The only way to have a friend is to be one.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
So… let’s return to my journal and our travels. Where were we? Ah yes! Down Under of course. Before I headed off for the next part of my travels which would see us parting in easterly and westerly directions around the globe – me, for nearly a month in the USA, and Judith heading back home, and nearing the end of our enlightening and enriching time in Sydney, we had planned in a few days a little further south, in Melbourne to be precise, and to visit some really great friends whom sadly we rarely see. What a refreshing blessing this turned out to be!
We found ourselves regularly ridiculed for pronouncing the place Mel-boor-ne. How were we to know? Looks like Sittingbourne, Bournemouth, the Bourne Trilogy, yunno. But apparently only a Pom would say it that way. To an Ozzie it’s Mel’bən, which for those of you who don’t understand what an ə means in phonetics, basically, it’s that nondescript excuse-for-a-vowel ‘uh‘ sound you get in so many languages. So for a Brit you pronounce Melbourne like it rhymes assonantly with Selsden. But thankfully that’s where any similarity ends.
Damien (should that be Damiən?) and Claire Renehan (perhaps Renəhan?) – looks so chic with the e inverted don’t you think? – live in a leafy suburb of the city called Kew (pronounced Queue, but you knew that eh? All British readers are currently thinking “How else could you pronounce it?”) with their four hale and healthy children.
This wonderfully warm family are our good friends because way back in the weighty-eighties Claire was in the same class as Judith at University College Hospital, London when they were both Student Nurses. Claire also started attending church with us, Southfields Baptist Church, where we were involved with student ministry and worship in particular. Then eventually a few years later Claire rented a room in a church property where Judith also lived for a while before we were married.
Known initially as the Singles’ House, the typical terraced abode on what is still affectionately called the Grid (distinguishing it from the similarly creatively designed Toast-rack in Wandsworth) was in effect a manse rented out to a few of the growing number of students and singles in the church who needed to find accommodation nearby; the name sort of advertised the fact that the occupants were somehow unattached (although Judith was actually engaged to me at the time!) Fortuitously very soon the property became nick-named Clonmore after the street it was situated in, to the relief of all its occupants who preferred not to advertise their potential conjugal prospects.
We had many laughs and adventures at Clonmore! I used to drop in regularly to get a decent meal; I was based in college halls of residence just down the road where the concept of edible let alone haute cuisine was foreign to the catering staff, most of whom were also foreign, but sadly not from nations like France or Italy, which might have helped matters. I think their culinary training was undertaken mainly in Siberia or Nazi Germany perhaps.
So a once-a-week meal at Clonmore was well worthwhile enduring the dinner conversation. By that I mean to say that you needed a fairly ferric constitution around the dinner table as Claire and Judith and often several other nurses were present, whose table talk would naturally and frequently wander into detailed descriptions of some surgical venous thrombectomy, gangrenous ulcer, frontal lobotomy, or at the very least some over-sized piles or oozing pussy wounds they had observed that day. Hunger can embolden and reinforce the queasiest stomach, and so I learned amazingly to accommodate this inappropriate meal time banter as if it were Wagner played as background music while I dined in Tel Aviv. Thus years later, I was the only one who managed to continue eating my spaghetti bolognese whilst we watched the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan.
Claire became Judith’s best friend and so when we were married in the August of 1986 it was a given that she should be Chief Bridesmaid. A few years later Claire met an Australian hunk of a nurse (midwife to be precise!), Damien, who would soon become her husband and entice her away to the Southern Hemisphere where they could continue to nurse together, surf, get a decent tan, and produce four offspring in their spare time. They had visited us once in Guernsey many moons ago, so this was our chance to reciprocate, and we did so with great pleasure!
Flying down from Sydney to Melbourne you are conscious of just how huge a place Australia is. On the in-flight map it looked like we could have strolled there if we hadn’t been so lazy, but then you notice how long it takes to fly (about 1hr 25 minutes) and what distance the small line of travel city-to-city in the south-eastern tip of the country actually represents (440 miles) i.e. about the same distance as London to Geneva, but that passes over 3 or 4 countries, and looks quite some distance on a European map, whereas in the would-be-island continent of Australia it hardly makes an impression.
