Tuesday, January 14, 2014

El marcapáginas

La Rambla or Las Ramblas? You’ll see both written. La Rambla is español, Las Ramblas catalan. Anyway, if you take a detour off Barcelona’s famous street La Rambla down Caller d'Elisabets (Elizabeth Street), a narrow commercial passageway, you'll find the bookshop La Central. It specialises in the humanities, el ámbito de las Humanidades, but with some 40% of its stock made of international (foreign-language, I suppose) stuff, this shop is catnip to language dilettantes like me. Oozing erudition - not me, the bookshop - but disarmingly having plenty of comic novels at the same time, this is a sprawling, creaky, multinooked emporium that I managed to get away from lightly, given its riches, with only one book bought.

I had tarried awhile at the Roberto Bolaño section, coveting '2666' in the original Spanish, naturally. This is a book which, in English, I got halfway through once but whose whimsical 20-page digression on Florita Almada, the seer, somewhere around the midpoint slowed me enough to lose the momentum required to complete it, this stillborn book which was never meant to be, and I never recovered. I say stillborn because of course when Bolaño died his executors put together 5 more-or-less separate novels into one and called it ‘2666’. My copy still has the bookmark in it, witness to my labours, the high-water mark of my progress. Paradoxically, I feel ready for it now in Spanish. I’m stronger now. It's time to take the bookmark, el marcador, out. Still, I held off. '2666' is not something you want to be carrying around on holidays. It would be a brilliant joke if the enigmatic title turned out to be the weight in grams that Bolaño stipulated that all copies should weigh. Well, mine only weighs 725 grams (minus bookmark). Still not something you want to be schlepping around, almost a kilogram of words.

Marcapáginas
Sweet Jesus in Heaven, look at those 'r's.

At the counter paying for ‘Los enamoramientos’ by Javier Marías (300 grams), the woman serving me stashed a La Central bookmark in the bag as seems to have become the custom in bookshops nowadays. This reminded me of something we had talked about - the word for bookmark - in the Tertulia Español, the weekly Spanish-language get-together I've been having with some friends in Brisbane for the last 3 years. The hispanohablantes (una Columbiana, dos Mexicanos) couldn't agree on the best word for this most simple of artefacts, settling on 'marcador'. Here was a golden opportunity to ask a Spanish-speaking book-handling professional.

In a cultured, flowing hand that made me think she mustn't have a mobile phone, she patiently wrote out the words for bookmark as she knew them: marcapáginas (her recommendation), punto de libro, punto de lectura. She graciously accepted marcador but I could tell she was compromising her values. To be honest, marcador just sounds like it's the equivalent of 'marker'. I don't feel I can go back to it now, not since finding out about marcapáginas.

Bookmarks matter. Words matter. Which means the words for bookmarks really matter. And since the web relies heavily on the metaphor of pages, books, and hence bookmarks, this is a word I can use in that context too, with newfound satisfaction, rather than favorito or marcador. So thank you, gràcies, and gracias, young woman who served me in La Central. I'm not going to commit to an encomium I can't justify and say it's the best bookshop in Barcelona or anything like that. It probably is, who knows. It was simply the best one I came across.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Around Kyogle, New South Wales

The idea was to get away to the country after Christmas. Not simply because we both worked in the city, but also because, let’s face it, a big fat Greek family Christmas is something you need to recover from. Whereabouts exactly in the country didn't matter as much as that it was somewhere a few hours' driving distance south of Brisbane. Tina found somewhere near Kyogle, NSW, on stayz.com.au, a modest holiday house on the site of an old milk bailing shed on a farm property called Pine Eden Bails. We set off two days after Christmas.

