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It is winter here in Melbourne, the rainy season.  We have come full circle, living among students at University College on the University of Melbourne campus.  It was the very first place we stayed when we came to Australia over eight years ago.  I read an amusing memoir a few years back about an American TV comedy writer who lost his job and decided to “retire” at the age of 28.  He went to Florida, of course, moving in with an elderly piano teacher in a retirement village since he was too young to buy a condo.  He signed up for softball and shuffleboard and tried to fit in with people twice his age.  The young students here seem to tolerate us, but I suspect our gray hair renders us more-or-less invisible most of the time.  This was a Women’s College originally, which shows up in the attractive flower gardens and the extraordinary effort to make food for two hundred residents both nutritious and palatable.  

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We sometimes see students who think nothing of wearing their pajamas to dinner.  Monday and Tuesday, however, they all wear black gowns for “high table.”  Their tradition goes back to Oxford and Cambridge, where a table was set on a dias for the master and fellows of the college who sat, quite literally, above the undergraduates, no doubt engaging in scintillating conversation about arcane subjects.  It actually pre-dates the Middle Ages, when families co-habited with servants and animals and members needed to eat above the others if they hoped to eat at all.  At high table here, the students are served their dinners and allowed to partake of wine, but the noise level in the hall has driven us to fetching our dinner plates beforehand, like elderly orphans begging for scraps.

We are recently back from a sabbatical sojourn in Washington DC and Montreal, Canada.  When my professor spouse first mentioned the invitation to speak to a gathering in Quebec City, we were living in Washington DC and Montreal was our very next stop.  The timing of the talk didn’t register until I put it on my calendar.  It was for April 8, five weeks after our scheduled return from the sabbatical.  If push came to shove, you could get from Montreal to Quebec City by dog sled during the winter we just endured.  Melbourne, on the other hand, is not even in the same hemisphere as Quebec.  To get to Quebec City requires getting on at least two planes for nearly 24 hours and passing the time between meals reading or watching a movie or two or six or annoying your seat mate with your life history in excruciating detail.  I try to spend most of my time sleeping.  

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Melatonin is a hormone made by your body’s pineal gland, which is inactive during the day, but begins to produce melatonin when the sun goes down.  Melatonin levels in the blood rise sharply and you begin to feel less alert.  With any luck, you get very sleepy.  This helps regulate circadian rhythms, the “body clock,” which gets upset when you start whizzing around the planet at 550 miles per hour.  The pills you buy over the counter are usually lumped with vitamins or herbal medicines and are completely unregulated. They can give you very weird dreams and I would not suggest taking them, but they do make sleep possible during jet sitting jaunts of long duration.  I am a jet sitter, not a setter.  Setters are dogs.

We booked seats on a Qantas flight to LA, stayed overnight at an airport hotel, then flew up to Montreal the next morning where we stayed put for nearly a week.  With that recovery time, the talk in Quebec was just about doable.  

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I’m sure most people drive or fly from Montreal to Quebec City, but the train is infinitely preferable to either.  You check your bags in the station and get meal service if you book business class.  There is wi-fi and a large window to watch the world flying by at a reasonable trot.  There is the seductive rocking of the coach as it rolls through the countryside.  It was Spring, officially, but still plenty of snow on the ground.  

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The narrowing of the St Lawrence River below Cap-Diamant (Cape Diamond)  provided the name given to the city.  Kébec,  an Algonquin word, means “where the river narrows.”  Founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain,  Quebec City is one of the oldest cities in North America and a major tourist destination in Canada. The ramparts surrounding the old city (Vieux-Québec) are the only fortified city walls north of Mexico. The city of half a million is the capital of the province and home to Laval University, the venue for my wife’s talk.  I had been there only once before, on our rather casual honeymoon in the middle of December twenty-eight years ago.  

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The City is known for its fine food and French Canadian charm.  On this trip, we were fortunate enough to get a lot of both.  Our University professor hostess went out of her way to make us feel welcome.  Even though some sites, such as the Fortress, were not really open for tourists, I was glad we were not there at the height of the season.  The old city is small enough to be overwhelmed by millions of camera-happy visitors like me.  

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The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was one of the most important engagements in North American history.  It was a pivotal battle in the Seven Years’ War, known as the French and Indian War in the United States.  The battle began on the 13th of September 1759.  It was fought between the British Army and Navy, and the French Army on a plateau just outside the walls of Quebec City on lands originally owned by a farmer named Abraham Martin.  The battle involved fewer than 10,000 troops between both sides, but proved to be a deciding moment in the conflict between France and Britain over the fate of New France. It decided the future of Canada.  

