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The Day after my Birthday!

Joyeux Anniversaire! That was the message from my French dinner party and the memories made soon after my 60th birthday. I am so lucky to have shared in 2 special occasions – the first with my family and grand children picnicking in a beautiful park in Montville; the second a French dinner party with friends.

Sitting here in the living room surrounded by gifts and gorgeous cards, I don’t think I’ll forget how special it is to commemorate another year of living.

Firstly the park experience. Fun, Sack races, Flying things in the sky. Crashes! Bike rides, a Margaret Quiz, The cake and sparkler, climbing, running, chasing and more.

The picnic table was decorated, food organised, drinks chilled and open spaces for the children to enjoy with nearby swings. I was presented with a crown, the royal goblet, arm tattoo, and fun things in a gift box by my daughter. A hoot! and a grandma hand printed canvas, a massage voucher and the most beautiful family portrait that would bring joy and tears to my eyes. Little did I know that this gift had been planned to a fine art with many “photo shoots” taken until the best one appeared.

My son-in-law composed and read aloud a poem – very insightful! The cake was cut and singing followed. The sun was shining, what more could I ask for? How magical to spend time outdoors with the ones you love.

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My beautiful daughter surprises me
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relaxing in the winter sunshine

Fast forward a week to the next celebration when I planned for my own dinner party at home.

The travelling experience abroad set the scene for a French theme so the house was decorated with a banner of black and white French Paris postcards, Eiffel Tower, glasses of lavender on the tables ( and the lemons picked off my trees) signs and menu boards.

Friends gathered wearing something French. Ooh La La! The berets, moustaches, stripes and even a string of onions. Here’s Monsieur Phillip.

Voila! This was our delicious entree – salads nicoise and onion tart. The waiter, Nicholas, a student from my school served our hungry guests and entertained them throughout.


Guests mingled, sipped champagne and enjoyed the sunset views over the mountains.

My happy band of helpers worked hard to serve the meals – ratatouille, boeuf bourguignon, and coq au vin, ( Marg, Phillip, Bill and I had fun making these) and the poppy cake made by Libby was admired by all.

This white mud cake was inspired by the fields and roadside poppies in Provence.

My birthday party had a few extra surprises too. A Margaret Quiz ( that my sister Kim organised and a little one from me too – sisters do think alike!!) From French words, to words to describe Marg, to movies released in 1957, there was something for everyone to answer. Some of my friends knew my interests and travel plans, others failed miserably.

Bill organised a trivia quiz on French cuisine. Nicholas sang a beautiful French song. Music blared. Gifts were opened. Photo board was examined. Conversations. A little dancing. And the chocolate and lemon tarts served with ice cream. So delicious.

A wonderful celebration of good friendships and as my younger sister Kim said, a slightly older audience. My peers are now closer to 70!

I really enjoyed the conversations that people shared; the speech my sister delivered from the heart and my brother’s BIG stories.

 

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Is that really Father Christmas visiting?

Here’s a photo of my siblings – Jim, Kim and me. Thank you to everyone who made my 60th event so special. Thank you for the generous presents from near and far.

 

Planning a Party – My own!

Have you ever ticked off items on your “to do ” list? Been rummaging through cupboards to find a few things? What about a dinner party of your own theme? Well, this month I am celebrating my 60th birthday. And I thought that a French dinner party would be the way to go.

Since returning from Provence early July my head has been brimming with ” French things” – recipes, fabric, books, candles etc. You just need to look at my book shelves to see that French is the new flavour of the month.

So a party it is. I have given it some thought. My own family of 4 children and partners and grand children are meeting me tomorrow at the Montville Park for a picnic lunch. I am so looking forward to this celebration. We will all help each other out by adding some food to the lunch table. Yes, I have some decorations – banner, balloons and whistles! I also have some hessian sacks for the kid’s races and a few surprises for the children. Mind you they will probably choose to climb the frames and swing on the swings.

More about that next time with photos.

Planning a French party needs a guest list, invitations and a menu. And I love the planning.

I have practised making a boeuf bourguignon until it tastes as good as the real thing. Not sure. It needs a sprinkle of herbs.

It’s good to know that I can count on my Irish friend Marg who will cook with me too. My friends in Mapleton are so generous with extra seats, glass ware and tablecloths. As I am planning for 20+ the house spaces will need changing, but that’s a job next week.

