6am is far too early to be awake on a Saturday morning… unless there’s a darn good reason. Does going to the markets to bulk shop for fish, meat and veggies qualify as ‘a good reason’? Hell, yes! The cost savings are significant and future-me can put her feet up and recover later, whilst congratulating past-me on epic shopping success and bargains galore.

market city3When I first joined a veggie-buying co-op twenty+ years ago it was an economic necessity. I was surprised at how much fresh food cost in Australia when we arrived, and being part of the co-op made including a wide range of fruit and veg in our diet affordable. Our group was made up of four families and our budget per week was $60, although we often spent less than that. We all took it in turn to head off to the markets at the crack of dawn on Saturday mornings, armed with our specially made collapsible shopping trolley, a pen and notepad to record the prices, and our allotted $60 in cash. Each week brought with it some surprise items and, depending on who the shopper was, the surprises ranged from a share of a box of quinces to a similar quantity of parsnips… or capsicum… or zucchini or… whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. Being part of this definitely broadened my family’s eating repertoire considerably and taught them just how many ways I could disguise zucchini!

 I confess that I initially found the market experience quite confronting. The determination with which people set about their shopping was impressive, the jostling and competitiveness unnerving, and the need for rapid mental arithmetic a challenge. It took several visits for me to get a handle on how to select the best buys and on how to manage the vendors in order to get the best service. In those days I noticed that many market goers were from Vietnam and China; as time passed there were more people from the Philippines, then from Middle Eastern countries, then Africa – a reflection of the changes to Australian migration policy, no doubt. These days it’s much harder to pick an ethnic trend, the markets having become a multicultural microcosm in action.

Over time the numbers in our co-op have diminished. Families have grown up and moved on, with the result that we diehards go to the markets less frequently. Since we’re down to two groups of people, we now take it in turn go every three weeks instead of weekly. This makes going more of a novelty and, on our turn, we now choose to go a little earlier and incorporate other outlets into our market adventures.

Our first stop is usually the fish market, where great crates and crates of fish stare up at me accusingly with their googly little eyes as I sneak past. Even with plastic gloves on, handling whole fish is not something I do willingly. The stench of fish, the slippery floor, the occasional splash of fishy-goo on my feet – all of this is highly unappealing. The meat shed next door is next, where the sheer expanse of raw meat is unsettling in a different way. Bags and bags of vacuum packed beef on trestle tables, piles of ubiquitous bones lurking menacingly in giant crates, the band saw singing tunelessly in the background and the queue to pay wending oh-so-slowly through all this is tough going on an early-morning stomach.

In due course we stash our assorted purchases in a cooler box in the car, then head across to the much larger veggie markets to face yet another throng of people, more jostling, more queues, more toting of heavy boxes. So why do it? Very simple: the price difference between the markets and a fish vendor, butcher or suburban veggie store is significant. Our most recent market haul included frozen fish fillets (hoki) at $5/kg, fresh trout – googly eyes and all, salmon steaks (we have a house guest who can’t eat red meat), many kilos of beef mince and ox heart at remarkably low prices (for the dog and cats), stir fry beef strips and a couple of roasts (because we still eat red meat sometimes!), cherry tomatoes ($5 for a huge box of these – the pick of the week), red capsicum, pears, nectarines, corn, potatoes, zucchini, cabbage, watermelon and some very tasty freshly-picked prunes. Our fridges and freezer are bulging at the seams and we’re set for fresh food for the next three to four weeks.

I remind myself of this every six weeks when I roll out of bed at 5.30 on a Saturday morning, wondering if it’s really worthwhile. From a both a future planning and cost point of view it is absolutely and always worth the occasional early morning and a bit of shoulder bumping from strangers. It’s also fun, in a weird sort of way – and last time I was there the coffee stand was open and the (charming) barista charge me $1 less than the standard price for a cuppa just because she liked my accent and I smiled at her. Win! 🙂

One day this week, as part of my daily activity regime, I wandered down to the local shopping centre to pick up a few requirements for dinner. In an unexpected moment of weakness I also bought a chocolate-covered, nut-encrusted ice-cream-on-a-stick. Feeing slightly guilty, I loaded all the purchases into my little backpack and started the uphill trudge back home in the late afternoon sun. By the time I was most of the way there I was tired… and that ice cream seemed to be crying out for attention… So I found a shady spot, plonked myself down… and ate every last super tasty morsel of it!

