The tattooist of Auschwitz

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My Friday book review…..via The tattooist of Auschwitz

Born again minimalist

I used to be a minimalist. I was even recruited by an environmental website to write a series of blog posts about living a minimalist life*. Julian and I chose minimalism when we chose to live on a boat. From that fateful day in April 2011 when we decided to radically change our lives by quitting our jobs, selling our house and buying a boat, minimalism became our goal. Our first symbolic act, that same evening, was to unplug the television, put it in the boot of the car, and take it to the dump the next day. After that, minimalism became a necessity as well as a desire. If our family of four was going to live on a small boat we had to get rid of most of our stuff.

During the summer of 2011, we radically de-cluttered. If we numbered each item we owned, I would make an educated guess that we got rid of over 80% of our belongings. We sold or gave away most of my close to one thousand books, we sold our excess kitchenware, clothing, toys and gardening tools. The things that were meaningful to us, but that we wouldn’t have room for on the boat, went into storage in my parents-in-laws’ houses. When we bought Carina and first moved aboard, we quickly realised we still had too much stuff and at the end of our first sailing season we downsized again.

Each year we have returned to my father-in-law’s loft, and have further pared back what we’ve kept in storage. Some things we simply don’t need any more, such as the cots, children’s beds and toys that Lily and Katie have outgrown. But we have also pared back items that we had stored out of sentimentality, but which now no longer seem so important to us. The pile of truly important material items has decreased over time. We also still have a few large items in my father-in-law’s garage, such as a sofa, a dining table and chairs, a washing machine and our bicycles. I think the time has come to consider selling or donating some or all of those items, if they have not already been damaged by damp or pests.

However, in our life on the boat and now our life back ashore again, the quantity of stuff in our lives has started to creep up again. One of the reasons we moved off the boat was because there wasn’t enough room any more. The lack of room was partly due to two growing girls and two parents who are larger than when we moved aboard, but it is also partly due to creeping quantities of stuff. We moved off the boat and brought all that stuff with us, and for four months we added to it. Our house was cluttered and it made me uneasy. It felt messy and unnecessary.

Early in the new year I watched both the documentary Minimalism and the Marie Kondo series Tidy Up on Netflix. Both reminded me that I once, not so long ago, shared these minimalist ideals and aspirations. And I realised two things. First, that I wanted to return to that simpler way of living and, second, minimalism is an ongoing project and a lifestyle choice. It is not something we do once and forever. In a world bombarded with consumption, we have to work mindfully to keep unwanted stuff out of our lives and to reduce the unwanted stuff in our lives, whether it sneaks in when we are not being mindful or it is once-useful but now obsolete stuff.

In the past couple of months, I have been keeping ‘minimalism’ at the forefront of my mind. The children and I have de-cluttered together and I am being more mindful of my consumer choices. 2019 has become my year to return to my minimalism. Unlike the first time around, I know it is more a process than a project, a lifestyle choice rather than a lifestyle change. I’ll let you know how I get on over the coming months.

*Sadly, this site is no longer available. However, I still have copies of all my posts on that site.

Snow memory

I remember this time of year about a decade ago. We were living in rural Cambridgeshire, about four miles from Cambridge. It had snowed heavily overnight and the flat southeast English landscape was blanketed in white. I couldn’t wait to get out of the house and go for a walk. I left by the back gate and headed across the fields. The land around our house was owned by Trinity College, one of the Cambridge University colleges. It was heavily cultivated and, although the fields were accessible, walking was restricted to signposted tracks or to field perimeters. As I walked, the sky grew more overcast and it started to snow again. After twenty minutes I was well out of sight of my house and the quiet country road on which we lived.

Instead of the joy I had anticipated feeling at being out in the snowy landscape, I felt unease. This walk along the familiar hedgerows was one I took regularly, and it was not uncommon for me to encounter a hare or a deer. Indeed, on this particular day I found fresh hare prints in the snow. But, somehow, I felt decidedly uncomfortable. I was on a circular walk and at this point I was equidistant between going on or turning back.

I was aware that I had quickened my pace and I was perspiring under my winter clothes. I had the sensation of being a hunted animal as I kept furtively glancing around. Suddenly, the reason for my fear became clear to me – polar bears! There, in the bucolic, highly-managed, symmetrical landscape of rural Cambridgeshire, something had subconsciously brought me back to the Kivalliq. It wasn’t simply the snow. I had been in the snow at least a couple of times since I had last lived in Arviat, and I hadn’t feared an encounter with a bear. But that day, there was a certain quality to the light, a certain texture to the air that tricked my brain into thinking there might be a bear around.

