Samicat

Und der Strolch.

We get the cake.

They get the cream.

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Parapenting

That’s paragliding. In French. We return with brown arms and peeling noses, serious leg muscles, and – almost – two paragliding licences. Eight amazing flights, but no photos. Too many other things to think about. I shall attempt a slide show in words.

Image 1, Monday: Despair

Our attempts at paragliding always involve highs and lows. In the past we’ve battled floods and weeks of unflyable conditions. This time it seemed too good to be true – Monday morning, up on the mountain bright and early, light wind, perfect conditions, arranging our lovely new wings ready for take off. And then the instructor takes a closer look. Where’s the gutesegel? Wings flown by German pilots in Germany are required to be certified by the DHV – the German hang-gliding and paragliding association. Our wings are certified by the European association, not the German one. No matter that we are in France, we live in Norway and England, and the flight school is Austrian. We cannot fly.

We sit on the back of the launch site, our shiny wings crumpled around us, our heads in our hands, as other people launch. It had been too good to be true, after all.

Eventually a very kind man who already had his licence offered to swap gliders with me. His wing was ten years old, but at least it had the right certification! And we were the same weight, which is important. I got two flights. Poor Michael carried his glider back down to the landing field. The next day the school found one he could rent from them. All was not lost…

Image 2, Tuesday: Rain

We lie in the back of the snuggle-car, and read. Rain falls on its roof and the windows, all day and all night, turning the camp ground to mud.

Image 3: The French Cat

White, brown and ginger patches, beside the red geraniums.

Image 4, Wenesday: The Climb

Despite the shuttle service, you still have to lug your 15kg glider on your back up the mountain for at least 15 minutes in the sun. That’s where the leg muscles come from.

Image 5: Take off

You can’t take a photo of this, anyway. The weight and the balance of it, as you plunge forward and the glider lifts behind you, and now is above you, and you run, and are suddenly weightless, and the wing that you carried now carries you, and the hillside disappears below, and you sit back in your harness and the air is all around: gentle, smooth, free.

Image 6: Treh

In the afternoon we go to the high mountain. There are gliders everywhere: launching, hovering, spiraling up in the thermals, crossing against the sun. Like great multicoloured birds, like a carnival.

Image 7: The Thermal Flight

Now it is my turn to launch. The wind is quite strong but I’m off with no problems, and the instructor says fly right, fly into the thermal, fly circles. Soon I am high over the launch site. I am flying up, for the first time. My first thermal. Other gliders kite around me, but I seem to be in the perfect spot, I go up and up and leave them behind. I am at cloud-base. The air beneath the cloud’s grey belly is slightly misty. It’s much colder up here, 6000 feet above the valley floor. My t-shirt is not enough. I wish I was wearing gloves. The mountains stretch below me in every direction. I can see the whole valley. I can see white clouds beside me in the sunlight. I can see the other gliders far below, distant and tiny, like tic-tacs. I hover there easily. Eventually, slightly nervous that the cloud will swallow me, I fly out towards the landing site. But I do not come down for a long time, nearly an hour, shivering with cold and with joy. The sky is reluctant to let me go.

Image 8: Wind

The next day the wind is too strong to launch, but we play about with the gliders anyway, practicing. The lovie does fine. Come, Meli, come, he says, you try too. Apprehensively I hook myself up to my glider. The wind seems to get stronger. Just hold it there for a minute, he says. But the wind is insistent and it shoots up anyway, dragging me sideways until I manage to get it up properly, controling it above me. But the sky likes me too much. Suddenly I am four metres above the ground, and I’m not coming down. The lovie stands below me, more scared than I am. When I do come down, he grabs me and pulls the lines, and we tumble over together and the glider miraculously stops. No harm done, and I got an extra little flight. Heh.

I can fly. I can fly. I can fly.

Documenta XII

Every five years, since 1947, for one hundred days, the sleepy town of Kassel is overrun with art. The documenta takes over the town, inside and out. A poppy field blooms in a city square.

Snow trees are printed on walls, and three dimensional squiggles hover.

We all look up.

Giant white leaf sculptures weave through buildings, inside and out.

Australians even get a mention.

These watercolour manuscripts were some of my favourites – faded like desert sands, peopled by animals, broken-down cars, and death in a jar.

A dress made of light bulbs.

And people, thousands of them, exploring, wondering, taking photos.

Here I am getting in the spirit of things.

And the lovie and his mother are transfigured by light.

Kassel

I am in Germany, hooray!! And it actually feels like summer over here. We have a couple more days here before we head down south to try some paragliding (fingers crossed for the weather). Very excitingly, my new paraglider has arrived (I traded in my old Fides for an Atis, which has a better weight range for me and is a bit zippier). Can’t wait to try it out!

Here’s the lovie with his beloved Strolch, in a rare moment when Strolch is appearing to sit still. Unfortunatly his affection is not reciprocated. I think Strolch is probably still traumatised from all the attention he got at Christmas.

