Saturday, February 11, 2017


My parents had me when my mother was 30 and my father was 31. By the time I was 10-years-old and at the age where you begin to observe your parents as strange and increasingly embarrassing individuals rather than just an extension of yourself, they were in their 40s. I remember going to see 'Back to the Future' with them and afterwards my father complained about how loud the film had been and my mother disdainfully maintained that it was “a lot of rubbish.” I, by contrast, had thought it was utterly awesome. My ten-year-old self appraised the situation as follows: Being 40 means you are old, inflexible, and incredibly boring.

I am now in my 42nd year and have two children of my own. My six-year-old son, who has been listening to Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the great glass elevator’ at night, recently asked me: “Mum if you could take a pill and be 20 years younger in an instant, would you do it?” I asked him if he was talking about going back in time, or if I would still be me as I am now but in a younger version of my body. He said the latter. I immediately started thinking about how wonderful it would be to have another 20 whole years with my husband and children. And how I’d look after my 21 year old self, and go to the gym, and get a really tight butt and stuff, before remembering how lazy I am about exercise.

It was an interesting question though, because my first thought was  - sure I’d like to have a younger fitter body, but I would still want my life as it is presently. My children to be the ages they are now - endearing, interesting and interested in the world, great company. My relationship with my husband which I greatly value, including the rocky patches we have weathered. And of course my journey as an artist. Plus of course all the wonderful friendships I’ve built over the years. Then there's the experiences I've had and the maturity I've gained that's brought with it the confidence to say no to people, to have informed opinions, to stand up and fight with the builder who is trying to fob me off with a shitty job. To know what I like and don’t like and not worry about what I ought to like. The empathy I’ve developed from living through a variety of circumstances and experiences and understanding that not everyone has what I have or sees the world in the same way that I do. Being shaped by the places I’ve travelled to and the people that I’ve met from different cultures. The books that I’ve read. I wouldn’t want to erase any of these things - things that come with getting older - and certainly many of which I was lacking at the age of 21.

Another year has passed since I wrote my last birthday post. My career as an artist has started to grow, and I’ve painted some portrait commissions with more lined up. It’s very exciting and fulfilling and I feel supremely fortunate and thankful to do something for a living that I love doing regardless. And that there are people out there that actually like my work and are prepared to pay for it - that still surprises me somehow. There are times when commissions can be a bit stressful like any job, but the satisfaction and meaning painting gives me makes the entire enterprise worth it.

I paint every day - some things go on to be completed paintings others turn out to be studies or exercises, but whatever it is, I am painting. I continue to be inspired by Hemingway’s work ethic - irrespective of what damage he had done to his liver the night before, he sat down each morning to write. Recently I've had a chest infection so painting became drawing, and I realised how much I enjoy it and that I really ought to do more of it. I’m also becoming a lot more patient with my work, which I think has a lot to do with getting older and also the influence of my portrait painting teacher. He says to me in his beautiful Italian accent: “When you paint you ‘ave a lot of h’energy, you need to focus that h’energy and slow down.” I can get excited to start something and dive straight onto the canvas, which is absolutely the right way to go with some projects, but it’s not right for all paintings. Sometimes capturing certain people is difficult and you need that drawing time to think their faces through. With commissions you also have to plan and sketch so that the client has an understanding of what you are going to do and the direction that things are going in in order to sign off on a painting. While there are those who are happy to leave you to it, it is my experience that people enjoy feeling a part of the process.

As a family we travelled to two parts of Greece last year, including Corfu which I loved. There are hundreds of stray cats in Corfu. Each day my daughter and I would walk to a spot a couple of blocks from the hotel which a motley crew of them would frequent. We soon learnt that despite their indigent status, they had discerning palettes preferring the tasty protein leftovers from dinner or lunch we had saved for them, and the wet cat food we bought over the dry cat food we also offered. And while we enjoyed feeling like we were making a meaningful impact on their lives, it was evident they were fed by the local restaurant owners too, and what we offered was a welcome extra. But my daughter loved those cats and she had names for each of them. We also came to know which of them were friendly and safe to pet - interestingly quite a few despite being born feral.  We talked wistfully about buying a rambling house in Corfu and setting up an animal rescue shelter  - I would paint and she would be a vet/custodian, while my husband and son would have to hope for a good WiFi connection. I think the experience left an indelible impression on her.

I also stayed in Rome for two weeks undertaking a painting workshop with the artist Hollis Dunlap as part of the Rome Art Workshops. That was an incredible experience and helped made possible by my husband who arranged things at home so I could go off and not worry about the children. Even at the time it occurred to me that it’s very easy for people to be generous about things that are convenient for them, but it takes a special sort of person who not only says yes but encourages you to do something for yourself that will inconvenience them to some extent. His words were to the effect of: “I travel for my work all the time. Painting is your work, and this will directly benefit that, so you should go.”

And so I remain thankful that I had the great fortune (because I appreciate that so much of it is dumb luck) to have met someone who is loving, kind, generous, and supportive of me, who is a wonderful father, and whom I still get such a kick out of being with. I think a lot of it also comes down to timing though. I often say to my husband that had we met in our early 20s I would probably have messed it up and he says the same. You know stupid shit - not being able to stay in the room with an argument - storming out dramatically instead of working things out. Not being particularly empathetic. Being overly critical, selfish, vain and sensitive about things that don’t matter. I think in life as in painting, you’ve got to simplify things and know what is important (ergo worth arguing about) and what’s not. To acknowledge when you are being an assehole and say I'm sorry. And having kindness and empathy for the other person is at the heart of everything. The rest is just stuff. I appreciate that there are plenty of people who invest a lot into their relationships and love their partners a great deal and things still don't work out. At our age there are increasing breakups related to mid life crises, the inevitable changes we go through, and many other complex factors. I could be in that position myself one day and I proceed with cautious optimism.

I continue to learn about myself through my children. I hate myself for lacking patience when my son messes around while we are doing homework. Rationally, I know he does it because he finds certain things difficult and so he becomes frustrated and acts out - but in the moment, and depending on how tired I might be or the kind of day I might have had, I sometimes have to bite my hand to stop from getting angry. And that anger, and where it might come from, always surprises me. I try very hard not to be overly precious about my daughter continually losing her belongings and forgetting her homework at school, but it’s tough. I guess some of that comes from growing up with parents who were not very patient or tolerant, and because money was often tight things were not easily replaced. But I continue to strive to be supportive and kind and patient, even if it doesn’t always come easily to me. And I want my children to know that they can come to me about anything - and I won’t lose my shit, at least not visibly. 

This New Year’s eve was a quiet one. We had a small dinner with family and friends at one of our favourite local restaurants, before my husband and I retired to the sofa and then bed. I remember one NY’s eve as a teenager being devastated because my friends were on holiday and I had no one to celebrate with. Having no plans on any given Friday or Saturday night was equally torturous for me. And I recall my father looking at me with a smile on his face and saying sympathetically, “I remember that feeling of not wanting to miss out,” before retiring to the sofa with my mother and a bar of Dairy Milk chocolate probably to watch an episode of ‘The World at War’ - happy as Larry. These days I also relish a Friday or Saturday night when we have no plans, and I can settle back with my husband after dinner with a glass or two of wine and some cheese. We’ll listen to music, talk, and maybe watch a movie, knowing that the following morning we can get up at our leisure - bliss. Sometimes we’ll travel through central London on our way home after dinner with friends, and I see all these late teen/20 somethings queuing up in the cold to get into a club, or smoking outside of one, or drunk on the sidewalk eating a takeaway and I think ; “Oh my god, not for all the tea in China would I do that shit again.” But many years ago I too was there, ill dressed for the cold weather, and loving it. It’s not so much that I don’t like excitement anymore as I value comfort and safety over it.

A noticeable change in myself is that I’ve come to care about politics a lot more - in a way I was deeply apathetic about until even recently. I view politicians in much the same way I do fellow drivers - cynically, anticipating that they are potential hazards and need to be observed closely. I’m very conscious that we elect these individuals (whose real motives we can only guess at) to make grave decisions on our behalf that affect our lives and those of our children. These people have the power to remove our rights, to take us into wars we do not wish to enter, to damage our planet, to misuse our taxes, and they need to be watched, policed, and held accountable. What continues to astound me is that despite the horrors of the second world war, continued racial and religious wars - just horrific genocide, seeing the damaging effects of continued persecution and prejudice in all it’s guises, it feels as if we have learnt nothing at all. In fact in the last year it occurs to me that we are moving back to a time of us versus them thinking, intolerance, ignorance and xenophobia. This worries me deeply. 

My daughter is introducing me to current music - I like this. While I paint I’ll often listen to Paul Simon or a radio station that plays a lot of 80s and 90s stuff - I think the presenters are the same age as me. As a result I don’t often hear current music except when she says: “Mum I want you to listen to x”. She has good taste and likes upbeat stuff, sometimes we dance around the kitchen and she laughs at my moves. She is also a voracious reader and suggests books for me to read, most recently, “The 13th Goldfish’ by Jennifer L. Holm which I thoroughly enjoyed. My son questions everything and is a deep thinker - science, religion, politics - our conversations are unrestricted and always lively and thought provoking. And thank god for Google because when I was a child my mother’s response to all of my questions was: “Because Y is a crooked letter and you can’t make it straight.”

