Tag Archives: Melbourne

Slow Reading

I had a gorgeous evening last night. I went to a reading group in Melbourne conducted by bibliotherapist, Sonya Tsakalakis.

The set up was simple: a handwritten sign announcing ‘Literary Salon,’ a couple of chairs placed together, a xerox copy of the short story, ‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield, and four strangers.

What took place over the next hour and a half was beautiful.

First a short summary of the story:  The Sheridan family is preparing to host a garden party. Laura, one of the teenage daughters, is excited and happily interacts with the workers hired to put up the marquee. She frets over the excessive order of lilies by her mother. She sinks her teeth into a delicious cream puff that is to be served to the guests. Suddenly into this idyllic day comes the news: a local man has been trampled and killed by a horse. Laura has the good grace to suggest that the party be stopped. After all the guests would walk right by the dead man’s house at the bottom of their path. But no one else agrees. Later Mrs. Sheridan sends Laura down to the dead man’s house with a basket of leftovers for the man’s family. Laura is brought in and shown the dead man’s corpse. She is unable to articulate what she feels, managing only: “Isn’t life…”

We took turns reading, stopping about every two pages to discuss. It flowed easily. Sonya deftly molded the evening around the written text and our conversation.

We chatted about what we thought of this comment, that nuance. We laughed. We discussed intimately what it is to be human in today’s world: How we don’t spend time mourning our lost ones. How very apropos the short story remains about poverty and the cluelessness of so many privileged people (I include myself). How we continue to try to distract young women from important issues by concentrating on their looks.

It was different to a book club where you’ve read the book and then get together to discuss. Often by then your first thoughts are forgotten. You are quick to judge. Sometimes the only real question is whether you liked the book or not. Yes, I quite liked it, you might murmur as you reached for the red wine. But what was different about this was that you read together, you remembered the sentences, you remembered your feelings.

I found the whole experience very soul-nurturing because as an author I tend to read too professionally. Either doing research or dissecting a book, wondering how did they do that. Thinking sometimes snootily, Is this really something that got published? Or more often, Wow I could never do this. I never turn off my professional eyes.

Which is sad because the main reason I became a writer is that I loved to read.

So it was good to relax into the story, to concentrate on the text, to fall deeply into the spell. No thoughts of who the author’s agent or publisher must be or any tricks of the trade. Just a long slow deep reading with new insights and conversation.

Slow reading.

If you’re in Melbourne, check out Sonya’s website. You will never read the same way again.

painting: Charwomen in Theater (1946) Norman Rockwell (USA, 1894-1978)


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I’ve Gone Native.


Trees, that is. I’ve become obsessed with Australian native trees. Gum trees, especially. Their long willowy trunks which reach high into the sky. Their delicate drooping leaves. Their infinitely fascinating bark.

When I think I’ve done enough writing for the day, I like to swing by my local nursery. I’ve become best pals of a sort with the plant man at Bunnings.

You here again? he says.


I walk along the aisles, happy as a pig in potatoes, drooling over the choices: cyclads, tree ferns, native grasses, pandorea pandorana…

Recently I’ve discovered CERES nursery in East Brunswick. Oh how my plant obsession runneth over. Here a treasure of Australian natives awaits: grevilleas, banksias, wattles, kangaroo apples, wattles, lilly pillies, blackwoods, chocolate lillies, lemon myrtle. I love the taste of the words in my mouth.

I want to encircle the hot dry garden of our new house with trees and spend many a waking moment deciding which ones. My first dream is to have a pepper corn tree, the most exquisite specimen, sage colored leaves like fine tooth combs waving beautifully in the wind.

Right now I flirt with smaller shrubs and see how they fare in the soil. At Ceres I found a luscious Grevillea Red Hook. Even the cashier was impressed. She looked longingly it at it. “You found that here? I didn’t see it. I’m jealous.”

I hold on to it firmly. I know a good specimen when I see one.

Same thing happened when I found two statuesque burgundy Agonis. “Wow, those are tall. I didn’t see them,” said another cashier with that same jealous look gleamed in his eye.

I’m starting to realize my competitors are not the buyers but the staff.

Today I came home with a dwarf mandarin for my son who will eat no other fruit, and a Silver Princess eucalyptus.

The Silver Princess eucalyptus is very young, barely a metre high. But I have fallen in love with the species. Tall and delicate, often leaning lopsided like she’s had a touch too much to drink. In season her white slim branches will cascade with pink little gum-nuts.

