Fancy Knickers for Christmas

Aunty Sandy with her three boys and daughter-in-law at my 21st in 2009.

Aunty Sandy with her three boys and daughter-in-law at my 21st in 2009.

I went all the way into Melbourne on the train today for work, only to turn around and come right back full of sneezes and sniffs. I read post after post after post about David Bowie as I sat there and felt the collective shock and sadness of his death, while a different shock and sadness unfolded in me. So I wrote something about my Aunty Sandy, who also died on Sunday.

 

As I read tribute
after tribute,
grief pouring forth for
Mr Bowie,
I feel confusion
settle
inside me
and a great
hollow space fringed
with fluttering cries
but Aunty Sandy,
my Aunty Sandy
has died.
Who is Bowie –
my beautiful Aunty
godmother friend
who held my hand
when I lay in terror
before an operation,
who gave me teddy bears
from childhood into
adulthood –
whose home was filled
with precious teddies
cuddled in corners
in every room,
who would stay
when I was growing up
and fill the house with
her perfume, I can still smell,
who gave me my first pair
of fancy knickers
one Christmas, which
I looked upon horrified,
who advocated extra
everything with every meal,
who was promising hauntings
when we said goodbye,
who was wicked and loving
and wonderful.
She has died.
She has died.

And in Health

Waves on the beach at Lorne.There’s an ocean inside me of assumptions, fears, burdens of expectation and responsibility, all crashing and spraying and tumbling over each other, about illness. When I try to write about these things they feel unclear and murky, slippery like fish that shoot from my hands before I can see them properly.

I get a cold and suddenly I am afraid I will never recover from it. I forget what it feels like to take a full breath, to laugh without coughing, to breathe easily, softly, gently. I forget how to be gentle at all. At this time when my body and spirit needs rest, understanding, care, I become rigid and judgemental, pushing myself to keep going as usual and angrily chastising when I must stop.

And strangest of all, I feel this incredible guilt when I am not feeling well.

When I drop into that experience of guilt, the escalations that emerge are surprising. I feel fear about being a burden. I worry about other people having to deal with the emotional weight of my being unwell. I feel guilt for needing anything. What about need is so deeply disturbing to me? Am I afraid of needing, because if I need something, it can be taken away? Did loss, when I was first conceiving of the world, make need dangerous and unattainable?

The questions interest me, but they are also my analytical mind on overdrive. The more I go into them, the more I try to intellectually understand, the further I am from experiencing and releasing all those razor sharp contractions. I used my intellect with such incredible finesse before I began to meditate. I was masterful at explaining and controlling myself through my thoughts, my elastic intellect, while at other times I would be overwhelmingly swept apart by feelings and emotions. Both were like a river running through my spirit, strong and swift and deadly. Neither connected me to the earth or to my body. Neither allowed me to locate and release contractions, thoughts, emotions, feelings, events, through actually experiencing them.

As a child I would sometimes have an overwhelming feeling that my life was terrible – that it was too hard, that I couldn’t manage, that it was unfair. Cystic fibrosis, my scarred stomach, my dad dead, diabetes, sickness on and on… And like a rising river this grief and rage and terror would enclose me. And I really thought there was no way I could feel those things and survive. So I would take myself to a mirror and I would stare into my own eyes and I would list, with force, everything in my life that was good, that I was lucky to have, everything that made my life easy and worthwhile. And I would keep going until the deathly tidal wave of feeling subsided.

I am only learning to sit inside the tidal wave now. I am learning to breathe under the water. I am waiting to see what is on the other side.

Meditating the Rage

My Dad, Marcus, with me and my brother, David.When I started to meditate, three years ago today, I thought meditation might help me to feel serene and focused. Beyond that was the glitter of spiritual guidance and wisdom. And beyond that some nebulous and wonderful universe of transcendence. All of these vague hopes were, and continue to be, true.

