Notes from Santorini.

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Some say horsemen, some say warriors,

Some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest

Vision in this dark world, but I say it’s

What you love.

sappho

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Photo on 1-09-13 at 11.13 AM:

gazing down at the shining ocean surrounding Santorini Island, or walking through over-peopled Fira,  in between bouts of furious work, thoughts drift through my mind like untethered boats.

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they do not drop anchor, displacing the muse. They are not visitors from Porlock to break the dreaming threads unraveling out of me.

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no.

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they pass through me. I feel no need to make sense of them, though some float into the current of creation, are drawn in and consumed. I am in that waking dream state most condusive to writing.

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i am on the story road.

the dreamtrails.

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i hear a snatch of words, see a pose struck, a hat fly, a guide point, a feather float down, a plastic bag rise and turn itself inside out. I see all of the brides and the flowers and that brown faced dapper celebrant who always wears his immaculate cream suit over strangely brightly coloured shirts; blue or emerald green or egg yolk yellow.

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so many weddings pass me by. Was it always like this?  I don’t remember so many in other years. Somedays five or six wedding processions pass down and then up the steps past my terrace in a single day.

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the celebrant’s shirts make me think of Las Vegas preacher. And isn’t there something of Las Vegas in  this parade of brides and grooms, for all the whiteness and tradition? The white yards of cloth brought to drape the astonishing view from one hotel terrace or another, to frame the happy couplet,the flutter of ribbons matched meticulously to the bridesmaid’s dresses, the flowers and maybe the groom’s bow tie? The gaudy naivety of it all.

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how do they choose the colour with which to accent the dazzling radiant colourlessness of the bride and of Santorini, I wonder vaguely. Is there a book of colors and meanings to match?

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what I love is how I don’t need to know the answers to those drifting questions, or the names of the brides and grooms and their flurry of guests, or the ends of their sentences. I am content to let all  pass by unresolved, going down the endless, timeless steps, past my closed courtyard door, passing out of sight and out of mind.

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what I love is being deliciously, alone, floating in all this hard bright whiteness, this stony colourlessness, this busyness of unknown people, whose movements are as fleetingly mezmerizing and meaningless as the ephemeral patterns made by the wind on the sea.

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i first visited Santorini Island almost a decade ago, having recieved an unexpected invitation from my generous friends Virginia and John Lowe,who were staying there in a villa and found they had an empty guest room. It was an extraordinary thing to be invited to stay in a villa on Greek Island – almost mythical and entirely irresistible  to a woman who grew up in a Housing Commission house, even without the lure of good friendship. It turned out to be incredible ten days. Who knew how much it would come to mean.

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santorini is extraordinarily beautiful despite or maybe because it is such a barren stony island. Its beauty is arid and white as bleached bone – a kind of paradox. It makes me wonder why I don’t love the aridity of the Australian bush. My inability to feel what others feel makes me both defiant and slightly ashamed, as if it arises from some lack in me. And maybe it does.

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i think how I always think of that, here; My inability to love the bush as I love other wild places in the world.

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perhaps it is the ubiquitous eucalyptus growing here, that force me to confront the fact that I do not feel the proper fervent love for the bush I see in other Australians.  Yet I remember how I was shocked to see them, that first visit. How tears sprang to my eyes at the smell of the  leaves. Perhaps though I cannot see the beauty of the bush, I can smell it. Perhaps when I am older, I will see what others see, I tell myself forgivingly, tolerantly. As if it is a taste that can be acquired.  Though I do not think love works like that.

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this is  the last time I will come here. I am less sad about this than I expected to be, maybe because I do not want to waste the time here, in nostalgia- it is too precious.

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besides this place has always made me think of endings.  Inevitable, maybe, since I have always come at the end of the season, when the weather is about to change, when the locals are unwinding, beginning to shuck off their hard-sell carapaces, beginning to think of shutting up and moving on. There are less tourists and most come in from the big liners in a tide that empties out every afternoon, when the ships utter their mournful summons.  The winds gradually blow cooler and the humidity rises to thicken into a mist that rushes over the island all night long in a ghostly tide, leaving a clammy dampness on every surface.