I worry about my health a lot more than I used to or ought to - something I never did in my early 20s. I’ll get a an ache or pain and suspect the worst. It’s tied in with anxiety which I unfortunately suffer from which is in turn related to having experienced a lot of sudden death in my family. One of the things people don’t tell you about having children is you spend a lot of time being terrified that something is going to happen to them or you. Fortunately my husband does not have my neurotic streak. He’s refreshingly optimistic, rational and easy going. The yin to my angst-ridden yang.

I wake up early these days and I cannot get back to sleep. Even on the weekends, and even if we’ve had a latish night. When this first started happening I felt aggrieved - my children are finally past the whole baby/toddler crazy early waking up thing, and they also like to sleep in - but there I am waking up early. I’ve gradually come to quite enjoy this time of the day when the house is quiet and I get to reflect on things. I make a cup of tea, cuddle the cat and look at whatever painting is on my easel with fresh eyes. The calm before the storm.

Like my father did before me I spend a lot of time switching off lights in the house, telling my daughter not to take such excessively long showers, and turning off taps while people brush their teeth. My father, who was an electrician, was probably concerned about the energy bills, while I am concerned about the planet and I despise waste. It’s one of those things that I often find myself thinking about early in the morning along with whatever painting I am working on.

Three weeks ago my husband and I went out dancing with friends - following a dinner. An incredibly fun and rare evening where we were out until around 1am, which is late for me these days. I’m not going to pin this on ‘being old’ because the 40s aren’t exactly old, and 1am isn’t exactly late. It’s more to do with the fact that for the last 9.5 years I’ve had relatively small children who need taking care of the next day.  I can’t be going out on the lash and spending the next day nursing a hangover. I tried this on one or two occasions and let me say this: Children have absolutely no respect for a hangover - it’s all “me me me” with them. But I digress …

So we go out with friends to this fabulous dinner with cocktails followed by more cocktails and dancing,  and the next morning everything hurt - like I’d run a marathon. I vaguely recalled some questionable dance moves where I was shimming against my husband  - down to the floor and then up again. Those kind of slutty dance moves you, or rather I, start doing when I’ve had a few drinks. I’m just awash with relief that there were no sober witnesses and no cameras were allowed in the club. At around 12.30am it started to get really rammed with people, and I began to feel claustrophobic. Eventually we called it a night and I brushed past all the incredibly beautiful young people - an endless supply of which still appeared to be streaming in through the front door with hopeful expressions on their faces. I by contrast, most likely had a boozy stressed look on mine, feeling nothing short of relief once I felt the cold air on my face outside. I gratefully folded my 41-year-old self into a cab next to my husband, and said in a very indignant middle aged kind of way “Who the hell ARRIVES at a place at 1am? Precisely the sort of thing my 40-something old
, inflexible, and incredibly boring parents might have said.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The other side of 40 - musings from an (older) bat

It is customary for me to write something on my birthday each year. Usually I wax on about philosophical changes, physical changes, the music getting too loud, needing more makeup to get the ‘I’m not wearing any makeup’ look etc. And then I like to have a party or some kind of social gathering where I wear too much makeup, drink in excess, and briefly forget about the fact that I am getting older. The hangover the following day serving as a reminder that I am indeed 'getting too old for this shit.'

This year I feel a bit differently about things. I don’t want a fuss, I don’t feel the need for a big party to celebrate. I’m letting this one unfurl in a quietish manner. I’m acknowledging it, I’m not particularly bothered by it. Dare I say it, I am enjoying that it’s my day and the number of years I have been on this planet is kind of irrelevant.

But what is most figural for me, is that I enter into the other side of my 40s with a sense of gratitude. Thankful that I am alive, and that I have my health.  That I have a beautiful family; both the one that I came from and the one that I created with my husband. That I have these fantastic kids that are smart, funny, empathetic and these cool little people that I enjoy talking to and hanging out with. That I have a partner in my life that loves me, all the good, bad and crazy that is me. And that he lifts me up and supports me and believes in me more than I believe in myself. And that after 13 years together I still find him incredibly sexy. That I live in a democracy. That I get to choose what I am going to eat every day. That I have the luxury of having enough food that I have clothes in my cupboard that I am too fat to wear. I am thankful for my friendships - this wonderful assortment of people that enrich me and teach me and challenge me. That I get to paint. My god, that I get to paint. How lucky I am to have discovered something that gives me such meaning, such joy, such frustration, such a challenge? That I get to travel and have incredible experiences. That I have a home to live in. That I have heat, and running water. That I, more or less, have my sanity. 

My evolution as a person up until this point and being on the other side of 40 brings me to some of the following observations: 

You need to embrace all aspects of yourself in order to live an authentic existence. That includes the bits that you don’t like, or that you (or the societal landscape) deems as unacceptable. Integration is key. When things are embraced and you stop seeing them as being ‘bad’ but a part of you, they loose their power and hold over you, and a new, not necessarily tidy (but who needs tidy right?) ‘you’ emerges. Certainly a more interesting you. And then go on and surround yourself with people who accept this integrated person you are - rather than people who only want a version of you that suits them and their own unintegrated selves.

There is always someone crazier than you and likewise someone from a more dysfunctional family than yours was, and that person, like you, is getting on with life because that’s what we are designed to do. It’s weird, but this always makes me feel better. I talk to someone and they say: ‘You think that’s bad, well let me tell you … .” And then we laugh, sometimes through tears.

If you care about someone and things are not good between you, take the time to find out what is going on. It may surprise you what that person is experiencing and chances are although you are effected by it, it may not be about you. In fact, most things are not about you - they are about each and every person’s individual journey and the day to day stuff they are dealing with. Some of it far larger than you might imagine.

Likewise if things bother you, do something about it. Bitching and complaining or passive aggressive stuff doesn’t do anyone any good. Be an active participant in your life rather than the person that stuff happens to. And by virtue of this, take responsibility and ownership for your part in things. Look at how you might be contributing, and sometimes this might even be through inaction, to negative stuff and relationships in your life.  

Surround yourself with people who enrich you, challenge you, and make your laugh rather than those that are toxic and draining. Remember, this is your life, and no one but you is going to have the same degree of vested interest in making it a good one. And as for your partner - they have their own stuff to deal with, so don’t depend on them too much.

Trust yourself. As for trusting others, well, it's a very relative thing given the complexity of people. Basically, you can never truly know another person. Scary thought at first, and then pretty liberating once you get the hang of it.


Find joy in your life. I cannot emphasise this enough. So many people continue to live lives of pure obligation which leads to resentment, hopelessness and damaged relationships. Whether it’s a weekend football game with your friends in the park, a small patch of flowers you tend to in your garden, having a regular friends night out, a weekly cookery or painting class, going somewhere by yourself and having tea and cake once a week with a favourite book.  Something that is uniquely about you, and what gives you a sense of pleasure and even fun. Something to look forward to and remind you that you have a choice, that you are an individual in and amongst all the other roles you have as say partner, parent, child, boss, employee etc. And most importantly, that you are, even in a small way, free.  This is essential. I also recommend reading Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker for inspiration.

As for the physical, as in our looks, I think as you get older you begin to realise that it’s not really a priority in the grander scheme of things. Although judging by the success of the botox and filler industry, or the amount of marriages that end over a younger version of you, evidently there are plenty of people who disagree with me. But looking back I have certainly had periods in my life where I have been much younger, much thinner and had great hair, and I was miserable because of other stuff. Which tells me that this is not where it’s at. But certainly you need to make healthy choices, especially as you enter into middle age, and there is some literature about how regular exercise and certain foods can affect your physical and even mental health. So again we come back to the integration of self - move and eat good stuff because it’s good for all of you, rather than just worrying about the size of your backside. 

I’m sounding sanctimonious, when in fact all of this really serves as a reminder for me. Because although I ‘know’ this stuff, I also get stuck in the rut like everyone else - and the past and even day to day shitty things that happen to us have ways of throwing a spanner in the rational works. I suppose I’m sharing this with you and I’m sharing this with myself - it’s a reminder, a meditation, a prayer.

Thank you to everyone for my birthday wishes. And to everyone that supports and continues to take an interest in my artistic journey. I send you my very best with your own journey and that you find some kind of peace and meaning. Take care and as John Irving wrote in
The Hotel New Hampshire: ‘Keep passing the open windows.’

Picture: Self portrait, 2016. Oil on board.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Up up and away - tales of flying

While I love to travel, I don't enjoy flying. The truth is it terrifies me. Despite having a (very) basic understanding of the laws of physics I still cannot quite wrap my head around how such a massive and heavy machine manages to get up into the air in the first place, and then stay up there. And I worry even more when I see people checking in with a lot of luggage which is going to further weight the plane - why do you need that much stuff, why? And don't even get me started on the amount of hand luggage people drag around with them. 

