Link

I had a good day, it wasn’t today. I am a weather refugee, I am possibly the only person who migrated to the UK chiefly because of the weather (with sense of humour as a close runner-up).  I am not much of a summer person. I come from a hot country and, unlike the Brits, I recoil in horror when the temperature soars above 22 degree Celsius and duly scram in the shadow.

So, while every Londoner is heading to the nearest park, to bare their flesh after work, I, the Mediterranean, am struggling and I have turned turn into a cast iron curmudgeon. I am also waking up, after a surge of pain that made me laugh.

Here’s the background. I have had a tough two years.  I don’t mind too much, because I have also learnt quite a lot about myself. Nothing, however, could have prepared me to what happened in February; the death of someone I loved dearly.

Some say that if it does not kill you, pain makes one stronger. It made me weaker, more tired, it banished me to a land of muffled sounds and toned down colours, until something happened yesterday, that makes me hope.

I found a note that my friend wrote to me once, in response to one of my silly letters I used to write to entertain him. It was part of my modest contribution to a man who knew how to live and gave his illness the finger in style.

This note, in flowery note paper, said: “You are funny, God has blessed you.”

He signed it ‘Hony’, the phonetic version of my nickname for him: Honey. (My friend did not speak English.) It was that ‘Hony’ that did it for me. When I read it I started laughing, I laughed so much I ended up sobbing. Not a pretty show; since a walrus has more grace than my sobbing self, believe you me.

I am sharing this with you because I have decided to grow up and not feel guilty and ashamed simply because I am not ship shape 24/7. If life has knocked you about a little and your self-esteem is not sky-high, you know where I am coming from.

I have had enough of impossible, self-imposed standards. I have lost a dear friend, I am mourning. This pain is necessary. So, here it is, for all of you to see, I trust you to take this message and understand it. It’s in your hands now. This is my note to my darling friend, in a style he would have appreciated:

Hi Honey,

I saw your old note. Thank you.

It’s 30 degrees out there. Imagine a cross between a human and a sour lemon and you will know what I look like these days. Thundering Zeus would look more conciliatory than me as I write this, except that Zeus did not have to walk back a mile in the sweltering heat to retrieve a forgotten key. It’s a dangerous thing to have no brain and two handbags.

I can see you raise your eyebrows and patiently fold your arms. I can see you nod, inviting me to unroll the long papyrus of complaints.

YES; we are in the middle of a heat wave. What’s the use of living in the United Kingdom if you cannot count on rainy summers?

I felt seriously short changed all day yesterday, until I saw your note. Now I feel human again, up to a point though: my hair is still frizzy, my limbs swollen, my face  could give a Hieronymus Bosch character a run for its money, but I feel like a mist is slowly lifting.

I feel as though I had stepped into a world re-acquiring its colours and sounds. I am waking up. I would not feel on the cusp of awakening if I had not had your support.

Thank you for offering everything you were and had, even when you had very little to spare. I feel rather than know it is time to wake up and be funny again. Let’s face it; I make people laugh without even trying, so I might as well do it properly. I will continue make a 1st class clown of myself  especially as I rebuild my life.

Here’s to a new beginning.

Herman Hesse used to say that there is magic in every beginning. He was German, which means he could speak it without thinking about it. I am a rotten German speaker, so I will say there is potential for fun in every beginning (and I am saying it in English too. There!)

Do you know , Honey, today I stopped to look at a tree and I actually saw it. It was a cherry tree; its trunk slim, its leaves dark green.

I saw it. I saw the gold light that, as I walked past it,  made that tree look like a large column surrounded by hundreds of verdant splinters. The tree somehow touched me. (NO, I did not bang my head against that tree. )

I am going to see a friend late tonight, I am going to enjoy  the experience very much. When I  see her, I will listen to  her every word. I will play with her kids, shrieking with delight as they push me around. I will grab her younger brat and hold him upside down, and will drink in his cherub-like face creasing with delight.

This is to let you know I love you and I will not disappoint you. I am back, I will laugh again. I can do this, I am ready. Plus, the weatherman tells us rain is on its way. I will live, I promise. But don’t leave me. Keep watching over me.

All my love!

I recently cast off my law-abiding habits and turned into a criminal, for about 20 minutes.