Watching the traffic and listening to the wind in the gum trees while I nibbled the chocolate coating away and then got stuck into the ice cream was remarkably restful. Ficecreamor a while I was just in the moment, completely absorbed in the taste and texture, the delicious richness of the slowly melting treat. Before long, however, I found myself starting to think about how self-indulgent I was being. I hadn’t bought ice creams to share with the rest of the family – I had just bought one. For me. To compound this indulgence, I was sitting there having a rest, not thinking about work, dogs, cats, children or dinner – I was just watching the world go by and slowly consuming my treat. Definitely self-indulgent, right?

This train of thought made me start to consider the difference between self-indulgence and self-nurturing. Like many women of my generation, I come from a background where ‘self-indulgence’, i.e. greedy or selfish behaviour, was discouraged – both by example and more actively. I assume that the objective was to instil some notion of self-discipline and restraint in us as children and to make us more inclined to think of others. If so, then this was probably not a bad thing to aim for. Whether it was successful, however, is debatable.

Talking to my female contemporaries, it seems that many of us have ended up with an inculcated notion of guilt. We feel guilty when doing things for ourselves, things that don’t directly or clearly benefit others in some way. Social conditioning as to the role of females in our society – or at least the one in which I grew up – reinforces that outlook, encouraging women to put the needs of others first. It’s taken many years of introspection and self-analysis for me to get to a point where I know myself well enough to be able to figure out what my needs are – and to use this to examine and temper those notions of externally imposed guilt.

As an adult I can see the many ways in which my mother denied herself simple pleasures so that we, as a family, would benefit. She did so willingly and as a matter of course, having lived through the post-war depression years of food and employment scarcity and thus having a very clear understanding of sacrifice for the greater good. As a nurse, the greater good was the well-being of her patients. As a mother, it was that of our family.

This outlook certainly benefited both my siblings and me in diverse ways, enabling us all to got through school and into adult life largely oblivious of the sacrifices made for us. We didn’t stop to consider the impact on Mum, both mentally and physically, or to wonder who looked after her while she was looking after us. If I could reach back into that distant past I would like to tell her to be a little kinder to herself. I would like to suggest that she stopped – just sometimes – and enjoyed an ice cream in the sunshine, putting everything else aside for those few minutes. It’s not an indulgence, I would to tell her, you’d just be taking a breath and enjoying the moment for a change. Self-nurturing is simply looking after yourself, being mindful of your state of mind, your body and the world around you  – and responding appropriately to ensure your continued good health.

Despite knowing this, and despite giving advice to others to take a moment, I still sometimes get glimmers of those deep-rooted twinges of guilt when I do so myself. Then I give myself a little mental shake and remind myself of the real necessity in everyday life for self-nurturing in all of us. Particularly at busy or stressful times, such as when the year is thundering to a close… and that ice cream was delicious 🙂

I’ve been told that an urban agrarian lifestyle at its simplest incorporates slight lifestyle changes – growing as much of your food as you plausibly can in your backyard / window box / allotment, using renewable energy, making use of public transport or HPV (human powered vehicles), keeping a couple of chickens for fresh eggs (and, in due course, fresh chicken), buying local produce to fill the gaps and sharing resources wherever possible.

None of those things are particularly hard to do and most of them are even good fun. It does take a certain level of commitment, however, since they take time, which is perennially in short supply for the average nine-to-five worker. Some days it feels like there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to sustain the dream.

Our solution to that was to start small and work our way up. The first step was to plant fruit trees so that we’d (hopefully) be able to produce and share quality fruit that hasn’t been treated with pesticides. After a few years of putting in the odd tree here and there, we now have a veritable orchard: cumquat, calamondin, Australian finger lime, blood orange, plum, cherry, loquat, blueberries, Tahitian lime, pink grapefruit, pear, passionfruit vines, olives and apples. The apples and pear tree are dwarf stock, since our property isn’t really very large, but they’re starting to fruitpears_1dec14 and we have high hopes for good crops from them in the future. Trees are pretty low maintenance and it’s been great to be able to share some of the fruit – and the jams and chutneys – with friends and family. At various times of the year it’s actually unwise to visit us unless you’re resigned to leaving with at least one jar of cumquat marmalade – the tree fruits prolifically!

