29 July 2016

Let the light in

I love Sicily and some time ago I found a blog by a Welsh woman living there. She blogs about her life as a teacher in one of the gorgeous ancient towns, about the food - equally gorgeous - , her travels and so on. Every once in a while she also posts stark reminders about the migrant crisis that Italy and Sicily in particular is trying so bravely and helplessly to cope with.

Her last post has brought me to my knees and with her permission (thank you!), I am posting it here:


"The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time."
- Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, 1914
It seems much like that now, given the events of the past ten days, and one could be forgiven for thinking that the lamps are going out all over the world, as the extreme right closes ranks and even reasonable people blame the easiest, most identifiable scapegoat, the migrant or immigrant, for their woes.
Meanwhile on the "forgotten" migrant route in the Mediterranean people continue to die. I have not seen one report on this in the past week in the British media so here are the facts:
On 20th July Médecins Sans Frontières doctors on board the SOS Mediterranee ship Aquarius went to the aid of a migrant boat in trouble off the coast of Libya. What they found was horrific: bodies were lying at the bottom of the boat in a pool of fuel and it was obvious that these people had died an awful death, crushed or suffocated, as they had been, in the crowded and inadequate dinghy. Survivors, who had been on board with the bodies for many hours, were stretching their hands out in desperation towards the rescuers and are unsurprisingly said to be still traumatised.  Of the 22 bodies found, 20 were those of women and this tragic event is being called the strage di donne [massacre of women] in the Italian press.  In all, 209 people were saved.
On the same day, over 1,000 more migrants were saved in the Mediterranean in eight operations coordinated by the Italian Coast Guard and 1,146 migrants who had been rescued previously were brought to Palermo. Of these, 23 were pregnant women and 63 were unaccompanied minors. The next day a Spanish naval vessel brought 841 migrants and one body to Catania and a MSF ship brought 628 rescued migrants to Pozzallo. Among these were a 73-year-old man and a baby aged seven months. Does anyone really believe that a man of this age, the mother of this baby and others like them would undertake such a hazardous journey if they were not fleeing for their lives?

Rescues and arrivals continued over the weekend, when 375 migrants, including six children and a newborn baby, were brought to Messina.  Two suspected people-traffickers were arrested in Vibo Valentia [Calabria] and are thought to have been involved in bringing a migrant boat containing 16 bodies in the engine room into Italian waters. The bodies of 41 migrants were discovered on a Libyan beach, also over the weekend. These poor souls had drowned five or six days ago trying to reach Italy

UNHCR has tweeted  that 3,000 lives have been lost in the Mediterranean since January.
Now it seems to me that we either accept migration as a fact of our era, stop drawing pretty useless and difficult to prove distinctions between "economic" migrants and those seeking asylum and see that safe corridors are created for them or we accept an ever darkening world.
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. "
- Martin Luther King Jr.

Let's keep those lamps lit, ladies and gentlemen.

27 July 2016

summer gathering stage 2

Rearrangements, more departures and more expected arrivals, as always it helps to have plenty of towels and sheets. And putting the kettle on, filling the fridge. A greenhouse with ripe tomatoes and who brought that big tin of chocolates?

Tomorrow I have to see my lovely immunologist to discuss plan B or plan C or whatever comes next.

Italy was gorgeous as ever. As my friend P says, it's the cooking that makes a place. To which I add, it's the music, and sharp suits.

24 July 2016

Ten days ago, I persuaded myself that I was in excellent health and on we cycled through the apple orchards and vineyards to the weekly market in Merano.
A large affair selling everything from the kitchen sink to exquisitely sweet cherries, apricots, Tyrolean speck and fresh borlotti beans.

I knew I was in deep denial after about 15 minutes and decided to sit down below the statue of Andreas Hofer for the next hour or so, while the others bought ridiculously cheap trekking boots, more apricots, jars of nuts packed in honey and fresh Schüttelbrot.

Via dei portici, Merano

I am trying to remember what we did next. Lunch was involved and more cycling.

bridge over Passirio

church Lagundo Paese

 I recall that I sang at the top of my voice.

Una festa sui prati
Una bella compagnia
Panini, vino un sacco di risate
E luminosi sguardi di ragazze innamorate
Ma che bella giornata
Siamo tutti buoni amici
Ma chi lo sa perché domani questo può finire
Vorrei sapere perché domani ci dobbiamo odiare.

(A picnic
in wonderful company,
bread wine, lots of laughter
The smiling faces of people falling in love
What a beautiful day
We are all good friends
But who knows, tomorrow this may all end
Tomorrow we may all hate each other)
Adriano Celentano

A couple of days later, another apple orchard, after driving north for six hours, slowly uphill and crossing the steep Passo del Rombo where we stuck our sandal clad feet into the snow at 2,500 m and ran from the icy winds back into the car, laughing.

Passo del Rombo

Now we are four generations sitting under my grandmother's apple trees, my father the central presence like a rock, observing and directing, we, his underlings, pass around coffee, cakes, toddlers, gossip. Earlier I had discovered a black leather box, forgotten in one of my father's massive sideboards and now we sift through  photographs of my paternal grandparents some of them over 100 years old. My father cannot understand our delight and decides that I take the lot with me as my share of the his estate. He loves to talk about his estate and how he will distribute it, forgetting that he already did this years ago (for tax reasons) but my brother is convinced there may be hidden treasures apart from my grandmother's china and cutlery, the large hall clock and his shiny car. 