You get to Kyogle from Brisbane via the famous Lions road. In a piece of virtuoso engineering somewhat overshadowed by events elsewhere, this meandering passage over the McPherson Range was built by the Lions clubs of Kyogle and Beaudesert, the towns it connects either side of the Queensland-New South Wales border, in the year of the first moon landing. At the top, having contributed a gold coin to the upkeep of the road, you can see the ingenious spiral loop railway line, which I have to admit I didn’t get until I sat down at sunset with a glass of wine at the Bails, flicking through the Kyogle brochures supplied for visitors like us.

There is a restaurant on the NSW side of the Lions road by the way, Ripples on the Creek, which despite its evocative name I wouldn't recommend. Three years ago we took a Sunday drive through the road only to get a very average Sunday lunch here, so this time we kept going until we reached our destination. I must say, if you like driving over narrow, rivet-stamped, rickety old bridges, you’ll enjoy the Lions road.


Dawn from our place

The Gateway to the Rainforests

As is my wont, as soon as we stopped at Kyogle I took a stroll around town to check out the bookshop/newsagent situation. No bookshop, one newsagent. Of course most country towns have no great need for a bookshop, but scouring around for one is a good excuse for a reconnoiter, and when I do strike gold I feel like a Ballarat fossicker must have felt. Canungra, for example, is a smallish and unpromising town (in the bookshop sense) but actually has a nice second-hand place. Maleny, on the way to the Sunshine Coast, excels in this department, and is worth the 90-minute drive from Brisbane just to browse its books.

In the Kyogle Golden Casket newsagent I experienced the mild alienation of seeing a lot of farming, fishing, and tractor material as I looked for chappish fare like The Economist. Fine, I’m in rural New South Wales. It was the boar-hunting literature on sale that really made me realise just what a different place I was in, a mere two and a half hours down the road from terra suburbia. But that’s what I’m here for, vive la différence, carry on.

Indeed, one of the great pleasures of a country break is to have your kids see animals they wouldn't get to see and touch in the big city. And I’m not so jaded myself that I don’t enjoy the warm breath of a well-behaved horse in my own palm every now and then. So when we checked in at Pine Eden Bails we were charmed by Pippa the piglet who followed us around like a hoover. Being followed around by a piglet is nice. I started feeling like the old guy in Babe; I felt wiser, more connected to the land. But where there be piglets and ponies there also be demons. "Watch out for the brown snakes. There was one on the driveway this morning", we were informed.

We were staying about 20 minutes from Kyogle, whose name comes from the (Aboriginal) Bundjalung word Kayogle, originally spelt Kaiou-gal, which means 'plains turkey's egg', all of which reminded me of Ireland for the roundabout reason that over there half of the place names are just crude anglicisations of the original (Irish) names too. Interesting to find out that things were the same here.

Given that the town labels itself the "Gateway to the Rainforests" we decided to take a drive pne afternoon to the Border Ranges National Park, the main path of which I advise you not to ascend in a 15-year old Nissan Pulsar with 4 people in it. After 40 minutes of a rough gravel route, we spared the car by getting out at the first picnic area we found and walked through a cool, temperate 'Gondwana' rainforest of ancient Antarctic beech. These trees are seriously old, two-thousand years old. And I thought the 500-year old Ionian olive trees I used to cycle around were impressive.

That's something I found myself doing, now I was in the country: staring at trees. There was a largish specimen - don’t expect me to know one tree from another - 20 metres from our porch which pulsed every thirty seconds or so at sunset with a deafening cicada racket. I had read that that noise can damage your ears, and in fact I could feel the air violently forming eddies around my head. Sure, we have a Poinciana tree in our own garden which hosts a bunch of cicadas, but this was much noisier. This was country noisy. Personal experience has disabused me of any expectation of tranquility in the country. The countryside has different noises to the suburbs, but is really no quieter. And so, enjoying the call of the cows in the middle distance, and the shrill cicada song all around us, we watched the sun retire over the New South Wales hills, as we drank out on the back porch like a couple of old timers, reading promotional literature about the Northern Rivers area.



