Précis on sense of touch

Out of our senses we can utilise
Sight sound and touch for taking in,
Words and touch for sending out
Our messages to others.

Some of us find words too tight to use
And although touch can be bi-useful
Our bodies really use it as a sensor
Not a projection of our selves.

As such the scheme seems somewhat unbalanced
That only one of five can communicate
Ourselves to others.
Those who are dumb from birth must bear confusion
Embarrassment and frustrated intentions,
For only love can touch without intruding
And even then the meaning can be grey.

 

© EGB

Peace amongst the Parasol Shadows

IMG_0007We were enjoying our annual winter break in the warmth of Tenerife. On Wednesday, we decided to relax by the pool later in the day, rather than straight after breakfast, which had been our habit. We surveyed the options for the best place to lie. With the sun lower in the sky and further round to the west, this required a different calculation than normal.

We spotted a run of eight sun beds next to the pool, nicely illuminated in the late afternoon sun, two pairs of which were free. A man pulled one of them out to face the sun, parallel to the pool. So we dropped our towels on the remaining pair, adjacent to an older couple who were lying back soaking in the warmth. They looked like they had been there all day – and were fully charged up with sunshine.
My wife is fair skinned and doesn’t want to burn.  So as usual, I erected the parasol in-between our two beds. This immediately caused great consternation with the woman lying next to us. The problem with parasols late in the day is that, rather than protect the beds below, they take care of the beds next door but one. It was rather like some game of Queens where you pass on your best or – in this case worst – cards to the person on your left.
Our friend next door clearly didn’t like the deal. We had quite inadvertently eclipsed her into a dark evil shadow, cutting off her lifeline of sunshine. It was as if she had been lying in the next hospital bed and we had ripped off her oxygen mask.
She rattled off a whole spiel of angry German – her native tongue – far too quickly for us to understand (to be honest, any speed have been). But we easily got the gist. So I lowered the parasol right down its pole, so as to shrink its shadow and draw its footprint closer to home.
Her golden expanse of golden flesh returned into the sunlight – like sausages under the grill. She was back on life support.
“Is that okay now?” I offered. “No not okay” she growled unhappily, helpfully in our native tongue. She pointed. Sure enough a remaining slither of parasol shadow was encroaching on the lower part of her right  thigh, preventing an inch of her skin from receiving its essential elixir of harmful ultra-violet rays. She could not have snarled more if we had scored a sharp knife into her skin.
If I lowered the parasol an inch more, my wife would be wearing it like a giant Mexican hat, or with the required two inches shadow withdrawal, she would disappear underneath it entirely- buried forever like some pharaoh wife in her own pyramid. If I took it down completely, she would burn.
Our German friend had a solution to our dilemma. Leaving a small amount of her body in shadow was not an option, and edging her sunbed and a few inches to the right would have been an unreasonable surrender of territory.
With a mix of broken English  and the unmistakable international gesture for “go away” she insisted that we move ourselves along a bed – so that we straddled two pairs. There were several potential responses to this. We could have stubbornly asserted our rights to our territory. I could have countered her pettiness and irrationality with “what difference does a small shadow make?”
I could have taken the moral high ground – explaining how it was more important for my wife not to burn, than for a small part of her not to tan. Or that millions of people in the world would welcome some shade from the heat of the day and would be staggered by her small-mindedness. Any of these responses would almost certainly have escalated the conflict.
So we didn’t do any of those. In a spirit of international compromise we moved ourselves, our belongings and our rather heavy-weighted parasol along one bed to our right, and rearranged the furniture.
After all, to be fair, she was there first, we were invading her light and we had cast an unwelcome shadow over her previously uninterrupted enjoyment. But then she had been rather rude and – most disappointing of all – expressed no words of gratitude or even acknowledgement for our reaction. And I do have enough German to understand the word Danke.
A tiny example of an international conflict over a very small shadow, and nothing worth fighting about. After 30 more minutes, she and her partner left. I hope the 30 minutes of even tanning on her right leg was worth the dispute.

Later that evening we walked up the coast, along a beautifully tiled boardwalk to a small, deep U-shaped cove. We sat and watched the sea lashing violently against the volcanic rocks. Wave after wave rolled in, breaking against the shore with a great roar, launching spray dramatically into the air. What power and relentless battering – like an angry child thumping its fists against the floor – making lots of noise, but making no impression on the object being battered.

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Wave after wave, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. We only stayed for 10 minutes, but this particular battle will never end. Eventually, we guessed, maybe in a few years, the ledge under which the waves were finally breaking would crack and crumble and fall into the sea, and a few feet would be won. But for what purpose, what real gain?
There is so much pointless conflict in the world. Nations fighting nations, people against people, race against race. Neighbours falling out with neighbours, conflicts in families, in the workplace and between strangers by the side of a pool. As we watched the sea beating the rocks, we just wanted it to calm for a moment; take a breath and think again. Say to the land “shall we just stop?” and then maybe negotiate a ceasefire or an armistice.
The problem with conflict is that it often about something relatively unimportant – like a parasol shadow – but then escalates and assumes an importance all of its own. The conflict becomes the reason for the conflict and the monster feeds itself. Each player raises the stakes, neither wanting to back down. Before we know it we are sending in the bombers, dispatching the ships, putting boots on the ground and lives at risk. Where would our conflict have ended? Parasol fights at dusk – sun beds floating in the pool?
Everywhere we see the crazy consequences – lives destroyed because of small arguments over territory, possessions, rights or resources.
Making the peace is too often castigating as backing down, displaying weakness, giving encouragement to the aggressor. Well in my limited experience, punching somebody back is more – not less – likely to result in another punch and before we know it we have a fully fledged brawl.
We need, and need to be, peacekeepers and peacemakers. Peace is not found between organisations or countries or factions – they are shield which people hide behind. Peace is made by individuals – by conversation, understanding and negotiation in a spirit of calm conciliation. Peacemakers with the courage to concede or exchange ground, as well as to stand firm, in order to reach a consensus.
It has been fantastic to see the Netherlands giving up a section of land to Belgium because it is easier for Belgium to manage. For Norway to be considering a small gift of land to Finland, so that they can have a higher highest peak. For India Untitledand Bangladesh to exchange parcels of land. Lines can be drawn and shadows rearranged for everyone’s mutual convenience. A welcome change to news stories about blood being shed over border disputes.
If we sincerely want peace and reconciliation, we need to pause, see the other point of view and give them the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, we just need to put our own ego back in its box and to, frankly, get over ourselves.
As John Lennon said, once again this Christmas, 35 years after his own violent death – War is over – if we want it.