On our drive home, the last leg of our tour, later that night, my body starts sending me urgent shrill messages of feeling unwell but I blame the car's air conditioning. The next morning, I am determined to ignore them but they sit there like a growing pile of dirty laundry. Stubbornly, I go to work and pretend for a while longer to be in control before finally crawling home after picking up yet another sick cert and a prescription for antibiotics (pharyngitis so I am told). And still, I push ahead like one of these battery powered toy clowns: laundry, kitchen floor, emergency translations, excel sheets for the boss, while my throat is on fire and my body breaks out in sweats and shivers.
Three days I play this game. Until finally I stretch out on the sitting room sofa, the doors wide open to the garden, green jungle dripping after a night of heavy rain, listening to the comforting noises from the fridge in the kitchen telling me that it is time to let go of any striving.

21 July 2016

Val Senales, Alto Adige, Italy

We humans need to be close to, and opposed to, and sometimes subservient to, and always respectful of the physical realities of the planet we live on. We need to receive its pure silences and attend to its winds, to wade through its rivers and sweat under its sun, to plough through its sands and sleep on its bumps. Not all the time but often enough for us to remember that we are animals. Clever animals, yet ultimately dependent, like any animal, on the forces of Nature. Whole areas of one's humanity could become atrophied if one remained always within a world where motor-roads are more important than trees and speed is more important than silence.

Dervla Murphy

15 July 2016


n. a state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence, which force you to revise your image of what can happen in this world—mending the fences of your expectations, weeding out all unwelcome and invasive truths, cultivating the perennial good that’s buried under the surface, and propping yourself up like an old scarecrow, who’s bursting at the seams but powerless to do anything but stand there and watch.

from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

13 July 2016

We are all having a wonderful time, on the whole, in general, all things considered, by and large, for the most part etc.
The weather is all over the place. Thunderstorms are very dramatic on the southern slopes of the Italian alps, complete with hailstones, high winds and whoah, the lightning bolts across the valley! We sit on the top floor balcony watching the clouds racing across the peaks, weaving through the valley like white snakes.

Health wise I am constantly lowering my expectations. Right now,  I am dragging them on the floor behind me. Two days ago, I crawled and staggered across this gorgeous but hot hot hot town into the soothing arms and efficient hands of a wonderful osteopath who straightened and massaged my sore back into a brief semblance of sweet flexibility. But even she was somewhat baffled by the purple bruises along my spinal column. I try to cycle and walk a bit every day, along the stylish promenades where emperors and princesses used to take the waters and twirl their parasols, but mostly I seek out the soothing comfort of a deck chair or the stylish grey sofa in front of the large window with a view, while the gang is out and about, tasting wine, climbing peaks, swimming, listening to live music, visiting exotic botanic gardens and fabulous castles, bringing back ripe peaches, apricots (of course), fat black cherries, spicy sausages, the local flat bread baked with coriander and fennel seed, endless varieties of alpine cheeses and Italian dolce. I am spoiled for choice.

12 July 2016

When it comes to apricots, I am turning into an expert. I could go on one of these weird shows and tell with my eyes closed whether I am biting into a Bergeron, Lambertin, Orange de Provence, Hunza, Turkish honey or, currently, a Marille.
Marillen are the queens of apricots, fat, egg sized, deep orange with a blushing red cheek, they taste like nothing else, a touch of peach maybe, and, oh, the sensation when you bite into it, that slight pop when your teeth hit the skin.

Other than that, it's all our usual chaos, forgotten boots and blistered feet, sore backs and too much laughter, tears to follow, rainstorms, heat, thunder in the sky and the hot water boiler on the blink. A family of Cochin chickens, two mamas and four babies, walking and chirping around the garden, a dog patiently waiting for someone to play with, vineyards, apple orchards, glaciers and snow above us.

In no particular order.

03 July 2016

the prize question

I copied and pasted this from an existing constitution. Which one?

common values
  • human dignity
  • freedom
  • democracy
  • equality
  • the rule of law
  • respect for human rights
  • minority rights
  • pluralism
  • non-discrimination
  • tolerance
  • justice
  • solidarity
  • equality of the sexes
  • promotion of peace, its values and the well-being of its people
  • maintenance of freedom, security and justice without internal borders, and an internal market where competition is free and undistorted
  • sustainable development based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive social market economy
  • social justice and protection, equality between women and men, solidarity between generations and protection of the rights of the child
  • economic, social and territorial cohesion, and solidarity
  • respect for linguistic and cultural diversity
  • to contribute to peace, security, the sustainable development of the Earth
  • solidarity and mutual respect among people
  • free and fair trade
  • eradication of poverty and the protection of human rights, in particular the rights of the child
  • strict observance and development of international law, including respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter

02 July 2016

Again, I am my very own disappointment. There is nothing positive I can report about the way I shuffled through the day, picking up angry bits of distraction here and there, furiously jealous of everybody else being so fucking laid-back and healthy.
Don't tell me that.
I should.
You get used to it. That's the worst thing about it.

30 June 2016

So this was June. Monsoon June when it rained every day. And yet, the ants have won. They are out and about on their mating flights right now, flaunting their silver wings for the day. I shooed off a gang of them earlier today but ever so gently. One day we will lift the patio stones and discover an entire universe for miles and miles below them, all the way to the center of the earth.

Well, it seems June was also the month when my health soared and then packed it in again, slowly first but quite deftly now. I am back on old familiar grounds again, bed, sofa, deck chair etc. 

