Life is Like a Box of Chocolates…

A few years ago when my siblings and I were cleaning out my parents’ family home of fifty five years I came across an item that I had never seen before. As a child, we had explored every nook and cranny of that big old Federation home in Sydney. We left no cupboard unexplored, no drawer unscrutinised. So when climbing a ladder to reach the very top shelf in the linen cupboard, I was pleasantly surprised.

There’s just something intriguing about wooden boxes. They’re a place to keep precious or treasured items. I stood on my perch, rubbed my hands across its grainy surface reading the words. California Chocolates. I guessed they were from California until I ventured more closely and saw that they were available at exclusive retail stores across Sydney. Written in clear block letters was, MADE IN AUSTRALIA.

That’s good, I thought to myself as I climbed down and ventured to open the box. I was greeted with that stale, musty aroma, similar to that of old books. Oh how I love that smell! Inside were bundles of yellowed sheets that were the perfect size for the box. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that they were the receipts for my parents’ mortgage, beginning in 1958. Every single receipt was arranged into groups, gathered with an elastic band, oldest to newest, until the house was paid off five years later, with the help of leasing out rooms to various tenants. In between the layers of receipts was a typed letter from the solicitor discharging the mortgage. Looking at the date in 1962, I realise that fourteen months after the mortgage was paid out, they had their first of four children.

California plus receipts (2)

So the California Chocolate box is now in my possession. My siblings could see how enamoured I was at discovering this piece of my family history and knew that I would treasure it. (I also thought that it would be a terrific motivator to make me pay off my own mortgage!) After a year of renovating my new home, I finally unpacked the chocolate box, opened it up, breathed in its contents and placed it on one of my shelves. Not long afterwards, we had our older neighbours over for a drink. I chatted away to June who told me all about her mother’s antiques. I brought up about how I like boxes and I found an old wooden chocolate box at my parents’ house.

June matter-of-factly said, “Oh yes, that would’ve been a California Chocolate Box. Everyone was given a California Chocolate Box for a wedding gift and you would keep your mortgage receipts in it.”

I was dumbfounded. What an amazing little piece of Australian social history I may have come across. And from that point onwards I knew that I would have to include that chocolate box in my novel. And so off I went and did some research.

Each city had their own famous chocolatiers. Melbourne had Hillier’s and Newman’s. Sydney had Alexander’s and California. Adelaide had Ritz then Haigh’s. The California boxes themselves were made of redwood and considered to be fashionable. The cream-filled contents were guaranteed to be packed perfectly so that you could send a parcel of California Chocolates anywhere and they would arrive safely. The perfect gift for Christmas, weddings, births anniversaries etc, contained an exclusive variety and flavour of chocolate that was unique to California and of course to Sydney.

In 1922, Fred Rice returned from the United States with a bundle of secret recipes and a store of Californian redwood boxes. Not long afterwards another man bought the business but sent it broke within a few years. Mr Doctor bought the company in 1940 and it stayed in the family until 1977. His son and wife expanded the business until production costs made it less viable to continue making chocolates by hand. So instead of switching to automation the small empire consisting of the Alexandria factory and all eight stores passed into history. Many buyers and sentimentalists gathered to watch the auction.

Very little of this research ends up in my book but instead creates the backbone to a crucial point in my main character’s life. In the book, we see how she has worked extremely hard to pay off the Australian dream. Housing was in shortage in the 1940s and 50s.Natalie and her husband took on borders and tenants to help pay off their own mortgage. It was not easy having other people live in your house when you were newly married. They took turns cooking in the kitchen. They shared one small bathroom.

I see Natalie, as I can envisage my parents. Firstly, admiring the simple beauty of the wooden box. Then relishing every single one of those sweet delights. I can imagine how they felt placing the last receipt into that box and putting it somewhere safe. My mother tucked it away into the deepest and highest shelf in the linen cupboard. There it sat for over fifty years. A symbol of achievement. A representation of freedom. A tiny piece of Australian history.

Listening to Colour!

Recently, I was captivated by an intriguing interview with a colour blind artist named Neil Harbisson. He was born with a condition that means he can only see in black and white. As a result, he has had himself permanently equipped with technology so that he can listen to colour. Yes that’s correct – he can hear colour! Neil’s whole life has been seen in scales of grey and he is the first person to have an antennae permanently bolted to his skull. Neil’s colour sensor device has been described as making him look like a cross between an insect and a call centre worker.

