Sunday, 19 July 2015

On forgotten remembrances

My dad is gone and not gone. The only way I deal with this is forgetting. If I was the drinking sort, this would be a bit of a problem. If I was the career driven sort, I'd be a millionaire. Given that I'm the studious sort, it's a slightly more worthy way of making stuff go away. When I was at university originally, my old life and family in Hereford were gladly and thankfully lost at the back of the mental cupboard. 

As I get older it occurs to me that there is so much else I've forgotten. Not just some of the unreally traumatic bits, but the valuable too. Whether it is a family holiday, an old family friend or even just a pet I used to have, I'm not sure why, whether it's a normal part of age or life. Or whether it's something more perniciously psychological. 

Do people who live in the same village they grew up in, surrounded by physical manifestations of memory retain more? Is my emotional amnesia due to a combination of a thirst for knowledge and the inevitable grief caused by loss.  By looking for connections, have I lost the obvious ones? And by trying to distance myself to avoid being vulnerable, I've actually lost myself. Or are some people hard wired to keep the stories alive and I'm simply not like that?

I've spent so much time avoiding or hiding from family I think I've forgotten it's importance in the cultivation and maintenance of what made me, me. It's not that I want to sit there with a notebook and pen and write my family stories but when I'm with them, they jog so many distant images, its almost unbearable. The sounds of my fathers' friends enjoying themselves is the sweetest music. To sit and listen and simply be is to revert to being twelve. 

I was touched by the memory of my father today in an unusually visceral way. I'm used to my wonderful aunt, and she keeps my dad and grandparents alive in her own unique way. She is so like him in presence. Her voice encapsulates all that I love about them all. The pattern of speech is my grandad and the laugh is pure grandma. She is inspeakably special to me. 

But it was dad's old motorbike police partner that did for me today. I didn't remember the gentleman but inevitably he remembered me. 'Bob's daughter'. I've not been called that for many years and it was like being a kid when I went to meet dad at the police station. His Wirral humour was suitably and familiarly macabre on recounting the usual decapitation/body parts stories, so beloved by ex police officers. I genuinely wish I could run back and ask him everything that he could tell me about dad. God I hope we meet again. 

I am becoming cautious about my year away because I'm sure it's just an escape from negligible responsibilities and an avoidance of an empty familial ache. But in the meantime I'm determined to see everyone more, appreciate and remember how they helped shape me. When I get back, I want to be the best aunt I can me, after all, I have the best role model! 

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Just an average birthday...

This weekend has seen a return to personal form on a level not known since about October last year. There is clearly a correlation between holidays, lack of stress, and being able to live a normal active life. Or it's just taken me six months to get over completing my MA and emerge, blinking mole-like, from  dark book baggage.    

On my return from foreign parts last week my brother called me to remind me about the imminent maternal birthday festivities. He was wondering when the heck I was arriving on 6th June. My brother stresses a lot. Strange, because I don't worry about stuff at all. 

Oh no. 

To be fair he was right to be worried. It turns out I had the wrong weekend in my befuddled head. After a hurried ticket booking and further consultation with the man of the family, everything was organised. All I had to do was get to Pewsey at 9.30 and he would pick me up. I managed it despite over-sleeping and set a world record for crossing London in the process. 

We arrived at his and I finally had my first cup of tea of the day. My nephew hid under a cushion. So my sister in law decided that we'd better put on our party faces as we didn't want to send anyone else scurrying under the soft furnishings. Chris made a fabulous eggs benedict and we sat in the sunny garden, discussing food. It's pretty much staple conversational fodder in our family. 

My brother is proud to announce that in four years he's grown one stalk of purple asparagus. He reports it tasted the same as green. I'm glad we cleared that up.