We were only with the Renehans for a few days, but they wined us and dined us and made us feel like we’d spent a month there packing things in. They also made us feel so very much at home which turned out to be just what we needed having been extrapetra¹ for so long now. Their children are a real credit to them and were so warm and welcoming to us also; it’s not at all easy for kids to hit it off and be all jovial and chummy with their parents’ friends right from the word go – we’ve known many who are just plain awkward with strangers – but we found the reverse to be the case chez Renehan! Maybe it’s Damien’s family’s Irish Catholic camaraderie winning through, maybe they’ve just trained their children to be so super-kind and hospitable, maybe it’s a bit of both, but whatever it is we were pleased to experience it and sad to have to leave.
The Roman Catholic community here seems remarkably charismatic. It is also very youth-focused; we heard much about the 2008 World Youth Day events (lasting 14 days in fact) which whilst a Catholic initiative, based in Sydney, but was so huge (we’re talking hundreds of thousands of people) and encompassed other cities like Melbourne, and engaged other churches and leaders from protestant and evangelical traditions, in massive city-wide activities of witness, worship and mission. Young people and youth leaders from all over the world travelled to Australia to be part of it, many hosted by families, like the Renehans, who in turn were clearly spiritually and emotionally moved and enthused by the fellowship and momentum this all engendered. Bible study, public witness, testimony, prayer, drama, music, creative arts, acts of kindness and mercy were all encouraged and promoted during the two weeks of events, and it seemed to have had a lasting effect on the community. It was the largest public event Australia has ever seen.
Whilst we were there Damien showed me the magnificent school he attended as a boy, with spectacular views over the city, Claire took Judith and me shopping downtown, on a wonderful English-style tram-ride, lunch by the river, cup-cakes in the lanes, walks in the woods, we played games with their kids, helped with homework, read stories, laughed and joked so much, both Damien and Claire cooked us incredibly delicious meals, and most ineluctably Damien showed us the house (quite nearby) where Kylie was brought up. No idea why we should be so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky.
We also visited Claire’s dear parents who have now retired nearby having lived in Australia before, but when we first knew Claire were for the most part based in Petts Wood, Kent. That was where we last had afternoon tea with them so many years ago. Whilst having aged like the rest of us Mr & Mrs Archibald were yet as warmly affectionate and indulgent as ever, in the most proper, English way. So we reminisced and laughed and enjoyed an elegant sufficiency of afternoon tea including cucumber sandwiches and real china cups until we had lamentably to beg their leave, down the last dregs of Darjeeling and depart.
The capacity of our digestive systems notwithstanding, we managed to acquire an extra few pounds in Australia, and it wasn’t surprising really. With all our hosts’ generous gastronomic provisions coupled with the many decently priced restaurants and cafés we frequented the ensuing results meant that I unfortunately managed to blend in more with the general American street scene when I arrived in San Francisco a week or so later. Up until this point the USA had been for me “sweet land of liberty from feeling bad about my size and weight”.
Australia however did generally manage to be generous with its food without being over-saccharine, adding cinnamon and super-sizing everything. Mind you, having said that, it was in Melbourne that we succumbed to the inevitable cup-cake bonanza phenomenon that had hit hard here as much as the rest of the world. In one cup-cake emporium Claire led us to, which boasted in the width of its gamut of choice, it was possible to procure such a plethora of the said confection that I was frankly tempted to ask for a “Marmite & Port Boysenberry Caramel Mallow Skinny Frappe Cup-cake hold the Jimmies² please” just to test them out some. At length I settled for a plain and simple “Lemon & Raspberry Double White Chocolate Chip” variety, but was stunned when the assistant responded with “What size would you like that in?”
For a moment I wondered whether the correct reply might be? What is the correct nomenclature for cup-cake sizes? Venti… Grande… Lungo… or even 36D perhaps? I plumped for “regular” which is, I often hope, in such culturally embarrassing situations, a universal metaphor for medium. And so I enjoyed my huge ordinary cup-cake filled internally and externally with all kinds of sweet somethings.
Our world-wind tour of all thing Mel’bən was drawing to a close; soon we’d be flying back to Sydney for a few days, just the two of us, near the beautiful Coogee beach, to review, relax and take in a little more of Sydney before we went our separate ways – Judith back home to help Grace move to London for her first year at Uni, and I, eastwards, but then suddenly extreme west (crossing the International Date Line) as I flew across the Pacific to the USA.
One thing was for certain, we were really glad to have planned in a visit to Melbourne and the Renehan family.
___________ ¹extrapetra = ‘absent de l’isle’ as we’d say in the States of Guernsey; lit. off the rock (Latin of course, silly)
²jimmies = hundreds & thousands or nonpareils for the Brits and Yanks who don’t understand