Today, the physiotherapist figured out a way to treat my sore back without me drowning in waves of vertigo and nausea and suddenly, the biggest achievement of my life - as compared to climbing mountains or editing a groundbreaking paper on molecular genetics - is to be able to move my facet joints again without too much pain. While the lovely physio explained about lumbar facet joint arthrosis (which I am quietly ruling out with all my willpower) she arranged my undressed back into a swooning curve and took some pictures of the strange bruises all along my spine.  They are only superficial, she assured me, but we'll have someone take a look - just in case.

The garden is a sea of lilies in yellow and pink and white, the fruit trees are packed - there is no other word for it - we are eating tender purple kohlrabi and I am half way through the blueberries, one fat handful a time.

And now, July. All year, I have been thinking of the promise of beautiful July and the wonderful times we shall have. I may walk in the Italian alps, if only for a short distance - from the car to the deckchair at least.

28 June 2016

Thirty four years ago, I had to get married. I wrote about the reasons here.
Briefly, my status as an illegal immigrant was about to be discovered and in order to avoid being deported, drastic measures had to be adopted. It cost us 40 pounds sterling we didn't have at the time.
Also, I was pregnant but while that was not the reason it helps us to figure out how many years ago we did this. If S turns 34 later this years it means we got married 34 years ago.
Mind you, there are moments when I have to think a bit before I get our daughter's age. But mostly because I often forget my own age. Simple maths was never my strength.
However, if S was born one week before my 25th birthday but not before I got married, what age was R then? What did he wear on the day and why did he almost got us thrown out of Marylebone Registry Office? And so on. Life is full of riddles.
When we had done the dirty deed and returned to Dublin, my new mother-in-law, once she recovered from the shock of this heathen foreign woman stealing the only son, organised a secret wedding dinner with all the trimmings, cake and buffet and speeches and all. At some stage and after a considerable amount of bubbly drinks, she attempted to read out the marriage certificate, one of those large rectangular forms that won't fit in the copy machines, at the top of her voice. But when she came to the long list of my father's first names (Friedrich Nikolaus Maximilian Johannes Heinrich) she gave up. Thence, ballad singing and dancing on the tables incl.
My parents did not attend, they were too affronted to even acknowledge the existence of Ireland as a whole but that was to be expected.
Today was a quiet day, R cut the hedge and picked raspberries and loganberries and strawberries, while I picked up another sick cert and had a grueling session with the physiotherapist, vertigo, vomiting, the lot. Much later, we remembered and had a bit of a laugh. Gosh, time flies when you are having fun.

26 June 2016

Waking, I turn my face to the open window. Blue sky. Someone is opening a car door, encouraging a small child to come on out. Sunday sounds.
My back hurts like fire and hell and I am expecting the end of the world any minute. I decide to go back to work tomorrow, to sort out the most urgent stuff and then call R with my whiniest voice to pick me up. But. If I cannot handle a full day at work (a full day is 5 hrs) I also will need to go back to my GP and I am already rehearsing my apologies for taking up more of her time (- which of course is borderline pathetic). I won't use my whiniest voice, no. I will make myself sound jocular and confident and I will shrug my shoulders slightly, indicating that shit has happened again and that it means nothing, really.
In my darkest self pity moments I am contemplating the next scenarios incl. herniated discs and permanent nerve damage and the worst case, namely that all my remaining teeth are quietly rotting away underneath and behind their shiny white exterior and that any moment, they will all crumble and explode with endless excruciating pain, simultaneously of course.

21 years ago, we crashed the car on the motorway driving west into the sun during a sudden and unexpected snow shower. Nothing too dramatic, slow moving rush-hour traffic, crawling along. We were on our way home from my grandmother's funeral. She had died just short of her 103rd birthday. The funeral was a brief affair and we left early to get home before dark but also because S was getting bored and cranky. 
The car - cheap, small, second hand, French - was a complete write-off, and after the police had been and gone, when the tow-truck had dropped it and us at a garage (closed for the night), we stuffed what we could carry into our bags and slunk away like thieves. Running along the dual carriageway towards the nearest railway station, mother father daughter holding hands and laughing hysterically. Always the lucky ones, we were. Fearless, we were. Oh yes!

Three weeks later, I woke up one morning in pain with a paralyzed right leg. 
Six weeks after the surgery I was running along Brittas Bay as if my life was always worth having. As if everything would always turn out well in the end.

I cannot remember when it stopped, my confidence, my ignorant belief that all will turn out well.  Maybe because it was too easy and I am fed up with easy.

24 June 2016

In the mid 1980s, we left our toddler with R's parents (and dog) in Dublin and drove our little red car to Northern Ireland. It was my first visit to what was then clearly a conflict zone. I remember sitting in a hotel bar just after we had crossed the border and exchanged our punts to pounds, looking out across the rainy sea waiting for soup and sandwiches, strong tea and R naming the mountain ranges in view. It all looked so benign and beautifully Irish.

We spent the first night with friends of friends in Belfast, an elderly Quaker couple, retired school teachers. It was a silent evening, both our hosts busily knitting. In the morning, they issued a detailed map to the city, where not to park, where not to go, what not to say etc.

In the end, we fled Belfast and its armed soldiers on every street corner, lots of body checks and bag searches, and drove on towards the beauty spots, Giant's Causeway at sunset, Dunluce Castle on a bright sunny morning all to ourselves, magnificient views across to Rathlin island, eating fish and chips on the windy beach of Portrush, even a guided tour of Bushmill's.

Somewhere in Co. Tyrone, we stayed with a brave farming couple involved in community work with both sides (courageous and very, very dangerous), in the evening, they walked us along the areas of the village that were safe for them to be in, the places they had been searched, the small army post they had been held prisoner for the odd night and we went to the one pub they could safely visit and tried to remain cheerful.

