We are staying in The French House, a B&B in St Helen’s. It sounds exotic, perhaps suggesting a link back to the French explorers who helped map the Tasmanian coast in the late 18th century. However the truth is more mundane: the house was built by a local Frenchman in the 1980s, who is said to have modelled it on his parents’ home in the South of France. To be honest, it doesn’t look especially French to me, but a reproduction of the famous painting by Jacques-Louis David of Napoleon Crossing the Alps hangs in the stairwell to remind visitors of its cultural heritage. Whatever, it’s decent accommodation set in thirty acres of lush gardens and bushland; we’ll be comfortable here:
We take breakfast at a table in the huge kitchen. On one wall is a painting featuring a Superb Fairy Wren and a Kookaburra, both birds we’ve become familiar with over recent weeks. The mantelpiece is decked out with various cat ornaments and there is a framed photo of a dog, presumably a much loved family pet. The atmosphere is homely and welcoming, the way good B&Bs should be.
There are no other guests so we have our hosts Jan and John to ourselves over breakfast, chatting amiably about this and that. Jan’s an Essex girl, originally from Chingford, but you’d never know: to me she sounds totally Aussie, no trace of the estuary in her vowels. But then, she’s been here since the 1980s; this is her home now, no regrets about the move other than the distance when family duties call back in the UK.
John’s a born and bred Aussie, and worked for many years in local government. We compare notes, talking cuts and pensions and bureaucracy. One day he decided he’d had enough, got out and built another life for himself. The best thing he ever did, he suggests … other than marrying Jan, that is.
We talk prices … isn’t Tassie expensive, we say. Yes, Jan and Jon agree, more expensive than mainland Australia. They explain that one of the problems is the size of the population – there are so few people in Tassie that there’s insufficient competition to drive prices down. And lack of competition makes some locals complacent, they add; Tasmania would be even better if only folk tried a bit harder. What Launceston really needs is a decent pizza restaurant, Jan says. Anyone with a bit of skill and imagination could clean up. But it won’t be them; the French House is their fulfilment, they’re going nowhere.
The breakfast is great; the full English and poached peaches. Poached peaches! My god they’re good. I’ve never had poached peaches for breakfast before today, but now Julie’s retired maybe I should start dropping hints?
For a while we talk tech. The French House is a little way outside St Helen’s, and the superfast hardwired broadband will never reach it. The government is proposing a wireless solution for the more remote parts of the country such as this – I suspect that actually means just about all of Australia. The contrast between huge, underpopulated Australia and tiny, crammed-to-the gunnels Britain could hardly be more stark.
Inevitably the conversation turns to American politics, as so many conversations have over the last three weeks. The words spoken may vary, but the not the sentiment. Always, more in bemusement than either sorrow or anger, the message is the same. Donald Trump? Really?
We move on, talking travel, comparing notes on where we’ve been, and where we’d like to go. John goes to a display cabinet in the corner, pulls out a delicate porcelain model of a Tasmanian Devil. “Last time we were in the UK we took a trip north; got this from the Crown Derby factory shop,” he says proudly.
“So did we,” we respond, smiling. Jan adds that after their purchase they drove into the Peak District to check out Chatsworth House. There are times when I am blown away by the realities of international travel in the modern world. Here we are, on the other side of the planet, talking to people we’ve never met before about places they’ve visited that Julie and I could drive to from our home in 40 minutes or so. It’s a small world.
Finally we have to move on. We have a tight schedule, places to go, things to see; and breakfast has taken a bit longer than planned. But it doesn’t matter, travel is more than just an accumulation of the places one visits and photographs. It’s also about the people one meets along the way, about listening to their stories to better understand one’s own. Jan and John are lovely, interesting people running a great B&B and I’m glad that, albeit very briefly, our paths have crossed.
And anyway, only a fool would be in a hurry when there are poached peaches for breakfast.