Chapter 10: WWW – The Wonders of WiFi and Washing

The wonder and bewilderment of our first night in Belves, was compounded, and nearly confounded, by two pieces of technology, the wifi and the washing machine.

As any modern Senior couple does on arriving in a new place, as soon as food, sleep and showers have been sorted, they turn to wifi to get connected.  In Spain last year, it was constantly called “wiffy” and henceforth it shall be called thus.

We could see the network on our phones and computers, but it wanted the key to be entered.  The owner has provided a fabulous “House Book” in plastic covers which holds all the information one needs to live here.  In it are the instructions for using the television, microwave, hair drier (now that was helpful), slow cooker, heaters, hot water service and mail.  It contained lots of information about the garbage services, doctor services, tourism services and church services.  There were lessons about cooking foie gras, hints on purchasing duck and geese, (dead ones for eating), recipes for (dead) duck, a delicious looking onion tart and potatoes fried in goose fat.  All absolutely essential, but no wiffy key.

After an hour or so of frustrated struggling, we rang Australia and got the owner out of bed.  It was morning.  Being an IT Executive, it is not a given that he knew how to use technology, but in this case he did.  Step by step, he guided each of our devices onto the internet by the simple expedient of placing the piece of equipment within reach of the router, and pressing the button on the back off and on again.  So easy.  (I will not say “simples” any longer!)   No key!  I still don’t know what the key is but I know I get really great strong wiffy every day, and unlimited free calls to Australia on the house phone.  I just want to add that the wiffy here is far superior to our ADSL2 at home, and most everywhere else we go, Orange has us covered on our phones.

Now it was time to conquer another piece of French machinery – the washing machine.  Two weeks’ worth of smalls had accumulated, requiring our immediate attention.  While you’d think washing machines are reasonably intuitive, we didn’t want to break this front-loader  either, because most machines I’ve used in Australia are top loaders.  I have only recently had experience with a technically competent, extremely proficient and completely precious Miele washing machine in my friend’s home where we stayed before departure, so I faced this one with some fear.  After all, her Miss Miele would refuse to wash, pout its lips, give a flick of its hair and deny me access if I so much as pushed one button in the wrong sequence. 

As you do, we loaded all the clothes in first, then started looking for the cavity, pouch, pocket or tray where the washing powder is loaded.  Having identified three possibilities for placement, the next question became not where, but “which one is the washing powder?”  Our Owners had provided not just a selection of boxed powders, bottled powders, hand rinses, fabric softeners and wool washes, but a veritable collection of same.  Manufacturers would carol with joy if they saw the vast range of products on offer.

When perplexed, what do any modern Seniors do?  Revert to Google of course.  A happy 20 minutes was spent typing the names of all the products into the Translate app and learning their meanings.  In the end, there was just one plain and ordinary washing liquid so we chose that one, and learned via the “House Book” that it went into the left-most tray.  The directions on the bottle told us to pour in 50 ml, so we poured 25 ml.  We are green that way.

Excellent progress had been made.  It had only taken an hour so far.  We had clothes in, door closed, liquid in, and now just had to press a button.  Simples?  I mean Prelavage is easy, non?  It means pre-wash.  We were confident our undies didn’t need that one.  Were they Chemises?  Not quite, because we also had socks and thermal underwear which are less delicate than that implied by chemiseLaine I could work out was wool, because we are a great sheep-producing country and understand “lanolin”.  We are not stupid Seniors and all was good so far.

This process of elimination left us, however, with four incomprehensible buttons and bellies that ached from laughing.  Google told us that Traitement intensif jeunesse meant “I did CIF antenna processing at the beauty parlour”.  When asked, Q’est ce que “soie”?, the answer was “mouse”.  I hoped our dirty underwear hadn’t gone that far.  Bottes de cresson yielded “watercress boots”.  I’m sure we had none in our possession, nor were we ever likely to.   Finally Rajout de linge allowed us to part-way through the cycle add our lingerie.  Or was that linen?

When the laughter subsided, and I promise it was so much that we may have needed to launder our current underwear, (except we are both very fit if you take my meaning), we realised we had typed into Google old searches or mistyped others.  It was time for the fat fingers to stop tapping and point the camera at the machine instead.

This gave us Essorage which means “spinning”, Vidange which means “emptying” and Rincage which you can probably guess means “rinsing”.  Armed with a wholly new washing machine vocabulary, whereby Essorage Delicat was now a snap, we confidently pushed the one button I’d been taught by Miss Miele, Machine a Melbourne.

As I pressed it, I was confident my mouse (mistyped as souries not soie), my watercress boots, my newly processed antenna, my linen, lingerie and laine were all going to be cleansed.

… I pushed “Express”.

Chapter 11: I Fall in Love on Valentine’s Day

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Chapter 9: Belves the Beautiful

It’s always chaotic moving into a new house, but when yours is deep in the heart of rural France and abides within the curly streets of a mediaeval town, with not an English-speaker in sight, you know there are going to be some humourous challenges.

At last we arrived in Belves, around 4.30 p.m. on Wednesday 6 February, having spent the night curled by the fire at a friend’s house some 200 kilometres away, drinking wine, eating fine French food, and jawing the night away in joyful reminiscences.  In Australia, “200 kilometres away” in the country means two hours’ drive (or less if Mr Plod is not around), correct?  We had time up our sleeves for a fabulous (English) breakfast, and departed around lunch time.

Two hundred kilometres through rural France, however, is not two hours.

On finally consulting Google Maps, we learned the most direct route would take three and a half hours.  Oopsies.  Once you are off the main auto routes, the A, (Motorway), N (National) and E (Europe) roads, you get to tackle D roads.  These are maintained by local councils and are as variable as Roquefort is to Camembert.  I mean the cheeses.  The maximum speed we could travel was 70 kph, with frequent roundabouts in tiny villages along with a small Himalayan mountain crossing.  A wrong turn in Perigeaux left me trying to figure out if the D7 would be a better option than the D953, because its number was closer to one.  It wasn’t; but we saw some mighty pretty country, and found another rubbish tip, which we are particularly good at driving into thinking they are the “second exit”, as well as another Himalayan mountain crossing.

Four hours later, we rolled into Belves, it was nearing dark, the owner had changed the front door key code, and we’d lost that email, resulting in the neighbours being aroused to let us in.  The neighbours, Jose and Rose, yes it’s funny, speak no English, but do play charades rather well. 

Once inside our 16th century, three storey, three bedroom house, we found the owners had ordered  the heaters to be left on, and delivered us champagne and chocolates.  It was “home” immediately.

After a cursory exploration, our first challenge was transporting 72 kilos of possessions up a narrow, almost fully spiral wooden staircase, that ascends immediately and vertically up to the bedroom level.  Those 13 irregularly spaced wooden steps were navigated one step at a time, with us on either end of a very large bag, huffing and puffing like the wolf in The Three Little Pigs.  In our case, our three little piggies were three bulging suitcases, each weighing in excess of 20 kilos.