What is also true is meditation has awakened and brought rolling to the surface, with insistent force, my anger, my grief, my frustration and my fear. A younger incarnation of me might have thought meditation was giving me all of these things. It might have thought, ‘Woah, this whole being present inside my own body and mind thing is making me so damn angry. I’d better stop, right now…’

But the truth is, those things came up during meditation because they were already inside me. For whatever reason I hadn’t been able to fully experience and therefore digest and release them when they were happening, so I’d packed them neatly (or not) away for later (or for never). And whichever subconscious caretaker part of me had done the packing thought that everything would stay hidden inside their boxes. But the boxes just piled up and every so often one of them would leak and I’d have a strange and out of proportion reaction to something that really didn’t warrant such grandiosity.

Meditation has and will take me many places. One of the places is a warehouse inside me, filled with boxes that are greying with age, dusted with cobwebs, left off the ledger, lonely and unknown. It guides me inside the cavernous space and it gently lifts the lids of the boxes. And as they open their contents sweep through me and I am gripped with rivers of emotion and memory and physical experience. And like rivers, they flow in and then out. Meditation sits inside my skin, holding me present and aware while I experience something I thought I could never experience. And afterwards, feeling like a little facecloth that has been wrung and wrung, I look and the boxes disintegrate in my hands and I am left with empty space.

Sometimes the space feels lonely, because the boxes had been there a long time and I was used to them. They each had their own particular song, their own colour and taste and feel. They felt like being cut open at 24 hours old in an emergency operation, they felt like my Dad dying in an accident when I was four, they felt like realising I had cystic fibrosis when I was six, they felt like bullying and misunderstanding and a little girl struggling to hold herself together and trying to hold everyone around her together too.

I had a recurrent dream when I was a child, one of the only dreams I remembered on waking. I would be inside a dark and enormous space and it would be filled with boxes. I would be moving the boxes and I would feel in control and powerful. While I was moving the boxes, I would realise they had grown enormous, the size of mountains and suddenly I would be carrying many of them at a time. Eventually I would realise that I was holding up all of the boxes at the same time. Then that I was holding up the whole universe and I couldn’t put it down and it was growing and growing and I just had to keep holding it.

Then I would wake up sweating and dragging in air and I would usually throw up. And I never knew what it meant.

But maybe I know now. And maybe I am finished packing  boxes.

Let’s have a dinner party

Let’s have a dinner party and invite all the interesting people we know.

Let’s be charmed, challenged and inspired.
Let’s allow ourselves to dream.
Let’s talk to someone we’ve never met.
Let’s listen.
Let’s learn something we wanted to learn.
Let’s learn something we didn’t know we wanted to learn.
Let’s teach.
Let’s play.
Let’s play music.
Let’s play words.
Let’s hear something unexpected.
Let’s be unexpected.
Let’s have an argument.
Let’s not.
Let’s discuss.
Let’s watch.
Let’s be a part of something different.
Let’s be different.
Let’s have a dinner party with our mums, our dads, our best friends, our colleagues, our bosses, our unknown friends, our dreamed friends, our dreams.
Let’s talk.
Let’s grow.
Let’s grow old and young and be just the same and entirely different.
Let’s not be the same again.

Let’s have a dinner party and invite all the interesting people we don’t know.

 

© Sian Ellett

*Originally published on the TEDxQueenstown blog.

Speaking to Jeff Sparrow

When you’re editing, writing seems really easy. You become convinced all the writers are complete fuckwits, because everything just seems so simple and you can see what everyone’s done wrong.

I interviewed Jeff Sparrow, Editor of Overland, in the middle of 2013. He almost stood me up on the day – the perfect teacup-storm to begin a conversation.

Sian Ellett: How did you become the Editor of Overland?
Jeff Sparrow: I started as a volunteer around the time of the Maritime Dispute, about 1996. I’d always been interested in writing and most of the literary magazines seemed largely interchangeable and Overland did a special edition on the Maritime Dispute and as I was involved in politics at the time I thought this was an extraordinary thing for a journal to do and so I rang them up and asked them if they needed volunteers and I went in there and started doing bits and pieces for them. Eventually I became Reviews Editor. I did that for about five years and when the Editor left they asked me to edit it.