But what I most vividly remember is the first day, driving through the beautiful Glens of Antrim and looking at the neat and tidy bungalows and cottages, thinking that behind those nice lace curtains someone may be looking at us with our Republic of Ireland car registration, thinking, I hate you, you are vermin.

One morning, we were stopped and searched three times and in the end, we just drove away and across the border again, back in time for tea, watching granddad in the garden and trying to calm down an overexcited child, who suddenly and miraculously was potty trained.

This morning, I think I need to rewire bits of my brain. I have to start including the potential for divisive scenarios on European soil again. Divisive scenario sounds innocent enough but terrible wars have been started here before. Before the EU.

To be honest, I never wasted much thought on the EU. In my mind it is a costly bureaucratic apparatus somewhere in Brussels doing good and bad things I don't understand. When we have visitors from really far away places, we sometimes bring them for an EU drive, see five countries (Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, France) in two hours without a single border crossing. Sometimes, our visitors fall asleep in the car, it's that easy and boring - plus jetlag of course.
We then add some history to perk things up. Spreading out a map of the many different sovereign states, contested borders between small and larger empires, principalities, rulers and their many loyal and disloyal followers and underlings, bloody battlegrounds of tribal conquests long before WW1/WW2. This was the old Europe, we tell our visitors, a belligerent, self centered chaos.

My nightmare scenario: if this brexit leads to frexit and polexit, danexit and hunexit . . . you can come up with really funny terms here, we are on our way back to that chaos.

21 June 2016

This morning I had an argument with my father who admonished me for being too emotional as usual and warned me that I was heading for a miserable old age unless I start using my scientific brain. He put down the phone before I could tell him that I was never good at science and that he most likely is mixing me up with someone else.
I should mention that I don't think I was emotional at all. I may have said stupid things like, it has been a dreadfully rainy month and how strange it's almost midsummer, or, did you see the beautiful moon rising last night.
Number one, he replied, rain in June is normal due to the returning westerly winds from the cold Atlantic ocean reaching the warmer continental landmass. Of course, I should have remembered. I mean, everybody is aware of such simple meteorological scenarios. Everybody but me.
Number two, and this with considerably more impatience in his voice, the moon does not rise. The earth turns. And in an instant I am back somewhere around age 12 or 14, standing on a sandy dune watching the sun setting into the sea - or possibly feeling the earth turning under my bare feet - while my father disgusted with our ignorance and overbearing family life in this small Danish beach house in general, gives us the basic run down of the earth's rotation and solar time.
Sometimes I think both my parents would have been brilliant individuals, if only they could have been spared marriage, family life and their three disappointing children.
I didn't tell him why I am emotional. Not a word about the renewed sick cert and the sluggish days watching French crime series, twisting my back from boredom into painful sciatica and the lab tests from hell. I didn't tell him about the way the earth moved for me when once again I attempted - probably due to my lack of a scientific brain - to accept this as it is and at least in theory, decided to take things as the come - even if that involves crawling on all fours.

18 June 2016

Good Bones 

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful. 

17 June 2016

Last October, the mayoral candidate for Cologne was stabbed by an attacker with racist motives. She survived, only just, and has since been elected mayor of that city. The court case has been going on for a while and it looks like a life sentence or psychiatric hospital if the defendant is deemed criminally insane.
I have followed this in the news on and off, bits of information here and there, all very much as expected. A history of right wing activities, mostly violent, criminal record for this and that, unemployment, broke, no friends, no partner.
We can stop here and come to the usual conclusions.
In a spare moment, we can ask, who is this guy? Why on earth? Etc.
Today, I read that when he was four years old, he was found abandoned in a completely neglected flat, he had been feeding his younger siblings with bits of rice and only when all the food was gone did he knock on the door of the neighbours.

16 June 2016

Is it conceivable that people should never speak an audible language, but should nevertheless talk to themselves inwardly, in the imagination?

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I still think he meant "each other" and not "themselves".

14 June 2016

On a day when I return home from work early, pull down the blinds and crawl into bed, on a day when the rules of behaviour are up for grabs, when this illness is hanging in the air like a raised fist, when I waste precious energy lamenting my loss of direction and purpose (as a woman with a properly paid job), when I am dangerously close to slipping into the comfortable maelstrom of self-pity where everything is to blame, I remember a TED talk I watched years ago where Wade Davis  described meeting a Tibetan nun who had spent 55 years in silent retreat on the day the door of her single room was opened once again:

. . . we began a pilgrimage to a curious destination . . . And the destination was a single room in a nunnery, where a woman had gone into lifelong retreat 55 years before. And en route, we took darshan from Rinpoche, and he sat with us and told us about the Four Noble Truths, the essence of the Buddhist path. All life is suffering. That doesn't mean all life is negative. It means things happen. The cause of suffering is ignorance. By that, the Buddha did not mean stupidity; he meant clinging to the illusion that life is static and predictable. The third noble truth said that ignorance can be overcome. And the fourth and most important, of course, was the delineation of a contemplative practice that not only had the possibility of a transformation of the human heart, but had 2,500 years of empirical evidence that such a transformation was a certainty.
. . . And so, when this door opened onto the face of a woman who had not been out of that room in 55 years, you did not see a mad woman. You saw a woman who was more clear than a pool of water in a mountain stream. And of course, this is what the Tibetan monks told us. They said, at one point, you know, we don't really believe you went to the moon, but you did. You may not believe that we achieve enlightenment in one lifetime, but we do.