Four Years

Four years ago, more or less to the day, I got on the plane in Adelaide, changed in Sydney, and sat still, clutching my laptop and my travellers cheques, a refrain echoing in my head: what the hell am I doing? This lasted an hour or so. Then I calmed down. This is what I’m doing, I told myself, this.

I was catching a plane to England, to travel around a bit before I settled down to a Masters in Medieval Literature at the University of York. I was doing this, because walking down Pultney St one day, I asked myself: what would you do, if it was a perfect world, a magical world, if you could live for ever, and have everything you needed and go anywhere you wanted, what would you do? Probably, I thought, I would go to York, and study medieval literature. That settled it. That and the scholarship, which meant that the eight thousand pound international student fees were no longer a problem.

I had seen a poster advertising the course in the English Department at Adelaide University, which I still frequented sometimes when I got tired of sweeping floors and categorizing bits of paper and wiping other people’s bums, and was wondering what to do with my life. I looked it up on the website and it just blew me away – you could study Anglo-Saxon poetry and Dante and Latin and Ovid and Augustine. In York, which I already knew was lovely. That year truly was a dream come true, and in many ways, the dream never ended – I stayed on in York the following year, and then started a PhD at Leeds, again facilitated by a truly incredible scholarship. People want to pay me to pursue my passions? Go right ahead.

It is good to think about this, because although it has been wonderful, it hasn’t always been easy. I have a debilitating tendency sometimes to think of myself as incapable – which the list in the previous post surely disproves. No. Whatever happens afterwards, these years are pure magic. I was reminded of this recently when I saw Nick Havely’s new book, Dante. I have mentioned this before but I mention it again because it really touched me. In the dedication, he lists about 15 names, including my own, and James and Christina, who studied Dante with me, and ends ‘and many other friends and students of Dante in York’. That’s me. I was there. I don’t think I was a particularly incisive student in that particular class, but Nick also supervised my Masters dissertation on the Middle English poem Pearl. He also mentions in his acknowledgements (and his bibliography!) the paper I gave at the Leeds International Medieval Congress last year on The Divine Comedy in Australian literature and art. That was part of a session I organized (and Nick, Christina and James took part in) on receptions of Dante, medieval to modern. Seeing my name in his book brought back memories of staring longingly at his subject description on the York website, long before I realised the dream could become a reality. It did. It is.

I am a good bug

These things I can do all on my own:

  • Change not only a light bulb, but the fuse in the power plug. Yep. With my nail file.
  • Pack all my stuff into boxes and take it out again.
  • Take my huge heavy bookcase apart and put it together again. Whacking it together with my shoe.
  • Make the bookcase look pretty by wiring the lamp so it can sit in the middle of it.
  • Survive having minus twenty pounds in my bank account.
  • Drive a big van through Leeds and not even scratch it.
  • Cycle forty-five minutes each way across town in the rain to pick up our internet package, without a wrong turn, avoiding many large trucks and buses.
  • Write a conference paper in six hours flat, and deliver the said paper at an international conference, smoothly and happily, only stammering mildly. And people liked it.
  • Make lots of annoying phone calls to sort out bills and things.

Heh. Now watch me connect the broadband. Um… no matter. I can also:

  • Drive in Norway and America, and drive very fast on the German Autobahn (we won’t be driving fast on our next trip, however, cos snuggle-car is not exactly a speed demon).
  • Fly a paraglider, solo, from a high mountain into a valley, and land without hurting anyone.
  • Write half a PhD thesis draft in less than two years.
  • Catch spiders (but only when strictly necessary).
  • Assist people with disabilities to bathe, dress, and get on with life.
  • Write a novel.
  • Put bits of paper in alphabetical order for hours on end.
  • Speak German (just).
  • Bake very tasty banana cake.
  • Survive four years in the Northern Hemisphere.

Taking a breath

Just wanted to apologise for the paucity of blog-posts lately. It has been a very strange and scrambled three weeks! Moving house involved five full days and nights of packing, cleaning, moving, unpacking. Looking around my calm and ordered room right now I can scarcely believe that only two weeks ago it was a waste-high marsh of boxes. And there has been so much to sort out – phone lines, internet, the fact that I’m not paying the water bill on my old house any more. These things still aren’t sorted out, actually. Hopefully in the next four days…

But I am very happy in this new house. I feel like a PhD student now, instead of a refugee (in retrospect, that’s an accurate description of how my previous neighbourhood made me feel). It’s so much nicer in every way.

