“This year I do not want the dark to leave me. I need its wrap of silent stillness, its cloak of long-lasting embrace. Let the dawns come late, let the sunsets arrive early, let the evenings extend themselves while I lean into the abyss of my being,” Joyce Rupp, Winter’s Cloak
IN summer, we learn to live again. In winter, we learn about ourselves. And the presence of a wild snake on one’s back deck is, arguably, one of life’s great teachers. I used to be scared of snakes, having grown up in country Queensland where scorching summers were punctuated by frequent snake sightings. Red Belly Blacks and King Browns were the order of the day out there, the type of rebellious reptiles that could easily kill a small child. And so I learned to fear those slithering serpents of my youth. But several years ago, when I first spotted a carpet snake on my back deck, I decided to finally face my fear. On the one hand, this was made much easier by the fact it’s a harmless common Eastern Australian carpet python. On the other hand, a snake is still a snake.
Anastasia arrived first, who departed only to be replaced by Sylvia, who grew from a one-metre juvenile in the first year, into a three-metre monster by her third. Too fat to fit back into the ceiling cavity, she departed, only to be replaced by Saskia, who arrived about a year ago. Saskia, like Sylvia, was also slim, but with a ready diet of bush rats and possums right out the back, she too has grown. And now she’s possibly the fattest snake I’ve ever seen. My anaconda girl also measures about three metres long, but sports the beer belly of a Brisbane bogan. Lay off the possums, I want to advise, particularly given I gain great comfort from their roaring thunder along my timber roof late at night. To me, that’s the soundtrack to living in Brisbane, and I love it.
So, what have I learned from my snake this winter? The first lesson is that it’s important to slow down. While my snake is still surprisingly active, even in winter, she moves at a slower pace. She basks on the back deck in the winter sunshine, that I, too crave. Learn to love the softer light, she seems to whisper to me. Take the time to laze. Stretch. Sleep. We need these seasons to rejuvenate. Reflect. Retreat inwards. For in a place like Brisbane, where the summers are long and lusty, it’s too easy to keep running. And run out of steam.
My sassy Saskia has also taught me while it’s important to eat, don’t eat too much. Fuelled by her latest possum catch, and a ridiculously distended belly, she tried and failed many times to return to her ceiling cavity the other afternoon as the sun signalled its early afternoon departure. She crawled and wiggled and pretty much looked like I do every winter when it comes to trying on that first pair of jeans. Eventually, she gave up. And whether she will return is anyone’s guess. I’ve learned to grow OK with that too.
She’s taught me to shed my skin a little. Be vulnerable. And she’s taught me to face my fears. In an ideal world, there would be no wild snakes on my back deck. But history has taught me that not long after one has departed, another one arrives. They are territorial like that. And so, I must embrace this paradigm. Just as winter follows autumn, the seasons will keep on changing. I used to hate winter too. The short days, the cold mornings, being constrained by too many clothes. By nature I’m a summer frock girl who loves being in the water. Those beautiful balmy evenings, bare feet and ice-cold beer. But I’m slowly learning that life is also about embracing the shadow side. Not only in nature, but in myself and others. Instead of rejecting the things I dislike about myself, learning to acknowledge them as a part of a greater sum.
I’m back on the yoga mat this winter, a nourishing alternative when the water is too cold in which to swim, and last week we celebrated the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. The days are starting to grow longer and pretty soon, they will grow warmer again. But for now, I’m going to relish the words of Joyce Rupp: “Let me lie in the cave of my soul, for too much light blinds me, steals the source of revelation. Let me seek solace in the empty places of winter’s passage, those vast dark nights that never fail to shelter me.” Wherever you are in the world, whatever the season of your soul, I hope you find solace too.
THIS was meant to be a blog about bikes. You see, in the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to stay motivated and energised in that last month of winter – my most dreaded season – when all I really want to do is hibernate. And so, I’ve been searching for beauty in situations close to home in Brisbane, places where I may not have noticed joy before. And all of a sudden, I discovered this city was full of beautiful bicycles and I started to photograph them for this blog.
But in the past few days, while swirling this idea around my head in the same manner one might an expensive brandy around their palate, savouring every nuance, it occurred to me this was no longer a blog about bikes, but the seasons of our lives. That there really is a time to reap and a time to sow. There’s a time to get out there and embrace the world, and a time to allow yourself to fall fallow. And, after a huge year of travel which has taken me around the world and back a few times, that’s what I’ve been doing. Greasing and adjusting the old chain.
A couple of years ago when I lived in Singapore, I had a deep conversation with my then Kiwi flat mate. We were bemoaning yet another humid day which comes from living 100 kilometres from the Equator, and the fact that the sun rises at the same time every day, and sets at the same time every day, regardless of season. You can set your watch by the afternoon torrential downpours and, while dissecting this monotonous predictability, we decided that we needed seasons to define our years and our lives.
At this point, some of my readers will scoff at a girl who lives in sub-tropical Brisbane discussing the concept of seasons. Isn’t it hot there all the time, they’ll argue. And, relatively speaking if you are comparing Brisbane to Tasmania, for instance, you are probably right. But even here, where the sun shines for perhaps too many drought-riddled days of the year, we have seasons. (Last month, we shivered through the coldest winter day in 100 years when the temperature plunged to 2.6 degrees). The frangipani tree off the back deck loses its pungent flowers and lush green foliage and closes up like a hermit. My creaky Queenslander cottage moans like an old man with crook knees. And every draft that blows across the continent seems to squirm uneasily between the nooks and crannies of the tin and timber, finding nowhere to settle among the high ceilings designed for long summer days.