I am having the dinner on Saturday 15 July – my real birthday is 17 July.

 

The wine glasses are being washed. The wine and champagne is being bought. And some decorative touches will add to the atmosphere of “tres chic”. I have written down set jobs for the night. I have found an Eiffel Tower, and some signs. The menu is sorted. RSVP list is happening. Back room more cluttered. Shopping still to do. And a hundred things in between, not to mention going back to school to greet and teach my students.

The cake, well, a friend who lives down the road is making me one as a gift. Libby is very clever with decorating and hand painting.


More than the creative part of me that enjoys putting something together, is the sharing of food and conversation, laughs and stories that romancing with grandma brings. 1957 was the year I was born. My special school friends also turn 60 this year. As a way of remembering, I hope that this event will be lovely. I can’t go wild like sky diving or bungee jumping, but I can have fun capturing the French essence of a joyous anniversarie. Will post some photos soon to show you how it went. Until then, stay well and happy.

 

HOME – Happy and not so happy distractions!

Coming home is always good, isn’t it? Leaving Europe behind and looking forward to a BIG flight does take stamina and a good state of mind. I guess getting enough sleep was my main priority. On the second leg from Singapore to Brisbane I did manage 3 hours sleep. Arriving in the evening at Brisbane airport is a first for me, so the first happy distraction was the greetings of 3 of my children. They popped out of the blue as I made my way to the driver who would take us back to Mapleton. Lovely smiles, proud ME! and big hugs. It was wonderful to have a 10 minutes conversation with them as they all came together.

The next happy distractions came when I turned my mobile phone back on and watched the “Welcome back” messages hit the screen. As I navigated my way through the next 5 days of unpacking, filling the refrigerator, checking the mail and paying bills etc, my body did play tricks on me with the day and night time cycles. Some jet lag and waking in the early hours of the morning is natural after a 21 hour flight home.

After adjusting from summer to winter, outdoor to indoor ( raining in Mapleton) , to sleeping in hotels to sleeping back in my bed, from quiet to noisy ( grand children), life has changed rather abruptly. It’s dark earlier and I am remembering the beautiful walks at Lake Como and Aix-en Provence around 8-9pm. Coming home there are more distractions that muddle your brain, test your energies and surprise your senses.

Like visiting all the little grand children in one week and testing yourself again to see if you are “sane”. There’s the phone distraction from my brother who rings as I am about to put Matilda in the trolley at Coles supermarket. The phone ringing when driving one of the children home from school. The constant attention to the road, then the distraction when one of them drops a toy on the floor and you cannot do anything about it. Well, what happens, is you miss the exit and end up driving the long way home.

I enjoyed going to my grand daughters sport’s carnival – a happy distraction from sleeping in.

See how excited my son and her are as they race with each other. The ball games, relay races, long jump and egg and spoon. Little competitors having fun in glorious sunshine.

Go Simpson go! A flash of blue and gold.

From the sports day to school pick up and Audrey shows me her shell collection from Dicky Beach, Caloundra. There’s nothing sweeter than a child showing you their treasures. Wrapped in soft tissue in a container, the shells and coral were reminders to me about the simple joys of life. It also reminded me of Nice and the smooth, white pebbles on the beach.

Another happy distraction was Tilly and her dress ups! In a cane basket there are hidden costumes to try on. Watching her put them on is hilarious.

A Spanish dancer in the making!

Coming home from a trip away also brings some unexpected interruptions like when I backed the car out of my son’s drive way and hit a screw in a post resulting in my back tyre going flat. That took place after loading the kids and all the gear in the car ready to leave for a trip up the coast. Calm, my daughter-in-law was calmer than I felt. A kind neighbour and an hour later we were off driving.

The other not so happy distraction came the day before when I left my handbag with phone and important items behind. After a stressful discovery that my hand bag was not where I thought it should be and memory loss, it worked out with my son tracking down the location – the op shop!! not before I involved another neighbour and phoned from her mobile. This distraction caused me panic and some tears when I was convinced that I really left my blue handbag behind at a garden nursery. Perhaps, the jet lag had robbed me of my clarity – or maybe I was doing too much.

