Mid-20s Malaise

Struggling against the inevitable since 1986!

Love And Light And Song

So long, my friend.
There must always be an end.
But all our love and light and song carries on –
I carry it on.
– Patrick Wolf, Eulogy, written for his late grandmother

My grandmother and my friend, Valerie Elizabeth, died on Monday.

She’d been ill for a long time, but not with cancer or anything in particular – just a series of ailments that together conspired to defeat her.

She was a wonderful woman – astonishing, really. One aunt commented “she lived an ordinary life extraordinarily”, and I couldn’t agree more. She was the most selfless person I’ve ever met. She didn’t have a lot to give, but she was generous with her time and her affection. She kept a list of people who were unhappy or unwell that was two pages long under her pillow and prayed for them every night. (I think we all know my feelings about the efficacy of prayer, but it shows how much she thought of other people.) She was thoughtful, and many people came to her for advice. She always gave me good, honest advice. (“Well, you can always wipe your bum with that,” she said when I told her I was thinking of doing an arts degree.)

She was funny – so, so funny. She had a love of wordplay (we’d often do crosswords together). She had a deadpan sense of humour, and would often play up to her image as a sweet old woman by saying racy or terrible things. (My favourite story told today is about when my brother got his license. He went to visit Mamma, who said “Reach into the front pocket of my dressing gown.” He did, and pulled out a twenty dollar note. “Bugger!” she said. “You were meant to reach into the other pocket.” He did, and pulled out a dirty hanky. They both laughed and laughed.)

She wasn’t necessarily the best cook in the world (she boiled her beans a bit too long), but she was certainly the most enthusiastic – whenever we’d arrive, there’d be something in the oven: a roast chicken if it was evening, or scones if it was afternoon. I think she enjoyed cooking, especially when cooking for others, something she’s passed on to me. Hospitality was very important to her. The maintenance man at the facility where she has lived the last eight years told us that, every time he stopped by to change a light bulb or tighten a door hinge, she’d have laid out the tablecloth with a pot of tea and homemade biscuits. She was as kind to strangers as she was to her own flesh and blood. Her generosity humbles me.

She loved people, but she especially loved children. She’d send birthday cards and Christmas gifts to my mum’s friend’s children, and to my cousins on my dad’s side. Even though she had dozens of grandchildren, she’d arrive at Christmas with a small but thoughtful gift for every single one. Visiting Mamma was a treat, not a chore for us. We looked forward to her coming to look after us when Mum and Dad went away for the weekend. I’d sometimes catch the train to Penrith to stay with her on my own.

(She didn’t seem to care for animals though. I remember her looking very sour – a suffering smile on her face – when our pet cockatiel sat perched on her head.)

All of these things made her a woman who was greatly loved and liked. Her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, all of those people’s partners and friends, her neighbours (even my neighbours – she and the woman who lived next door to us growing up became and remained friends), the staff in her nursing home all held her in special regard. When she arrived at family gatherings, she looked like a queen stepping out of her carriage to greet her subjects. All night, everyone clamoured to greet her, to sit with her and talk to her. When I last saw her conscious, a couple of weeks ago, she was still incredibly loving. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t even move herself in bed. But she’d reach out her hand to hold yours, and smile at you, and when you leant down close to her she opened and closed her mouth against your cheek in a crude approximation of a kiss.

I felt very sad holding her hand over the weekend she was dying, because it brought back happy memories, which are now just that – memories. We were both early risers, so whenever one of us visited the other, I’d climb into bed with her in the morning. I’d hold her hand for hours as she told me stories about her travels, her friends, her children. I’d hold her hand when we were sitting in church, too, all through my teens and into my twenties. And then, a few days ago, she lost the ability to even squeeze my hand.

One happy thing to come out of the last has been the time spent sharing stories about her with my family members. For example, she also used to play banjo in a band on the radio. Is that cool or what? We’ve laughed as much as we’ve cried the last few days. Every new story reminds us what a gift she was, and what a loss her death is to us and the world.

I don’t know how to end this. I could talk forever about how strong and wonderful she was, how much I loved and admired her. I will always miss her, and I’m so proud to be a branch on her family tree. What a woman she was.

Christmas with Mamma and my brother and sister, 2008

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Filed under: family

Film: The Troll Hunter

Last week, as part of the Sydney Film Festival, I went to see The Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren in its original Norwegian iteration). I’ve not been this excited about a film since Let The Right One In was screened at the festival in 2008. Like Let The Right One In (Sweden) and Rare Exports (Finland) did with vampires and Santa Claus respectively, The Troll Hunter (Norway) puts an interesting spin on a creature of legend – in this case, the titular troll.

