Wednesday, 29 July 2009

World and oyster

So, we all trooped off to Brussels for a week to visit my Godmother (anyone who wants full explanation of the background to this perculiarly-English-unrelated-relation, just ask. It's 22:05 and I'm recovering from a cold virus - and feeling lazy).

My Godmother's a legend. In short:

She's visited almost 200 countries. No cheating - no counting principalities, islands owned by mainlands, transiting through airports at midnight - like I do when I tot up my lot. No, she's ravaged across maps, in-depth. Criss-crossed dictatorships. Fine-tooth-combed through the world, on horseback, shambolic buses, on foot. Dives, digs, guest-houses, family-run inns, student hostels, castles in Romania and yurts on the Steppes have all seen her whet their thresholds over the many years - and still do. She wrangled a visit to Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia before his deposition: as a private guest, walking past live cheetahs flanking the entrance. Went to the island of Zanzibar, when it was by special dispensation only. Tibet? Bhutan? Central African Republic? Laos? Kyrgystan? the Pantanal? (several times) Sudan? Libya? Kamchatsk? (look it up!) Tick, tick, tick, tick, etc. And etc. Etc. Etc. etc.

As an English-French interpreter sometimes sent on conference work overseas (French Africa, when it still existed), she got a taste for voyage in places like Isfahan (Iran) - where she'd end up after veering 'off-route' on the free days following contract end, exchanging the allocated first-class-return for econo trips around the mulberry bush instead. Travelling then remained her only passion after divorce and childlessness, and finally took over full-time from employment when she retired early twenty years ago from her post as a top interpreter for the European Commission.

Places I've never heard of. Places you cannot go now. Places she'd first visited in the 50s, and RE-visits to get the updated version (!). And so on. And so forth. She's just as likely to be traversing the Mongolian steppes on horseback, hiking through the desert, research volunteering in the deepest Amazonian rainforest, birdwatching, as leaping out a Zodiac inflatable in the Antarctic. Birdwatching, you ask? Well, recently, her love is combining birding with travelling. How about having seen every rare bird in the world (and being able to name and spot most of the less rare ones)? Hand in hand with having been to all their habitats, and traversed their migration paths, naturally.

We were visiting, last week, on one of the two, or perhaps three, weeks max you'll find my Godmother at home (per year). Sponsored by a large golden handshake from the European Commission, the money's had to stretch a good twenty years so far and will have to stretch, if she has her way, a good ten years more. No five-starring it. No Hiltons. Which is what she doesn't want, in any case. Is that the way to really - REALLY - get under the skin of a country, a city, a culture, a way of life?

If you mention a city, she'll tell you exactly what to go and see, and where, as well as all the surrounding localities and places to visit. Mention a country, you'll get a verbal "Lonely Planet!" rundown. Never forgets a name, a place, a sight. Mind like a map. Physically, on a walk, I can still barely keep up. On the level of I.Q, I suspect I lag way behind.

Oh, I forgot to mention. My Godmother's 76 (SEVENTY SIX. Soixante Seize. Sessanta Sei. Sessenta Seis. Sechs und Siebsich. Jesus!).

It's not only what she's done and how. It's the never-ending flow of stories (all true and most matter-of-fact) which just make you secretly kick yourself and promise to grow balls like her. Every time.

The occasion in Peru where a small mountain bus was held up by the 'Shining Path' Guerillas because of the couple of foreigners on board. "Young man!" said my Godmother, in immaculate Spanish, to the spotty 17-year old brandishing an AK-47 in everyone's faces as they stood around the now immobile means of transport, in the middle of nowhere. "I could be your Grandmother. So make it sharp, you're not going to leave us here for hours with no food or drink, are you?!" And his boss meekly trooped down the hillside to a local farmhouse, arriving back with Coca Cola and snacks, which they all sat down to share.

The time in God-knows-where on a flight from Outer Mongolia or something, in an old Russian aircraft which ran out of fuel at some godforsaken military airfield. She was shaking the drunk Russian control-tower operator awake, in her 'limited Russian', as he lay slumped at his screen, surrounded with vodka bottles (now I'm exaggerating the number of bottles, the rest is true).