He is claimed to be the first cyborg artist. A cyborg is a being with both organic and biomechatronic (biological, mechanical and electronic) parts. Colour emits frequencies and the antennae allows for vibrations to be picked up. This long bendy piece of technology arcs over the top of his head and holds an electronic eye, that lingers just above his own eyes. As it detects colour it sends frequencies to a chip installed into the back of his head and literally vibrates the bone in his skull. As each colour emits a different sound he has had to teach himself which colour is which by holding pieces of coloured card in front of his electronic eye. He learnt his colours just as a young child would. He memorised the names and the notes attached to each of these colours. After some time, Neil didn’t have to think about the notes, and the colours simply became perceptions, which in turn, grew into feelings. He began to have favourite colours.

When Neil began to dream in colour, hearing the electronic sounds in his brain while he slept, he knew that the software and his brain had united and he had truly become a cyborg. He is often seen wearing very bright clothing. For example, yellow trousers, a blue t-shirt and pink jacket. How does he decide on what to wear? He looks into his wardrobe and listens to the chords until he finds the tune he likes for that day. If he goes to an art gallery he can listen to a Picasso or a Van Gogh. For Neil, a trip to the supermarket is like going to a nightclub. Each product vies for his attention, especially the cleaning aisle, creating voracious pieces of music.

So as spring takes its hold and pushes aside the greys of winter, I wonder what Neil would think about the colours of Jervis Bay and its surrounds.

The widest blue sky, reflected in the aqua water, flanked by the whitest of sand.

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Callala Beach (Photograph by Trevor Smith)

To walk through the bushland around Callala Beach, brushing past blades of green.

Burrawang Photograph Rowena Sierant

Burrawang (Rowena Sierant)

To come upon a wall of wattle that whispers the hopes of Summer.

Wattle in Myola (Rowena Sierant)

Wattle in Myola (Rowena Sierant)

To look up at the eucalypts and hear the vibrancy of lorikeets, king parrots and rosellas. Their feathered sounds competing with their boisterous calls.

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To rise early and wander along the length of the beach, watching the sun rise.

Sunrise Callala Beach (Rowena Sierant)

Sunrise Callala Beach (Rowena Sierant)

The colours of nature bring such a wonderful feeling of gratification and pleasure. Neil can now enjoy this in his own unique way. I admire how he is so content with having the gift of being able to sense colour through sound. I can only wonder how the melodies of a Jervis Bay spring would play in his head.

Check out Neil’s TED talk:https://www.ted.com/talks/neil_harbisson_i_listen_to_color?language=en

What Makes People Happy?

In the last week, I have read about two studies that delve into the subject of what makes people happy. The first study involved over thirty thousand participants and was conducted in Canada. It found that people living on streets with numerous trees (more than ten) felt better both mentally and physically than those who didn’t live under a canopy of green. The ‘tree people’ tended to live seven years longer and suffered less health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Another benefit of living on a tree-lined street was that it made one feel as though they had received a salary rise of up to twenty thousand dollars! In other words, you will feel rich when there are trees surrounding you that act like huge lungs absorbing not only the carbon dioxide and pollution humans create but all that negative energy that can intrude on one’s life.

I thought about my street in Myola, lined with immense eucalyptus trees. How I can walk, feeling protected and nurtured, under this shelter of shade on my short journey to Callala Beach. The word ‘eucalyptus’ comes from the combination of two Greek words, meaning well-covered. Surely, all this extra foliage must add years to the lives of my fellow Myolians. Seriously though, one reason why I moved to this area was because the community are a very content and cheerful bunch. Perhaps it has to do with all the trees that surround these towns.

Catherine Street, Myola

Catherine Street, Myola

The second study, conducted in Melbourne, reported that people who live in towns smaller than one thousand were significantly happier than those in big cities. The combined total of Callala beach and Myola is less than one thousand. Bingo! The reasons for this increased life satisfaction can be numerous. You will never come across a traffic light, and rarely will you see traffic congestion on your drive through Myola or Callala Beach. Crime in cities by far outweighs what you will find in these small towns. In small communities, people look out for one another. They stop, talk and listen. This sense of community is not very forthcoming in large cities.

I would like to add another ingredient to this recipe for happiness and that is living on the shores of Jervis Bay. Being able to walk the five kilometre stretch of Callala Beach every day enriches my life. Being able to take my dog on these walks makes it even better. In addition, pet owners are supposed to enjoy a greater sense of well-being.