A group of three documentary students follow a man who they believe to be a bear poacher, only to discover he is a hunter of the mythical trolls, operating in a secret government department. The filmmakers have gone to great lengths to create a solid science behind these trolls: there are many different specials of trolls, and the film is littered with tidbits about their eating habits (mainly rocks), gestation periods (ten years) and extra heads (eyeless and brainless, grown for ornamental purposes like a peacock’s feathers). In this sense, it reminded me of a wonderful book about gnomes I had as a child, which treated them as a real species and provided extensive anthropological-style information about them.

What surprised me most was the humour in the film. There were many tense moments when I hid behind my hands, but just as many scenes which had the audience laughing out loud. For example, in one scene, the hunter uses three goats on a bridge as bait for a troll (a clear visual joke about the story of the billy goats gruff). The three documentary students are also likeable and funny, teasing each other and mugging for the camera. (Speaking of which, the movie is shot on handheld camera. However, it’s rarely jerky like Cloverfield – the characters are documentary students, so there’s some semblance of professionalism.)

Special effects are used sparingly. They’re sometimes a bit dodgy, but they’re used to good effect. We rarely see the trolls up close, so they remain strange creatures at the edge of our imagination. Besides, special effects will always take a back seat to the Norwegian scenery. The travelling scenes reminded me of my bus trip from Rygge airport to Oslo – a good two hours – which went through the most stunning landscape of mountains and forests. I remember clearly coming down a mountain to a small town, and I very nearly got off there to spend a day wandering around to see what happened. The scenic shots evoked this for me, and Norway’s beauty bought a lump of longing to my throat several times.

See this film if you get a chance. It’s not without its faults, but its exciting, beautiful and charming. A Hollywood remake was announced the day the film was released in North America. I foresee a Let The Right One In/Let Me In outcome: a functional, enjoyable film that nevertheless lacks some of the dark, mystical awe that Scandinavia seems to produce in bulk.

Filed under: film

Recipe: Olive and rosemary focaccia

While I’m on a cooking-and-blogging bender, I thought I’d share this focaccia recipe. It comes courtesy of my friend Ellie, who bought it to a pot-luck dinner party at a friend’s place. I’ve always been quite confident in the kitchen, especially when it comes to baking, but I’ve always been a bit scared of breads, for some reason. I did once make a fairly successful Irish soda bread, but that’s not a real bread: it’s made with bicarb instead of yeast, so it’s basically a savoury cake.

Anyway, my fears were mislaid. This recipe is so easy. It’s a bit time-consuming, because the dough needs to rise three times, but that gives you time to clean up after yourself (or so my mother would have me believe). It’s tasty, versatile, and very impressive when you bring it to a dinner party. (I know, I was one of those impressed individuals.) Furthermore, it’s so satisfying to make something like this. It always seemed like the kind of thing I’d buy, its manufacture beyond my abilities, but I’ve mastered it! I often serve it to accompany my veggie meatballs, or devour it greedily on its own.

Olive and rosemary focaccia

1 1/3 cups grated or mashed potatoes (Don’t add butter or milk or the stuff that you add when serving mashed potato as a side – just boil them, peel them and grate or mash them. I’ve tried it with grated and mashed, and it makes no difference to the resulting texture.)
1 tsp dried yeast
2 tbsp olive oil (+ 2 tbsp for oiling the bowl and pan)
1 1/4 tsp salt
3 1/2 cups plain flour
fresh rosemary, kalamata olives, whatever you want, really: this would be nice  topped with finely sliced sweet potato, for example

Make sure your potatoes are ready to go before making the starter. Just combine the yeast with 1/2 cup of the flour and 1/2 cup of very warm water. Whisk it with a fork, cover it and set it aside in a warm place. (It’s winter and I live in a draughty apartment, so I put my oven on for a few minutes, turn it off and then put the bowl in there.) After 20 minutes, it will have started to bubble and look like this.

Add another 1/2 cup of warm water, 2 tbsp olive oil, the mashed potato, the salt and the remaining 3 cups of flour. Your arms are going to get a workout at this point! Once it’s all combined and looks doughy, transfer it to a floured surface i.e. a bread board dusted and rubbed with flour. Knead the dough until it’s smooth and elastic. (I don’t know what kneading really is. I just punch and drop and massage and throw the dough around on the board. You’ll probably need to reflour the board a couple of times during this process.)

