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Dinner Down Under

It is easier for me to think of my least favorite places— Amsterdam, where I have never known anything but cold and rain, and Moscow, for all the obvious reasons— than of my favorites. I love sliding into a country's spin, giving myself up to its momentum, and above all, perhaps, I've loved the hours spent in hotel rooms. Some rooms have been pleasant, others deplorable, but in all of them there was a reading light and silence. Alone, pillows propped behind my head, I have let words wash over me until, as Wallace Stevens put it in "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm": "The reader became the book."

If pinned down, though, I would say my favorite place is that, not for itself alone, but because of whom I was with and, paradoxically, our brief descent into desolation. A dense Pacific night was coming on, we were thousands of miles from home, and we were very lonely.

My older daughter, who lives in Australia, and I were in Tasmania. In Hobart we stayed over a pub because we are not fussy, although we never became wholly used to passing a roomful of billiard players on the way to our evening showers; and we ate on the docks. From the boats lined up there you could get a boiled lobster, french fries, and a bottle of soda. I don't suppose either of us had ever been as contented as we were then, sitting on a bench in a nearby park and eating with our fingers.

We were serene on the buses, too— we didn't have a car— and never inquired too closely about their destinations. We trusted to chance, traveler's checks, and, although we are otherwise quite different, our mutual curiosity. We are as inquisitive as cats.

We nosed about Hobart, marveling at roses that grew like weeds and men who looked like Colonel Blimp and women who looked like Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. We admired houses that, however small, sported stained-glass windows and lacy ironwork, and wondered at an accent that was sometimes close to impenetrable. Even Port Arthur, the largest of Australia's notorious old prison colonies, couldn't sadden us, because the landscape surrounding that great complex of cells and cruelty is a Byronic Eden. Then, since we had seen it mentioned in a brochure, we traveled one early morning to a small city called Launceston, which is three or four hours north of Hobart. As usual, we had no plans, no reservations. As usual, we were trusting to chance.

Chance took us to a splendidly vulgar Victorian mansion turned into a B&B and run by a woman of Dickensian stinginess. We made our own beds; we ate dry cereals; we used only the corners of our towels because she did not believe in supplying a fresh set every morning. No matter. My daughter and I were amused by a character so ideally suited to running the workhouse in which Oliver Twist was raised.

Launceston was a cheerful place, with a pretty pedestrian mall, a few nice antiques shops (I still regret not buying a Royal Doulton dinner service, circa 1936), and the kind of restaurants that are enchanted by their discovery of coriander and crème fraÎche. I think we rode a model railway, and I know we spent hours at the zoo's monkey enclosure watching behavior that was, as is always the case with monkeys, a disconcerting echo of our own. Then we embarked on a hike to the Cataract Gorge Reserve.

The reserve has two walks: one, for masochists, that involves tortuous paths and outcroppings of rock, and another, for hedonists. Hedonists both, we strolled along the walkway, charmed by the scenery and looking forward to the Edwardian tea garden at journey's end. Then it struck. I, who had forgotten my New York home, suddenly became a victim of a paranoia that had been bred in Times Square. What if predators were lurking behind the bushes and trees, just waiting for a chance to seize our shoulder bags?"I'm a bit tired," I lied to my daughter. "Maybe we'd better start back to town."

I was sad to have been so scarred by urban life, and our mood was muted when we returned to our flamboyantly carpeted, extravagantly pillow-shammed "home." But not too muted, because we planned to dine at what we'd heard was the best restaurant in Launceston. It was a Sunday, however, and Sunday night in Tasmania is what it once was in London: shuttered shops and barren streets.

We didn't know that, though. We embarked on a seemingly endless journey up and down hills, during which I remember seeing nothing human, only stray cats. There was nothing human at the restaurant either. Closed, the sign said. By now the sun was down, and once again I was reminded of how foreign the skies are over Australia. The stars are out of order, and so were we.

We kept on walking. Maybe the café by the bus terminal would be open. We could tell ourselves we were having an adventure, a Graham Greene kind of adventure.

Then my daughter noticed a house, in the windows of which were seated people who seemed to be eating. "I think that's a restaurant," she said.

"It can't be. I don't see a sign."

"I'm going to find out."

While I waited on the sidewalk, embarrassed that we were interrupting somebody's Sunday dinner, she pushed the front door open. "It is a restaurant," she crowed.

There was no sign, the proprietor explained, because the restaurant had only just opened and he hadn't found the time to put one up. It would read FEE AND ME, however, when he did. Fee was his wife.

"You must be cold," he said, and seated us by a big log fire. Hearing our accents, he put on some old Sinatra tapes, and, as the room gradually cleared, he and his wife spent more and more time at our table, wrapping us in warmth as surely as did the fireplace.

I don't remember what we talked about any more than I remember what I ate, although my daughter cherishes memories of her entrée, a steak slit through its middle and stuffed with Stilton. Still, I remember the sound of the logs shifting and of Sinatra's "That Old Black Magic." I know that I drank Australian wine, because I always do, and that my daughter drank ginger ale, because she always does. And I know that when we, the last customers, left the restaurant, the sky was no longer foreign and the air seemed soft.

A few days later we left Tasmania, my daughter gobbling six Tasmanian oysters from a paper plate at a stand outside the airport in culinary farewell. Neither of us has ever been there again, and maybe we never will. As for Fee and Me, we have no idea whether it still exists.

But it will, in a sense, as long as we do, along with air so clean it seems scrubbed, lobsters bought off a fishing boat, and bus rides through the Midlands, which, with their small coach stops, were incongruously reminiscent of Jane Austen country. "Do you remember Fee and Me?" my daughter asks sometimes. Of course I do.

________________________________

Writer MARY CANTWELL, a former columnist and member of the editorial board at the New York Times, is the author of several memoirs, most recently Manhattan When I Was Young, published by Houghton Mifflin.
Fee and Me, the thoroughly restorative restaurant she discovered so many years ago, still exists at 190 Charles Street in Launceston (61-3/6331-3195).

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