The joys of a real letter

Views as I approach and leave the  post office. Ecija, Andalucia

My definition of a real letter is one that’s handwritten, popped in an envelope and finished off with a paper postage stamp featuring something eyecatching and unique to the country of origin.

Here in Ecija it’s not possible for me to buy a supply of stamps for Australia and just wack them on a letter to toss in the post box. I can get them for Europe but no futher.  I have to physically visit the post office, hand the letter over the counter where they smack an ugly rubber stamp on to show I’ve paid and eventually my letter will arrive in my parents letter box in Queensland.

Memories of days at boarding school, long school breaks at home and the angst of waiting for the post to bring news from friends and family, exotic stamps from far away lands and the flutter of anticipation as I pulled the carefully folded sheets from their envelope all came flooding back to me as I meandered down the cobbled streets.

I usually knew who a letter was from simply by glancing at the handwriting. If a letter was from someone special I used to wait until I could find a private spot before carefully opening the envelope to savour the contents. Many letters I would read and re-read. Some I would rush to answer and then hot foot it to the post office to catch the next mail.

There is an authenticity to handwritten correspondence as it’s seldom to re-write a letter (unless it’s one of those rare job applications that demand a handwritten letter).  Thoughts are allowed to tumble across the page pretty much as they form in our minds. It’s this element which makes the handwritten item so personal and special. With a typed letter is all too easy to delete, replace, spell-check and more.

Handwritten letters are very revealing and I don’t mean in the sense of a formal evaluation. The mood of the writer is evident; rushed or relaxed; happy or sad; irritated or euphoric. Lots of scribbles in the margins and PS’s meant they had more to say after they’d finished. Watermarks (tears or perspiration drops), coffee stains, ink blotches (if you used fountain pen), crossing outs and the occasional food splats also appeared on letters between very close family and friends. I think of letters as having personality.

My English grandmother instilled in me that a proper letter should be written on Basildon Bond stationery. I always wrote my thank you letters after a weekend with friends but since I moved to Australia so many years ago, there haven’t been those occasions. Instead we send emails to each other or make a phone call.

I still have a small stash of special letters tucked away. They are part of my history, testament to special relationships and friendships that an email or typed letter can never hope to compete with. A real letter lasts a lifetime and beyond.

I used to be known as a very good letter writer, but since the advent of emails these have dropped more and more by the wayside. I write to my parents, my niece and a few old friends who don’t have emails.  I’m resolving to write more real letters over the coming months even if the electronic versions are faster and cheaper.



LoveRatatouille. Those unfamiliar with the word may struggle with pronunciation and wonder what on earth it means. Several may think of the Disney movie where the main character is a rat. It would be logical to surmise that the word somehow has something to do with rats. Definitely not!

I love ratatouille. I adore the smell that tickles my nostrils and stimulates my taste buds as the simple, fresh ingredients, rich with colour bubble away slowly over a low flame. I savour the wonderful medley of flavour as the first mouthful hits my tongue whilst my memory banks simultaneously bring to mind thoughts of great friends and family members whenever I prepare this simple fare.

As I chop gorgeous red tomatoes I think of Uncle Gordon, a man of few words, but as kind and gentle a person as you could ever meet. Uncle Gordon was allergic to tomatoes so whenever I invited him to dinner, I had to be careful not to include it in any of my dishes. Susan, my very good friend, also springs to mind as, although not allergic, whenever we went to lunch would always order her salad with no tomatoes. Slicing up the zucchini, I think of Wayne, my son, whose aversion to them is so strong that he feels physically sick. Beautiful firm purple eggplants conjure up images of my father, standing in my kitchen in Darwin teaching me the recipe for eggplant and chilli bean which is absolutely delicious. Hot, spicy and a regular accompaniment to our curry feasts.

Food has a wonderful way of connecting us with memories. For me ratatouille represents family, friendship and love even though it’s not a dish we’ve all eaten together. Weird how our thoughts work!


Ratatouille (noun) – a vegetable stew said to have originated in Provence, France


It’s already Australia Day but, where I am, here in my little flat in Ecija, Spain, rugged up in 4 layers of clothing with the heaters on, it’s not yet the 26th. I am however reflecting on my journey to becoming Australian.

I wasn’t born in Australia, but then again, neither were so many others that call this country home. My entry to Australia was relatively easy as I didn’t need to sit any IELTS tests, apply for sponsorship or come on a boat seeking asylum. I am very grateful and blessed!

I first visited Australia as a 19 year old travelling overland from London to Athens on a bus, flying to Bangkok and Singapore to visit friends and family before landing in Sydney and heading to Canberra before eventually travelling up to Darwin to visit more family members. Little did I know that Darwin was going to play a big role in my future.