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General James Wolfe’s plan of attack depended on secrecy and surprise. A small party of men would land by night on the north shore, climb a tall cliff and overpower the garrison that protected a small road, allowing 5,000 soldiers to ascend the cliff by the road and then deploy for battle on the plateau.  The culmination of a three-month siege by the British and several aborted forays, the battle lasted only fifteen minutes. British troops successfully resisted the advance of the French soldiers and militia under General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm.  Both generals were mortally wounded during the battle; Wolfe received three gunshot wounds that ended his life within minutes of the beginning of the engagement and Montcalm died the next morning after receiving a musket ball wound just below his ribs.

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In the wake of the battle, the French evacuated the city and their remaining military force in Canada and the rest of North America came under increasing pressure from the British. While the French forces continued to fight and prevailed in several battles after Quebec City was captured, the British never relinquished heir hold on the virtually impregnable Citadelle.  With the Treaty of Paris, France ceded most of its possessions in eastern North America to Great Britain in 1763.  

We have a friend who grew up here.  During the Winter Festivals in January and February, he would take part in one of the most grueling events of the season— ice canoeing across the Saint Lawrence.  It is the only way to cross the swollen river when there is too much ice for ferries, but not enough to form an ice bridge.   Crews of five athletes alternately push their canoe across the ice on the frozen parts of the river, and row in the open water with currents of four knots and tides of over 15 feet, encountering ice blocks weighing a few tons.   Our peaceful ferry ride across to Levy is as close as we will come to the practice,  

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The talk was well received and we were soon winging our way from Quebec to Toronto in time to board a giant Cathay Pacific jet bound for Hong Kong, a slight detour on our way back to Melbourne.  We used to live in Hong Kong but the city is changing fast.  The airport is brilliant and there are even more stunning skyscrapers but the air pollution seems worse.  I don’t imagine the air quality in the Special Administrative Region is at the top of PRC’s concerns about Hong Kong.  The so-called “umbrella revolution,” the pro-democracy demonstrations must have put China’s leaders out of joint.  

The reason for the Asian stopover was an invitation to address yet another group of students, and to introduce my wife’s new book—  “International Capital Markets :  Law and Institutions” to the Asian market.  

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We didn’t have a host or any other appointments other than the talk, neither did we have a week to get our brains and bodies back on Hong Kong time.  We took it easy,  threading our way through the intricate maze of walkways and roads observing colorful people and noisy birds.  Each morning we woke to the eerie calls of gibbons, sounding out their loud calls from Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, a stone’s throw away from our hotel.  

My wife caught up with one of her friends and I caught up with one of mine— How Man Wong.  He has a small  but effective outfit called China Exploration and Research Society, now based in a village  at the south-east tip of Hong Kong Island called Shek O. Finding How Man “at home” is quite a trick, since he is almost always on the move.  I was lucky.  Catching up on the most recent of activities of CERS took half a day, and  I was only getting a superficial picture.  While his main focus remains on China and the Tibetan plateau, he has been venturing into Myanmar, Bhutan and even Cuba.  Recording the adventures of 102 year-old pilots who flew over the Himalayas and supplied China during WW II;  trying to save freshwater dolphins in the Irrawaddy River with a cell phone message from Jackie Chan;  repatriating Burmese cats to Myanmar and honoring Cuban-born performers of Chinese opera.  His work boggles the mind.   Check out the website— and see for yourself.  

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Three days later we were back with Cathay Pacific logging nine more hours in a tube from morning ’till night, flying on the backs of ancient plants and decomposed dinosaurs.  From late spring to the beginning of winter.  

We are in College now, back to our morning walks around Princes Park, petting the resident cat and lining up for meals in the dining hall.  The motto at University College is Frappe Fort or “Strike Hard,” which has been re-translated by the administrators to make it sound less threatening, a little less like something out of “Game of Thrones,” —  The politically correct version is:  “What you do, do with a will.”  Even if it involves indecently long periods spent on airplanes, waking up to Gibbon calls and loading up on Melatonin.  

Who can argue with that?  

When you are deep into a vicious game of A_sehole, up against the devious El Presidente, you never, ever want to be forced into picking up a fistful of cards. The whole point of the game is to whittle your hand down to none as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, I had no choice. An ace had just been played and I had no “two” or “ten” to beat it. El Presidente’s eyes gleamed in the night. Damn!

It was raining softly, the last night of our kayak expedition down the Freycinet Peninsula. The six of us were huddled under a tarp playing one of the most perverse card games ever invented, the rules of which changed continuously as the evening progressed.

It is a little-known fact that river and kayak guides spend much of their spare time inventing such games in order to drive their clients to bed so the trip leaders can have some peace and quiet after a long day. It is an unknown fact that opossums, the pests of campgrounds in this part of the planet, hang around simply to sit in on such games. They are, in fact, avid card players, but we ignore them or even drive them away, assuming they are after dessert.

This adventure began on a sunny day a month earlier when we stumbled into the office of Freycinet Adventures in the town of Coles Bay. It was our reconnaissance trip to Tasmania. We had worked our way slowly across the top half of the island, sampling Cradle Mountain and the wines of the Tamar Valley before dropping down the East coast to check out the spectacular scenery and do a little paddling.