We found enough hanging space and racks across three bedrooms, to install our clothes, a number of which went into the wash, for playing with the French washing machine later.

As the fridge naturally was empty of food, it became imperative we dashed out again to the local Spar supermarket – it’s the equivalent of a small IGA in Australia – to buy some dinner and breakfast provisions.  At last we were doing our own shop!  What should have been a leisurely stroll through shelves and shelves of gorgeous French food became “difficult”. 

As tourists, we have bought frequently, and often, in France what tourists buy, i.e.: cheese, wine, olives, biscuits, bread, preserves, salad greens, dressing and fruit.  When you are buying to actually cook and eat something, it is worlds’ different.  You need essentials like flour, cream, toilet paper (thank heavens plentiful in the house), cooking oil, butter, meat, vegetables, yoghurt, pepper, herbs as well as cheese, wine, olives, biscuits, bread, etc.  A quick whisk through the turnstiles simply is not possible when all packaging is foreign.

At first it was fun, pointing our phones at various items, and using Google Translate to tell us what the contents were.  Farine is flour, although the packet looks like porridge, flavoured with oie means goose not olives, mais doux (“but sweet”?) is sweet corn, which we were intelligent enough to spot from the picture on the can, and persil is not an old brand of soap powder, but parsley.  Estragon is not oregano, it is tarragon, while origan meets the former need.  More mystifying was sel, I mean we all know it means salt, correct? – but what was sel rose de l’Himalaya? – we were reminded of our two mountain passes tackled today and decided not to buy pink salt from Kathmandu.

Armed with two weeks’ worth of provisions and two years’ worth of herbs and spices, we went to McDonald’s. (pause)

This is not true, although didn’t I say that’s always the thing you do once in a strange town?  Fortunately, there is no McDonald’s, nor any other chain of fast food in Belves, as we were to discover the next day.  This first night we relied on a trusted and true favourite, fresh ravioli heated in bottled Bolognese sauce, liberally sprinkled with origan, basilic and persil, and a laurier to boot.  Look that one up for yourself!   Wine and cheese finished the meal, and a sneaky Sablés with thé.

As it was now three degrees outside, we felt we had to warm the bedroom and bathroom before sleeping.  This was easy.  We turned up the modern heating.

One is always a little wary of how much one will sleep in a new bed.  As Keith romantically had carried me over the threshold on arrival, I was expecting a reasonably active night.  Of course, I refer to the fact we are two Seniors with the usual range of fused back, broken back, recently repaired broken feet and bursitis in both hips.  What were you thinking?  The Bed looms in importance for needing to be large, comfortable and warm for our ailing bodies.

All night-time descriptions cease here, but let me tell you now about waking up.  Our house is made of stone and constructed when Queen Elizabeth was on the throne.  I mean the First.  Fortunately, it has had a renovation and modernisation when Liz Two was the English incumbent.  However, old mediaeval houses, and even modern houses in France, are fitted with wooden window shutters for warmth, security, night time darkening, and edging those adorable potted-plant photographs we take in Summer of stone medieval houses.

We had forgotten, as we didn’t know – it was dark after all – to close ours.  On my first morning in Belves, I was awakened at 0800 by a full bright sun streaming onto my face.  This ailing body actually ran to the window to see the sublime view and hear the myriad birds.  And right there my love affair began.  I was sleeping in a wonderful bed with a wonderful guy.  My things were unpacked; I had “nested”.  There was food in the fridge, warmth in the air, the prospect of chateaux, caves, rivers, markets and food ahead, with birdsong arching over all. 

I know in future Acting Classes when I am asked to visualise my “Happy Place”, my heart shall return to this, precise, exact moment and this precise, exact feeling.  I call it, “Deeply Contented Happiness”, and believe I shall suffer from it every day.

Chapter 10: WWW – The Wonders of WiFi and Washing 

Chapter 8: Fromelles and the Battle of the Somme

Wall after mind-numbing wall of names, names and more names line the myriad memorials for the Battle of the Somme. Fought from 1 July to 18 November 1916, over three million men took part with over one million casualties.  The opposing fronts moved back and forth across 10 kilometres of land, on a line about 32 kilometres long, defending the French from further advances by the Germans.  For the Australian Army, fresh from Gallipoli, it began at Fromelles on 19-20 July 1916… 

Fromelles:

Raging senselessness makes me angry when I am not grieving.  The battle of Fromelles was a joint British and Australian assault on the Sugarloaf high ground, 16 kilometres south of Lille, designed to exploit a perceived weakness in the German forces which were deploying troops further south to the Somme.  And it turns out we, unskilled in trench warfare, unfamiliar with heavy artillery assaults and unused to cutting barbed wire to advance, were outnumbered 2:1 and gained, then lost, just 400 metres of ground.

This battle is regarded as the worst 24 hours in Australian history and caused the greatest number of Australian deaths in one day.  Of the 5,513 casualties, there were 500 prisoners of war and over 1,800 deaths.  In one night at Fromelles the Australian casualties were equivalent to those in the Boer, Korean and Vietnam Wars combined.  Two divisions had so many casualties they had to be rebuilt.  Our commander, Brigadier-General Harold “Pompey” Elliott had anticipated a disaster and tried to have it cancelled, without success.  The deaths brought him to tears.  And me…

While 400 of our fallen soldiers were buried after the battle at the VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial, the only uniquely Australian cemetery in France, the Germans buried more of our men in unmarked trenches behind the German lines, and there they lay until their discovery by a farmer in 2002.  By 2007 a geophysical survey indicated a previously unknown mass grave contained the remains of 337 soldiers, of which 250 were recovered and 173 of those were determined by DNA to be Australian.  These were re-buried in Fromelles in Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery in 2010.  From the DNA samples, 75 were able to be formally identified. 

And this is how and where I got to know Lieutenant Eric Chinner, most likely killed on 20 July 1916, who joined the AIF in 1915 at age 21 … and his grieving Mum.

Mrs Chinner always remained hopeful her Eric’s body would be found and given a proper burial.  In 1920 she wrote to the authorities and asked if his body were found, could these words please be inscribed upon his grave:  “Matchless Son and Brother, Ever Tenderly Cherished in Our Hearts”.  92 years later, he was found, and that request was finally able to be honoured. 

I took the photographs for this story, found Eric’s gravestone in the cold, and scraped the snow aside to see the words.  I sobbed fit to break – for his young life so senselessly lost, for his grieving mother who lived her life always hoping, never knowing, and for the ultimate honouring of her wishes long after both their deaths. 