I've noticed that more recently I haven't been quite as frightened when flying which I'm convinced has something to do with a visit to Bodrum in Turkey - home to some of the worst driving I've ever encountered anywhere in the world. It was so terrifying that at the end of each journey I almost regressed to my early Catholic roots and made the sign of the cross. Since then few things are as frightening by comparison. I think BA or any other airline that has those programmes to help people get over their fear of flying, should send them to Bodrum for a couple of days and get them to catch a few taxis. Likewise the army should send young recruits there to toughen their resolve in preparation for their entry into conflict situations. 

People do strange things on aeroplanes. Depending on how long the flight is, they settle in and make themselves these little nests: put on their pyjamas or slippers, brush their hair, apply face creams, produce strange packages of food to snack on, or insist on waking up and eating a cooked breakfast at what amounts to 3am in the time zone they've just come from. How people eat at that time is a mystery to me and more so people that actually request to be woken up to eat breakfast is even more puzzling. I don't sleep much, and since I started travelling with my children I sleep even less - in the very early days worrying about some kind of Flight Plan situation. My husband assures me that were anyone to attempt to steal our son on a flight they'd bring him straight back.

I cannot get over my instinctive revulsion when people take off their shoes next to me on a flight. I can deal with socks, provided they don't happen to be smelly socks. But bare feet make my skin crawl. While there is the obvious odour one anticipates with feet that have just been liberated from enclosed shoes, this also has lot to do with grooming, or more so lack thereof. It's also a sad and unfair irony that despite their tremendously invaluable, sturdy and reliable service to us throughout our lives, almost all feet are ugly, a handful of them are OK and perhaps 0.1% of them are actually good looking. Although there was this one guy who had really knock out feet. At the start of the journey he took off his shoes and extended these lean tanned hairless extremities onto his foot rest and for the first time in my life the inward cringe thing didn't happen and instead I became transfixed with the beauty of what I was seeing. His brown toes were symmetrical and straight and stood side by side in very slight descending order of heights -  like children posing oldest to youngest in a family photograph. The nails were short and clean and nicely shaped, the undersides of his feet a heathy pink colour, and not a callus in sight. They were works of art, and he knew it. He kept them out for everyone to admire for the entire journey. 

My sister once sat on a long haul journey next to a very large man with excessive body odour. "He took over both arm rests and his body was touching mine," she told me shuddering at the memory of it. The flight was very full so she was unable to request a seat change, so she drank perhaps a bit more than she might ordinarily have in the hopes of numbing her sense of smell and surviving the journey. It reminded me of an overnight Greyhound bus journey I did years ago between my university town and home. I sat at the back in the smoking section amidst an assortment of colourful and depressed looking characters who chained smoked rollies, and ate pungent food from greasy packages. These were not people who wanted to engage in conversation. Instead they exhaled great plumes of blue smoke and looked out of the windows - the passing lights eerily reflected on their faces - as if contemplating revenge scenarios or simply wanting to forget. The entire experience felt never ending and Kafaesque - a journey of the lost souls.

Travel with children appears to be contentious subject these days, and I've even seen online articles suggesting that there be child free flights on offer. Recently I was on a flight to New York, sat close to a family with three children under four, including a baby. At every point in the seven hour flight at least one of those kids was kicking off. The guy next to me was trying to get some shut eye with his eye mask on, ear plugs in, and a blanket he'd kind of sausage rolled himself in. With a degree of sweat from all the fitful tossing and turning, he looked like someone doing a Native American cleansing ritual. I kept waiting for him to pull off the mask and ear plugs and shout out: "For the love of god, can you please keep those children quiet," in that way people who don't have kids think is even remotely possible. But he was one of those nice polite American guys so he kept it together until eventually he just gave up and turned on his screen with a truly miserable expression on his face. Not angry mind you, just a look of abject defeat like someone thinking: I hate my life right now but there's nothing I can do about it. Come to mention it an expression not that dissimilar to the parents of said three kids. 

On a recent flight back from Portugal I sat between my daughter and a well dressed woman in her early 50s. The family across the aisle from us consisted of a couple, their baby, a toddler and two small boys who talked loudly throughout the flight. Eventually I heard snoring and looked across to see the father passed out with the baby (also on its back) asleep across his chest. They looked like they had been wrestling and fell asleep mid manoeuvre. Later when I saw the father awake he looked like one of those people you see on TV being released from a hostage situation - wide eyed, crazy hair, and discombobulated.  The mother resembled someone who reared wild bears for a living: dishevelled, soiled clothes, a well entrenched frown and fixed grimace on her face. While their children took it in turns to have loud conversations, run off down the aisle, or shriek intermittently, the parents uttered regular 'shhs' and 'be quiets,' in an attempt to be considerate to other passengers.

These were good people just trying to get from A to Z with their brood and I felt sorry for them. Those of us with small children have all been in that situation and I always maintain that it's unfair to put a child into an environment like that and expect anything other than childlike behaviour, and people shouldn't judge it. While some parents shelf certain forms of respectable human activity like travel or restaurant visits until their children are more socialised, my husband and I have taken ours on our adventures from day one. And kids do adapt pretty quickly, and they get used to things and so their behaviour improves accordingly. But again you have to make some allowances and can't sweat the small stuff.

While this family were grappling with their small vertically challenged rugby team of boys, my two sat in zombified states staring fixedly at their iPads, wearing earphones and not uttering a peep. I looked up from my soduku, took a sip of my wine, smoothed my nicely pressed shirt, and said to the women next to me in in a manner I imagine sounded annoyingly superior: "Ah yes, I remember those days. It's tough, it's really tough." She nodded as if to say: 'Thank fuck that isn't me,' but instead managed a pained smile and said: "Yes me too, I remember those days," as if recounting a traumatic event she'd rather forget.

I once got into a row with a woman on a flight coming back from the USA. The flight had been delayed for an hour on the ground with us in it, and then we had a seven hour flight on top of that. So the children (who were six and just gone four at the time) had been in a confined space for roughly eight hours. As far as I was concerned, and I appreciate people with small kids have fairly low standards in this regard, it was a surprisingly good and easy flight apart from my daughter throwing up on my husband, or him losing his wedding ring within the machinery of my son's seat while doing a magic trick to amuse the children. But apart from that, the children had been amazing at keeping themselves busy and entertained by us, with no running around, screeching or crying. 

As we started the decent and the fasten seatbelt sign came on, my husband had packed away the children's earphones and so everyone in the immediate vicinity was tortured with the exceptionally annoying high pitched sounds of Princess Sophia the First. The woman in front of me leaned back and said in an icy pinched voice: "Could you please lower the volume on that thing." 
(I couldn't actually reach my son with my seatbelt on and he didn't know how to lower the volume himself)
Me: I'm really sorry, but it's either this or him crying. He's a little kid. He's had a long journey and he's done really well, and I'm sorry if we've ruined your flight. (I tend towards exaggeration and sarcasm in confrontational situations)
Her: You have ruined my flight

Me: Seriously? Wow!  Well, I don't really know what to say. I wish you a happy life
As we disembarked, each of the air stewards who'd been privy to this exchange (loudly) complimented us on how well behaved our children had been and I turned and gave the disgruntled passenger my broadest fuck you smile. 

I've since thought of other ways I could have handled that situation. Maybe taking the iPad from my son and shoving it up her arse, for example. But I'm also reminded of the fact that I've had plenty of practise sitting through screechy kids TV and I'm kind of used to it now, and not everyone else is. Where I'd seen seven and a half hours of happy quietly amused children as an enormous achievement, she saw those last 20 minutes of having to listen to Sophia and friends as having ruined her entire flight. She was definitely a glass half empty person I decided.

Travel does change significantly as your children get older. I remember the days when my daughter was on a goat's milk formula because she was reacting to cow's milk. We purchased it online via New Zealand, and whenever we travelled I'd pack a tin in my hand luggage and two tins in my bag and live in mortal fear of our luggage being lost or us getting stranded somewhere. Even the regular formulas in other countries are different and can result in a baby refusing to drink, never mind trying to find one made out of goats milk. Or getting into a state of panic if my daughter lost her pacifier on the floor of the airplane and I didn't have a backup. Or hoping I'd packed enough clothes and nappies for the flight in case one of my children's bowels began to act up. And then where to put the dirty nappies without totally stinking out the wash room and cabin? Or deciding which of us got to sit next to my son when he became mobile and wanted to crawl and climb into absolutely everything. And loudly protesting at his confinement when the seat belt sign was on. Or attempting a difficult manoeuvre of holding the children while they used the toilet so they wouldn't fall in, and listening to them natter away about a toy or TV programme as little kids tend to do when using the toilet. And while appreciating that it's not right to rush someone in these situations, finding the pretzel like pose necessitated to suspend a small child above an aeroplane toilet in a confined space while they poo excruciating and saying things like: "OK, OK, that's really interesting about Diego the Animal Rescuer, but are you done yet, can you hurry it up please, my leg has gone into cramp and my back is spasming."