But I must get back to work now–Revisions await–and try not to think about the kangaroo paws I would like plant along the path. They come in all sorts of colors, salmon pink, orange, blood-red, red and green striped, even black. I’m like a kid in the candy shop.

Princess gum photos by Tatiana Gerus (flickr)

Peppercorn tree photo by macinate (flickr)

Kangaroos paw photo by Linda DV (flickr)






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Basking in Brunswick, Melbourne

We moved to Melbourne at the end of 2012. We moved to Brunswick just north of the Royal Park about four months ago. It is visually one of the most interesting places I’ve ever lived in. The following are just some of my snap shots…..

Cafe graffitti

Acustico Cafe on Union Street. I walk by it everyday and am amazed each time.

brunsick girl

I caught this girl walking by the Town Hall. Loved everything about her.

lara in front of graffitti

My lovely girl had just spent three months in China. It was our first walk about the neighborhood.


Right off Sydney Road….


Cafe culture….


Beware! Yarn bombing on Sydney Road.


What will greet you when you go to Ray’s on Victoria Street. Yummy breakfasts, perfect coffee.


Not in Brunswick per se, but loved its sentiments…..


Wishing you and yours a profoundly Happy New Year!

x, Nina




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Why I love Brunswick


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House as Character


My house is a character. She was born in 1905 and has sat on a corner lot in the middle of Brunswick, just north of the Melbourne CBD, being grand. I call her the Baroness. She has seen Brunswick change, from a plantation to a brick making center to Greek and Italian conclave to a downright hipster pad with superb coffee and even better graffiti. Down the street one of the shops is still engraved with the name of one of her owners, a not very nice man I’m told who in the 1920’s made oodles of money from his general store but refused to extend credit.

My house is what’s called here of the federation style. It’s a particular Australian style which overlapped the Edwardian era but embraced Australiana themes. Australian flora and fauna were prominently featured: kangaroos, wattles, bottle brush.  Inside we have smoked doors featuring gum trees and stained glass windows glowing with sand and sea. The fireplaces are carved with Art Nouveau scrolls. The molding around the living room features lyre birds.

My house has so much character I have to resist making her into something she’s not. When we first moved in I had so many ideas.  I wanted to lighten up her dark yellow and green trim. I wanted to plant cool clean hedges in place of the granny-fashioned row of lollypop white roses. I was aching to clamp a frilly verandah on her and make her beautiful. But once I arrived I realized she is who she is. For one thing she’s just not a verandah kinda gal. She’d look ridiculous. I have to respect that.

Do you see a writing blog coming a mile away….

I’ll spare you.

I just wanted to say that I’ve painting some rooms in lighter colors. I even painted the yellow tiles in the bathroom white. I didn’t know you could do that and it worked perfectly. The good thing about painting I’ve found is that your thoughts turn to your writing. In fact I thought up a great blog the other day as I painted, tongue stuck between my teeth, the intricate rose molding above the hall. It was witty, insightful, ground changing. Unfortunately by the time I finished the painting I’d completely forgotten it.

But I’m hoping more thoughts will bubble up about my novel as I try to finish rewrite phase. But some days my brain is exhausted. I have squeezed it dry of anything to do with the subject and it must fill up again. So it turns to bits and pieces and that’s fine with me.

The Baroness and I just hang out, listening to the birds outside the doors squawking their little hearts out. Wiping paint off  our noses, we keep going. Because in the end that’s all that works.

Though occasionally I do feel her shaking her roof at some of my ideas.


kangaroo window by PDQPatterns.com





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House Renovating for Writers

2013-11-03 19.42.06

We bought a house. We plunked down a fortune and signed an IOU in blood to our local bank. We received keys and a pile of bricks. We are wildly happy.

But today I stand in the hallway overwhelmed. Renovation, even the mildest, most superficial, is not for sissies.

The first couple of days I was so excited. I sat, pleased as purple punch, deciding paint colors. I obsessively poured over magazine pictures which had no bearing on my house but which I had turned to as a template for my future home. I was determined to create something beautiful, awe-inspiring, Zowie-invoking.

But after a week I have hit a wall. The hallway has taken the life out of me. Two coats primer. Two coats white paint. Endless painting of the molding around the ceiling edge and the two roses above the hanging lights. My excitement has turned to a slight depression.

Will this ever get finished.? Paint drips down the walls and splatters all over the floor. Cans of sticky paint and even sticker brushes lie underfoot. I am now realizing why painters get the big bucks: They deserve every penny.

I am also struck by how much renovating is like writing a novel.