Ironically, it happened, just as a skinny teenager had whizzed past me on his bike and had tried to steal my smart phone. That’s when I turned into an improbable Rambo and fought back.

I could have been sensible and let the miscreant get away with it, but

a) I am not insured and I am cash strapped, so letting go of this phone was not an option

b) A righteousness worthy of a heroine straight from a Greek tragedy took over:  the wrong-doer will be punished, punished, punished, punished (the last three ‘punished’ chanted by a choir in my head)

c) My contacts are not backed

So, armed with this mixture of lofty ideals and practical reasons, I snatched the phone back,  and started screaming B******, which alerted a couple walking just ahead of me.

The man intercepted the would-be thief, who lost his balance, fell off the bike, left it and sprinted ahead, in a manner that in more constructive circumstances would probably have won him an Olympic gold medal. I say this with admiration.

You too would be seriously impressed, if you had seen how fast he got, despite his low trousers. If this petty criminal can run  so fast thus impeded, think what he could achieve wearing suitable kit.

But I digress.

From the moment low-trousers, low-life made a dash for freedom, I became a thief. That’s right: he tried to get my phone and I got his (or perhaps not strictly his) bike.

I grabbed the bike and decided to bring it down to the nearest police station. The couple: Anthony from Australia, who so bravely stopped the would-be thief  and Amelie from France  kindly came with me. On the way, after introducing myself and thanking them a few times for their public-spirited attitude, I entertained  them with this thought: what if our low-trousers & low-life turned the tables?

After all I was the one who had taken another’s (whoever it might be) property and in the interval between my appropriating it and my transferring it into the  care of the police, how could I prove that my intentions were honourable?

The marvellous Anthony and Amelie laughed, but the truth is that I could not, so there you go: low trousers & low-life had turned me, an over-worked, pretty boring, average person into a fellow low-life.  I am not qualified:  I do not even have one tenth of this  youngster’s athletic credentials.

Meanwhile, you dear reader, (and maybe you too, petty criminal) will be interested to know that the police have now a DNA sample (out of the sweaty finger prints on the vehicle) and are looking for our sprinter.

I don’t know whether my assailant will ever account for his attempt to take away my phone, but I hope he learnt a lesson: people do fight back. Even someone as anti-Rambo, average-looking as me can experience a moment of unbridled rebellion.

So, if you are reading this, kid: listen to someone considerably older (and heavier) than you: if the carry-on I have witnessed is anything to go by, you have a future in athletics, not in crime.

Ditch phone snatching, get a pair of good running shoes. Meanwhile, I got the bike.

 

 

 

 

Three things about grief and one about hope

About six weeks ago, I lost someone I loved and respected. This person was a member of my long-lost family, but he and I had formed a special bond.  What started as a casual Skype conversation developed into a friendship.

My friend was such a gentle, kind and wise man, that I gradually opened up to him. I had forgotten the relief, the joy to be able to trust someone. My friend stood out from the crowd because unlike my other friends, he had seen quite a lot of the world. What I mean is that he had formed a shrewd idea of what really mattered, without losing curiosity and joie de vivre either.

He could see further than me, but he never made me feel inadequate. Not only he listened to me, but he, too, opened up and in time he let me read his poems. We had a nick name for each other and usually shared thoughts, ideas and, sometimes, fears – usually mine.

I was lucky to have known the complicity of a real friendship, even more so because I knew that my friend was seriously ill. The truth is that I sometimes forgot about that, because my friend never complained, was always ready to listen and had a delicious sense of humour. He gave his illness the finger and smiled at life.

A few weeks later he left us, quietly. And then silence descended over me. I have since lived in a muffled world.

The other day, just as I was in the quiet place next to the river, where I give myself permission to cry over my friend’s loss, I realised that his loss has reminded me of three things that grief does to people.

Grief robs you of your energy: I am grieving, because I feel the injustice of a life lost so soon, so prematurely. I am mourning the waste. He was such a curious and alert person and I cannot help thinking of the loss of what has not yet been: the conversations about the places I will visit, the people I will meet, the demons I have not yet beaten, the hopes I have not yet lost and the facts I have not yet quite grasped and those I have and he refused to see. I miss making mental notes about funny, strange, unusual things to share them with him and then I realise he is not with us and feel so tired I could dissolve into thin air.

