War- torn hearts and post-fiesta dreaming. A Blog a Day, the Camino Way – Day 3

IMG_3144
Following the Camino signs

 

Day 3. Larasoanna to Pamplona. 16.5 km ( a short day’s walk)

And so today we have taken the easy way. A short 16.5 km walk to Pamplona, famous for its bull running and apparently, until yesterday, it’s fiesta-ing. It felt as though the whole city was sleeping off a hangover as we trudged through its beer-stained cobbled streets this morning. Bunting and flags with pictures of blood splattered bulls hung lopsidedly from half closed windows, sleeping figures curled around empty beer bottles, collapsed in the park. One of the biggest parties in Spain over for another year.

It is strange how quickly you become part of some ancient journey, how after only 2 days, sweaty and ruck-sacked, we felt out of place in a big city built for bustle and busyness.

IMG_3114
Post-fiesta Pamplona

The Camino had brought us here along narrow stoned tracks and past meandering rivers. We had climbed wooded hills and stared across valleys to the mountains opposite. And on the way we walked with our fellow hostel dweller from the night before,  who wakes each morning telling herself that today will be even better than yesterday.

We walked too with a traveller from Japan.

She is a peace keeper for an international charity and spends her life being flown to war-torn countries where she tries to re- unite members of families who have lost each other in the confusion and horror of war.
She walks with determination and concentration, a reflection, perhaps of the calm way she puts back together the pieces of broken families. She has brought child soldiers home to desperate parents, reunited siblings who have been thrown to different ends of the world, found lost children and watched them run into their mother’s arms.
” There are few people,” I say, ” whose jobs truly make a difference. You are one of those people.”
” Perhaps,” she says, her eyes never leaving the path.

“It must be such a hard job,” I add.

Almost imperceptibly, she shakes her head. ” Oh, my life is easy.”
I imagine the horror and destruction she has seen. The heart-breaking news she must sometimes deliver. The families torn apart who she can never put back together.
” That depends how you define easy,” I say.
She shrugs, staring intently at the single file path ahead.
Like everyone else, she is walking El Camino for a reason.
What she has seen, all that she has lived, the sadness and the heart-ache she has shared, has left her with a restless passion that cannot find a home.
She has tried competetive,  sailing, running marathons and is about to climb Everest – but nothing can fill the emptiness .
” In Japan, I don’t fit in anymore,” she says. She finds that she no longer believes in the values that hold her nation together. Nothing seems to make her feel anchored or grounded enough to stay.
She has tried to find love, searched for a partner who can wrap himself around her and keep her soul from drifting. – but no one seems strong enough to hold it down.
” I think perhaps,” she says, ” that I have never been in love. I have liked several people a lot- but I have not missed them when it is over, only the life we never had.”
I listen to the rush of the fast-flowing river we are walking next to. It is ageless and constant and comforting.

War is temporary, unpredictable and destructive.

I look at my companion and understand that it is not only the essence of a nation that can be ripped apart by war but the heart of an individual.

We leave her and our hostel-sharer  in a cafe and head on towards Pamplona.

I hope that the Camino can  fill her emptiness.

I hope it begins to fill her life with colour and certainty.

I hope she finds a love strong enough to soothe her restlessness.
If the Camino can provide  a sun hat just when it is neeced,  it can definitely piece a shattered soul back together and return the passion to a beating heart.
She still has 760kms to go.
That should be long and far enough.

Buen Camino

 

Quote of the day:

” I have worked in many dangerous, war-torn countries but the only thing I truly fear is bedbugs.” … Camino pilgrim

 

Today’s top tips

Start early even when your journey is short- that way you avoid walking in the heat and your aching muscles will be glad of a longer rest.

Stand your phone in a glass if you want to listen to the music you have on it, it works like a speaker.

IMG_0328

 

 

Advertisements

Sunhats and Basque Vinyl – A Blog a Day, the Camino Way, Day 2

 

Day 2. Roncesvalles to Larrasoana. 28kms

IMG_0327
On the Camino all are welcome

So we have made it through the sometimes unexpectedly steep undulations of day 2 and are safely ensconced in a hostel in Larrasoana. The sky above the old church next to our hostel is so intensely blue that even as you lie under it, it’s hard to believe it’s real.