In 2016, let’s try even harder to Give Peace a Chance.

A Stroke of Insight – Shock, Calm, Caring and Mortality

My wife’s stroke was totally unexpected. By any reasonable measure she was right at the bottom of the risk ladder. But whilst the masses obediently follow statistics, life deals each one of us our own personal hand of cards with no apparent rhyme or reason. If we are lucky, we receive a flush of serendipitous spades, loving hearts and sparkling diamonds. But sometimes it is the dreaded Ace of Clubs – landing with a sickening thud. She says feels like she has been hit over the head with a hammer.

We never know how we will react to a situation until we are in it. When people kindly say to us “I know how you feel”, they rarely do. We have never been down this path before. And it was a complete shock. Debbie is fit and healthy – everybody has said it – she is the last person anyone would expect to have a stroke. “It’s bizarre” she says.

Shock and a strange feeling of calm

It is a shock – which is sinking in slowly. When the smooth skin of day-to-day routine of life is ripped away to expose the raw flesh of reality, we have to generate our own anesthetic. My first response was strangely calm.

When I rang her on that fateful day, as she lay on the settee having been violently sick, I was naturally anxious. But I was able to function, think clearly, have coherent conversations, pack up my bag and leave the office . I was able to drive five hours through heavy traffic, safely, to message people, to deal with the fact my headlights weren’t working, to find the hospital and the ward. Most remarkably of all – I was able to successfully operate the car park ticket machine. Nor did Debbie despair or panic. We found the resources – as so many when faced with a shocking and unknown event – to function and to stay in control.

Exercising the caring muscles

At the same time, I was in this strange position of having to look after my wife. You will be unsurprised to hear that more usually she looks after me, or I am away from home looking after myself. Here was was the role reversal – she was in a hospital bed, unable initially even to sit up. And yes she has the vast resources of the NHS at her disposal to look after her medical and practical needs – but I was her emotional handrail, and she needed to hold on tightly.

My rather under-developed caring muscles were getting some unexpected exercise. And like the first trip to the gym after Christmas – my initial enthusiasm soon turned into puffing and panting. I count my calories and my steps, I measure my runs and my bike rides. If I had an app on my phone to measure my care, compassion, giving and generosity (towards other people, not myself), I’m not sure I would have been hitting too many targets.

I found myself in this strange role of reassuring and sympathising with her. That wasn’t too hard. The harder test was when she gave me a random list of personal items to bring from home. I realised I didn’t know where she kept her shoes, never mind her contact lenses or turquoise pyjamas, “the ones with the rabbit on”. My biggest failing of the whole three days she spent in hospital was to bring her conditioner rather than shampoo. My excuse that the bottles are virtually identical just didn’t wash.

I am reminded of a man who gave up his career to nurse his wife. She was very ill – confined to her bed and didn’t even know who he was anymore. He did so without complaining. People praised him for his incredible devotion and sacrifice.  In all humility he explained that his decision was made forty years earlier when he promised to love her, in sickness and in health. I aspire to be 1% of that man – it was finally time to invoke the first half of that couplet.

But – here is the news. Caring is good for us. It feels good. It takes us out of ourselves. Giving is better than receiving.  We are made to love, as much as we are made to be loved. In the end, the love we take really does seem to be equal to the love we make.

Friends will be friends

And as we are talking about caring – we discovered, unsurprisingly (sing-a-long with me) that friends will be friends. And when you’re in need of love they bring you care and attention. So hold out your hand, because, right to the end, friends will be friends.

We have been showered with messages, deluged with cards and flooded with flowers. We ran out of vases quite early on – the latest bunch are perched precariously in a water jug.

We have almost drowned in casseroles, curries and chocolates. Hopefully the statins are keeping down the cholesterol levels. But yes, we find ourselves floating in pools of compassion and swimming in lakes of love.

A reminder of mortality

And my final stunning insight is that one day life will end. Yes, we all know that, why do you have to remind me?

But that day may be closer than we want to think it is. The part of my wife’s brain which was affected by the stroke is dead, and will never recover. By some miracle, the rest of her brain will assume the tasks of the deceased, like a colony of ants rebuilding their nest after an attack. But the dead part remains dead. She said that she always thought she would live into her eighties, now she is not so confident.

Mortality has tapped us on the shoulder and said “psst – remember me?”

My wife seems to have forgotten the deal we have that she is going to die after me, not before me. This has been a clear understanding based on our respective abilities to cope practically and emotionally in the light of the departure of the other. It have told her that would be very discourteous of her to break that agreement. I guess I need to write it down and add it to the will we haven’t yet written – some sort of a post-nuptial agreement.