Roo's favourite colour is red. And he enjoys writing his name. He also loves cars, doing roly-polys, telling stories, swimming, BMX tracking around the garden, and playing catch with Izzy the dog. He doesn't do sprinting competitions at school because he isn't fast enough to win. After all it's not the taking part... His ambition is to explore the jungle. He had me in stitches. He's also a perfect budding worry-wart. On being left in the car, we conspired to drive away; neither of us have a driving licence. He thought about it with a naughty smile, then looked panicked. 'We can't drive', he announced, 'we'd be 'rrested'. 

True. I have a feeling I'm going to have to work on his more anarchistic side. 

The party went off well, despite the many and varied ailments of the family grandees. The pub was a lucky find given that someone had mixed up The Snooty Fox and the The Fox. Chris had asked me about venues and mentioned foxes. I thought it was the 'other' fox so he booked this fox. We were clearly utterly foxed. But thankfully the landlady was charming and the food was all home made. The apple crumble was excellent according to those in the know. My uncle only deals in cider apples so went for the icecream. Wise man. Roo agreed that the strawberry was the best he'd ever had. He's a card. 

After all the fox kerfuffle, we went to see the White Horse. Chris and Roo demonstrated the art of rolling down hills, given a piquant twist of sheep droppings and the boys being in their best party clothes. My mum and uncle enjoyed the walk from the comfort of their stationary vehicle. My family is truly priceless. 

After an excellent day, it was rounded off by a walk in a jungle-like Pewsey nature reserve, and Roo being excited by the trains and tannoy at the station. I only know one person in Pewsey but we haven't spoken in years. Turns out she was standing on the platform, catching  the identical train back to London that I was. Coincidence made for a great ending of a really good day. 

And the most exciting thing? Next week I get to introduce my nephew to Dippy at the Natural History Museum! 

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Let them eat cake...

Today was something of a first and a last for me. The first time I've been to a garden party and wandered aimlessly around Buckingham Palace gardens. And probably the last time I'll be allowed back. Not that I did anything naughty just that that's what most of my readers would presume...


Queue hats...
Best laid plans of mice and harridans meant that I didn't actually leave my office until after 2pm for a 2pm start, which was nice. On the bright side it meant I was expecting queues from Buck House to the home counties. Wherever they are. The event was part of the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the Women's Institute.

I wasn't disappointed, the queue from the main gate was along most of Constitution Hill, but fortunately it disappeared before I found my intended queue at Hyde Park Corner. I whiled away the time chatting with a lovely lady from Wiltshire - I think - who was looking for her mum as she knew she was there and wearing a hat...

Hats. There were a lot of them.

I was definitely in the minority as I didn't have one as a) my head is slightly larger than Phobos and b) it was a trifle windy and I'm actually not as daft as I look.

Fortunately the extremely well behaved queue moved quite quickly and after a quick look at my passport and a suppressed smirk from the policeman we were inside. I forgot to mention, we were warned clearly, everywhere, that no pictures were to be taken and phones should be switched off.

It seemed only I read that bit...

Hats. And cranes.
There were endless excited ladies of a certain age having their photo taken amongst Lizzy's shrubbery, I even took one for the nice lady from Wiltshire, though had to decline one of me as yes said phone was firmly switched off.

We meandered through the fabulous parkland with no idea of where we were going until we reached a frenzy of hats and heels. As near as I could gather this was waiting to meet a royal lady in a hat who also probably had heels. Sort of a cult thing was all I could thing.

At which point I fell in to conversation with a fabulous lady from Oxford. When I say conversation I really mean cackling, lets's just say we were kindred spirits and had an almost identical sense of the occasion...

Nobody but me and a tree :-)
Eventually she went off to attempt to get near the tea tent as I wandered off to have a snout round the garden. I didn't actually get massively far as I found a bench by the lake under a glorious tree where I sat and thought. Living in London you don't get much time in the open to yourself and there was something utterly magical about being so isolated with the sound of the wind in the trees drowning the traffic on Grosvenor Place and beyond.

