Saturday 19 June 2010

Scents of June

A very chilly Saturday it's been, a maximum of 13 Celsius today is certainly not what I'd expect in mid-to-end June here, but there you go.

All day, I was unsure about whether to go running or not.

My hometown's CityRun is only three weeks away, one of which I will be spending in the South of France for a family gathering, and although I intend to take my running clobber with me, I doubt I'll have that much occasion for running.
I went out in the afternoon to visit my downstairs neighbour in hospital; she is expecting a baby and not very well. Her husband offered to give me a lift back home, but I wanted to leave before him, so that the two of them would get some time on their own, and it looked as if it was going to keep dry - there was even a bit of sun visible finally! - so I walked home.

It was still chilly enough for me to be wearing my coat, and I settled for an evening in.
As soon as I had started up my computer game, though, I changed my mind, and before said mind had a chance to change again, I slipped into my trainers and ran.

And I am glad I did!

The chilly weather as well as the ongoing football worldcup kept most people inside, so I had the fields almost entirely to myself.

Not even the usual group of half-naked, tanned, muscular Polish workers were on the fields; they were probably enjoying a well-deserved night off, now that the asparagus is done with and the strawberries can still do with a few more sunny days.

It being so quiet on the fields, I could fully focus on taking in all the sights, sounds and, most enjoyably, the scents.

Twice, big light brown hares crossed my path. On a freshly cut meadow, magpies, crows and big plump doves were searching for food side by side. The scent of the cut grass and, further on, that of the strawberry fields was overwhelming. Primroses are as good as gone, and the cherries will only need a week or so of sun to be ready for picking.

About 50 minutes and a bit more than 8 km later, I arrived back home, glad that I did go for that run, and glad that, even though it doesn't feel like summer temperature-wise, all the other signs are there, spelling summer.
(Pictures of hare and strawberry field courtesy google picture search; picture of rye field is my own.)

Tuesday 15 June 2010

So different...!

A lot has been said and written about birds, by people who know infinitely more about them than I do, and I won't even attempt to write anything scientific here; just a personal observation and the thoughts that came along with it - actually, years ago, before I discovered blogging as the literary form most suited to me.

(This is not the first bit I am writing about those - mostly - small modern-day winged dinosaurs; if you are interested, you can read here about larks and here about buzzards.)

Whether we like it or not, we do have a lot in common not only with birds, but with a large amount of other species roaming the planet alongside us; our basic needs for food, water, shelter and wanting to procreate are pretty much the same, as is a lot of the territorial behaviour that can be seen.

There are fundamental differences, though, and I think one very noticeable one is the apparent inability of birds to predict the trajectory of an approaching human.

What I mean is this:
When you walk along a path, maybe lined with hedgerows or fences, and a bird - blackbird, sparrow, finch, doesn't matter which one - is sat on the fence or on the ground, and it spots you coming, what does it do?
Usually, it will just fly further up along the fence or hop along the path a few yards, until you almost catch up with it, then repeat the same maneuver, possibly (especially if it is a blackbird) shouting some very rude swearwords in birdish at you, and so on, until you reach the end of the path or take a turn anyway.

Why, I used to wonder, don't they just stay put on the fence and let you pass, when - for another human - it is so obvious that you are simply going to keep moving in that same direction and are unlikely to suddenly jump on the fence?
Dogs and, to an extent, even cats are quite capable of predicting where a human is headed under normal circumstances, in particular if it is "their" human, whose patterns they have closely observed and sometimes know a lot better than we realize.
But birds lack this; they can not conclude from our initial direction of movement to the most probable trajectory.

Which strikes me as partly logical - they do not have mirror neurons, do they? - and partly odd: when it comes to their own flying, they show an amazing knack for (mostly) failure-free three dimensional judging of distances and speed, rarely knocking against obstacles or bumping into other birds while airborne, this being especially true for those species whose food mainly consists of flying insects such as the incredibly agile swifts; they surely can work out insect trajectories, even though these are, I suppose, a lot more erratic and less linear in their direction of movement than those of humans who are by nature bound to stay on the ground while walking, and typically prone to follow a more or less straight line to get as effortless as possible from A to B.

