From Melbourne to Paris, via London

Anyone who has ever sold a house after twenty years or so will know most of the story of my trials. Suffice to say, very little goes smoothly, everyone accuses everyone else of being unhelpful … and the piles of rubble seem endless.   Not only that, but the massive clean-up necessary to ‘de-clutter’ for sale, is then revisited after the sale, when furniture has to find somewhere to go. And in my case, when all the little things have to be wrapped meticulously for shipping overseas.

My older son moved one block across, with the hundreds of bees, the cat and most of the furniture, to be crammed into his spare room (the furniture, not the bees or the cat, or my son). Some choice pieces (well, nice shelves anyway) also went to my younger son, while I took only the bits that have a sentimental value, along with most of the decorative bits and pieces handed down from my parents. And my books. These were shunted over to the house I was staying in in North Melbourne, until such time as I found a removal firm to start everything on its journey to France. No pressure there – everything I value was in those boxes!

In the meantime, I had to organise my visa and the final bits and pieces in buying the French house. Buying the house was mostly a matter of waiting interminably for mail to arrive, signing the documents and then sending it back again. Organising a visa, however, is a complicated business, not made a lot easier by the pages and pages of close print on the website. However, I made what seemed the most logical choice of visa, and made an appointment to go to the consulate in Sydney. Yes, Sydney. No, this is not convenient. Then I remade the appointment a couple of times, when various bits of paper had to be redone.

I flew into Sydney – and I should tell you this zapping about in the air is unusual behaviour for me – and shouted myself to a rather nice little hotel only about three blocks from the consulate. I even took myself to dinner on Darling Harbour. Which was expensive. Interesting, though I do think it is an overdeveloped site. This might be the Melbournite in me speaking, so perhaps rather than banning me from the area Sydneyites could instead show me the better points. If you like. At a later date.

Next day I got to know quite a lot of the few blocks around the consulate. Some of my papers were not in fact the thing, and needed rejigging, with signature by notary. So I had to find a notary, who can be found in a row of similar elderly lady notaries at the nearby police station. This I did in double-quick time, asking for directions frequently, with my blister reasserting itself as I went. This scramble, you understand, was the result of my first visit to the consulate. I reassembled my papers in my hotel room and marched (stoically, given the blister) back to the consulate (second visit). The young man gathered everything together and then asked for my passport. ‘But you’ve got that!’ I said. No, he said, but everything will be fine if you return by 11.45am. So off I went again, and yes, the passport had fallen onto my hotel bed. I pelted back (third visit), had everything stamped, my picture taken, beamed and waved at everyone and returned to the hotel. Just in time for the bus to the airport.

The plane was delayed by Sydney weather (lightning, thunder, winds) for some time, and then made three attempts at landing in Melbourne. We all clapped the pilot, mostly because we were alive.

During all the business to do with houses and the visa, there was also the business of trying to move money around the globe. You’d think they might have got that one sorted to everyone’s satisfaction by now, but I suppose they are stymied by the desire to make an unseemly amount of money out of every transaction. The banks, in this case, being the ‘they’. Which means people avoid using banks and use trading companies, originally set up (I suppose) to work with investors in shares. The first company I used might have been fine but for various things I don’t even understand clearly enough to explain to you, and the fact that every time you rang they would hand you further and further down the line, while the reception got fuzzier and fuzzier. Not aided by the fact that mobile reception in North Melbourne, where I was staying, is not good at the best of times. In the end I was recommended another company that was much more straightforward and easy to deal with in every way. So now I am an international shifter of money. Nobody get excited though; the house was bought in this way, and a modest bank account established. There are many more worthy of the title mogul than I.

Then there was a short and welcome pause when my sons, their girlfriends, my ex-tenant and I all had an early Christmas replete with poultry, tinsel and sugar. Much cavorting for the camera, and a lovely time was had by all.

And so, equipped with visa and with my worldly goods also thinking of heading to France, I headed for Tullamarine Airport with my sons and their girlfriends at the ungodly hour of about 1am or so, for a flight at an even worse hour.

Remember, please, that I was actually moving to another country and the worldly goods and possessions not actually in boxes in a large container somewhere were in my own suitcases. Which were, we were instantly informed, 6 kg overweight. Why hadn’t I weighed them? my offspring enquired sternly. I really hate it when offspring become stern. Well, I hadn’t weighed them, not having access to anything to weight them on … and not having thought of it in any case. So we had to fillet the belongings then and then. There was tension; there were disagreements. My elder son seems to think a hairdryer is an unreasonable thing to pack; I contended that every woman on that plane was likely to have one. In the end, a number of odds and ends – including my entire set of soft crayons, very sadly – was bundled into the smaller case for my sons to take home. I was left with the bigger case, which could have housed half a classroom of small children. Almost literally, actually (see below).

This hefty case came trundling with me all the way from England to France, and then all the way across France.