SE: Were you an activist or a writer first?
JS: I was an activist. I mean, I’d always written. When I was in school, and when you’re in politics, you end up writing stuff all the time – articles for your own publications or leaflets or anything like that. I started writing seriously when my sister and I started work on a book on the history of Melbourne.

SE: What’s it like working with a sibling?
JS: By the end of the first book we weren’t speaking very much. It was good. I don’t think I could have done it with anyone else. It had its ups and downs, but we had good fun doing it.

SE: Do you edit your own work?
JS: Most publications will edit your stuff and its always much better to have someone else’s input, not that you don’t edit your own stuff while you’re actually writing it you know – you’re immediately trying to read over things as carefully as you can before you send it off. Particularly if you’re writing for online stuff where you have to be topical and you have to do things quite quickly. I’ll mostly be writing quite early in the morning and it’s very easy to make stupid mistakes and make a big fool of yourself and you have people pointing out, ‘actually when you said this it was completely wrong’.

I really like being edited. I’ve never had any time for those people who say ‘I’m this genius writer and I can’t stand being edited’. Editing makes writing one hundred times better.

SE: Do you enjoy editing or writing more?
JS: When you’re editing, writing seems really easy. You become convinced all the writers are complete fuckwits, because everything just seems so simple and you can see what everyone’s done wrong. You don’t get much credit as an editor. Everyone just takes what you do for granted. You only get noticed if you fuck something up.

SE: And that’s the art – if you’ve edited well, you shouldn’t be able to see it.
JS: With some writers you’ll end up doing a lot of the work and research on their piece that they should have done.

SE: That sounds like co-writing.
JS: I think a lot of the roles are kind of broken down with the digital stuff. The distinction between copy editing and proofreading and structural editing is not really as clear as it used to be. But you know, it’s quite satisfying to know that you got a manuscript in that was pretty crap and by the time it came out it was actually good because you’ve done something to it. I don’t think anyone much likes writing.

SE: Nobody much likes writing?
JS: Writing is just hard and difficult and unpleasant. I don’t think anyone likes it.

SE: How has Overland changed since the move to digital?
JS: We no longer see ourselves as a printed publication. Overland is a project. It’s not a particular platform – we have an online magazine that’s updated daily, we have the print journal, we have a series of events, we have social media presences. They are all part of Overland.

SE: Part of what you’re describing is specifically what social media has given a lot of organisations – this ability and pressure to extend into a range of new areas. Does this dilute the message, or does it get the message further?
JS: It’s contradictory. There are tremendous advantages in it, like 300,000 people a year looking at the website. How deep that engagement is you don’t know, but it’s a level of readership beyond which the founders of the journal could have imagined. If you’re a journal of ideas, you want people to be able to access those ideas. You want your ideas to travel as far and as wide as possible.

Though what the digital revolution means in practice is far more work to do with no increase in staffing. Where once upon a time we produced a quarterly journal, now we are producing almost daily content.

SE: What about e-readers, iPads – will you have a digital presence in that sense?
JS: Last year we sold our first standalone ebook of Overland short stories. It was our first foray into this area. Though we are planning an iPad version, it’s not a huge focus, especially since our printed content is all available on the website anyway.

SE: As soon as it comes out?
JS: Within a week. There probably would be a readership for an epub version, but we don’t think it would be significant. The take-up of e-readers in Australia is quite slow compared to elsewhere. Obviously that is going to change and we have to keep evaluating these things, but our primary interface is the web, because it allows our ideas to circulate in a way that epub doesn’t. Every article put up as html can be blogged, tweeted, put on Facebook. Yes we will do epub, but we don’t see it as a huge thing for us at this stage.

SE: There’s a difference between a journal doing an epub version and a magazine doing an epub version. Magazines are almost as much about their form as their content and they have to create interactive applications and engage in a more direct way with new technologies. Do you think journals like Overland are always going to be about engaging with the ideas themselves, not the format they are in?
JS: Partly. If you’re a literary journal there’s a tremendous fetishisation of paper by most short story writers and poets; that’s where people want to get published.