Our next bold step was to install four raised garden beds and to start to grow seasonal vegetables and herbs. This takes more effort than the trees and is intermittently rewarding. Basil, mint, tomatoes, kale, spinach and beans have been the winners; most other crops have been a bit disappointing. Sometimes this is simply because the garden beds aren’t well positioned as far as sun/shade goes for a particular crop, sometimes because critters have invaded and I’ve been unwilling to spray – but also not diligent enough to do a daily critter parade. At the moment I have corn, cherry tomatoes, basil and spinach growing, but we do need to augment the home grown produce with visits to the markets. The local Farmer’s Markets are great for this – although the prices aren’t really competitive, so it’s certainly not a cost saving.

Solar hot water is a great solution in summer, but since I’m a sucker for a hot shower we use an electric booster through the winter. A 4.5-kilowatt array of solar panels on the roof means that we could theoretically go off-grid and be self sufficient for power, but before that can happen we’d need to be able to store the energy. Batteries are probably the most obvious and cost effective option and that may be a future project. In the meantime we feed power back into the grid, which in turn offsets our power bill to some extent. In terms of transport, our future plans hinge on the electric utility vehicle that’s under construction in our garage. Meantime we use conventional internal combustion vehicles and winge about the cost of fuel and I use my bicycle from time to time and public transport whenever possible.

About a year ago we ended up with two backyard chooks. This isn’t something I ever thought of as likely, since I’m not a fan of feathered things unless they’re in trees, the sky or a tasty casserole, but the promise of fresh eggs was pretty tempting. Once we’d built a chicken run under the fruit trees as a temporary ‘chicken daycare centre’ for my daughter’s chickens whilst she was away, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that we’d eventually end putting the run to more permanent use. Two of the chickens simply didn’t end up going home with her last November. Instead, we inherited a pair of rather attractive Australorps (http://www.backyardchickens.com/products/australorp) and they rampage around in their run fairly happily. We tried having them on the loose in the garden, but the darn things seem to think that the froblackchooks_2014nt doormat is the chicken equivalent of a kitty litter tray. This does not please me, so their free ranging has been curtailed.

The downside of chickens is that they are a bit noisy early in the morning. Actually, they’re darn noisy! By early, I mean 5.30am – and this is not an hour at which I’m usually terribly sociable or, indeed, amenable to loud noises. I’m pretty sure that this applies to our neighbours as well, although no-one (other than me!) has complained so we’re either shutting them up fast enough by staggering out to feed them at the crack of dawn – or the neighbours haven’t figured out where the noise is coming from… yet. Other than that, though, they’re pretty easy to manage in terms of care and maintenance and do provide us with a steady supply of eggs. I haven’t actually bought eggs since they started laying early this year and we often end up having to give eggs away when production overtakes consumption.

Although each step along  our suburban agrarian journey has been fun, collectively it can be exhausting. The combination of planting, mulching, watering, weeding, feeding, pruning, making preserves and egg-related dishes and cleaning chicken hutches is sometimes quite a load, particularly when in conduction with early mooring wake-up calls from our avian buddies. I’ve concluded that whilst I do enjoy home-grown vegetables, making jams and chutneys and using freshly laid free range eggs, I am at heart a city girl and I may have reached the limits of my suburban agrarian dreamscape.

The past week was my almost-holiday between terms. This is the relatively quiet time when I generally get to enjoy some downtime, with only a few hours of work thrown into the mix each week. I managed to be out of work-mode for a while, but have had to wrack my brains a bit to figure out just what – exactly – I did with my time (other than the usual daily thingos).

Well, first there was brunch down in Fremantle with a dozen or so people to celebrate a couple of birthdays, followed by a quick foray down onto the beach to laze around, paddle or – for the bravest amongst us – to swim.


On one day we adventured off to meet our puppy for the first time. At all of six weeks old, Miss Molly turned out to be a-dor-able in every way. We get to bring her home in early November – and then the fun really begins!

Over the next couple days I managed to pack in quite a few things, now that I think about it. I rode my bike in the sun, zipping off on sundry missions to shops, library and friends. I’d almost forgotten just how much l love my bike and what fun it is to fly down hills with the wind in my hair. More of that to come over the summer, for sure. I read some books, planted some seedlings and a rose bush and finished the penultimate round of edits on my memoir. One more reader on that, then it’s time to hit up a publisher and see what emerges.

week of things234_oct14

Thursday morning was spent at work – so that wasn’t downtime at all, really, but putting nine volunteers through a training programme on the new computer system will make life easier for me next week, so it was a worthwhile investment. Afterwards I visited a damaged sibling – she broke her ankle earlier in the week and needed some cheering up. It felt good to be the one visiting and cheering for once, rather than on the receiving end. I think I make a better visitor than patient!

