Saturday morning rituals

As much as I like to think myself a free spirit I am, like most people, a creature of habit. This is no more evident than on Saturday mornings.

It’s the end of the week and there is a mental reclining into the weekend. I wake, whenever, feed Rigby, make a coffee, and go back to bed where I catch up with things – Facebook and Twitter, the newspapers, and whatever book of non-fiction I’m reading at that time (fiction is for bedtimes).

Somewhere between 9 and 10 I’ll get out of bed and get myself ready for the day ahead. Sometimes that includes a walk for Rigby, though mostly I leave that for later. It always means a trip to the local shops at Hampton for my weekly shopping.

I enjoy this. In fact, I look forward to it. Maybe it’s because it’s such a simple thing. All week I’ve been catching the train to and from work, and in the office have done battle (truer than just a throwaway line). The simple task of shopping for groceries at my cosy local shops is a form of mental cleansing. So off I go.

I’m pretty organised. I have a fair idea each week of what I’m going to buy. About 80% of my shopping is to plan – replacing things I’ve run out of, the weekly staples like bread and milk, and the ingredients I’ve identified for my cooking in the week ahead.

I walk around with about ten recipes in my head I plan to make. Depending on what I feel like and the weather will determine which recipes I select for the week ahead, though generally one will certainly be meat, and hopefully another meat-free. The recipes I browse each week on sites like the NYT, and some I will add to an app on which I’ve got stored about a thousand recipes of all types. I’ve made about 300 of them.

So when I go out I have in mind what I will make and the ingredients I need to make them. Mostly these recipes are new to me and I’ll rate them afterwards. Most recipes score a three, but it’s my hope to get about a hundred recipes with a rating above that which will be the staple of my diet going forward. That’s a fair way off – I’m an adventurous cook and a fussy one, and I’ve got no more than twenty odd recipes that score that well.

So I set out. Occasionally I’ll catch up for a coffee with Cheeseboy on my way, but mostly I’ll head directtly to the shops.

I’ll know if it’s going to be a big shop or a small shop. If it’s a small shop I’ll take the red cloth shopping bag I bought in Hong Kong fifteen years ago. It has memories for me, not just from when I bought it – from the markets on the far side of the island – but of the many occasions I’ve used it, and how, once, mum repaired it for me.

If it’s a big shop I’ll take with me the very sturdy L.L.Bean canvas bag. It holds a shitload, as they say, and can bear a greater burden than I’ve yet tested it with.

First stop is the supermarket. I’ll be about half an hour in there buying my groceries. Next stop is the greengrocer. Most of my meat and vegies I buy from Vic Market during the week, but often I’ll need to supplement my stores with something extra. Finally, I get my weekend bread. Mostly it’s from Baker’s Delight, which embarrasses me some, though it’s adequate bread at a reasonable price. Sometimes I’ll walk a bit further and across the railway line to the French bakery. Sometimes I’ll pick up some artisan bread from the greengrocer. Regardless, there’s always bread of some type – a baguette, something sourdough, maybe some Turkish bread, or something grainy and/or seeded (today it’s Turkish rolls). There’s always bread though, that’s my ritual too.

I’ll head back then. If I’m bold or have some loose change I might stop for a coffee somewhere, but mostly it’s straight home.

At home, I’ll unpack the food while listening to music (today it’s Peter Gabriel). Recently I’ve got in the habit of including a milk drink in my shopping and will drink that while I put things away and then, once that’s done, cleaning the kitchen proper, to cap off the routine.

At some stage, I’ll make myself a sandwich and sit down in front of this thing to catch up with my emails, check out some recipes, browse some music. Today I’ve interrupted that routine, but not broken it. Now it’s back to the kitchen for the cleanup.


My street

Last week, an old townhouse up the road and across the street from where I live was demolished. They were there a few days with an earth digger dismantling the property. This is not uncommon these days. Properties are always being torn down to be replaced by shmick new apartment complexes, and I expect something similar will appear here.

One morning on my way to work I passed by. The house was gone and cleared away, but the tractor was at work tearing apart bit by bit an old tree in the corner of the property. It tore one limb from the tree, then another. I walked on, feeling uneasy, as if I was witnessing something fundamentally wrong. I didn’t want to see anything more. By the time I returned that evening the tree was gone, the block vacant, and the tractor carted away.

