This week I left the boys at home in Brussels for a week in North America for work on non-communicable diseases. My first stop was New York City via Philadelphia. My original PHL-LGA flight was cancelled due to storms, the next flight sat on the runway for over an hour before departing, and my luggage arrived completely soaked, but I was just happy to land in New York safe and sound.
I stayed with my friend JT. We had originally planned to go out for dinner together, however with all the flight delays, I went straight to bed and postponed the sightseeing until the next day.
I had six hours to see the city before my first meeting began at 3pm. I dragged JT out at the crack of dawn for a breakfast at 10 Downing Street. It was a beautiful morning in Greenwich Village. The only other people awake were new parents pushing prams, holding leashes, and picking up a strong coffee for fortification. I remember those exhausting days – being woken at 6am and resigning myself to not getting any more sleep until the sun set again. The streets were very tranquil compared to the buzz the previous night.
We caught the subway up the High Line, which was so much more impressive than it sounded in print. Once an abandoned railway line, it is now a long park that sits above the city. We walked from one end to the other, stopping in the centre for a coffee and to gaze over the water. I was struck by how much humans need to find green spaces – pedestrian refuges that are surrounded by plants and water, in order to sit in a safe place to relax and surround oneself with nature. It was a very special place.
JT walked me to the Intrepid Space Museum, and I visited the concord and the space shuttle Endeavour, the prototype of all future space shuttles. I remembered visiting the prototype OK-GLI Buran Russian Space Shuttle in Sydney in 2000, and seeing all the hand-written labels and hand-tied cables. Similarly, all the engineers who worked on the shuttle signed their names inside the wing interior.
There was also a Soyuz TMA-6 re-entry capsule on display, on loan by private passenger Greg Olsen, the third private citizen to fly in space and visit the ISS in 2005. He paid $20 million to fly alongside Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev and NASA astronaut John Phillips. It is astonishing to think that this design has been used since 1963, and is still the only one that is used today to bring astronauts back home. Such a cramped and tiny pod for up to three people to squeeze inside and fall back to Earth.
I then walked to Times Square. I couldn’t help but spin around in wonder, the images on every surface dancing and flashing, like a set for a William Gibson sci-fi movie. This square is a sonnet to capitalism, LEDs celebrating the power of the dollar to purchase status and happiness. Following their lures, I visited the Disney store and found a Jake and the Pirates costume for Hayden, then went to the M&M store, met the green M, and picked out some NYC treats.
I then had time for a quick trip to the Levi’s store to find two pairs of jeans for myself before escaping the heat and rest my wearing feet during a four hour meeting going through the details on a study on non-communicable diseases. The meeting was held across the street from the famous Apple Tekserve store on 34th. At the work dinner that night, I celebrated my one-year anniversary of working at an NGO. It has certainly been a lot more challenging and confronting than my previous job, but also more rewarding and satisfying.
The next day consisted of an eight hour meeting discussing the strategy behind a report on non-communicable diseases. We worked straight through lunch, and by the end I was completely exhausted. I summoned enough energy to pop into the Apple store to admire the shiny glass cube and shake my head at the people who are starting to line up for a phone that hasn’t even been announced yet.
On my final evening, I met JT for an iced coffee at the Rockerfeller Center, and admired Jeff Koon’s Split Rocker, remembering Puppy in Bilbao. I picked up a few polybags from the Lego store, and they even let me take home the monthly mini-build for Hayden. That night I ate dinner in my hotel room while watching 30 Rock, seeing locations that I had just walked through myself, and set my alarm for 4am for my early flight to Toronto the next day.
I do love walking through the streets of New York City, those incredible skyscrapers souring above me, the shops filled with every imaginable treasure. This is a city that feels like the centre of the world, revolves around money, and celebrates capitalism. I pondered what it would be like to work for the UN and live here. I think that it would be all too easy for me to be caught up in this temptation if I was based here permanently. While I adore a few days surrounded by the atmosphere of NYC, I prefer to live within socialist avenues of Brussels, where everyone has access to healthcare and education, and most can afford to live in the city.