In the school playground, we played a game where one of us would stand facing a wall. Another child, starting at a distance, would have to creep up behind without the first child hearing. The child looking at the wall had to listen carefully, and if he or she heard the creeper moving, spin round rapidly and point at them. If, at that precise time, the creeper was moving, the first child would win, if not she or he would lose.

We rarely see mortality arriving. It creeps up behind us whilst we are distracted, whilst we are looking at the wall. We cover our ears so as not to hear. But he is there, slowly creeping up behind us, as sure as anything in life. And we never know how close he is.

Live and love for today

All of which has been rather a helpful reminder about priorities. We don’t know how many years or days we have to live. Wednesday October 28th was going to be another normal day. Thankfully, we have made it to November 8th in good shape. One day at a time. As have you – if you got this far living and reading.

So let’s really love the ones we love – with tsunamis of care and deluges of love. And live for today – because today is all we know we have.

A Stroke of Serendipity

Eight days ago at 12.32, I stepped outside and phoned my wife.

Unusually for me I was in England – albeit 160 miles away in Southampton at my company’s UK offices. Two days earlier I had driven south from our home in the east midlands. Then I had flown to Guernsey flown back to Southampton that morning on the very early flight.  Most weeks I am in Copenhagen, one of the other Nordic countries or the Netherlands. This was my first non-overseas Wednesday for over three months.

I had spent the morning wrapped up in meetings and talking to people I hadn’t seen for a long time. It was a long time since breakfast, but I was finally strolling out to the delicatessen to pick up a salad. At 12.32, I called my wife and the call lasted 8 minutes.

That morning my wife had driven to IKEA in Nottingham with a friend. First they had a coffee and a chocolate muffin in BHS. As they walked into IKEA, she felt very unwell, and said to her friend that they would have to go home. Despite feeling unwell, somehow she drove the 30 minutes back home, cautiously staying in the inside lane of the motorway. She dropped off her friend and parked on our drive. There was a note on the doormat to say there was a parcel around the side of the house. She brought it in, walked into the living room.  She felt nauseas and dizzy and was violently sick all over the coffee table and rug. There went the chocolate muffin.

She had the presence of mind to open the front door and phone a friend. She was in her car – her phone connected to bluetooth, and therefore was able to take the call and set off for our house, 10 minutes away. My wife lay on the settee, feeling dreadful and increasingly anxious. She managed to call her work to say she would not be able to teach that afternoon.

It was 12.32 – the phone rang. Remarkably it was her husband.

She sounded to me like she was in a rush “Hi darling, is this a bad time?”. She said she felt awful and had been sick, but that her friend was on her way. “Is the front door open?” “Yes – I think I might be having a panic attack”. She was highly anxious and breathless. “Stay calm and try to breathe normally” was the best I could muster.

I walked around the lake outside the delicatessen, phone to my ear, reassuring her as much as possible. I said I would drive home right away. We didn’t know what was happening. We found out later that she was having a stroke.

Her friend arrived and I rang off, saying I would call back in 10 minutes, which I did – at 12.50. Her friend answered – they had called 999 and an ambulance was on its way. They took her out of the house in a chair and speeded her into Leicester Royal Infirmary, with blue flashing lights and everything. Her friend cleaned up, packed a bag and drove after them.

If you placed my wife on a risk profile of people likely to have a stroke, she would be right at the very bottom. She is slim, active, fit and healthy. She doesn’t smoke or take recreational drugs.  She takes half a glass of rose a couple of times a week. Her cholesterol weighs in at a mere 4.6. Apart from not being 20, it is hard to imagine anyone less “at risk”.

So we don’t know why she had a stroke – except that 25% of stroke victims are comparatively young, fit and healthy. But neither do we know why it happened on a day when I was in England rather than oversees. Nor am I sure why I had decided to drive to Southampton rather than fly directly to Guernsey – so that I had my car with me.

We really can’t explain know how she managed to drive home 20 miles down the M1. We don’t know why her friend had her phone on, connected to Bluetooth and able to answer immediately and come to my wife’s help.  I have absolutely no idea why at 12.32 I randomly called my wife. Calling her during the day is certainly not a habit of mine.

Some would call it co-incidence. Others believe in a connected universe. Many would call it fate or fortune or luck. A friend of mine said it was Karma. As a believer in God I would prefer to call it providence. I like the word serendipity – the occurrence and development of events in a happy and beneficial way.

It took me five tortuous hours to drive to the hospital. She didn’t look too good. But after two days of wonderful NHS care and attention, I brought her home. The critical 1mm of her brain which suffered the stroke is dead – it will never recover. But she has miraculously grown new nerves and new pathways, so that her paralysis and numbness is all but remedied.  A week later she is looking and moving normally – and feeling much better. It will take a few more weeks and maybe months before she is back to where she was, but the initial rate of repair is very encouraging.

Serendipity? There is nothing happy or beneficial about a stroke – it is a horrible and debilitating attack. She said it felt like she has been hit on the back of her head with a hammer. So many victims suffer severe and long-standing consequences, or even death. I guess we got off comparatively lightly. It has been categorised as a “mini-stroke”. I wonder whether that 8 minutes of conversation I had with her somehow helped contain the impact. I like to imagine so, but who knows?

But if this stroke of misfortune had to happen – and it seems like it did – it was surrounded by a cushion of providential serendipity, for which we are both eternally grateful.

Calais – a Crisis of Compassion

189683Let’s just call them people. Not a swarm of people, not migrants, not even refugees. As soon as we label people we objectify them. And if we label a group of people, we make them all the same. At least the word people allows for men and women and children, from different countries, each with their unique story.