At VC Corner is the famous statue of “Cobbers”, cast in 1998.  A replica of it adorns our Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.   The story embodied in bronze tells of the soldier, Simon Fraser, who, in carrying an injured soldier from No Man’s Land in the days after this horrendous battle, heard the plaintive cry for help, “Don’t forget me, Cobber”.  The compassion and courage of the Australian soldiers saw over 250 wounded men recovered from this battleground, under enemy fire, in the next three days.

Now deeply involved, over our next three days we moved into most of the battlefields of the Somme where Australians had fought and were commemorated including Péronne, Mon Quentin, Longueval, Pozieres, Albert, Amiens, Bullecourt, Villers-Bretonneux  and Le Hamel.  Not limited to our countrymen, we also visited the massive monuments for the British (Thiepval), South Africans (Delville Wood), Irish (Thiepval), Indians (Neuve Chapelle) and Canadians (Vimy & Arras).  We found it doesn’t take only a nation to commemorate its dead; that on every road and byway small monuments were built to remember smaller units of men such as those belonging to football clubs, towns, battalions, factories, villages, States or counties  They were everywhere.  Even the French, who had the privilege of building on site, erected monuments in all their tiny villages plus one exclusively-French large-scale cemetery at Rancourt.

Here is my article, previously published on Facebook.

The Somme

Thinking one could be immune eventually to cemetery after cemetery, another story sends me off again. Each battle has its own story, and none holds any glory. Each was always about mud, bombings, exhaustion, lice, blood, barbed wire, hunger, thirst, death, maiming, incompetence, poor communication and service. Some cowered and shivered in the mud and refused to “go over”, others gibbered in raving madness in shell holes, the majority followed orders, made sacrifices, did their job, and disbelieved the horrors around them to stay sane. Even so, 13,000 Australian servicemen by the 1930s were on PTSD pensions, only back then they weren’t called that.

These memorials are not gaudy, glittery or grand. Instead, they possess a restrained, sombre grandeur, setting the mood for reflection, impelling quiet, generating whispers and forcing one to focus on the names – always the names – the missing, the known, the remembered – all dead. The sadness is shocking. I mourn openly and honestly, letting the tears run. It is the only way to deal with it.


In Pozieres, at the site of The Windmill, a German command post taken by the Aussies, they have also made an animal war memorial. Over nine million horses, mules, pigeons and dogs lost their lives in this war too. It was another story that made me cry today.

Australians are big in this part of France; in fact they are HUGE. The presence of our boy soldiers and the roles they played in WWI, are in evidence in all ways, some well-known and big, like Fromelles, Pozieres or Le Hamel, others tiny.  Over 270,000 chose to go to war, (the Conscription Bills were defeated twice so that every Aussie here truly was a volunteer), seeking an adventure, a holiday, a break from the farm or a chance to see the world. It was dressed up as patriotism, but as the losses at Gallipoli came thundering home, and then the stories of Fromelles, Paschendaele and Pozieres, the volunteer numbers slowed.


Casualties amounted to 60% of this number, wounded, lost or killed. Disfigurement, dismemberment, gassing, shell-shock and mental scarring were the spoils of war for this civilian army returning home, along with 3,000 wives and many babies. There they found few jobs awaited them, most did not return to the farm, some tried Soldier Settlement but gave it up in the long drought of 1922-1929, and then the Depression compounded their depression. Others became mayors, politicians, engineers, tradesmen and doctors. For all, the war was a blot they wanted to forget, and few spoke of it.


For the grieving, of whom few could afford the expensive six weeks passage to Europe, they needed a place to mourn and pay tribute to their loved ones, and thus we have those memorials that you will find in every town of Australia. We lost 20% of our eligible male population in this mud-blood horror. Every town offered up its tears.


In France too, the people mourned for, thanked and celebrated our Australian boys. They also vowed to never forget the huge debt they felt they owed our five Australian Divisions. Thus, while we now see huge memorials, vast graveyards and row upon row of silent crosses, we also see the small things contributed by locals.


At the primary school in Villers-Bretonneux, for example, a sign is displayed in the school yard – “Do Not Forget Australia”. The school is named “Victoria”, which collected the funds and donated them to start this school, in a town synonymous with an Australian victory, and the nearby Le Hamel, so famously won by and associated with Sir John Monash, a huge and great leader.


The eponymous centre where we spent most of today is marvellous, the jewel in the crown of all war museums here, built at the base of our 1938-built Australian War Memorial, pock-marked with World War II bullets when war once again raged through this area. Bastards! Opened in 2018, we can be proud of this $100 million Sir John Monash centre, commemorating in sound, light and high technology, all the stories of the Western Front together. 10/10 Must-See. We came yesterday, saw how good it was, and returned to absorb more deeply.

At the end of a sojourn here, one is invited to use the technology to identify a soldier and pay him a tribute. On a huge screen, mounted high, his name appears, attaches to a poppy and flies away with thousands of other poppies. Caught off guard, knowing no relative of mine was lost in WWI, I entered the name of my Fromelles soldier Eric Chinner.  It was a little thing, a tiny tribute in this monument of monumental stories, but caught off guard once again, as Eric’s poppy floated away I burst into tears once more.


Back to other little things…in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Amiens, there are few modern embellishments in a church built in 1222 over 70 years. However, there’s a photograph of the Aussie soldiers in front of its sandbagged walls, just after liberation. One learns that the first service here after peace was signed was conducted by the local priest for the Australians. The Bishop had fled to safety, (although he DID intercede with the Pope who asked the Germans not to bomb the Cathedral. Good Safe Bishop. Why didn’t he ask the Pope to ask the Germans to actually STOP the war?) Anyway… it’s the only photograph in the church.


On another wall is a carved tablet upon which grateful thanks are carved. You will see the Rose Window in the back. This is the biggest Gothic Cathedral in France. It’s twice the size of Notre Dame in Paris. And it’s the highest. This vast palace honours our boys still.


In the front prayer chapel, look closely and you will see the Australian flag hanging, with other Allied flags, in the most important chapel.

On the railway bridge in Dernancourt is painted a slouch hat and a kangaroo. The restaurant in Villers-Bretonneux is called ‘La Melbourne”. Road signs in Arras are shaped as kangaroos. Hailing from the war, there is a Rue de Kangaroo and a Route de Kangaroo in two different towns. In Péronne is the Rue d’Australiennes. There’s an emu in a wall carving.

These are the small things, tiny tokens of a huge debt. You miss them if you are not alert, and they pale beside the enormous losses, huge monuments and vast scale of this war. But they put a lump in your throat every time. You are reminded that families, mothers, fathers, daughters here, also lost over one million of their own. Yet, still, they find space and time to honour our Australian dead, as we do.

And all of this makes you very, VERY, proud, to call Australia “home”.