Despite being in a landscape where the largest carnivore I could possibly encounter was a badger, I found myself feeling the way I had that spring day seven or eight years earlier when I had walked out to Huluraq. Arviat was more than a 40 minute walk behind me and all around was the flat west Hudson Bay landscape, where the undulating snow-covered land reached a snow-covered finger, Huluraq, out onto the frozen seascape of Hudson Bay. As I turned to make the slow snow-hampered walk back home I saw two sets of prints in the snow – a mother polar bear and her cub. My blood ran cold. I was unarmed – although I doubt that, armed, I would have stood any better chance. I had no idea how old the prints were. They looked fresh enough, clearly defined and without an accumulation of blowing snow.

The walk back to Arviat was the longest of my life. I expected at any moment that the last sound I would hear would be the fluey-sounding grunt of a mother bear coming up behind me, turning me into a meal for her cub. I walked as fast as my cumbersome clothes and boots and the terrain would allow me. There had been other encounters with bears, some where I’d felt threatened and some where I’d felt awe and gratitude for being in the presence of such a creature. But no encounter was as frightening as that non-encounter that day near Huluraq.

And then, years later, what should have been a pleasant walk across a snowy English landscape turned into an anxiety-filled power walk, as I raced to escape from my subconscious fear. I realized at the time how ridiculous I was being and I forced myself to slow down, relax, bring myself back into the moment. But in a very short time I found myself once again anxiously speed walking towards my little chocolate-box English cottage.

I’ve often thought of that snowy day in Cambridgeshire and the subtle sensations that caused my mind and body to subconsciously make connections between past and present. We all subconsciously make these connections all the time as our senses trick us into time travel. The smell of a 2-stroke engine immediately transports me to the west coast of Hudson Bay; the theme music to BBC Sports Roundup puts me back in the busy little kitchen of my childhood at 5pm on a Saturday evening, me, my cousins, our parents, aunt and granny and the smell and texture of fried bread; tin-foil wrapped ham sandwiches take me back to the Canal End of Croke Park.

It’s not simply memory or nostalgia. Rather, it is a triggering of the senses that awakens reaction, muscle memory, feeling, sensation, emotion. Perhaps it’s the closest we get to time travel as we are transported backwards through time to catch glimpses of what were, perhaps, the moments that defined us. We may not have known at the time but those would be the moments that would remain, imprinted on our souls.

Yo soy Manuel

Last week I wrote about the joys of multilingualism and it would be remiss of me to not follow that up with some of the pitfalls of attempted bilingualism. Having lived in Spain since 2014, I feel true empathy for Manuel in Falty Towers. In fact, at times, I am Manuel. Learning another language opens one up to making all sorts of unfortunate mistakes. I have two particular favourites that I’ve heard from other people.Manuel

One is about a young woman from New Zealand who was the youngest and only female crew member of a yacht that was about to set sail across the Pacific from Peru. The young woman was given the task of provisioning the boat with enough beer for a crew of six or seven, for up to two months at sea. With her pockets bulging with cash, she went to the nearest supermarket and bought tray upon tray of cans of beer with a name that seemed, to her eyes, quite wild. She duly bought the beer, brought it back to the yacht and stowed it, in preparation for setting sail. It was only with 60 miles of ocean separating the yacht from the Peruvian coast, when the first cans of beer were cracked open, was it realized that she had bought sin-alcohol, or, in English, alcohol-free, beer. While the sailing may have been improved, the onboard atmosphere was not.

My other favourite story was told to me by a Welshman who lives on the opposite side of Andalucia. It’s very easy to mix up similar sounding words with dire consequences. This guy met his next-door neighbor one day and, instead of telling her he had been to visit her cuño (brother-in-law), he told her he’d been to visit her coño (pussy). Lucky for him, his neighbor has a good sense of humour, but he’s never lived it down and is reminded of it every time there is a neighbourhood get-together.

I’m not above making gaffes myself. I once went to a birthday party and mixed up the words regalo and regla. I arrived to the 3-year old’s birthday party with Lily and Katie, only to discover we’d left the present aboard Carina. As I sprinted down the hill I turned to the child’s mother and the three or four women she was chatting to. Instead of saying ‘I forgot the present’, I told them all ‘I forgot my period’.

My most recent major gaffe was one of misunderstanding and I sincerely hope the person I was talking to didn’t catch my gaffe. It happened about three months ago. We’d been having ongoing problems with our boiler. I’d phone the landlady, she’d phone her insurance company and they’d send a boiler repairman out. He’d fix the problem only for the boiler to stop working a few days later. This happened three or four times. During all of this, my landlady communicated with me via my next-door neighbor, who lives with her 97-year old mother and who happens to be my landlady’s cousin. It’s generally easier to communicate face-to-face in a second language than over the phone.

