The Christmas Swap #OMCReadalong with One More Chapter

Very excited to announce that The Christmas Swap has been chosen as One More Chapter’s holiday read-along book from December 8-11.

How can you join in on the fun?

Grab a copy of the book today, mark your calendar, and follow the hashtags and posts on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

There will be an Instagram live event on December 11, as well as quizzes, challenges, sharing of Christmas traditions, reviews, Q&As and much more!

So if you love all things Christmas, sign up or mark your calendar today!

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The Christmas Swap Blurb

Chloe, Jules, and Lucy meet at a Maui resort kids’ club, aged 11, forging a lifelong friendship spanning two decades and three continents.

Twenty-two years later, they decide to swap Christmases, none of them expecting the hilarity and romantic escapades that will ensue.

Chloe from Melbourne spends her Christmas with Lucy’s mum and dad in a sleepy village in Oxfordshire, England, stunned to the core when she discovers who grew up across the road from Lucy.

Lucy, who has jetted off to snowy Colorado for her dream-come-true white Christmas, is taken into the fold of Jules’s loud and brash family, discovering more about herself in a few short days than she has in years.

And Jules leaves the cold climes of Colorado to spend a balmy ‘Orphan’s Christmas’ with Chloe’s friends in Melbourne, finding that time away from her mundane life is just what she needed.

Join these three lovable women as they each get a Christmas to surpass their wildest dreams.

Buy Links

Amazon AU | Amazon UK| Amazon US | Kobo | Dymocks(AU) | Booktopia(AU) | A&R(AU) | Waterstones(UK) | Foyles(UK)

Paperback out now in the UK and coming soon to other countries.

It’s Publication Day for The Christmas Swap

Cover of the book The Christmas Swap. A snowy scene at the top of the cover, with a ski lodge and a man and a woman. On the bottom of the cover is a beach image with bathing boxes and surfboards and a man and a woman sitting together.

So excited that this day is (finally) here! I started writing this book in July 2019 for Camp NaNoWriMo with the goal of writing 30K words in 31 days. I wrote 35K words, then tweaked the manuscript with help from my agent, and we pitched it (with a synopsis) to my publisher, One More Chapter.

They loved it, then it was slotted into my publication schedule and today’s the day when it is out in the world!

To mark the occasion I am sharing my acknowledgements.

Acknowledgements and a note from the author

It’s hard to believe I am writing the acknowledgements for my fourth book, but here I am. I have dedicated this book to my parents―my mum, Lee, my dad, Ray, and my step-mum, Gail. I am extremely fortunate to have parents who not only love me, but champion me and inspire me. They have also instilled in me the importance of family―including the family members we choose―as well as having a sense of adventure and following your dreams.

Family is a prominent theme in this book and as I write these acknowledgements amid the second round of COVID-19 lockdowns here in Melbourne, ‘family’ has become more important to me now than ever. And for me, a person who has lived on three continents, that word encompasses all the people I love, all the people who inspire me, lift me up, confide in me, and ease my path. Thank you, family―wherever you are. Stay safe and we will meet again someday soon.

As always, I am grateful to my two partners-in-writing, my editor, Hannah Todd, and my agent, Lina Langlee. It is wonderful having you in my corner and you are both gifted collaborators. Hannah, thank you for being my champion at One More Chapter and HarperCollins, and for your excellent feedback, which always elevates my writing. I continue to grow as an author under your guidance. Lina, I greatly appreciate your advocacy, your astute guidance, and your ongoing support of my writing career. Ever onwards and upwards―together.

Thank you to my fellow authors for supporting, championing, and inspiring me, particularly my fellow Renegades, Nina, Andie, and Fiona. Our daily catchups sustain me; they are chocolate for my soul. Thank you to Lucy Coleman (Linn B. Halton) whose quote appears on the cover of this book. I hope that one day I will be as prolific and as accomplished as you. Your books are the stuff of dreams. Thank you to all my fellow romance authors who forge and shape this genre, and to the book lovers, bloggers, and reviewers whose passion for romantic fiction lifts us all, especially my friends at UKRomChat, The Reading Corner Book Lounge, and Chick Lit and Prosecco. Thank you to the volunteers at the Romance Novelists Association and Romance Writers of Australia for your tireless efforts to sustain and elevate romantic fiction. And thank you to my fellow Aussie authors at the Australian Writer’s Centre and #AusWrites.

Lastly, dear reader, thank you. Thank you for traveling across three continents with me and enjoying some Christmassy goodness. Christmas is my favourite holiday, and over my lifetime, I’ve spent it in the US, the UK, and Australia―each Christmas special for its distinct traditions and the loved ones I’ve shared it with.

Happy Christmas, happy holidays, and stay safe.