I attended week 4 of my ‘Smart Busy’ programme at Murdoch Uni, which motivated me to declutter several cupboards and get rid of some unnecessary stuff. VERY satisfying. During that process I came across some artwork that my brother did for me for a wedding invitation – nearly forty years ago, when he was living in Melbourne. How the wheel turns: I’m now in Perth and he’s in Johannesburg. Sadly he seldom sketches these days, but I’ve sent this one to him to see if it inspires him to start drawing again. We’ll see how that goes.

week of things56_oct14

A family dinner on one night included experimental Magic Bean Cake. It’s gluten free and very chocolatey – lots of good quality cocoa in there. Made as per the recipe it turned out super delicious and the unanimous vote was that it’s a definite do-again option. We had it for dessert, dusted with icing sugar and served with raspberries and custard. Yum. You can find the recipe I used hereOn Saturday we hit the veggie markets for fruit and veg and came away with an amazing haul of great stuff at bargain prices. I now need recipes for things to do with oranges – lots of oranges! Maybe the next magic bean cake should be orange flavoured…  The week has finally staggered to a close with gardening, a waterlogged German Shepherd (our water baby strikes again) and a trip to the cinema for ice-cream and a vampire movie.

It’s possible that I now need to go back to work to recover enough for more ‘down-time’!

I wonder what other people do when they’re feeling unsettled? I usually go for a ride on my bicycle, peddling away any pent up angst or uncertainties, the wind in my hair and – with luck – no bugs in my teeth. Even a short ride usually leaves me feeling cheerful and more able to cope with whatever it was that sent me out on the road in the first place.

But winter in Perth can really put a spanner in the works as far as that goes. Days of drizzle and cold winds tend not to inspire me to gear up and head out – and somehow the exercise bike sitting in the corner of my games room doesn’t have much appeal as an alternative. Staring at the wall or the pool table while I pedal and the dog tries to chew my feet simply doesn’t compare to the open road.

So last unsettled week I just kept busy with work, chores and errands – until I found myself pulling in at a local cafe en route home one day. It being that time of day, I ordered something to eat, although I was slightly bemused to find myself out for lunch – alone and on a rainy afternoon. Neither of these things is my idiom – I tend to enjoy lunching out al fresco – which indicates warmer weather – and usually in company.

To add to my bemusement, my spontaneous solo-lunch venue selection was the South African shop a couple of kilometres from my house. This is not somewhere I’d lunched before, although I had been in for coffee and cake with friends a few times. So why here? Why now? And why did I feel so relaxed and comfortable about being there? Probably just a surge of nostalgia at the end of what feels like an endlessly long week, I thought.

Whatever it was, sitting there surrounded by sounds and smells from my childhood felt safe and comfortable. The background chitchat in a combination of English and Afrikaans was relaxing and the vetkoek smelled wonderful – and tasted even better. I’ve never tried making it, but vetkoek is essentially deep fried bread dough, drained and filled with some or other tasty filling. It may not sound too appealing, but I can assure you that it’s remarkably moreish, real comfort food. The outside is crisp and not at all oily and the inside is soft and fluffy, like hot bread. I chose a curried lamb mince filling (traditional) and enjoyed every finger-licking morsel of it.

The serious business of eating dealt with, I sat back with my latte and thought about how I was feeling. I’d arrived tired and slightly directionless and had ended up feeling as though I’d been wrapped in a warm snuggly blanket, looked after and cared about – even though, in reality, none of those things had actually occurred. The staff had made me welcome, certainly, and the service had been efficient and pleasant – but that was all. Nevertheless it was, well, nice to sit there – surrounded by hints from my past.

taste of nostalgia_august14I love Australia and wouldn’t swap my life here for quids, but tiredness and stress do strange things to people. No doubt I was experiencing no more than a sentimental connection to the simplicity of my childhood and to Africa, which is part of my core identity. But sitting there, with a taste of Africa still on my lips I felt at ease. As I gazed absently at the chalkboard  and started reading the names of places I’ve been to and through in the past, the words I-AM-FROM-AFRICA made me smile. Yes, I thought, yes I am.