IMG_0326

As yesterday we began by walking through the early morning rain and mist of mountain weather. It was a long day, 28 km but we are braver and already more experienced pilgrims today than yesterday.
We left at 7.30 and wandered through sleeping villages, and past fields where the honey velvet newborn calves gazed at us through long lashed dark eyes full of puzzlement at these strange 2-legged creatures. Along dappled forest paths, we buen-caminoed our way past rain- coated fellow travellers, determined not to stop or take off our ruck sacks in case the thought of standing up and putting them back on became impossibly painful. And 6 hours and 20 minutes later we collapsed on the ground outside our hostel.
But as we are slowly discovering, the Camino is not just about the journey and surviving the aching muscles, it is about the people you meet and the stories you gather along the way.

“The Camino provides,” says the once-was-stranger we are sharing our hostel with today. She joined us for a beer in the only bar and shared her story.  She is recently divorced and has traded her life as a rat- race accountant in Luxembourg, for a 6 month Camino journey. From  Puy-en-Velay in France, she has already walked 800 kms and is planning to walk to Santiago de Compostello and then along the coastal Camino back to France.
She is searching for many things on her journey.
And perhaps the Camino has not yet provided her with the answers she is looking for but it has provided her with a sunhat.
“I left mine at home,” she explains “and only realised 25 Km into the journey. And just as the sun got too hot to bear, I saw something black lying on the path in front of me. It was a hat, a perfect sunhat. I asked every pilgrim I passed along the way if it was theirs but the answer was always no. In the end, one of them said, “it is yours. It is a gift to you. That’s what happens on the Camino.” She smiles, a smile that fills her eyes with warmth.
Something you quickly realise on the Camino is that everyone has a different reason for following the ancient trail.
” Perhaps I will find a new job, a new , life, a new husband, ” she says. ” Every day I make a new decision because of the people I meet. ”
We tell her of the 6 month journey we made with our children in the camper van so many dreams ago.

” It was the biggest adventure you could possibly imagine,”  we say, ordering another beer. “And it’s kinder to the feet,” we add, massaging our aching toes.

” So you have helped me make today’s decision, ” she says ” I have always wanted a campervan.. When I go home , I will buy one.”
And we raise a refreshing glass to campervans.

” I retired last year, ” says the German man we share our table with over a 10 euro pilgrim’s meal and bottle of pilgrim’s wine. ” so last year I walked the Camino and this year I am walking it again.” He tells us how he met his second wife in the bookshop she owns and how he fell in love with the warmth of her smile.
She is joining him for the last 325 km of his journey ” it was her wedding gift to me, the promise to walk part of the way with me,” he says. “I am turning 60 this year but I can’t wait to hold her hand as we watch the sun rise. Can you imagine anything more romantic?”
His gaze wanders to some faraway place as we finish our wine and are joined by a Spanish policeman from near Bilbao who is spending a peaceful week walking while his children party away their holiday.
And then there is the cool pirate-like supermarket owner with his wild, pony-tailed hair and deep dark eyes. He only has 2 passions: vinyl records ( a passion he shares with Ninesh) and being Basque ( which he shares with many in Navarro, the region we are travelling through). . His is the only shop in the village, it is small and has limited shelf space for the packets of seeds and jars full of hard-to-recognise pickled vegetables. The rest of the shelves are given over to part of his record collection which he plays on an old-fashioned record player.
” Basque is the hardest language in the world to learn,” he tells us proudly. ” It’s a language so ancient that nobody is sure where it comes from. ”
” Are the Basques still fighting so fiercely for independence?” I ask.
For a moment he gazes. Over my head to a different time. The sense of smouldering pride is palpable.
His gaze returns to me.
“No longer,” he says. And 2 words have never sounded so like something lost.
“I am sorry for my terrible English,” he adds word perfectly as we turn to leave.

And so we rest our aching limbs on our comfortable bed and know we will put ourselves through it all again tomorrow.
” Its like a drug, the Camino”, said the Spanish policeman.
And I know what he means.
Already 2 days in, the Camino feels almost like a way of life, a gatherer of dreams, a piecer-together-of-broken lives.
I read yesterday that Santiago de Compostello means St James of the Field of Stars.
And that seems right somehow.
We are, each of us temporary pilgrims, walking towards our very own field of stars.
It makes each footstep worthwhile

Buen Camino.

 

Quote of the day

Wear today’s sweat tomorrow…..it saves on washing

 

Pilgrim Tips for Today

Seek out the 10 euro pilgrims’ meal in bars and cafes. You sit together at a big table and share wine and conversation.

