Tradition

I’ve been thinking about traditions. It began on Instagram a few of weeks ago, when French bakery Agathé Pâtisserie announced that they’d be making galette des rois, or King Cake, to order over the weekend following Epiphany (January 6th). Every single piece of this information would have been disastrously meaningless to me if I hadn’t, one year before, read David Lebovitz’s blog post on the very topic – alas, I was enlightened to the French tradition, and so found myself throwing my very first King Cake party this year.

It was marvellous.

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From the moment I read Lebovitz’s blog post I was enamoured by the idea of the galette des rois tradition: it involved a group of friends, the most heavenly looking, pastry-laden cake, and the competitive thrill of finding the year’s lucky porcelain trinket baked into one’s given piece. I’m not quite sure there could be an existing tradition that is more up my alley.

The galette des rois – layer upon layer of golden pastry filled with frangipane – procured from Agathé was beyond sensational and that alone is really enough to cement its position as an institution worth repeating. What I also love about the King Cake, though, is that it demands tradition in itself: whoever happens upon the little porcelain trinket (in our case this year, a tiny character with an ice-cream cone for a head that was equal parts cute and creepy) is not only crowned ‘king’, but takes on the responsibility of providing the cake for next year’s party. Luckily, our ‘king’ was more than happy with this arrangement, to the point whereby he scheduled a calendar reminder for 2017 right then and there. 

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It’s a comforting feeling to know that, despite the general uncertainty of the year laid out before us, we can be certain that next January 6th or thereabouts we’ll be sitting down to another night of fabulous company, French rosé and galette des rois. And I think that is why I’ve been preoccupied by the concept of tradition since our King Cake party: as the architect of a new tradition, I’m starting to understand that these rituals have the power to provoke a special kind of magic. They spark certainty – that ever-coveted human desire – that this sense of belonging and connectedness and joy will happen again. 

For a long time we simply take part in the traditions that have been laid out long before us, or at least long before we are old enough to truly realise why they hold such power. It’s only at this point in my adult life – somewhere after the lapse or natural end of many childhood traditions, and the eventual emergence of new ones that seem to have organically sprouted up in their place – that I feel the the significance of curating those experiences, of caring for them in their infancy so that they grow up to stand the test of time. I feel it keenly right now – that all it would take is perhaps one missed year and that fragile little thing might crumble away and die. But then on the contrary, that if I force it too much such things are wont to crack under pressure and meet the same sad end. A tradition is a beautiful, delicate survivor of those harsh elements. 

And so here, in the deliciously warm afterglow of a flaky, buttery cake that calls to be re-conjured in so many ways, I suppose I simply find myself feeling a little sentimental. I’m thankful and inspired. I feel sentimental for beloved traditions past – my Nana’s huge, ginger fluff sponge cakes every birthday, or the mad scramble of the biggest Kris Kringle you’ve ever seen at Grandma and Grandpa’s at Christmastime – and simultaneously for those just beginning, or have yet to even be imagined. 

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Books and Baking: The Obernewtyn Chronicles, by Isobelle Carmody

For the past month I’ve been completely and utterly lost to the world of Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles. I’ve cared not for watching television, scrolling through my Instagram feed nor even writing. I rue the time spent working and cooking and sleeping, when ever more pages wait to be devoured. This is not the first time that this has happened. Indeed, this all began – as did for most Obernewtyn fans – many good years ago.

I was fourteen when I read the first four books of the Obernewtyn Chronicles. Those battered, clear-contacted copies from my school library were my portal into Carmody’s world and I was wholeheartedly captivated. Elspeth Gordie was my hero and I clung to her story passionately. As I navigated high school, she navigated a world largely destroyed centuries past by nuclear holocaust, whilst grappling with her psychic powers and the ultimate quest laid out before her.  Little Wanderings - The Obernewtyn Chronicles, by Isobelle Carmody 2