And then there's sleep: I deeply envy people who can sleep on planes. My husband, a frequent traveller, can sleep standing up - or in the most discomforting positions. He'll simply turn his head to the side and he's out. I look at him and sometimes feel a sense of resentment knowing that I have several hours of bleary eyed cotton mouthed sleep deprivation ahead of me. Likewise my sister (perhaps in fear of a repeat malodorous journey) pops a sleeping tablet, which she chases with a large glass of red wine, and she surfaces again only when the plane is touching down. Given my fear of flying I don't want to take any kind of sleep medication. I worry that if there is an emergency situation, I will need to have my wits about me. The more I think about it though, perhaps being blissfully passed out if the shit hits the fan is the way to go, but I digress. So I read the shopping magazine and earmark a bunch of stuff I think I absolutely have to have, then I put it down, and watch about 3 movies back to back. Then I'l sit there with a painfully full bladder and ponder how in god's name I am going to climb over all these sleeping people to get to the toilet. I am always quietly pleased when I see another insomniac - his or her face faintly lit by their little TV screen. I feel a camaraderie with these people. If anything happens, it's up to us to sound the alert and help save everyone.

But I doubt I'd be that brave. A friend of mine was on a flight in Asia recently when the large man in the row in front of her started shouting and flailing around. "At first we thought he was some kind of terrorist or a lunatic trying to take the plane down, and people started screaming" she told me. It turns out he was epileptic, and soon after this episode he fell into a deep sleep almost on top of the small frightened Chinese lady that was sharing the row with him. He had a further fit later in the flight, and when they checked his person they found his medication and saw he'd skipped his dose most likely due to travelling and a change of time zones. My friend had been one of the two people to help secure and settle the man on the two occasions and I looked at her in awe admiring her calm attitude and bravery in what must have been a frightening situation. I'd probably have been one of the people screaming or maybe trying to rugby tackle the poor man to the floor shouting: "No you don't, you fuck, I have two small children at home." I made a mental note to ensure that should any kind of zombie infestation or Mad Max apocalypse occur to have Susie on my team.

I'm always surprised by how fussy people can be on aeroplanes, treating the air stewards like something between waiting staff and servants. I once overheard a middle aged American woman get seriously miffed because there wasn't champagne available in our coach section. I wondered if she made it her business to demand champagne at 11 in the morning in her regular life or if this was just something she deemed a life and death necessity when flying. Eventually the air steward gave in and got her a glass from business class. I'm just so thankful that I get to sit back and legitimately have any kind of alcoholic drink during the day, that I'll have pretty much anything on offer. And given my nervousness regarding the mechanical miracle I am seated in, it can sometimes be a life saver of sorts. And the air staff are a rare breed I have some affection for - people that must have to put up with all kinds of crazy and difficult situations in a very confined space, while maintaining their cheery disposition, enviable manners, and sense of calm. Talking to some of these people, as you do when you don't sleep, you hear about their children, or juggling life with boyfriends they hope aren't cheating, or the best places around the world to get good duty free shopping. 

There is only one occasion I saw a pissed off air steward, which was on an American Airlines flight my husband and I did years ago en route to Las Vegas. We were instructed to collect a 'bistro bag' while boarding the plane. This consisted of a bottle of water, a sandwich, a bag of crisps and a piece of fruit - I think. I'm not sure about the fruit. Anyway, the guy sitting next to my husband and I called the air steward over: "Excuse me, but I've just opened my sandwich and it has ham on it"
Air steward: Yes and?
Man: Well, I'm Jewish you see
A.S: Yeah but it looks like you ate the potato chips. So that bistro bag cannot be given to someone else now and I don't have spares
Man: But I didn't realise the sandwich had ham on it until I opened it up
A.S: Well you should have told someone you were kosher BEFORE taking the bistro bag

I believe American Airlines were having a salary dispute with their staff at the time, which might have explained why the air steward was so intolerant. And the sad truth of it is that that sandwich wasn't even very good, and certainly not worth fighting over. But that's the thing about airplane journeys - maybe it's the altitude? Perhaps it's the back stories of the staff and passengers - what they are leaving behind and what awaits them at their destination?  Or the fact that even with seasoned travellers, you're aware of the element of risk you are taking each time you fly. And these things make you a little bit anxious, and a little precious about something like a small bag of mixed nuts or an unappetising sandwich. And, I suppose, a little more in need of, well, a glass of champagne at 11am.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A woman walks into a department store

As I step into the the threshold of my 40s along with most of my friends and FB acquaintances I've noticed a distinctive trend: People moving into this next stage of their lives either rediscover religion or running, and both with equal zealousness. Or there's the rest of us who like posting a lot of funny memes about how we find salvation in the bottom of a wine glass. I click 'like' and post my lols along with everyone else, but inwardly the truth of it concerns me somewhat: Is life so disappointing, have I become so jaded, that the only way to deal with it is to mildly numb myself at the end of each day? Did I mention a lot of these posts involve the necessity of drinking wine when you have children? OK, well, that does in fact make perfect sense. Ignore me.

Then there's the worrying and insecurity aspect of ageing, which may have something to do with the Jesus thing, and the excessive exercising thing that people have going. Personally I don't subscribe to either of these religions, however I have starting reading 'Waking up: A guide to Spirituality without Religion' by Sam Harris, and like everyone else I aware of the significant health benefits of entering into middle age being fit and not carrying extra weight. For the record I am not fit and I am carrying extra weight.

And then there's vanity. On a recent shopping trip to a department store (to purchase a tablecloth) I remembered I needed some face cream. The word need when it comes to cosmetics is a very relative term, especially given the amount of available space or lack thereof, in my vanity cupboard. But I digress. I approached the somewhat overly made up sales person in her late 40s at one of those formidable looking makeup counters.

Her (with a genuine smile): Hi how can I help?
(Phew, thank god, this woman is friendly. Sometimes these ladies can be terrifyingly aloof)

Me: Hi I'd like to get some of the x face cream. My husband got me a little pot for my birthday and it was genuinely amazing
Her: Oh, that's really lovely stuff isn't it? Would you like the cream or the lotion?
Me: What's the difference?
Her (guiding me over to the display area where there are dozens of different creams, lotions and potions) and waving her beautifully manicured hand over it lavishly: Well, the cream is thicker you see, and you might prefer something a bit lighter in summer. So maybe the lotion?
Me: Does it have an SPF?

Her: No, no, because that would thicken it. But we do an absolutely brilliant separate SPF
Me: And how do you apply that - after the lotion?
Her (wide eyed): No no, before, always before
Me: Hmmm, well, I'm not sure. I've still got a good cream with an SPF I need to finish off
Her: I'll tell you what, I'll give you a couple of samples of the SPF and see how you get on. Is there anything else? What about a concealer?
Me: Well I currently use a really good correcting serum from Stila that I like. And it's light weight and it evens out redness and gives me a good glow
Her: Oh you have to try our stuff - it's so light weight - and it blends in with your own complexion. It's gorgeous.

Me: Hmmm, well
Her: I tell you what, I'll give you a sample and you see how it goes. Is there anything else?
Me: Well, come to mention it, I do need an eye cream, I've run out

Her: Ah, fantastic, do you want the large one or the small one, the price difference isn't that much. (The price difference would buy a meal and a glass of wine in a not too shabby restaurant).
Me: I think the small one would be fine, thank you

Her: And have you seen our new makeup range? It's literally just come in today. What about those lipsticks huh?
Me (never one to walk past a perfectly good makeup display without at least admiring the colours): Hmm, that's a nice one
Her: Oh it's gorgeous, and on you, with your colouring, it would be beautiful. Here, let's try a bit on. See? Wow, that looks amazing on you!

Throughout this entire exchange I am 100% aware of the fact that I am getting the hard sell and that she is appealing to my vanity. And yet there is also a part of me that is buying in to it. You know in that way you think that if you get the new mascara or nail polish, you too will be like the girl in the ad: Enviably young, a fantastic mane of hair, legs that go on forever, fabulous gravity-defying boobs, and driving around Paris in a convertible wearing short shorts and high heels. Only to get home and realise that actually the mascara is OK, not amazing, just OK, despite what you paid for it. And you are still 5-10 kgs overweight, the kids don't eat the fish fingers for dinner despite asking for them, and you have a ton of laundry to get through.

We ring up my three purchases - remember how I said I was only going in for one thing?

Me: Wow, that's quite a total. And there was me coming in to buy only the one thing
Her: Awww, now, don't feel bad. You deserve it. You're looking after your skin
Me (remembering something my friend told me recently about how you should spend more money on your skincare than on your clothes): Yup, I suppose you're right. These days it takes longer and longer to get that fresh faced look in the morning. You know?
Her: Oh I know, and my eyes, well they've fallen slightly, and barring surgery, there's nothing I can do about it.  Nothing

We both sigh simultaneously, taking a moment to commiserate with each other about the unfair and inevitable evils of ageing. And it is at this point that I realise this woman is a great sales person precisely for this reason: She is as brainwashed by the beauty industry as the rest of us. Her self worth is directly related to her features and her ability to defy ageing by spending a good deal of her salary on expensive products. This is not indulgence, this is necessity. I mean, would you feel guilty about buying toothpaste or washing up liquid? Of course not. She believes purely and absolutely like a Novice nun. And what better way to spread the word (and make a good commission) than coming from a place of absolute conviction right?

