Thursday 29 July 2010

Getting Ready

Do you like travelling?
I do, and it does not depend on whether it is for leisure or business; I simply like seeing new places, revisiting old ones, meeting new people and catching up with old friends and family.

Of course, travelling for a holiday means packing different clothes than for business, and a weekend away needs less stuff than a three-week-trip, while visiting relatives for a few days in the South of France in summer requires not the same amount of packing as if the destination is, say, some snowy mountain or other.

But in essence, getting ready for a trip always means to choose from the vast abundance of my wardrobe and my bathroom cabinet (the latter being really not all that vast) those items I think I can not be without: it is a small exercise in sufficiency.

Have you ever packed too many clothes, meaning that you did not even wear everything you had in your suitcase?
Probably not, if you have, like me, to be able to carry all your luggage without help from one place to the other.

When in a former chapter of my life we used to go to Sicily by car, there was not much limiting us in terms of what to take with us; the boot was spacious and the back seats were all at our disposition as well.
Since this chapter was closed, and for most of my business travelling (which is not very extensive anyway, just the odd fair to work at a few times a year), I use public transport.

The person who first had the idea to attach tiny wheels and an extendable handle to a suitcase was probably someone who had enough of feeling as if their arms were either ripped off or at least considerably longer after a trip that involved walking the long aisles with their luggage at a typical modern airport or train station, or getting from the other end of a huge car park to the platform or check-in desk.

So, a small red trolley-type suitcase it is for me, holding everything I intend to wear over the next 12 days on a trip to and through Yorkshire with my sister, where we will visit family and friends, do some sightseeing and hiking and stay nowhere longer than two nights before moving to our next stop on this most nomadic of all holidays I have ever been on so far.

When I say "everything", that is not quite true. For the hiking, I need a pair of sturdy shoes, but I am certainly not going to wear these day in, day out; and a pair of flipflops will serve as slippers inside the house. Therefore, I am taking an extra bag for the shoes; this one can also hold the brolly that is most likely to come in useful at some stage.
Some printouts of plane, train and hotel accomodation are all I need in terms of travel documents, and my weekly paper will make waiting for the plane or train somewhat nicer.

Everything is ready now - tomorrow morning, we're off to the airport.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

About Planning

A combination of talking to a friend and reading this posting of another friend has made me want to write about planning.

Now, those of you who know me in real life can probably testify to the fact that I am, generally, rather well-organized in my private life as well as at work; I usually am punctual when I agree to meet someone at a specific time, I travel lightly and in a rather neat and tidy manner, and I get my tasks done at work and at home efficiently.

And yet, it may surprise you to read that I am rarely planning anything. On the contrary, there is quite a lot of spontaneous activity going on in my life; more often than not, I agree to last-minute suggestions from friends to join them for a walk, go to a party, attend a concert or go to the cinema together.

This is of course possible because the only responsibility I have at home is to make sure that the cat is fed; other than that, it is entirely up to me what I do in my spare time. And so, I am (so to speak) "available" at the drop of a hat, really quite enjoying the entertaining surprises this life style offers.

Ever since my husband died last year, I have become careless in many ways. Work, for instance, has taken a back seat; not that I do not do my job properly anymore, but it is not as high up on my list of priorities as it once was. It is necessary for two reasons only: to give my days and weeks structure (which was particularly important during the first weeks after Steve's death) and to pay the bills.
These days, I often have so many things I want to do, places I wish to go to and people I'd like to meet that I wonder how I can fit work in with all these activities.

The carelessness involves other aspects which I am not going to specify further; suffice to say that I am now given to adventures a lot more than I used to be, and the curiosity I have always had has made me gain access to new and sometimes truly marvellous experiences.

When, a week or so ago, I was talking to a friend I had not seen in a long time, she told me that she'd given up on planning the usual day-to-day matters and that she felt so much better for it, with a lot of self-created pressure and stress gone. She has two children, her husband and her work to take into consideration, and she says everything is going so much more smoothly, now that the planning has stopped and a mixture of flexibility and spontaneity has taken its place.

I couldn't but agree with her, and we both found that some people in our respective circle of friends, relatives and acquaintances simply can not understand why and how we do this (or, rather, NOT do this anymore).