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Hayden started pre-school in January, and in May he had his first school fair, called a “spectacle”. This was a very important occasion for me. I wanted to see how Hayden interacted in this new environment, meet some other parents, and start to learn more about this strange institution in which he spends most of his time.
As Liane Moriaty writes in Big Little Lies: “It had felt like she was starting a new job: her job as a primary school mother. There would be rules and paperwork and procedures to learn”. I feel the same way, except for me all the rules are written in French.
I made some chocolate crackles (sans copha) and placed them on the table with the other food. Unlike an Australian fete, mine were the only ones available, and they were very popular. There was also a wide range of tartes, tortes, and tortillas. Plus plenty of beer. Unfortunately the weather was terrible, and we huddled away from the rain until the show was due to start.
The children from the maternelle acuille (pre-school reception class) were the first to perform, and Hayden was one of the first children on the stage. My heart was in my mouth as I watched Hayden performed, but I was very proud of him as he played the role of a farmer during “l’histoire du pain” (The story of bread). Adrian told me that when he dropped off Hayden for the past month he had seen the classes rehearsing. Even though the school was kind enough to film the performance, some parents seemed to think that they could do a better job.
We stayed to watch the rest of the maternelle classes perform, and then retired to a nearby bar to celebrate with milk, chalk drawing, and tree-climbing.
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For the Ascension Day long weekend, we decided to visit the tiny country of Andorra with our friend John. It had been calling us for quote a while – our closest unvisited country. By European standards, it was a fairly long trip, as we left the house at 7am, caught a train, plane, and bus, and arrived at our hotel around 4pm. At Brussels airport Hayden went through security by himself, putting his bag and LeapPad on the conveyor belt, walking through the metal detector, and picking up his items at the other end. We also had a photo taken at the Disney promotional display. The photographer had obviously never taken photos of children before. He tried to take away the traffic cones that Hayden loved, and then tried to put a hat on Hayden, saying “perhaps your daughter wants to be a stewardess?”. We ended up with this photo:
The plane ride was very easy – thank-you Vueling for permitting electronic items to be operated during take-off and landing. I’m not sure if I prefer being able to choose from a menu of reasonably-priced food, or having a set meal delivered to my seat like a gift, but I did enjoy my Cuina Justa Catania pasta salad and Hayden ate up all his Nakis rice crackers.
We landed in Barcelona and met up with Hayden’s parrain JT, fresh from Montenegro. The Novatel shuttle bus was small but uncrowded, and Hayden slept for most of the three hour trip. Once we were in the capital Andorra La Vella, we quickly found our hotel. It was basic but nice, though I never had the chance to use the bath. Hayden slept in a normal bed for the first time. We put pillows around the edges and he didn’t fall out either night.
Andorra La Vella was filled with shoppers and shops. Coming from Belgium, it was refreshing to see so many places open in the evenings, Sundays, and public holidays. I picked up some more lipgloss and eyelash gel from the Body Shop. The woman asked me how long I was in Andorra, and I told her that we were only here for two nights. She told me that was plenty of time to see the country, and recommended that we have a picnic in one of the national parks.
We had been very lazy when preparing for this trip, booking nothing more than the transport and the hotel. While enjoying some cheap sangria and free WiFi on Friday night we discovered that every Saturday a “Touristic Andorra” bus does a full day tour of the major historic and natural sights of the country for only €35 per person, including lunch. We were able to book through our hotel, and grabbed the last four seats on the bus.
Our first stop was the village of La Cortinada, set by a lovely stream and lush green tobacco fields. Hayden decided he didn’t like the church, so he and Adrian spent the stop running along the top of the low stone walls and jumping down onto the grass. We then soaked up the sunshine at a nearby cafe, drinking milk or coffee or tea or Coke Light.
My favourite stop was the Sorteny Nature Park. Hayden loved it too. He loved climbing over the boulders that were found along the trail. “Hayden climbs the rock. Mummy is too big to climb the rock”.