And then there are clothes, and I didn't even bother to go and look for any of those. It's kind of sad for me  - not sad as in world hunger sad I appreciate, but in terms of something I used to get excited about and enjoy in a creative mix and match and self expression way. But in recent months I've lost my pleasure in clothes shopping. For years I could make clothes work - even the really inexpensive and cool ones I'd pick up at flea markets and second hand shops. Or at least I thought I did. I look at some old photos and there were some questionable ensembles. But as I get older I find myself trying on things and noticing a bad cut or a poor fabric and it bothers me. I'll get a couple of things, try them on at home, and take almost all of it back. I'd much rather have just one well tailored jacket in my cupboard than a half a dozen ill fitting ones, and those are hard to find unless you are willing to cough up. And so I just don't shop that much. Good for our household income, bad for the economy.

Then there's the fact that I went shopping earlier this year with a friend whose family have a silk fabric company in Italy.  She'll eye something, feel the fabric between her fingers, turn it over and scrutinise the stitching: "For that price? Forget it," she shakes her head despairingly as if to say: What do these people think I am? An idiot? And I stand by thinking, oh my god, I've bought from this place before, that makes me an idiot. And now I do the same - I really look at these things before buying, and what's genuinely astounding is just how much badly made clothes with cheap fabric blends cost.

I'd by lying if I said my disinterest in clothes shopping also wasn't influenced by the fact that I've gained weight in the last couple of years, and I genuinely don't think anything looks good on me. When you are slender and if you have a good eye, you can make a hessian sack look chic, but when you are carrying extra weight, it takes a good cut to flatter the good bits and hide the rest in order to get a pleasing silhouette. At least according to those of us with a well instilled sense of self loathing and body dysmorphia that is. I ask my mother (who has become my go-to person on ageing questions) and she concurs wistfully: "Oh yes, certainly as you get older and your figure fills out a bit, it's all about a good cut. Finding things that fit on the shoulders, and also across the chest, for example. Or having a bigger chest and a smaller waist. Store clothes never fit as they should. Now if you can get your clothes made for you - even better." And then we talk about a seamstress that was referred to me by my middle aged dentist (as she added fluoride to my kids teeth). "You should see the shirts she made for me - as good as those by Theory. And she's not expensive either. OK, now spit and try and get it in the little bowl this time, not on the floor. There's a good boy." I nod, make a note of the address, and then go over and dab up the pool of fluoridey water my son has produced on the floor. 

Sunday, August 09, 2015

A cat of nine tales

This week our six-year-old cat went MIA or AWOL or walkabout, as my 7-year-old daughter and I like to say to each other. Her record, the cats' that is, is three days missing. She does this from time to time in the warmer weather. On this occasion it was two and a half days, but somehow I'd managed to convince myself that this time was different: I had printed the 'MISSING CAT' fliers using impact font and photos of her in various poses to show off her distinctive markings and her soulful character. On the morning of the third day, I was washing my face getting ready to go and put these fliers up around the neighbourhood, when my husband, who was making tea downstairs, called up excitedly: "Honey she's back!"

And there she was outside the conservatory. Looking a little thin, but otherwise fine, and very non plussed. As though she'd simply nipped out to get milk and bread and wondered what all the fuss was about. And of course I made a big fuss - I was awash with relief, and guilt, and a whole bag of emotions. I fed her, gave her her favourite treat, and then watched as she sauntered upstairs to her spot on the sheet covered spare bed where she set upon sleeping for the next 24 hours. A bit later in the day I curled up on the bed next to her and we both had a nap.

I do wonder where cats go. This recent disappearance prompted me to buy a location device, which you attach to your cat or dog's collar - or your keys or phone. I didn't read the fine print, and hoped this would be a kind of tracking device that would somehow work with google maps and show you exactly where your cat is by way of a throbbing red dot. Something between a Bond film and and Indiana Jones flight mapping scene. Not that I want to stalk my cat or infringe on her privacy, but in times where she does go MIA for three days, it would be useful to locate her. Also to see if she has a routine, because maybe she is being fed elsewhere?  But as it turns out the this locater doesn't work with the Internet, and instead transmits to a handheld device, has a range of up to 
400 feet in a clear line of sight, and uses visual and audio directional beeps to help you locate your cat. It's clever, but not quite what I had in mind. My husband tells me the GPS tracking thing does exist and it's call TAGG - although it only currently works in the USA. This is all neither here nor there because there is the small matter of getting a collar on her to attach this to in the first place, but more on that later.

Our younger cat, who is now a year and a half old, is a male that we got as a kitten. I had made that choice very deliberately so as to make a gentle introduction to our fragile natured older cat by way of a companion. Thinking this way she'd still get to be the boss cat of the house and she'd also have a friend. She never took to him, and now he has grown into a great big panther of a cat, and despite being neutered, is territorial and terrorising of this small fragile creature. On the eve of her most recent disappearance he was taunting her in the garden and then chased her right across the grass up and over our fence and out into the street. I ran out to try and get them back, but by that point they had both vanished - cats at full tilt are very fast.

I had heard of cats running each other off in this way - they are not companionable creatures and are very happy to be the only animal in a household. There was a stray Bengal we used help take care of with another family where we used to live,  who had similarly been run off from the home he shared with his sister. The sister is a twin so uncannily similar to him, that when he too went missing recently, people kept calling in saying they'd seen him, when they'd actually seen her. He, unfortunately, had been hit by a car and during the four days he was missing was lying in someones garden where he had been placed by the driver who quite possibly thought he was dead and didn't want him run over by other cars. It was only by chance that an elderly woman and her grandchild walked past, saw him, and called in to my friend saying they'd seen a cat of that description sleeping under a tree. It was a call that saved his life, because he wasn't sleeping, he was in fact dying and probably would not have lasted much longer. My friend found him terribly dehydrated, with his jaw dislocated and lopsided and his front leg so badly damaged it has since had to be amputated. After extensive surgery, dental work, and various treatments, the good news is that he is fine, and recovering, and amazingly agile despite missing a limb.  

This happened a couple of months ago and it was so traumatic and raw that I imagined a similar fate had befallen our cat. 
My mother, who has provided a home for many strays and rescues over the years, had a practical and reassuring opinion: "She knows where her home is, and cats won't starve - as long as they are not injured they will hunt and provide for themselves. And when her food source runs out she'll come home." 
If she's not injured, because that's the catch right? One day, like the Bengal, she might not be so lucky.

I think owning cats somewhat prepares you for when your children become teenagers and start going out with their friends. The insomnia and grey hairs inducing worry, the whole 'I hope they are being sensible, and safe, and not doing things they shouldn't be doing' thing. Dogs are different: They are loyal, fairly predictable in terms of their character, and provided your property is enclosed, they are not going anywhere. Not so with cats. Each time our cats exit our property via trees or leaping up and over our fence, I know there's a risk that they might get hit by a car, get attacked by a dog or fox, or decide that another family is more indulgent of their specific needs. 

When our cat went missing this week I told the grocery delivery man about it. He used to breed cats and seemed to know a lot about them. A muscular individual with incredibly well groomed eyebrows and the faintest hint of eyeliner, "Ave you got a collar on er?" he asked in a gruff voice. Me: "No, she won't wear one, she gets incredibly depressed. The last time we tried putting one on her she hid under the stove for days." Also, there is the small matter of us actually having to pick her up and hold her in place to put a collar on her - which would require either a tranquilliser or a falcon glove. He advised that cats with no collars are often assumed strays, and there is a risk they adopt another family that feeds them. It's a terrible admission to make on my part, but sometimes I think this wouldn't be such a bad thing. Provided the individual, couple, or family in question were kind and loving and she was the only pet in the home, I think her existence would be a much more peaceful one that she currently has. Right now her life is a bit like having to dodge Cato in the Pink Panther - never knowing where our younger cat might be lurking ready to pounce on her. Also if she does adopt another family I won't be reading up on Botox following the added worry lines I get each time she decides to go on one of her excursions.