Reader, I feel better already.

13 June 2016

hate is not the answer

It is 4:25 am and raining heavily. Sleep does not seem an option right now as my old pal gastritis has decided to come for a visit. I spent the last hour (s?) reading and clicking my way through the mad and sad world on this screen, falling deeper and faster into a tunnel of shouting colours and disasters until I found myself reading   a recipe selection for summer puddings.
For the briefest moment I considered my sanity or possibly the loss of it but then I remembered that R made raspberry jam today - and not for the first time - and how happy I was watching him there in our messy kitchen.
And right now the dawn chorus has started to compete with the rain. This is just another day for me, for you, for us. Another day when we will fail to grasp what it means to be alive. So unbelievably alive.

08 June 2016

Nobody has to make money. We need food, sleep, water, and love. We have been playing these complicated monopoly games so long and so intently, we forgot along the way that we can change the rules at any time because we made up the rules in the first place. Let’s play a new game, one we all enjoy, one that doesn’t destroy us.

 https://publicservicecompany.tumblr.com/ in response to this: 

I am not against solar. But we have to find a way of making money out of it. We cannot rely on subsidies.

07 June 2016

I get the news I need on the weather report.
I can gather all the news I need on the weather report.
Hey, I've got nothing to do today but smile.

Still waiting for the deluge, we have been spared so far, while less than one km from our little road, people are clearing their flooded basements. I spread the different weather forecast in front of me on my desktop like a deck cards, shuffling them until I find one that makes me happy.

Half of the time we're gone but we don't know where,
And we don't know where.

05 June 2016

The towels in the bathroom won't dry, the doors make squeaky noises when we try to shut them and the basement no longer smells of the river, it's basically rotting away under our eyes. All week a string of very heavy thunderstorms has caused many flash floods in the benign and cozy suburbs around us, with the grounds saturated beyond capacity small tinkling streams that normally just go up to your ankles are swelling into mighty forces that wash away cars and entire houses. While the big fat river moves on quietly. It's not me this time, he seems to tell us, it's rain like Never Ever Before. (And midges like never before.)

Our house insurance keeps on sending frantic messages about orange alerts and this morning, we finally prepared for the worst and after clearing off everything of the entire basement floor, I put my welly boots and the two buckets and the broom at the top of the stairs. I suppose we are ready for whatever. Keeping fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, the ants have burrowed deeper and deeper below the patio stones but their  basements - unlike ours, but the next storm is rumbling - must have flooded already because they stubbornly try to access the sitting room. Picture me sweeping them ever so gently back outside. I trust they are clever enough to find a better hiding place.

In paradise it rained every day. Short sudden showers mostly, hammering on the corrugated tin roofs, the dripping water leaving a neat line of small craters in the soil around the house. Minutes later, a short steamy interval and back into the heat. Repeat that several times every day and you get an idea of life on a tropical island.
But there were also days when the rain would not stop and we sat inside playing scrabble and listening to the Dexter Gordon tape.  Outside, small puddles slowly expanding into big pools and  a water fall cascading down the concrete steps leading to the old plantation house. The hot air thick and humid.

the estuary with Joel driving his bus
One rainy morning during breakfast, the hill behind the kitchen window washed down into the estuary in one long deafening roar, filling the stream with dark red soil and all the western rubbish that the people had been burying for years, batteries, broken kitchenware well meaning relatives had sent years ago from overseas, old toys, car parts, and various animal skeletons. A couple of days later, when the river had returned to its normal size, the remains were duly collected from between the mangroves and buried once again. The locals were extremely clean and proud home owners and first thing every morning after sunrise, Joel from next door, in his spick and span uniform (he worked as a bus driver), would sweep up the dead leaves and dropped hibiscus and frangipani and bilimbi petals in a neat pile ready to be burned. You had to watch him because more than once he had cleaned our yard before I had a chance to finish my first cup of tea. I tried to dissuade him but he felt too sorry for us inept Europeans to get the message.
Of course, the next shower would send more leaves down and soon enough, someone would have to sweep them up again and again and again.

kids and dogs playing below the breadfruit trees

And yet, with all this rain, water was always short. Quite regularly, someone would call across the rocks between the houses or send a child with the message to fill the buckets and the bath tub because the water would be turned off in an hour. It was usually announced on the radio and since S had learned to speak in Creole in no time, she usually told me in time, but we Europeans had to be taken care of nevertheless.
The same way that the tourists in the very expensive hotels need to be taken care of, what with their twice/thrice daily showers and extravagant pools right next to the regretfully salty water of the gorgeous Indian Ocean (which is why the water has to be turned off for the mere locals).

01 June 2016

a working day

It has rained most of the night and the basement smells of the river. Or at least that's what I try to imagine. In any case, it's a very damp and wet first of June. The kind of weather that makes my hair all frizzy. The kind of weather that with a bit more heat could remind me of paradise, sticky and dripping green forest. Almost. 
In between showers I run out into the garden to save the fattest peonies from obliteration by rain and grab a handful of strawberries right from under the watchful eyes of the blackbirds.

Of course I put the bowl of strawberries there just for show. Forgive me, Martha Stewart. 

Afterwards, I brought the bowl to my desk and ate the lot and spent the next hour reading and editing a paper on social synchrony, ("the temporal concordance of behavioral and physiological processes among individuals") which in recent years has caught the attention of neuroscience research.  I think this research is so positive and enlightening for a change. Maybe because I can actually understand some of it as opposed to all that intricate DNA sequencing stuff.
Admittedly, I could snigger at these guys (in this case and in previous ones I edited, the cast of experts is all male) in their lab coats examining brains and saliva samples with and without oxytocin, testing their hypotheses about why and where humans show romantic feelings and what brain section rewards trust or why and after which stimuli we actually behave in a social manner. 