SE: Yet you get much more exposure when you’re published online.
JS: But most of the people who are doing creative writing are not really interested in exposure – in the transmission of ideas. They’re interested in self expression. It’s fucked up and it’s not a good thing, but what they want is to have a book in their hand and say, ‘Look at me, I’m a published author.’ To be able to say here is my poem in print is important to people and in a funny way it might become more important as print publication becomes rarer. I would not be surprised if there is an increasing fetishisation of print objects. Being a poet who is published in a physical book will become more important than just having your poem on a website. That partly explains why we have the strange set of relationships with these formats that we do. There’s more of an established subscription model for a print journal than for epub.

SE: People are probably more willing to pay for a printed object than an online edition.
JS: I also think if people want to read short stories or complicated essays, paper is still the preferred medium. There is less distraction, its more conducive to the intense concentration that, say, literary fiction entails. If you’re reading on an iPad, it’s quite possible that you’re receiving emails at the same time or that twitter is open, so it’s harder to engage in the way you can if you’ve just got a book. But all of this may change and anyone who says they know how technology is going to shape the future is lying, nobody does.

SE: How do you, as the Editor of Overland, interact with other areas of the publication? Like design, production, marketing?
JS: There are only two of us there, four days a week, someone else there two days a week and various other people doing bits and pieces. We don’t really have departments. There is someone who does most of the administrative, book-keeping stuff, so I don’t have to do that. But things like publicity and marketing are pretty much whoever wants to do it. We do have someone doing publicity for us at the moment, but most of the time people want to speak to the editor.

SE: Do you think the design of Overland is important, or is it just about the words?
JS: It is and it isn’t. It depends if we’re talking about the print journal or the online stuff. We’re in the middle of a major web redesign, which is important to us. Regarding the design of the print journal – the readability is really important, the accessibility and how many words we get on a page. Most of our readership comes from subscriptions so readers are not browsing a shelf and buying because of the cover. Having something that’s attractive and readable is important, but maybe not in the same way as a publication that depends on shop sales.

SE: A lot of magazines exist on advertising. Do you deal with advertisers?
JS: Our primary revenue is from our subscriptions. We also receive funding from the Australia Council and from Arts Victoria and a couple of other philanthropic organisations. We do accept advertising, but the kinds of people who are likely to advertise in a literary journal don’t have a great deal of money themselves. The circulation of the print journal is quite small so that’s not a selling point for advertisers. The circulation of the online journal is very high, but selling online advertising is very difficult.

SE: What’s it like for you to publish your own writing in Overland?
JS: I’ve done it a couple of times, but it’s not something I like doing. The connotations of it aren’t that great – sometimes it’s because we’ve lost major articles and needed to fill up space, sometimes it’s because I’ve been working on a bigger project and I have bits and pieces that would fit the journal. In principal, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it; I just don’t think it’s the greatest look when our print space is so small.

We are trying to create a coterie of writers around Overland. We will often publish the same people in print and online and try and develop those people as writers and develop a particular political and cultural sensitivity that adheres to the journal.

SE: If you were not editing Overland, what would you be doing?
JS: I suppose I would be writing. That seems to be what I do these days. These are not really great times for being a writer in Australia. When I first started writing, one of the gigs you could get was book reviewing. There were a bunch of publications that dedicated a lot of pages to book reviews. You could write an article for The Age and get 60 or 70 cents a word, so a short article and you’d have $700. Online publishing – you’re lucky to get $50 or $100. The payment rates have collapsed.

SE: I think more and more things will be solely online. Do you think that will change the payment structures?
JS: If anything, I think they’ll go down further. Partly, I think there has been a conservative attempt to use online publishing to drive prices down. It’s like any technology – it is often used as a way to drive prices down. But it’s also that the old economic model in crisis and nobody knows how it’s going to work anymore.