Start walking early – it means you have a whole afternoon to relax and rest your weary muscles and you beat some of the heat in July and August.

Take an ibuprofen/ paracetamol with your breakfast…. prevention is better than cure.

 

A Blog a Day – the Camino Way

It is rare that you get to walk into your dreams.  But today Ninesh, my husband, and I have taken our first steps into ours.

26 kilometres of steps to be precise.

We have just finished the first very uphill day of El Camino, the ancient pilgrim route from St Jean Pied de Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compestello in Spain. We are neither of us religious nor particularly spiritual people but there is something about the Camino that caught our imagination years ago while our children were still young. And we promised ourselves then,  that our first holiday as re-free agents, without our children, would be to begin the 800 km journey and see who we meet and what we find along the way. We’ve dreamt it so many times, it’s hard to believe that we are actually here, sitting in a bar at the end of our first day.  In front of us, the imposingly beautiful convent of Roncesvalles, stands guard, it’s ancient cream walls bright against the deeply green wooded hill that rises behind it.

But we are here. Footsore, muscle- weary and secretly triumphant that we have made it through the, apparently, ( I hope they’re not just saying that!)  most difficult day of the walk.

We have followed the blue and yellow Camino signs and made it to where we are meant to be.

IMG_3118

And that is what it feels like…. for now, at least, we are where we are meant to be.

We have meandered along mountain roads and clambered up mountain trails until we glimpsed the horses that gallop across the Pyrenian mountain tops.

IMG_0321

And I am sure that if we had just stood on tiptoe, we could have touched the clear deep blueness of the sky.

We have slid and almost-tumbled down steep woodland paths.

Not that the day was rain-free. But it was perfect for a first day.

At 6.30 this morning we had a simple breakfast in the warm and welcoming gite we were staying in, watching a damp, misty morning dawn over the mountains we were about to climb.

Fortunately that was the last we saw of any mountain summits until we were walking on them. Shrouded in mist and cloud, they stayed hidden as we climbed steeply and exhaustingly upwards.
” Isn’t it lucky,” said one of the gite guests when we bumped into him at dinner at the end of the day ” that the clouds and mist stopped us seeing how high and far we had to go.”
And he’s right.                                                                                It definitely helped us not-so-fit-unwillingly-named-middle-agers not to know the enormity of what we had to overcome.

IMG_3094

Strangely, though, it was not the ascent as much as the descent that caused the aching muscles. The first 23km seemed to sail by. It was the last , steeply declining 3.2 km that felt as though they would never end.
But they did end in a bar with 2 of the most incredibly thirst -quenching, poured – from-a-great-height glasses of 1 Euro cider I have ever tasted.                                             Who knew that cider could ever tasted good?

And the truth is, we are not playing the real Camino pilgrim game because we are not spending our second night in a simple gite like yesterday or in the communal dorms of the convent where you bring your own towel and sleeping bag liners. We are not yet the through- and-through pilgrims that we should. Instead we are staying in the beautiful hotel next to the convent. After our 11 euro 3 course pilgrim dinner in the hotel restaurant, we are allowing our aching muscles to luxuriate on a comfortable feather bed mattress in a room with polished wooden floors, a power shower and a TV.
But hey. … there was nothing in our dream about having to rough it all the way.

Buen Camino.

Quotes of the Day

” Up is the new normal,”… Ninesh

” Just when you think things are on a level, life throws another hill at you,”….. Becky

 

And if you are interested in walking the Camino, here are some of our preparation and today’s top tips…

Preparations

Pack as lightly as you can – remember everything you pack you will be carrying on your back.
Invest in a good ruck sack.
Look after your feet – make sure you have, good walking boots with ankle support ( definitely worth it for the descent) and light weight, good quality, socks with some padding. Nothing can turn a dream into a nightmare more quickly than blisters and the wrong shoes.

Girls- I would definitely recommend investing in a good quality ( and of course very beautiful) well fitting sports bra. No ruck sack strap-chafing that way.

 

 

Top tips from our journey to St Jean Pied de Port and our first day

To get to St Jean Pied de Port we flew to Biarritz, stayed the night there. But the train for St Jean Pied de Port leaves from Bayonne (. 40 – 50 minutes bus ride from Biarritz, cost 1 euro, bus no. 8). We stayed in Biarritz but Bayonne looked like it would be a cool city to spend the night in.