"Maybe she does it so we appreciate her more. You know? The way some twisted individuals do where they break up with with you from time to time so you want them more?" I ask my husband. He looks at me in that way he does where he thinks what I've just said is completely nuts. But he's indulgent: "No honey, she's just scared, that's all. And maybe she's getting fed by another family."  In this recent MIA incident I started having these bizarre fantasies featuring our younger cat keeping her locked in a shed somewhere and disappearing at night to go and taunt her. What he was in fact doing was patrolling the garden so he could chase her off. It's like having a gorgeous and perfect boyfriend who's actually secretly this psycho that is setting about alienating all of your friends and family because he's threatened by you having affection for anyone other than him. My husband sometimes jokes that the cat would be happy if everyone left except my daughter (who he adores) and me. Given the dark and menacing way he eyes my husband as he prepares for bed at night, I think he might be on to something.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The age of innocence

"OK Mum, I get that the egg is inside of the mother and the sperm comes from the father, and that they meet and that's how a baby grows. What I don't understand is how the sperm gets from inside of the father's body to inside of the mother's body so it can meet up with the egg?"

Oh dear god, I think to myself. I thought I had more time?! There I am sitting outside, minding my own business on a warm May afternoon, enjoying a Pepsi Max while the kids play, and suddenly I get this thrown at me. My daughter is seven-years-old. Isn't 'the talk' something you have with them when they are teenagers? I feel panicky, what the hell do I say?

Suddenly I remember something my sister, who has an older son, told me years ago when I asked her how she handled these kinds of questions. "Children will only ask as much as they can deal with," she said sagely, "So answer their questions directly and simply. Don't offer any more information than is required as that will only confuse them."

So I take a deep breath, tell my daughter to sit down, and explain that the penis (something she's familiar with as she has a younger brother) is shaped to fit into the vagina, and the sperm is passed in this way into the mother. And that's it - that is all I say.

Although it is prefixed by the predictable bourgeois caveat: This only happens when a woman and a man love each other very much and decide they want to start a family together. After they are both well into their 30s, have been to university, had a few years of working and establishing a career, have a home together, are financially stable, and the man in question is just like your father. "You know respectful of you, non violent, angry, or scary in any way, and is kind, patient, funny and smart. And he has integrity." (Rightly or wrongly, I use every opportunity I get to influence my daughter's choice in future boyfriends.)

She looks at me, and I fear there will be more questions, but instead she says casually: "OK Mum, thanks" and then calls her brother to continue jumping on the trampoline with her. And the conversation I've been dreading since the day she was born, is over as quickly as it was raised.

A few days later I begin recounting the story to a good friend of mine and her expression can only be described as one of abject horror. She darts her eyes back and forth between her daughter, who is seated nearby, and me in a kind of 'Zip It!' way, and so I zip it.  We move away and she says to me: "I don't want my children knowing this kind of stuff, they are far too young."  I try to explain that my daughter had come to me, not the other way round, and how could I not answer her question honestly? But I can see that this is a topic of conversation she is deeply uncomfortable with and I shelve it. 

Since both my children were roughly two years old they have been asking me questions about how their bodies work. Starting with things like 'What happens to the food I eat in my body?' And then, given the amount of pregnant women and babies on the school run, this soon became 'How do the babies get inside of the mummy's tummy?' And we have quite a few body books for children. However you are hard pressed to find a book for children under the age of 7 that talks about penetration - not ejaculation, just penetration. So my children knew about the sperm and the egg, which even my husband, who avoids such topics like the plague, is comfortable talking about in a scientific way. But it was only a matter of time before 'the special cuddle' would no longer be sufficient, and the question would become: So how does one of these things travel from one body into another? Given my daughter is doing multiplication, division, and Greek myths at school it was inevitable. 

My son, who was not there when my daughter asked me the question, has not yet raised the same question himself. Right now I think he's still quite happy with the ambiguous 'special cuddle' although recently he did ask his father at the breakfast table: "Dad, did you drink champagne when you had the sperm inside of you?" My husband shot me a questioning look, and I in turn responded with a: 'How the hell am I supposed to know?' look of my own. So my husband did what any self respecting man would do in that situation and changed the subject.

While I do have what some consider to be very liberal opinions on most things, I also have a strong sense of propriety in our home. My husband and I cuddle and might share a brief kiss in front of our children, but that's it. I shut and sometimes lock the door when I use the bathroom, if not a line of children and cats come filing in and disturb me during a small time of the day I actually have to myself. My husband and I don't talk about our private life nor the private lives of others in front of the children, nor are the children allowed to watch adult TV which deals with adult themes. Also some time ago I informed my son that he was not to grope my breasts, something he enjoyed doing in public places especially. I explained that they are a private part of my body, and that since he was weaned at 11 months, I reclaimed them and he doesn't have the right to grab me there when the mood takes him. I appreciate that a lot of people have very relaxed body boundaries with their small children, but I believe children need to have an understanding of what parts of their body are private and that others require the same respect. It's all leading towards an understanding of safe body boundaries, and as with all these things, it starts at home.

But I am also a factual sort of person, and I'm not about to start avoiding the subject or making up some Stork nonsense to tell a child who has a perfectly reasonable and intelligent question with regards to a sequence of events. The fact that my daughter didn't require any further information leads me to believe that it was simply the missing element of the equation. It also made me appreciate that the 'how are babies made' talk is distinctly different from those tricky conversations you have further down the line with your children about their changing bodies, hormones, and having feelings for the opposite sex, and indeed, the actual sex talk and the safe sex talk. I've already informed my husband, that while he might have dodged a bullet up until this point, he will be responsible for having these talks with our son when the need arises. And I've told him scheduling frequent business trips during this period will not be excusable.

The topic of sex education came up again on FB recently when a friend of mine posted some pictures from a badly illustrated children's book, and again the questions ignited the debate: When is the right time to tell our children, should we even be telling our children about these things? What about Sex Ed at school? What about their innocence? Aren't we sanctioning and encouraging this kind of thing by telling them about it at a young age?

I don't believe sex is some nasty or shameful or verboten thing if it is done between two consenting people that are of age. It would be kind of bizarre and hypocritical for me to communicate otherwise to my children given it, sex, is was what brought them into the world in the first place right? Also, I would much rather my children learn about these things from their father and me, with perhaps the help of age appropriate books, and have the facts, rather than hear about it at school from some kid with an older sibling, as I did. I think I was eight, and this girl told me a dirty joke, and then seeing my blank face she asked: "You do know about sex right?" And I was like, "Yeah, yeah of course I do," not wanting to come off as ignorant. And she pressed me for information and then laughed and told me her version of what sex involved. And I was so disgusted, and it sounded scary and nasty and horrible. So much so that I never once asked my parents or older siblings about it because the whole thing revolted me to such an extent that it was simply something I did not wish to discuss with anyone, even if I had questions. And later when I did have questions, I asked my friends. No internet back in those days for research alas, but then again, given what's out there currently, maybe it isn't such a bad thing after all.

Also, I think if you have the matter of fact age appropriate talk with your children, even as young as mine, and attempt to answer their questions simply and honestly, they have an understanding about how their bodies work, that certain things are perfectly normal and healthy, and what is and isn't appropriate. And perhaps being informed in this way means that should they as tweens or teenagers find themselves in an awkward situation they can identify it and have some sense of what is OK and what is not. Because as much as we like to think we can, we cannot be with our children every second of the day. My view is to inform them and equip them with the necessary tools, in this case, information.

I appreciate that this is a very personal and not to mention contentious subject. Unlike pretty much everything else, it's not something that I argue about with my friends. Each one of us decides what is appropriate in terms of how we approach or don't approach this subject with our children, this is just my take on it.

On a separate note, yesterday my daughter and I found an insect in my sons hair. True to form, my daughter was disgusted, my son was rather proud of the fact and asked to see the insect once it had been removed. And then the discussion became whether or not he had a flea or he had head lice. I don't know what lice look like and it didn't look like a flea. He maintained, rather indignantly, that he had lice.
Me: So, have you had an itchy head? (Even though I have not seen him scratching his head of late.)
Him (Scratching his head): Yes
Me: Well, maybe, just to be safe, we need to get you some of that shampoo
Him: Yes, but I don't want to kill the lice. It's not right to take a life

Me: I agree with you, but at the same time, it's just to wash them off. You don't want an itchy head right?
Him: Right

I comb through my son's hair and there is no sign of anything else at all. My daughter then uses this opportunity, after I have already called my husband and asked him to stop off at a pharmacy on the way home, to tell me that that singular insect might have had something to do with the fact that earlier that day they had been playing games in a garden with lots of tall plants and trees.

Rewind even earlier that day to the walk to art camp.
My son: Mum, can you take me to space?
Me: I'm genuinely flattered that you think I have the ability to do that, but unfortunately I don't. There is however a man called Richard Branson who is working on it
My son: So can I go?
Me: Well, perhaps when you are older yes

Him: But what about black holes?
Me: What about them?
Him (worried): I don't want to go near one and get sucked into it
Me: I'm certain that whoever is operating the space tours will know about such things and avoid them
Him: But if you cannot see them, how can you avoid them?
Me: I don't know.

My son is either worrying about black holes or earth being hit by an asteroid. I don't say as much, but the latter bothers me from time to time too.