A lady came to join me, I explained that I was simply enjoying the peace because normally in London I get so little, she made to go but I insisted she was welcome. It turns out she was from Norfolk so I naturally asked whereabouts, she launched in to a familiar explanation of "about 15 miles south of Norwich" when I interrupted her and said where my Norfolk house is. We chatted amiably for quite a while before we wandered back towards the tea tent as she explained she'd come down from Norfolk with friends and she'd mislaid them. Oops. Turned out that you will always find a Norfolk lass near food as they were all there when we wandered in.

Band. Ladies. Hats.
In the queue I began chatting with a lady from Northamptonshire, I think, she'd left at 7am to get there! I admitted I didn't leave until 2pm... She couldn't quite get that I was happy to have just one small slice of victoria sponge and a cup of tea. For me the joy was in simply being out and soaking up the atmosphere.

As the day wore on I slowly wandered towards one of the two military bands that were entertaining the massed hats though I was slightly distracted by a tub of ice cream that a young man with a tray offered me. It would have been rude to say no...

After a few hours of being windswept I decided it was time to head home, I'd toyed with the idea of popping in to Duke's for a martini as I was so close, or maybe wandering up to Claridge's for similar, but as ever the feeling of not wanting to drink alone in a place won over so I scuttled to Green Park and the journey to Contrary Towers.

It was a pity I didn't bump in to any of the ladies I wanted to bump in to but it was also unsurprising and really didn't detract from what was a very pleasant afternoon.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Crystallising Pipedreams

Here I am back in the very village where I first had thoughts which eventually coalesced into what is now The Plan. I have extremely fond memories of this place; romantic, 40th birthday, happy, contented, a certain kind of home coming. 

It was mere a stepping stone on the way to where I am now regarding The Plan, and even Orebić was a continuation of this journey. I've had a spectacular holiday, of course, but it was also another pause to see if I could live in a cottage, alone, in a foreign country, and not go crazy in the process. I'm aware that a fortnight is not a year, and I still have many concerns. 

I've been listening to two American ladies honestly discussing ex-pat life, and their experiences have given me more insight into the pleasures and challenges than I ever thought possible. Their discussions around language, frustrations, isolation, making friends, cultural differences, jobs and employment, health etc etc have enabled me to re-assess my naive 'oh everything will be fine' attitude. 

It's one thing to have a pipedream, an another to set the process going in order to make it happen. Crystallising the Dreams. Or alternatively in Croatian, sve je moguće. I think that pretty much sums up what I've been having mental fun with recently. How can you prepare for what is going to be a fullfilment of a dream? It makes the saving, language learning, and practical research simple in comparison. 

Many people spending time in a different country may wonder why I'm agonising about this so much. 'Is it that a big a deal', they'd query. It's not like I've never travelled, or am from an unadventurous family. I mean, when my brother was fed up of family, he ran away to Barcelona, and had to be sent back by the authorities! We are fairly intrepid, so I think the podcast ladies have stirred up some deeply embedded insecurities. 

I keep coming back to the question -what the hell am I going to do here for a year? I'm oscillating between putting Croatian art history on the map, writing a historical novel reconstructing the world of August I of Saxony, continuing my art podcasts...or even all of the above, but this feels rather narrow in scope. And above all 'static'. 

I've realised this last few months that being stationary is very bad for me - actually I've always know this. I've climbed mountains, walked miles along the coast, swam extensively and regularly, and frankly I haven't felt better. Not since the last holiday anyway. So whatever I do here, can't see me sat at a computer for 7 hours a day. Maybe volunteer my gardening services? Or moonlight on a fishing boat?? Teach yoga (badly) to the squirrels???

Yes I know, I think far too much. I should let go of expectations and judgement, and simply enjoy the process of planning, whilst letting the future take care of itself. After all I am really adaptable, confident, and certain I can do anything. What can I say - I'm trying to lighten up. Which is an appropriate place to end this ramble; the sun is heading westwards towards the islands of Lopud and Šipan, turning the tiny village of Donje Celo into a golden setting for the polished coral-red rooftops. A perfect jewel to aid contemplation indeed. 

Doing nothing special...

Yesterday afternoon I received a whatsapp message from our foreign correspondent asking:

Done anything fun this week?