For instance, a friend who lives practically at the other end of the country mentioned he was possibly going to be in my town the next weekend, and as he is one of the most uncomplicated and easygoing people I know, I offered my spare room as his base camp. We had specified neither date nor time of when he'd be here, and I honestly didn't care - the room is there all the time anyway, no matter if someone needs a bed for the night or not, and I knew he'd be in touch if and when it was necessary.
So, not hearing from him simply meant he would not be here, and that was that.
Someone else I had this possible visit mentioned to kept asking me for days whether and when this friend was coming, and I always had the same answer: I didn't know, and it didn't matter. Maybe at some stage I sounded more irritated by the repeated question than I actually was (I wasn't - I just did not understand the need for asking something I would certainly and willingly have told anyway if I had known it myself), because we almost got a bit scratchy with each other at some stage. Anyway, we did not get into a serious fight about this, and I do hope that my seemingly irritated response was forgiven and not taken personally, as it was never meant to be.

Of course, there are things in life that need a certain amount of planning, such as travelling. Wanting to get from A to B usually means one has to plan a time and date, book a ticket, and then plan getting up and other things on the day in a manner to fit the schedule one has no influence on.
Also, when I expect guests I wish to prepare a meal for, I need to think about what to serve in advance and get the shopping done in time, as there is never much food about in my typical single-woman-with-cat household.
I am not exempt from this type of planning and have absolutely no trouble in sticking to it, but I do hope that, with this blog post, some people understand some things about me just a little better.

Thank you :-)

Saturday 17 July 2010

Back To School

Souvenirs from Sicily, part XI
It's been a while since I wrote part X of this series, so let me remind you of where we left off:
At the end of Maria Pia's birthday party, I was invited to go to school with her the next morning to visit a German class, so that the students would have a native speaker to talk to for an hour or two.

So, after the usual Sicilian breakfast consisting of a large bowl of milky coffee and some bisquits (called merendina), we set off to school together.

It is not very far to walk, maybe ten or fifteen minutes, and Maria Pia tells me to look where we are going in order for me to find my way back to the flat on my own, as she will be working all day, whereas I am supposed to stay only for an hour or two.

When we arrive at the school, she takes me straight to the classroom where her colleague, the German teacher, is giving her lesson, and moments later, I am introduced to a class of maybe 30 kids - 15-year-olds, with me being only four years their senior.
The boys and girls are all extremely polite and look extremely well bred and groomed; hardly surprising, if you consider that this is a private school where only those parents who can afford it send their children.

My own school days are not so long ago; in fact, I attend Librarian school every four weeks for a month or so, with yet another year to go before the course is complete. And yet, it feels as if it is a lifetime ago, like something you remember when looking at old photographs of your grandparents when they were young, and even though you remember them well, you have only ever seen them when they were already middle-aged or elderly people, but you still recognize them as being the people in the picture.
That is how being at that school felt for me; like looking at pictures of how school should be like but was not how I remembered it personally.

The last five or six years at school, before starting Librarian school, were a seemingly endless row of days spent either bored out of my mind at class, or skipping school (I was the record holder in my class when I was 15-16) and spending the day in the town center, watching music videos at C&A until the shop assistants booted us out and occupying the benches outside McDonald's, watching the world (namely boys) go by.
At the school I went to and in the years I went there, words like discipline and politeness were not part of our vocabulary. We pretty much dressed like we wanted, did our homework only when we felt like it, and showed no respect towards most of our teachers. This is not something I am proud of; I am merely mentioning it here to show the contrast to what I found at this private school in Catania.

Most of the girls are a bit gigglish (pretty normal for 15-year-olds), and it takes them a while until they dare asking me questions, but one of the boys in the last row, apparently the "star" student of this class, asks permissoin to speak and - unbelievably to me! - actually gets up and stands there, holding himself VERY straight.
Now, more than 20 years later, I can not remember what he said, but I guess it was general stuff like "My name is so-and-so and I have been learning German for x years".
What I do remember though is that his pronounciation was rather mechanic, and although there was not a single mistake in what he said, I somehow felt sorry for him - he seemed to have filled his head with all that knowledge of a language foreign to him , but unable to add colour and life to it.
Some questions and answers ensue, shyly moderated by the kind teacher, and I carefully avoid speaking my dialect (thankfully, I am rather good at speaking "proper" German - good enough for some of my customers at work having asked me how I ended up in Southern Germany; they didn't believe I am a true native Swabian).

