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Archive for December, 2009

Christmas (as in the non-religious celebration of consumption) is designed to compound all fledgling symptoms of nostalgia, homesickness, uprootedness. It’s designed to make you wish for things you didn’t even know you wanted, and more powerfully to wish for things you don’t have, without even knowing what they are!

It’s a holiday designed to make you stressed, a family gathering designed to make you fall out, a present designed to miss the mark. Christmas can never ever live up to its name (so redolent of sparkles and twinkles and snow prints and crackers and …fill in your own foibles here). It can only disappoint. So let’s get ready…

For me, this insidious spirit of Christmas is most easily caught by the ‘Christmas Wish list‘. My kids complain, “I don’t know what I want…I only know when Christmas is over and then I remember all the things I wanted and didn’t get!”  Some things on their lists make me smile (7 year old: a packet of liquorice swirls); 11 year old’s list includes (of course) a Nintendo game and the new Lilly Allen DVD. Alongside certain items (a case for my laptop; a remote control aeroplane) she has put NOT NESESARY (yeah, spell check programmes have made her lazy).

[It’s reassuring to  think that Lilly Allen is nesesary. Sometimes, listening to her with the kids in the car for the nth time, I have to agree – her lyrics are hilarious and wonderful – and indeed, as a way to understand this modern life from a different generation’s perspective – nesesary. A separate post on Lilly Allen might follow… ] 

Anyway, this distinction is the point isn’t it? Necessary. Our kids have had so much in the last few months, more than ever, as we adjust to this new life and home and try and smooth the path for them a little. Summer camps, scuba diving, After School clubs – roller skating, piano, tennis, basketball, video and script writing (these have certainly enriched their lives) weekend activities (skiing, eating pizzas and ice creams…). Then the Necessary New clothes for the harsh winters (quilted coats, roll neck jumpers, thermal gloves, waterproof boots, etc etc); the ‘optional’  extras  – pocket money for the Bake Sale at school every Thursday; and the essential items (quaderni, quaderni…hundreds of school notebooks, pens and pencils, calculators…).

Certainly we are all spoilt (I’m talking specifically about my family here, the four of us). We have way more than our fair share. Yet, by definition, it is not enough. 

What do you want for Christmas?

Just before I went back to London in November to run some writing workshops, I was doing some last minute shopping in Opicina (the small town on the Carso in northern Italy where we live). As I approached the baker’s, I took a deep breath. I was stressed. I knew I would have to pass, yet again, the old man sitting on the pavement in front of the shop, with his few symbolic goods laid out on a cloth by the tree where the dogs might pee.  Incense, lighters, a candle or two. The only black face in Opicina. He always smiles warmly, the gaps between his teeth glimmering with saliva. He always gently, unobtrusively holds out his hand. He does not seem to see so well out of one eye.

But this time he does not even look up. 

I walk on by. I do not know what to do. I feel bad. I go in to buy bread. The smell inside of yeast and dough is such a nostalgia trigger, such a warmth-inducing, family-round-the-table essence of love and sharing. I am disturbed. 

When I come out he is till there of course, sitting on the cold tarmac, staring at his feet.

I continue down the street. I go in and out of various shops, buying things we need for tea, things we need in the house, things we need. Then, realising I have forgotten something essential, I retrace my steps. I know I will walk by him again. Now I have had time to reflect,  I decide that this time I will give him some money. I select some coins from my purse. I am starting to feel better.

But he is no longer there. 

                                                                               *   *    *

In London, up in my friend’s attic in Acton, I dream and wonder and worry about the old man outside the baker’s in Opicina. Until that last time, he had always engaged with me, always looked straight at me, always hoped. I wondered what I should do. I pass him every day.

Then  I had a Eureka moment.

It has been a habit of mine for some years now, to go to a cafe on the way home from walking the kids to school – and have my nesesary coffee. I don’t know if it’s a habit, or an addiction, I don’t know if it does me good – or harm. Certainly, it delays the beginning of my day, it puts off the return to a house that needs cleaning, but it allows me to consider my strategy for the day’s chores, to put a space between me and the kids so I can put my wordplay hat on..and sometimes, it’s a place to network: to meet mums and exchange useful knowledge about kids, swine flu and the next PTA dinner. 

So what has this to do with Eureka? I was asking myself: would it be okay to give that old man money every time I pass? How would that be? Can I afford it? Is this a good way to help him? 

I realised that the 2€ or so I spent most mornings on my latte and croissant could go direct to him. That way too, I could return home subito and get on with things – I could clean the house in the time I would normally take for my coffee! A win-win situation – and a life-changing decision.