My sarcastic mind wants to suggest that all this research is simply due to the development of new imaging methods (the latest versions of functional MRI) which must be fun to play with. And that social synchrony is such hot news because it can be used to show yet another evolutionary advantage of our infallible species. 

". . .groups of insects, birds, and fish synchronize their moves and speeds, a social phenomenon called swarming, flocking, schooling, or herding (Xuan & Filkov, Synchrony in Social Groups and Its Benefits, in: Handbook of Human Computation, Springer 2013). In humans, social synchrony has been documented across a wide range of settings and contexts, ranging from choir singing  . . . to the concerted behavior of stock market traders (Xuan & Filkov 2013)."

See what I mean? From swarming gnats to the wolves of Wall Street in just two sentences. We are the pinnacle of creation after all. 
(Don't copy that quote up there, the paper hasn't even been published.)  

A bit further on in the text there is more exciting stuff about collective intelligence and various dull experiments involving video images and facial expressions and more tiny applications of oxytocin or placebo via nasal sprays and the usual endless bits on methods and statistics but I keep coming back to the choir singing and later on, I find this perfect and beautiful example of wonderfully inspiring human collective intelligence: 

"Recorded on May 31st at Clinton's Tavern in Toronto by Choir! Choir! Choir! featuring Aaron Comeau on mandolin. C!C!C! meets twice weekly to learn original arrangements of songs we love. There are no auditions - singers show up only knowing what the song is and, over the course of a couple hours, parts are learned and then we record a video. Check us out at choirchoirchoir.com/@choirchoirchoir on socials."

31 May 2016

Sometimes my father took me along when he went on his field trips on a Saturday. He did not invite me as such and I don't think I ever volunteered. Mainly because I always got so car sick. It was probably more a matter of getting me out of the way at home. Anything from infectious siblings to my mother refusing to get dressed.

A typical field trip involved endless driving along country roads with my father pointing out the various field crops and their state of maturity. He would nod his approval of properly harvested and stacked bales of hay or shout out his dismay over some obvious neglect. He especially disliked "those young lads" who ran the risk of bad weather damage for one more week of growth.
When we finally stopped he pulled out his small pocket diary to write down his cryptic notes and figures. The diary was a give-away from the local pharmacy, the type with a fake leather cover and a pocket to hold a small ballpoint pen. At the end of the week-to-a-page section, there were lists of the different German car registration plates and their corresponding cities and districts and postal codes, a world map with time zones and international holidays, annual school holiday dates, and one of those tables of distances between large European cities. At the very end were a couple of blank pages which my father used to draw maps and directions to remote villages or motorway intersections beyond his range. These maps were really just a set of lines, crossing or parallel, unlabelled except for initials but always with a small arrow indicating north at the bottom. On one of these trips, he explained to me - briefly and unsuccessfully, I was barely five years old - how to determine the position of the sun and all that.

Usually, he then would be off into a field or a barn or a farm house, while I was left with strict instructions to not leave the car and I spent what seemed small eternities looking at these lists and imagining wondrous scenarios from his lines and notes.

I don't think he had the slightest idea what to do with me and I tried to be good and quiet but I have memories of sobbing my heart out in that lonely car.  Sometimes, the farmers whom my father was meeting in some field or farmyard or barn, discovered me and called a wife or a daughter who would try (and fail) to get me to talk or even just smile with the help of kittens or piglets or other small animals. Eventually, I would end up sitting in a farmhouse kitchen watching the women cooking and talking.

Many many years later when I was an angry student in Heidelberg, my linguistics professor was lecturing on connotations and language learning and he explained how sometimes, not always, specific words will bring back a short memory or physical reaction (smell, taste, fear, hunger etc.) from the time when we first discovered that word. Immediately, I was back in one of these kitchens where the women were baking Kerwa Küchle (Franconian deep fried pastries traditionally baked only for church fairs and deeply disliked by my mother for being too common and unhealthy), dipping the dough into hissing fat, whispering that "she was trying to hide a pregnancy".

Later in the car, with one of these flat bread baskets on my lap, filled with pastries wrapped in a striped dish towel, I asked my father what a pregnancy was but I don't remember his reply.

26 May 2016

Photograph: David Mercado/Reuters 

Watch me climb. I am getting there.

Seriously, this is such an amazing picture, and the most wonderful story

For years, Lydia Huayllas, 48, has worked as a cook at base camps and mountain-climbing refuges on the steep, glacial slopes of Huayna Potosi, a 19,974ft (6,088-meter) Andean peak outside of the Bolivian administrative capital, La Paz.
But two years ago, she and 10 other Aymara indigenous women, ages 42 to 50, who also worked as porters and cooks for mountaineers, put on crampons – spikes fixed to a boot for climbing – under their wide traditional skirts and started to do their own climbing.
These women have now scaled five peaks – Acotango, Parinacota, Pomarapi and Huayna Potosí as well as Illimani, the highest of all – in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real range. All are higher than 19,500ft (6,000 meters) above sea level.