Whilst this group of people are as different from one another as any other group of people, they do have one thing in common. They are fleeing repressive and violent countries, in pursuit of a safe and sustainable future for themselves and for other members of their families.

Some have already travelled as far as Calais. I nearly wrote “reached” Calais, but even those words can suggest an invading force or the spread of an epidemic – how careful we need to be with our words. They will have arrived in France after long and arduous journeys, across thousands of miles of Africa and or Europe. Now a significant number feel it best to take a final dangerous risk and seek to travel to Britain.

There is a limit to how many people a country can sustain, even when those people are working and adding to the national wealth – as is the overall case with immigrants to the UK. I am not sure what that limit is, and I appreciate there are specific issues with certain towns which have a sudden and unexpected influx of people – whether they come from Africa or Milton Keynes. We have a similar concern in my white middle-class town because of plans to build thousands of more houses.

But I suspect a country of our size and development could accommodate a 5% population increase fairly comfortaIMG_7733bly over a sensible period of time. That would be a couple of million people. I haven’t read the latest numbers of people attempting to come across the channel hidden in lorries, but I suspect it is in the hundreds, rather than the millions. We are nowhere near bursting point.

We have just come back from a break in Europe. We crossed the Rhine at least six times between Germany, Switzerland and Austria, without being stopped, or even noticed. There was no border control into Liechtenstein – just a sign on the road. In Bad Sackingen there is a wooden bridge across the Rhine. It is a bit like a tunnel. You can enter unchecked and unspotted at one end and walk through to the other. There is no control, no check, no record. Just a white line between Germany and Switzerland. Quite a contract to the channel tunnel.

When we drove down to the city of Constance, we didn’t even know which country we were in. We thought we were in Switzerland and decided to get some Swiss Francs from the ATM. It gave us euros – we were evidently still in Germany. Nobody really seemed to care. Likewise in any other European country.

This whole “migrant issue” does seem to be peculiarly British. There are concerns in other countries, yes. I was speaking to a Dane this week about the Danish-German border in Jutland, and the moves to tighten control. But if we find it difficult to control one channel tunnel, imagine the impossibility of controlling a 67km land border, never mind all of the other routes into Denmark by sea?

There is a genuine issue here to be solved. But it seems that the words and the rhetoric used are designed to play on fear and xenophobia. There are not swarms of migrants flooding into Britain to sponge of our welfare system and take our jobs, or to destroy our national identity, or to infect us with diseases, or to fill up all of our houses. There is an invidious and dangerous slippery slope from misleading stereotyping through prejudice to discrimination and hatred. In some of the press, that slope seems to have no border controls.

I am reminded of the words on the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island in Manhattan. In the last century, ship loads of immigrants arrived in America through Ellis Island. Tens of thousands were processed and assessed for their physical and mental condition, and if suitable, were allowed into the country. My great-grandfather was one of these people. He evidently passed the necessary tests and proceeded into Pennsylvania, where he took up a job as a miner. Tragically he died in a mining accident just a few months later. He hadn’t travelled across the world for an easy job, and certainly not to live off “benefits”.

I visited the island and remembered Andrew Bottomley. We don’t know why he left his wife and young family (including my grandfather) behind in Lancashire. At one time we thought there was another woman involved. But there was no woman from Oldham on the passenger list of the ship he sailed on out of Liverpool. We like to think he went to make money, to send home to his family. But the country welcomed him and for a couple of months anyway – he provided essential labour.

These are the words on the Statue of Liberty, on Ellis Island, the gateway into America from the rest of the world.USA 2006 113

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

These are quite different words to the ones we are hearing in the media. It is quite a different position. It is not an attitude of protecting our own (comparatively enormous) wealth, possessions and security at all costs. It is not an attitude of defensiveness, fear or of hatred. It is an attitude of acceptance, compassion and understanding. It is a recognition of the plight of fellow human beings in trouble – with a practical willingness to help in the best possible way.

There is a genuine practical problem to be solved. It is complex and it is international. It requires great wisdom. But we are all fellow-citizens of the planet. By the grace of God, some of us are a hundred times more privileged than others. All the more reason for us to act with humanity, compassion and generosity.

The Geometry of Germany (12 angles)

The Black Forest nestles in the bottom left hand corner of Germany. A rectangle 50km wide and 150km long, it is the largest German holiday region, with the magnificent Rhine defines the southern and western borders. I first visited here as a child, and can still recall the black battalions of foreboding trees, standing tall like monsters in the dark. No wonder they inspired the many terrifying Brothers Grimm tales. Forty years later, and almost grown-up, we visited again. Here are 12 possibly more adult observations.

#1. The Trees.
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It’s the Black Forest – so unsurprisingly there are trees everywhere! And they are very dark green. There are millions of tall spruce trees, planted as part of the massive reforestation project last century. The area has certainly been well spruced up. Every tree is worth 100 euros – so carefully controlled forestry is big business here. In the forest clearings, there are neat piles of tree trunks. Outside the houses, there are neat piles of logs for providing heat in the winter. German woodcutters certainly can cut wood.

#2. The Roads.