You get an idea. You are so excited. You jump in, words flying here and there, until about a week into it you grind to a halt, words dripping down the page, surrounded by sticky platitudes. And you realize why the professional story tellers get the big bucks….

I smile as I reach out and return to painting. The key, of course, is to paint one wall after the other. Write one sentence after the other. Until you reach the end. And then you get to look back and say Ooooh! Or, as with most feats of creativity, see how different your feat is from what you had envisioned. But still you have done it. And you’ve done it the best you can.

Take a bow.

Take a shower.

Start again.




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Our Ladye of Melbourne

Ladye Chapel, St Francis' Church - HDR by Dale Allman

With all this fuss about the new Pope, I’ve got a confession to make.

I’ve been going to church.

Not to masses per se. No, I’ve starting sitting in the front pew  just thinking.

It started a couple of weeks ago when I was walking along Elizabeth Street in Melbourne and noticed the imposing church of St. Francis. I thought I’d pop in for a peek. Or a stickybeak, as they say here. Inside I found this lovely little chapel called the Ladye Chapel where a painting of the Mother and Child hangs to the left of the altar.

I tucked myself into one of the pews and looked around, mesmerized by the beauty: the rose walls, stained-glass windows, the gold swirls, all shimmering in candlelight. I soon became aware that there were many like me, sitting quietly in the darkness. More people wandered in from the hot, sunny, busy street, in cut-off shorts, in business suits, in tied-dyed halter dresses. Each one  made a bee line for the painting and reached up to touch it like an icon.

I was amazed. In this crazy twenty-first century world men and women  still finding comfort in a 2000 year old tradition of touching an icon.

I stopped being a Catholic long ago. I couldn’t match my feminist ideals with an institution which seemed to have no place in its headquarters for women. (Though I do recognize the lifeline the church has been for the poor.)

But I’ve always loved old churches and the scent of incense and myrrh. And I especially love the idea of Mary.

I guess I really love the idea that someone is listening.

So I sit and say “Hey, it’s me again.”

And in my mind I hear her say, “How you doing, honey?”

Because for some reason– I don’t know why– she’s got this salt of the earth accent. This Seen-it-all attitude. She’s one of those women who is so busy she’s the only one who has time to do you a favor.

I picture her with lines on her face like a seabed and crazy grey hair zinging from her halo. She’s got floppy arms and a heavy belly under that blue robe.

But mostly she has a heart so big you can take yours and tuck it inside hers with all the others who have come in to touch her picture.

And I know– (I also know some of you might disagree with this)–that my not being a practicing Catholic is OK by her. Because love, as the Church agrees, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

So I like to say hello.

And she says hello back.

I chat about my worries.

She listens.

And when I finish she says, “Well, hon, I’ve heard worse.”

Of course, she says it the nicest way.

So I nod in agreement and tip toe out, trying not to bother the ones with the real problems.

photo by Dale Allman (flickr)


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#auction fail

We’ve been looking at houses to buy in Melbourne. Anyone who knows me knows my complete obsession with property and my complete failure to do anything about it. But we arrived in Melbourne keen to finally buy the family a family home.

And when we looked at the house prices our jaws hit the floor.

They make London look like a fire sale.

OK, yes, I’m exaggerating.

A bit.

But what’s equally challenging is their favorite mode of sale: auctions.

No private negotiating with an estate agent here. No, in Melbourne you have to come out in broad daylight (inspection reports done, bank finance ready) and go mano a mano with any other interested parties.

It’s house buying gladiator-style.

It’s also a party. All the neighbors come. Picnic chairs are set out. People gather in front of the house, the lucky few under the shade of a tree.

You can usually tell who’s going to be bidding. They’ve got that steel, confused, deranged look in their eye. And there is usually a lady standing in the back, talking on a mobile phone. She’s a buyer’s agent, hired for an exorbitant amount of money because her client just can’t face the fray.

And then the auctioneer comes out. Usually male, dressed impeccably, with a shark’s smile. With a flourish he rips down the For Sale flag and gets the auction going.

He starts by rambling off the houses finer details. And always put a great spin on things.

When we were waiting for the house we were going to bid on, a car roared by as if the road was a well used freeway. “And look, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, not missing a beat, “the make of that car, a BMW. That is the stature of this neighborhood.”

I read that Melbourne house auctions are better attended than football games. Not surprised. Though I’d say they are more akin to watching a tennis game. The swishing back and forth of heads as the bidders, usually two in the end, battle it out. It is high drama rewarded with clapping at the end.