When you can roll the dough into a large ball without it sticking to your fingers, put 1 tbsp olive oil in the bowl then add the dough ball. Roll it around to coat it with oil, then put it somewhere warm for 20 minutes or so to rise again.

Oil a baking tray a further 1 tbsp olive oil. Once the dough has doubled in size, put it in the tray and push it to the corners. Let it rise again (!!!) and, when it’s fluffy, poke your fingers all over it, making little dents. Sprinkle it with sea salt and rosemary, stud it with the olives and you’re good to go!

Whack it in a 220 degree oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown. Let it cool, flip it out, slice it up and guzzle it like the greedy guts you are.

Filed under: food,

Recipe: Veggie Meatballs

It’s the Monday of a long weekend, and I’ve hardly left the kitchen. It’s been great! I’ve made ontbijtkoek (Dutch spiced breakfast cake), olive and rosemary focaccia (look out for that recipe soon), spinach and potato gnocchi, and this, my veggie meatballs. I used to make spaghetti bolognese a lot, imagining meatballs to be difficult, for some reason. They aren’t, and they’re much tastier! The meat becomes so tender. Oh yeah, the name is a little misleading: they aren’t a vegetarian alternative; rather, they’re crammed with vegetables.

I don’t like or eat a lot of meat. If it wasn’t for chicken and the gamier red meats (venison, kangaroo and duck), I’d gladly go vegetarian. I usually cook vegetarian meals for myself, and if there’s meat involved, it’s counterbalanced by plenty of vegetables.

Not so my boyfriend, whose diet is built around carbohydrates, dairy and meat. (That said, he recently introduced peas to his repertoire.) He’s a uni student, so it’s to be expected, but I do worry about his health. He’s been at home all weekend, working on his final major assessment for this semester, so I’m taking the meatballs to him for dinner tonight. It’s a recipe I’ll keep in mind for when I have nieces, nephews or kids of my own to feed, because the vegetables are well-hidden, so the kids don’t even know they’re eating healthy food! Mwahaha!

Another bonus is that the veggies make the meat go further, making this an economical meal. I get three or four servings out of the quantities below.

Veggie Meatballs

For meatballs:
Half an onion
A small carrot
A small zucchini
A handful of mushrooms
250 grams minced meat of your choice (I usually use veal and pork, today I used beef)
A small handful of grated cheese (parmesan or romano are best)
Two tablespoons breadcrumbs (optional)
An egg (optional)

For sauce (or use your own standard tomato pasta sauce recipe):
Half an onion
Two cloves garlic, crushed
One tin crushed tomatoes
One cup beef or vegetable stock
Two tablespoons tomato paste
Splash of soy sauce (optional)
Handful flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped (optional)
Two large bay leaves (optional)

Grate the vegetables and put them in a bowl. Add the meat. (It’s about half of a standard Australian supermarket packet. I know I should be a food wanker and only use hand-ground meat from an organic butcher or some shit, but it’s a half hour walk to anything like that for me, so fuck that noise.)

Mush them all together with your hands. At this point, you can add the cheese and/or the egg and/or the breadcrumbs. This helps the meatballs to hold their shape, and the cheese is just tasty. You can also add some fresh or dried herbs if you feel like it, but it’s not necessary: these babies really draw up the flavours of the sauce. Salt and pepper the mix, and mush it all together some more.

Take a half-handful of the mix and roll it into a ball. Repeat until you have a tray that looks like this.

Now for the sauce! Chop your onion, and saute it and the garlic together with a little olive oil. Add all the other ingredients, stir together and simmer for about five minutes. Give it a grind (or twelve, if you’re like me) of pepper. Then, drop the meatballs in like you’re poaching them. Spoon some sauce over them, cover, and simmer for about half an hour. Alternately, you can pop them in a casserole dish, pour the sauce over them and whack them in a moderate oven for half an hour.

Filed under: food,

Review: Bat For Lashes

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, but it’s not for want of trying (I have drafts full of delicious recipes and trashy pop videos lying in wait). I’m not a very self-motivated individual, but when somebody is depending on me to meet a deadline, I have no problems. So I am very lucky that my friend, former colleague and current music editor of Time Out Sydney asked me to review Bat For Lashes’ performance at the Sydney Opera House. (I was already going, but my best friend and boyfriend enjoyed coming along with the two media tickets, and I can now call them fans of her stunning, operatic pop.)

You can read it here.

Filed under: music