The train from Bayonne to St J P de P takes about an hour and is only 1 long carriage so get to station early to make sure you get a seat ( ticket costs 10 euros and 10 cents).

 

El Camino passports can be got from 39 Rue de Citadel, cost 2 euros. You need your passport or ID card number

 

First day of walk

Eat a good breakfast
Leave early ( 7 am) so you have done a lot of the climb before it gets too hot. It took us 6.5 hours but can take 7.5.

There are 2 or 3 places to fill water bottles en route and several places to get snacks if you want them.

Bring some dried fruit e.g. Figs, apricots. They are a good way to get sugar into your bloodstream quickly if you find you are losing energy.

You can order a pilgrim’s dinner at almost any hotel/ restaurant you stop at. The menu is set and includes starter, main course and dessert as well as a bottle of house wine. Cost: 11 euros.

 

 

 

 

Smile and Have a Party – I’ve had a Wonderful Life

I have written many blogs about weddings.

But not today.

Today I am going to write about funerals.

Not because I am feeling macabre or sad but because  I have recently realised the hope that can grow from saying goodbye.

In the last few weeks I have attended 2 funerals: Sheila’s, someone who has lived on our road for as long as most of us can remember, and my uncle’s.

At 92 and suffering from Alzheimer’s, the death of my uncle was truly merciful.  For a long time he had been suffering and confused.

Tended devotedly by my aunt, we watched as day by day the person who had survived travelling to England on the Kindertransport, created a life in an alien country and become a pillar of his local Synagogue, gradually disappeared.

His days became a tangled, darkening mass of confusion, uncertainty and anxiety, his view limited to the window from his bed in the living room. The only way he could be moved was to be hoisted, like a lump of meat, into a chair by one of his many daily carers.  .  In life he was a strong-willed, dignified, private man – his slow death stole all that he valued from him.

His funeral was as he would have wished it to be, the age-old Hebrew words building a scaffold of tradition that brings comfort and predictability to a world that must change when it is left by someone we love.

It is the unfillable spaces left behind that makes death so hard to bear.

The stillness where there was once motion.

The quiet where there was once noise.

The lacking where there was once completeness.

And that is how it feels in the house at the end of our road, Sheila’s house.

Sheila was the life and soul of our street.

Famous for grabbing the microphone at our first street party to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee and then getting the words to God Save the Queen wrong, she seemed to dance her way through life.

Always there with a smile, never happier than when she was driving her famous green camper van down our road, her grandchildren constantly by her side, laughter never far from her eyes..everyone knew Sheila.

So when we heard that she had died suddenly, the sense of loss sent waves of grief and sadness through our homes and hearts.

She was taken too soon, with so much left to give, unlike my uncle, her death wasn’t slow but sudden and unexpected.

Yet even in her death she wouldn’t let us stop living.

The morning of her funeral was hot and sunny, the world awash with the colours that come with the first warm days of Spring.

The crematorium was overflowing,

It turns out Sheila was not only loved by her family and all the people in her street, she was loved by everyone who had ever met her.

No one wore black.

We were determined that her goodbye would be a colourful one. And from the moment the familiar green camper van turned the corner into the crematorium, led by a brass band, and with the coffin made out of her late husband’s canoe in the back,  we knew it would be.

If Sheila had been there, she would have been marching with the band.

 

If Sheila had been there, she would have danced through the service.

If Sheila had been there, she would have told us to stop crying.

The eukalele group she belonged to played “You are my Sunshine.”  The local community choir she belonged to sang out to “When the Saints,” and the sun just kept on shining.

Through laughter and tears her daughter spoke of the days and years and holidays and love they had shared. ” Every year for the 40 years of their marriage, for her birthday and Christmas, my dad, John would make her a wooden toy with moving parts, and always he would carve onto it ” J loves S.”

That seems like one of the sweetest love stories.

That seems like true love.

That seems like a marriage to envy.

Left behind with her will, Sheila had written by hand:

“Smile and have a party. I’ve had a wonderful life.”

So that’s what everyone did.  People queued to write a goodbye message on her coffin and left to party the rest of the day away.

People always do what Sheila says.

It is hard to believe that a funeral could give us hope.  But somehow it did.

We, each of us, left, with the warmth of a smile drying our tears.

Sheila seemed to squeeze joy from every drop of  life.

Whatever the obstacles, she overcame them, whatever  mountain she had to climb, she sang her way to the top and relished the view from the summit.

In life, Sheila never looked backwards. ” No regrets,” that’s what she told her son and daughter.