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and staying so long, I see others come and go. I feel like an immortal watching the brief lives of mortals. I can imagine what it would be like to be immortal. The compassion, the pity, the remoteness of it.

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i wrote a story about an immortal here, one year, after being here, and another about a script writer who had trouble with his endings …

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i have a fantastic idea for a story set on Santorini, that has been incubating for several years, about an ending. Soon I will write it, I think.  Not here – I never write stories on Santorini, but they often ripen here and I write them in the aftermath.

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why is it the last time?

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for many reasons. The villa is being sold by the Australian doctors who own it, the wonderful  woman who has managed it for the owners for years, is retiring.  Her husband died here, this time. A sad ending, yet he was ill and in pain.  Last year, I had a phone call telling me of the death of a 16 year old girl, to whom I had been reading the last Obernewtyn draft on Skype, night by night. I had not reached the end when the call came…

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and I am returning to Australia after years of living abroad.

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my daughter, is currently studying the last half of year nine by Distance Education, having completed year nine in Czech and so the final year in her Zakladni Scola. She is back in Prague now, readying herself for change, for our looming, oft delayed return to Australia. She brought her homework to Santorini for the few days she and my partner were here. Ironically, she was studying Australian History in the week she was there. She was fascinated by it, that gumstree stuff, that convict and bushranger stuff I had been force fed, like every other Australian child. Maybe  my inability to love the bush with its whine of flies, its dry, dusty heat, its grey green shadeless shade, is a reaction to that that force feeding of a history presented as important and relevant, and yet which seemed to my teenage self to have nothing at all to do with my life. I was ignorant, of course, but seeing my daughter’s interest in what is to her an exotic history, I can’t help but feel I might have been more engaged, had it been presented to me when I was older, and with less fanatical nationalism.

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i have a daughter, golden,

Beautiful, like a flower –

Sappho

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the villa is perched just below the upper edge of the Island, on the steep sunset side, and overlooks what was once the caldera of an immense Volcano. Legend says its eruption destroyed Atlantis. No one knows if it is true but truth is a different beast in this Land where so many myths were born; a white bull, maybe or a minotaur. In any case, the Cyclades are the remnants of a volcano and the circle they describe is so large that I can hardly imagine how big the volcano was; or how it must have looked like as it exploded. The end of the world, maybe.

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when I get up in the mornings at 7 am, the sea lying so softly between the islands has a nacreous quality, a milkiness that I love so profoundly that is nearly unbearable to look at it. I am glad to retreat from it into my work.

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Photo on 2012-09-14 at 17.58 #2

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i write on the upper terrace until the sun gains hight and heat, then I open out the umbrella and sit beneath in its thin white shade, still writing, squinting to see the screen, occasionally lifting my head to see that one enormous luxury liner has been replaced by another, their movements utterly stealthy.

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later in the morning, guests come out of the accommodations and hotels and breakfast is brought to them on little terraces. They eat, mostly reverently silenced by the view, save for the few who take long calls, loudly, oblivious to the crack they are making in the perfection. Later, some depart and newcomers arrive to take their places.  The ebb and flow of tourists is a constant tide. Their heavy cases are carried up or down on the shoulders of slight, wiry strong Greek porters in pristine white. Santorini sherpa. I hope they tip them well, I always think, though it does not take me long to be running up and down those steep, uneven many flights of steps that evoke such gasps and groans of dismay in newcomers, several times a day.

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the guests go off to sightsee or swim at Kamari or the Red Beach or shop in Oia, where they will stay to look at the sunset from a different angle. Or maybe they take a boat to the dark little volcanic island at the centre of the caldera, with its black pumice path and fumeroles, or swam in the hot springs in one of its little dark bays, or they may go further afield, to Thirassa on the other side of the caldera, to mount its steep steps for lunch in its strangely empty town, where there never seems to be anyone but restaurant staff, one old woman in black with malevolent eyes and a dusty donkey in a stony field.

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the first bride of the day will pass down the steps mid morning. I wonder if they wanted that time for some reason, despite the terrible heat.  Maybe it is cheaper than sunset, or maybe sunset is booked for a hundred years to come.  It is very possible. Today I will see three brides and their bridegrooms. And this cannot be the only place where people marry on Santorini. There must be other white hotels, white terraces, white clad smiling staff to carry food and flowers up and down the steps.