Initially I replied in the negative, probably because at the time I was metaphorically knee deep in trying to understand what was available in a new system. But then I realised I was talking out of my proverbial derrière. So since I last wrote...

Well firstly there was a WI meeting where we had people from Dragon's Hall to talk about tech to the ladies. I have to say it was probably one of the most successful evenings we've had an ages as almost everyone had looks of wonder on their faces as they tried the new toys.

And the best thing? Well as it's rather my day job I could just zone out and natter which was good as my batteries were beginning to fail after a very busy week!

Saturday morning heralded the arrival of the offspring who were dropped off for the weekend. I half expected the elder offspring to agree to join the littlest offspring and I on a trip to Mudchute Farm which, as its name implies, is in Mudchute on the Isle of Dogs. Near Canary Wharf. Yes, there.

I've been meaning to go for ages and having a small boy in tow seemed the perfect excuse to have a nose around! And I'll say if you fancy a wander in a little bit of countryside in the big bad city I can't recommend it highly enough. Especially as the wildlife were so tame that when I squealed squirrel they
didn't even flinch the teeniest bit.

And it was free. Which is always a win.

Back home in Contrary Towers I was persuaded to try flying the kite and as I couldn't really bring myself to wander to the park we went on the roof and flew one from there. If nothing else it's very windy...

Sunday brought the threat of a trip to the Natural History Museum. Now I live in London. Which means day to day I have to suffer a) tourists and b) the underground. Not necessarily in that order. So the idea of heading to one of the most tourist infested places in the capital on a bank holiday weekend wasn't exactly high on my list of things to make me sing with joy.

To paraphrase, I'd rather eat my foot with a spoon.

But the littlest offspring wanted to go so I packed a small packed lunch to keep him going, threw the sun block in my go-bag and after confirming that the eldest was not going to be joining us we set off to the DLR as Mile End was utterly closed.

Of course it was.

The miracle though came when we arrived in South Kensington... There wasn't a queue at the entrance. THERE WASN'T A QUEUE. Crikey. So off we wandered and saw fossils, volcanoes and rode an earthquake simulator. And this kept us entertained for an hour or two until it was offspring refueling time.

Needless to say having stopped, eaten, had an ice cream and a general natter we decided not to go back in as the queue had appeared so after the call was made that somebody needed to go to the loo we headed to the V&A where I managed to persuade the littlest offspring to actually look at some displays...

Sunday evening brought a visit by my lovely friend Stef to eat, drink and make merry. That and I needed some adult conversation.

Monday was... well let's not say too much about that. The big thing today was that the littlest offspring wanted to try flying the kite again. Which pretty much comes down to me running around, skirts flying trying to find a breath of air to make the thing take off. Which it did. For a bit. And then crashed down.

The trouble is this was the kite we found at the surfline of Scarborough beach last year. It was cheap, poorly made and after a life afloat was a little knackered. Also it had clearly flown away from its previous owner so is known to be uncooperative.

But isn't there something magical about a serendipitous kite?

A few modifications were needed so it was out with my sewing machine to repair the seams, lock the structural rods in place and attach a longer tail which I fashioned from a length of wrapping ribbon.

But we never got to try it as their ride had turned up to take them back home. But not before we all scooted off to The Crown by Victoria Park for a spot of lunch with Stef followed by a brief promenade and ice-cream.

Needless to say I was quite squiffy so a several hour nap was in order...

The next day it was back to Fitzrovia for that there work thing. Which was good as a lot of progress has been made recently on a major re-engineering project for the core Energyhive system. Now this went well until sometime in the afternoon when everybody appeared at my desk with cake, fizz and the HotPerm™ wearing a party hat.

The boss told me I wasn't to commit any further code that afternoon so in a rare moment of me actually doing what I'm told I didn't. And finished the bottle.

As you do.

