Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Not woman's work

We have no dishwasher in our new flat in Valencia.

I’m using the word ‘new’ to mean new to us. The building is, in fact, nearly a century old, which is hardly ancient by Spanish standards, but certainly doesn’t qualify as recent either. So it’s our new flat in a relatively old Valencian building.

In any case, we haven’t put a dishwasher in. So I’ve just finished washing some dishes, making it all the more appropriate that I write this post, for reasons that will become increasingly clear as you read it.

Hanging washing out to dry in England is something of a gambler’s exercise. You have a reasonable chance that within a few hours – it seldom takes less than that – it’ll be dry. But you have as good a chance that it will be dripping wet again, indeed possibly wetter than when you took it out of the machine in the first place. England, it has been rightly pointed out, is a country without a climate but plenty of weather.

Valencia, on the other hand, has the kind of climate that makes it a joy to rely on. For most of the year, the temperature is neither uncomfortably hot nor unpleasantly cold. When the rain falls, it tends to be seen as a pleasant change and a welcome refreshment for plants, rather than yet another annoyance. Leading to a washing line full of clothes being drenched.

We haven’t been in Valencia long enough to have become used to our new state of affairs. Danielle still takes delight in hanging washing out on our pocket-balcony, and even more at being able to take it back in, bone dry, about five minutes later.

In fact, she enjoys it so much that she couldn’t resist saying so on FaceBook.

Danielle's FaceBook pic of our balcony washing line
Monica is a friend of ours who is Spanish herself but living in Eastern France. That's where we met her, during our time in or near Strasbourg. She replied to Danielles post to point out that hanging up washing should not be regarded as woman’s work and that I, too, should pull my weight.
Trying to show willing
Photos can’t lie, can they? So I’m delighted to include one of me fiddling with the buttons on the washing machine. I admit that this does not absolutely prove that I took charge of doing that load of washing, but at least it shows that I was interested in understanding the process. Which counts for something, doesn’t it?

Besides, I did try to pull my weight in other ways. For instance, when it came to the IKEA assembly tasks, it was I who undertook the bulk of them. Readily I might add. With pleasure even.
The joy of IKEA assembly
One of those tasks was particularly satisfying, though I’m not sure I should be admitting as much. What it led to was the kind of chair that led my stepson David to point out that, since I was now a granddad, it was time I had one. My view is that, since I’ve been a granddad for thirteen years now, it’s actually long overdue that I should be able to relax in a rocking chair.
Granddad’s delight. And Grandma’s too
Not, of course, that I expect to spend much time rocking. There’s work to do, and no reason to suppose that it’s specifically female. As Monica would no doubt point out, if ever I suggested otherwise.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Kehl to Valencia completed

Another milestone…

Some weeks ago, we cleared out our old flat in Germany, in Kehl on the frontier with France at Strasbourg. We hung on to some of the furniture from that clearance. Today, we took delivery of it in Valencia, in Spain. 

That means we feel as though we really have moved into this place. A flat we took as a shell now feels like a home. Indeed, in many ways a familiar home: we’ve been joined by my grandparents’ dinner table, their Welsh dresser (hand built by a joiner friend for their wedding in the 1920s), Danielle’s parents’ antique wardrobe (bought in Versailles before it moved to Eastern France and Germany before coming here), my parents’ desk (built of teak, no longer legal today, and which has now travelled from the US to England, France, Germany and finally to Spain – truly a cosmopolitan piece of furniture).

Our much-travelled desk in place
The fact that the furniture was brought to us from Germany led to an interesting linguistic problem. I can’t say that I truly master German and Spanish, which I speak to a level that can at best be described as passable. So dealing with German removals men at the same time as the Spaniards who were helping us, proved more than my grasp of the languages could handle: I found myself saying ‘Danke’ to the Spaniards and ‘Gracias’ to the Germans or, worse still, getting hopelessly confused and producing sentences even more incoherent than usual. I’m glad to say, however, that they were all friendly and polite, and smiled and nodded at me, as if to say that while they had no idea what I was trying to say, they could tell I was attempting to be friendly and they appreciated it.