Anyway, now I am back home with the other grand children playing pirates! AHOY me hearties! Until next time, thanks for reading. Provence seems a life time ago! Venice vanishing fast.

Last Travel Diary – Black & White Como! Colourful Venice!

Now when it rains, it can be dreary, Not on Lake Como. I can’t imagine a more beautiful setting than the impressive mountains and lakes of Como in Italy. Magic at its best. We found ourselves in rapture of the natural beauty set against the foothills of the Alps. The lake is shaped like an upside down Y. You gaze into the ancient villages, villas, attractive homes and gardens along the way to Bellagio. Everything you read about the northern lakes of Italy is true – serene, magnificent, inspiring and beautiful. Perhaps even a glimpse into George Clooney’s mansion.

It’s a good 2 hour ride to visit some of the towns and unfortunately time ran out for us to see Varenna. Starting up on deck in sunshine, we ended up downstairs with dripping leaks from the roof when the thunder and rain hit. Cosy, coffee and strangers aboard.

 

Lake Como is a place I would return to because it’s enchanting and wondrous. Apart from the scenic vistas, we enjoyed a terrific pizza with salad at The Ox bar and grill, lured in by a handsome waiter who offered us champagne on arrival and finished with a free limoncello and melon cream. YUM!!

Now I really thought I had seen beauty, but arriving in Venice, well, my senses were overloaded. Charm, mystery and intense beauty lies in the mirror images of the gondolas and boats that stream pass on the waters. Have you visited Venice? Have you been lost even with a map? This sparkling and timeless landscape captivated Bill and me. Venice and its lagoon are UNESCO World Heritage listed and the whole city is an extraordinary architectural masterpiece. Romance is in the air.

We decided to walk to St Mark’s Square from the bus station. 45 minutes but if you stroll leisurely and look at shop windows like I do, then add another hour onto this journey. All the way there was magic and mystery. Dead ends. Narrow streets with washing flapping in the breeze. Black and white striped men with their proud boats. A maritime vista, but so different to peaceful lake Como.

There are vaporettos, water taxis, ferry boats, commercial boats, private vessels, speed boats. There are families pushing prams, children chasing pigeons, guides signalling their tourists, lovers hand in hand, groups of friends, travellers from all over the globe. Alas, we didn’t meet anyone from Queensland – yes to Midura, New York, California, UK, Dublin, Melbourne and a couple of waiters who catch a bus every day to work in a restaurant for 10 hour shifts 6 days a week.

The Doges palace – well, I haven’t the time to tell you about this beautiful treasure and its art work and history. Serenaded St Mark’s Square makes your heart beat faster. So many people going in all directions. Bill found a quiet place on a step to read and fall asleep. I rummaged around looking at Murano glass and masks, handbags and stationery. After a long, full day, my legs were aching and I knew that we had to say goodbye to Venice, the Grand Canal, the basilica, the bridges, the Campos and Piazzas.

Ditch the map, buy a beer ( Riegele) and catch that overcrowded bus back to our beautiful Airbnb room.

Here are some precious memories, mostly in colour. Farewell to beautiful Venezia, the most unique city in the world.

 

 

Flavours of Milan with a Food & Walking Tour

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How does 3 hours walking and sampling fine Italian cuisine sound? Well, at 10am we were about to find out, when Sylvie greeted us at Via Soferino at the Panifica or bread shop. This Segway walking and food tour was a nice introduction to Milan and little did we realise that with temperatures close to 30 degrees, stepping inside cool shops was a good way to go. There were 6 of us. Mark and Dina, Bill and Janine, Bill and me. We started off with the usual conversations – where have you come from? where are you heading? how long are you staying in Italy?

The first tasting was an Italian cream roll with puff pastry called Cannoncino. It has a traditional custard in the filling. Very tasty. A plate of Bigne was served with a chocolate top. Bill and Janine slipped away to order a coffee.

Walking along with Sylvie she showed us the historical Brera which is the oldest neighbourhood in Milan. We talked architecture, art and food. Milan is a global capital of fashion and design. Think Leonardo da Vinci, Gothic Duomo di Milano Cathedral.

Shortly we came to the Parma and Co where hung hams awaited us. Rather large in size. Were they real? I thought. Yes the pork was authentic and cured for up to 2 years.