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Best described a serpentine; the narrow forest roads snake effortlessly through the forests, up and down mountain valleys and around the lakes. They are virtually empty. I have loved gliding around their curves and smooth surfaces, switching gears, and conquering the hairpins, like some latter day Michael Schumacher or maybe James May. Being German they all have immaculate crash barriers, moderating my usual fear of going over the edge. No wonder packs of bikers wizz up and down them and determined pedal cyclists struggle up them for the sheer joy of the decent.
#3. The Houses.
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Planted in every village and town are ridiculously huge detached chalets in near perfect condition. With their small square windows, they look more like hotels or ocean liners than houses. One assumes they contain the family, the extended family and at least small holding of domestic animals. Many have 3 or 4 garages. Most striking of all – their enormous tiled hip roofs, overhanging at least the top floor and sometimes reaching all the way to touch the ground. They sit there like Daschunds needing a good haircut.
#4. The Gardens.
They don’t really have gardens here as we English would understand them. In place of our manicured lawns, defiant boundary fences and blossoming borders, here they have scruffy grassy areas, indistinct boundaries and a functional vegetable patch rather than flowers at the front of their property. Their concession to decoration and colour – almost without exception – masses of beautiful red geraniums in window boxes or tubs.
#5. The Rathaus
Every town and many of the villages have a Rathaus. Officially the “town hall”, it often doubles up as a community centre, a Tourist Information centre, a souvenir shop a town museum, and/or a cafe. And – most importantly – the best place for free wifi.

#6.  The Signs

 

Signs

The Germans seem to be obsessive about their road signs. There are a dozen pointers on every post at every remote junction, signalling places near and far. In the towns, every attraction or distractions is labelled. Unfortunately their public maps are less helpful. The one in Freiberg was unforgivably upside down – south at the top – which sent us in entirely the wrong direction. I can’t think of any famous German cartographers.

#7. The Language.

 

Everything is written or spoken in German. Unsurprisingly I guess as we are in Germany.  The Black Forest is clearly designed to be the holiday destination for Germans. Although quite a lot of Dutch drive down from the Netherlands, nothing is in Dutch either .The tourist information offices have virtually nothing any other language and only a few Germans speak English to a conversational level. In fact, my wife held a more productive conversations about the menu with waitresses in French. And finally, there are hundreds of TV channels, all in German. The English and American programmes and films are meticulously dubbed – rather than sub-titled as they are for example in Scandinavia. Which, incidentally is how the Scandinavians learn their English. Whilst I remembered more of my ‘O’ level German than I expected, I guess we now understand how foreigners feel when they visit our country.

#8. The Food

 

As written in my previous blog, the Germans here have an unfortunate preference for compressing their meat, enclosing it in breadcrumbs and calling it a Schnitzel. They serve this unappetising lukewarm slab with a limp salad and fast-food fries.  There really is nothing to commend the food here, even the eponymous Black Forest gateaux
IMG_7709would be better bought from Iceland. Their alcohol earns a little more commendation  – a cool wheat beer or a cheeky little schnapps will at least make the meal palatable. And the non-German red wine is ridiculously cheap.

#9. The Prices.

 

In fact everything is cheap, partly the result of the euro exchange rate, but also a crazy preference for providing Lidl-style good value. They don’t even seem to want to fleece the innocent tourists. On the contrary, we get free rail and bus travel throughout the region for the price of a daily 1 euro tourist  tax. The other day, I slotted 1.5 euros into a town-centre car park ticket machine and found we could stay until 10am the next day. Then we bought coffee and cake for two for less than 5 euros. Needless to say they recognise us in Lidl now.

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#10. The Welcome

 

The Germans we have met in the Black Forest seemed initially reserved and would speak only when spoken to. We would say “hello” to people we met on walks, and they would reciprocate, but with a look of some suspicion. When we made conversation, unlike the Americans, they were not particularly interested in us as foreigners. “Where y’all from” clearly does not translate into German. But there is a hidden sense of humour and fun – particularly with the older Frauen. And we were lucky enough to meet one boisterous, loud, larger-than-life Herr. Unfortunately, we shared 16 minutes with him and his family in a small cable car.

#11. The Smokers.

 

Less welcome are the smokers. Smoking is still allowed in open air restaurants and cafes here, which is where we all want to sit on a hot summers day. Tobacco smoke is not a good flavouring with your Eis or Black Forest Gateau. Being acclimatised to clean air when eating and drinking at home, this has been particularly annoying, especially when the smoker holds their cigarette out in your direction.

#12. The Efficiency.

 

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Finally, we can report that the legendary German efficiency is alive and well and running smoothly. The trains leave on time and Lidl is well-stocked. Everything is neat and tidy, clean and well-presented. Even the historic buildings are lovingly restored and sparkling, as if they were built last year. The grass is cut, the hedges are trimmed. Cars park obediently in designated spaces. The pavements are uncracked and unlittered.
If they can find some decent chefs and ban smokers in restaurants – and maybe have a few more menus in English – everything would all be perfect!

Schnitzels, salad and slugs – dining out in the Black Forest

One of the delights of travelling abroad is to sample the local cuisine along with the local atmosphere. And maybe some local surprises. Here in the Black Forest, we were not sure what to expect. Obviously Black Forest gateau and bratwurst, but what else?

My previous experience off German dining had been excellent. A year or two ago, I had spent a few winter days in Munich on business. I had loved the schweinshaxe, the sauerkraut, the wheat beer; the ornate and elaborate Bavarian restaurants with happy, friendly staff and the excellent service.

But this was summer in the Black Forest – a region (quite understandably) occupied almost exclusively by Germans. The restaurant we tried last night had remarked that they had English customers only about twice a year. Plus the odd grumpy Russian.

So the menus are exclusively in German, and the staff generally have little or no English. Which is absolutely fine. A German visiting the Lake District would not expect to be able to order tea and cakes in Deutsche. I guess we English get used to most people speaking our language. In can’t remember the last restaurant I went to where there was no English available. We are spoiled and therefore become lazy.

Tonight was our fourth night dining out.