And in India, after a week's fruitless buzzing around a protected forest reserve to catch a glimpse of that shangri-la of endangered species, a tiger in the wild, she strolled out after breakfast on the last day, across the barrier fences, alone. And felt a presence. Turning, saw a tiger but a few meters away. The tiger stared. My Godmother stared back, motionless. And the tiger turned tail and walked off. No, my Godmother wasn't at all alarmed: she knows tigers only attack from behind, as tribespeople she's encountered in her travels have made clear, wearing painted masks on the back of their heads to guard against attack. (In the guestroom at her house was the photo she took, tiger looking on. In a cheap frame, above the children's beds. They were delighted.)

Back at home in Europe, whilst staying with her last week, we talked one day about things closer to home (for homebodies like the rest of us, that is). How Europe has changed over the years. "Is there any crime here in Brussels?" I ask. "Oh!" she answered, smiling. "Just a few days ago, in the centre of town down an underpass, a thug tried to mug me - grab my handbag", she answered. "And what happened?" I asked. "Oh, I elbowed him in the face and he burst into tears!", she said, matter-of-factly. "He told me - 'You aren't meant to do that! It's not allowed!' - And I said to him, 'I suppose you're allowed to steal my handbag, then, young man?! Off with you!'." ... "How old was he?", I asked, not in the least bit surprised, knowing my Godmother well. "Oh, about 25 or so!" she replied. We laughed, heartily. And I wished again, secretly, for Balls like hers. That's my Godmother, alright, at 76 and counting. (She's off again next week, on a trip from here to there...from there to here...lost count. Lost track.)

So, folks, this is why I'm not complaining that I've got laryngitis, feel below par, and have a million things to do since my return two days ago (and imminent departure again tommorow night to the kids' Grandparents in Kent for a couple of weeks). Nope. I steadfastly drank good quality red wine every day of my break in Brussels, took the kids to their aircraft and safari museums, the sights, the mussels-and-chips restaurants, the chocolate shops, all despite feeling more than a little rough (not Swine Flu, no worries!). I've a lot to live up to. Life, for a start! - as my Godmother would put it. She's determined to see every last unique or undiscovered corner of this world before she dies or it fades into anonymity, whichever occurs first. Me? I'm not gonna complain about a little bit of 'flu. As I just said, I've a lot to live up to.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

the shadows of self-doubt

The school holidays are upon us, rain has - according to England's natural 'sod's law of weather' - taken the place of sun and I've not posted for, gulp!, two weeks. But because I believe that someone out there might, from time to time, take a butcher's at my blog ["butcher's hook"= look, cockney rhyming slang for those not in the know] and perhaps even appreciate my writing, I'm compelled to make sure I don't leave you dry in the mouth and unfulfilled. (As if!)

...and there you have it: "As if!". In two words, the very English tinge of self-deprecation. Self-doubt, even. Ahhh... the British! - that art of auto-irony, sarcasm, jest poison-tipped with truth: who really wants to admit openly their self-image is flawed? Self-deprecation is like masturbation: relieves the frustration, but in secret. Hmmm. I rather like that simile. Or is it a metaphor?

So: I like to hope that my words are worth something. I want to view myself as someone who writes and even has a mini-market for it (in the absence of a book deal or the talent to write a bestseller). But, folks, I dunno. When the weather starts to waver and the year grows longer in the tooth, and I've still not achieved even close to my potential and my dreams...well, I slack off writing my blog and buy handbags instead. And eat far too much ludicrously expensive chocolate. And don't have enough sex. Or rather don't have sex at all. And curl up into a little, hibernating, ball inside, waiting for autumn and blustery winds.

How we view ourselves affects our confidence, our life journey, if and how we fulfil our dreams - or don't. How we view ourselves...secretly, deep inside, the ego's reflection on that mirror in your head, mate. You know: that person you've lived your whole life with and the tiny voice you wordlessly chat to, late at night?

No, folks, think about it, I'm not nuts. Admit it: what you know you shouldn't do, but do anyway. The person you'd love to be but aren't quite (or quite yet). It's all a dichotomy between reality and perception. Forget reality shows, this is the real deal. This is Your Life - and mine. And his, and hers. The movie inside your head. Inside my head. All of us. Who you want to be. Who you really are. Mind the gap.