No regrets…in these strange, uncertain times it is hard to turn towards tomorrow without fear.

But the traditions that are important to us, whatever they are, the values that help us to do what we believe is right… they cannot be so easily torn asunder.

As I stood in the Jewish cemetery watching the men of the family throwing the first sods of earth onto my uncle’s coffin, as I watched Sheila’s campervan driving past me at the crematorium, I could feel the threads of a complicated, multi-coloured web that joins together random lives being spun.

It is a web of hope because however great our differences, whatever our beliefs or traditions, what binds us together, what makes us human, is always greater than what divides us.

The lives of Sheila and my uncle have touched each other in death.

In saying goodbye, what I have gained from knowing them both has become intertwined.

I take much from them:  The strength to continue against the odds, to start your life anew,  the understanding that traditions can stop our world from crumbling, the capacity to love unconditionally,  to seize the day, to live every moment to its full, to know that tomorrow always has the potential to be better than today.

I’m not sure what it is I believe in… hope – maybe, love- perhaps, that the world could be a brighter, kinder place – definitely.

But whatever it is, I know that I am not going to let fear stop me from believing.it.

No blade of terrorism will be sharp enough to cut through the multi-coloured web of hope that binds us together.

We are all of us a product of our confusing past, but it is the future that will sustain us and like Sheila, I will turn towards tomorrow with a smile ( and a quick drive down the road in our camper van ).

And when I sit in our garden at night, staring at the star sprinkled sky, there is something strangely comforting in knowing that somewhere out there,  Sheila is  persuading my Jewish uncle to smile and have a party before the Friday night prayers.

 

starry_night_sky_313039-1

 

 

 

I

 

Successfully Surprising

This weekend, my brother-in-law achieved an incredible feat.

He  managed to plan a surprise birthday party for my sister which includes a hog roast, a small folk  band and 120 guests all arriving at their house by 2pm on Sunday and my sister had ABSOLUTELY NO idea.

” Don’t let my wife hear,” says one of my friends when I tell him.

“Too late,” says her voice from the background.

And that has been the reaction from every husband or partner I tell.  An apprehensive fear that somehow a bar of impossibly high expectation has now been set.

” How do you top that?” I hear them whisper, glancing nervously over their shoulder to make sure their wife or girl friend is out of earshot  ” Whatever you do, don’t tell her…”

While the women I tell stare at me, checking that I am not joking.

” He planned a surprise party for her,” they say, ” I have to buy my own birthday present and give it to my husband and remind him to wrap it…sometimes, if I he reserves a table for dinner if I drop enough hints.  Are you sure it wasn’t actually your sister’s idea?

But I am absolutely sure.

Because when I had asked her what she was doing for her birthday the week before, she told me she was very relieved there was going to be no fuss.

For Nevil’s sake, I was hoping she didn’t really mean it so that she wouldn’t be disappointed when there really was no fuss.

“I’m not sure about turning 50,” she said,  ” it feels very old.”

“It’s not as bad as you think,” I said reassuringly with all the one-year-your-senior certainty of the older sister.

As the guests streamed into the house on Sunday afternoon, my sister was sitting at a friend’s house discussing gardening.

In the 3 hour window between her departure and return, the hog was roasting in a neighbour’s garden, 2 gazebos had been set up on the lawn, large containers of ice and alcohol had been lined up next to the kitchen, overflowing bowls of crisps and homemade ( by my brother-in-law of course ) hummous had appeared on every table, a barbecue to roast halloumi had been lit and food brought by guests efficiently divided into savoury and sweet areas.

Gradually the lawn was hidden under the feet of guests from as far away as Scotland and as close as next door.  Anticipation grew palpably as alcohol was expectantly consumed.

“SSHh,” ordered my nieces and nephew, ” She’s 1 minute away.”

Glasses frozen half way to our lips, we all stared expectantly at the door through which my unsuspecting sister would arrive. Conversations turned to whispers, children screaming on the trampoline were hushed, even Pip, my youngest niece, Molly’s, care dog, was forced into stillness with a firm hug.

cec5a870-26b6-4b59-9cd4-449687896bcd

We waited, anticipation oozing from every pore….

“Oh, no, sorry,” says Matty, “they’re 10 minutes away, not 1.  Soz.”

With groans of disappointment we resumed our drinking and growingly drunken conversations and with at least one more false alarm, by the time my sister really did arrive, we had the silence of 120 people down to a fine art.