Newspapers are losing money hand over fist. The Age is in a death spiral as the advertising revenue dries up, then they can’t afford to pay for journalists or the pages, which means their circulation declines, which means their advertising budgets decline even more. So the death spiral continues. It’s not just writers. The standard of copy editing on most websites is abysmal. These sites can’t afford to pay for it. When you’re publishing online you need a constant stream of content – there’s no time to worry about getting something right. Look at The Huffington Post – they chuck any crap up there; most of their content is created by interns.

SE: If you met Overland at a party, what would s/he be doing?
JS: [Extended laughter] I have no idea. Probably arguing in the corner.

SE: What kind of arguing? Gentle? Encouraging?
JS: Overland is never gentle. Overland is about picking fights. It’s supposed to be smart without being academic. It’s supposed to be generalist, interested in the culture of politics and the politics of culture. Diverse. It’s supposed to be different. We publish things that no other journal would publish.

Figs and Coffee

North Fitzroy Social is only a week old when I visit, but they’re a thriving newborn so far.

The Five Senses coffee has a chewy depth, with a clean citrus finish. My flat white is well-extracted and superbly combined with soy, which any soyists will know is a feat.

Upcycled wooden boards in North Fitzroy Social

Distressed wooden tables, industrial light-fittings and exposed brick are almost ubiquitous in a certain class of Melbourne cafe, but are pulled off with grace by North Fitzroy Social. The cafe is relaxed, breezy (let’s be clear – there is an air-conditioning pump) and creative.

The menu is a pleasant mixture of unusual and expected. My eye is immediately drawn to the Fig Saltimbocca for $17.50 AUD. It’s like my favourite treats have come together to have a party on the plate. The figs retain their sweet succulence after baking and, like a perfectly played symphony, combine with salty prosciutto, rich blue cheese, peppery rocket and sharp sweet pomegranate seeds for a spectacular finish. If only I could record the smell of it. And what a pleasure it is to encounter a beautiful dish without a slab of bread tacked awkwardly on the side.

Fig SaltimboccaThe wait staff seem happy to be at work and the owners are distinctly relaxed and eager to please. Customers are greeted by name and engaged in conversation as they find their seats.

Crowded across one wall are a row of up-cycled wooden boards, dark brown and brooding. They exude a rough warmth, balanced well against the exposed red bricks on the opposite wall. Two sweet second-hand stools sit underneath the wooden boards, while an anarchy of extra-fat and colourful cushions sit across the bench seat running the length of the opposite wall – I feel a little like a genie settling back against them.

I am surprised and impressed to notice, nestled under those crumbling wooden boards on the wall, unobtrusive black power sockets fitted with USB plugs. This is a cafe dancing with anachronism, but quietly aware of its tech-obsessed clientele.

Kitchen at North Fitzroy Social

Excellent service distinguishes North Fitzroy Social. The staff are warm, genuine and good-humoured. While the coffee, the food and the design are impressive, it’s the people who will bring me back every time. I finish up my visit with a cleansing peppermint tea which gives me an excuse to linger a little longer in my new local.

North Fitzroy Social, Cafe and Panini Bar
189 St Georges Rd, Fitzroy North
Open: Monday – Friday 7am-4pm,
Saturday – Sunday 7am-5pm
North Fitzroy Social Cafe & Panini Bar on Urbanspoon

North Fitzroy Social interior

An evening at the opera – Calypso

It’s not often I can say I’m going to see a new opera, certainly not one composed by an artist in his 20s. Calypso is a retelling of Odysseus’s fateful stay on Calypso’s island. Evan Lawson, Artistic Director of Forest Collective, composed and conducted the opera, with Libretto written by Samuel Yeo. The opera beautifully catches Calypso’s mournful wish for Odysseus to awake, and her brittle dreams that he might stay and love her.

Opening with almost dirge-like intensity, Calypso transports us to the eerie quiet of an island lost at sea. The evening light filtering through the windows of the Abbotsford Convent’s Rosina Auditorium plays well against the simmering music and the quiet entrance of the singers, who are pleasingly barefoot. Daniel Todd’s voice is strong and clear as he opens the opera, embodying Odysseus with a tense focus in his shoulders and face.