~ Sandy Barker

Read about my inspiration for writing The Christmas Swap

Read more about the book, including where to find it

Catching up with Author Abigail Yardimci

Super excited to welcome Abigail Yardimci to Off the Beaten Track today, especially as she is a fellow travel fiction author, who met the love of her life while travelling – just like I did! And she’s got a publication day coming up next Monday, Sept 21!

Welcome, Abigail!

Abigail Yardimci - author photo

Tell us what inspired you to write Destiny is Yours.

Cover of Destiny is Yours; a beach with two stones and a gentle wave lapping on the shore

Destiny Is Yours is based on a chapter of my own lived experience from 2006. At the beginning of that year, my fiancé and business partner of seven years just decided he didn’t want that life any more. He left with hardly a whisper of warning and I felt like all the rugs had been pulled out from under me. Ultimately, I had to decide if I was going to disappear into a shadow of my former self, or, eventually, pick myself up and open my eyes to the world in a different way.

I chose the latter and part of that involved me jetting off for a whole month to the Western coast of Turkey so I could figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I went with a friend of mine who was also newly single and we both knew we had a lot of soul-searching to do but we also wanted a bit of an adventure. Well, we got it – in bucketloads. And because that month away was so awesome and surprising, I decided it just had to be written down as a story. In fact, I wrote three books based on the whole year, of which Destiny Is Yours is the second – it’s called the Life Is Yours trilogy.

We’re all likely to suffer from heartbreak and lose our way at least once in our lives – whether it’s from the end of a relationship or something completely different – so tales of recovery and renewal are always going to be important . . . especially ones that involve sun, sea, sand and, well, you know!

When did you start writing seriously?

I’ve been writing on and off for a lot of years – probably since I was about six or seven to be honest. I studied Creative Writing at university but got disheartened by the kinds of assignments we were given and went off-track for a while. It wasn’t until I encountered intense heartbreak followed by a slow and steady reawakening to the world in 2006 that I realised I’d forgotten that writing completely fed my soul. So, I guess that’s when I started writing seriously, when I knew I had to write the Life Is Yours trilogy and somehow get it into the hands of a publisher.

It was hard work though – and life threw many a challenge in my way just to make sure that’s really what I wanted. But I kept at it slow and steady and finally, twelve years after putting pen to paper, I found the publishing deal I’d been hoping for.

What do you love most about being an author?

I love that I’m really doing my life’s work here. Even if nobody ever read my stories, I’d feel like I was doing the right thing because writing is who I am. The process of writing is undeniably hard and really eats through my confidence sometimes . . . but I just can’t leave it alone and I know that’s because I’m meant to do it. Recently, I found some type-written stories I’d written when I was seven and I really smiled to myself. Even then I knew what it was I was supposed to be doing.

I also LOVE hearing from readers. It is a heart-soaring kind of feeling when somebody divulges how they’ve identified with a character or been touched by a particular passage. A few people have even used some of the journaling and coaching techniques that my main character, Jess uses in book one, Life Is Yours. That really made me happy that people could pick something out of the book and make it their own to help themselves going forward. Beautiful.

What are you working on now?

Oh, I seem to have so many projects on the go! I’m currently re-editing the final book in the Life Is Yours trilogy. It’s as yet unnamed so I’m racking my brains trying to think up a snappy title that will work with the rest of the series.

After that, I have a very special writing project which will see my main character, Jess, several years later after the original books, about to embark on a month of fasting for Ramadan with her Muslim husband. Again, this will be based on lived experience and I’m excited because there will be humour and hilarity as well as some hard truths, epic learnings and intense emotional connections.

I also write a regular blog post about creative living, mindful parenting and top tips for sneaking more joy into your life, so I’ll be working on that. Plus, I have some top secret writing I’ve done over lockdown that I hope to shape into something resembling yet another novel!

What do you hope readers will take away from [DESTINY IS YOURS]?

What a great question! I hope readers will take some ideas about how to shake up your life when you’re feeling a little stale, broken or confused. I hope they’ll open their minds to the awesome world we live in and how there are opportunities everywhere for us to make connections and be present. I also hope they laugh and smirk and cry and cringe and gasp and imagine and sigh and smile – too much to ask, do you think?!

Here’s the blurb

There’s something about New Year’s Eve that brings people together.

How else could the two strangers, Lindy and Jess have met on a random Turkish beach with midnight gently beckoning? Slowly, they become friends through Jess’s story of heartbreak and loss . . . but the story is about to twist into something with a little more soul and a lot more adventure.

Jess’s heart is newly mended. Cracks still healing from an epic break-up, as well as a spectacularly failing business, she’s gone and booked the trip of a lifetime to Turkey with best mate Gillie, also newly single. Jess has had it with streaked mascara and sobbing for England – she wants to kick-start a life with more focus, more clarity and maybe even a little bit of magic.

Surely travelling round Turkey will do the trick? Jess is determined to find the answers somewhere and although she expects the delicious cocktails, the charming waiters and the golden beaches, she perhaps isn’t prepared for a mysterious pack of challenges sent by a friend; a book that transforms the way she sees her place in the world; starlit nights that begin to take over the days and an impromptu fortune-telling moment that changes everything . . .