But now I am back in Opicina, and the old man is not there. I have not seen him again since the day he did not even look up.

He lost hope in me. And that was what made me think again. 

He was right to lose hope. His well-being should not depend on my fickle sense of virtue. 

I am not sure what to do now. But I would like to do something, about Christmas, about wanting and longing for things, about creating desires that don’t exist, and ignoring the nesesary  longings that do (for food, for shelter, for love, for peace, for health). 

I will be thinking about this over Christmas and New Year. Your comments welcome. 

In the meantime, I did not stop off for my coffee this morning, I wrote this instead.

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Indeed. Today I started wearing glasses. Full time. This is really unexpected and a bit of a drag. I used to have the best long sight. My kids boasted about my prowess. “My mum can see – like – miles away – she can read signs when we’re driving we didn’t even know were there.”  Yeah…well that’s gone.  I won’t be winning (or starting) any more family “I spy” competitions. 

It’s not that I can’t see – or even that anything’s blurred. Stuff is just not as clear as it was – my right eye is stronger for distances, my left stronger for reading, both eyes are apparently ‘rigid’ and I don’t see things in 3-D. All this means that my two poor eyes are working very hard to compensate and the muscles surrounding them are very tired. Mostly (apart from a lousy dumbness numbing my senses)  I’ve noticed my eyes not doing what they should when I’m talking to people. I find I have to concentrate very hard to get them to move at all! This is not what they mean by ‘good eye contact’ – so important in today’s society, and a chapter heading in many self-help books. 

Anyway, I need glasses for ‘driving’ and glasses for ‘reading’. I’ve had both of these for a while, though I’ve always thought they were an optional extra.  I remember much more often to wear my reading glasses (though I hate wearing glasses in bed. That is uncomfortable). I  can never find my driving glasses which is only a problem really when I’m driving at night (but who can see anyway in the dark?). But today the Italian optician (who Stef discovered 20 years ago when we lived here last) told me I should wear the driving glasses all the time.  Contact lenses are not an option. Oh God. The secretary look does not suit me.  

Now I’ve started noticing people wearing glasses (just like when you’re pregnant, suddenly so is everyone else). They all look designer-trendy. But how do they manage?  When do glasses become a mere appendage? I feel as self-conscious in glasses as I do in make-up. Do you need a different haircut if you wear glasses? Do you need to choose your glasses (rose-tinted) at the same time as your hair dye? 

I know this is irritable trivia for those of you who are reading this in braille, and even more annoying for those of you with a terminable disease of one kind or another, but these small annoyances still have to be tackled head-on. I feel as though today, for me, is quite a momentous day if I really must start wearing glasses always. That is a big change. Psychologically, physically, emotionally, practically.  

I will try and grin and bear it.

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READER WARNING

Only read this if you’re:-

a) a train spotter

b) a plane spotter

c) any kind of timetable nerd

d) hate Ryan Air

e) hate the Stansted Express

f) hate Stansted airport

g) hate the whole public transport system in London

h) are just bored

h) and i) you live within a 1 mile radius of Acton Central station

I have been unable to write this in any kind of interesting way. I apologise. This piece is full of facts. I wanted to get them down on paper. It’s important to me. Cathartic. You’ll have to go with it. 

It could certainly have gone a whole lot better. Most of it wasn’t my fault, in the sense that if the public transport system had been working in any way whatsoever then I’d have got to the airport on time and wouldn’t be sitting at Stansted,  4 hours later, writing this and waiting for an evening flight that would get me in to Venice/ Treviso @ 10pm (still 2 hours from home), instead of the leisurely lunchtime jet set into Trieste, in time to pick the kids up from school, I had been anticipating.

Now I’m £17 poorer for the last-ditch attempt to get here in time by taking the Stansted Express (that, excuse me, is really taking the piss); £100 poorer for the flight transfer charge; £108 poorer for the kids’ clothes I bought at Monsoon to while away the time; £20 spent on books; £20 roughly on coffees, breakfast and lunch; £1.60 for the two bottles of water I have to buy since they cost 10p more than buying one; and £2.50 and counting for the 50ps I’ve fed into the weighing machine to check that all my extra purchases haven’t put me over the Ryan Air weight limit (but with a 1.9k Chrismas pud in there and 2 tubs of Marmite it’s been a challenge). 