Grief is a thief: since my friend has gone, I have been unable to write, which is my passion. Grief has taken away my imagination and I have let it.  I tell myself I must get on with it, snap out of this ennui, so I keep busy and get on with it. But ‘it’ is hollower since my friend has gone. Then I feel guilty, because my friend loved life and the least I could do is living, because that’s what he wanted. I know this for a fact, because he wrote a poem for his children and entrusted it to me, until the time came. His poem was very wise and full of wisdom and deliciously sweet. It was about life.

Grief can be shared: I grew up nursing the pain of having lost someone I had loved and who had abandoned me. I did so keeping as much of the pain to me, because I believe that our grief is our burden. I do not like to display sacrifices, disappointments, pain as medals, for everyone to see. But my friend and some other friends, argue and argued that sometimes grief can be shared. I  doubt it, but I might as well try. This is perhaps one of the hardest lessons for me. Perhaps now I understand what my late friend meant when he told me to live truly and utterly.

So, I have taken the plunge and here I am: writing again. Not only that: I am writing about my own loss in a public platform, because my pain is not a shame, it’s a fact I have to deal with.

Sharing the burden for the first time in my life is a great risk, but not the first I have ever taken. What’s more I am going to start writing again, because I have to go on, get on with it and that ‘it’ is an adventure and it could turn out to be a good adventure too. Who knows, I may even learn something new.

Which brings me neatly to the part about hope: it’s stronger than pain. My friend has taught me that there is always hope, that everything can be fixed. I have lost him, but he has given me a few very happy moments, lots of laughter and an adorable nickname.

So, dear friend, thank you! Good journey! May you rest in peace. I will miss you for the rest of my life, but I will live. Every time I learn something, meet someone new, remember something I had forgotten, make up for my mistakes, I will think of you. I will live, not only that: I will live truly and utterly, as you wisely advised.

Here’s to you: thanks for being my friend.

 

How to punish children properly (and get their attention)

Reforms are afoot in the United Kingdom: children in the UK will be taught languages and coding and teachers will be able to impose old-fashioned punishments, like writing a sentence over and over again and pick up the rubbish. Just like the bad old days, when education was synonym of  discipline, but not necessarily development.

I am not a teacher, but I know a few children and if they are anything to go by, these kids are not likely to be impressed or scared by forced line writing. OH NO. They know better, so if this cabinet wants to teach them right from wrong, it’d better change strategy.

Since giving unsolicited advice is easy, I will volunteer.

Dear Mr Gove,

if you really want to instil sense of  duty and discipline in these kids, you must rise to their level, touch their imagination, their intelligence, their creativity, their sense. Kids may be young, but they are sensible, practical and resilient. If you really believe in punishment, you might as well do it right.

Here’s a piece of advice from a partial member of the public, with no teaching experience, but one who has had 1st class teachers and a 1st class mother (also a teacher); get a mirror.

Image

Get each class a mirror. Every time a child is caught talking or being disruptive or being lazy (read: no homework done), you get the teacher to hand the mirror to the offending child and get him/her to say: “I have taken myself for a ride. I have let my laziness/giddiness stop myself from doing something good for myself.”

The other kids will laugh, the offending child will wish to be elsewhere, but at the same time s/he will also get the message: if you misbehave or are lazy, you lose out in the end. That’s one lesson they will not forget in a hurry.

You shake your head, Mr Gove, you don’t believe me but I can guarantee you that it works. It worked for me.

When I was 8 I was a chatterbox. I could not help myself: I had to talk, until one day my teacher made me stand up and, having given me a beautiful hand mirror, she made me say: “I let my chit-chat stop myself from paying attention and now I will never know ___ (whatever she was teaching at the moment). I have lost out, I have taken myself for a ride.”

I still remember. It hit me where it hurt: my pride. I don’t remember my friends’ laughter, and I did not feel humiliated, but angry: I had lost something.

I had missed a moment of complicity between my teacher and those who had paid attention, I had missed a trick and marginalised myself. 

That hurt. 

In her punishment, my teacher had shown her respect for me, her willingness to believe that I was mature enough to see the silliness of my actions. She had also left room for hope. Silliness is not incurable: all I had to do to be included in the magic of the lesson was to pay attention. I could do that and I did.