Here’s where you can get it

Life is Yours (Book 1) Amazon UK | Amazon US | Amazon AU

Destiny is Yours (Book 2) Amazon UK | Amazon US | Amazon AU

More about Abigail and how you can follow her

Abigail Yardimci is an author, blogger and creative mindfulness practitioner. She is a Geordie girl living by the sea in South Devon in the UK with her Turkish husband and two terrifying kids. She loves to blog and gets her kicks through mindful parenting styles, creative living and chocolate.

Her writing inspiration comes from scratching the surface of everyday life to find the underlying magic that connects us all. The fire beneath the frustration, the creativity beneath the boredom, the stillness beneath the chaos.

Abigail’s debut novel, ‘Life Is Yours’ and second novel, ‘Destiny Is Yours’ are available now on Amazon and published by Britain’s Next Bestseller. Abigail also stays sane in the world of parenting by writing a popular blog called ‘Mum In The Moment’.

Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

You can also buy signed copies of Life Is Yours and Destiny Is Yours, as well as a fab range of bookish gifts, on Abigail’s website.

Catching up with Author Daisy Tate

Today I welcome the lovely Daisy Tate for an author catch-up, whose latest book is A Bicycle Built for Sue.

We’ll find out more about Sue later. First let’s catch up with Daisy

Tell us what inspired you to write A Bicycle Built for Sue?

In all honesty, I came up with the title first. I’ve been on a couple of cycling tours myself and found them incredibly difficult, not just because of the physical challenges, but because of the thinking time. I’d also been on a charity run recently (I promise you, I’m not a gifted athlete, just too up for a challenge!) and everyone had on shirts saying why or who they were running the race for and I was in floods of tears for most of the race because I was making up stories for absolutely everyone. I don’t want to give anything away, but I narrowed it down to Sue (fictional, of course), and her story is about a woman reeling in the wake of a personal tragedy. She finds help and support from a trio of women she least expects, who crowd round and keep her head above water. It’s something I have found to be true on numerous occasions when you’re blindsided by loss or heartache of some variety. And yes, sometimes the people you expect to help do, but sometimes they don’t and it’s always interesting to see who steps in to lend a hand when you need it most.

When did you start writing seriously?

I started writing seriously about six years ago. I’d had lots of stop/starts along the way, but my husband and I had moved out of London to a farm and I found, particularly in the winter, I needed some intellectual stimulus. So, I thought, ‘Get yourself to a keyboard!’

What do you love most about being an author?

The surprises that blossom along the way. I love writing dialogue and sometimes something will come out of someone’s mouth and I’m all … whaaaaaaat? You’re saying that now? To them? I write almost every day but those moments definitely stand out as extra special ones. I also LOVE hearing from readers. I read a review recently where the reader thought she wasn’t going to like the book because it was ‘too relatable’ (the dark parts) but she persisted and said by the end she’d actually felt more hopeful about her own situation. Those kind of moments are amazing.

What are you working on now?

I have an alter ego – Annie O’Neil – who writes Christmas books, and I’ve just put the finishing touches on this year’s book, A Miracle on Christmas Street. It’ll be out later this month. I also have, and I’m not kidding, about ten pitches I’m polishing up for my agent and editor to see if any of them appeal. I love them all and can’t pick, so I’m definitely going to need an outside eye to help me home in on just the one.

What do you hope readers will take away from A Bicycle Built for Sue?

I hope, most of all, that they know they’re not alone, that no matter how sad or lonely or desperate or isolated someone can feel, there is ALWAYS someone there. They may not come in the package you expected, but they will be there. It’s not a mandate to join a charity cycle ride, but I have taken part in a few charitable events (even wiggling a tin in front of a grocery store) and it’s always rewarding. Most of all, I would like readers to take away a belief that everyone is stronger than they think they are and deeply, deeply lovable.

That is lovely, Daisy, and such a good reminder to us all.

Here’s the blurb for A Bicycle Built for Sue

Sue Young has never asked for much apart from a quiet life. She’s always been happy with her call centre job and dinner on the table at six o clock; that was until a tragedy tore her tranquillity into little shreds.

With her life in tatters, Sue is persuaded to join a charity cycle ride led by Morning TV’s Kath Fuller, who is having a crisis of her own, and Sue’s self-appointed support crew are struggling with their own issues. Pensioner Flo Wilson is refusing to grow old, gracefully or otherwise, and a teen goth Raven Chakrabarti, is determined to dodge the path her family have mapped out for her.

Can the foursome cycle through saddle sores and chaffed thighs to a brighter future, or will pushing themselves to the limit prove harder than they thought?

Get is here: Amazon UK | Amazon AU | Amazon US

Follow Daisy: Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | Website

Thanks for the catch-up, Daisy! Looking forward to your (Annie’s) Christmas book too!