Chapter 9: Belves the Beautiful

Chapter 7: Battlefields, Belgium and Bruges

How does one begin to describe the immense emotion generated by visiting the Australian battlefields of World War I in Belgium and Flanders?  Perhaps one has to begin and end with some fortifying beauty and Belgian chocolate.  So I shall deal firstly with the Belgian bookends, Bruges and Ghent.

Bruges, yes “still in f..k..n Bruges” for those who quote In Bruges, is an idyllic, canal-based town in Flanders.  The buildings are dolls’ houses with their Flemish tops and tiny doorways. The major monuments are impressive, well-preserved, clean, and described in multiple audio and text languages.  Some scaffolding presently covers the front of the delicious Mairie but its aching beauty shines through the steel façade.  This gorgeous city typically attracts 8 million visitors per annum which makes it a High-Tourist Destination.  It’s easy to see why.  The mood is calm, the atmosphere is relaxed and the people are multi-lingual and friendly.  Bruges is the kind of place that encourages you to stroll around holding hands.  So we did some of that.

We visited the Belfry but didn’t climb this one, numerous cathedrals and the old shopping bourses, plus myriad canals and some quiet spaces too.  We drank hot chocolate sitting outside in the sun.  Even when it’s zero degrees with snow on the ground, Bruges was still busy but delightfully non-crowded.  I imagine it would be horrendous in the high season.  There would no hand-holding then.  We bought some chocolate.  We could have bought a truck full.

Days later, as a respite from the emotions of the battlefields, we sought out Ghent, and found another beautiful, but different, city.  Ghent is grander.  Every building is larger, and the castle and steeples are exactly like Disneyland.  One expects to bump into Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Belle around each corner.  Actually, Elsa from Frozen reigns here as the temperature remained steady at zero degrees.  We were warmed by the sun and bought some more Belgian chocolate.  Ghent is worth a day of hand-holding, but not in high season.

In between these bookends of beauty, we visited dozens of battlefield sites and WWI war memorials in Flanders and in France.  We had studied these and wanted to visit out of curiosity – and to pay homage of course.  After all, we were old-hand “Dawn-Servicers”.  But in talking with others who’d been there, I was always a little perplexed why they always seemed to end up teary and very passionate about their experiences.  I had seen grown, calm, Senior men shed tears talking about their trips here.  

I now understand why.  This is a not-to-be-missed pilgrimage that all Aussies should make, indeed all people of the world should make, to bring home history’s lessons and finally eradicate war.  And they should all bring some tissues. 

(While much of this already has been published on Facebook, here is a synopsis for my Blog-only readers.)

We began in Belgium where the three Battles of Ypres (“Ieper”)were fought from 1914 to 1917, taking the lives of more than half a million soldiers.  The Commonwealth defended a line near Ypres that stopped the Germans reaching the sea.  The Ypres Salient was contested, exchanging hands three times, until the British Army won Passchendaele in 1917 and held the line again in 1918.  That Army comprised Brits, Aussies, Canadians, South Africans and Indians.  While the Brits were professionals or conscripts, every Aussie was a volunteer.  (The Conscription Bill was twice defeated in Australia).  That sinks home.

The Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, and others, describe in shocking detail how the soldiers lived.  Shell fire whistled constantly overhead, and large explosions shook the ground nearby.  Soldiers were continually tense not knowing if that whistle was the shell that would end their lives.  No one could sleep for the noise, and sleep deprivation was huge.  Gas was first used here in 1915, and men ate their horses to survive when supplies ran low. The trenches easily filled with water in this flat land; mud, cold, heat, foot-rot, rats and lice were the order of the day.  One story describes how a Captain on his horse suddenly entirely vanished into a shell hole filled with mud.  They rescued the Captain but the horse was never seen again.

These are the stories you all know.  You’ve seen them often enough in the movies.  One can still be horror-stricken but relatively immune at this point, because they are anonymous soldiers.  Compared with what follows, one is kind-of impartial and can stay outside of it, recognising it is a piece of history long gone.  It’s when you visit the graves and start naming names that it gets you, and the tears begin. 

The major memorial is at Tyne Cot where the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has a cemetery and a memorial to the missing.  11,900 soldiers are buried here, of whom 8,370 are unidentified.  Simple words,  “Known Unto God”, adorn their gravestones.  A further 35,000 names are engraved on the Tyne Cot Memorial, standing at the furthest point of the Commonwealth advance before victory, near two German block houses the armies sought to capture.

The number of graves weighs heavily as you stroll among them…and then there are the names.  Lined up by Division, name after name, brothers and fathers with the same names, sometimes three from one family.  Numbers on silent gravestones show their ages were 19 or 23 or 20 or 45.  These were real men who didn’t mean to die.  The scale of the deaths and the sheer, stupid waste of these young lives finally sinks in, and I weep in this serene, imposing and freezing cold cemetery, where only our boys are colder than I am.

When I read this famous poem on one memorial, I sob again:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

                                    John McCrae

We must allow them to remain asleep.

We spent some time in beautiful Ypres, admiring the Cathedral and the Cloth Hall, both rebuilt after WWI, and walked the ramparts of the medieval town on a sunny day.  Fortified by a meal of country pate, soup, bread and beer, we waited inside a warm place for the 8:00 p.m. ceremony at The Menin Gate.

This memorial gate was not the gate the Armies marched through, but it is positioned on the same eastern road that many left Ieper from, for their last time.  Designed in 1921, this triumphal arch was built in 1927, and contains the names of 55,000 men who died but were never found in the blood and mud of the battlefields.  This is a huge monument to “The Missing”.  The inscription inside, worded by Rudyard Kipling, reads, “Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient, but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death”.

And generously, since 1927, every night at 8:00 p.m., without fail, (except a small period during WWII when it was in German hands), the people of Ieper remember and honour those who fought for them.  They deliver a nightly tribute in the form of a moving Last Post service.  Sometimes it is larger when dignitaries are visiting and want to lay wreaths; several Australian politicians and many from other nations have been photographed doing this.  Other nights it’s for regular folks who just want to lay a wreath, pin up a poppy, stand in homage or just listen to the spine-tingle of the plaintive bugle. 

It’s over in about five minutes, and life goes on.  But for those precious five minutes, on this night witnessed by around 250 people, in minus two degrees and snow, as school children laid wreaths saying Lest We Forget, as three soldiers marched and presented arms, as a solo bugler poured his heart into the Last Post, we stood again with our scared boys in their sleep-deprived, hungry, freezing, bloody and louse-ridden boots, and we gave them love and honour in the tears that streamed down our cheeks.

Lest We Forget.

Chapter 8: Fromelles and the Battle of the Somme

Chapter 6: Belfries, Bureaucrats and Business

A delicious breakfast in our Lille abode fortified us for the snowy sightseeing and battles with bureaucracy awaiting us outside.