Restaurant day one

On the first night we had walked up to the local inn at just after 830pm. We sat outside on a balcony with wobbly tables and plastic parasols advertising the local beer. It could have been any English pub. We were offered a “light” menu, as the full menu was “not available” after 830pm. Which translated in any language is another way of saying – “it’s too much trouble to provide you with what you really want. No points yet for customer service.

We had ordered what appeared to be two hot meals, which turned out to be salad and cold meat. I ordered pork, which I unexpectedly received in a schnitzel, in a cold salsa sauce. We gave this #2 ranking of the two restaurants in our village. We hadn’t tried #1 yet.

Restaurant day three

We tried #1 on our third night – the restaurant with the twice yearly English customers. So here we were, just on cue. This was indeed a better quality establishment with a fluent young English speaking waitress. She was happy and friendly – no doubt welcoming this rare opportunity to practice her English.

My wife ordered roast beef and roast potatoes – which, surprisingly, turned out to be cold roast beef. The waitress rather apologetically explained that it might not be like we would have it at home. Which is fine of course. If we wanted it how we had it at home, we’d have stayed at home. I ordered monkfish – which, less surprisingly, to be a schnitzel.

By now we were warming, or rather chilling, to our theme. All meat comes processed, compressed and coated in breadcrumbs. They call that schnitzel. It may be any temperature apart from hot. There are no vegetables in the Black Forest, but plenty of salad with lots of mayonnaise. The salad is served on a separate plate just ahead of the main course. It is unclear whether to eat it ahead (in Harvester tradition) with our main course.

Having established all of that, tonight was easily our most bizarre eating experience. We drove out to our nearest town – St Blasien – an attractive town, clasped around a river. It is dominated, appropriately by a Dom – a magnificent domed former monastery, which pretends to be the size of St Paul’s cathedral.

Restaurant day two

We had eaten already in St Blasien on day two. We had consulted TripAdvisor for advice on which restaurant to risk. We have no wifi where we are staying, only an excruciatingly slow GPS connection. So the best we could do was write down TripAdvisor recommendations #1 through #5 and hope to be able to find a couple of them.

We walked up and down the riverside, but could only found one of the restaurants. The Black Forest is very popular with bikers. All restaurants welcome bikers. Great. Sehr Gut. However, the one recommended restaurant we could find that evening looked like a biker-special, and not particular welcoming to rental car drivers. We gave it a miss.

So we dared to try an non-TripAdvisor-listed restaurant. Here I had my regular schnitzel, having finally realised it is impossible for me not to order one. The service had been great with a lovely view onto the green in front of the Dom. In a break with tradition – and an attempt to have hot food – my wife had ordered pasta. It was very nice.

Restaurant day four 

So back to tonight. We finally located Tripadvisor St Blasien restaurant #1 on the other side of the river. Six reviews, five excellent and one very good. Looked fantastic. Looked closer. Looked closed. Looked carefully at the notice on the door. I translated. It was warmly thanking their loyal customers for 15 Jahre of custom etc. We will let TripAdvisor know the bad news – just as soon as I get a internet speed greater than 50khz.
So we located Tripadvisor St Blasien restaurant #4. A nice looking place, facing the river into the sun, with the hillside behind. A few pavement tables would have made this an idyllic location. For whatever reason, there were none. Never mind, we would be happy to sit inside. It was cooling down now and anyway, I had left my sunglasses in the car.

We walked through a large door into a small enclosed courtyard. This was dIfferent. Why sit out in the sun, when you can squeeze into a dank, dull courtyard? There were four tables, two of which were occupied. We sat at the empty middle table. There was clear blue sky above, the side of the hill behind and an uneven, broken concrete floor below. Around the other three sides was an old, rather dilapidated three storey building, and to our left, an opening into the restrooms.

The courtyard was cluttered with an old broom, two pitchforks, some ancient bottles of wine, plastic menus and various other random bits and pieces. I noticed the cobwebs strung across the corners of the walls.

We sat on the plastic chairs and were warmly greeted by a friendly human waitress, who immediately recognised we were English. Did we speak French? “Un peu” said my wife fluently. Upon which the waitress explained the German menu in French to my English wife. It all made sense. My wife ordered the pork special dish. I ordered the regular pork dish. It was impossible to tell – in any language – how they might be different. Or what temperature they may be.

As we waited for our food, a German cyclist rolled in, regaled in bright blue lycra. He looked like he had ridden quite a distance. He made quite an entrance, huffing and puffing and lurching to the table at the back. On the other tables sat an older couple, minding their own business, and two men engaged in a rather intense discussion, fuelled by beer and wine.

We waited maybe 20 minutes just for our drinks – water and diet coke. These things aren’t easily prepared. The cyclist got his towel out of his bag and noisily wiped himself down. Then he stomped to the rest rooms, and upon his return, made a point of fetching his own menu.

The waitress was still occupied pouring our drinks. 20 minutes after these, along came the obligatory salad. Nothing to ornate. Two small plates of lettuce, a couple of santini tomatoes and a coating of non-descript thin creamy dressing. We forwent any convention about what to eat when – and consumed. We were quite hungry by now.

At this point, our waitress rather ominously closed and bolted the courtyard doors. Was she keeping other punters out, or locking us in? Why did this courtyard suddenly have the feel of an exercise yard?
Meanwhile our restless cyclist had finally settled himself and was tucking into his meal – some cheese and meat on a platter. Arrived after us, served before us – what sort of tradition is that? Locals first?

Finally, our waitress emerged – worryingly from the restrooms area – with our two different plates of pork. One looked quite nice – a decent piece of meat with a nice looking sauce. And the other was inevitably a schnitzel. I knew which was mine – the deliciously compressed animal coated in breadcrumbs. Both meals were accompanied by McDonald’s type fries, which I can only assume were warmed up from frozen – or maybe bought in. Inevitably no vegetables.