We all hugged and hugged, and I went into the bowels of the airport, where many of us travellers discovered that not everything is strictly obvious in terms of where to sit and where to dash when it’s your turn to board. But we managed. And at some ungodly hour of the morning, eventually set off.

Many, many hours later, and after stops that I won’t, this time, elucidate, I arrived at Heathrow. Where, you ask? Why? Partly, I confess, because CDG frightens the life out of me, but mostly because I had the opportunity to spend Christmas with my English relations. And actually meet them, what’s more, never having done so in my life.

Not only that, but my cousin Michael and I instantly recognised each other (social media has many uses, and this is one), so the arrival was quite smooth.

My English cousins come from what I like to term the Indian side of the family. That is to say, my aunt by marriage was Anglo-Indian. There is also a small person in the newest generation who is half-Jamaican, while a sizeable chunk of the family in Australia is half Malaysian-Chinese. This is a great and wonderful thing, and I am very pleased with the fact. Other than that, there are Scots, Irish, French, English and German to clutter up the family history.

My cousin Michael, a journalist, is delving into much of this family history and I think I remember hearing from him – or was it from someone else? – that we may have been related to Delacroix. Which is equally delightful, if true.

Anyway, suffice it to say that I had a lovely time for a couple of week in London, meeting relations and in-laws, babies and bumps-soon-to-be-babies. The faces behind the family stories, and so on. My generation is mostly older than me, so remember my older brother, now deceased, from when he was a toddler and that end of the family was spending some time in Australia.

There was Christmas lunch with one part of the family, a birthday party for another section that lives in Southhampton, and New Years’ Eve in a flat overlooking the Tower Bridge. Everyone should spend at least one New Year overlooking Tower Bridge. This party was quite sedate, though enlivened by the all-singing, all-dancing party that emerged just at the right time on the next balcony along.

And of course, trips to the Tower itself (complete with ravens, who are enticed  to stay there because, the story goes, there would be collapse and mayhem were they ever to leave). If you look closely at the picture, there be ravens. A Beefeater amazed the crowds with bloodthirsty tales of the Tower’s past, naturally.

And a trip to the Tate (portraits, and an absorbing look at the early socialists of William Morris and his friends, their designs and the social thinking behind them) with Michael and a visit with Michael and his wife, Lee, to the house of Samuel Johnston himself, whose house is in splendid and multi-storeyed state despite some charred beams left over from the bombing during WW2. I tried on a frock and a cap. We also saw the statue erected to Sam’s cat, and had lunch in a tiny, dark and low-ceilinged place that was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London. It may have been where Sam had his lunch too.

Among the other sights – aside from central London, lions, busses and all – were Hampstead Heath, of course, and also Highgate Cemetery. Which is a must, honestly, if you have any interest in history as it slides characterfully into the weeds. I stood most proudly, naturally, with the enormous monument to Karl himself, which appears to stand in the middle of the revolutionary and generally-Left section of the cemetery. It’s worth a wander among the headstones for the stirring snippets writ upon them, remembering that there are people here who came from many parts of the world, or perhaps empire. I suspect my cousins found my fascination kind of amusing, but hey, I was enthralled.

Elsewhere, there are others, including a memorable headstone for Douglas Adams. Somebody had left an offering of a jar of biros.

Major cemeteries, let me tell you, are a must.

I also took myself to London, by Underground with my very own Oyster card, to see the Houses of Parliament (exquisite) and St Paul’s Cathedral. Yes, the Cathedral is a stunning achievement and lyrically beautiful at many points, particularly the choir area.   But my greatest impression was that it was a statement of power, an absolute statement about domination, from the reverential Nelson’s tomb in the crypt to the numerous marble statues of fallen generals surrounded by weeping angels.  I climbed up the narrow stairs accessed through a narrow door, up and up to the whispering gallery and looked down, walked around it as others were, so far away across the other side. Until I eventually realised the odd tingle in my lower legs was actually my body reminding me of my tendency to vertigo.

Much else happened, of course, and I can’t leave England, so to speak, without mentioning the trip to Oxford with my second-cousin Tamsin and her husband. Yes, I was impressed. Yes, I was amazed. Once again, a statement of purpose that has spanned so many, many centuries.

Having ascertained by experiment with Michael and Lee’s grandchildren that my suitcase would in fact fit two children of six and eight years old, both at once, we then shoved it (without children) into the back of the car and I began the next leg of the journey.

Train to Paris. Here is a small culinary hint: the lattes served at the station, in the waiting area itself, are excellent. Oddly, because, so far, I haven’t found that either the English or the French really appreciate a good latte. And I do come from Melbourne, you know, where we hold these things dear. In fact, I had this very conversation at the counter with another Australian, who agreed.

And so, the train trip to Paris. Where, without exaggerating hardly at all, you blinked and were in France. A short period of tunnel-darkness, and then a lot of French signage. Goodness. Followed by the usual conning by someone touting for taxis, and a needlessly expensive taxi-trip to the hotel.

Paris for a week. What could possibly go wrong.

You’ll just have to find out, next exciting episode.