Cover Reveal: The Christmas Swap

So, the cat has been out of the proverbial bag for a while, but today is the official cover reveal for The Christmas Swap my next novel with One More Chapter.

And here it is!

The Christmas Swap

Yes, I love it too. 😉

I had so much fun writing this book. Here’s the blurb:

Chloe, Jules, and Lucy meet at a Maui resort kids’ club, aged 11, forging a lifelong friendship spanning two decades and three continents.

Twenty-two years later, they decide to swap Christmases, none of them expecting the hilarity and romantic escapades that will ensue.

Chloe from Melbourne spends her Christmas with Lucy’s mum and dad in a sleepy village in Oxfordshire, England, stunned to the core when she discovers who grew up across the road from Lucy.

Lucy, who has jetted off to snowy Colorado for her dream-come-true white Christmas, is taken into the fold of Jules’s loud and brash family, discovering more about herself in a few short days than she has in years.

And Jules leaves the cold climes of Colorado to spend a balmy ‘Orphan’s Christmas’ with Chloe’s friends in Melbourne, finding that time away from her mundane life is just what she needed.

Join these three lovable women as they each get a Christmas to surpass their wildest dreams.

And here’s an excerpt from my acknowledgements:

It’s hard to believe I am writing the acknowledgements for my fourth book, but here I am. I have dedicated this book to my parents―my mum, Lee, my dad, Ray, and my step-mum, Gail. I am extremely fortunate to have parents who not only love me, but champion me and inspire me. They have also instilled in me the importance of family―including the family members we choose―as well as having a sense of adventure and following your dreams.

Family is a prominent theme in this book and as I write these acknowledgements amid the second round of COVID-19 lockdowns here in Melbourne, ‘family’ has become more important to me now than ever. And for me, a person who has lived on three continents, that word encompasses all the people I love, all the people who inspire me, lift me up, confide in me, and ease my path. Thank you, family―wherever you are. Stay safe and we will meet again someday soon.

Preorder now! Out October 16 (ebook) and November 26 (print)

Amazon AU | Amazon UK| Amazon US | Kobo | Dymocks(AU) | Booktopia(AU) | A&R(AU) | Waterstones(UK) | Foyles(UK)

Settling back in

It’s been four months since Ben and I moved back to Melbourne post-sabbatical, and it has been anything but dull.

Since arriving in late January:

We apartment hunted for the perfect rental and were elated to get a place in the heart of the city with an incredible view. It has an office for me, enough space for Ben’s VR set-up, a guest room, a winter garden and a wrap around balcony. I love it.

IMG_20190215_215006
our view

I job-hunted and landed a plum role in professional development (a field I love) at my pre-sabbatical employer, which just happens to be across the street. As in, my commute is about one minute (please don’t hate me). So far, I haven’t bothered to wear a coat or take an umbrella, because, well, one minute – plus most of the walk is under cover. My work has already taken me to Adelaide (twice) and I work with incredibly smart people, who maintain an impressive chocolate stash in the office (this may be why I choose to work from home a couple of days per week – too much temptation).

This was my desk when I arrived at work on my birthday.

birthday desk

Ben has become an Australian! I wept like a weeping willow throughout the ceremony, but at least had the presence of mind to take photos. When the Lord Mayor of Melbourne had the Aussies in the gallery stand up and make the oath to Australia, just like the newly-minted Australians, I could barely get the words out. #ProudAussie #SoProudofBen

New Aussie

We’ve caught up with friends. Our friends in Melbourne are our family-away-from-family and we adore them. Especially fab are the ones who popped around to put together flat-pack furniture, although they all assured me that they love doing it (weird). My bestie personally made our couch from scratch – impressive stuff. I promise I plied them all with good food and booze for their efforts.

Lindsey

We’ve had visitors! We love having people come and stay with us. The most recent guests spent the week of my birthday with us, my dad and step-mum. They helped me celebrate a milestone birthday with style. Here’s my pre-party dad rocking a fab new outfit at the age of 71.

my dad

We’ve planned a trip across the country. This week we head of to my home state of WA to celebrate some more milestone birthdays in the family, and my belated birthday trip. (I have pretty much perfected the concept of the birthday festival, which can extended several weeks in either direction from my actual birthday.) We’ll be catching up with family and friends and then heading south to the stunning wine region of Margaret River. I’ve checked the forecast and can’t believe that the first week of June (winter down here in Oz) will be sunny and 25C (high 70s).

WA
From our last time in WA

Maybe not so surprisingly, we haven’t been in a hurry to travel. Home is so precious to us post-sabbatical. This is our first trip together since we landed back in the country in January.

