Letter #16: 31 December 2014

31 December 2014

G’day Mates,

The last good day of the year.  Hard to believe tomorrow is 2015.  I am a bit late in getting this latest letter out.  It’s taken me too long to even start writing it.  And it’s not just because I’ve been busy (which we have), but I think I’m in a sad funk and I don’t want that to come through in my writing so I’m just avoiding the writing.  But the funk ain’t going away and if I don’t start writing something, I’ll be back in Seattle before you hear from me, and we can’t have that.

These sabbatical experiences are some of the most wonderful things I’ve done in my life, but the endings are some of the hardest.  I still feel guilty about the end our Limerick sabbatical – my friend, Sue, and her girls had come all the way from Seattle to spend our last week with us, and then the two families had travel plans for England and Scotland.  I spent her entire week in Limerick crying.  It’s not that I wasn’t excited to see her, but the idea of leaving Ireland, and more importantly the idea of leaving those people I’d come to know and love, was just overwhelming, and I just couldn’t muster being the excited, welcoming friend I should have been to Sue.

What it really comes down to, is that when I board a plane in Seattle, I have a ticket home and a date when I know I’ll return.  My leaving is only a temporary condition.  I’ll be back on January 7.  But when I leave Australia on 7 January I have no idea when I’ll return, when I will get to see my wonderful new friends again.  I hope in my heart that it’s a “when” and not an “if” but I just don’t know.  And that’s what hurts so much.  [Mary speaks the truth; she really does feel that way.  Leaving is so much easier if you are just a little bit socially retarded.]

OK, enough weepy.  Fans want the travel log.  I finished the last installment with our camping trip to Cockatoo Island.  On Tuesday, we got up (too early for Miss Melinda, I’m afraid) and boarded a train to Central and then another to parts north.  We were headed for the Riverboat Postman, a working boat carrying tourists and delivering the mail to small, remote communities on the Hawkesbury River.   (http://riverboatpostman.vpweb.com.au/)  As we departed Brooklyn, the journey started with morning tea and an Anzac biscuit, a delicious oatmeal-coconut cookie, sent by wives to their soldiers abroad during the Great War.  They are quintessentially Australian and just delish.  [These Anzacs were also thin, very thin, almost flat, very nearly without vertical development.  Seriously, they were about two dimensional.  Anzac stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.  I don’t think that the lack of verticality was a political commentary of any sort {although how great could the Great War have been, really?}.  I think it had to do with a lack of baking powder.  That’s my guess and I’m sticking with it.]

Our first stop was Dangar Island, where we were greeted by three kids and their mother, post mistress of this small community.  From there we continued on to Kangaroo Point, Milson’s Island, Bar Point, and further on, where the communities got smaller and smaller and the amenities fewer and fewer.  I think our guide grew up along the river and had many stories to tell of the locals and history – the women’s insane asylum here, the men’s further down and across the river.  In the 1930s two escapees from the men’s managing to swim to shore and scramble up the hill in the darkness, reached the road and a kindly driver headed to Sydney (and freedom) picked them up, but to the escapees chagrin, the driver just happened to be an off-duty guard and soon enough the pair were back where they started from.

On our trip, the tide was high, enabling the mailboat02FishermansPoint to reach one community where the shallow water at the dock often prevents the boat from getting in.  But given that it was only two days before Christmas the locals were anxious for delivery of some parcels and two gentlemen – 50% of the population of tiny Fisheman’s Point! – turned out to greet us.  The river was filled with Jelly Blubber jellyfish.  Most of these were brown03HawkesburyBrownJellyfish or tan with an “x” on top of the bell and about 10 squishy-looking cone arms hanging down, but some of the jellies were a beautiful blue colour04HawkesburyBlueJellyFish.  As we continued further up river we had a ploughman’s lunch, and turned back toward Brooklyn.  We stopped at the Republic of Millson’s Passage, where the king/president/mayor greeted us from his throne.  He’s quite a character and our captain got off with his wireless mic to have an entertaining chat with His Excellency so the mail drop there took twice as long as any other stop05MilsonsPassageMayor.  The houses along the river, most just summer cabins, reminded me a bit of our place at Hammersley Inlet (one of the good things about going back home that I’m trying to keep in mind as I prepare for my departure.)  We had a bit more tea and a chocolate before we once again stopped at Dangar Island – they receive their mail on the Postman’s outbound journey and get a chance to send out mail on the Postman’s return trip – and one of the “deputy” postmen who’d picked up the mail with his mum got a handful of chocolates in exchange as he handed back a bag full of letters to the boatman.