25 May 2016

Life at the moment is hollow, fragmented, boring really. I try and fill it with small bursts of anger and activity here and there but my fears of overdoing it and thus extending this dull slog even further are too strong. I am still hopefully counting the days of this sick cert, ignoring any thoughts of having to renew it next Monday. I try to occupy myself doing little things. I watch the sky, smell the wet garden with its slight whiff of rotting voodoo lily blossoms. I work curled up on my bed, reading through long articles of UN resolutions stunned by their simple beauty (right to safety and health at work, right to land and natural resources, right to maintaining traditional knowledge, right to seed, right to land, right to social security and so on). But mostly I wait. I try not to, but underneath it all, there runs this strong current of watching and listening and waiting.

Of course, there is the protocol and I followed it beautifully to the letter this time, lab works, ecg, lung function, and the eternally repetitive 'you need to rest'. 

I could remove myself and observe it all from a distance, add some irony and make it sound funny. I could shout and wail how unfair life is treating me - again. But all this requires an effort I don't seem to be able to come up with. Not again. 

There are times when I very much want to not be able to cope. Thinking what a relief it would be to abandon all hope of recovery and with it all fears of disappointment, loss.

This, of course, is not something I am capable of. I am one of those creatures who look at the shadow on the cave wall fully convinced of its reality. In the main staircase of my secondary school,  I walked past a mural of Plato's allegory every school day morning for eight impressionable years. It is true that most of these mornings I was far too sleepy to actually look at the thing but there you have it, the powers of subconscious perception and now I am living with the results of enforced study of classic languages and antiquities.

And yet, and yet:

Don't strain yourself, there is nothing to do.
Whatever arises in the mind
has no importance at all,
because it has no reality whatsoever.
Don't become attached to it. Don't pass judgement.
Let the game happen on its own,
emerging and falling back - without changing anything -
and all will vanish and begin anew, without end.

Lama Gendün Rinpoche

22 May 2016

This afternoon it finally started to rain. Watch out, I whispered to the ants on the patio, you had it coming. The temps have dropped from hot, humid and sticky still to cool, damp and very birdsong noisy.

I am working on the ultimate test to determine whether I will be fit for work tomorrow. So far I failed all attempts to iron or go for a bit of a walk. And washing the kitchen floor just now was quite an effort and has produced a level of shaky exhaustion that in no way corresponds to the size of our kitchen or the area within it covered by floor tiles. Maybe I'll recover dramatically over night. There's hope. At least I have been sleeping a lot since Thursday.

Whatever, I am resting in splendid extravagance. While R is downstairs in the clean kitchen, preparing delightful meals, from time to time running upstairs with a fresh cup of tea for me, I am reading through my next assignment, this one on the human rights of peasant farmers, the effects of exporting dumping our agricultural surplus in African countries thereby destroying viable local markets. Just one statistic: 60% of the world's hungry are women and girls. Actually, the correct term is 'suffering from chronic hunger'.

One of the accepted definitions of chronic hunger:  
a perpetual hunger, starvation, or famine due to unequal distribution of wealth or other social injustice
Sometimes it feels like some form of penance - if I only knew what that actually entails - us here in this house, safe and comfortable, harvesting our own excellently tender green asparagus, listening to the rain, and the absolute luxury of having the means, the time, the skill and the interest to translate such information so that people with far more dedication, time, skills and, most of all, conviction may use my minimal contribution together with whatever miserable means are at their disposal to try and make our world a better place.

 Jean Ziegler
in an excerpt from We Feed The World

21 May 2016

We need to welcome genius. To understand that disruptive change and technological revolutions can spread both immense good and harm. To celebrate diversity and overcome prejudice. To raise public and private patronage. To embrace change, and strengthen public safety nets in ways that embolden us all. To build new crossroads and welcome migrants. To tear up the (mental) maps that unhelpfully divide people. To stoke virtues – especially honesty, audacity and dignity. To champion collective endeavours as well as individual freedoms.

This is our age of discovery. We can succumb to its pressures, close our borders and our minds to new people, ideas and technologies, and thereby surrender the possibilities inherent in humanity’s present circumstances. Or we can seize this moment, navigate the crises of our own time and co-create a blossoming that the world will still talk about in 2500.

Flounder or flourish? The choice is ours.

Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna in last Sunday's Observer.

19 May 2016

After my brilliant achievement of an actual proper walk (i.e. boots, backpack, packed lunch, rain gear, map and compass) earlier this month, we thought, what if this actually works, what if this drug enhanced immune compromised body has once again figured out what it takes. After all, it's only been seven years since this was our regular twice a month Sunday adventure.
And this time, why not double length, altitudes to climb, hours and difficulty. Which we did. It was fabulous despite the occasional lingering feeling of being run over by a truck and the two bloody blisters I discovered afterwards on my right foot.

Never mind blisters, I thought and I got carried away, cycled longer and steeper distances every day this week, worked overtime, registered with bikes vs. cars,  ordered decent maps for our Alpine summer walking adventure, cooked elaborate dinners and filled my calendar with a string of exciting events for the coming weeks.

(Little did she know . . .)

Just after I had filmed that little video from my last post on my way home yesterday, my knees started to buckle and after struggling for a while with my stubborn ego, I gave up and called R who without much fuss (thank you) picked me up, bicycle and all, while the volcano began to erupt inside of me. In our adult voices, we reassured ourselves with pleasant chitchat about virus infections and allergic reactions to the pollen overload in a dry windy forest. We did a fairly decent job drowning out the whiny voice inside my head, the one that kept on hissing, told you so.
When the first wave of nausea hit me in the early hours of this morning, I groped for the dramamine in the dark, skilfully avoiding the worst of the sea sickness, aka vomiting. By the time R woke I was well and truly back into my boring chronic illness life, shivers and fevers and vertigo, contemplating the Alpine summer adventure in a deckchair instead. In other words: Back at square one. The usual.