Yesterday after getting home I put on a pair of shorts then when out to the bins at the front of the property with some rubbish. A skinny old man with a floppy hat was standing there looking up at the sprawling old gum tree in the nature strip. He turned at my approach and said affably. “Great old tree, isn’t it?” I agreed it was. Unwilling to be rude I lingered a little longer talking about the tree. He told me he believed it was this or that particular type of gum tree, but would “have to smell the leaves” to confirm it was. He picked up a handful of fallen leaves and inhaled from them. Nodding his head he said, yes it was as he thought. At that moment a woman approached.

She was my next door neighbour. I’d see her around but we’d never actually came face to face. She was dressed casually and had a towel spilling over the edges of a large shoulder bag. She had paused deliberately to meet me. “Hi,” she said, “We’re neighbours. I’ve seen you but we’ve never met. My name’s Eva.”

She had a slight accent and combined with her blonde good looks I thought she might be Scandinavian or Eastern European. Somehow I’d never considered as anything else but Aussie on the occasions I’d seen her. I’d found her alluring right from the get-go, not just attractive, but seemingly with a lively, vivacious quality that resonated with me every time I saw her. Yesterday she smiled at me, friendly and wanting to engage and I found it a gracious quality.

I introduced myself and then made the obvious comment that she’d been to the beach, adding “good day for it.” She agreed, we parted, see you around.

Living the low life

I had the choice last night of attending a cool party in the city, a low-key barbecue close by, or just stay home. Guess what I did? I stayed home.

It bemuses me a little since I complain of a paucity of social opportunities, but then, I’m not going to force it. You feel obliged to do something on new years eve and somehow a loser if you don’t. I didn’t feel like going out last night though. I certainly didn’t relish catching public transport to and from the city with a million other (often drunk) members of the public. And so on the basis of doing what I want to do – rather doing what is expected of me – I went nowhere.

I fired up the barbie and made dinner. Then I watched The Maltese Falcon again. A little after 9pm I put on the movie I’d set myself to watch last night Bladerunner 2049. It’s running time would take me up towards midnight, and it was a movie I looked forward to re-watching.

Once more I was blown away by much of the imagery and set-pieces in the film. It’s great to look at. It’s a classic story too, though. As I watched I thought there’s something Dickensian about the storyline, even if set in a bleak, rainwashed future. Watching a second time with knowledge of how it all pans out added another level of insight.

It’s funny, though it’s deemed a classic and high-up on many best-of lists, I’m nowhere near as fond of the original Bladerunner – even though, on paper, it’s just my sort of movie. I watched it again six months ago and found my views on it unchanged. It has great moments, again, some fantastic set-pieces, the production design is fantastic, Ridley Scott is a fine director, and it’s got Harrison Ford – and yet I’m unswayed. You know what? I think – despite the story – there’s something cold at the heart of it. It’s an unfashionable view and I wish I enjoyed it more.

About halfway through last night I cracked a bottle of bubbles for tradition’s sake and drank half of it. The movie finished at about 11.45 and so I put a leash on Rigby and together we wandered down to the beach.

The idea was to get a good view of the fireworks over Melbourne. From Hampton beach, there’s pretty well an unimpeded view of the CBD. As it turns out it wasn’t as great as that by night.

A few other people had got the same idea as me. Cars had pulled over to the side of the road to check it out. On the beach, there were a couple of party groups, as well as a couple of cops checking things out. It was a beautiful night – cool without being cold, and the night sky clear so every star twinkled.

Midnight came and people cheered and cried out and the fireworks went off. They seemed far distant from our vantage point, small splashes of colour erupting on an oversized canvas. We could hear them though, and soon enough smell them too as the smoke wafted our way.

I stayed for about ten minutes, happy to have come, and then home, and to bed by 12.30

Boxing Day traditions

I know right now a bunch of crazies are duking it out at the Boxing Day sales but gee, I couldn’t think of anything worse. My Boxing Day tradition is very different. It’s a time to chill, a day to put the feet up after the exertions and excesses of the day previous, a day to quietly review gifts given, to tuck into the plenitude of leftovers and – above all – to settle down in front of the TV for the start of the Boxing Day test match.

This year there’re leftovers, but not so many gifts, and though I fed well throughout the day the excesses were kept to a minimum. As for exertions? Quite.

I’m set, all the same. I’ve been out, bought some milk for my coffee, plus some avocados and a good loaf of Turkish bread for lunch of leftover chicken in sandwiches. As I write this the national anthems are being sung before the start of the test match. I won’t stir much from here on in.