One of the girls finally musters up her courage and asks me whether I know any nice German boys whose addresses I can give them to start being penfriends.
(Those were the days! No emails, no mobile phones for everyone back then in 1987!)
With a sudden burst of enthusiasm, the other girls join in: yes, they ALL want to be penfriends with nice German boys!
(Strangely enough, I can not remember any of the boys requesting the address of any nice German girls.)
I explain to them that I do not know any boys their age (which is true - at 19, I am not dealing with any 15-year-olds on a regular base) but through my mother's work at the school's library, I still have access to my former school, and will put their requests for penfriends on the black board.
Immediately, they start writing down their addresses, and I am handed a long list - all in very neat and slightly odd-looking handwriting. Odd only to my eyes; years later, when I am already married to my first husband, I find that those who originally learnt to write in an Italian school, all have a specific way of writing certain letters, like the "r" and the "T", or the "z".
How long the lesson actually went, I do not recall; but after a while, I find myself outside the building again, and walking back towards the flat where Brigitte is waiting to hear about my morning at school.

Some insignificant details I remember very vividly about that morning are the clothes I was wearing (a grey pair of jeans and my "Tutti i colori del mondo" Benetton jumper) and the scent of the rose deodorant I always used at the time and which, sadly, is not available any more (mine was pink, but the brand was the same).

Funny, isn't it, how something like that sticks to our memory, whereas we forget so much other information we once knew?

(I did, by the way, actually pin the address list to my former school's black board, but I never found out whether anyone really became penfriends through it.)

As usual, I found all pictures shown here by google picture search.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Sweet Little Serial Killer

My current read is Alan Weisman's "The World Without Us". It is a good read, important, informative, frightening and entertaining at the same time, and I highly recommend it to anyone (which really should be everyone) who cares about the current and future state of the planet.
Some chapters and paragraphs go into a little too much detail for my taste, in some others, I would have wanted to know more.

But why I am actually writing this blog today is because of the author calling the four-legged furry creature so many of us have living with them, Felis silvestris catus, a small serial killer.

He basically says that our pet cats are genetically identical with the small wild species still existing (albeit at very limited numbers) in Europe, Africa and some parts of Asia. In spite of having adapted over the past millenia to living alongside humans (to mutual benefit, I wish to add), they as a species have never lost their hunting instinct, and birds still fit their prey pattern very well.

Much as I like Alan Weisman's book, I can not agree with his affirmation that cats (at least those regularly fed by humans) kill birds purely out of bloodlust. Animals do not kill for bloodlust; that is an entirely human invention, I dare say. Animals kill out of instinct, for various reasons (prey to feed on, territorial fights, partner fights, and so on).

He further cites several statistics in the book: Compared to the doubling of human world population over the past 50 years, cat population has increased in the 20 years from 1970 to 1990 alone from 30 to 60 million. The average stray town cat will kill 28 birds a year (is that a lot? It is just a bit more than one every two weeks. Most humans eat, in terms of meat, the equivalent of more than one dead bird every two weeks - and we all know that the way these animals are usually raised and killed is entirely different from what we COULD do if we were willing to spend a bit more money on meat and not insist on buying the cheap stuff from the supermarket freezer).

The study he cites also states that cats living in the countryside will kill a lot more than those 28 birds per year. Examining the numbers for the state of Wisconsin, said study concluded that the roughly two million cats roaming the rural areas there were responsible for the death of more than 219 million birds/year.

A few pages before getting to the "furry serial killer" bit, the author writes of an estimated billion birds that smash themselves to death every year by flying into windows. Another 120 million get killed by humans on purpose. 80 million end up as a bloody mash on the cars and trucks speeding along our highways. A further half billion birds fly into sending masts, and an unspecified number gets killed by flying into the high voltage lines crossing our landscapes (not from the voltage, but from the impact). Add to that those poisoned by pesticides, and you don't even want to know the number anymore.

Cats are nasty little buggers with sharp teeth and claws, as selfish as they need to be, masking their nastiness behind their cuteness and beauty. But they are no different from other animals hunting and killing in that respect, and I repeat: they do it because it is their nature to do so.