As my high school years wore on, though, I slowly began to accept that those four books might be all I’d ever see into Elspeth’s story. Book Four, The Keeping Place, had been published in 1999 and I couldn’t find any clue to suggest that Ms. Carmody would actually even write the final book. Years later – it was 2008, I was in my final year of university and strolling through a shopping centre with one of my first share-house mates – when a familiar name struck me from a bookstore display. A shelf was filled top to bottom with the purple and turquoise tones of The Stone Key, a thousand-page tome and, to my shock and delight, the fifth book in Elspeth’s saga. It was not quite the end, but finally – it was more

Wizened to the fact that Isobelle had not, after all, abandoned Elspeth and her story, I kept a keen eye out for stirrings of the final book release. True to style, that did not happen for another four years – but this time I was ready. I was thrilled to even attend a release event here in Melbourne, where I saw Isobelle speak for the first time, and made a bumbling fool of myself at the front of the book-signing line not for the last time. As it turned out, The Sending was also not quite the end. There was still one more to go.

This brings us to my current Obernewtyn delvings.

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I’m currently bare chapters away from finishing The Sending. This is The Last Great Re-Read I’ll ever do in anticipation of a new Obernewtyn Chronicles book, and I’m feeling hyper-emotional. In fact, I have been feeling hyper-emotional right from the beginning, when I cracked open my worn and weathered copy of the first book – the title page threatening to fall out, but safeguarding Isobelle’s scrawl: “Welcome to my world!” I actually puzzled over that inscription when she signed my copy at a library event earlier this year. “Welcome?” I thought, almost indignantly. “Isobelle, I’ve been in your world for thirteen years!” 

When I sat down to begin this Last Great Re-Read, though, that ‘welcome’ resounded so strongly that I had a shed a couple of tears. This was it. 

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As I powered through the series this month, I also managed to convince my book club to read Book One along with me – and let me tell you, it’s been wonderful to share this story with my friends. A little scary, but wonderful. There was a moment a couple of weekends ago whilst staying with a friend at her beach house in Lorne, when I peered up from The Keeping Place to see all four visitors had their noses deep somewhere in one of the Obernewtyn books. It was a very good feeling! Mat was one of these people, which I am particularly delighted about. He’s quickly making his way through the whole series and now refers to ‘Izzy’ as though she’s one of our everyday acquaintances. 

I obviously made a terrible, terrible miscalculation in how long it would take me to re-read the series, and The Red Queen remains woefully uncracked (okay, I may have taken a quick peek or two) more than two weeks after it was released this November. I did make it along to the release event though, and was once again enraptured by this remarkable woman; Isobelle is such a generous and inspiring speaker and I count my lucky stars to be in a position to see her talk about her books and writing in person. I’ve seen her speak at several events now, and always leave feeling so full of inspiration that it’s near bursting out of my eyeballs. I also continue to have nothing particularly coherent to say to Isobelle at the front of every book-signing line, which is definitely something I need to work on. She is going to start getting suspicious of the girl who keeps turning up and simply smiling so wide that she looks nearer a great white shark than a humbled fan.

It’s at this point of the blog post that I should start talking about the baked good that these books have inspired, but I’m afraid that, as I mentioned before, I just don’t care to make time for that sort of thing right now. At most, I’ve brewed a pot of choca (okay, Mörk’s 70% Original Dark Hot Chocolate) to sip whilst I settle in to devour the last pages of The Sending, and perhaps even make a start on The Red Queen

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It’s so hard to believe that this is all going to be over very soon. I’m excited and a little sad. Isobelle scribed on the title page of The Red Queen: “Welcome to the end!“, and the gravity of those words is just huge to me. Thank you, Isobelle, for welcoming us into this world and Elspeth’s story. Thank you so much. 

See you on the other side.

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Travel and Loneliness

On the final night of our trip to Europe last year, Mat and I treated ourselves to dinner at an exquisite little place in Amsterdam called Restaurant Johannes. This visit was the product of some brief TripAdvisor research, an easy online booking form (always welcome in foreign countries) and the financial freedom of having come in well under budget at the close of the trip. The experience was perfect. I’m now convinced that there is no better way to spend the last evening of a great adventure than over a delicious tasting menu and many glasses of good wine. In fact, I am now determined to make a tradition of it.