Here’s how the journey went. I leave my lovely friends’ house in Goldsmith Avenue, Acton (London) at 7.30 this morning. Plenty of time to get to Stansted for my flight which leaves at 11.20 (gates close 10.50). Approx journey time 2 hours. One hour margin of error.

I have worked out that this time the best route will be:

Acton Central to Finchley Road and Frognal (London Overground).

Alight at Finchley Rd, spring over lightly to bus stop, catch National Express direct to Stansted. No problemo.

Flawless plan, and much better than my usual schlep Acton Main Line, Bakerloo to Baker St, schlep to Bus stop, coach to Stansted route, and preferable I think to the option of catching the bus from Acton High Street all the way to Golders Green (an hour on a double decker – no thank you!) – or to schlepping the hour over to Liverpool Street on the central line and getting the Stansted Express (totally resent paying £17 for a train that travels approx 30 miles (?) and can not in any sense of the world/word be called an express).

P.S. I am not Jewish (nor was meant to be) but I love the word schlep.

So, I dutifully set alarm for 6.30. Leave house at 7.30 as planned. Feeling pleased as punch with my punctuality even though never-ending rain puts a dampener on things.

(From now on I will highlight what I will call Public Transport Errors – or PTEs – as opposed to MPEs – My Personal Errors; that way we can all work out who is to blame for my missing the plane, and then I can plan my revenge…) 

I walk the 3 minutes to Acton Central Station. First Public Transport Failure (PTE No. 1). The train is delayed. There is no train until 8 – and then only to Willesden Junction. I could take the next train at 8.15 which goes direct to Finchley Road (but there’s no guarantee it will arrive even then).

What would you do at this point?

Reconsider one of the many options cited above?

Walk 15 mins to the High Street and catch the 260 double decker direct to Golders Green?

Walk 20 mins to East Acton and get the central line to Liverpool St?

Oh, there are so many options I could have/ should have taken. But even though I am clearly versed in all the alternative ways of getting to Stansted none of them present themselves to me. My mind is a blank. I cannot contemplate not keeping to this route now that I’ve planned it. And anyway, I have an hour’s margin. And there’s a train coming in 15 mins. I decide to wait for it.  (MPE No. 1)

I try to get advice from the very quietly spoken station attendant. I cannot understand – or indeed hear – a word he says. (PTE No. 2) I decide he is a lost cause. Several people do the same. A tall yet stocky man with an East European nose walks boldly up to said put-upon attendant and demands some answers.

“Are you sure the 8.15 will come?” he says, and then when the attendant whispers something indecipherable, persists,  

“Do you in fact know anything? Why are you standing here doing nothing when it is your job to know the answers?!”

East European looking man (who does indeed speak with a slight accent though his grammar is perfect and his vocabulary advanced) – wanders off to get some answers through his mobile phone. I decide that whatever he does, I will follow. Here is  a man who means business! (MPE No. 2) 

He (and thus I) opts for the 8.00 to Willesden. Reassuringly, masses of people are doing the same. 3 minutes later we arrive at Willesden, though none of us are sure where to go next. Here the station attendant calls confidently into his megaphone, “Everybody down to Platform 2” . That is all he says. (PTE No. 3)

“Why you all looking at me like that, why you not moving? I said down to Platform 2”, he bellows.  We bregrudgingly shuffle along, hoping we are all moving in the right direction. Then my East European guru pipes up in clear sardonic tones,

 “We are not cattle. We need to know where we are going.”

I feel he is my spokesman, I watch him closely and consider that whatever decision he makes next will be a wise one, and I will follow him (MPE No. 3).

Down to platform 2 we go.  Down the stairs, over the bridge, down more stairs. I am the only one struggling with 2 suitcases (space for all those stocking fillers I intended to buy at the Pound Shop in Acton and to assuage guilty feelings for leaving kids for a week). But at platform two we are still in the dark. It is raining miserably. I am very cold and miserable. There is no place more miserable on this earth at this moment than this miserable platform at Willesden Junction (deliberately built by sadistic train operators in a wind tunnel).

I wait here a long time, not knowing what is coming next. I find myself, like everybody else, staring down the track in seach of the train as though that will make it come. If I stop looking, it will stop coming. Nobody says anything, we just all stare down the track in the miserable rain. There are hundreds of us.

Finally an announcement. “The train to Sratford is waiting at Platform 4.” (PTE No. 4).

Platform 4?!  I’ve just come from Platform bloody 4. Up the stairs we schlep, over the bridge, up more stairs, stumbling onto the train just in time. The clock is ticking furiously. The train is packed with people coughing up phlegm and swine flu all over each other. A lady sticks her backpack into my stomach. She doesn’t feel a thing. 