We ate up quickly and got ready to pay. It was food, and we were satiated. My wife noticed a slug crawling slowly across the floor near to my chair. When the waitress arrived back, I felt obliged to warn her – she was standing very close to it. She explained that they came out of the hillside. She asked us whether we enjoyed our meals, and of course we said we had. I think she made some joke about l’escargot.

She was a lovely women, very friendly. I said “guten abends”, my wife said “au revoir” and our waitress unexpectedly broke into English with a confident “Bye”.

It was quite difficult to escape. The door was bolted into the floor as well as into the wall. I had this vision of being force-fed cold compressed slugs in breadcrumbs, without so much as a salad. The rush of panic gave me extra-strength. The door opened. We emerged into the sunshine and breathed in the warm air.

There is a Lidl here in St Blasien. They sell pizza. I think we will eat in tomorrow.

Maybe its the Lure of the (Scandinavian) Sea

I spend my weeks traveling to and from various Nordic countries. Tired of the procession of planes and nights in formulaic hotels, I decided, for once, to take the big slow boat from Oslo to Copenhagen, only to discover that this was an amorphous mixture of the two. Everyone who boards is staying in the same hotel.

There is something very communal about all of this. We will all embark together and and we will all disembark together. We will share the intermediate 17 hours together, whether we like each other or not. It is a communal blind date, a mass arranged wedding, a multinational flash village of.Chinese tourists, Scandinavian commuters and eastern-European party-goers crushed together in quite a small space.

Freedom is rather limited in a medium-sized floating tin can. You can check out any time you like. But you can never leave.
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As the journey unfolds, I keep spotting the same people, whilst completely missing others. What is it that makes some people noticeable and others invisible? And which end of the spectrum am I? Which end do I want to be? I don’t want to be stared at, but nor do I want to be ignored. Especially not in the restaurant,
On my own I feel like an invisible observer. A ghost.
Other people come in their twos and fours and eights. They move around the boat in couples, families and packs – never far from each other, always knowing where each other is. This uneasy interdependence strains with each passing hour of forced enclosure. Relationships journey from tolerance, past irritation and finally arrive at the port of antagonism.
They express opinions about each other’s behaviour and then try to control it. “Don’t go near the railings sweetie” or “I hate that restaurant, baby” or “you never let me go to the casino, darling”. The subtle manipulation sugar coated in labels of affection, or should we say, ownership? The weaponising of the word “darling” is nothing new of course.
I am speculating of course – on a boat from Oslo to Copenhagen you don’t hear many English words beyond the statutory announcements. But the music and dance of relationships are the same in any language.
As for me, I have no such obligations or constraints. I am a free agent – at liberty to wander lonely as a cloud.up and down the decks, into a bar, out of a bar, through the shop, back to my room. And round again. Watching people. Spotting some of the same people. Ignoring others.
IMG_7483We all meander rather aimlessly around the decks, killing time. Like ants in a nest, sheep in a pen. There are rules of course – no sitting on the railings, no smoking in the cabins, no admittance – crew only, hard boiled on the left, soft boiled on the right. This is what separates us from the animals.
There are two points of escape. The first is the cabin – my nest. Here I am truly invisible. Here I am schrodingers cat. There really is no-one to see me – even through your window. It is a one-way mirror. You can see out – but short of some horror movie nightmare – nobody will be be looking in.   IMG_7415
Some cabins don’t even have a window. They are too scary to contemplate. I need a window. Even though it is unbreakable, bolted closed and offers no point of escape – the illusion is sufficient. Those inside rooms are prisons cells of claustrophobia, dungeons for those passengers who break the rules. Too scary to think about. Nobody really exists in those, surely.
The second point of escape is the deck.
The deck. This is why we sail. This is why I chose 17 hours on a boat rather than 2 on a plane and 9 in a hotel.
Here is air. Fresh, moving sea air. A wind which wraps us up. Here is light and space, vertical to the stars and horizontal to the circular horizons.
And here is the sea – surrounding us, embracing us, supporting us – like some enormous, unfathomable mother. Her moods changing  – now dark, mysterious and unsettled, now glistening and beautiful in her sunlight jewelry. And now again deep blue, playful and frothy. She is ever around us and beneath us.
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I photograph her moods and expressions. I pick out boats and bouys, small islands and beacons, distant shores and mountains. A 17 hour rolling movie set against her slowly rolling constant backcloth.
In the day the deck is teeming with passengers. It is hard to find a space against the railings. I make a careful assessment of the gap between two other human beings. How wide a piece of rail do we need to occupy without invading the personal space of the people either side? I think about 3 feet – but we might be prepared to move in for something less if there is a good photo to be snapped.
I sit more than two feet away from a young woman on a bench. She looks decidedly uncomfortable. Maybe because I put my drink on the same small round table. It probably seems like an awkward attempt at intimacy. Her unspoken discomfort is contagious and I move on quickly.
At night the deck is a deserted. lonely place. The masses swarm to the bars, casinos and restaurants. Entertainment and food may attract, but alcohol and the company of people seems irresistible. So I was able to circumnavigate the desk entirely on my own. I loved it. Just me, the sky and the sea.
It was tempting to dance naked across the rooftop of the boat. The wind was strong, invigorating, life-giving. A sudden burst took my breath away. I imagined being picked up and carried over the railings down into the dark, dark bowels of the mother sea. Like a child returning to its womb to die. .
IMG_7490“A sailor went to sea, sea sea, to see what he could see see see , but all that he could see see see, was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea, sea”. I step away from the edge. Time for bed.
I return to the security of my cabin. There she still is – silent outside my window. Is she watching me or ignoring me? Is she reassuring or threatening me ? As I sleep, I imagine her rocking me gently in my cradle, humming quietly.
It is breakfast – the journey end is nigh. I take a soft boiled egg from the right, and some Danish pickled herring from a plate. Denmark is closing in on both sides as we reach our destination. Soon we will crash gently into terra firma and drop the gang-plank. The prisoners will be released from the enclosure – free again to roam across the land.
The once unreachable shore is now under our feet. Such is the journey of life. The future becomes the present and the present becomes the past. The journey is over. El condor pasa. The world we all inhabited for a while will never be reconstituted. I doubt I will ever see these people again. Those I noticed and those I didn’t notice will all be forgotten. And they will forget me.
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But the sea? She will always be there, somewhere.