But it was such a great spell and although - of course - I overdid it, I'll do it again and again. There's always a next time, R cheerfully confirmed as he left for work. He is always ahead of me.

18 May 2016

I had a shitty day at work. The kind of day when I wonder what on earth etc. But then on my way home, this happened. It actually is like that every evening at the moment. Spring is noisy.

15 May 2016

The thought that one day I will just stop communicating with my siblings. I wonder how long until they notice? Maybe never, maybe with the same huge relief that I will experience.
Don't, says R, it would be a shame. 

To which I reply: We don't have to like each other at all. But for now we need to look after the stubborn old man in his shiny car. And even that has become a competition. Sometimes, I imagine that my sister is keeping a tally sheet on who he calls more often. She is so mad at me, her emails are like little explosions. This family is my ongoing source of sarcasm and arrogance. We goad each other on and have become experts in snide remarks, well hidden in best wishes and little anecdotes. Whatever it takes to be just nice, I haven't got it.  We never try anyway.

Sometimes I swear I can hear my mother hiss and clamor from her non existent grave. I told you so, you are all good for nothing. 

Meanwhile, the Ice Saints are upon us, today is the feast day of Sophie with a harsh wind full of pollen and the odd drop of rain. R is out there weeding and digging and planting like there is no tomorrow., while I drink pots of tea working my way through the translations of the myriad novel approaches to breast reconstruction. Please, dear women: never miss a breast scan if you can help it.

Yesterday, I did a bit of my civic duty and stood behind a police barrier watching a handful neo nazis shouting their convoluted slogans of hate and fear. I tried to remain all dignified and grown up but when this grey haired hippy behind me started to shout, Oh shut up you assholes, I found myself joining in with wild abandon. I know, I know. It doesn't change a thing. But it cleared my head for better things. I hope so.

This is my mother before she became a botanist.

11 May 2016

This is the view from the kitchen window this morning. The plumeria is not doing too well. And one of the small fig trees has not survived this mild winter. The roses are late but I forgive them.
While chopping some fresh strawberries into my porridge, I listen to the news, the road works and the birds, considering whether I should douse the evolving ant hills on the patio stones with boiling water or let them be. 
Bad karma. 
Years and years ago, we called on a friend living at a Tibetan Buddhist place in the south of France where we not only shared the bedroom with seven nesting swift families flying in and out of the windows, but also had to carefully accommodate various ant colonies in the shower. It was all done very orderly, the ants were provided with safe passage to and from the soap dish and stayed well away from the drains. 
Only two years before that trip, I daily spent a good amount of time killing large civilizations of ants, thick red ants, which ran along my washing line and nested inside the door frames and the box with S's colouring pencils and basically everywhere. Not forgetting the cockroaches, spiders as large as your hand (the smaller ones, the larger versions were higher up in the trees) and of course, mosquitoes. The geckos and the skinks and the giant millipedes, however, S wanted to keep as pets. Life in paradise was not without challenges.

10 May 2016

her blue body

I didn't go for mother's day stuff - we lived in a commune, it was the 1980s, my child was introduced to other things about life, we were serious hippy rebels.
There are vague childhood memories (mine) of colouring cards for my mother but that must have been before I went to school. And the teenager I was then would not be seen dead with a mother's day memento or a bouquet. And thankfully, my mother did not like the idea either. But I only found out this week that it was not a nazi thing after all, this day to idolize women as mothers. See what I mean, my teenage anger etc.
Still, my child called on Sunday - by total coincidence, of course. 

Anyway, in the words of Alice Walker:

We have a beautiful
Her hills
are buffaloes
Her buffaloes

We have a beautiful
Her oceans
are wombs
Her wombs

We have a beautiful
Her teeth
the white stones
at the edge
of the water
the summer
her plentiful

We have a beautiful
Her green lap
Her brown embrace
Her blue body
everything we know.

08 May 2016

Way past my bedtime I am sitting here with my old friend gastritis. Life is full of surprises and every 30 minutes the timer of the dimming app on this computer reminds me that morning is on its way. In future,  I shall not mix fresh strawberries with coffee. Or don't eat strawberries and forget about coffee in general. All this scar tissue in your intestine is not helping either, the expert said earlier this year. So what. Fennel tea and a hot water bottle, while I attempt to edit a pile of manuscripts for the wealthy (and well paying) aesthetic surgeon. So far, I have worked my incredulously ignorant mind through ten different surgical procedures to improve the appearance of the humble hand. I had no idea and frankly, I am glad I didn't. Now I just hope that all this knowledge will rapidly fade from my memory.
The good news is that I went on a proper walk, for a couple of hours (!) and what a delight it was. My energy is coming back, never mind the nausea wars in my abdomen. But shhhhh, don't get carried away. Let's not brag about it. Not yet.

05 May 2016

04 May 2016

that plus sunshine = today

The only thing - apart from maybe a bookshop - that I missed when we lived in paradise was the change of the seasons. During hot tropical nights with the screams of the fruit bats and the boom of plopping breadfruit, constantly barking dogs and roosters crowing whenever - I would dream in slow motion of crocus and tulips, opening fruit tree flowers and the first strawberries, swallows nesting and bright evenings.

Our first spring back was a bit different, or rather, like actual spring when everything basically happens at the same time, explosions of green and colour and soft fruit.
Well, this year has been somewhat slow motion up to now - ignoring the fact that we did pick raspberries on x mas day - but it looks like the show is on the road.