[I’m just going to break in here for a moment and report that I am sweating!  It’s 8:45PM January 1, the sun has set, the windows are all wide open and I am sitting at my spot at the table next to the biggest openest window I can find in a T-shirt and jeans, just waiting for a little breeze.  Folks it’s hot!  We went to the beach today and took the Polar Bear Plunge.  Isn’t that what you call it when you go swimming on the first day of the new year?  Well, we took that plunge along with way too many other people crowding the beaches.  I think I even got a bit of a sunburn.  How are we going to sleep tonight?

There; I’m through harassing those of you reading this back in WA {That’s Washington State, not Western Australia for folks from Oz} and other cold parts of the US.  I’ll join you in Gore-Tex and gloom in about a week.  May we not run out of sunscreen in the mean time.]

We returned from our river trip early enough in the day that I got to meet a new friend.  Deb is from Seattle and a good friend of my friend Carol, and she manages to come to Cronulla every year!!! not just one in seven like us sabbatical folks.  So Carol brokered the introduction and Deb and I met up at the RSL club for a drink.  Several of Deb’s Cronulla friends joined in for drinks and I was invited to a Christmas Eve celebration with them the next day on the beach at Gunnamatta bay.  Very fun.

We went to the children’s Mass on Christmas Eve.  It brought back some memories for us of when Melinda was the innkeeper for the same Mass nine years ago.  There were plenty of shepherds and angels milling about around the altar, but the flock seemed much more subdued than they were at our previous experience where conversation in the pews after communion sounded more like a cocktail party than reverent and prayerful reflection.  We came home and had a little dinner but I missed my traditional family treat of crab salad.  I think on Christmas Eve 2015 it will taste all the sweeter.

We spent Christmas with Michael and Toni and their family, a crowd of close to 30.  It was a great feast and the bad weather held off until late afternoon, just as we were leaving.  Toni and Michael’s daughter-in-law, Steph, and infant grandson, Jacob, had recently returned from a trip to the US, and Jacob came back with a virulent stomach flu, which unfortunately began to make its rounds in the Downes household on Christmas eve, so the festivities were a bit subdued and we all crossed our fingers that we’d be spared.

Boxing day signals the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race.06SydneyToHobartYachtRaceStart2  Melinda had no interest in that, so Mark and I trained and bused to Watsons Bay.  We found a nice vantage point along Old South Head Road looking in to the harbour to watch the US entry, Comanche, fly across the line first with Wild Oats XI and the other supermaxis not far behind.  And since Old South Head Road runs along the top of the peninsula we could watch the racers and scores of fans in boats large and small round South Head and begin their journey south along the coast toward Tasmaina.  It’s quite a spectacle to see and thousands line up to see the show.  (Michael was in Hobart a few years ago for the finish and says it’s so much more low-key – he got a chance to see the boats cross the finish line, and then talk with the relaxed crews afterward.)  Once the largest yachts come around the headlands, from our vantage point and distance it was a bit difficult to distinguish some of the smaller racing boats in the fleet of 117 contenders from the fan boats cheering them on, so we walked down into Watsons Bay and waited in a looong line for07LineAtDoyles Doyle’s fish and chips, a 130-year-old Sydney institution.  The fish was tasty and hot, and reminiscent of Ivar’s on a summer’s day with the sun sparkling off Elliott Bay.  All those race watchers and fish eaters had to go somewhere and most of them appeared to be trying to get on the 2:30 ferry back to Circular Quay so we tried to keep clam as we queued up.  (Note to Aussie readers – not a typo in the last sentence.  Check out http://www.ivars.com.)  The ferry was quite packed, the race start having wreaked havoc on the schedules for the eastern wharves, but we snagged a couple of seats outside, just like we like ‘em, though the 15-knot winds sent heaps of spray over the gunwales and on to us and our neighbors, many of whom chose to find shelter indoors.  Wimps.

When Tori and Steve were here, we took a Port Hacking cruise and the guide pointed out a bottle shop (the Bottle-O) in Yowie Bay that puts on a sausage sizzle every Friday night, and since we only had two more Fridays, we thought we’d check out this quintessential Aussie rite, but out trip was for naught.  I suppose due to the Boxing Day holiday the sizzle wasn’t sizzling, and we’ve got plans for this Friday so I guess we’re just going to miss out.  We just sat on a bench for a bit and checked out the comings and goings at the boat launch and the fisherfolk on the dock and enjoyed the early evening light.