Mali Jumping for Joy on Callala Beach

Mali Jumping for Joy on Callala Beach

The ‘Happiness Generator’ is on high at Callala Beach no matter what season of the year. Even if it’s a cold Winter’s afternoon, the tide is high and storms have turned the bay into a fierce creature that swells and surges towards the shores. When the frothing tongues of the sea come biting at your feet and you laugh racing towards the higher dunes to escape.

Storm

When on a Summer’s morning, your breath is taken away because you are forced to turn to the sound of a dolphin’s exhalation. And a pod swims past.

Resident Pod of Dolphins at Callala Beach

Resident Pod of Dolphins at Callala Beach

The exhilaration I feel when I step outside the front door and see a kangaroo on the lawn.

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Or if am walking down the street and find an echidna rummaging for ants.

Ernie the Echidna

Ernie the Echidna

In each of these moments, I feel such an extraordinary sense of delight. I feel like I belong to this place. I want to give back twofold what it gives to me. Big hugs to the trees, the nature and the other nine hundred and ninety nine residents in my small beach-side community. Together, we can feel so lucky. So privileged. So grateful. And of course, extremely happy!

Research: The Trocadero Sydney 1930s and 1940s

The Trocadero 1930s and 1940s

I am currently spending many hours researching for a historical fiction novel that I am writing. It is set in Sydney and spans the decades, starting in the 1930s. My father often reminisced about dancing in the 1950s at The Trocadero or as the locals called it, The Troc. It was referred to as a dance palace and restaurant, not a dance hall or club. The classy ‘Palais de Dance’ on George Street (now the site of the Hoyts Cinema) was the place to go to for a good night out. I really wanted this iconic piece of Sydney’s history to feature in my novel.

Troc 40s

My main character loves to dance and listen to music. She is a seamstress and makes beautiful clothing, when she can afford the fabric. So I needed to find out if The Trocadero opened before the fifties and if so what it was like during the forties and WW2. I discovered that it was built during the hard-hitting times of the 1930s. It’s astounding to think that in the midst of The Great Depression, at a cost of £150,000, a man named Jim Bendrodt opened its grand Art Deco doors on 3rd April, 1936. I can only imagine what it would have been like to wait for friends outside its unmistakable 1930’s facade. Walking into the foyer with its marble floors and polished granite walls would have instantly cast you into the world of modern grandeur. Large relief murals of famous dancers and fleur- de-lis carpet. Colours of scarlet and gold, all typical of the Art Deco style.

My research also revealed that The Trocadero was alive and well in the wartime years of the 1940s, catering to those in search of a good night as well as all the American servicemen who came to protect our shores. This was the era of swing and jazz. In the forties, this was the place to do the jitterbug, made so popular by those handsome yanks. It was where patrons could pay a small entry fee for hours of entertainment. Big names such as Artie Shaw appeared in 1943 with his American Navy Band. This was the time of the Big Bands and here you would swing to its very own, the All Girl Trocadero Band led by Frank Coughlin. (Take a look at the Australian Women’s History Forum blog post that describes one of the band members, Hilda Tansey: http://womenshistory.net.au/2006/02/15/hilda-tansey/)

In my novel, I have my main character ‘swinging’ with a man she just meets who later becomes her husband. She walks into The Trocadero with her two girlfriends, and is literally swept off her feet by Billy:

She listens to the music. One hand finds her lower back, the other flicks her out. The rhythms tell her what to do, how to move. Nellie follows his eyes, he angles in towards her and she leans in too. A little skip on the spot and the two of them clap in time, spin again before facing each other, clasping hands. Her hips swing and her fluted skirt swirls above her knees. His smile broadens. They gravitate towards the centre of the dance floor. Around she goes, hips in tempo with the music. He releases her hand completely and she twirls through the space around them. There are cheers from the gathering crowds. For those harmonious moments there is no war and Nellie feels like a star.

 ***

After all that swinging, jiving and jitterbugging it was time for a refreshment. There wasn’t  any alcohol served at The Trocadero until the sixties. Instead there was a milk bar and two refreshment bars selling non-alcoholic beverages and specialty sundaes!

The Trocadero’s history is an interesting and colourful one and I hope to take you there again, to  the fifties and sixties. But that’s another blog post. In the meantime, back to the forties and writing that novel.

THE BUSH MEETS THE BAY

Like so many others that have come to inhabit the seaside towns of Callala Beach and Myola, I was drawn to the beautiful balance between nature and community. A long stretch of beach with a vista across Jervis Bay. Large sections of beach fringed by bushland. Natural corridors for animals. For those who dwell or frequent this place, a sense of needing to nurture the environment becomes inherent. And this, in turn, generates a sentiment of harmony.