And there’s the author stuff. I’ve secured an agent; I’ve written more than half of my fourth book; I’ve edited my first book for my publisher, Avon Books; I’ve been marketing my little bum off: organising a book blog tour with my agent, doing interviews, securing quotes from other (amazingly supportive) authors, planning a book signing, and engaging with readers daily on social media; and I have celebrated all the little milestones on the journey to publication – T-minus 3 weeks and 6 days for the ebook and just under two months from the print version being in my eager little hands. Squee!

One Summer In Santorini - Sandy Barker

So, yes, 2019 has been an incredible ride so far. We’re looking forward to the rest of it.

 

You can go home again

Nearly ten years ago, I moved from Sydney to Seattle. Ben and I had been dating long distance for more than 2 years and we wanted to live on the same continent and in the same city.

Seattle was a big move for both of us – Ben was moving from Minnesota – but we’d visited together before the move and knew we liked it. So, we took the leap and signed a lease, hoping that we could live together as well as we travelled together.

Ben moved several months ahead of me to get us an apartment and to get settled in his new role with the same company. In that time, he also managed to get us a new group of friends.

By the time I arrived in late 2008, Ben had been welcomed into a group of 20- and 30-somethings who had moved to Seattle from around the country, and a couple of people who are Seattle natives (a rare find).

Less than a week after my arrival, a lovely couple, Jeff (from Iowa) and Lauren (from California), threw a ‘Welcome Sandy to Seattle’ party.

I also got a few comments that suggested that some people were surprised that Ben really did have an Australian girlfriend – which made me laugh – but on the whole I was warmly welcomed and immediately felt at home with this incredible group of people, all of whom are still close friends.

Flash forward to May 2018: Ben and I are in Seattle for a couple of weeks before we head to Minnesota for the summer. We’ve both been back since we moved to Australia five years ago, but this is our first time back here together.

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed seeing our old stomping ground – what’s changed, what hasn’t – as well as catching up with the many, many people here that we love.

We have family here, Ben’s aunt and uncle, and his cousins who have families of their own. We have friends we made at work, the friends who attended that very first party, and those we know through them. We were very fortunate to have such a wonderful network of people for the four years we lived here.

It’s been important to us to maintain those relationships, even though we’re so far away. And, I’m very glad we have.

Since being back, we’ve met the many children who have been born since we left, tiny versions of our friends who we’ve watched grow up on Facebook, but who initially eye us warily until they warm up to us.

With our friends and family, we’ve caught up on travel adventures, houses sold and bought, health challenges, plans to move out of Seattle, plans to stay put, job changes, political bafflement, and the everyday stuff that we don’t get to talk about unless we’re face to face.

It’s been been brilliant, a top-up for the soul.

Someone back in Australia asked if Seattle feels like home. And it does – but mostly, that’s because of the people, our Seattle peeps.

 

I’m hopeless at being helpless

catPatient

I am writing this one-handed and I’m wearing pyjamas in the middle of the day.

Eleven days ago I had a shoulder reconstruction and since then I’m sporting bandages on my left shoulder and a sling. I have at least 3 more days off work in ‘complete rest’ mode, and then maybe I can start back at work doing light duties from home.

I have pain in my shoulder and arm and it is different day to day and hour to hour – throbbing, dull ache, sharp at the site of my stitches, not painful at all. They gave me really powerful painkillers, but these make me nauseous, so I’ve been OTC-only for a while.

The shoulder pain was expected and actually doesn’t bother me as much as limitations imposed on me as a patient recovering from shoulder surgery. I mean, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of stuff, but I wasn’t prepared for how that would affect me.

I don’t like it.

I am getting better at asking for help as I get older, but it is still hard for me. It is not a pride thing as much as me not wanting to trouble others with my needs. It’s probably a little bit of a pride thing too, because I am fiercely independent and self-sufficient. I do know the limits of my abilities and at those limits is where I ask for help, but the limits have suddenly and drastically changed.

Things you can’t do when one arm is in a sling and you can’t get your bandages wet and you can’t really lean forward and it hurts if you move too much:

  • make a meal – even putting cereal and milk in a bowl – this is a two-handed activity if you’ve been doing it that way your whole life, and can go very wrong if attempted one-handed – in the mornings, I sit at the breakfast bar and tell my boyfriend, Ben, how many flakes to put in the bowl – I am usually chief cook in our home so it’s frustrating not to be able to whip up dinner in 10 minutes like I usually do
  • wash my hair – the 1000s of times I took this simple activity for granted! My recent hair washing experiences have included plastic wrap, masking tape, the laundry sink, and for the first time ever, Ben
  • putting my hair into a pony tail – girls with long(ish) hair, try it – or even just mime doing it – you can’t do it alone. Ben can now do a neat low pony, but we have yet to graduate to the more advanced messy bun
  • drying off after a bath – when you’re an adult, bath time should be fun or a luxury – at the moment, it is neither – it is solely perfunctory – I feel like an overgrown toddler, needing help to wash under my right arm and to dry my back and legs
  • typing – actually I can do this – it just takes a looooooong time
  • car doors and seatbelts – sure, I can open the car door one-handed, but when I did it hurt like hell – I realised how much that one action relays to my other shoulder, so in this condition, it’s best done by someone else so I don’t bust a stitch
  • opening jars, bottles, etc. – see ‘car doors’ above
  • washing dishes – see ‘opening jars’ above
  • walking – yep, walking hurts – you move a lot of your body when you walk, and here’s a shocker, your body parts are all connected! Ow!
  • carrying – you can can more with 2 hands together than with 1 hand x 2 – this means lots of trips when moving rooms – and see ‘walking’ above
  • working out – I know this is an obvious one, but daily exercise has become vital for my general wellbeing – it gets the kinks out of my body and my brain – I rely on the endorphins, I like being flexible and strong – it keeps the aches and the blues at bay
  • general chores and stuff you do around the house 50 times a day without thinking – I am bumping up against this one a lot