Adrian took him to find even more exciting rocks, while I sat on a rock next to the babbling stream, watched it flow over the moss and past the wildflowers, and listened to my thoughts.
Our next stop was La Coma d’Arcalís at an altitude of 2,300 metres. The sign near the Vallnord chairlift offered to take us to the highest cafe in Andorra. Hayden had never been on a chairlift before, but with Adrian holding onto him tightly I knew that he would be safe. Even though it was 25 degrees in Barcelona, up on this chairlift it felt close to zero. It was scary, cold, and beautiful.
The only sounds were occasional bells around the necks of the shivering sheep grazing on the alpine hills. After a long 15 minutes we reached the Creussans Pass, (an altitude of 2,643 meters), jumped off, and started to look for the cafe for a much-anticipated hot chocolate. We were then informed that the cafe we had seen advertised was actually located back at the foot of the chairlift. We hopped back on quickly, and huddled together in the freezing majesty of the Andorran, French and Spanish Pyrenees mountains.
Once back in the glorious warmth of the restaurant, we had a few hot drinks and then an extremely slow three hour Spanish-style barbecue lunch. Hayden and Adrian passed the time by making a macaronisaurus.
After lunch we stopped in the village of Llorts, which was at the heart of the Iron Route in the 17th-century, as well as Ordino and La Massana, before returning to Andorra La Vella.
We took Hayden on the Ferris Wheel (“up up up down down down”), and then had the most amazing fondue at La Casa del Formatge (House of Cheese). Over a jug of sangria, we reminisced about old adventures and postulated new journeys, while swirling our bread in a pot of steaming and delicious melted cheese.
The next morning, we had a quick cafe stop and playground visit, caught our bus back to Barcelona, said goodbye to John, and then a plane and train took us back home to Brussels, smug with the knowledge of another country added to our list.
My Nana was present in my life for over three decades. When I was younger I spent every school holiday in the home of “Nana and Pop”, and it will remain one of the happiest places in my memories. I am writing this eulogy in Belgium, on the opposite side of the globe. How I wish that I could be there in person to say goodbye. Instead, I will send my words to Australia, in a similar way that I sent my letters to Newcastle whenever we were apart.
My Nana taught me a love for literature. Whether she was writing an article for the front page of the newspaper, corresponding on ivory stationery, scoring a triple word score in Scrabble, or solving a tough cryptic crossword, she was often dancing with letters. She passed this passion for prose on to me from an early age. One of my favourite past-times was to curl up on her orange couch and get lost in one of the many books she had lining her walls. She spent her career as a journalist writing about the facts behind current events, and now I am spending my career as a scientist writing the about the facts of the natural world.
She also taught me so many other things. She taught me how to balance family and work, and the importance of keeping the mind active at all times. She taught me that you don’t have to be a great cook to have a table full of loved ones at dinner time. She taught me that the key to a happy life is to open one’s self up to the beauty of the world, and to realise how lucky we are to experience it.
I inherited my nuclear DNA from both my mother and father equally. However, the DNA inside my cellular power stations, the mitochondria, is solely inherited from my mother. Nana passed her mitochondrial DNA to mum, and she in turn passed it on to me, and I passed them onto Hayden. These instructions for energy in my cells are identical to those of my grandmother.
She was a woman with such great energy. She had mental energy for writing precious letters, solving cryptic crosswords, and surviving as one of the first female war correspondents and political journalists in Australia. She had physical energy for walking to the beach, playing the piano, feeding porridge to the magpies, weaving the beauty of the world, and knitting a beautiful cardigan for her great-grandson.
It gives me great comfort to know that I carry those identical power stations within me as I try to put my energy to as good use as she did for all of her ninety five years.
Above is the last photo of Hayden and Nana, and below is the last photo of myself and Nana. I am so thankful that I had her in my life for so many years.
Last weekend we laid down some white roses in memory of this amazing women, and shared our eulogies. She will be greatly missed.
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