That morning we had the latest boiler breakdown and I phoned the landlady. I taught English that afternoon and came home, frazzled. My leg ached and I’d just had an awful hour with a bunch of 3-year olds. Lola kept sneezing out long viscous streams of disgusting snot that I had to wipe up. Irene asked to go to the toilet and when she didn’t return after 10 minutes I went to investigate. She’d done a poo but didn’t know how to wipe her bottom, so I had to do it for her. While I was busy wiping her arse all hell broke loose in the classroom. I didn’t sign up for this when I agreed to teach English to these kids.

When I arrived home, I went straight to the bedroom to change my clothes, as I always do at the end of the day. When I was half-dressed, I heard an insistent knock at the door. I hopped to the door (on my bad leg), half in-half out of my clothes. My friends and their giant puppy were standing at the door. I invited them in and said I just needed a minute to get dressed. They said they’d wait outside, on account of the dog. So, I returned to getting dressed. A moment later, there was another insistent knock on the door. ‘What do they want now?’ I wondered and opened the door again. My friends were still standing there, but they hadn’t knocked. Instead, it was a woman I recognized as someone who regularly visits my neighbor and her 97-year old mother. You’ll have to understand, I was quite wound up by now and probably in need of a strong cup of tea, so I didn’t quite take in everything the woman was saying to me. I caught the words ‘pain’, ‘doctor’, ‘4 o’clock tomorrow afternoon’. I put 2 and 2 together and came up with, erm, about three hundred and five.

With my friends and their giant puppy looking on, I put my hand on the woman’s shoulder and said, ‘I’m very sorry’. She looked at me strangely.

‘Is she in hospital or at home?’ I asked.

‘At home’, the woman said, and seemed very confused.

‘I’ll definitely be there tomorrow’, I said. ‘4 o’clock, right?’

Why was she looking at me so strangely?

‘Was she in much pain?’ I asked. ‘How’s Manoli?’ (for that is the name of my next-door neighbor).

By now the woman was looking at me so strangely, that I knew I had very seriously got the wrong end of the stick.

‘I’m sorry’, I said. ‘Can you explain all this to me again. I don’t understand’.

The woman then slowly and carefully explained that Manoli had a toothache and was in pain and didn’t want to leave the house. And she had asked this woman to convey to me that the boiler repairman would come at 4 o’clock the next afternoon.

Rather sheepishly, I thanked the woman for conveying the news. I sincerely hoped she didn’t catch my gaffe and couldn’t see the machinations of my brain as I considered what I would wear to the funeral at 4 o’clock the next day and what ingredients I had in the house to make a cake to bring around to the wake.

I really need to improve my Spanish.

Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies

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My Friday book review via Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies

Tower of Babel got a bad rap

Those of us who live in predominantly monolingual English-speaking parts of the world are particularly poor when it comes to speaking other languages. We make excuses, such as ‘I don’t have an aptitude for languages’ or we convince ourselves that we can’t do it. The fact is, we have the luxury of speaking an international language, and that makes us lazy and scared. Our language is the majority language of North America, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the UK, and an official or minority language in large parts of Africa, India, Oceania and elsewhere. In addition, many northern Europeans speak English as a second language. And let us not forget the millions of indigenous peoples worldwide who have been forced to adopt English to the detriment of their own languages. From our privileged position, we English speakers tend to view monolingualism as normal. But it is a one-sided privilege. When we travel abroad, we expect others to communicate with us in our language, without realising that our dogged monolingualism necessitates others’ bilingualism.

Far from people having or not having an aptitude for languages, bilingualism and multilingualism are the norm. South Africa, for example, has 11 official languages and recognises 8 other regional languages. I have met South Africans who can fluently speak five or six languages and have a smattering of three or four more. This is common. Papua New Guinea has over 850 indigenous languages, many from unrelated language families, and yet, the majority of Papua New Guineans are multilingual. I have friends from mainland Europe who can easily converse in Swedish, Dutch, German, English and French.

We are all born with an innate ability to speak language, but the form that language takes is moulded by our culture. There is nothing in our DNA that makes us capable of only speaking one language. One of the driving forces behind our decision to settle in Sanlúcar was our desire to give our children the opportunity to learn a second language. When we moved here, I had a poor grasp of French, an even poorer grasp of Japanese and Irish, and a smattering of Inuktitut. Julian had a similar grasp of French, Spanish and German. Neither of us were in a position (as home-schoolers at the time) to instil in our children a solid grounding in any language other than English.

The opportunity to enrol the girls in a small rural school, where they would be immersed in Spanish (Andalucian) language and culture, was not one to turn down. The girls were five and six years old when they started school and they didn’t speak a word of Spanish. They’re eight and nine now, and are pretty much fluent. Lily is equally comfortable in either language, while Katie finds it easier to read and write in Spanish.