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Sylvie pointed out the cuts of meat from the pig. We sampled a plate of prosciutto, parmesan cheese and a beer!! And it was only 10.45am! This artisan beer ( Menabrea) brought both Bill’s a smile.

 

I discovered that Bill and Janine were newly married and living in Sicily, with the intention to moving back to California where her parents lived. They were fun and eager to test taste the flavours of Milan.

With a plate of saffron risotto next at Jamaica, we gobbled down this dish with mineral water.

Creamy and tasty. Easy to digest. Great! Risotto alla Milanese ! A perfect, simple dish that requires few ingredients.

 

Here’s Mark from the States, who lives part time at lake Como, enjoying his lasagne. And Dina, well, she scooped up the pork and beef meatballs. It was easy to eat three or four of these.

 


After a Spritz/ wine or champagne ( the apertivo) we finished the tour with a delicious, authentic Italian gelato. I tried the pistachio verde di Bronte and Bill chose the Bette e nezzo – gianduja with Nutella. A favourite of the shop keeper was Calacauso – peanuts, caramel and milk chocolate.

Just after 1pm we finished our little walking tour. AH! our stomachs full and almost time for a nap. No, we were within walking distance to the Cathedral, so we said our goodbyes and thanked our friendly guide. I do recommend this type of fuss free experience.

I would like to show you 2 salads we enjoyed At Menton, near the Italian border. So French really! They were large, wholesome and flavoursome. Not at all heavy. Note the stuffed courgettes and tomatoes.

Stay with me for my final travel diary post next time in Italy. Love Margaret x

Pommes et Oranges – Food and Art in Southern France

Take a peek at some of the wonderful markets and art in Provence and you will be pleasantly surprised. Fresh. Crisp. Juicy apples and oranges to eat. Apples and oranges not only to buy but portrayed in the best art of Cezanne treasured in Aix-en-Provence. Still life of course! Recently while visiting Paul Cezanne’s Atelier ( his private studio where he ate, drank, studied and painted) you can appreciate the form and colour he uses so skilfully. His round shaped skulls that echo the round fruit. Cezanne worked every morning in his studio of light and silence to produce oils, water colours; he was the “father of modern art”. At any market you can buy “pink lady apples” and for 2.50 euros, the pomme d’tart – freshly baked and ready to eat with a cafe au creme.

In St Remy on a Wednesday the place comes alive with market fever and friendship as vendors open their hearts to many keen buyers carrying bags and baskets. The ambience of this market is pure magic. Whether it’s food, asparagus, artichokes, cherries or strawberries, the smells of cheeses, olives and sausage tempt any traveller, including me.

In Arles, we arrived to the liveliest and biggest market that covered several streets. I couldn’t get over the never ending supply of fresh food, fish, vegetables, cooked chooks, nuts and pates, bowls of olives, figs and fromage ( cheeses) flavoursome tomatoes, tasty chutneys, gourmet sandwiches, unforgettable ice creams and sorbets, and more. Fill your basket, trolley or carry under the arm. Eat along the way.

The pleasure of food goes hand in hand with art, I feel. Both works are of a creative nature. Passionate and enjoyable. Indulgent. Even the impoverished artists paid for meals with their paintings.

I was dazzled by the number of art galleries in Rouissilion, a red ochre coloured hill top town.

The art of Marc Chagall in Nice captivated me with its spiritual themes and pure light quality. Rooms full of vibrant colour that would fill anyone’s appetite for beauty and meaning.

Where art and food become one is shown in this fantastic bronze sculpture below of mouth watering, glossy cherries. I saw this piece in St Paul de Vence, a medieval hill top village looking out to sea. Dozens of art galleries line the cobbled streets of this town and when we arrived early Wednesday morning, before the crowds, you can gaze into the shop windows saying, WOW! Look at that! Have a look at this! That’s amazing! When the galleries did open after 10.30 am, Bill and I  were impressed with close ups of gigantic cherries, a blue lion, gorilla, panda and even a couple of over-sized Tin Tin busts! Prices beyond our budget. Thank goodness for inexpensive cherries and apples!