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before the bride, the groom, the guests arrive come the procession of facilitators- the catering people and the flower people and the photographer. The celebrant comes next and I watch to see what color his shirt is, trying to read something into it. Occasionally he wears his single pale shirt, an insipid mauve.  The only non bright shirt he has. I wonder how he chooses which colour to wear.  Or perhaps his wife chooses.  Sometimes he wears the same shirt all day, and other days he changes it between weddings. Is it because of sweating or because he goes home if he can.

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at some point almost all of the couples will come with a photographer or ten, and pose atop the roof of the hotel directly below my terrace. The pictures must be spectacular. How not, with that fairy tale dress, drowned Atlantis as a backdrop. Isn’t that the whole point of marrying here, after all? The photos?

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after that first time on Santorini, I thought how wonderful it would be if, one day I could do for others what had been done for me. If I could rent the villa and invite friends to stay. That, amazingly, is what came to pass and over the years, many friends have stayed with me. I would issue an open invitation to stay a week, and it was first come first served. The first week was always a week with Adelaide and Jan, so I never invited anyone else. Then they returned to Prague, while I stayed on. Usually I contrived to have a full week alone, and then the friends who came to stay would come. I made sure it was understood that I was available for talk and socializing only in the evenings, for a few hours, from sunset onwards, and never late at night, because I would do some more work. They could do anything they liked, so long as they did not demand anything of me during the day, and preferably, they would go out and explore.

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i have a rigid routine and by the time the visitors arrive,  it is set in stone and I am confident that it would hold up against any temptation to play tourist.  That, and the fact that I have seen it all before- Ancient Thira, the black heart of the volcano, the underwater volcanic activity. Each trip, I allow one wonder- this time it was Knossos on Crete…

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mid afternoons, i go for coffee at the little local café in the narrow lane running away along the top of the steps, with its satisfyingly dodgy internet access. (The last thing I want, here, is to be plugged into the world via the internet!) then I go back and work inside the villa, which is very cool and quiet because it is a traditional villa dug into the wall and while capacious, has a distinctly hobbit like charm.

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late in the afternoon, I walk the hot half hour to the bus station on the other side of Fira and journey to one of the beaches to swim.  I am an hour at most- I don’t want to get sun burned. On the way back, for the last few days, there had been a classical music competition  called The Muse. I have been to it every time I have come. The practises, the various heats, the nightly and final prize winning concert are all free and some evenings I go and sit for hours  listening to what must surely be the future of classical music in embryo.

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most evenings, I am back on my terrace to watch the sun set, sipping an icy gin and tonic, then I work on the terrace for a little and inside in the dining room, and finally in bed,  until I fall asleep. Many nights I wake at three am and work for several hours before going back to sleep,

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a note on coming back and back to the same place year after year: Far from being bored by the familiarity, you gradually build up layers of experience and memory. Viewed in this way, the three weeks will not feel like ONLY three weeks, or in the case of Jan and Adelaide, one week. It feels as if we are revisiting all of the moments in the past that made up previous visits: Time is made dense by this means, and as well, this time, it is given a deeper resonance because of the inescapable awareness that a period of our lives is ending.

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some days, most days,  the sun, though extreme, has a soft quality, as if its light is strained through muslin. The air is a silken whisper that grows more insistent as the days pass.  Its patterning of the sequined satin sea grows more complex and enigmatic.

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sometimes the men and women who serve the tourists glance up at me with faint puzzled recognition. I imagine they might know I have been here a long time in Santorini terms. Maybe they remember me from another year. From all the years.

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i am reading my way through a book of translated fragments of work by the poet Sappho . Only one of her poems is intact. I like the brokenness being presented.  The lovely absurdity of two words with a great long gap in between appeals to me. There is so much that might be in the gaps. As with life, what is left unsaid seems to speak more profoundly than what is said.

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i read a line in another book which says ‘I am always lying to myself when I get poetic.’

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was that true of Sappho, I wonder?