Me? I'm someone who loves to throw parties. Who sees myself as wildly social (but can be self-absorbed and selfish and curt with those who love me best). Who'd like to be as perenially elegant as my late Grandmother, but doesn't always make the cut and secretly loves slobbing around in those old pyjamas. Who sees myself as a bit of a 'creative', but a frustrated one, hence this blog. Who'd love to have watertight integrity, but sometimes tells white lies, most dangerously to myself. Who hides new clothes from my husband under the bed and pretends I didn't spend the money. Who spools a mini-movie in my head of great success... BUT! STOP! Help! (I think), Wannabe Alert!

Granted, my mood does sway with the weather. Maybe it's a primordial thing. And the 'holiday' season's taken on the veneer of end-of-summer at the sea, when the full-blown self-content summer warmth's already a memory and the winds start to foretell the autumn chill-to-be. Nights are becoming longer, even now. Barbecues more risky. The decay of heat makes me introspective and unnerved. I feel my life slipping by with the march of the seasons, another summer passing. And I'm still not living the person I picture myself to be, in my inner eye. Mid-life crisis?

A treasured old flame recently wrote: "I've often agonised about losing my true, self. But it's at times like this that true friends can help to point out the continuity, and thereby motivating and worth doing. So, thank you." But, really, all an old friend can do is placate that secret voice. No-one can really reassure anyone, deep inside, unless they are capable of reassuring themselves.

All we can do, folks, is to keep on comparing that inner movie-reel with reality. And do our best, with the tools we have, to make a change. Not hibernate. Not curl up inside. Not agonise and ask anyone else for reassurance. But face up to the discrepancies, ask some raw and pertinent questions and strike out to take action.

Not living the life you want? Not being true to yourself? Somehow, you can change all that. And only you. That's why I've decided to re-ignite that feeling of summer, that feeling of power, and make daily changes to move towards what I dream of becoming, what I want for myself. This lifetime. Not the one in my head.

As I wrote to my friend: "YOU know who you are. Bugger the rest."

Out of hibernation, whatever the weather!

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Garden party

Right. Let the party begin!

The lawns are mowed, edged, the flowers planted, hedges spruced, paving washed. (A lot of work, for hubby and me).

Shoes bought, my little girl's dress tried for size.

My wreck of a house has also transformed itself into Cinderella. "Wow, what designer piece is THAT?!" asked a friend (old sixties, stripped and painted it myself). "Nice Lulu Guiness lampshade!" (no, I whisper, it's not, you won't guess where...a judicious choice at a quarter of the price!). Farrow and Ball paint? Osborne and Little wallpaper? (No, B&Q - who'd guess). A designer home designed on a budget and looking like a million dollars. "You should do it professionally!" gasp my friends. "I know. I KNOW." I reply. I do know. It's my one skill and I'm happy not to hide it. Love it, if you're good at it. Joy. So: things are looking up. Looking super.

We're setting out the champagne glasses. I'm bubbly inside. I love parties. Throwing a party - it's my natural habitat. Love fun. Love people.

So: tommorow 30-odd people will descend to christen our home and celebrate 40 years. Mine. Everything is lookin' perfect, folks. Lookin' perfect for a party. Let's celebrate life!

First or Last of the Summer Wine?

So, the weather's still balmy. The last of the gooseberries are plump and velvety and flush on their spiny cradle, and our English summer evenings stretch out in their velvety warm breezy relazedness, pushing it all to last (how briefly, we all acknoweldge!): that last beer, that floaty dress before the rains, that feeling of freedom, that love affair with life.

Summer: a lost love, all too soon to become a lost love once more. But not yet. Not quite yet. Not quite...yet.

For now, there's promise in the air. In the sing-song of tracks on the radio, the rattle of ice brushing against mint leaves in a crystal glass. In the flick of a skirt, a wooden bangle against lean bronzed skin. And cool linen shirt across a toned chest. Feelin' free, lookin' good. Baby!

...oh, sweet, perfumed promise. Hot, sexy, free....alive!

Or, maybe, those days are past? In their absence, are they sweeter in memory? The longing which breathed into summer nights has morphed into the chattering cry of children playing and frolicking on the grass, the back-and-forth of little voices serious about a pouring game, water from one pot to another under the evening breeze.

No more playing the dating game. Or the mating game. It's done. Is that what all the breathless obsession, sweet poison, was all about?

To fall in love in summer is to fall in love with life, with the intoxication of freedom. Remember? Now hold it, keep it, the bird won't fly.

Love it. Live it. Life is good. Inject me with summer...while it lasts.