I am glad to have my own little serial killer, who, in the 8 years she's been living with me now, has not even brought in a mouse, let alone a bird. She is a bit on the clumsy side, as opposed to my old cat Mimi, who brought mice in every day, and on a handful of occasions a bird.

Monday 5 July 2010

Your Very Own Time Machine

Almost everyone - except for some poor individuals who have had an accident or other medical issues - possesses their very own in-built time machine.

It has nothing in common with any of the famous devices pictured in books and films, like the original one from the 1895 novel by H.G. Wells, or the De Lorean DMC-12 used by Marty McFly and "Doc" Emmet Brown in "Back To The Future" (which was released in 1985 - something for the numerologists among you to think about).

It is our olfactory sense, one of the most ancient (in evolutionary terms) and important senses any animal on this planet, ourselves included, has at their disposition.

Of course, the olfactory time machine has a limited reach of those comparatively few years of life we can each look back on individually. It can not take you to, say, Ancient Egypt just as it can not show you what life will be like on Earth in 100 years (or even the next hour, for that matter).

But it can send you in an instant through time and space, and it is very powerful.

I assume each of you who read this blog associate certain songs with certain events; there was that song they used to play on the radio all the time when you were doing that summer job at the petrol station, or the one that made you get up and dance every night at the beach disco during that holiday, and probably more than one of us know songs that we attribute to specific people.
There is a whole set of club favourites from the mid-eighties which will forever remind me of a boy who was part of our extended clique and who I had a crush on, with him barely knowing that I exist (yes, Ralf Bauer, it is you I am talking about. I can safely mention your name here as neither you nor anyone who knows you is ever going to read this anyway, right?).

So, yes, songs can act as time machines as well, as can other sounds.
For me, ever since the night I came home from work and found my husband dead on the floor in the living room, the sound of an ambulance causes me some distress. Other sounds, like the buzzard's cry, evoke in me a longing for something I still do not fully understand. Some pieces of music can even move cold-blooded lizardy Me to tears.

And yet, scents have a different power, it seems.

Last week, I was in the Provence (South France) for a short holiday, a family gathering actually.
Due to the number of people, my sister, my father and I were staying not at one of our relatives' places, but at a small hotel, an ancient house with five of its rooms having been converted into guest rooms.
To reach our rooms, we had to cross our host's kitchen, their study, a tiny walled courtyard with an old wall fountain, and then climb up a set of ancient, uneven stone steps in a rather grand-looking staircase.
I opened the big dark wooden door to the staircase for the first time and WHAM! was instantly taken back to Mirabella Imbaccari and the house of my ex-parents-in-law, where I spent many summers while I was still part of the Sicilian family that gave me their surname for eleven years.

It was a very characteristic scent, not uncommon to old houses; a mixture of deep, damp stone cellars and the beeswax used to polish the wooden doors, and for those who are familiar with it, sand can be detected as well. On Sicily, the sand in the air is carried with the wind from the Sahara, collecting in a small heap inside the closed doors where no-one sets a foot for most of the year, until summer, when people return to their home village for a month or two and their hibernating houses come alive again. There in the Provence, I can only assume that the sandy smell comes from the ochre dust which lays on the landscape, as a large part of the ground around there is ochre.

The last time I was in Mirabella was in 1998. I have not been that far South since then; all the holidays after 1998 were spent elsewhere, such as Florida (1999), England and Germany.
My nostrils had not come across this particular mixture of scents for 12 years, either, and therefore you can maybe imagine what a strange and unexpected experience that little time-travelling was.

After the initial mild shock at finding myself so suddenly in a place I thought I'd never see (or smell) again, I began looking forward to opening that big wooden door every time we came back to our hotel. Every time, I took the scent in with deep breaths, enjoying the knowledge that, although I was able to picture quite well the person I was back then, the people I dealt with and the places I went to, I have come a long way since, with no need and no motivation to go back.

Human memory is fragmentary and not very reliable, as everyone who has ever been involved with a police investigation knows. But those things we do remember, even if they are less than accurate, form part of our present character, and to rediscover them from time to time through a bit of time-travelling can be anything from fun to eye-opening, and sometimes both.

So, next time you happen to stumble across your very own time machine, use it, and use it well.

(The pictures of the time machine and the Delorean are from elsewhere on the internet, not mine. The staircase picture is my own. You can have a look at the hotel's website here: )