What I didn’t anticipate when we made the decision to enrol our children in school in a small Spanish village was how multilingualism would become the norm for them. We are not the only immigrants to this beautiful part of the world. Here on the Rio Guadiana, we have friends and acquaintances from Holland, Lithuania, Germany, France, Belgium and Japan. The river separates Spain and Portugal. I’ll never forget Lily’s birthday party last year, where eight little girls ate pizza and played on the beach and between them spoke Spanish, French, Dutch and English. Their waiter was Portuguese. My children are often in the homes of their Dutch, Lithuanian or Japanese friends, immersed in the language of those homes. It’s a wonderful thing.

I’m not expecting my daughters to become fluent Lithuanian or Japanese speakers any time soon. Rather, their immersion in those environments normalises multilingualism. They become used to and comfortable with being in spaces where their language does not dominate. They accept that people change languages depending on to whom they are speaking and the topic of conversation. They understand that, when someone is speaking a language they do not understand, they are not doing so in order to exclude. And they are learning that language expresses culture and some things are not easily translatable from one language to another.

Language is a powerful and beautiful human trait. And every language opens up a new window on the world. We made a good decision when we dropped anchor in this multilingual little corner of the world.

Mountains of the Mind

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The Books – a regular Friday feature, where I review a book I’ve recently read. This week Mountains of the Mind

The view from the window

God knows, there are worse views. From high up in the village, our house looks southwest over the orange village rooftops and beyond. Below us lies the whitewashed church, perched on its own hill in the centre of the village, and beyond, up on the next hill, two picturesque windmills and the green field below where white and chestnut horses peacefully graze. I can’t see the river, but the hills of Portugal are almost within touching distance and the river runs between them and the village.

Home Feature

It’s like a scene from a Hollywood movie, a cardboard cutout of an idyllic southern European village. Imagine Mama Mia, or Chocolat, or Jeremy Irons in the final scene of Damage.

It’s just as well that it’s such a pleasant view. Since September I have been staring at that view for more time than I ever could have imagined. To coincide with moving into the house (indeed, because of moving into the house) I slipped a couple of discs in my lower back, leaving me severely incapacitated. I can’t walk very much, I can’t do most of the things I love to do. All those things that draw me to life in the village and the things that make me feel part of village life are, for the moment, out of reach. It’s a strange and unpleasant feeling to be in the village and yet not in the village.

But I have the view. Despite the picture postcard quality of the place, I know this is no cardboard cutout. Behind those pretty whitewashed walls and under those orange roof tiles there is love and laughter, joy and sorrow. And in the hills beyond, the seasons bring change, there are lambs and rock roses and wild flowers.

I am reminded of (though in no way compare myself to) Seamus Heaney’s poem Field of Vision* as I sit looking out on the view from my office desk or from the sitting room. For almost six months I have watched the seasons change, the parched sun-baked golden brown of summer giving way to the bright rain-fed greens of winter and spring. I’ve watched the sky, the bright blue empty sky, and the immense clouds sometimes bringing torrential showers of rain. These mornings I look down on fog, an inversion over the river, like steam rising from a witch’s cauldron.

The changing life of the village is harder to observe from this remove. Like those subtler changes in the landscape, one has to be in the village, rather than observing it from afar, to understand and appreciate its changing moods. I cherish those rare occasions these days, when I get out, when I feel sociable enough to be a part of village life again for an hour or two.

I long for a time when I can once again take a carefree stroll down to the bar and have a coffee or beer with whoever happens to be around, chat with my neighbours when we pass on the street, be spontaneous in my socializing. And I long to get beyond the village, to take long walks in the hills again, to be nose-to-nose with wild flowers, to row across the river in my little red dinghy and walk the smuggler’s trail in Portugal.

I am optimistic that all those things will come my way again. I expect I’ll appreciate them all the more for the months I have spent merely observing life through the frame of my front window.

*Field of Vision
Seamus Heaney

I remember this woman who sat for years
In a wheelchair, looking straight ahead
Out the window at sycamore trees unleafing
And leafing at the far end of the lane.

Straight out past the TV in the corner,
The stunted, agitated hawthorn bush,
The same small calves with their backs to wind and rain,
The same acre of ragwort, the same mountain.

She was steadfast as the big window itself.
Her brow was clear as the chrome bits of the chair.
She never lamented once and she never
Carried a spare ounce of emotional weight.

Face to face with her was an education
Of the sort you got across a well-braced gate —
One of those lean, clean, iron, roadside ones
Between two whitewashed pillars, where you could see

Deeper into the country than you expected
And discovered that the field behind the hedge
Grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing
Focused and drawn in by what barred the way.