It took me a great many years to become completely comfortable living in a country that was so totally different to where I spent my childhood – the Middle and Far East – even though I went to the UK for my final years of schooling. I felt like a fish out of water for a very long time because it was so culturally different to what I was used to. I didn’t really identify as any particular nationality even though my passport said British, and I rather suspect, this was due to my global upbringing and not having a fixed home base. Home was wherever my parents were.

On reflection, I was lucky to have ended up in Darwin as it’s undoubtedly the most multi-cultural city in Australia, a real melting pot where everyone lives side by side and there are no enclaves of particular ethnicities.

Today, I most definitely identify as Australian and consider myself extremely fortunate to live in a country that offers wonderful opportunities and provides, a predominantly, safe environment for children, as well as a warm welcome to those who manage to make Australia their home, even if there are lots of hoops to jump through and things are not always quite as some of us would like them to be.

I applaud all those who work so hard to make Australia a better country.  I give kudos to those in our armed forces who fight to protect our liberty and our freedom and I congratulate all the wonderful people who have been honoured in the 2015 Australia Day Awards. It’s especially pleasing to see Rosie Batty, a domestic violence campaigner named Australian of the Year, her story is truly inspirational and shines the spotlight firmly on a topic that is all too often avoided.

Australia Day Ball 2012 with special friends
Australia Day Ball 2012 with special friends

I’m missing the Australia Day Ball and other festivities, both madcap and serious, but I will be bringing a little bit of Australia into my Spanish classroom tomorrow.

Thank you Australia for all you have given me. I am proud to call you home.

Happy Australia Day!


Reflections of 2014

I’m currently sitting at home, in Darwin, outside by the pool but under the cover of the roof as the first day of 2015 has begun with a wonderful tropical rainstorm. The dogs, Janie and Mollie, are curled up close to me, one at my feet and the other on the outside couch. We are all enjoying the coolness that the beautiful rains have brought this morning, the grass is almost growing right before my eyes and the pool is overflowing.

If you’ve never experienced a Darwin wet season it is indeed something very special. The senses come alive as you inhale the unique smell of fresh, tropical rain, the humidity seems to disappear and the chorus of frogs sing their joy at the arrival of the rains.

2014 has be10410992_10152931194254551_6878165051114676969_nen an incredible year and New Years’ Day is a time to reflect on how blessed I have been. 2014 was the year that included Sasha graduating in February from Bond University. We used the time to have a family catch up and all booked into the Sofitel at Broadbeach for 3 nights which was just lovely as precious time was spent with Mum, Dad, my sister Yvonne, niece Ellie and of course Sasha. The graduation itself was a very proud moment for everyone.

In June, my Uncle Harry, the eldest of the Van Buerle clan, passed away suddenly but peacefully in Perth which was a very sad but his funeral was a family occasion which allowed a reunion and reconnection with distant family members and the Van Buerle connections all over the globe were strengthened.

July saw me relinquish my role as CEO of Lifeline Top End as the time had come for me to concentrate my energies on other areas which included, hopefully, living in Europe for a year.

August was the biggest change of all as this was when I left Australia for the World Club Crews Dragon Boat championships in Ravenna with the Waterfront Warriors team. After the championships I remained in Europe catching up with former collegues and friends in Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels.

I ended up basing myself in Spain which has allowed me to have precious me time to take a well-earned rest from the last three and a half very hectic years in which so many things have changed in my life.

It’s been wonderful to be at home for the Christmas holidays, fantastic to see Sasha and Wayne again who’ve done a wonderful job of looking after the house. I’ve also really enjoyed spending my birthday with family and friends, Christmas Day with my cousins, and now having my brother Robert here from the UK.

Myself with Wayne and Sasha – my two beautiful adult children

I’m very fortunate to have two wonderful children who are always supportive of each other and our family, great parents, a wonderful brother and sister and 2 fantastic nieces.  Although we might not all live close by, or even in the same country we are always there for one other and in a time of crisis can be by one others side very quickly. This is the gift that was given to us by my parents – a strong family unit.

May 2015 be another year of wonderful opportunities for everyone and I look forward to sharing many more adventures, making special memories and helping many of you achieve your maximum potential over the next 12 months.


Delicious delights……Spanish style

On Saturday I had to go to two supermarkets. Why? Because I needed to stock up on Earl Grey tea bags which are only sold (as far as I have discovered) at the one supermarket right across town – 20 min walk each way but hey, there’s lots to see along the way so it’s no chore. For the record the Earl Grey tea bags are more expensive than wine!