Our two sons and our daughter-soon-to-be-in-law from Madrid came to help us and provide company, so the process was a great deal easier than the ghastly stress of the Kehl clearout. It’s also fun to have them around for the weekend. In fact, we’re due to go out with them soon for a meal – just as soon as we’ve finished our celebratory drink and I’ve finished this blog post.

The living room furnished and populated
by son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law
So I raise my glass to your health and our move. And drain it. And post this brief expression of relief for a tiring move successfully completed.

All but drained, to your good health

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Suicide: a good theme for light reading

It was slightly odd helping my mother buy two novels on Kindle, since both started with characters on the brink of suicide.

The first was Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down, which starts with a group of characters meeting on a rooftop where they have independently gone to jump off and end their lives. Since they each of them wanted the place to themselves for their suicide, they inevitably end up in a row with each other. However, they decide in the end to postpone their deaths and in meantime see how they can help each other. Hornby builds that whimsical premise into a delightful comic novel about what flows from that decision.
Well worth reading. Young adult or not
The second was Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places. And here’s the other odd, or at least unprecedented, aspect of the business: this was the first literary recommendation Id had from my granddaughter, now 13. My mother is 93. Even if it was only for advice on reading material, I enjoyed acting as a bridge across four generations and eighty years.

Niven also starts with characters on a high place, ready to jump off. In her case there are just two.

Theodore Finch, known by many of his schoolmates as Theodore the freak, describes himself at the start as ‘awake’. It takes a while to realise just what he means by this word, or rather what the opposite looks like, but the mountain of disturbance and pain it covers is implicit from the start.

Violet Markey, on the other hand, is popular with everyone. She had, indeed, been a cheerleader until the event that changed her life – a bereavement from a car accident for which she blames herself. That’s a shock with which she has found herself unable to come to terms.

So both characters are, as they admit to each other later, broken, if in different ways. That theme separates All the Bright Places from the general run of the mill of high-school stories flooding us from the US – it is, in fact, so far above that rather humdrum genre that it can hardly be said to belong to it all. It is, rather, a powerful story and a moving exploration of issues that should matter to us all; it just happens to deal with two characters who are American high-school seniors.

Nor is it just the themes that put Niven’s book in a class of its own. It’s also the way she tells the story. She chose an interweaving of Finch and Violet’s voices, as each describes memories, experiences, hopes and fears, in an interior monologue that might be a diary extract but feels more like a spoken confession. The voices are distinct and entirely believable, not just for two separate characters, but for two characters of different gender. It’s a tribute to Niven’s talent that she was able to write them so convincingly.

At the end of the book, an ‘Author’s Note’ explains how much of the work reflects Niven’s own experience. To me, that only deepened the poignancy of a story that was already poignant enough. Her experiences inspired a wonderful story of two deeply appealing characters.

All in all, a book well worth reading.

I’m sure my mother will get a great deal from it. And, of course, she can always switch to A Long Way Down if she wants rather a different take on things. And a bit of a laugh by way of relief.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

I'm just mad about saffron

Ah, the power of words. Sometimes they can precipitate us into quite existential conundrums (or should that be conundra? I must check). Sometimes they just distract from the task in hand.

Take the great meal Danielle cooked for us. A biryani. Nothing simpler and more commonplace, you say? Not at all. This was a true New Delhi recipe – actually, I may have misheard – it may have been an Indian Deli recipe – and it contained almond paste, onion paste, garlic paste, crushed cardamom, crushed cinnamon, crushed saffron – all producing a flavour – actually a bouquet of flavours – that combined richness with delicacy, delightful mixing with intoxicating variety, a bite of sharpness with a lick of gentleness.

A quite extraordinary dish. Like nothing I’d tried before. A taste of paradise without even having to live virtuously to earn it.

Danielle even did most of the washing up as she went, leaving me little to deal with at the end. One thing, however, threw me. A pan containing liquid a discreet gold in colour. What was to be done with it, I wondered?

‘It’s saffron milk,’ Danielle called from the garden.

Saffron, eh? I felt I needed to be doubly careful. Eating saffron is rather like eating silver, though it tastes better. At least, I assume it tastes better – I’ve never tasted silver. It’s inconceivable, however, that it could possibly taste as good, however precious it might be.

