurable hours sunbaking and reading on deck, we approached the western coast marina of Paroikiá.  We had time to lie on a beach, swim and chat by the water, later hiring rusty dune buggies to ‘fang’ it around the island.  The next morning we took the buggies out again as the views were irresistible: brown rocky cliffs set against glaring white cottages, blue sea and sky, and splashes of pink bougainvillea.  We enjoyed the different kind of ‘wind in the face’ as we swapped seats in the buggies and quad bike to reach the other side of Náousa, discovering a stunning bay with a tiny white church perched on a rough outcrop no bigger than a rock (ák Almires), and around the corner a delightfully pretty place to swim.  It was heaven.  My shoulders felt light.

And that’s the thing about sailing and life: you have to go through rough waters.  But it’s ever so nice when the sunshine and magic returns.