Todd’s sister and fellow opera singer, Janet Todd, sings with equal grace as Athena, her voice soaring easily atop moments of gentle calm in Lawson’s composition. Careful dissonance creeps into the music as we are introduced to the rich tones of Lotte Betts-Dean’s Calypso.

At times, the setting of the text was disjointed and the orchestral arrangement confused, but this was balanced by periods of transcendent musical focus and clarity. Lawson’s composition was at its most beautiful and successful in moments of calm, where individual voices and melodies shone. A lovely interlude with J. Todd singing against the backdrop of Hannah Lane’s harp was a good example of this, as was J. Todd and Betts-Dean’s beautifully sung duet.

Though the orchestra only occasionally achieved their potential on the night of the preview, when they were in sync, they played with power and coherence, the music melting into the voices of the singers. These moments were an exciting taste of more to come from Lawson.

The opera closes on an excellently unsettling and ambiguous tone, leaving the audience leaning forward for more. Calypso does not end in despair in Lawson’s opera, and nor do we. For a moment I thought this lovely ending was only a short break; I could have listened for much longer.

For a full cast list see the Forest Collective website.

Sailing the Archipelago, Stockholm

Time seems to speed up when I’m travelling. Already Sandra and I have run out of time to take a few days exploring the Archipelago and so we opt for an evening cruise instead. We are both nerdily delighted to discover we will be travelling on an old heritage boat that is filled with polished wood and still runs on a coal engine. There is a little door where we look down to the motor, catch a glimpse of the pistons sliding and feel the heat of the burners.

Steam boat, Archipelago, Sweden

The cruise begins with a trip between the main islands that make up Stockholm and Sandra points out where she lived for a year previously (which was also where she spent a year going to weekly sewing lessons with three little old ladies who had been sewing together for more than thirty years) and one of the royal family’s homes – a beautiful pink-orange miniature castle with perfectly manicured lawns sweeping down to the water.

Archipelago, Sweden

Eventually we leave the surrounds of the city and venture onto the wide avenues of the Archipelago. It feels a bit like we have gone back in time as we see more and more historical architecture peeking from hill tops or nestled near the shore, though some modern gems are also in evidence. Perhaps the most imposing structure we soar past is Vaxholm Castle, built in 1549 for defensive purposes, sitting squat and heavy on the edge of a little island. But today it is painted by the sunset and looks more like a fairytale than a castle of war.

Ministry of Defence, Archipelago, Sweden Sandra and I stay up on the top deck of the boat for as long as we can, but eventually the wind sharpens and we make our way inside where most surfaces are a polished rosy wood and little red velvet curtains are pulled back at the edges of all the windows.

Little red boat house, Archipelago, Sweden

Sandra in silhouette

Sandra mourns that she cannot show me the fierce and isolated beauty of the outer islands. She says some of the islands are so ravaged by wind that barely a thing can grow on them. Others are covered in trees that are bent and gnarled to the shape of the wind and though we do not see them on this trip, her descriptions conjure clear images in my mind. I imagine seeing these places next time I visit. I know I will visit again, not just to see Sandra, but because Sweden draws at me. It has since I visited in the winter of 2008. My first stop then was the little town Sandra grew up in, Knivsta, where in the middle of winter, covered in snow, the houses looked like little Christmas carols, all red and green and capped with ice. For now, I am content to admire the clouds, splayed above us like little glowing reflections of the islands through which we sail.

Sunset on the water of the Archipelago, Sweden

Turning 50 in the Nordic Museum, Stockholm

Sometimes it seems that museums are trying to compete with something, and I’m never sure what. The Nordic Museum in Stockholm is not one of these. It is spacious, easy, quirky – perhaps even cheeky.

Entrance hall of the Nordic Museum, StockholmIn the midst of an exhibit of historical jewellery are stacked leather bracelets with silver studs. Caption: punk bracelets. That’s pretty damn awesome.