Yesterday was predictably modest. Lunch was good, but I went easy on it. I watched some Netflix, then a Bergman movie. Initially, I was going to watch Wild Strawberries, but upon reflection decided that wasn’t a good option, being all about regret after all. Instead, I settled for The Seventh Seal.

Somewhere amid that I had a nap and did some reading, before hopping in the car and making the short trip to JV’s. It was low-key and pleasant there. They’d returned from a predictably full-on family day. We had a glass or two of wine, fired up the barbie, and talked long into the balmy night.

That was enough for me Christmas Day. Until then I was feeling it a little, but that ticked it off.

Today I’m spot on. No dramas. All the related pressure of the festive season has dropped away. I can be a normal person again.

Christmas morn

It’s Christmas morning and I’ve just returned from walking Rigby to the beach. It’s the kind of day you want to bottle – 26 degrees and blue-skied.

As always on Christmas morning the streets seemed unnaturally quiet. Behind closed doors, I imagined, children rampaged and parents smiled indulgently in this precious family time. They would get out and about later, crisscrossing Melbourne as they went to parents and grandparents for the day’s festivities. Now, it was all theirs.

The few people I did see were in their shorts and nodded festively to me as I greeted them. The beach was quiet too. It had been groomed overnight and had been insufficiently disturbed to hide signs of it. A few odd couples walked along the pathway at the rear of it, and on the beach, there were widely spaced specks of individuals and families with their towels.

We walked to the water’s edge and, as always, Rigby plunged in. Soon enough I’d waded in up to my knees. We spent 5-10 minutes in the water before we clambered atop the bluestone breakwater extending into the sea.

All of this had become recent tradition, a touchstone for the day. Christmas is all about ritual, and if I no longer have my old rituals then I must invent new. Part of it is the breakwater, which has taken on meaning far beyond its modest purpose.

We always clamber atop it and look out to sea, at the tankers lurking in the distant haze, at the random yachts scudding across the bay. Turn the other way and there’s the shore, people coming and going, and beyond that the nearest thing I have to a home.

In the book, I’m writing there’s a hill that has significance for the protagonist. Over time and through habit it has been imbued with meaning. It’s the place he goes to get away from the world, the place he comes to think. It’s his refuge, if not quite a sanctuary – but it is his.

I walk by the beach occasionally with Rigby and often we’ll stop to climb atop the breakwater, but at those moments it means nothing. It finds its meaning at Christmas because it has become a part of my ritual. I don’t think a lot about it while I’m there, but I feel it. It has become a touchstone for me, something personal on a day when I no longer have anything personal to share.

Earlier in the night, I’d been woken at about 3.30 by Rigby wanting to go outside. I realised as I led him out that it was Christmas day. “Merry Christmas”, I told him.

I woke at the normal time after that, and as I would on any normal day off I made myself a coffee and returned to check up on the news overnight, before turning to my book.

I finished the book at about 8.30 and I got up to collect the few presents waiting for me, and to give Rigby his Christmas present (a pork bone, devoured with relish). I returned to bed to open my presents – an excellent bottle of boutique Japanese gin, and a couple of gifts from the kids – a cooking set and a big box of liquor chocolates, gratefully received. My sister probably bought them for the kids to give, which gave me pause.

Soon enough I’ll commence preparations for lunch. There’s a butterflied chicken I’ve been brining overnight I’ll roast with lemon and garlic and a sprinkling of thyme. I’ll have all the usual trimmings to go with it. Later on, I’ll be at JV’s for a barbecue, for which I’m grateful.

Now? I might just have a glass of eggnog.

Merry Christmas everyone. Hoping you all have a warm and loving day.

On the day before Christmas

Back to work this morning but I was much more leisurely about it than normal. I got up at the usual time but made myself a coffee and went back to bed to read a chapter of The Dawn Watch, a very good biography of Joseph Conrad.

By the time I walked out the door, it was about 7.40. It was a sunny morning on a hot day, and it was lively out.

Much of Melbourne has taken today off, and why not? Up at Hampton street, there were people everywhere in their Saturday clothes. It was not 8am yet, but the butchers were open (even though his sign said opening 8am Christmas Eve), so was the fish shop. The greengrocer is always open early, and there was a line snaking out of the bakery.