Let me take you for a stroll through Myola, the bush and finally onto Callala Beach.

Walking along the northern end of Catherine Street, Myola, an understory of burrawangs line Currambene Creek. Their spiked form may be why they are one of the oldest living plants on Earth, dating back to the age of the dinosaurs. They are survivors. Long rooted systems search for water and fire makes them multiply. Their wisdom holds the banks of the creek in place, while creating an avenue of antiquity along Catherine Street, up the dirt track, and all the way beyond the boat ramp.

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Burrawangs on track

Turning away from the creek, the burrawangs thin out and the eucalypts dominate. Rough bark, broad trunks. Others are mottled, smooth and straight, reaching for light. A grove of thin saplings among larger satiny hues of greys and greens imply a history of felling. Nobby apple gums with blackened bark expose an age of fires. Strips dangle like ribbons. Elsewhere, bark flakes like crazed paint. Each of these gums has its own timeline, while continuing to add its annual layer of protection. Stories are housed in amongst those branches. Animals and birds have depended upon them. The branches that once brushed against an arm, across a face, now tower above.

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The bush thickens and the sky becomes less visible. Dappled sunlight filters the track. The voices change. High above gusts shiver through the leaves like a quivering tambourine. The calls of hidden birds create the higher notes. The distant drumming of waves, the percussion. The rich smell of moist humus. An amorphous matter that feeds the forest.

Filtered light 2

Meandering on, heading towards the beach, the path changes to sand underfoot. The endangered Bangalay Sand Forests. Once so many. Now so few. The old man banksias bend in various gnarled and misshapen forms. Serrated silver leaves and woolly seed pods adorn their branches. Little mouths like a hungry clutch of chicks gape at those who pass by. A glossy seedling amongst blades of grasses, a hopeful sign of regeneration. And now as the last undulation is encountered, twisted trunks of tea tree hold the dunes in place.

Old Man Banskias

Banksia mouths (2)

Twisted tea tree (2)

 

An opening… You have arrived. Point Perpendicular and Bowen Island ahead. Salt spray carried on a southerly. Where ever you look- sand, bush, sea. Ponder the simple beauty of it all.

Listen.

Feel the connection.

Breathe it in.

the opening

 

Spirit of the Bay

The tiny coastal villages of Callala Bay, Callala Beach and Myola sit side by side on the shores of Jervis Bay. Today, their combined population is approximately three thousand. In amongst those inhabitants dwell some of the most remarkable women I have ever met. These are women of resilience and determination. Qualities that have been forged from adversity. Meeting them has made me consider what matters in life.

***

Dora, Shelley, Fredreka and Bernadette* share common stories. They all came to Jervis Bay when these towns were on the verge of development. A time when few houses dotted the undulating sand forest. A newspaper from that era advertised, ‘magnificent new lots’ for sale from ‘$695 each – $20 deposit – easy terms’. I can’t imagine it would have been too easy. They moved to an area with few residents, jobs were scarce and little infrastructure was in place to carry out day-to-day life.

The advertisement described, ‘the crystal clear waters of Jervis Bay must be seen to be believed.’ My conversations with these women have told me that they were all drawn to the bay because of its natural beauty. It was isolated. It was difficult. But it was beautiful. Dora came from Wollongong, Shelley from New Zealand, Fredreka from Germany and Bernadette from Ireland. All felt so incredibly lucky to have found the place called Jervis Bay.

Each of these women started their new life on the coast with a husband. However, another common thread shared amongst my fearless four is that they all outlived their partners. They have each lived for three or even four decades on their own. All but Bernadette’s husband died an early death. Bernadette’s story is slightly different in that she refused to return with him to live in Ireland. He did not share her love of Jervis Bay and pined for his Irish home. She did not want to leave. She never saw her husband again.

And so, all of these women stayed on in the bay. Alone. Did they feel the pain of loneliness? I am sure, at times they must have felt so isolated. But they stayed, impressively independent. Family members tried to lure them back to the cities where there were doctors, hospitals …nursing homes. They declined, feeling like they had all they needed. A modest home. Enough money to pay the bills. Friends. However, they had two other things that held them here. A community and Jervis Bay.

The small communities that hug the bay can also huddle and protect their elderly. So for these women, it was not an option: to lose the chance to dip their feet in that splendid water, take a walk along a bush track or a quiet street, listen to the waves and the birds, smell the salty air, be up early to watch the sunrise, have a chat to a friendly face, feel safe. They each felt connected to this place and its people.