We do love trains in France.  Short Metro rides were needed to whisk us around the sights in Lille, we thought, so we began with a Seniors Metro Day Pass, a card you buy from a machine, in English, that you can top up the next day.  One wishes Myki in Melbourne were so easy for tourists and day-trippers alike.  It turns out we never used it again because we saw most sights in one day, and walked the next.

Lille is the ancient capital of, and largest city in, French Flanders, with a city population of 232,000 and larger metropolitan population of 1.1 million, making it the fourth largest in France after Paris, Lyon and Marseille.  It became French only as recently as 1713 after 17th century wars with the Protestant Dutch.  It has much Flemish Baroque architecture made from local red or brown bricks, and also houses people in terrace houses as in Belgium and England, but unlike the rest of France. 

The textile industry was huge in wealthy Lille in the 16th and 17th centuries, then mining and coal followed.  As previously described, it has now moved to a services-based economy, but still holds the highest pollution records in France, which is sad given the huge preponderance of wind turbines en route from Paris.  1,800 people died last year in Lille from pollution-related illnesses.

On subsequent departures from Lille when we explored the WWI battlefields, I was prompted to research the huge “pyramids” which line many auto routes in the region.  It turns out these are slag heaps left over from mining AND they have been given UNESCO World Heritage status.  It appears the definition is: “distinct geographical areas or properties uniquely representing the combined work of nature and of man“.  Therefore, these man-made edifices are up there with the Taj Mahal and the Great Barrier Reef!  If you want further reading, click here, but this was unbelievable:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/9368443/Frances-slag-heaps-join-Pyramids-on-list-of-UNESCO-world-treasures.html

Our first stop was the famous Belfry, or Beffroi, the tower which dominates Lille.  At 104 metres, it is the tallest belfry in Northern France and is a World Heritage site. This was a bit weird as it was only built in 1932 after the old Mairie had been destroyed in WWI, but the building of it seemed to reunite the saddened city at the time.  Symbolically, the belfry is a watchtower that guards the citizens and they seem fond of it.

Firstly there is a ticket box, then 100 steps to climb to the next stage from whence where you can take the lift, or climb the remaining 306 steps.  We’d purchased Seniors’ tickets for €6, then turned up our ageing noses at the lift and went the whole way on foot.  It’s what we do.  I count steps; I always have.  They lied.  The first pass to the lift was 112 steps, and the 306 was actually 305. 

Daily exercise done, we saw the splendid 360 degrees view of Lille, and laid our plans for our assault on the old part.  Next was the mini Porte de Paris nearby which was splendid and also provided a home, complete with tent and outdoor loo to a homeless male, glimpsed huddled inside in the snowfall.

Now hungry and in need of a loo, we finally relented in the name of market research and bought two Big Mac medium meals for €13.60, and dined in.  That’s $20 on the Big Mac Index, so now we know, and need never do it again.  Travellers are permitted one, and only one, foray into McDonalds in a strange country, and usually to visit the loos.

Without using the Metro we were an easy walk from the Grand Place (officially Place du Général de Gaulle) and it well suits its informal name.  The heart of old Lille is a big plaza, lined on two sides by fabulous Flemish houses, along the third is the Vieille Bourse, the Old Stock Market, from the heady textile days, a building which would put a new stock market to shame, and on the fourth side is the Grand Garde, the old guard house that is now Théâtre du Nord.  In the centre is the Goddess in bronze, about to light a cannon with a linstock, commemorating Lille’s refusal to surrender to an Austrian siege in 1792.

It seems like everyone has wanted to conquer Lille at some point.  In its life it’s been held by the Romans, Francs, Vikings, Gauls, Spanish, Dutch, French, Austrians, Germans and even Britain after the wars.  Its parentage is as confusing as its architecture.  But in this sublime plaza the cameras clicked a lot.

Every French city is marked by a big cathedral.  In a heavily Catholic country, this edifice is usually grand, glorious and golden, laden with stunning glass windows, faded paintings, soaring towers, frowning statues, Baroque pulpits and masses of marble to confound the illiterate and keep them believing in God, Hell and eternal damnation.  In Lille, it is we who were confounded.  The Notre Dame Cathedral is an Art Deco monster, with only two redeeming features: the front window is made solely from translucent marble and glows golden from the inside, and the modern statue of The Peace.  Nevertheless, we liked it a bit for being “different” then moved on up the street to admire the Opera House and the Commercial Tower, both more to our Baroque tastes.

Enough time had been spent walking the streets in zero degrees, and even when a thin sun shone it only rose to one degree.  The rest of our day was spent inside the fabulous Palais des Beaux-Arts, considered the second-most important art gallery after the Louvre.  In fact, the Louvre, being over-stuffed with artworks, has embarked on a global campaign to send its pieces around the world and draw in new fans by hosting permanent art exhibitions in other countries.  UAE, for instance, is the beneficiary of the “new” €600 million Abu Dhabi Louvre.  In France, sad, confused Lille was chosen to be tizzied up with new art works on loan from its fabulous parent.

The collection is enjoyable, but over-rated, though we enjoyed finding Monet’s Houses of Parliament London, not his best work, and Picasso’s Olga in Fur Collar, along with works by Pissarro, Rodin and Delacroix.

McDonalds had done its work and quickly digested as only pure sugar, fat and salt can do, and we were hungry again.  The local dish is moules et frites, mussels and fries.  We found a restaurant we liked and dined in, using our bad French extensively and improperly.  I chose the local dish while Keith had some other fish.

The Old Enemy hit hard, and we stumbled back to the Metro, and into bed by 9.00 p.m., this time taking sleeping pills immediately to force sleep, as we had a busy day the next day doing “business”.  This led us next morning, after breakfast and packing, back into Lille to buy SIM cards for our mobile phones and open some bank accounts.

Orange is the only brand of SIM card to buy in France, if you want maximum coverage in rural places, just like Telstra at home.  Locating an Orange shop, we specifically asked for an English-speaker, and he was wonderful, charming and made us an appointment.  Adopting new technology is bad enough, we thought, but we didn’t want to learn it in French. 

Returning at the appropriate time, we found he’d gone to early lunch.  I couldn’t help but feel that he ducked off on purpose because 1. We were two Seniors likely to be difficult and ask lots of questions about the tech, and 2. Selling two pre-paid SIM cards just doesn’t earn the same commission as selling two new phone contracts.  Just like Telstra at home.

Our “assistant” was young, French and capable, but without a word of English.  Somehow we made it work, somehow we bought the right SIMs, somehow we got all three phones working, ours plus a burner with my old SIM in it, and somehow we left smiling, although I still don’t know how to re-charge the card, how to record a greeting, whether I can change the gigabytes of data next month to something fewer or whether I can call international on it.  I suppose the English-speaking guy knew what he was doing after all, when he avoided all that.