Saturday, unfortunately, Mark woke up, a loser in the great Christmas tummy-bug lottery, so we lay low on Ocean View street.  I had two choices, pack up to go home or search for dead ancestors.  Is there anybody out there thinking I chose the former?  Anybody?  Ah, you know me too well.  But I finally, finally, finally after years of research found my great-great-grandparents Johannes and Louisa (Hartman) Springer on the censuses of 1860 and 1865, and my great-grandmother, Frances with them.  I was pretty excited that a new (to me) database of Civil War draft registration records popped up and told me where “John” was in 1863 so I knew where to look for him on the nearby censuses.  Frances was listed as “Frank” and even identified as male, but I’m sure it’s her.  By 1870 John had passed away and Louisa was a young widow with three children, but next door is a Nicholas Springer, so I’m thinking John must have had a brother.  Now I’ve got a whole list of Springers in Salina and Liverpool, New York to track down!!!  Yippee!!!!   So, no, it didn’t bother me at all that my dear husband was sick as a dog and we couldn’t go anywhere.  [I wasn’t all that sick.  Sick as a Chihuahua, maybe.  Certainly not sick as a Springer Spaniel and nowhere near sick as a Portuguese Water Dog.  Still I don’t recommend it.]

As your Sydney tour guide, it is my job to let you know all the ways to squeeze maximum value out of an Opal card with its $2.50 all-you-can-ride train, bus and ferry deal.   Mark and Melinda, a Gemini and a Cancer, are not nearly as engaged by the water as your friend the Pieces is, so Sunday I finally tore myself away from the Springer research and took the train solo into Circular Quay to check several as yet unridden ferry routes.  My first ride was a little 25-minute ride on the Scarborough to Kirribilli, North Sydney, Kurraba and Neutral Bay.  BoatsNeutral Bay has an interesting history.  Back in the colonial period, ships traveling from Spain, France, Holland and other far away countries, after a journey of six months or more, would arrive in Port Jackson and could lay anchor in Neutral Bay and work out whether their country was currently at war with Britain.

I had scoured the schedules and come up with a plan that would send me on loops out from Circular Quay with just enough time between voyages to catch the next one on my list.  What I did not anticipate was 50 kajillion sightseers with a similar idea.  When I returned from Kirribilli and disembarked I had to work my way through a crowd at Wharf 4 almost all the way into the train station before I could determine I needed to get to Wharf 2 to catch the Mossman route, and by the time I got there, that ship had sailed.  Ah, but just on the other side of the dock, the Lady Northcutt was departing for Taronga Zoo so I hopped aboard, fingers crossed that I’d be back in time for the 4 pm sailing on the Mossman route (and that I’d be able to make it off one ferry on to another – it seems you might depart from one wharf but return to Circular Quay to a different wharf, the boat slated for another route.)  But the return from Taronga was a timely return to a relatively uncrowded Wharf 2 and soon I was on the Alexander toward Mossman.  It is just a stunning little bay with some of the prettiest houses I’ve seen.  I had a nice visit with an American physical therapist living in Port Macquarie and her mother visiting from Illinois.  By the time we returned from Mossman, the crowd had dissipated somewhat and it was an easy walk to the Sirius for the Darling Harbour run.  Four ferries, four and a half hours of fun, all for only $2.50.  (See how far that would get you on a commercial harbour tour!)

[Of course I know.  You are all aquiver, waiting to learn what Mark and Melinda did while Mer was riding the waves. 08RemainingSandhills2 Well, when we were here in 2005-06 the kids were all three here and all three were much younger.  I spent a good deal of time with them out at the sand hills north of Cronulla.  We lived then on the north side of town and we could walk to these giant dunes, some 20 or 30 meters high, in about 15 or 20 minutes.  Once there they could run up and slide down or trudge along the crest a09MelindaEmmGarthSandHills la Lawrence of Arabia, and so forth.  Melinda even took a photo of a sand-leaping Emmeline and won a prize when the picture was entered in a school contest!  She was keen to go back there so we did.  We followed that up with a10FruitBatsWaveHello visit to a camp of flying foxes – fruit bats – and I got a few more photos of these cool creatures.  There.  That’s what we did.]

Monday Mark and I helped Michael and Toni move their daughter, Jenni, into her new apartment.  Toni and I mostly unpacked and organized the kitchen and did a wee bit of decorating while Michael and Mark did the heavy work of moving boxes and beds and plants and lights.  [And heavies.  There were some heavies in there too.]  On about late afternoon, Toni suggested that she and Jenni stay and finish up while Michael took Mark and I home and he could watch a little cricket and then come back to pick her up later.  Well, Michael drove the ute to the GoGet return location (think ZipCar in Seattle) while Mark and I followed in Michael’s car, but Michael suggested that we just stop somewhere for a quick beer before we headed back to Cronulla.  Before we knew it, it didn’t make any sense for Michael to drive us home and then go pick up Toni, and the cricket was on in the pub, and I think you can extrapolate how the rest of the rest of the afternoon evolved.  [We are using that term in the colloquial rather than the biologic-scientific sense.  There was, to my knowledge, no genetic mutation and no one was sick as her majesty’s beagle.  But there was some natural selection.  I selected a dark beer.  Mer had cider.]