And then a car passes that is emitting black smoke from its exhaust, and my daughter waves her hand in front of her face and starts talking about how the entire human race is going to be wiped out by pollution. "I'm telling you Mum," she says earnestly, "unless people stop all this polluting and start getting better about recycling, we are all going to die - every last one of us." And she repeats this loudly and while pointedly looking at a man in a hardhat who is having a cigarette on a bench. The only plus side to this unfortunate neurosis, is that with all the black holes and pollution preoccupying their minds, I think I might be off the hook with any further sex talks for now.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Bodrum (Part II)

This is what I found when we first heard of Bodrum: 
"Bodrum is a charming and fascinating little port, 270 km. south of Izmir, on the Aegean coast of Turkey. It is located on the southern coast of Bodrum Peninsula, it faces the Greek island of Kos and at a point that checks the entry into the Gulf of Gokova. 
The center of an administrative district, Bodrum, has a permanent population of some 30,000 and stands on the site of the ancient city of Halicarnassus, once the capital of the kingdom of Caria. Located in the southwest corner of the Aegean region of Turkey, Bodrum is a major tourist attraction due to its beautiful coastline, excellent climate and a plethora of proximate sites of historical importance and natural beauty."  -

Who wouldn't want to visit such an exotic and historically rich sounding place? Also, the fact that we hadn't been before (and I really love visiting new places) and it was only a three hour and forty minute flight from Gatwick made Bodrum an attractive destination for part of our summer holidays. Originally I had also wanted to tag on Istanbul, a city which I hear is incredible, but as per my previous post, we decided against it because of the anticipated heat at that time of the year.

The region is indeed very picturesque and reminded me a lot of the Greek landscape. Ahead of visiting, I expected Turkey to resemble Morocco, which I had visited when our daughter was roughly two years old and I was pregnant with our son. There are certainly some similarities, like the food which is also quite like Middle Eastern and Greek food. Also the design of some of the crockery, fabrics,  and handicrafts in the bazaars are of a similar style. Moroccans favour the public bath houses where you get a good scrub down - much like the Turkish Hammam. However a stark difference for me turned out to be the shopping experience. Shop and stall owners in Bodrum do not hassle you in the same way I had been hassled in Marrakech. Obviously people will attempt to get your business and will heartily invite you into their restaurant or shops, but if you say 'no thank you' they give a jovial disappointed shrug of the shoulders, utter something to the effect of 'Maybe next time, enjoy your day' and it's left at that. In Marrakech you dare not glance at something in the bazaars, as you are set upon by an incredibly zealous shop owner or two until you feel forced to buy something just to shake them off. And when I took a picture of a boy in the market, he came up to me demanding a not inexpensive amount of money. It's also a demonstration of desperation and poverty I appreciate. 

In Marrakech there are tens of scooters weaving in and out of the narrow alleyways of the bazaars which means you are trying to fend off the insistent shop keepers, keep a hand on your small child who keeps wanting to wonder off, all the while keeping one eye open behind you so you don't get mowed down. And don't get me started on the not very charming snake charmers - one of which insisted on waving a snake extremely close to the face of my delighted toddler daughter despite me shaking my fist in his face telling him not to. In retrospect, it was ill advised to visit such a frenetic place being so pregnant and with a small child, but I suppose that is travel for you - you don't know until you do it. I say all of this and yet I had an incredibly congenial exchange in a shop with a man in Marrakech which included sitting down and drinking tea with many awkward silences and some polite chit chat, once a price had been agreed on that is. And we stayed in a beautiful riad guest house with baby tortoises and fountains in mesmerising courtyards, and we had this fascinating tour of the city by a local guide. But the shopping, well, that was pretty full on and hair-raising. 

Like Morocco there are a lot of stray animals in Bodrum, which is always distressing. But the strange thing was, although there were a lot of dogs lying about the marina they all looked quite fat. And I noticed water in bowls outside some of the shops. And while the stray cats looked a bit on the thin side, they also sort of lounged about outside of the shops in a non-plussed manner like small furry and not particularly friendly gangs. In Marrakech and Morocco I had seen some very put upon donkeys with mange, and a dog quite literally dying on its feet. I would like to say I set about trying to save all or at least one of these animals but the extent of need was simply overwhelming and I was heavily pregnant and afraid of getting bitten. I'm ashamed to say that even if I had wanted to I didn't know where to start. In my fantasies I return there, establish an extensive animal shelter, and attempt spay and neuter all the feral animals I can find, and provide a place to care for and feed them.

Back in Bodrum, on the one occasion we were mad enough to risk the day time temperatures in town, we sat down for a drink at a harbour side restaurant. My daughter spotted a thin-looking cat and asked if we could feed it. We had to explain to the waiter, who was so incredulous as to what we wanted to do, that he imagined he must have misunderstood us, and therefor called over his manage to translate. The manager listened to us patiently, with a surprised and amused expression on his face, clapped his hands together and explained to the now gathered and inquisitive party of about three staff that we wanted food not to eat, but to give to a stray cat. Soon a small plate with three pretty little raw fishes - completely intact from head to tail, were brought to the table. And then the staff watched with much delight, as my daughter and I called over the cat, presented the fishes, and watched as it grabbed them, one at a time, and raced off to enjoy them in solitude, before returning for the next one. Evidently this animal had some experience in needing to protect it's surprising bounty from other animals in similar need. The manager told me he was surprised that the cat had eaten raw fish as they tended to like cooked food, which explained why so many of the animals looked a lot less distressed than the ones I had seen in Morocco - they were being fed leftovers by the restaurant owners.

Travelling with my children who are now not so little - five and seven years old, meant that we were quite happy to experience some of the night life with them. The food in Bodrum is so very good - fresh fish everywhere including giant prawns, octopus and a variety of side dishes so delicious and sumptuous I'm amazed I didn't go up several dress sizes. The fact that you are served several sharing dishes encourages you to try a lot of new and different things, and it makes the dining experience extend over hours, rather than what so many of us are used to in more Westernised cultures -  where we get given a large plate of individual food which we wolf down, have a cup of coffee and leave a restaurant sometimes all within an hour. This sharing of multiple dishes system becomes a more drawn out, leisurely, and sociable experience which I thoroughly enjoyed.

There is certainly a very active and fun night life in  Bodrum, with lots of people eating on boats in the marina, and what looked like restaurants at the back of some of the boats. Alfresco dining on pavements, live music, and the shops are open until very late. And yes, in most of the shops and bazaars, you can negotiate on price and often have a very enjoyable and informative chat with the shop owners who not only like to sell but enjoy the art of conversation. We met some really interesting and nice people doing this, giving the place a genuinely welcoming feel to it.

Here is a transcript (with some amendments) of something I posted on FB following an evening out in Bodrum. I think it captures some of the festive nature of the place, the generosity of the people, and the lunacy of the taxi drivers:

"A truly crazy and chaotic evening tonight. Thanks to terrible traffic we wait over an hour for our previously arranged hotel car to collect us at our designated pickup spot. By this point we are stationed like well attired urchins on the pavement outside an Argentinian restaurant next to a life sized plastic cow, a live band, and tango dancers. Joined by the occasional stray cat and roaming dogs. Through intermittent phone calls (where we get the impression the driver doesn't really understand us nor we him) he keeps promising us that he is 10 minutes away. Or at least we think that's what he is promising. 
The children are exhausted and falling asleep in our arms. I am trying to be upbeat about things, as you do when you children are beginning to get distressed and you are trying not to show that you are too. So I sort of try and dance around with one of the children hanging off of me Pietà-style. On two separate occasions young men who are clearly on dates, get up from their alfresco seats at the restaurant and offer us help. One young man and his girlfriend offer us a lift home, and another offers to talk to our driver and translate if necessary. We thank them and say, while we genuinely appreciate it, our driver is just 10 minutes away.  
An hour later of waiting , we get fed up and are approached by an elderly taxi driver who grabs our shopping bags and frog marches us to his car. The traffic is indeed horrendous that evening, and our driver proceeds to not only mount islands but actually drive on them to get past the traffic. It's like being in a Die Hard film. Hard shoulders are similarly travelled on to get some advance. 
Eventually we are through the various traffic jams, and on the dual carriageway. And then our small somewhat banged up taxi appears to propel forwards into the night with lightening speed. Lots of tailgating and haphazard changing of lanes,  and I lean over to see our driver is travelling at 85 miles an hour. All the while using google translate (voice version) to chat to us in a jolly manner and ask us how much we are paying at our hotel. The children feeling my clenched knuckles are as I clutch onto their small hands, enquire as to what kind of driving this is to which I reply 'the illegal kind'. The driver laughs. I'm beginning to realise that my husband was right: forget possible terrorism, the most dangerous thing here is the driving."

I would like to say we travelled around to other towns, taking in the sites and absorbing the rich history while were there, as we usually like to do when we travel. However two things prevented this: For one it was absolutely blisteringly hot during the day. Full sun and temperatures at nearly 40 degrees celsius, meant sticking close by to an accessible body of water during the day, and visits anywhere else were restricted to the evenings, which were still pretty hot but without the unforgiving sun. Also, the driving was so appalling that I decided against it. Had it just been my husband and I, I would have been more relaxed, but I just didn't want to risk it with my children. A couple of days after our second hair raising taxi experience, my husband told me he had spoken to a couple at breakfast one morning and the young man, a race car driver, told him he found the driving absolutely terrifying. "See?" I told my husband, "It's not just me."