Noisy sods.
Wednesday brought the long awaited trip to the O2 to see Fleetwood Mac with my lovely friends Clarissa and Ryan. The place was packed, the atmosphere electric and the music just wonderful. Having not been to the O2 before I had no idea how bad the crowds would be leaving so the planned Jubilee Line to Canary Wharf then 277 home wasn't going to happen. It would have been quicker swimming the Thames, though that's dangerous so don't try it kids.

Obligatory safety notice done.

Anyway. Home by just before midnight and as Ryan was going to crash here rather than attempting to find a passing charabanc to take him to Essex I broke out the Victoria sponge and made cake eating a compulsory entry requirement.

Next morning I awoke groggily and somehow made progress through the day before scuttling down to the Trafalgar Square Waterstones to meet Stef and hear a talk by Lucy-Anne Holmes of No More Page Three fame.

It was a fascinating talk and I sat next to Stephanie Davies from the campaign, I met her a couple of years ago when she came to talk to my WI about the campaign. There was plenty to take away but the thing I like the most was learning that the now infamous text layout was based on the Frankie Says Relax t-shirts.

Needless to say after the event Stef and I retired to a local hostelry and test their chateau plonk and finish a lovely evening.

Friday night... Okay now this was an unexpected delight as I was invited to dinner by an old and dear friend. We met at Toms Kitchen in St Katharine Docks and proceeded to enjoy the bubbly delights of champagne. Obviously I complained endlessly about the lack of actual plates to eat of, but the pie was really good so they are forgiven. And I was given a plate in the end...

For pudding I chose another special, it duly arrived and before I could take a bite I was told it was the wrong one as it was the old special the one on the board being for tomorrow. Err. Whatever. As it was it was delicious, which was a win. When I was almost finished another pudding arrived. The one I actually ordered as I think the staff felt bad.

So I ate that too.

Is it any wonder I'm the size I am? Anyway, it did mean the rather lovely and friendly waitress could ask my opinion and I'm afraid the first was definitely the best.

And this brings me to today. The big news is that the intrepid traveller has upped sticks and scuttled to Dubrovnik as she begins her long journey home. Hopefully very long as I've not finished tidying the house. Did I say finished? Started. Yes, that's the word.

Ooh, but I did receive a postcard which is exciting in itself and here's an image of it next to the invitation for next weeks excitement when I skip off to Buckingham Palace...

But that will be another tale.

Friday, 29 May 2015

On being a nidiot

Amongst other things - relaxation, culture, food - holidays teach you much about random stuff. So for the benefit of all here are my most recent pearls of wisdom:

- Always check the timetables before catching a ferry for a ferry which isn't running. Fuxakes. 

- When getting in the sea with flip flops and you take them off once you are in, ensure you throw them back up the beach enough... 

- When doing yoga on your favourite jetty ensure pigeons have not left any grey/white presents

- Always take your brolly if you can't see the mountain. Croatia gets more rain than the UK - usually in just one afternoon shower 

- There is always one mosquito in your bedroom, no matter how many you've killed. Even when you're positive they are all dead

- Make sure you sacrifice at least one pair of sunglasses to the holiday god. My new ones are far nicer than my old ones anyway. Perfect for next year's sacrifice. Or for leaving in restaurants 

- Bell towers still give me vertigo and wobbly legs 

- People actually run up mountains. But on the topic of mountains, chocolate doughnuts taste amazing when you're 600m up

- When the little red and white stripe trail markers disappear, start to panic. Turn around, retrace your step and find the next available marker. Also sign posts giving times to destinations - utter fiction

- Oh. Lastly, put your bus tickets in a safe place...otherwise you'll end up hoping that the receipt and a smile will do *gulp*

Two weeks isn't long enough to find out how stupid I am. But then I think everyone knew this already! 

Two ladies go up a mountain

The mountain dominates the town; you arrive and it's right above you, you swim and the sharp rocky folds continue beneath you, and when you go across the channel, its grey/green shadow follows you like a tame wolf. And when the clouds are hiding it, the threatening mood is palpable. 