Actually, saffron is more expensive. Weight for weight, it costs rather over twice as much as silver. Clearly, the sauce before me was no ordinary kitchen product. This was a substance to treat with respect and consideration.

So there arose the problem of where to put it. In a small bowl covered with cling film? In its own Tupperware container? In some other recipient?

This is where I hit the existential – or possibly linguistic – problem. After all, the sauce was in a saucepan. 
More precious than gold. Or at any rate silver
Doesn’t that sound exactly like the right place for a sauce to be? How could I possibly move it to anywhere else and hope to have improved matters? When somethings right, shouldnt one leave well alone?

Odd that I could practically hear the sigh from the garden. I mean, I hadn’t said any of that stuff out loud. Does she just know me so well after 37 years?

‘Just pour it down the sink and wash the pan,’ came the admonition from the garden.

Pour it away?

‘It contains saffron.’

Again that sigh.

‘OK, OK, I’ll pour it away.’

It was almost liberating to do it. The kind of feeling I suppose a wealthy man gets by lighting a cigar with a £50 note. As though I was booking my place among the big spenders by merely discarding all that saffron.

A definitely existential act.

I could have sworn that Danielle said something under her breath, but I couldn’t be sure just what. It sounded a bit like ‘You and your existential experiences. It’s just some washing up, for pity’s sake.’

‘What was that?’ I asked.

‘Nothing,’ she replied, ‘just finish the job without making it some kind of metaphor.’

Oh, well. Maybe she’s right. It was maybe time de-dramatise, I decided, and finished the washing up.

After all, what was the point of fixating on saffron? It was only one of the rich tapestry of spices that had produced an outstanding dish. Perhaps I could just focus on what a great meal I had, instead of obsessing over a mere detail.

A lesson it might be useful to learn for life generally, as it happens.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Obama Trumped

The Donald has torn up the Iran nuclear arms agreement. On the basis that it was a rotten deal and shamefully one-sided. He’s probably right on the second point: it has led to Iran dropping its military nuclear programme, but few of the promised economic benefits in the way of foreign investment into Iran have materialised.

But maybe Trump didn’t mean that the deal was one-sided against Iran.

The worry seems to be that Iran has never abandoned a policy of extending its influence throughout the region, by manipulating puppet governments and backing deeply unpleasant groups. In particular, Irans friend Hezbollah has shown itself perfectly ready to take terrorist action or use violence generally to advance its political agenda.

What’s curious, though, is that it’s the states of the region most inclined to use such violence who are leading the charge against the Iran deal.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, seems intent on pummelling Yemen back into the Stone Age, as it uses its military to starve the Yemeni people and leave it victim to disease as well as injuries without the means to fight them. It also regularly kills large numbers of civilians – for instance, at weddings or funerals – always it claims unintentionally, which means the Saudis are either lying and therefore committing war crimes, or telling the truth and therefore so utterly inept that they shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a weapon.
Saudi Arabia teaching Yemen to appreciate peace
Israel, too, has long established the principle of a hundred eyes for an eye, reacting to any attack on its people by one tens of times more powerful and more murderous. It also regularly intervenes militarily in Syria, in just the same way as Iran or Russia does, with the same callous indifference to the wellbeing – or even survival – of the citizens or the hopes for peace.

But these two nations proclaim their commitment to ending terrorism as their reason for wanting the nuclear deal with Iran ended.

Meanwhile, in the greatest irony of all, it is the United States itself that has done most to ensure the growing power of Iran across the Middle East. It was Dubya Bush, after all, slavishly supported by Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, who invaded Iraq to bring down Saddam Hussein. Saddam was a deeply unpleasant character and no one deserved to overthrown more than he did, but he was also deeply hostile to Iran. Why, he even fought an eight-year war against his neighbour.

His overthrow left a power-vacuum in Iraq into which flowed the Shia groups who, precisely because they represented the majority of the people, he had always oppressed and prevented holding power. They were enthusiastic supporters of Iran, ruled by fellow Shiites. So in place of Saddam, we now have a puppet-government of Iran’s holding sway over Iraq and its oil.

The West itself set the trap in which it was then caught.