When the crisp mornings eventually concede to warm days, and when my schedule allows, I’ve been sitting on my back deck and basking in the winter sunshine, secretly willing the frangipani to come to life. Allowing myself time to reflect and regroup. To think about painting the proverbial bike a different colour. Or maybe trading it in for something completely new. That’s what we should do in winter. Dream. Polish the handlebars. Stare at our reflection.
Riding a bike for many of us remains one of our first memories of mastery. Sure, we all learned to walk and talk a long time before we ever surrendered our feet to three wheels, and eventually two, but it’s one of those defining life moments. That point in time where you whizz down a hill, carefree and reckless and hope the brakes work when you get to the bottom. I don’t know too many Aussies from a certain era who don’t have a scar on one or both knees from when they’ve had the inevitable gutser. God, I can’t even remember when last time I wrapped my mouth around that fantastic word. Nor, come to think of it, the last time I rode a bike.
But soon enough we learn that life is full of gutsers and dodgy brakes and greasy chains. There’s potholes and pitfalls galore, as is there supreme pleasure. So, in this last month of winter, be kind, be gentle, be compassionate to yourself and others. And, if like me, you are preparing to get back on that bike and cruise into spring, may the wind always be on your back and the soft sun on your face, as you ride through the inevitable seasons of your life.
MID winter in the southern hemisphere and I’m in search of something seriously sensual. Something to keep me warm on a brisk Brissie night. I’m on the hunt for the city’s sweetest, thickest and most authentic Italian…hot chocolate. A man wouldn’t go astray either.
One of the nicest things about globe trotting is increasingly you can find a little taste of your travels closer to home. I mean, it’s hardly 1970s country Queensland anymore, where mum would interpret spaghetti bolognaise as a plate of unseasoned mince and a bottle of tomato sauce on the table. I have been fortunate to have travelled to Italy a few times since the 70s to discover mum was a bit of a creative cook.
It’s funny what you remember about a trip, for me, it’s not the big things like the Colosseum, or the gondolas of Venice. It’s the people. One of my most memorable travelling moments was on a local bus in Rome, where I was sight-seeing with my boyfriend at the time. A young girl, who would have been all of age 5, looked at him, then looked at me, and asked: “Is he your lover?” It was at that moment I realised all Italians were born romantics.
It’s a saucy Saturday when I go in search of Brisbane’s best hot chocolate, Italiano style. Working on the theory when in Rome, do as the Romans do, I decide to combine my hunt for a man, with a dating rating for each establishment.
Here’s my top three picks:
Bean on Dean, Toowong: This relatively new addition to Brisbane’s café scene is perched unassumingly along Dean Street, Toowong, where I have it on good advice there’s also a massage parlour which specialises in “happy endings”. But it’s a sugar rush I’m seeking this morning, and it comes in the form of hot chocolate. This cuppa is thick like mud and is surprisingly slightly bitter, which might appeal to those who think traditional hot chocs are too sweet. In fact, it’s so thick, you eat this beverage more than drink it, which turns out be a somewhat erotic experience. I’m completely absorbed licking the spoon seductively when I catch the eye of an eight year old boy who is staring at me and frowning. Which pretty much sums up the talent here. Mums, kids and gorgeous gay couples. The hot chocolate, served only on Saturdays, costs $4 for a cup and $2 for a shot.
Hot choc rating: 3/5
Dating Rating: 1/5
Bean on Dean, 45 Dean Street, Toowong (no website)
Schonell Pizza Café, St Lucia: Don’t let the laid-back student atmosphere, the takeaway cups or the plastic chairs here fool you. This hot chocolate is worth the trip across the river. Even the resident flock of Ibis seem to enjoy it. Amid the aroma of this establishment’s noteworthy pizzas, take the time to enjoy their version of this muddy Italian drink which is frothy like molten lava and has the consistency of custard. As so often happens in my wanderings, I catch the eye of a handsome man. Two minutes later, his wife and child sit down next to him. If you like your men with money, on this particular day millionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer is sitting at the next table. There’s also plenty of handsome, though slightly youngish, foreign students. A small hot chocolate costs $4.10 and a medium $4.60.
Hot choc rating: 4/5
Dating Rating: 3/5
Gusto Da Gianni, Portside: The menu describes their version as thick, Italian style chocolate made with full cream milk and decadent Italian chocolate. And this drink doesn’t disappoint. Brisbane’s beautiful flock here and the vibe in this restaurant is gusto in both name and nature. The Italian waiters are fabulously flirtatious and the crowd is a mixture of couples, families and private function goers, where if you wait long enough, you’re bound to grab the attention of amorous party animal. The cuppa itself is sensationally sweet, and comes with a frothy white head. You could be forgiven for thinking you are in Naples, such is the atmosphere here, and let’s not forget the cool Italian Vespa parked out the front. For some home-grown talent, Brissie band member Jim Mathers from Lime Street and his gorgeous wife Pauline (we love Pauline) enter the restaurant on their way out to the theatre. The hot chocolate comes in only one size and costs $5.50
Hot choc rating: 5/5
Dating Rating: 4/5