(In retrospect, this was a serious MPE – since I could have simply walked over to platform 1, got the train to Euston, from there the tube to Tottenham Hale, from there the Stansted Express – except that this was not an alternative route I had ever planned…so it does not count as an MPE).

I get to Finchley Road, I find the bus stop. But I’m not convinced the National Express will actually stop here since there is no sign (PTE No. 5). Instead I see a double decker heading for Golders Green. I get on it. (MPE No. 3). As we are chugging along, stopping here, there and everywhere, but at least we’re on our way, we’ll still make it in time, the National Express (the A6 to Stansted) sails past. Damn! 

I arrive at Golders Green at 9 o’clock. Just in time to see my coach leaving. I do not chase after it waving madly (MPE No. 4 ) Instead, I check the timetable and see that another one will be along in 20 minutes (PTE No. 6). Still time to get to Stansted (est journey time 1 hour and 15 mins). I decide to wait. (MPE No. 5) 

I wait 20 minutes, 30 mins, no sign of a coach. More and more people are arriving at the bus stop. It is very cold and raining. The minging shelter is not wide enough for all of us (PTE No. 7). Even though I was here first I have no place in the shelter since I cannot stand still (MPE No. 6), and need to pace up and down looking up the road in case I can see the coach coming. If I stop looking for it, it will not come. I am wet and cold. (Did I say that already?) I hate London. I hate England. There is no place on earth more horrible than Golders Green bus stop. 

I schlep over to the National Express office (risking missing the coach while I’m in there). I am reassured by the lone man. ‘The coach should be along in a few minutes’ (PTE No. 8). I decide to keep waiting (MPE No. 7).

After 40 minutes and no coach, a would-be passenger announces to us all that there are floods on the A41 and there will be no more coaches today! (PTE No. 9 and 10) You can’t get there from here. Taxis are not an option.

Why does nobody ever tell you anything? Why are we all left to work out our options all by ourselves? I estimate 90% of the people at the bus stop are from abroad, trying to get home. They haven’t got a clue what is going on in this Godforsaken hole that is London. They want to be home in their nice  starfish-shaped hotel in Dubai (I know you’re thinking if they could afford to live in a starfish hotel in Dubai they wouldn’t be taking a coach to the airport but you can’t be sure…the wise rich man knows that if you look after the pennies..) , or they want to be wandering past their Colliseum in Rome, or picking up pebbles on their beach in Croatia. Why did they ever come to London in the first place??? That’s what they’re all thinking. That’s what I’m thinking.

And actually, I soon know for sure what they’re thinking because when I head off to find an alternative route I am followed by foreigners – and we pick up more on the way. By the end of the journey I feel like the golden goose!  

The revised last-ditch-attempt-but-already-no-hope route is as follows (I have phoned my lovely Acton friend, who gives me instructions as she googles, no point in asking any transport worker for directions..): Golders Green tube , northern line to Euston, Victoria line to Tottenham Hale, from there the Stansted Express…Now I am really cross. If I had known, I could have got on that train to Euston an hour go!!!

Clearly, my plane is a lost cause. But Antonella is going to Rome  and Sanya is going to Dusseldorf and they might just make it, if they can follow me! All right, all right. I am very stressed and bad-tempered but what the hell. We spend tense moments on the Victoria line being stared at for 10 minutes by a train engineer who doesn’t say anything. And the train doesn’t move either.  (PTE 11 & 12) Then we are told the train is unexpectedly terminating at Seven Sisters. (PTE 13) Oh bloody hell! Luckily, it’s just a spritely hop over to the next platform to Tottenham Hale.

Surely at least from here the notoriously exhorbitant ticket price will be cheaper. We’re already half way to Stansted. But no – it’s still £17. (PTE 14) How is that possible? I have to buy the tickets for all of us because their foreign cards don’t work in the machine (PTE 15). They give me cash – and coins. Great! Just when I had managed to get rid of all my change, I grumble like Scrooge.

We get to Stansted. Antonella and Sanya run off to catch their plans. “Ciao!” “Grazie!” “Nice to meet you!” They wave and cheer gaily.

I can hardly bring myself to look at the departure board. My plane to Trieste has long gone – and the one to nearby Venice has just left. There are no planes going anywhere near where I want to go for hours.

I sit down to have a nervous breakdown and a coffee. 

Tune in to the next blog to find out what happens next…this has taken way too long to tell – and I need a break!

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