Next to the “rich” works of Alzin Gazier ( Szlle de fetes – oil on canvas for 16.000 euro) and Claude Fauchere, I came down to earth with a more affordable painter Sylvie T  (pastels, watercolours and ink in Nice) whose mother sold me 4 bookmarks with Sylvie’s drawings. She was very proud of her artist-daughter. Her Atelier galerie in Nice is a hidden gem. Delicate watercolour prints of windows, lanterns, architecture and villages. Close to this shop was another surprise finding. Artist Sebastien Di Natale was working on a large portrait/ poster when 2 girls and I stepped into the space. ArtNice Editions allowed me to buy one of his special “blue chair” postcards painted by him. Sebastien also sold handmade designer jewellery and original prints ( contemporary Michael Jackson, David Bowie) Now didn’t Van Gogh paint a famous chair?

The food and art in southern France has been such a wonderful experience. I hope to show you dear friends and family some of the salads and plats du jour ( main meal) we have been fortunate to sample. Always the polite manner in which we are served is a compliment to the waiters and chefs in this region. In the quiet side cafes there are many choices served with wine, or, as we liked, water (with gas!)

Please share with me your favourite salad winter/ spring dish; or piece of art that brings you joy.

My next post will see us safely in Italy for the last part of our adventure. Bon Appetit!

Travel Diary – Private Provence

Every painted window shutter tells a story. The faded blue, pink, grey ones, the broken, closed or open ones. I wonder what lies hidden behind these windows – the private moments and conversations. Naturally as an Australian traveller/ tourist in France, I know how important those private times are away from the crowds and narrow, winding, busy streets. Some seclusion and privacy is needed from the fast paced train platforms and shops, the tourist information, markets and queues.

Strolling around Nimes we encountered a cyclist from Switzerland who rode 66kms from Montpellier. Nicola saw us at the canal and asked if we wanted a photo taken. Sure. That’s so nice of you. He was so friendly and sincere. We started up a private conversation. He’s a piano teacher and this was his day off. Imagine his long ride pedalling hard through the countryside and towns, feeling the freedom and release of work. Here he is and here we are.

Private conversations and unexpected meetings make a trip so interesting I think. You go back in time to their world and discover more about what makes them tick. You learn more about life. When we stayed at Mas Fleurs near Gordes, the private hedges around the Maison kept 2 French girls amused beside the swimming pool doing pilates. Celine showed me some exercises and allowed me into her world. Privacy shared.

Then there’s the private spying on people who do not really notice you with your camera. I seem to do a lot of this in Provence. Hundreds of moments that capture you with excitement and curiosity. Like this private kiss. She was jogging across the street and saw her friend.

This inner circle of privacy extends to private times of sitting and reading the newspaper in cafes, a favourite pastime. Private walks and text messages.

Private conversations and private portraits of cute dogs.

Private romantic strolls with dogs. This couple caught my eyes in Avignon.

 

They look like their world is untouched by pain, yet behind every good looking couple, I am certain there’s a bigger story attached. Being in company involves constant tiny adjustments and compromises, moments when you subtly shift in order to fit in with someone else.

 

Privacy is often distracted. I often see heads down, eyes fixed on a screen or phone to the ear. Heads turned or blank stares. You get the picture. The digital hooking up is constant. The screen swipes all pervasive. I know how much I use my phone for a camera so it’s constantly in my hand ready to capture an image. Privacy of thoughts seems to be a problem as friends switch off and switch on. I wonder if we all need a digital spring clean!

Then there’s the private collections in Provence – too many to name. While in Nimes I viewed the contemporary art collection and wandered through the library. On the walls were these words, ” A collection is built up over a period of years, and remains crucial for any museum institution. The work makes time stand still, they construct stories, establish correspondence, make you think and also dream.” ” In the age of the internet, the play of surfaces and immediacy, they invite us to keep an open mind and listen out for the complexity of the world and contemplation.”

In that private moment of me sitting quietly and reading this, I felt a sense of peace and joy.

Returning to our apartment in Avignon, Bill turned the key to find that our washing had dried and our very own private collection of “stuff” was safe. That evening we had a private celebration of Bill’s home cooking and a Desperado French beer.

 

And behind the scenes of the day. Riding in the square in Arles and ballet in Avignon. 

Some more private glances. La Nuit des Musee – in Arles. Aphrodite, Caesar, Venus.

Dear friends and family, thanks for joining me.