She achieved her purpose without having me write overbearing sentences 1000 times. I would have forgotten that in a hurry (plus my super Lady mother would have roared at the teacher’s outdated methods. Yes, I said ‘roared’ and parents would protest just as energetically today in the UK, albeit in a more Anglo-Saxon fashion)

Bottom line: kids are kids and they need our guidance, but they are not stupid. Respect them and they will get the message. Push them around and they will declare war on you. Can we afford to wage war on them? Here’s a war with no winners, if I ever saw one.

So, save us all tons of chalk and a generation-worth or resentment and admit you got it wrong. Get a mirror, utter a mea culpa and start again on the punishment front, if you must. Only, this time, ask a few teachers and parents for their opinions, while you are at it…

Best Wishes,

Marella

Give us Barbie on the Dole

This week I came across a blog published by the high-brow, intellectual daily The Guardian, which attacked the gender stereotypes and sexualisation, rife in the toy/kid’s entertainment industry.

As a woman I agree  with the author: mainly because my mother refused, point blank, to buy me Barbie or any other similar doll – unless and until they could give me a ‘positive role model’.  Apparently, one day I would understand.

Being a child of the rampant consumerism of the Eighties, I struggled to see the problem in owning a doll, which in turn owned a collection of pink ballroom gowns in every cut and in every shade of pink.

Don’t get me wrong; I had many toys and dolls,  such as Monchichi the clever monkey, beautifully illustrated atlases (to check out whence monkeys – and our ancestors –  originated), discs with matching (and beautifully illustrated) books: Andersen’s Tales , the Grimm Brothers’ Tales, Aesop, Ancient Greek Myths, Norse Legends, Alice in Wonderland,  and from Scandinavia , the land of happy kids,  I got Alfons and the Karlsson-on-the-Roof.

Still, it was Barbie I coveted. I pestered, argued with, cried, begged, protested with my mother, to no avail.

Barbie speaks…

This went on untill… Barbie spoke to me, while I gazed, enraptured at the latest Mattel addition, proudly occupying the centre of our local department store’s toys window.

I cannot remember exactly what Barbie told me, but hers were not  soft-spoken words extending invitations to shopping sprees and longs lazy days on the beach. Barbie uttered a call to arms:  “Go on, take the plunge, make a statement, buy your own Barbie doll”

So I did.

In the spring of 1988 I finally turned up at school with a Barbie, purchased with my own pocket money and during a school trip, miles away from my mother. Faced with the fait accompli, the lady mother acquiesced.

 There I was, clutching my long-limbed, smiley Barbie, showing off my own plastic representation of unattainable human perfection to friends (and their friends). Result!

I had won, Barbie had won, the Eighties had won.

And so had my mother, because of all the Barbie dolls I could have bought, I chose Barbie Doctor. So perhaps it was my mother,  who had always encouraged me to take charge and to stand up for myself and what I thought right,  who laughed last.

Life after Barbie…

My Barbie Doctor sported a beautiful, frilly lab coat, a stethoscope, and, if memory serves me well, a pink doctor’s bag for emergencies.

I soon tired of Barbie  anyway (kids are fickle), and saved next for a subscription to Poochie the Pink Dog’s mag. Poochie’s copybooks and stampers and even ear muffs followed. I loved Poochie because she was fun and organised, friendly and resourceful, not because she was pink (though I did not object to that)

So, in conclusion: dear parents, I understand your worries but, please, relax a little. Kids are practical and shrewd individuals. If you talk to them, they will listen.

I agree girls (or boys) should not be under the impression that they will necessarily grow into long-limbed, narrow-waisted, white-toothed adults.  Keep telling girls and boys that we can all make a difference, we can aspire to give something back, we can try to improve ourselves (whatever size we are) and that makes us special and beautiful.

Keep saying that they are beautiful because their minds are creative, intelligent, honest and a little wicked. Incidentally,  keep insisting that they eat well and are active, for their own sake, not to look like Barbie.

But should we really ban Barbie?

Barbie on the dole

Barbie appeals to kids. Period. So, it’s Mattel we must tackle!  