Friends of ours came and stayed at the hotel for a bit, and my girlfriend told me to get the Hamman - which is the traditional Turkish bath. She had done it the day before, and invited me to touch her leg, which was indeed incredibly smooth. I vaguely recalled hearing about the Hammam from my sister who had had one years before - performed by two men while she was stark naked. Anything with the word naked in it sets off alarm bells for me. This did not appeal to me in the least, but when I visited the spa and got assurances that I could have this experience with a woman, I decided to do it. 

My friend told me she had worn her bikini throughout the experience, but I have to confess although I am painfully shy of being naked (I fear and loathe changing rooms) I also thought to myself: If I am going to write about this, I have to have an as authentic experience as possible. So when the woman at the spa led me to the changing rooms and told me to remove everything and motioned to a pair of disposable g-string knickers, I thought: OK, here goes. The knickers resembled a paper loin cloth - the kind of thing Gandhi might have worn, were he, say, a stripper hoping to avoid tan lines. There wasn't much of it and I may as well have worn nothing, but mentally, I felt covered. It was effectively the fabric version of a rationalisation. 

I was given a small woven looking towel called a Peshtemal and told I could use it if I wanted to in the steam room - like it was an option for people who are weirdly shy about such things. I asked if the steam room was for both sexes and the woman nodded 'yes'. I found this surprising given I thought of Turkey as a Muslim country and imagined things like a steam room to be separate for the sexes. I clung onto my Peshtemal and followed her in, relieved that no one else was in there. Because really, what do you say to someone in a steam room apart from the obvious: 'Boy it's hot in here huh?' I was gearing myself up, somewhat nervously, for what lay ahead, and I genuinely wasn't in the mood for small talk.

The bath house itself looked like some strange inner sanctum - all marble and shaped a bit like a star of David. It reminded me of something I had seen in my one of my children's books on Ancient Egypt where the pharaohs and other important people got mummified.

I was led to a sort of chamber off the side of the central bit which consisted of a marble alter - again with the Ancient Egypt mental reference - which had a thin woven towel on and was told to disrobe and lie on it. Now I've had a few massages in my time, but this was not a nice soft massage bed - this was a flat solid piece of stone, but actually, once I lay down, it was remarkably and surprisingly comfortable. That is once I tried to get over (using attempted ancient Tibetan mind leaving body techniques) the fact that I was lying there with my breasts exposed and tiny disposable knickers in front of a stranger who was reading herself to wash me. I had not been washed by someone else since I had had a c-section with my children, and before that when I was a very small child.

And then it began: The small Balinese woman called Putu, who was herself wearing a bathing suit and a peshtemal around her waist,  began to run water in a large sink in front of me, water splashing everywhere on the floor which explained why the floors were also made of stone. And then she proceeded to pour small buckets of deliciously hot water over my body. The experience, on some strange subconscious level, took me back to being an infant. It was that sensation of being totally helpless and in someone else's care. And once I recovered from the knee-jerk reaction of wanting to get the hell out of there (the fact that I was now only wearing a very soggy and see-through loin cloth aside), I kind of relaxed into the experience. It reminded me a bit of how my cats react when they are on a very soft fleece blanket - they get their claws out and go into a sort of trance - rhythmically kneading it with their claws. I had seen our cat kneed his mother in this way when nursing as a kitten, and I understood it to be a sort of comforting regressive thing. 

What followed was a lot of exfoliating. It took me back to our visit to Morocco, where our guide -  a small pot bellied man in traditional dress called Mohammed, advised us to visit a bath house and said, with a somewhat disgusted look on his small brown face, that one couldn't possibly hope to get properly clean only with regular showers. That a proper exfoliating bath of this kind from time to time was absolutely vital. Putu then sort of swirled what looked like a pillow case into an urn of soapy water and then lot of bubbles were wrung out over me, and massaged over my body.  The massage was wonderfully relaxing and a welcome change from the exfoliating cloth which was more on the invigorating side and had a texture not unlike a cat's tongue. Lots more rinsing with hot water, and then an all over body mask was applied that felt both hot and tingly and incredibly cold at the same time. Oh and a head massage while the mask was working its magic, and having my hair washed. The hair washing was heavenly, and made me think of that scene in the English Patient where Kristin Scott Thomas is washing Ralph Fiennes's hair in the bath. Only in my case it wasn't Kristin Scott Thomas, it was Putu, who was probably thinking about how many more people she had to wash that day, and what she was going to make for dinner. 

To sum it up the Hammam experience was relaxing, invigorating, and at times mentally uncomfortable. It's safe to say I had mixed feelings about it, mostly I think because I didn't really enter the experience with much information. But sometimes, when I want to write about something, I do this purposefully. I don't research something too much, because I want to go into it with a sort of blind date approach, so that everything is new and I am able to be present, and experience it with fresh eyes so to speak.

Afterwards I felt exhausted, and clean, and a bit endorphin-like, but without any of the hard work required by exercise. As I was lying in the relaxation area on a similarly uncomfortable looking but actually quite comfortable curved and heated stone lounger, Putu offered me a card to rate the experience before scooting off to do the next Hammam. She was all business as she bustled off and I couldn't help thinking the experience had been intimate without being in the least bit sexual. I gave her a good rating.

The rest of our stay in Bodrum consisted mostly of hanging around in the area between the kids club and the pool, some shopping and dinner in town in the evenings, and enjoying the beautiful sunsets at our resort. There were a lot of people from Lebanon, Jordan and Dubai, some Turkish people and some Russian people. And apart from an American man and his young Russian wife and daughter, and possibly one other English couple at a given time, as Westerners were were in the minority. The Lebanese families arrived with teams of nannies who ate breakfast with the children and minded them at the pools. The women, beautiful with their incredible manes of long dark hair, arched eyebrows, and large sunglasses looking impossibly glamorous in their bathing suits.

The intense heat left my children with the demeanour and posture of wet lettuce but with attitude. That kind of heat is actually fairly debilitating, meaning my children were often uninspired (Kids: "But there's nothing to do in the kids club!" Me: "But there's air conditioning!") lethargic and somewhat sullen - especially when their little friends left. I perpetually looked as though I had stepped out of a sauna, and in all of the holiday photos, even those taken at night where I am wearing a nice dress, I look sweaty - like I have just engaged in a rather taxing, albeit elegant, wrestling match. In instances like this a good mascara that doesn't run pays for itself.

Breakfast at the hotel was a feast - hundreds of dishes of every variety including cooked dishes one tends to associate more with lunch or dinner time fare. Potatoes, cooked lamb, salads, an ice cream bar? My children loved that. One of the waiters at breakfast looked like a much younger, thinner, and dare I say it even more handsome version of Liev Schreiber than Liev Shreiber himself. And with his serious demeanour and smouldering good looks, from that point on he he became known as Liev Schreiber to us, well, to me that is. He appeared to be a stoic young man and not given to banter but I suspected, like a lot of the staff, this was a language issue. One morning I saw him talking to a Turkish family and actually laughing. "Look, look!", I said excitedly to my husband who was attempting to fend off my son from smearing chocolate sauce all over his nice white shirt, "Liev is smiling, he's actually laughing!" My husband gave me the kind of look that someone does when they are worrying about your mental health but don't want to say as much.

Google Translate was a heaven send. Interestingly enough, almost all of the shop and stall owners in the town of Bodrum had very good English, but in our hotel, not so much. I am never so arrogant as to expect people to speak my language when I travel, and rather I see this more so as my job to try and speak a bit of theirs, and along with some charade like gestures, meet each other half way. But I suppose when one is running an international hotel and hoping to attract an international clientele, which includes English speakers, you do need to take this into consideration in terms of your staff.  But what we might have experienced with the odd and sometimes humorous misunderstanding, was more than made up for by the willingness of everyone to make our stay a happy and enjoyable one, and everyone tried so very hard. It's safe to say that apart from the likes of the very serious Liev and a couple of the more senior staff who hoped to present an air of distinguished professionalism, most of the younger members of staff had boundless cheer and enthusiasm and sense of humour. Some of the young male waiters liked to steal my son's hat or ruffle his hair, and his grumpy demeanour was charming to them and an endless source of entertainment. Similarly the young women at the hotel were taken with my daughter and made a great fuss of her.

On the day we left our hotel in Bodrum most of the staff that had been involved with us in some manner or another during our stay, came and waved our car off as we wove our way into the chaotic traffic back to the airport. I was left with a resounding fondness for the warmth, humour, and eagerness to engage in conversation of the people we had met both at the hotel and in town. And the beauty of the place and those incredible sunsets over the Aegean sea. I'm already thinking of when we might next visit, but next time perhaps at a cooler time of the year.

For the first part of this post please see here: 
Off the beaten track drinking Evian: Or Bodrum (Part I)