We didn’t get the house last Saturday. There’s a real art to bidding at auctions and we failed miserably.

The young woman who bought it psychologically demolished us. Fixing us with a withering stare, she bid high and with conviction while my husband and I bickered about how much to go up by.

It all happened so quickly: our opponent steam-rolling along; our children whispering, We hate the house, We hate the house; the bully, I mean the auctioneer, sneering at our bids. He tried his best to get us to go higher, even disappearing into the house to give us time to rethink. But we knew that whatever increments we would go up by the lady would just nod her bid. So we stopped. It’s called psyching out the opposition. And she was rather good at it.

Luckily we weren’t mad about the house. My children were right. It was pretty ugly. Even the auctioneer called it unassuming in his preamble. That pricked my ears. For that kind of dough, honey, I want my house to be dressed to the nines and ready for its close-up.

I mean, it’s what you have to tell yourself. Right?

So the woman, flanked by cashed up 60-something parents, was quickly escorted into the house to claim her prize and put her signature to the legally binding proceedings.

We wandered off in a daze and had a good lunch.

But we’ve seen another house online….

Heaven help us.

For an idea of how these things go you can actually watch them on youtube.

And no, the house we bid on didn’t look a thing like that one.

photo by geoftheref (flickr)


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No Worries

2012 was the year I was going to finish my novel.

Ha ha ha ha!

That was the plan before my husband came home and said What would you think about moving to Melbourne?

Melbourne. Australia?

10496.09 miles away to be exact.

But I love London. In fact I had just become a British citizen. It was home. I am very comfortable with the word No.

Not forever, he said. We’ll come back.

How long is not forever, I asked.

Not sure, he said.

Well, to make a long story short, I went for it.

An adventure. A change. A middle life crisis. Call it what you will.

We had to arrange everything: schools, places to live, visa’s , forms, form, forms and more forms.

I finished the last form and was ready to get back to that novel.

I sat down at my computer, rubbed my hands and raised them above my keypad….

Sniff sniff, what’s that smell, I thought.

It was our house. Burning down.

Our roofers had set our roof on fire and gone out to lunch.

After about ten minutes of trying to find the source of the fire while our house was filling up with smoke, my husband and I finally called the fire department. Not a moment too soon. The firemen pushed through our front door in their space suits and gas masks and had to pull our whittering selves out.

Outside I looked up to see the top of the house on fire. A black tongue of smoke shot up high into the sky. A helicopter roared above. Three firetrucks idled blocking the street. A flock of worried neighbors stood in front, offering cups of tea and places to stay.

I watched dumbfounded as the fire descended towards my office on the second floor. The room began to fill up with smoke, the window sills began to blacken.

My work, I murmured.

A kindly neighbor asked, Is your computer backed up?

Yes. I said.

He smiled in relief.

To the little machine next to my computer, I added.

We stood and stared at the window. The smoke began to seep from the cracks.

The London firemen did stop the fire and the computer was saved. (These firemen were amazing; kind, heroic, thoughtful…effective. They deserve anything they want!)

But we never lived in the house again. That night and for several days after we stayed with a variety of gorgeous generous friends and rented a short-term place.

We then flew to Melbourne.

To begin our midlife adventure.

This is the view from my window:

2012-10-19 04.31.08

We’ve been here three months, blinking in the sun, riding our bikes around, and learning to say ‘No worries.’

I’ve also written 90,000 words of my novel.

Must be the view…..


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Sidney Nolan’s world

fireWe spent almost a month in Melbourne last year. My husband, who is Australian, was lecturing at the University and the children and I joined him. It was here I fell in love with Sidney Nolan. I’m not the only one. Nicole Kidman named her daughter after Sidney’s benefactress and lover, Sunday Reed.

The National Gallery of Victoria exhibited a huge range of his work and I was mesmerized by it all: landscapes, portraits, abstracts. In his Ned Kelly series he captured the sandy yellow bush, the orange dusty earth and the aggressive blue sky. In short the harshness of the extraordinary landscape in Victoria state around Melbourne.

It is this land that is so sadly on fire this week.

Sidney Nolan was a painter who sought to paint the idea of Australia and once wrote about the relationship with the land around him.

“It is possible in the case of an Australian that even though you are reared in a city out there, you’re liable to feel when the hot north wind blows that the city would be blown away and that you would be faced with this kind of interminable, extraoridanry bush landscape which goes on forever. So that even if one had a completely urban upbringing, there always was and there still is a terrific sense of primeval landscape stretching on forever.

Australia, my heartfelt condolences.

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