Next stop was to open a French bank account.  I assumed this would be the same as our banks back home, in that you could walk into any branch and they would lovingly and caringly pore over you while they made “sales” of three new bank accounts.  I had with me all the documents I could imagine they would need.  Their first question was, “do you live in Lille?”  No, we are going to live in Belves.  “You may only open a bank account in France in the town in which you live”.  And that was that.  Task postponed due to French bureaucracy. I guess they feel they can identify you better if they see you in the local market buying duck each Saturday?  We are still wondering.

In the afternoon, we moved to our new abode, the Mercure International at Lesquin, Lille Airport, where the IPC annual conference was due to take place next week.  At last we were in a place for a while and could unpack properly.  It was a vast room with two King Beds, and huge wardrobes so we unpacked everything, cranked up the heater, did some hand-washing and set off on foot to find the local supermarket.

This was our first foray into Auchan, a huge chain apparently, complete with supermarket and mall.  Trudging and sliding through snow which had become ice, mush and mud, we discovered that Auchan was 15 minutes away, on a sunny snowy day.  It was huge.  The rows and rows of produce were bewildering.  We bought only what tourists buy – wine, cheese, beer, olives, bread, biscuits, tea bags and juice, and invested in a lime-green Auchan-branded shopping bag to carry it all home. 

This bag became our fridge.  As the room did not supply a bar-fridge, we simply put everything that needed refrigeration into our Auchan bag, and deposited it on the window-sill outside, complete with a long ribbon tied through its handles, used to haul it back inside.  As the temperature never rose above one degree the entire three weeks we lived in this hotel, it was the perfect solution, and also kept our water bottles chilled.  In fact one night they even froze into ice.

The days quickly ran into business days.  Firstly a two day workshop for Gail, as part of the executive which runs the IPC, then more Delegates arrived for the two days of the Open Meeting, and it was a joy to meet up with old friends again.  Breaks, meals and evenings were spent talking, meeting and discussing, as we lobbied for or argued against proposals, had a number of quick Bureau (Executive) meetings to resolve issues, weighed the consequences of certain paths, selected candidates for various positions and laughed and drank with our colleagues, all of which culminated in the final two days of the Plenary Meeting when all the voting was done. 

Each Committee (there are 18 in total) has to make an annual presentation on their actions and outcomes.  When I made mine, Finance, it was to demonstrate to the IPC that based on my analysis, if they continued down their current path, they would be out of funds in two years.  It went over like the shock wave it is, and generated an appropriate course of action which meant raising our prices, something that hadn’t been done in 14 years.

At the end of the IPC Meeting, Keith and I elected to remain at the Mercure Hotel.  It was very comfortable for us, we had lived there for eight days by now, the price was right, and positioned where it was, at the intersection of major auto routes, it was ideally located as a home base for exploring the WWI battlefields of Belgium and Flanders.  Not only that, the Auchan fridge was working perfectly and the beer was always cold.  We sadly bid farewell to all our parachuting friends, and began to make plans for the next eight days of battlefields, Belgium and the move to Belves.

I reflect upon Lille with fondness.  We had great hospitality and a really good time here.  Despite its mixed messages and disjointed architecture, it is an easy city to be in.  There is a wind tunnel right next door to the Mercure Hotel, so chances are I will come back one day to Judge here.  I can catch up then with other sights that we missed.   These include a Museum in a Piscine (swimming pool), a mediaeval hospital and Charles De Gaulle’s house, but then I think, Lille is really a one-day city, masquerading as a tourist hot-spot.  They are trying to extract the most out of tourists’ pockets by carolling these attractions as “must-sees”.  I can also give them a miss and never miss them, you know what I mean?  This means I am as confused as Lille.

On to the Battlefields!

Chapter 7: Battlefields, Belgium and Bruges

Chapter 5: Languishing in Lille …

Years in the planning, months in the execution, weeks in the packing and hours from Hell in that long European air trip, we finally dumped our bags in France.

When you live in Australia, nothing can spare you the dehydration, exhaustion and nuff-nuff  brain that comes from making that 24 hour trip in an air-conditioned, low-pressurised, over-crowded aircraft cabin.  Not even champagne in Business Class. 

I have made this trip every year of my life since I was 21, sometimes three-four times a year.  I speak from vast experience to say that whether I do all the “right” things, like sleep in the European time zone, eat lightly, (some even say “eat only vegetarian”, horrors!), drink plenty of water, exercise every two hours – which is entirely consistent with drinking plenty of water by the way, – shower and change in Singapore or Dubai, or whether I am in Economy or Business, or whether I drink the best wines, eat all three courses including steak, watch movies all through the night and sleep when I am tired in the same clothes I departed in, the end result is the same.  I have decided it’s the air conditioning, low pressure, lack of sleep, et al, that makes one arrive so uncomfortably, so now I just go with it.  I treat the whole flight as an indulgence and worry about the consequences later.  As a result I drank average wine, slept little, saw three average movies, and thoroughly enjoyed the very excellent Crazy Rich Asians.

We travelled on Qantas all the way, so went via Singapore and London to Paris.  This meant our 72 kilos had been checked straight through to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.  Whew.  No excess baggage charges.

Being on British passports, it never ceases to amaze me that I can walk straight into the UK through the “Citizen” line, unstamped, barely sighted, not logged in anywhere, then fly over to Paris on, effectively, a domestic flight.  Does anyone know we are even here?  More hurtful, does anyone care?  With Brexit looming, we were very grateful to keep our eyes down, heads low, and not get logged into any system.

In Paris CDG airport, some 47 hours since we left our own beds, we waited for our bags with that horrid, horrible, dreadful feeling that they somehow had missed our multiple flights, and that in three weeks they would turn up battered and broken, having gone to Chicago via Cape town, leaving us sans underwear but with masses of insurance paperwork.  It pays to expect the worst; they were almost the first off the carousel.

Lightened of spirit but loaded with luggage, we set off to find the train for Lille.  As a TGV train departed every hour from CDG to Lille, we were in no hurry.  A long walk ensued through every terminal built at CDG.  I remember remarking to Keith, with my non-operational brain non-operational, “didn’t they have a bomb in here”? before I remembered one should not say the “b” word in an airport.  So much for my vaunted vast travel experience.

In finding the TGV, we found signs that said “train”, “SNCF” and “RER” but nothing that said “TGV”.  As we got closer to where apparently a train line was to be located, even those disappeared.  Even when pointed in the direction of the dungeon that houses engines, we could not use the escalator, and made a round trip looking for a lift which would move us, along with a trolley weighing the same as another human being, down into the depths.

Finally we found the station, noted a train to Lille was coming in three quarters of an hour, and lined up to buy a ticket from a delightful black girl.  I wonder if it is racist to actually describe her as black, or is it more racist that my readers will automatically picture her as white-skinned unless I so describe her?  She was warm, knowledgeable and helpful, with a complete service orientation so rare to find in Paris. We could have been friends.