She stepped through door and froze…and if anyone had doubted for a single moment that she had no idea, her expression said it all.

IMG_2758

“You said a barbecue for a few people later tonight.” she half laughed, half-cried when she could talk again.

But it turns out she was fine with a fuss.

Nevil placed a glass in her hand and she began to circulate, greeting each unexpected guest with her warm smile and a hug, everything accompanied by the gentle notes of mandolins and violins from the 3 man band.

There were guests from each part of her life, school, university,  time spent in Australia and New Zealand, friends from work, neighbours and, of course, family.

We left as a damp, dusk began to cloak the garden and guests in an hog roast tinted mist.   And as the many Whatsapp messages the next day told us, it was an evening of warmth and laughter, fireworks and fun.

The unending hosting generosity of my sister and brother-in-law made sure of that.

Food and alcohol flowed, the band played, and memories were made.

“So?” I ask my sister when I phone her on her actual birthday tomorrow, ” Is it so bad being 50?”

And I remember a conversation we had a few weeks ago.

Abbey and Nevil and Molly had been on holiday with a friend of Molly’s and her mum.

The mum spent much of her time reading self-help books on how to become successful.

“So,” she asked my sister and brother-in-law, ‘ how would you define success.  What do you think would make you successful.”

Abbey and Nevil looked at each other.

They have been happily married  for many years, they have 3 children, a beautiful house with an amazing garden and an art studio. They both have succesful jobs as doctors which they mostly enjoy. They have enough money not to have to worry too much and to mostly buy themselves more than they need.  They go on amazing holidays and mostly manage to achieve a pretty good work-life balance.

” We didn’t know what to say,” said Abbey.  ” So in the end we just had to admit that we were probably about as successful as we have ever hoped to be.”

The mum stared at them.

“No, but I mean, what would it mean to you to be truly successful?”

” In the end we just gave up,” laughed my sister.  ” I don’t think she wanted to believe that we were happy with what we have.”

And it is true that being successful means something different to everyone.

But there is something about the Britain’s Got Talent/X Factor search for fame and the Made in Chelsea lifestyle aspirations of people today that leads to a constant sense of lack of achievement , the belief that success can only be measured against the most famous and the richest.

Striving to be successful has become synonymous with desiring what everyone else has, aspiring to be the richest, the best, the most fashionable, the most beautiful.

But I prefer to look at success the way my sister and Nevil do.

Not everything about their life is perfect but they always make the best of what life has given them.

They share a sense of adventure, a sense of humour, mutual respect, a love of good food and gardening  …and most importantly their love for each other … a fact that was proved this weekend by the throwing of  a surprise party that will make history amongst their friends ( and cause extreme anxiety for his male counterparts. )

And if that’s not success, I’m not sure what is.

 

 

15672965_10154161153508848_6708163406988052681_n
My little Sis and her successful surpriser