I looked about thinking this was nice, wishing I had the day off too to be part of it – but then I’ve not really anything I have to plan and purchase for last minute, and no place to be.

As I walked towards the station I heard a general hubbub coming from the café leading to it. The courtyard was full of people in a festive mood. Cyclists in their lycra sat around a long table. Others – friends, families – caught up for a relaxed Christmas Eve breakfast together.

By comparison, the train only filled halfway, which is one of the bonus’ this time of year. I sat by the window, as usual, this time listening to an old Christmas story. A family sat in the seats around me about Elsternwick, dressed in shorts and t-shirts, though elegantly so. Something about them reminded me of my own family back in the day, and I found myself observing them.

It was an adult family, the two kids in their early twenties, their parents in their mid-fifties, handsome and elegant. The mother sat opposite me. She looked nothing like my mum, but she shared some similar quality. She was elegant and well turned out, without any obvious effort being made. She was an attractive woman, engaged with her family and the occasion. They seemed like a family out on a jaunt together on the eve of Christmas. The train was probably a novelty to some of them, and they exuded an unpretentious class different from most on the train.

It felt innately familiar to me, and so it bit more than I expected. I’ve been part of a family like that. I was one of those kids perhaps, safely aware that I was loved and that I existed within this comfortable framework I took for granted. I was reminded – I had long forgotten – that many of my contemporaries when I was a kid looked upon us as a bit different, a bit less raw, a bit more polished. That was my milieu.

It’s very different now. Economically I’m in the lower class even if in outlook I remain comfortably middle class. The important fact, regardless of class, is that I have no family to blend into, no role to play, no expectation to satisfy.

I looked out the window feeling gruff and lost. I might recognise them, but they could never recognise me. And I knew that even if I was doing nothing of significance tomorrow that it was better than to pretend otherwise. I spoke the other day of knowing the forms of things without sharing in any of the blessings. That’s an exaggeration, but it attends a truth. This is why I choose to decline all well-intended invitations tomorrow, because I know the form of it, because I was totally immersed in it once, because I was loved and cherished as an essential part of the festivities – and anything less than that is a counterfeit likely to remind me of all that I have foregone.

It sounds sad, but I take a pragmatic view of it. I’m stoic by nature and I tell myself it won’t be forever. And it’s not quite as stark as all that – I caught up with Donna last week, on Saturday I saw the kids for lunch and an exchange of presents, and even tomorrow, in the evening, I’m off to a friends for a barbecue – after the day has settled.

A Christmas ritual

As I do every year I caught up with Donna for our pre-Christmas celebration. We have cocktails, a meal, we exchange small gifts, we share stories of the past, talk about the future. It’s a very easy-going, celebratory few hours, and – like last night – we’re generally the last to leave.

The start of the night was different. As always, Donna was delayed and then late. I keep thinking I’m going to invoice her for all this lost time, but maybe not at Christmas.

Because I had time to kill I wandered the streets for a while before meeting her. It was a slightly sticky evening, with rain falling lightly in sporadic gusts. I searched for a Christmas card for Donna going from place to place. There were people about heading from work or out for their seasonal shopping. Shop windows were decorated with ribbons and tinsel and Santas, and the streets arrayed with coloured banners. There was a festive cheer all about.

I ended up buying a card from Dymocks, which was brightly lit and buzzing with shoppers. I was in a buoyant mood and wished the shop assistant a merry Christmas, as she did me. Upstairs I crossed over Little Collins thinking this is a great time of year; I love this.

I made my way to the venue for the night, a new rooftop joint called Red Piggy. I was way early and sat at the bar with a Vietnamese beer and chatted with the bartender, a woman from New York. We discussed cocktails and spirits and why she likes Australia so much and how sad it was my friend was late. Hope she’s worth it? We’ll see, I told her.

Then Donna arrived and we adjourned to a table in the corner and had a cocktail each and ordered from the menu. For the next few hours we sat facing each other not pausing in our conversation. I’ve known her a long time now and she knows all my foibles, and occasionally exploits them. We share many memories, including those of mum, who we spoke of last night.

It was a lovely night all round. This is the thing this time of year. Everything is so concentrated, so familiar, one thing after another. That’s why you get sad. The memories that are spread out evenly over the rest of the year here come one after the other. You recognise the form of things – so well known – without enjoying any of the blessings. But last night I could. We’ve been doing this for years. This is one ritual that has survived. This is mine. Good enough.