The gentle seascape of the Pelijšacki waters with its rocky beaches and domestic waterfronts would perhaps lose character without the grandeur above. Climbing Sveti Ilija (963m), I was told, is not something to be attempted lightly or alone. There were reports of venomous snakes, lethal scree slopes, probable exposure, and many other delights awaiting the deluded hiker. 

Never one to shy away from difficulty, I'd wondered how I was going to head up there without needing to warn the rescue teams. My intrepid Kollegin was the answer and we assiduously checked the weather to see which day would be best. Not too hot, not too cloudy... And finally we settled on Wednesday as an auspicious day to go up. 

I'm sure professional mountain climbers have a preparation routine where all equipment is carefully checked and itemised. Crampons, ropes, boots, Kendal mint cake... I took tampons, sandals and some bakery goods. In my defence I had a German lady who would be protection enough against all eventualities. 

We set off bright and early, and fair ran up the first part. A third of the way round we'd been climbing continuously and although the way was reasonably strenuous, the path was well marked. The wind was fresh and we made good time, all the while remarking on the velvet blue of the sea. The view was already spectacular and the town noise retreating. 

We stopped for a snack and a drink, and to add a layer of clothing because the wind was becoming uncomfortable. Eyes watering, we headed up the exposed gully until we thankfully turned onto a sheltered forest path. It was still relentlessly uphill and we nattered to pass the time. We knew that within the forest was a refuge hut and it marked where you'd turn off, heading up to where the mountain really peaked. 

By the time we reached the stone cottage our spirits were suffering a little. But it's amazing how uplifting a wooden signpost can be, not to mention evidence of other human beings. After not seeing a soul for nearly four hours we were happy to chat with fellow walkers. So we took a deep breath, some water, and followed the path up further. 

The trees disappeared to be replaced with the sharpest rockiest exposed climb yet. Until suddenly the world was dizzyingly spread beneath us; we could see the islands of Korčula, Hvar, Lastovo, as well as the mainland and the interior mountains which were snowcapped. Most breathtaking was the spine of the peninsula which disappeared off into the slight haze. We sat there stunned by the wonder of the panorama. Then I showed my appreciation by eating my cheese pie, watching the swifts catch their aerial snacks.

Many of the people on the summit were going back the way they'd come but we had set our hearts on the circular route. It was a little longer but the guidebook offered wild horses, meadows, and more flora than you could imagine. Why on earth would you miss that?

I started by saying how forbidding and grey the mountain appears, but the hidden sheltered interior is a veritable haven of wildlife. It's a natural herb garden, rockery, shrubbery, arboretum combined. The insect, bees and butterflies made the most of the late spring flowers, with wild sage blooms turning the hillside purple. Many low lying blue rounded plants looked like scatter cushions. Large daisies clustered around low conifers as if someone had put up early Christmas decorations. Empty of people, it is truly a garden of Eden.

Descending back to the refuge, and taking the track to the left, we quickly entered the pine forest. Already the windy exposed summit was a sensory memory, replaced by woodland fragrance, shade and bird song. And suddenly the whiny of a horse rang around the valley; we were in luck, a small herd had gathered at a watering hole. They were clearly used to people because as I took my camera out, they hurtled over to mug us for food. Heike had some bread and she fed them her last snack. They were friendly and extremely curious about the contents of backpacks. A wonderful encounter.

Going down was as relentless as going up. At first leg muscles were relieved about the change in motion but they became shaky and less certain. The slippery surface added to the fun! Most embarrassing were the running hikers that would periodically pass by. Running! Never mind, we were happy to take in the spectacular scenery, noting the differences between the way up and the way down.

Just as I was reaching my limit and the last drops of my two litres of water, the going became less steep, and finally evened out. We were on the road to Orebic and we saw our first olive terraces, work trucks and more people. The sea waved a warm welcome home, and invited us in to bathe our traumatised knees. As I paddled around in heavenly fresh water, I looked up at the seemingly stern mountain and realised that the stony exterior hides an incredibly special beating heart.