I am so grateful to have taken the time to stop and be that friendly face that talked to each of these women. I have been allowed to share a little of their lives, to drift through their stories. I have watched their bodies become frail, admired their strength of mind. They fill me with a sense of belonging. And so, I hope that people and places continue to connect so that this community spirit survives.

My fearless four endured life during a time when the political and social structure of the world changed. They raised families and cultivated communities in these emerging towns. These women lapped up their days on the shores of Jervis Bay, enjoying the simple things. In hard times, they became buoyant, like driftwood. Aged, worn, but beautiful. They found a way. They did not sink. They survived. They flourished.

They inspire.

(*names have been changed)

Spirit 3

A Chance to Dip Their Feet by Rowena Sierant

I Name Thee…

The Currambene Creek is often referred to as a river because of its sandy bottom and wide bends that lead out to Jervis Bay. Each time I journey through its channels on my kayak or walk along its shores, I am greeted by nature’s astounding brilliance. At this very moment, I am looking through the burrawangs, watching the tide flow. An egret is picking its way along the tidal zone on the opposite bank. When the air coils, yacht halyards clang like wind chimes.

Traversing this waterway has brought an interesting distraction; the reading of boat names. Not only the names of vessels which are moored along the Currumbene’s channel but those that go past our house on the back of trailers, towards the boat ramp. Many of these are humorous. There is one in particular that does a great job of drawing your attention with its bright green one hundred dollar bills splashed across its hull. It is aptly named, ‘In Debt’! Others that have brought a smile to my face are: ‘Weekend Detention’, ‘No Excuses’, ‘Sassea’ and ‘Angler Management’. Lists of humorous names can be found on the Internet such as: ‘Beeracuda’, ‘Devocean’, ‘Nauti-by-Nature’, ‘Seas the Moment’, ‘A Wave From it All’, ‘Sail La Vie’ and ‘Marlin Monroe’.

The naming of boats began thousands of years ago and was based on superstition and fear of the unknown. By naming a boat after one of the great gods it was thought that protection would be given. The ancient Greek sailors would also pray to the sea god Poseidon for a safe journey.

The Romans ships often carried two ornate and decorative wooden carvings. On the prow (the forward-most part of a ship’s bow that cuts through the water) was a figurine or figurehead that represented the ship’s name such as a lady, a swan or an eagle. On the back of the ship was the tutela. This was the god or talisman that provided protection. The Vikings were also fond of using figureheads on their boats but these were menacing looking dragons that were also believed to give protection. Christians named their boats after saints so that the sailors were kept safe at sea.

We have all heard of the famously named ‘Titanic’. The largest moveable manmade object on earth was a show of confidence. In the battle for steamship supremacy, the world was told that it was unsinkable. It came to a crushing end when it hit an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean on its maiden voyage, over a century ago. The word, titan, comes from Greek mythology. The Titans were a race of giant gods who ruled the Earth until they were overthrown by Zeus and the other gods. The Titanic symbolised strength and power but perhaps the human hubris (self confidence and extreme pride) offended the ancient Greek gods who often punished those with such a trait.

And so, it is considered bad luck to change the name of a boat because legend has it that the gods of the sea, Poseidon and Neptune, personally know each and every vessel’s name as it is recorded in the ‘Ledger of the Deep’. A renaming ceremony can involve the invoking of Poseidon to de-name and rename the boat, the hiring of a celebrant and the drinking of lots of alcohol, preferably good champagne! A very good example of a boat renaming ceremony can be found at this website:

Boats have traditionally been ‘christened’ with the use of alcohol. This again harks back to ancient times when wine was poured over the vessel as an offering to the gods.

Another tradition is to give boats a female name. Even if a boat has a masculine name, it is usually referred to as a ‘she’. Some theories suggest that many boats were named after goddesses. Others say that sailors found comfort in a female name as they depended on the boat for life just as a child may depend on its mother. The sailors were cradled and protected by the ship. Or perhaps it goes back to the captain’s love for his ship. Contemporary explanations are not so kind. For example: It takes a lot of paint to keep her looking good; It’s not her initial expense, it is her upkeep or When coming into town, she always heads for the buoys.

So the next time you are travelling on or near a waterway, keep an eye out for the names of the boats rocking on the current and remember Poseidon may just be lurking beneath the surface, keeping an eye on them too!

Boats on the Currambene by Rowena Sierant

Boats on the Currambene by Rowena Sierant