How have these limits on my self-sufficiency affected me?

If I’m honest, I’m a little blue. I don’t like being helpless. I am a doer. I get shit done. All I have gotten done in the last 11 days is read 4 novels, watch 3 complete series on Netflix, trawl Facebook and Reddit 3 times a day, and develop an excruciating headache that sent me to bed for 2 days.

And healing.

I am very busy healing, and even though my current state frustrates me, I know this is my number one priority. I must heal so I can get back to doing all the other stuff.

Very special thanks to my darling Ben who has become my left hand. And thank you to friends for visits and driving me to the doctor and helping me do stuff I can’t do by myself at the moment.

 

Humbled. Exhausted. Replenished. Gratified.

“How was it?”

I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked this question since I returned from Cape Town, South Africa just over two weeks ago. It’s a perfectly valid question, as I was doing something quite unique. In February, I spent two weeks with 12 others from around the world, working with small children in the township of Vrygrond, as part of the 2015 Pearson Global Assist Fellowship. In the mornings, we worked in pairs and threes in one of the many crèches in and around Vrygrond, that are supported by the organisation, True North. In the afternoons, we gathered at True North’s community centre, where we partnered with Pearson South Africa to deliver a 2-week literacy program for 5 and 6 year-olds.

The 2015 Fellows (Courtesy of Romeo Ramirez)

For the first few days after I returned, I was fighting horrid jetlag and trying to catch up on the hundreds of emails that had filled my work inbox in my absence. The question was wasted on me then. “How was it?” ‘It was exhausting,’ I wanted to say. It’s been over two weeks since I landed in back in Melbourne and I feel like I am still catching up on sleep. However, ‘exhausting’ is not a satisfying answer for someone who wants to hear that it was amazing and life-changing. Initially I trotted out the usual clichés, just to hold everyone at bay until I could wrap my head around exactly what it was. At that point, I just didn’t know. I remember saying to my room-mate sometime in the middle of the fellowship, “I know there is a lesson to be learned here, but right now, I just don’t know what it is. I hope it will reveal itself when I’m home.”

And it has. Now that I have stepped back from it and have had time to reflect, I feel I can answer the question with greater depth: Exhausting, humbling, replenishing, amazing… Still, listing adjectives just doesn’t do the experience justice, so I will attempt a better response to the question here.

“How was it?”

Humbling

Most of the people I met had so much to give – their time, their experience, their laughter, their wisdom. I sat down with people from True North and Pearson South Africa who are literally saving the world, one school, one crèche, one child at a time. Their work matters. Their work can mean the difference between a child being protected and educated and fed, and being left out in the world to fend for themself. I worked side-by-side with teachers who are acutely aware that just beyond the lilac-painted fence of the crèche, there are knife fights, drug deals, prostitution and domestic violence – all on a regular basis. These women are educated, intrepid, and respected, because their work is noble and their work is hard.

The crèches in Vrygrond – and the extension of Vrygrond called Overcome, where I worked with fellows, Romeo and Esther – cater for babies through to 6 year-olds. The children are under the care of the teachers for up to 10 hours a day. They eat breakfast there – a tasteless rice gruel – and lunch – a protein-enriched rice. The children nap, play, draw, read stories, sing songs, and learn basics like shapes, colours, letters and numbers. In many ways, these crèches are just like any other childcare centre, except that they do all this with few resources, no sewerage, no electricity, and in a place that can be extremely dangerous.

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Lunch: rice with protein

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The play area for 45 children

Exhausting

The creche where I worked is called Little Lambs and in Overcome, there are no paved roads like in Vrygrond. The crèche has no electricity, a corrugated iron roof and walls to match. On the days when it is hot outside, it is even hotter inside. 45 children are packed into three small classrooms, and the children share the same toileting facility – a handful of non-flushable ‘potties’. The teachers use a port-a-potty, which takes up a large portion of the cemented play area.  Water trickles from two taps – one on the front wall of the crèche and one in the ‘kitchen’ where the children’s meals are prepared. When children are given water to drink, they share the same four or five cups, each taking turns and waiting for their classmates to finish. The cups aren’t washed in between children. The children are told to wash their hands after toileting and playing outside and before they eat – yet for washing, they all use the same bucket of water which is replenished only once a day – and there is no soap.