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a bride comes on the arm of a father.  They often come like this, with a beaming Greek or Chinese or Japanese or American older men escorting them, identical in their pride in the princess on their arms. All brides are princesses- who said that? They look like Barbie dolls to me. Perfectly beautiful, perfectly made up with perfect hair and floating dresses of white or cream with frills and beads that glint and fluttering ribbons. I do not see any stern modernity, or anything unusual. Marriage Santorini style is very traditional, even without a priest. Why not? There is comfort in tradition. The weather is perfect, always, the view sublime and the photos will nourish you forever.

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today, the umbrella frill snaps and flutters and I am aware it did not do that yesterday or the day before. The weather is hot and beautiful as ever, and yet for the first time,  I sense the change  is coming. Soon the bourganvillia will begin to lose  its vivid frills and they will dry and be swept across the white stone paths, catching a little, sounding like tiny claws.

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i think how I love the snatches of conversation as people toil up and down the steps.

my watch has stopped. Isn’t that funny.

the hard part is going up. Has anyone counted the steps?

i will be there on Tuesday, (this into a phone). Love you.

you will need suntan lotion a hat. All the things you have for the beach.

other phrases in French and Japanese, a smattering of guttural throaty strangely appealing Arabic.

greek: giassou, efkharisto. kalimera, parakalo.

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later, on dusk there is a new thing: free runners plotting a course across the roofs in loud French, American,  Spanish, German and Russian-accented  English,  executing experimental somersaults, back flips, balletic leaps, turns. They gaze at the view unseeing, focused on launch pints and trajectories. Their anarchic beauty, their youth seems a throwback to those Spartans and Athenians of old.

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then i remember vigorous gesticulating Elena, golden-haired and older than she looks, last year lamenting the damage done by spectators of the free running event staged by Red Bull last year. ‘They invaded the roof,  the terraces, the courtyard of the villa, to watch,’ she had said indignantly. ‘They left cigarette butts, graffitti, crushed beer cans. Someone must be there,’ she had said, only I left before the competition. I will be here this year, I think with a sinking heart. They will be here on my last day. I ask a man with a Red Bull T shirt who is part of the offial entourage if someone will remind spectators what is private property. He tells me he can’t tell people what to do, even though, later he and his minions command spectators to allow yet another bridal group to pass over the Red Bull branding stickers that have been pasted everywhere, red as open wounds. I ask who will be responsible for the damage done. I want a name. I want them to know someone is keeping watch. He shrugs. ‘No one is responsible. People can do what they like.’ My heart sinks lower.  This is too much of the world I am trying not to see. That political debacle, those poor refugees..

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at night I hear footsteps on the roof and wonder if the people on the path know my bedroom is underneath. Restless, I sit up and work for a time, then I lay awake, listening to mosquitos, those little vampires, whining in the night. When I swat them in the morning, my blood will be smeared on the wall; shocking evidence of their midnight feasts.

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i think how a black dog, dark as night against all the whiteness, craned its neck to look up at me a few days before, when I walked to Oia. It had no collar and yet it was healthy, muscular and lithe. The animals here seem not to be owned by anyone and only the tourists show sentimentality, croon at them, pat them, take photographs. The cats are narrow, strident, self possessed. They are supermodels.  Books have been written about them, poems.  A thousand photographs have been taken. They know their value against all that still and rigid whiteness, that breathless blue. Occasionally they will grace your porch with their sleep. Or your step, You have to slide them aside to get out of the door.

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i think of the things I saw during the day. The eucalypts with the lower parts of their trunks painted white. The little piles of donkey manure, that smell bad only immediately, briefly. The way you never see birds, though this morning I did – one, winging hard as if a the still silky air is thick as syrup, hard to negotiate.

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later, I am woken by fireworks going off closer than they have ever done before.  I get up to watch and cannot help flinching at the loudness of the explosions as I come outside. I notice that the olive tree has dripped a thick dark ichor onto the flagstones, that makes my feet stick as I climb the steps to the terrace. Then I look up and draw in a breath of wonder and sorrow. The mist flies at last, unravelling endlessly upward.  I have been waiting for it at some level, I realise, since I came.  Its strangeness wakes me from my drifting dreaming with a thrilling chilly touch. I feel the coldness in it, the hint of harder days to come.  The edges and elbows of things.