Some people, by the way, are like that.
I meet them almost every morning when I get off the train on my way to work.
The stairs which are the only way to leave the platform and eventually the station are always at the same place; they do not change over night. It should be obvious to any human who applies even the most rudimentary of logic thinking that those people who get off the train are going to head for those stairs. And yet, there are those who invariably will stand at exactly the wrong side of the door, blocking the way for everybody, sometimes even reacting in an exasperated manner at the impoliteness of the passengers who, wanting to get to the stairs and having no other choice, brush past them.

Maybe we aren't so different after all.

Saturday 12 June 2010

Seven Months & Seven Days

That is the length of time I have, until today, spent as a widow.
And life has been surprisingly good.

I have made several new friends and re-established old friendships, my family has supported me in every possible way, and I have become closer to my mother-in-law and my sisters-in-law over in England. There's been a lot of learning, thinking, crying and laughing.
I made experiences and opened doors and did things I have never done before.

Not all the thoughts I have been thinking in relation with Steve's death are flattering for me and the kind of character I possess, but I am not ashamed of anything I do or think; it is simply the way I am, and my way of dealing with this rather drastic change in my life.
This change has brought with it experiences that have made me stronger and, as odd as it may sound, happier in a way, more content.

Of course, I did not ask to have this experience and wouldn't wish on anybody to come home from work and find their partner dead on the floor in their living room without any forewarning, like signs of illness or a known heart condition.

But life and death do not ask, they just happen.

And so I deal with what is happening in my life, exerting influence when and how best I can to make these happenings acceptable for me, and accepting those things I can not change with as much nonchalance and grace and courage I can muster up.

Were I living in a different part of the world, or had this happened 50 years ago, there wouldn't be so many doors open to me and so many possibilities to choose from. A widow in her forties in, say, Afghanistan is pretty much subject to the kindness of her relatives who either feed her or not, unless she manages to find someone willing to marry her now simply in order to have her modest economical needs taken care of.

After Steve died on Nov. 5th 2009, totally out of the blue and only a few days after his 41st birthday, for a while I counted the passing of time in weeks. Two weeks that I'm a widow now, three, then suddenly it were eight, nine, ten weeks, and if I remember correctly, I stopped counting the weeks at around week 15 or so and switched to months.
Eventually, I know I will come to think in terms of years.

So, by the time it will be seven years, seven months and seven days, where and what will I be?
I have no idea, and actually I don't want to know - I rather like surprises, and the twists and turns my path in life can take.

Some things are for sure, though: a great number of people will have died by then, and an even greater number born. Several more species of plants and animals will have become extinct, while others will have managed to conquer new habitats. Governments will have changed and political and economical constellations will continue to alter. New technologies will keep being developed and old ones disappear from use. Our knowledge in so many fields will increase, whereas we still won't be able to answer some very fundamental questions or at least act according to what we know to be true.

The planet will keep its spinning race along its orbit, and what I will do or not, what I think and write and say, won't make any difference to anyone. That is, actually, a comforting thought, because it means freedom. At the price of loneliness, true, but still freedom.

Monday 7 June 2010

Maria Pia's Birthday

Souvenirs from Sicily, part X

It is Maria Pia's birthday, and Brigitte and I would have politely gone out for the evening if it had not been Maria Pia herself to insist that we stay for her little gathering of friends and meet everybody.
Don't ask me how old she is on this October day in 1987; she can't be 30 yet, as it would be highly unusual for someone like her to still live unmarried, sharing a flat with other girls, but she surely must be at least 25 to have already landed a prestigious position as a valued teacher at one of Catania's private schools.
Her being one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen makes it even more difficult to estimate her age.
(For an introduction to Maria Pia, read here:

I am quite sure that Brigitte and I venture out to the shops to buy a small birthday present for her, but I absolutely can not remember what it is.
By the time we get back to the flat, preparations are in full swing, and when Maria Pia emerges from her room, she looks absolutely perfect in a very classy little black dress, her hair beautifully done without being too elaborate (she does not need elaborate to look great), and wearing a timeless single string of pearls with the dress.
These pearls, much admired by us and the other girls, are her fidanzato's birthday gift, she informs us.