She told us that Seniors got discounts, and we bought first-class tickets on a special promotion to Lille for only €25 each.  Now it was finally time to dump the trolley and move six pieces of luggage down an escalator to the platforms below.  Trying to balance the small suitcase on the top step, it slipped, and took off under high and increasing velocity down the long escalator, propelled by its own 18 kilos of weight, watched by us in frozen shock.  I mean, the noise!  As it banged and walloped down the metal steps, more and more people looked around.  Thank God they did.  At the bottom, it shot along the platform about 10 metres before slowing and stopping.  It would have killed anyone in its path, and there’s that threat of insurance paperwork again!  So we were very grateful they all watched it until it stopped, then they slowly turned to stare at the two numb, Senior Australians fixated at the top, and as quickly looked away as embarrassed as we were.

It was only when all the suitcases were safely down, and I had retrieved the runaway, that I began to laugh in that silent way that only makes you want to laugh more, knowing that people would think you were insufferably uncaring and careless to nearly kill them with a vagabond suitcase.  My belly was aching from hiding it, when the snow began, and the diversion saved us from further censure.

Out came the coats, hats, scarves and gloves deliberately packed in the outside pockets of the suitcase, due to that vast vaunted travel experience when once I was caught waiting to be picked up in Germany for an hour with my coat at the bottom of the case, freezing because I didn’t want to disturb the contents and not knowing when my car would arrive.  I became an Abominable Snow Woman that day in Germany, and vowed to never make the same mistake.

Two numb, Senior, embarrassed, but warm Australians clambered aboard our train, stowed the bags and settled in for a super-fast hour of TGV train-travel and sightseeing at an ever-increasing snow fall.

The outskirts of Lille are not pretty, even under snow.  It was once the industrial and mining centre of the North of France, and its buildings, apart from the mediaeval centre, reflect a period of rapid post-war growth of apartment buildings and economic prosperity up to the 1960s, never a good era for architecture, and the failure to effectively plan the town or its style.  When coal mining ceased in the 1970s, the town went into decline, until it was revived by tourism, education and research.  The central government invested in its power-house of a University and it became again a centre of world knowledge.  It is prosperous and busy again, sitting as it does on the cross axes of the roads from France north to Belgium and the Netherlands, and laterally between Calais and Germany.

Lille Europe as the central train station is known, is a conglomerate of modernistic architecture, supermarkets, clocks, taxis, buses, signs, platforms, escalators, shops, stairs, fast food outlets and lifts.  Designed as a modern shopping centre to move the city’s growth in an easterly direction, it doesn’t work.  It is horrible; but maybe we were numb.  We lined up for a taxi, requested a Kombi van style of cab, and took a ride to our centrally-located hotel.

Unpacking the minimum, as were here for just two nights, we ventured out to find something to eat.  Eschewing McDonalds, we found a patisserie that sold hot pastry things and hurried them back to our hotel to scoff in our sitting room.  Finally, a quick, hot and great shower, fluffy pyjamas, and we stumbled into a huge soft bed, laden with warmed quilts, thick and thin pillows, and divine sheets. 

As I sank into this heavenly bliss, knowing I’d been out of a real bed for over 50 hours, I rejoiced in how quickly I would fall asleep and happily counted how many hours of sleep were available to me between 8:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m.

By 1:00 a.m., when I still hadn’t slept, and knew the answer would not be “twelve”, I arose to finally give in and take a sleeping pill. I knew that the Old Enemy, Jet Lag, was making me suffer, as it always does when I travel east to west, much, much more than the lack of sleep in that air conditioned, low pressure aircraft cabin.  The torment of Time Zone Travel would not release its grip for some days yet, as we continued to languish in Lille.

Chapter Six:  Belfries, Bureaucrats and Business

Chapter 4: Getting Out is Never Easy – Except This Time.

Along with the 12 Month Obstacle and the hairy monsters called visa, tickets, travel insurance and international driving licences, you’d reckon moving out of our house would be a huge headache – but it just wasn’t.

We learned on the Camino in 2017 that it was possible to live with very few possessions, when you are carrying them for 800 kilometres through two heat waves and over four mountain ranges.  While not exactly planning to live in France in two merino tops, two sets of underwear and a jacket apiece for 12 months, we knew we had to pack more, for all seasons.  Summer clothes and myriad “useful” object were packed in two sturdy shipping cartons while we researched a way to send them overseas.

Sea freight seemed the obvious choice as it is much cheaper and would arrive in six weeks, long before we needed all those bathers and flip flops.  However, a shipping company requires you to conduct your own port clearance at the other end, AND is reluctant to send less than a pallet.  With some trepidation we researched air freight and it was simples.  There’s that word again.  Uggh.

We found a local company who would air freight it for us, for not much more than sea freight, and deliver it to our door in Dordogne.  Now here’s the rub.  They have to itemise the inventory and must pack every item with their own grubby hands.  There was no way I was allowing some stranger to pore through my summer flimsies, and I knew that I and only I, the Packing Queen who allows no air to exist in boxes, could fit our selected quantities back into those boxes.

No problem!  They had a three metre by three metre packing table onto which each item was obsessively lined up by Keith and me, itemised by them, then carefully squeezed into our airless cartons.  We even found an extra three centimetres of space in the top of each carton after the re-pack.  Boxes sealed, shipping documents done, delivery date planned, we had gotten rid of 55 kilos of clothes and stuff already!  Of course, that was in January when a heat wave descended upon Melbourne and we were left with only our Winter clothes.  Luckily we planned to live Camino-style, in just two old outfits for those final few days, said cottons then being dumped into the bin as we departed wearing winter black thermals, carrying parkas and scarves.

Months earlier, the Big Pack, of course, was always the house.  Having accumulated stuff for 20 years together, it was time to divest, downsize and dispose of it, to empty the house for our yet-to-be-identified wannabe tenants.  Our Agent advised us to rent it unfurnished as executives would want to bring their own furniture.  Well, they haven’t yet.  We are still waiting for those Swedes.

Object by object, every single vase, candle holder, teacup, miniature rose oil burner, toilet brush, souvenir of Phillip Island from 1972, suspender belt (remember those?), empty picture frame that someone once gifted us that thoughtlessly didn’t match our décor, makeup pouch purloined from countless airlines, body lotion purloined from countless hotels in tiny plastic bottles that for us filled three drawers as Keith always purloined the shampoos and conditioners too, four hair driers, 19 suitcases and bags, best china, good china, medium china, poor china, disgraceful china, totally embarrassing china, four cutlery canteens, Keith’s collections of stubbie holders, match boxes and sea shells, ski poles, tents, drills and drill bits, was handled, decided upon and went these ways:

  1. Send/take to France
  2. Keep/pack for our return
  3. Give to the family
  4. Item of value to be sold
  5. Item of non-saleable value to be given to the Op Shop
  6. Item of no value whatsoever to be given to the tip.