Last weekend my Grandparents dropped in on their way back to Australia. I took them to the Hockney gallery in Saltaire (v. interesting place), and we had dinner at Betty’s in Harrogate, the epitome of a posh English tea house. It was so nice to see them and I felt such a pang when they left. That’s the problem with living so far from home – so many goodbyes. On Wednesday I’m flying to Germany, meeting Michael in Hamburg (he’s driving down from the ferry in Denmark), and then we’re driving down to Kassel to visit his parents. I was telling my housemate this evening, and it suddenly struck home what an international affair this is – my parents live in Australia, his in Germany, but he lives in Norway and I live in England. Strange indeed.

Sometimes I feel trapped between worlds, and it is a lonely place to be. But mostly I realise how wonderful this all is. For it’s not just endless goodbyes, it’s endless reunions, and surely having friends scattered all over the world must stretch one’s heart, and make it bigger.

I do like Yorkshire though. I’m growing fonder and fonder of it. I saw a squirrel on the way to uni the other day. For me, squirrels will never lose their novelty.

Conference Reflections

We’ve just come to the end of the 2007 International Medieval Congress in Leeds. It’s a pretty big event – over a thousand participants and lots of paralell sessions. It’s always a good chance to catch up with old friends from my masters in York. It’s also always a bit overwhelming, and if you’re not careful you can end up in very detailed historical sessions that don’t actually interest more literary minded types like me…

The highlight for me was a session on 20th century medievalism. Michael Alexander talked about medievalism in Eliot, Pound and Auden, and he has a new book out on the topic! I went to buy it but all the copies had been snapped up. There were also some really interesting papers on medievalism in early films – German and American. A German film theorist in the 1920s thought that the visual nature of cinema would herald a new physicality in human experience, which he though was a quality of the Middle Ages. Fascinating stuff.

My paper was on medieval children in Randolph Stow’s Girl Green as Elderflower (a very beautiful novel). I wrote it in a bit of a rush (as usual) but it went down well. Oh and the biggest thrill of the conference was discovering Nick Havely’s new book on Dante – he’s dedicated it to his York students, including me! And he cites the paper I gave at the Medieval Congress last year, on Dante in Australian literature and art. So that’s a bit of a thrill. Really must get on to trying to turn a few of these papers into articles…

Rain

It’s raining, again. I want it to rain forever. I watch the trees and bushes of my street sway in the grey wind. It’s seven a.m. An hour ago (she’d worked out the time differences wrong) my cousin rang to tell me one of my best friends had a stroke last night. He’s 31.

There’s no one to talk to. I thought writing might help – not him but me. I feel sick.

He’s a poet. We used to pour over drafts together in the university refectories. When his book got published a couple of years ago it was strange to see the poems on the white pages like finished beings. Endless permutations of each were still embedded in my mind. He’s a perfectionist. Often he would scrap a whole poem and just save one line, which would sometimes take years to find a home. I remember the poem he was writing when I first met him. It was going to be a sonnet. It ended up a single line in a very different poem.

My cousin says he can’t talk clearly or move his arm, but they think he understands people talking to him. They don’t know how bad it is. He has been ill for years. He’s coped, but he looked dreadful when I saw him this February. They’ve done all sorts of tests but no one knows what’s wrong. It’s just stupid.

I’ve never seen anyone so in love as my friend and his wife. They met as teenagers and married young, and have been happy. I can’t imagine what she is feeling.

I feel sort of close to him in this grey rainy stillness. We used to stay up all night together finishing our last minute English essays. I remember standing outside with him in the early hours of the morning under my veranda in the rain. Adelaide rain, at night – dark, glossy, strong. In my memory, Adelaide rain is always exciting and vibrant and full of life. My friend has written the most beautiful rain poems.

I don’t know if it’s raining in Adelaide but if it is I hope he feels it. I hope where he is, in his body, in his mind, there is a place of stillness, where water falls, and calms and washes and restores. I hope the rain brings life. I don’t know how to pray any more, but I want the rain to be my prayer. All night, without ceasing.

Moving in

Can’t seem to concentrate on blog posts in this nasty computer cluster. Well, it’s not as nasty as usual because most of the students are on holiday, but it’s still nasty. Outside, it rains most days. It was so cold last night that I needed two duvets. (That’s what they call them here. I used to call them quilts. Who knows…) Summer? Summer you ask? So do I. But my new house and housemates are lovely. I have a blue and white room with high ceilings, and our kitchen is large and sunshiny, with a round wooded table for breakfast. It feels like a weight has lifted off me – though it was sad to say goodbye to Mr Cat. And the supervisors were pleased with my chapter – hooray! I thought they would be. Now I just need to plough on with my conference paper for next week. It’s been fun cycling again – as my new house is further away from uni I need to get my bike out. And that’s it, really. When the internet and phone providers decide that I can afford to pay them, I’ll hopefully be connected at home. Most of my boxes are unpacked – there’s just a few niggling bits and pieces that I have lost motivation to find homes for… I’ll post some before and after packing shots soon.

Oh, and I drove a van, a big van, all through Leeds. And I didn’t crash it. Or get lost (though the housemate navigators helped with this one). I am very proud.