(Of course this picture is not really Maria Pia, but it gives you quite a realistic idea of what she looked like back then)

We help in placing every chair we can find in the flat and on the balcony into the biggest room, set the sweet snacks - some of them home-made, others bought - on some small rickety coffee tables, and wait for the guests.

Until then, I was not familiar with typical Sicilian sweets, but today I learn about pan di spagna, pasta di mandorle and torrone.

Pan di spagna can best be compared to angel cake, I suppose; it is very soft and lightweight. Pasta di mandorle is almond pastry, very sweet and sticky; one of the many things in Sicilian cuisine that clearly show Arabic influence. Needless to say, I love it! Torrone exists in various forms, but the most popular home-made one is the variety shown here, made of almonds and nuts, caramelized. A tooth breaker if you're not careful.

I also learn that people in Northern Italy look forever down on the Southerners, especially on those from Sicily; the Sicilians are called Torrones, and they in turn call the Northerners Polentones. Sicilians are considered lazy, maybe streetwise but otherwise stupid, unable to speak proper Italian, and only coming to Northern Italy to take away the jobs (which the Northerners themselves don't want to do anyway).
Sounds familiar?
I'm afraid this kind of prejudice is not exclusively an Italian phenomenon, but can be observed similarly everywhere in the world.

The guests arrive, mostly in couples, except for Maria Pia's fidanzato, who is the perfect partner for her - a handsome, kind man with intelligent eyes and impeccable manners. We are told he is professor for physics, and one of his colleagues is there, too. That colleague is the only guest whose name I have not forgotten, for a very valid reason: years later, he married my friend Brigitte, and she moved to Catania (actually, Aci Castello, which is just a few miles along the coast North of Catania) for him, where they still live with their three children.
Of course, nobody knows that yet - after all, we are still in October 1987, and Brigitte and Antonio meet for the very first time, being guests at Maria Pia's birthday gathering like everybody else.

We eat, we drink (more coffee than anything else), we laugh and talk and play games.

One of the games consists in someone having to pantomime a film or a song, and the others guessing which film or song it is.
A plump, rather unassuming young woman with very white skin and black curly hair does an impression of a lady taking her clothes off (she does not really take anything off, of course - this is the utterly Catholic Sicily, and those present are all respectable young citizens, even intellectuals to a certain degree) and then having a shower.
To my big surprise, almost everybody shouts at unison: "Ti voglio nuda e bagnata!", and the room is ringing with laughter - they are right, that is the title of the film the plump girl had them guess.
Back then, I do not understand more than a few words in Italian, and so Brigitte has to translate for me, which she does with a lot of giggling (I am the youngest at 19 years and still very innocent and inexperienced, everybody else being in their mid-twenties): "I want you naked and wet", an apparently highly popular porn movie in those days.
(I've done a bit of research. The film really exists, I remembered the title correctly. It was released earlier in the eighties, starring John Holmes, whose life the movie "Boogie Nights" was later based on.)

After the guests say good-night and we help in restoring the room to its former condition and clean up the kitchen, Maria Pia has Brigitte ask me a favour for her:
Would I come to school with her the next morning? Her colleague, teaching German, has heard of us, and she would so much like me to visit her class, in order for the students to have a native speaker talk to them for an hour or two, answering their questions and so on.

I have always loved meeting new people - that has not changed since 1987! - and so I agree without hesitating.
(Once again, none of the pictures belongs to me. I have nicked them whereever I found them on the internet.)