When I arrived each morning, I would set up an activity at one of the small tables, and the children would rotate to me in groups. Others worked on puzzles or crafts. There was a constant chorus of, “teacher, teacher, teacher,” as each child vied for a moment of my attention. After the table activities, they had a 1/4 of a piece of fruit and played outside on the rectangle of concrete. Then I’d usually read a story and sing songs with them – ones that had actions, so we could work on coordination and memory. ‘Incy-wincy Spider’ became an instant favourite. And there is nothing sweeter than hearing a group of children sing, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are…” Then it was usually time for lunch. Before the meal, the children put their hands together, bowed their heads and sang, “Thank you, Father, for our food, many, many blessings, Amen,” to the tune of ‘Frère Jaques’. I suppose that they are blessed – or a least, fortunate – because although they often came to school in the same clothes several days in a row, and they may not have had an evening meal the night before, there are about 1500 children in Vrygrond and Overcome who aren’t in crèches at all.

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Play time for the babies’ class

The classroom I worked in was for three and four year-olds. Admittedly, they were a challenging group in the first few days, but they grew to learn that I didn’t put up with naughtiness and only paid attention to well-behaved children. ‘Time Out’ was my closest ally in the first few days, and I channelled the Super Nanny every time I said, “No. That’s unacceptable.” The naughtiest child in the class on day one – Daniel – was one of the oldest and biggest children in the class. He was loud, aggressive, and a bully. After the third Time Out in about 20 minutes, his teacher removed him from the room and took him in with the babies. He hated that and begged to come back to the class. For some reason and from then on, he worked very hard for my approval, and thrived when he was given important tasks, like handing out rice to the other children.

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Making puppets. Daniel in the centre.

We had two trips to the nearby park over the two weeks. To say that I was nervous about taking 3 dozen children through the dusty streets of the township to the park, was a gross understatement. Firstly, as strangers in the township, we fellows were not allowed to walk around outside the crèche without an escort by someone from the township – or someone from True North. Simply, we were not safe on our own, and we got more than a few sideways glances as we chaperoned the children from one place to another. Then there was the aforementioned violence, drug deals and prostitution. It wasn’t as though those activities rolled to a halt because the local pre-school was on the move. And there was the fact that the children had very little road sense; we spent most of the journey corralling them off the road as though we were herding naughty little sheep. Once at the park, they were fine. They ran and ran and ran – something they couldn’t do within the small confines of the crèche. By the time we got back to the crèche a couple of hours later, they were ready for a nap, and so was I.

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Snack time at the park: Teacher Geraldine hands out 1/4-pieces of fruit

The park
Heading back from the park

Replenishing

As a person who has opted not to have children of my own, I am sometimes asked if it’s because I don’t like children. That’s not why – and the reason why is a whole other blog post, so I won’t go into it here. The thing is, I love being around children. I loved being around these children. My time with them exhausted me physically – and even mentally at times – but it fuelled me emotionally. And what I learned from these little faces, was that it doesn’t matter where you go in this world, kids are kids. When I would sneak into the babies’ room – ’cause they were irresistibly sweet and affectionate – they would smile and reach their chubby little hands up to me. They loved clapping and singing, just like babies and toddlers anywhere, and they giggled with delight when tickled. And they craved cuddles, which I happily obliged them with.

The older children were funny, cheeky, inquisitive, and each saw themselves as the centre of the universe – just like any other group of 3 and 4 year-olds. They love being read to, cuddled, praised, and to sing. They wanted attention, affection, and someone to kiss it better. Over only two weeks, I went from a stern stranger to someone who could make them smile with just a wink or a silly face.

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With the cheeky little cuties – the bigger the smile, the cheekier the child

Gratifying

In the afternoons, we returned to True North’s community centre, where we each worked with two children on a pre-literacy program developed by a team at Pearson South Africa. The aim of the program was two-fold: to determine how much impact the proposed literacy activities could make in just 8 sessions (of 2 hours each), and to introduce a reading resource specifically designed for children who lived in townships. We worked from four newly-developed books, and the illustrations were just incredible. The children instantly engaged with the accurate representations of their world. Vrygrond is a place where most books they read are cast-offs, and are often irrelevant to their lives or inappropriate for their age group. It was incredible to watch their delight as each new page was revealed.