Tuesday we had to do a little reconnaissance mission to plot our New Year’s Eve strategy.  None of us were really game to start camping out on Tuesday morning at one of the prime locations for a Wednesday night event, but we checked the Sydney NYE website and found a large park that wasn’t expected to reach capacity so we scoped it out Tuesday morning and figured if we were there sometime mid-afternoon the following day, there was enough real estate in the park that we’d have a view, and we could probably find some parking within a reasonable distance – it might be a bit of a hike but that would be OK.  Since we were already in the general vicinity, we went to the Balmain East ferry stop to catch a boat to Pyrmont Bay and the lovely maritime museum.  It was a sunny and warm day, and we toured the magnificent replica ship of Captain Cook’s EndeavourIMG_033611ReplicaEndeavorYou know we love our tall-ships and this one’s a beauty, one of the world’s most accurate historical replica ships.  She’s sailing to Tasmania in late January – if only I had a few more weeks here I’d book passage.  We also went aboard the destroyer HMAS Vampire, built on Cockatoo Island where we camped just a week ago.  Inside the museum there was a great exhibit of life-sized whale photographs.  The signs and stories of how the photographer went about the project are almost as fascinating as the photos themselves (http://www.anmm.gov.au/whats-on/exhibitions/on-now/beautiful-whale).  It was a pretty nice way to celebrate our 31st anniversary, as you can see from our commemorative portrait! Anniversary portrait

Tuesday night we went to the movies to see Russell Crowe’s new movie, The Water Diviner, a (mostly) post-Gallipoli story of a father searching for his three sons on the Turkish battlefield a few years after the war.  Wavers a bit between action flick and love story, but I loves me a World War I story as much as I do a ferry ride or a tall ship so it was OK by me.  [And I loves me a WWI story about as much as I do celery with peanut butter which is to say that it’s not bad and I like it and all but there are better things, like carrots and saltines and ice water.  Nevertheless I can certainly enjoy celery with peanut butter if it’s offered.]  South Sydney Rabbitohs 21st premiership You beauties.

Again, I have been lying to you.  I really did start this letter on Wednesday the 31st but there were places to go and fireworks to see so I got partway and had to leave.  But now, it’s 2015 and my new year’s resolution is to FINISH IT and send it off!  After I saved the first 830 words and shut down my computer we packed the car and went to see Chrissie and Other Mark’s new home.  (As Greg and Steph are also relocating from Canberra to Tasmania, it seems that all the Downe’s children are “On the Move” but none thinks (Victoria) is “The Place to Be.” Too much referential humour?)  But Chrissie and Mark have just bought a new 1880s house in Granville, one of the western suburbs of Sydney.  Lots of painting and yard work ahead of them and dreams of fruit trees and a chookhouse with heirloom chickens, but with some time and elbow grease they will have a lovely home.  I’m really glad we got to see it before we leave and look forward to pictures of the progress.

Since we had a picnic blanket to lay and territory to claim in Birchgrove Park for the NYE celebration, they let us leave without having to do a lick of pruning or painting in Granville.  We thought we’d drop off a couple of people and our chairs, blanket, cooler and other assorted paraphernalia near the park, and then one driver would find parking somewhere close-ish (please oh please) and hoof it back to where the other two had claimed a patch of grass and were defending it against the throng of revelers, but Mark took a wrong turn a block from our destination and lo and behold there was a vacant parking spot with our name on it.  Score!!!  And the throng of revelers there to claim “our” land as those rascally Europeans had done 200+ years ago?  If you added up all the people on all the blankets and in all the tents at that time in the afternoon, there might have been a score.  Score!!!  We had our pick of prime real estate, and only 10 hours to kill ‘til midnight.  The “crowd” arrived a bit before 9 for the family show – about 10 minutes of booms and bursts and the rocket’s red glare.  Some families with little ones called it a night and more people congregated for a bit of flash and bang at 10:40 and then the main event on the stroke of midnight. 12SydneyNYEFireworks1 This city does know how to put on a fireworks show and uses their World Heritage listed bridge to its full potential as a launching pad (augmented by half a dozen barges up and down the harbour).  The waterfall cascade of fire pouring from the bridge deck near the finale is just spectacular and goes on and on and on.  We made quick work of the walk to the car and were home just after 1.  Not bad.

There.  I’m done.  Resolution kept.  We’re off to the beach and then Dr. Roddy will doctor the letter.  And then I’ll have no excuse not to pack.  Next letter I’ll be back among the Yanks.

See you soon,

Mary [and Mark]

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