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san49

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The Moon is down,

Pleiades. Midnight,

The hours flow on,

I lie, alone.

Sappho

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san43

 

 

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it is almost time to leave

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15 Responses

    1. Fernanda says:

      What did you think of Knossos? We found it such an odd attraction; a site that is wholly a reconstruction based on early 20th century ideas of the original.
      Btw you have inspired me to start my own blog.
      Xx

      • I found Knossos quite strange. Part of me was outraged that it had been reconstructed since it was clear the people doing it had only a vague idea of what it was for and how it worked. Jan turned to me after an hour and said, ‘Can I confess that I thought there would be a labyrinth?’ Oh God, there isn’t one?’ I asked, for I had been wondering when we would come to it. ‘I thought there was a labyrinth, too!’ Adelaide said, and we all burst out laughing. Send me a link to the blog when it is up. I’d love to see what you do with the form.

    2. You describe it so well, Isobelle. I will never forget it – and you there as well, which was such a treat. And great that it introduced you to a place that became important.
      Clearly we can never go back again either – oh well. We had the experience once, and it was superb. (We didn’t see any Barbie brides then though!)

    3. Stace Irving says:

      Australian history, as taught in schools, is an orgy of guilt. We are the evil interlopers and should feel bad. It also only goes back 200 years, it is very limited. Even now, studying history at uni, I avoid Australian history like the plague. It can’t compare to the history of Rome, Greece, Sumer, and a hundred others.

      Anyway, Santorini looks incredible, and I am quite jealous! Glad you’ve had a good time.

      • It is interesting Stace, because taught to me, it was not an orgy of guilt but an orgy of Nationalism. There was something limited and one eyed n it that I think I felt back then- like looking at history through a keyhole. But Adelaide seems to be getting a much broader and more integrated vision of that time, with a real sense of the things that happened seen in their time and with perspective. I wish I had learned it like that

    4. Marta says:

      I hope you find some corners in Australia that become as beautiful to you as the white bride-city you describe. I have to admit that the heat and barrenness of the Australian bush and desert is beautiful, in its way, but the yellows and greys and greens are so pale sometimes; so starved of colour. I live in the hills east of Melbourne; not too far from the city, but far enough away that my friends look at me in askance and talk of ‘the sticks’. Dutch flower farmers and foliage collectors predominate in my town, and they’ve made their mark on the landscape. Patches of Aussie bush remain; eucalypts and wattles and towering ferns in the wetter areas, but they’re dotted with cultivated fields. The soil is red, here; rich, moist and volcanic. The ground dips and swells in gentle, and not so gentle, slopes. Up the hill from me you get a good 270 degree view of the reservoir, grey or blue as the mood takes it; paddocks and plantations; bushland; grazing sheep, white and fluffy in the winter coat they’ll soon be dying to shed. There are flowers everywhere: azaleas (have you seen an azalea bush covered in neon pink or red or orange? Like a crazy serve of fairy floss), rhododendrons, camellias – we’ve got solid red, speckled pink, stripy mauve and pale pink ones like roses; all sorts. Tourists are flocking to the annual Tulip Festival – sometimes the procession of cars is as brilliant as the blooms. It soothes me to live here, and I hope wherever you settle, you’ll find similar sights to soothe and nourish you.

    5. Belle says:

      What a lovely photo-essay – descriptive, atmospheric and elegant. It has a beautiful tinge of melancholy about an end and a beginning, not just for you but for the tides of tourists and the locals and the bridal couples and the season. Your confession about not loving the Australian bush is worth exploring. Now that you’re returning to Australia, maybe you can ease this piece into a straight essay & enter it into the Calibre Prize.

      “i am on the story road. the dreamtrails.” Such beautiful writing, Isobelle.

      • Belle thank you. I love the essay form and my wonderful PA sent me the flier for the Calibre Comp a while back. I think you have inspired me to actually enter it! x

    6. Karen says:

      beautiful I am doing the photo essay at the moment thank you for inspiring me a tad more loved how this flowed & your written words for each pic cleverly put together Karenh

      • Hi Karen, thanks so much for your comments. I have been labouring for months over my next post. You inspired me to come back and work on it- after I finish this draft of a book 🙂

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