An unexpected visitor

At 2am I woke up to go to the toilet. Sleepily lifting the lid, I jumped back in shock. There was a frog in there. At water level, just looking out at me. A green tree frog, as I later found out. Why was that? I couldn’t fathom it: where the hell had he come from? Was he as discommoded as I was at the situation, or was this routine for him? More to the point, was he likely to jump out at any second? I moved closer to assess the situation, but found him inscrutable. Cursing my lack of bush craft, I realised I didn’t know what the accepted protocol was for removing frogs from toilets. Bernard O’Reilly would know what to do. He would likely frog-whisper it back from whence it came. So in the event I did what any Irishman would do: I consulted an Australian. My wife, the Australian. She’d know what to do.

She no more knew what to do than I did. In fact her reaction indicated that in the matter of removing a sewerage-borne amphibian from a toilet I was on my own. Only about three-quarters awake, and with a fast growing need to urinate, I manfully wrangled the frog into a laundry basket with the toilet brush, stuck him outside, went about my business, and went back to bed. He was back the next night.

The woman who owned the place had only recently come into possession of it. Tippy grew up on 'real' farms out west, and who any time I glanced up from my reading my book out on the porch seemed to be marching busily around the grounds with a Pippa in tow. Speaking to her at the swimming pool, which with two young boys we handsomely exploited, we found out that she felt somewhat overwhelmed.

Her husband, an Aussie of Irish descent, worked in private security in Afghanistan, two months on, one month off. Unlike me he has a nice identifiable Irish name, Brendan O’Laverty, which made me green, naturally, with envy. I thought about this country’s association with that ancient faraway place, Afghanistan. He was the second person we had (almost) come into contact with who spent time professionally in Afghanistan, one of our kids’ Ninjutsu teachers being the other. I imagined Afghanistan as a mountain casting a large shadow over Australia, as fanciful as that sounds, and that many people were in that shadow, including our hostess. For the time being, Tippy was left alone here to manage things on her own.

A pint in Nimbin

Nimbin is a town with a reputation bigger than its size, and we made sure to fit it in before we left. Not being part of the whole dropout, stoner culture, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Actually, I was sure what to expect, but my expectations were only half correct. For a start, unusually for a small town in NSW, you hear foreign voices there. I swear I heard French and German phrases as I struggled through the crowded main drag in the heat. I also saw Asian tourists (is there anywhere Asian tourists don’t go?) It’s a small town, but it does have its own museum. A hemp museum. In an unusual ticketing arrangement, you can get in by donating a gold coin to the woman outside, which you can also use to buy a second-hand book from her stall. So, if you take a book, the museum is free. I got a Spiderman book but didn’t go in, even though the guy outside talking to the woman bade me enter, and gave me a “free smile” by pulling a face, which did in fact make me laugh. No, I had to get back to Tina and the kids, ensconced in the Nimbin Hotel, the only place we could get seats. We found Nimbin interesting and cheerily subversive. "Would you rather I was a legal drunk?" asked one shop window. They just need to get that translated into Latin and they’d have a town motto.

Mount Warning, NSW
Mount Warning

Back at the house, an impressive trail of ants up and down walls had sniffed out our tub of Greek kolourakia (biscuits), carelessly left out on the counter. A plague of tiny flies would descend on our bathroom and bedroom later that night, and I was psyching myself up for round 3 with Mr. Frog. A mini-heatwave was about to descend, which explained the abundance of insect life, and we were dreading the next day, a Sunday, which we thought we’d struggle to fill. In the end, we decided to return home on the Sunday morning, a full day early, a little bit beaten by the wildlife, and we were both ok with that.

Don’t be too respectful of sunk costs is good travel advice, and I was happy with what we’d seen, reckoning that we had over-booked by one day. In any case, the Byron hinterland is somewhere we regularly get back to, so we’ll be visiting again soon. The weather in the middle of Summer is always a bit of a gamble, as we found out, but the scenery around Nimbin, around the south end of the Scenic Rim, never is.