And it looks as though Trump wants to do exactly the same thing again. The Iran nuclear deal was by no means perfect, but it was the only deal we had. Whatever Benyamin Netanyahu of Israel may say, all the evidence points to a huge reduction in Iran’s nuclear programme. In addition, we now have observers from the International Atomic Energy Agency regularly checking Iran’s installations, which we didn’t have before. But just as the UN inspectors were disbelieved when they reported that Saddam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, before the Iraq invasion whose declared goal was to deprive him of them, so Trump refuses to believe the IAEA inspectors today.

What is certain is that if the agreement fails, Iran will return to preparing and stockpiling nuclear weapons. The reformist government may well fall and be replaced by something far less accommodating. Iran may turn from an uncertain partner in peace into an enemy all the more dangerous for thinking itself threatened.

Like Dubya and Trump before him, but at far greater scale, Trump is creating precisely the monster he claims to be acting against.

An ignorant man turns his own weapons against himself. Sadly, he turns them against the rest of us too. Something for which we have to thank the equally deluded minority of US voters who thought they would somehow benefit from putting him in a position to do the damage.

Just as with Brexit, if your answer is Trump, you’re asking the wrong question.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Pets and a crowded bed

Among many other aspects, the history of my marriage has been one of decreasing dog size.

When I first met Danielle, she had a couple of Borzois, Taiga and Sador. These Russian wolfhounds stood to well above our waists and covered territory with extraordinary speed in chase of prey, though they were also, as it happens, unusually gentle, even timid, creatures.

They slept on the other side of the bedroom from where we lay on a low bed – basically a mattress on the floor – but would come and flop onto the bed as soon as either of us showed the slightest sign of waking up. And when I say ‘flop’, I mean flop: they’d just let themselves fall sideways on top of their victim, and when a Borzoi flops on you, you’re left in no doubt it’s happened.

After our marriage, we had a border collie, Bess, we liked so much that we eventually added another, Floss. You think there was a pattern to our naming of them? You wouldn’t be wrong.

Border collies are brilliant and highly trainable, as well as strong-willed and devious enough to get their way when they set their mind to it. They stand about thigh height. Of all our dogs, they were the toughest and they got the toughest treatment: we built them a run outside the house and they slept there, with nothing better than a kennel to retreat to in the cold. But they flourished in that regime: they’re sheepdogs and don’t belong indoors.

Later on, while we were living in Strasbourg, we decided it was the moment to have a Puli. Well, to tell the truth, we decided we wanted a poodle, and travelled to Budapest where many are bred and, at the time at least, the prices were competitive. But when we got there, we found there were no puppies to be had so we settled for a Puli, Janka, instead – frankly, we fell for the dreadlocks and the beautiful disposition (though I have to say, that heavy pelt did occasionally reek just a bit…) She came about nearly to our knees.

Janka was an indoor dog, sleeping on a mat in our bedroom.
Janka was always good at making friends
In this case, with our granddaughter Aya
Now we do indeed have a couple of poodles, Luci and Toffee. That’s poodles of the toy variety: tiny little dogs that barely reach mid-calf (and even lower in Toffee’s case). And the inevitable has happened: they sleep on our bed.

This is, I admit, primarily my fault. I seem to have become remarkably soft-hearted towards our pets. ‘Oh, let them sleep there,’ I say, ‘they don’t take much space’.

That’s true enough. As Danielle points out, however, they chiefly like to feel the presence of both of us at the same time. That means that, even if she kicks them to the bottom of the bed where they really wouldn’t disturb us (yes, she’s the disciplinarian), they sneak back as soon as they think we won’t notice and lie between us or, often, on us. They may not weigh much, but after a while, even a small weight can get irritating if it’s right on top of you. And you’re trying to sleep.

The mornings are fun, too. The moment one of us stirs, they’re on to us like lightning. The right thing to do, they’ve calculated, once one of their humans wake, is to jump on top and start licking a face. Well, there’s only one of us whose face they lick: they know that Danielle would soon mete out terrible punishment if they tried that trick on her, so I’m the only one to get my face slobbered before I’ve even had coffee.

Conditions in bed become still worse if our cat, Misty, decides to join us, too. Then there’s a little competition between the three of them. Competition tends to be (a) noisy and (b) fidgety, making it a source of disturbance on both counts.