Happy birthday Abbey…never stop smiling!
734331_10151206014804436_2114802022_n

Mixed Race Disconnections

The strange thing about being the white mother of mixed-race children, is that most of the time people don’t think they’re my children at all.
When they were little it had it’s advantages, it made it much easier to ignore them when they were having a tantrum in the middle of the street.  Older people would search the faces of nearby parents wondering who this nightmare child belonged to and their eyes would never rest on me!
But as I pushed them in their pram through town or held their hands when they were toddlers, people would stop me:
” What lovely children.  How many hours a day do you look after them?”
” 24,” I would say.
” It’s a hard job being a nanny,” they would say, touching my arm supportively.
Or others would say:
” Aren’t they beautiful, how long have you had them?  My friend’s daughter has adopted 2 lovely little African children.”
Perhaps people just jumped to the conclusion that it was unlikely someone who looked like me would have “lovely,” or “beautiful,” ( subjective, I know ) children.
But I don’t think that’s what they meant.
I think they would look at Joss and Mia’s cafe-au-lait coloured skin and assume that their parents had skin the same colour.
And I don’t blame them.
Mia and Joss look nothing like me.
I think they must have inherited all their father’s genes.
But it’s a strange feeling living in a world that immediately assumes a  disconnection between you and the people you love the most.
And it’s not just a ” white, thing.
I was walking down our road with Joss and Mia one Friday afternoon a few years ago when we passed two men on their way to the  Guide Hall round the corner which doubles up as a mosque on Friday afternoons.
We smiled at each other.
” How come you’ve got two little Asian kids then?” one of them asked.
” Fancied a change, so I did a swap! ” I said, hugging Mia and Joss close.
We all walked away laughing but a tiny bit of me wished they hadn”t had to ask.And when we visited Sri Lanka with Ninesh’s family it was even worse.
No one connected Mia and Joss with me, one of the tuk-tuk drivers thought14 year old Mia was Ninesh’s wife and when people asked me if I was alright and I said I was looking for my husband, they would always take me to the nearest white man. ( Perhaps I should have been less careless!)
It’s not racist.
It’s about perception and accepted norms.
But it seems  strange that in this modern, melting pot of a world, people still find inter-racial relationships strange and mixed-race children ” unusual.”
” You’re lucky,” I tell Mia and Joss, ” you’ll always be different. Unique.”
Joss shrugs and changes theTV channel.
” I just wish people would see me before they see the colour of my skin,” sighs Mia.
She’s right and sometimes it upsets her a lot.
And as her white English mum I am helpless because it’s a feeling I will never truly understand.But even Mia can see the funny side.
She and I had gone to visit some friends in London. Walking back to the station, we had looped our arms around each other’s waists and were chatting as we wandered from rich houses and perfect squares towards busy main roads with rubbish strewn pavements.
It was a warm night and we passed a busker strumming a guitar.
He glanced up and seeing us sang out:
” what a lovely couple.”
“You should take it as a compliment mum,” laughed Mia,less horrified than I thought she would be ” you must look young.”
” Or we just look so different from each other that he thought we couldn’t possibly be related,” I said,  laughing too.
We cannot step out of our skins.
All we can do is wait patiently for the world to catch up.
And while we are waiting, the best thing we can do is laugh.

Our family- spot the difference

 

Patchwork Lives

This is a few years old now  and my Uncle is moving further and further away from us, lost in anxiety and fear.  But in these precarious times, it feels more and more important to remember how much people have had to survive and overcome just to be here.

 

Last  Sunday was my uncle’s 90th birthday celebration.

It has been a long time in the planning, this gathering of the generations.

Guests travelled from the far North of England, from Wales, from Germany. fellow survivors of the Holocaust travelling miles, to celebrate with him..

His daughter, my cousin,  had very impressively managed to arrange most of the party from her home in Germany.

” How’s the planning going?” I asked, the last time I spoke to her before the party.

” Well,” she said, ” it’s all sorted. We’ve booked the local synagogue hall, we’ve sorted the caterers and we’ve asked 70 people, family and friends, who have all accepted the invitation. Only one person has said they’re definitely not coming.”

” That’s a shame,” I said, ” who is it.”

“My dad,” said my cousin.

I laughed, she didn’t.

” Do you think we can celebrate his 90th birthday without him?” she asked. 

I hesitated.

” Well you can’t cancel it now.  Perhaps he’ll feel better about it on the day.”

” Maybe,” she said,  sounding  unconvinced.  And I understood why.

My uncle has always been stubborn, even when he was well and young.  Now that he is unwell and old, he clings to his stubborness like a lifebuoy. 

 It is the one thing that is not disappearing with his memory.

“Perhaps we could persuade him to sit in his wheelchair and then just run towards the party,” I suggested.

My cousin gave a half-hearted laugh.

“He doesn’t really use a wheelchair. I guess we’ll just see what happens.”

But the day arrived and even as people began to trickle into their house, my uncle remained determined not to enjoy his day.

Family and long-time friends gathered in the front room while my uncle sat, resolutely grumpy and alone in the kitchen.

” Walk with me to the hall,” said my cousin, half an hour before the party was due to start. She turned to her mandolin-playing minstrel brother, ” perhaps you can just tell dad it’s time to go,” she said, ” maybe he’ll forget where it is he’s meant to be going to and just come with you..”

Her brother nodded, ” I’ll do my best,” he said quietly.

We set off for the synagogue, the hall decorated with balloons, round tables laid out with name plates and cutlery.

” It’s looks amazing,” I said, “I don’t know how you managed to arrange all this from Berlin.”

My cousin shrugged. ” Let’s hope everyone comes,” she said, ‘ then at least, if dad really doesn’t come we’ll be able to show him the photos. It’s amazing how many people care about him.”

And everybody did come.

The hall was full, his family and friends seated and the first course just about to be served, when my uncle arrived.  

Leaning on his stick, he walked slowly to his seat and sat down next to my aunt.