My two were called Trizza and Clever. Trizza was shy at the start of the project, but by the second week was comfortable enough around me to show her bossier side. She was extremely bright and sometime lost patience with Clever, who was slower to master the given tasks and concepts. Clever was a kind and warm child, gregarious and a leader on the playground, but I wondered if his moniker would set unreasonable expectations for him throughout his life. He struggled with some basic literacy tasks, but I admired that he never quit. He was often among the last in the room to complete a task, but he always wanted to finish. By the end of the two weeks, Trizza demonstrated an enhanced ability to recall details and sequences. Clever, who began the fortnight by roughly turning pages, creasing and tearing them, learned to respect books as something precious, and how to turn pages carefully. They were both excited to be given their own take-home copies of each of the four books. “Who are you going to show your book to?” I asked each time they got a new one. “My mummy and my sister,” Trizza would say. “My daddy!” replied Clever. Both of them smiled with pride at having something special to share with their loved ones.

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Trizza and Clever

Enjoyable

It was mostly hard work, but it wasn’t all hard work. After preparing lessons for the following day, we gathered to drink wine and talk about our lives back home. We told funny anecdotes about loved ones, and learned the names of each other’s children, best friends and significant others. We exchanged job descriptions, because although we all worked for Pearson, we had a diverse range of roles. We debriefed about the highs and lows of our days, laughing and crying in equal measure. Half of us got sick: colds, food poisoning, and a mystery illness which seemed to combine the two. We shared gifts and goodies we had brought from home, teased each other relentlessly, gave dozens of supportive hugs, danced to Madonna, and drove each other crazy by hogging the bathroom or using up all the internet.

Over the two weeks, we became a sort of mismatched, semi-dysfunctional, supportive, infuriating, and endearing family.

Over the 17 days I spent in Cape Town I also got to catch up with some dear friends who live there – 2 couples I know through previous travels. I managed several early morning workouts and yoga practices, which were particularly memorable because Cape Town sunrises are so breathtaking. Over one weekend, we all went sightseeing (organised by the fellowship) and wine tasting (organised by us). We were taken out to dinner several times to lovely restaurants, and I must say, South Africans do incredible seafood, and have an extensive (super-affordable) repertoire of delicious wine. And, after the fellowship wrapped up, four of us did an overnight safari at a private game park (this must be saved for its own post). And, most happily, I made some dear friends, including my roomie, Jenni, from Texas and my crèche-mates, Romeo and Esther.

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Roomies

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Romeo from Mexico – my crèche-mate

So, how was it?

It was something I will remember my whole life. I know how fortunate I am to have such an incredible opportunity.

FRIENDS

friends-tv-show

When FRIENDS burst onto the scene in the mid-90s I devoured it with an appetite I hadn’t had since TV shows were named after addresses in California. Of course, I wasn’t alone – it was a juggernaut. It was refreshingly funny, it was aspirational, it was Seinfeld for Generation X. I can still watch any episode and laugh out loud; it’s my go to viewing when I am stuck on a long flight and all the movies are rubbish.

And while so many people were saying, “I wish I had friends like that,” I actually did. My uni friends. I loved the show back then, because it depicted the types of friendships I had in my 20s.

We were a theatre crowd. We smoked socially, precociously kissed each other ‘hello’, and we danced until the wee hours, sweaty, grinning, wrung out and happy. We had sing-alongs where someone played a guitar – yes, really. We were poor, so we shared plates of chips, our beds – mostly just to sleep – and our cars. Someone would always let you crash at their place or give you a ride. We drank gallons of tea and instant coffee, and ate Vegemite toast for breakfast, capping off impromptu sleep-overs. We sipped on cheap wine – Chardonnay and Cab Sav – thinking we were so sophisticated. I remember a stint of gin and bitter lemon on hot summer nights.

We fell in and out of love with each other, and crushes changed almost weekly. We were beautiful and talented, self-conscious, eager, brilliant, and naive. We discussed important things with the passion and youthfulness of those who had only just discovered Marx, and Freud and Steinem. We still are beautiful, talented, and brilliant, by the way.

We numbered more than 6, but our large group was fluid and many of the friendships forged then still run deep today. The others are there, vibrant in my thoughts, nostalgic bursts of happiness. We have struck out into the world, spanning all continents bar one (I haven’t heard any news of old friends taking up residence in Antarctica – yet). We have become parents, partners, spouses, actors, teachers, writers, intrepid business owners, corporate wizkids, and culinary geniuses. We even have a real life Ross and Rachel who married in a glorious beachside wedding in the noughties, and now have two gorgeous little boys. And there are other lovely couplings from those days who have made lives and families together.

I freely admit to having the hugest crush on Ross – the one on TV, not his counterpart who married my best friend from uni. Ross was thoughtful and loving, incredibly smart, and sexy as anything; the man rocked a turtle neck. And the very best thing of all, is that in my late 30s, I met a guy like Ross. Only he’s also got the wit of Chandler. So, in other words, I hit the jackpot.

I love my uni friends – from afar when we’re apart, via Facebook (which for all its criticism, is my tether to friends around the world), and when we’re sitting down to coffee, or sharing a decent bottle of wine, or eating a great meal. It feels the same. The laughter is still deep, the love is still strong, and they are so very dear to me.