The family was consulted and no one wanted very much, so that avenue became closed after disposing of some bookcases, the clothes drier and outdoor furniture.

We held a Garage Sale in November.  With organising, advertising and merchandising, we sold over 100 items.  These were typically small and useless.  One wonders why we ever valued them.  One wonders even more why other people bought them.

Next came e-Bay.  Here we got rid of antique telephones, audio equipment, hobby cars, the spare bed and mid-sized useless items.  It’s amazing what people will buy from other people and at what prices.  E-Bay is highly recommended, but one has to be relentless and dedicated in managing those auctions, negotiating prices and organising deliveries.

The genuine antique furniture we owned was purviewed by an antiques dealer.  The bad news was that the bottom has dropped out of the market in genuine Victorian mahogany furniture, lovingly crafted and beautifully carved over 200 years ago and designed to last into perpetuity.  People seem to want the flat-packed stuff these days, or Insta-Indonesian junk.  There was no way I was giving away our beautiful items so we resolved to keep and store those.

However, our expert also referred us to a furniture auction house for the Insta-Indonesian furniture we also happened to own.  A truck pulled up on 6 December, and emptied our home of everything except the bed we slept in and the fridge.  From this point on, we sat on our outdoor suite, now doubling as indoor furniture until my sister removed it in January for her use, while using packed boxes as coffee tables, foot rests and ottomans.  Everything else was distributed in a deliberately egalitarian way between Vinnies, the Salvos and the Brotherhood, to prevent their bins from overflowing.

Inside the garage door, a huge box collected old paint cans, redundant electrical items, dead batteries, and more embarrassing phones, to take to the Tip.  That part was really fun.  I felt much lighter when all the poisonous items were dumped.

And now, those boxes that had to be packed for storage came to haunt my nightmares!

We are blessed to know Andrew and Maria Sorrell through the Jag Car Club, and acknowledge them as dear and beloved friends.  Andrew owns OSS, one of the biggest relocation companies in the Southern Hemisphere.  As our Consultant-par-Excellence, he offered his company’s professional services for our move, and his and Maria’s sound advice and support through every stage of this monumental upheaval.

One of his Customers Consultants did our Inventory and assessed the quantity of boxes and items we would need packed and stored, and a moving date was chosen.  I, being me, immediately set out to beat their Inventory, knowing I would pack tighter (and dispose of stuff if I couldn’t) than the pros.  I have moved 17 times in my life, and reckon I know a bit about packing.  From October onwards, when the first 20 book and standard cartons arrived via Andrew, I was onto it.  Room by room I packed.  Item by item, everything we owned was handled just once, decision made, and if it were a Number 2 on the list above, I packed it.  I wrapped it, taped it, labelled it and packed it.  Or I just packed it. 

China – best china – got two sheets of wrapping paper, medium china got only one, disgraceful china went to the Op Shops or the bin.  Ditto best glasses, also contained inside another vessel after bound in two sheets of wrapping paper; boxes were marked “fragile”.  I designed and made non-standard boxes using box cutters and tape, for non-standard items.  OSS delivered me flat-packs, tall boys and picture cartons.  Art was wrapped with non-acidic paper, then international wrap and marked “glass”.  Boxes were stacked, marked top and sides, and taped.  To strip a room down to empty became my passion and my obsession.

Pictures were taken down, holes filled, walls painted by Keith.  I just packed.  A single-minded, obsessive, gritty joy and sadness overcame me as I worked.  This was cleansing of a monumental kind.  I came to love the throwing away as much as I enjoyed the careful placement inside a box of a precious item.  Nothing is really precious after all.  They were only things.  Having said that, some “things” I threw away broke my heart.  It is unnecessary to pack, and potentially store for a long time, for example, a trophy earned from swimming when I was 14.  In passing, it’s interesting to note that in those days they were “made in Japan” not China, but they were still plastic and tin and gilt junk.  So I threw away this junk but broke my heart, because I was throwing away memories and throwing away my youth and throwing away my past after all.

As the house downsized into room after room of packed boxes, I guess I became a bit depressed too.  The beautiful thing that was our home would never be this way again.  Sure we will re-furnish it, and maybe will live here again one day, and it can all be restored and replaced, but it will never look like THIS again, so I sorrowed for the good times we have had there, and the memories, and mainly for the destruction of that beautiful ambience.

Oddly, I also carolled with joy at the pleasure we had getting rid of stuff, being tidy, removing junk, making a good sale, and felt lighter and more satisfied than I have in years with all the great packing we were achieving.

In the end, the tally was 145 boxes and over 100 other items placed into storage.  I beat the OSS Inventory by 25 boxes, but that’s because we disposed of so much volume too.  On the Big Day, 10 January, the removalists were totally impressed by the packing AND the system I devised of marking all boxes with green or red tape.  Red means we don’t need this item or box if we live in a smaller place when we come back.  Red can go to the front of our container (the back when you pack from the rear – for the uninitiated).  If we come back and find the fabulous beachside location has been taken for two years by a Swedish tenant, red will remain in storage.  Sadly, most of our paintings are marked red. 

Green tape means we need this box to conduct life as we know it.  Green-taped boxes were packed in last, before our container was driven away.  We only just overflowed one container.  That was a triumph to win such a small footprint.   OSS was magnificent.  We even got an SMS reminder before the day and a follow up call from Customer Relations during the process. A huge shout out is deserved.  Their packing materials are superior, boxes sturdier, paper better quality, tape endless and box cutters sharper.  And their people are just great.

Triple green, just five of those, are what we lived out of for the final week, and will need again for the first week we return.  Andrew will stow those for us in our overflow unit. Triple green includes some clothes, the kettle, our bedding, two disgraceful china mugs, house keys, one set of sheets and towels, a few undies, two plates and unmatched bowls, some Bandaids, a saucepan or two, some cutlery, a dog bowl, the electric beaters, a mixing bowl, a large knife, loo paper rolls, tissues, books, wine, Jiff, some photo frames with family faces inside, scissors, a sewing kit and a duster. 

When it comes down to it, we needed very few items at the end.  Only those necessities listed above made it into five triple green-taped boxes.  If this was a lesson about how little we actually need to live, then the 55 kilos of airfreight, the 72 kilos of clothes and shoes in toted suitcases, and the 245 stored items at OSS are just nice-to-haves.  But, by heck, they’ve been well-packed.

Our families, these necessities and the great friends who offered us their home when ours was stripped bare, who consoled my breaking heart, and who took us to the airport, are the essentials of a happy life. 

Chapter 5:  Languishing in Lille …