It was after we had arranged to rent a kayak for half a day that Nikki said, “You really should come back and take advantage of our four day Easter paddle.” To set bait for two people who love to get out on the water you don’t need much more temptation than that. We were hooked.

Down in the southern hemisphere, Easter is the last gasp of summer. Everyone here heads for the great outdoors. Fortunately, with a bit of head start, we were able to book two nights at a wonderful B&B in Coles Bay called Sheoaks. That was our anchor. After that, I cast the net for a place to stay in Hobart, for flights and a car.

With only one night and a morning in Australia’s second oldest city, we were not able to see a great deal. It was Good Friday, after all. Many of the shops and restaurants and all the museums were closed. Fortunately, we were staying at Colville Cottage in the old port area known as Battery Point within walking distance of Salamanca Place. The City seemed sleepy, but not half as sleepy as it would be in winter, when it appears to function mainly as a jumping off point for scientists on their way to Antarctica.

The first European to visit the Freycinet peninsula was the ubiquitous Abel Tasman, for whom Tasmania itself is named. He named Schouten Island (our home for two nights) but mistook the peninsula for an island. A French expedition in 1802 provided the area with most of its current place names. A whaling station was established in 1824, followed by quarrying and mining operations until it became one of Tasmania’s very first national parks in 1916.

The high pink granite outcrops that plunge down into the sea at Freycinet are part of the same geologic formation as Wilson’s Promontory, three hours south of Melbourne. With sufficient planning, preparation and stamina, it is possible to kayak Bass Strait, separating Tasmania from Australia, thanks to a handful of small islands bridging the gap.

Our jaunt would be a paddle in the park by comparison. We gathered on the beach on Saturday morning for the first time. Our companions were a congenial brother and sister team from Newcastle. Our guides, Tim and Matt, took turns going through the safety procedures, then helped us cram our personal gear into the hatches.

Soon we were on the water. There is something magical about being self-propelled on the ocean. Everything falls away. It is just you, the waves and the glint of the sun. We made our way slowly along the shoreline down to the bottom of Hazards beach.

It was just enough paddling to feel the weight of the boat, the heat of the sun. We set up camp and had lunch, then our four companions headed off on foot for Wineglass Bay. We had hiked there on our previous visit, so we took advantage of the lazy afternoon and had a nap.

It may be possible to actually lose weight on a Freycinet Adventures trip, but I can’t picture it. When our two guides broke out the wine and the chocolate fondue on the very first evening, I knew it was all over. We were in for a gourmet indulgence. Fortunately, we had some hard paddling booked for Easter Sunday- fourteen or fifteen kilometers to Schouten Island. Once there, we could set up camp for good and enjoy ourselves.

And so we did. We paddled the choppy waters of the open ocean, hiked to the top of Bear Hill , swam a bit (keeping a wary eye out for the stingrays), walked the beach, watched the billowing sails of boats in the distance, wined and dined, told stories and played cards.

The game is insane, of course. It is called A_sehole. Just so you know, the trick is– keep your tens.

Despite the fact that our rented residence has a very minimal garden, it needs water (during the two hours of the two days we are allowed to water). My wife insisted that it also required mulch and the dispensation of hard-earned Australian dollars (see previous post) at the local nursery, which seems to do a fantastic business despite the drought, thank you very much. I was the designated pack animal for the big bags of mulch and nicely polished black and white rocks which are part of the garden decor. At the nursery, Poyntons of Essendon, I noticed a small sign: Fall is Here! My God, I thought, Easter is still a month away.

Being down under does a number on one’s notion of seasons. We arrived shortly after the New Year to a heat wave. It was their equivalent of high summer, after all. There were a few days during that first month when the afternoon sun was absolutely oppressive. On Junuary 16th it got up to 105 degees Fahrenheit, but it felt like 125. It did not take long to discover that summer is not necessarily synonymous with shorts and T shirts. The weather of one day could fly through all four seasons without stopping for lunch.

Today is Labour Day in Victoria. Easter is in the fall. Christmas is in summer. June and July will bring in the dark days of winter, which are affected by the low latitude. In the dead of winter, there are only nine hours of sunshine, thirteen to fourteen in summer.

The idea of antipodal points comes to us from the Greeks, apparently. Each place on the planet had a correspondent point on the opposite side of the Earth. You just needed a good drill and a gift for languages. The British liked to think that Australia and New Zealand were their antipodes, but Auckland, New Zealand actually corresponds to Gibralter, and most of the north island of New Zealand corresponds to Spain.

Since most of the land masses on the planet are in the Northern Hemisphere, their antipodes are in the oceans. If we were to float the continent around to the other side, it would end up smack in the middle of the Atlantic. There’s plenty of room and I’m sure we would get more rain. Christmas would be in winter, once again.

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