It got to the point that I began to feel a little guilty at having given in to the dogs’ obvious desire to sleep on our bed. Danielle was quite mocking, frankly. Especially when they refused even to make the effort to jump onto the bed and one or other of us had to get up to lift them onto it.

‘Perhaps I ought to get a bit tougher,’ I began to think, ‘and see if there’s any way of getting them to sleep somewhere else. Just for Danielle’s sake.’

But all such feelings of guilt evaporated when one day she revealed a new purchase she’d just made.
Staircase to heaven (or at least bed) for them
To something more like purgatory for us
A set of nice wool covered steps – ideal for a small dog to get up onto the bed.

She was encouraging them to join us!

And there was I feeling guilty. Wondering whether I owed it to her to put an end to this abuse of our sleeping arrangements. While all the time she was subverting them herself.

‘Well,’ I thought, ‘screw that for a game of soldiers,’ and rolled over on my side to enjoy my rest undisturbed by any pangs of conscience.

Having kicked the little ones out of my bit of the bed beforehand, of course.

Occupation forces. In full force.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Birthdays and unbirthdays

Before I start, I should warn readers that this post includes some relatively bad language. I could, of course, clear it up, but it’s the duty of the historian to record events as they truly happened. How can he do that if he applies his own moralising filter to the record he is keeping?

The immediate cause of these events was my wife Danielle’s birthday. Now Danielle is difficult to buy presents for. Ask her what she’d like, and her immediate response is always ‘nothing’. So either you surprise her or you push her and prompt her to come up with a suitable present.

‘How about something for your allotment?’ I asked.

Danielle keeps a colossal market garden with a friend, thanks to which we are kept in excellent fresh fruit and vegetables for pretty much half the year. It involves a level of effort I find it exhausting merely to contemplate, but it seems the two of them enjoy it. While I wouldn’t enjoy the work, I certainly enjoy the produce, so we’re all happy about it.

Clearing the allotment:
work has remained backbreaking ever since
‘Ah, yes,’ she said, reflectively. ‘We could do with some horseshit.’

Well, I’m a former marketing man so my specialty is bullshit, but I suppose I could, at a stretch, have fulfilled that wish. But then she astonished me.

‘Actually, what I really need is a ho.’

A ho? That wasn’t the kind of language I expected my wife to use. Nor the kind of need I expected her to have.

Then she confused me still further.

‘You know – like the one they stole from the allotment.’

Surely this would have been something I’d have read about in the papers?

‘An African ho,’ she added in what was obviously intended to be an explanation but only left things as murky as ever for me.

‘it’s the only kind,’ she continued, ‘that seems to break up the earth well. You know, the soil’s so heavy in clay. That broad blade and the long handle, they just break the clods up like a bomb had hit them.’

A hoe! I’d been missing an ‘e’. Amazing the difference a single letter can make.

An African hoe. Not to be confused with an African ho
So she got her hoe. She’s apparently delighted with it. Though to me it just looks like another source of backbreaking work. Still, one should judge other peoples tastes by ones own.

In any case, as Lewis Carroll points out in Alice in Wonderland, unbirthday presents make much more sense that birthday ones. We have, after all, a great many more unbirthdays every year than we have birthdays. So I’m grateful to Danielle for getting me an unbirthday present at the same time as I got her the hoe. A far more expensive gift, as it happens: a pair of walking boots.

Very comfortable they are too. Or eventually became. When I put the first one on, I was surprise to feel how tight it was over the top of my foot – pressing down and even quite painful in the way it rubbed.

‘Oh, well,’ I thought, ‘perhaps if I just walk them in a bit they’ll be quite snug.’

Then I tried to put the other one on. My toes were immediately met by an obstacle preventing my foot sliding in. I took a look. There was a piece of cardboard, the shape of the front part of the upper of the shoe, jammed in the front.

I’m glad to say that it didn’t take me long to work out that if there was a card in one shoe, there might have been one in the other. That somehow I’d managed to get my foot into that shoe despite the card. And that it was its presence that was making the shoe feel tight and painful.

So it turned out. I took the first shoe off. I extracted the card. Thereafter both shoes fitted beautifully.

Result? We’re both pleased with our birthday and unbirthday presents. No bullshit. And no hos.