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I realise now that I’ve not been particularly good at ending trips before this. On my first overseas venture, to New Zealand – a great big group of College friends on the back of a great big Jetstar sale – I wasted the last couple of days in a right sour funk. Most all of my friends had dispersed: one half of the group had long since split off northward, whilst the rest of us made ourselves cosy in Queenstown. But even by the end, most of the Queenstown crew had either caught their early flights home or begun the drive back to Christchurch to drop off their Wicked Van in time for the main return flight (in true College kid form, we’d arranged ourselves in quite a hodge-podge of comings and goings). The trip had been amazing. Spending two more days in Queenstown after that big group bubble popped, though, and I suddenly felt such a strong pang of desertion that I really quite ruined my remaining time there. I was that child who turns bitter and gloomy after a friend has been taken home by a parent the morning after a sleepover. 

A year later, my cousin and I finished off an incredible South-East Asia trip with five ‘relaxing’ days in Phuket – or perhaps, more pertinently, in the beach resort town of Patong. It didn’t take very long for me to realise that Patong is so stupendously not my kind of place. This place was a stark contrast to the low-key, local travel we’d been doing for four weeks straight with our wonderful little Intrepid Travel group. I wanted that back. I wanted out. But get out I could not, and so I counted down those five days like a captive waiting release from a veritable tourist trap. Couple that with an unprecedented case of excruciating acid reflux that lasted the entire Phuket stay, and it became an altogether pretty miserable way to cap off the trip. 

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It goes on. After two months of travelling Europe for the first time, the sheer emotional exhaustion of solo travel finally got to me. I cut the trip short by a few weeks (though not quite short enough that I wasn’t counting down the days before I could just go home already). I did another month solo in Central America a couple of years later, and almost got it right by meeting up with friends in Anaheim for a YouTube convention and a trip to Disneyland afterward. I had one more long, solo day just waiting around the hotel lobby and LAX to finish with, though, and it felt like torture. Plus, I was pining hard for a guy who hadn’t exactly given me high hopes for the continuation of a budding relationship when I returned.

Lucky for me, that particular bit all turned out in the end. And this brings us back to Amsterdam and an exquisite little place called Restaurant Johannes. 

I think of that night in Amsterdam and my heart lifts with blazing joy. Tucked away off a canal at the foot of The 9 Streets district, Restaurant Johannes was intimate and welcoming, and an absolute delight on a bright, balmy August evening. Mat and I were at the end of a six-week trip and exhausted in the best possible way; Johannes’ wonderful staff took in our tired little bodies and looked after us so well. We surrendered easily to the delicious seven-course menu with wine matching and all the marvellous little surprises in between. It was kind of magical. I wasn’t counting down the hours until I boarded my flight the next day. I was present and content and relaxed. This was how it was meant to feel. This was finally the perfect ending I didn’t even realise I’d been missing out on.

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And of course, as it’s become plainly obvious to me in writing this (I swear it wasn’t the way I saw this post going), it was never really about the food. Sure, a fine dining degustation with full wine matching helps. A lot. But I understand now that the feeling that had plagued me at the conclusion of every trip previous is one that is pretty hard to admit: loneliness. By some way or another, it was loneliness that was my downfall. Loneliness! I know myself extraordinarily able to thrive on my own, so it feels like loneliness should be at odds with my travel style. The Solo Female Traveller is meant to wend her way through the world, fierce and fearless and independent. She gets lonely? She just goes out and makes a bunch of new friends!

But perhaps, not quite.

My love of travel has always trumped my fear of loneliness, and I think it always will. And all things considered, it’s certainly never come close to ruining a trip. Sometimes the lonely path is the only way to get out there and see the world. It’s just those damn pesky endings where it really grabs you, I suppose. The profound thing about that Amsterdam evening was the fact that it was shared – and so had the preceding six weeks of adventure across Europe – with a person who trumped even my desire for travel. And what an incredible feeling that is. 

That is the tradition I want to make. 

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