I’ll start: Dear Mattel management,

please, give us more natural, credible Barbies.  I would like to see

Barbie Professor,

Barbie Mathematician,

Barbie Fund Manager,

Barbie Business Owner,

Barbie Cashier,

Barbie Anthropologist,

Barbie  Campaigner (complete with pink placard),

Barbie on the Dole (now that would capture the Zeitgeist), applying for jobs

Barbie Chef,

Barbie Builder,

Barbie Cab Driver (ok, the cab can be pink, if you really insist),

Barbie President of the WHO/UN/USA

Barbie Detective

Barbie Judge

Barbie Waitress

Barbie Teacher

Barbie Fight Fighter

Barbie Cleaner. 

I want to see Barbie living in a normal flat, or still living with her parents, because she is paying off her student debts. (BTW who are Barbie’s parents?)

Give us Barbie looking dishevelled after a run, make her a little plumper, while you are at it.

Do that, and I will buy a Barbie for my Godson and every child I know and care about!

No, I don’t have any New Year’s resolution (especially when I am at the dentist’s)

Last Friday I was languishing at my local dentist’s rocking with pain and massaging a cheek, which would not have been out of place in a XVIII’s freak show. 

Picture a woman with a face half normal, half resembling a rugby ball, eyes glassy with terror:  what will the damage be like?

Not to my oral cavity, mind,  but rather to my depleted bank balance.

What will the dentist charge me for restoring me to good, ruddy health? Will I be able to pay for food, drink and rent after this brief dental encounter? 

Absorbed as I was in such mundane feelings, I had not seen the ethereal receptionist approach me.

“Hi-ya. Can I get you anything? A glass of water?” this slight, soft spoken woman asked. I shook my head, but not too much, as I was too busy feeling the pain in my mouth, torn between the desire of relief from the pain and the pain of being relieved of my annual savings forthwith (I have no dental insurance).

Next I noticed the receptionist had actually brought me a glass of lukewarm water and was offering me the plastic cup in a manner worthy of an ancient Greek prophetess, gracefully passing on the latest message from Zeus to mere mortals.

“What’s your New Year’s resolution?” this throw-back from Delphi asked, while I gingerly sipped water.

I must have produced a very ungracious stare, because the poor woman beat a graceful but hasty retreat.

Four days later and 12 antibiotic capsules to my credit, I feel well enough to be less truculent, so here’s my answer to the well-meaning, polite, sympathetic receptionist at my dentist’s. 

Dear receptionist, 

I am sorry I might have given you frostbites just by looking at you last Friday, when you so kindly tried to take my mind off my pain.

Just as well that you were not having tea, or I would have turned the milk sour too, just with my gaze. I am sorry I looked like someone after a session on the rack at the Tower of London, I am sure I was not a pretty sight rocking on that chair. I feel better now, so  let me reply to your question: NO, I do not have New Year’s resolution.

Here’s why:

1) I do not believe in sudden, extreme changes. Bad habits are hard enough to break, so why would I put myself through the extra bother of changing while it is dark, grim and cold? I believe in accepting myself.

2) I have noticed that most  NY resolutions pertain to weigh loss. ‘Weigh Loss’ does not even begin to cover the matter, it sounds like you  achieve a svelte figure by chance, by accident. If you want to talk to me about such enterprises, label them properly ‘weight demolishing’ ‘fat destruction’, for instance.  Even if you call a spade a space, I am not likely to join the debate: taking exercise is not something I relish.  I do it to keep myself reasonably healthy, but weight loss is NOT a fit topic of conversation for me. If your NY res is about something else, I will be receptive. Try me next time I visit your honourable establishment. 

3) Driven as one can be, NOBODY, I repeat nobody visiting the dentist in my predicament could have the strength or the presence of mind to chat about resolutions. Did you notice it took me a good five minutes to fill in the form you handled me? That’s because I had to concentrate hard to remember basic things such as my name, my age, my gender or other basic personal info you request before I get to see the dentist. 

So, here I am, a difficult customer, perhaps, but at least I am straight with you. Which is more that can be said for my tooth, the source of my pain. 

I shall soon see you. You will recognise me, I am sure: I am the one who will arrive with a sackful of cash to settle the bill.

We can exchange pleasantries then, if you like!