It was then onto my local supermarket (5 mins from home), for the heavy stuff (wine!), where I discovered a wonderful counter has popped up. It’s like an old fashioned lolly shop, full of a massive variety of individually wrapped little treats. It’s not self-service, so you don’t just grab what you want (even if it is the supermarket!), rather there is a very charming lady behind the counter who notices me looking. I tell her in my very poor Spanish that I have no idea what this stuff is.

2014-11-22 19.37.22_resizedShe asks me if I’m French – why does everyone do that, do I speak Spanish with a French accent? Then she explains they are all varieties of shortbread – yep, I learnt that word last week, so thankfully was able to understand. There are about 40 different varieties so I am stumped! However, this is a properly trained saleswoman who immediately sees an opportunity and suggests a small selection to begin with. I agree. Yes, once I’ve tasted, I can come back for what I like. I have absolutely no idea what she’s sold me except I also got the word almonds and wine. Yes, I like them both. Hasta luego and off I go clutching my twelve individual little pieces that cost me a grand total of E2.00 – so cheap that it doesn’t matter if I don’t like them.

Back home, shopping is unpacked, wine in the fridge and time for a cup of (very expensive) tea as far too early for wine. Ohhh…… mmmm, it is soooooo yummy. Yep I have found something new, delicious and I am sure totally fat free – (not!) to indulge in. My favourite is Rosco de Vino made with cloves, cinnamon, aniseed, sesame seeds, red wine, four and butter and dusted with icing sugar – reminds me of some of the delicious Arab style cookies. How will I resist eating too many? Just as well I walk everywhere!


Winter is coming

George R R Martin is a huge hit round here

It was 6 degrees when I woke up this morning. I’ll definitely have to pile an extra blanket on my bed tonight if I won’t want to turn into a popsicle. The change in weather has been very sudden and from wearing a sleeveless top last week I am now in a thermal. My latest purchase today was a pair of boots and I’ve fished out the heater for tonight.

The breeze is cold so I’m all bundled up as I walk to work which brings back memories of days spent working in UK and how I never liked going to work in the cold weather. On the upside it never snows here and the sun shines brightly to warm me. Last week, I was busy crossing the road to walk in the shade and this week I’m doing the reverse and chasing the sunny side of the street.

My students have been coming to class all excited about Game of Thrones Season 5 which has just wrapped up filming in Osuna which is the next town to us. Several attended casting calls for locals or have friends who were lucky enough to land a role as an extra. It’s a big deal for the locals as tourism is expected to get a boost as a result of these locations being chosen. In a place which has a high unemployment rate (34.5%) this is welcome news. English is definitely the key to employment and explains why there are so many language schools in Spain and the high demand for native English speakers.


A wonderful world……..thank you Abreast In A Boat

What a wonderful surprise it was last night to walk into Ca’de Ven (an amazing local wine bar) and hear a voice yell out “Michelle. Michelle Hanton”- I turned around and there was Cheryl Watson coming towards me along with Juanita Pegler. It is almost seven years since we last saw each other. We had no idea we were all going to be in Ravenna so it was a delight to catch up with these amazing women whom I first met in 2002 when I put together the Internationally Abreast (IA) team for the World Club Crews being held in Rome. Juanita and Cheryl along with Deb Thiessen and Linda Acosta were the Abreast In A Boat representatives from Vancouver.

IA team members - Rome 2002 reunited in Ravenna 2014
IA team members from Rome 2002 reunited in Ravenna 2014 – Juanita, Michelle & Cheryl

It was soooo fantastic to see the girls again. We hugged and reminisced about those early days and that incredible time we had in Rome. It was also where I met Donna Leon, as she was there to film our journey for her program They’ve Got Game – Water Works.

The world of dragon boating for breast cancer survivors has changed so much since those early days but the friendships made by those of us who were pioneers remain strong. It’s funny that in the last 2 months I’ve also had a reunion with Elspeth Humphries – who was also in the IA boat in Rome – she swept the 2000 metre race – first time a breast cancer survivor crew took on that race – and today it is so common place for survivor crews to compete and indeed, to do well, in these races. Janelle Gamble, another of our Internationally Abreast originals will also be here but this time as an IDBF official and I will be sweep for the Waterfront Warriors team.

If it was not for breast cancer and Abreast In A Boat I would not be sitting here today writing this bog. Funny how the darkest moments in our lives can turn into some of the very best opportunities. As they saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I have to say, based on what has happened in my life, this is most certainly true.  Before signing off this blog I also want to make a special mention and say, I always remember with great affection, two special women who have lost their battle with breast cancer, Sandy Smith from Abreast In A Boat who was a guiding light in setting up Dragons Abreast in Australia, and of course the unforgettable Orlanda Capelli who became our drummer in Rome and the then went on to establish the first Italian breast cancer survivor team.