My cousin grinned,  heaved a huge sigh of relief and her brother took out his mandolin and played the first notes of happy birthday.

A mixture of tuneful and disharmonious voices filled the hall.

Everyone  joined in, and even though my uncle’s eyes were closed, he was smiling.

The courses were peppered with speeches ( and even a poem ) by family and friends and the room was filled with the gentle hum of conversation and the odd screech of laughter from the table of teenagers.

All the grandchildren and great nieces and nephews from the ages of 7 to 17, were sitting together.

And, as is always the way with groups of teenagers, they were wrapped in a cloak of unrealised potential, an edgy energy, that seemed to say, ‘ we are just slightly more important than the rest of you.. 

While the speeches remembered my uncle’s past, the teenage table represented his future, my uncle’s fingerprint resting on the heads of his two grandchildren.

They are half Indian, half Jewish and, in a strange twist of fate,  living in Berlin the city where their granddad’s life began and from which he had to flee. It’s like his world has turned full circle, but somehow in the turning it has moved to a different universe

I wondered, if in all his wildest, long-ago Berlin dreams, my uncle, a young Jewish boy, could ever have imagined he would be part of such a patchwork family.

In those days, anyone who married outside their faith would be shunned by the rest of their family.

Yet in his 90th year he sits at the head of a family that is like a small version of the United Nations. A mixture of-Indian, English, Thai, Sri Lankan and Irish blood coursing through the veins of his grand children and great nieces and nephews. None of this third generation are practising Jews, most of the second generation Jewish in name only, The trauma of his niece coming out as gay many, many years ago, a distant memory ( even the never-ending Passover night when she added “or she,” every time God was called “he*) and her partner long-since accepted as a member of the family.

Some of the patchwork family


But despite this diluting of his religion through the generations, nothing has meant more to  my uncle or had more impact on his life, than his Jewish faith. 

 Family and friends stood up  and, with warmth and obvious respect, told the story of his life, 

As a German refugee  at the beginning of the Second World War, his life in England  began  in a children’s home  for children who arrived on the Kindertransport. He was lucky., his mum and dad were with him, they were running the home. But he had to share them with all the other lonely, frightened, suddenly-parentless children.

 It was a strange, sad beginning to a new life in a world that had been turned upside down by the crazy,, incomprehensible rise of a devastating anti-semitic hatred.

The speeches were warm and witty. 

There was no anger at the tearing apart of the lives of so many in that room, just a sense of belonging to something  that can never be completely destroyed.

” All these people are nice people” my dad said when the speeches had finished, “they’re all kind and gentle. Why would anyone want to murder us?”

I looked at the crowd gathering around my almost-asleep uncle.

It was a hall full of survivors.

 Even the patchwork teenagers were only here because the people before them had survived.

It always seems strange to me that people who have given up everything, had to make a new start from nothing, should end up living every day lives in unexciting suburbs like my uncle, moving from the North of England to Slough and then to Ealing.

But perhaps that’s what survival means, recreating the normal, trying to give your family the very thing you lacked, a life of certainty and uneventfulness.

Of course it never quite works that way.

His children are wanderers, restless somehow, not quite wanting to belong.

But he and my aunt made them a home full of love and laughter and life.

And in his 90th year, my uncle still hasn’t lost is sense of humour.

Although he seemed to be asleep for most of the speeches, when they were finished he pointed at the microphone.

My cousin was really pleased.

” After all that fuss about not coming, he’s going to make a speech,” she smiled.

Everyone turned towards him, waiting.

With slow determination he switched the microphone on.

” What I want to know,” he said after a pause, ” is why no one has mentioned Slough.”


Slowly people began to leave, each of them representing a different part of my uncle’s life.  Old and young, religious and irreligious, his past and his future.

And I realised suddenly that it is not just our families but our whole lives that are a human sized patchwork of being. A collection of memories and experiences, of now and then, of who we are and what we were, held together by a golden thread of beliefs and values and hope.

As the hall emptied, my uncle made his slow way to the synagogue. 

It’s a tiny room now, partitioned off at the end of the hall, a shadow of what it used to be,it’s members dwindling and ageing. 

 But it’s where my uncle feels most at home, where the sometimes fading patches of his life come together, vibrant and alive for the shortest of moments, a quilt of comfort in an often uncomforting world.

And perhaps, for just a little while, he is transported to Slough.

Happy Birthday Uncle Kurt