Another Unending Oslo Evening

A place
and a time
where there is no darkness
only the all-consuming grey
of a damp June evening

Never starting,
never ending,
barely existing in very slow motion
without definition or purpose.

A dinner where the salmon is tasteless
garnished with a disappointingly limp salad –
Eating under artificial heating.

Will that invisible sun never sleep?
Will this interminable day ever end?
or will we just drift and doze
into a semi-conscious dream?
Dusk in unholy collusion
with dawn.

Once a Father, always a Father

Fathers Day“Once a father, always a father”. I read that in a book. Well, actually I read “once a mother, always a mother”, but I am translating it in the interests of gender-equality. If women can assert their equality in the work-place, then men should be allowed to assert their equality in the parent-place.

In fact, as an apparently “successful” career-person, the much more overwhelming “success” of my life has been the joy and privilege of being allowed to be the father of my three lovely children. (If they are reading this, my two sons may cringe at this word, but, hey, I’m talking about your insides as well as your outsides).

I am, once, twice, three times a father (if you know it, fill in the next line of the song). All three are now grown up, and two of them appear to have left home and live in Yorkshire – for reasons best known to themselves. The third lives at home, which is more than I do, as I work 3-4 days per week in Europe.

So its all much more long-distance, occasional and hands-off than it was when they were 2, 4, and 6. In those days, my role as a dad was full-on from the second I walked in the door from work, to the moment the last child fell asleep  – or when I nodded off half way through a Mr Man book, snuggled up in one of their beds.

In those days, the fatherly role seemed pretty clear. I was self-appointed Head of Humour, Chief Games Officer and Director of Construction. Their mother – my wife – was Chief Organiser, Head Chef and Director of Logistics. Our relationship with our children was tactile, energetic/tiring, often messy and mostly joyous.

Of course we had our moments of frustration, stress and distress. Our children had their share of accidents and disappointments, and we mislaid one or two of them in public a couple of times. But my abiding memory is of fun and laughter – crazy bedtime games, building massive k’nex structures and complex brio railway layouts – and those precious hugs, cuddles and beat-ups (before you call social services, it was mainly them attacking me)

The days as a father of young children were – if I am honest – the most enjoyable days of my life. If that is where you are now – enjoy them and (you know who you are) spend less time at work.

But then – because we kept feeding them – they grew up. Dad was now the one who played cricket in the garden, taught DIY skills and initiated exciting international holidays. I took them camping, to football matches and on trips to foreign cities. By now I was attempting to be some sort of Educator – trying to teach them about the world – how to live in it, understand it, explore it and enjoy it. And I tried, as best as I could, to be an Example of a decent human being.

The problem is – if you encourage your children to be resourceful, independent and to think for themselves – there is a real danger you will succeed. Now, they seem to know more than we do and can live perfectly well without us. They are determinedly independent and rarely need to ask for advice.

I think I know much more about life, the world and people than I did when I was their age. But at their age, I really only asked my father for advice about fixing my car. So now it is more about me asking them for advice – particularly about fixing technology or buying cars.

My work here, as they say – as a father – seems to be done.

But the relationship abides. Once a father, always a father.

The love of a father for his children simply remains unchanged and unchangeable. If you are a parent you may just recognise this and we can’t do much about it, even if we wanted to.

I don’t think about my children all of the time. I probably think about them much less than I used to. I assume wherever they are that they are safe and broadly happy. I prefer to be pleased for them than proud of them. Pleased, that they have achieved things they wanted to achieve. Sanguine about the fact that they have also failed at some things, as we all do. But what is more important is that they are happy and secure in themselves, comfortable in their own skin, that they have some good friends and are on a journey to be fulfilled in themselves and to contribute something unique to the world.

I watch my children’s lives now more at a distance. They go about their daily work and lives as I do, and we rarely interact.

But when we do, I delight in those interactions – whether it is a conversation, a facebook posting, a card or just a look or a smile. I treasure them the more for their infrequency. There is an unbroken and unspoken love which has been there since the day of their birth, and will remain until, well, you know when (and, hey, probably after that anyway).

Sometimes it surprises me. I can be watching or talking with one of them, and an almost painful feeling of love ambushes some part of my digestive system. Hopefully they don’t notice.

So what is my role as a father now? Did I retire or get made redundant?

I don’t think so. As our children grow up , our interactions become more adult and more equal. The relationships become less dependent and more interdependent. And as we grow old ourselves, the dependency may reverse (although they have always promised to put me in a home when that happens). But for now we are similar-sized friends as much as family.

However, whilst they are no longer children, they will always be my children. And I will always be their dad. I will always be here for them. Always loving them. Always ready to feed them, rescue them, support them, treat them, advise them, listen to them, laugh with them. Its all a bit non-negotiable. That part of the job will never change.


Loeaving and Losing