Sandra and I start from the top, which is a nice change – why have I always started from the bottom before this? We meander through a beautiful and sobering exhibit about the Sami people and their history in Sweden. We walk through an exhibit covering different Swedish table settings and traditions through the ages. I feel pleased that nobody reuses swan carcasses as table dressing any longer.

We make our way through a path of dummies dressed in fashions of years passed. The punks were back here – a fluro-haired, leather-clad punk stood facing a man and woman in seventeenth century evening wear.

Doll house exhibit at the Nordic MuseumI had a peek at an exhibit of old doll houses and sate my desire for miniature things. I didn’t see any little lamps to rival Katherine Mansfield’s in ‘The Doll’s House’.

All the exhibits are ranged around the grand central hall which is open all the way to the ceiling four floors up. Back and forth we passed around the stone columns until we reach the ground floor. As we pass around a corner of the museum we find some wooden-shuttered windows open onto little terraces, looking out onto the beautiful streets of Stockholm. For a moment I imagine standing at this window in another time, as another person.

The museum farewells us with an exhibition about hair – head and body – and a recreation of a little Swedish 50s apartment. We walk through the sitting room, single bedroom and kitchen. We open cupboards and peer into bookshelves. Sandra puts on the lady’s hat hanging by the door, but we leave the coats alone.

Sandra and I agree that we wouldn’t mind some 50s furniture in our homes. I rhapsodised over the spice rack in the kitchen which was a little shelf attached under the cupboards above the sink and had spaces for different sized glass containers with little handles on the ends which slid out towards you. I can sort of imagine myself in the 50s – causing trouble as usual.

View from window in the Nordic Museum

Laughter headaches in Stockholm

I am greeted with paper streamers and my beautiful Swedish friend Sandra at the airport in Stockholm. It is a fitting introduction to the wistful beauty and spirit of this city. I feel quite at home in Stockholm and it is good to be back. Last time I was here it was below zero and everything was fairytale iced and snowcapped.

Orange streets in Södermalm, Stockholm

Sandra is zoologist, so it’s not entirely unexpected that we visit a giant flower in Bergianska Tradgarden, a botanic garden, on our first day out. When I say giant flower, I really do mean giant – Amorphophallus titanum (Giant misshapen phallus, if you’re looking for an english translation). It is 1.9m tall and flowers for approximately three days every two years. It creates quite a stir with every flowering so we even had to wait in a line to catch a glimpse. Last time it flowered in Stockholm there were 7,000 visitors and another in Basil pulled 25,000 visitors.

I was saved from the pungent rotting meat smell of the bloom by my sniffle nose, but Sandra got a good whiff and reported that it was not as bad as she thought it was going to be.

Amorphophallus titanum at the Bergianska Tradgarden Perhaps incongruously, and certainly marvellously, we finish our day with a trip to the local theme park, Gröna Lund, accompanied by Sandra’s friend Jacques. Sandra is excited about a new ride, an 80m spinning around in the air ride, and I’m trying to remember the last time I went to a theme park and I cannot.

We arrive around 5pm and decide we’ll only stay until 8pm. We trail out at 11pm having ridden the bumper cars twice before exiting and I take away a slight headache from laughing so much. Yes. That can happen. I can laugh too much.

Sometimes it is really nice to remember the small person inside who can laugh for six hours straight. One of the last things we visit is the ‘fun house’, as Sandra terms it. It is a series of rooms and corridors with strange and hilarious contraptions to get through. Jacques and I become trapped in a big rotating tunnel. I make the mistake of lying down so that I am tumbled over by the tunnel, but then I can’t actually get up and both of us are thrown round and round for some minutes until I eventually drag myself out of the tunnel, hysterical with laughter. Sandra tried to get photos, but they mostly look like mad colourful blurs.

One of the best things about the park was watching the sun go down whilst whistling around the tall rides and seeing beautiful Stockholm with her waterways, her architectural beauty, her glowing summer wonder, bathed in swatches of sunset, spread around us like a golden playground. Full of wonder.

Houses on the water, Stockholm