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The Age of Introverts

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The pandemic is a blessing.

A holy offering of time and of peace. Of endless spans of blue sky uncovering endless spans of free days. Allowing room for every hour to be lived in its own right. I have no plans and therefore no future; I have no dues and therefore no past.

The feeling is that of a straitjacket having been loosened and discarded, grimy and crumpled, into the gutter. (Which may or may not have anything to do with the loosening and discarding of brassieres, grimy and crumpled, into the dirty laundry basket. I continue to store them there, unwashed, just in case I’m inclined to put them on again.)

A whole new space has opened up inside my head, dedicated wholeheartedly to doing nothing while simply listening to Bach. Or observing the park. Or examining sheets of music. Or savouring the afternoon light. Or appreciating black tea with just a drop of cream, watching it billow in the cup like Bach’s fugue in the cupola of a church. Or hearing the birds chirping outside. Or inhaling an intoxicating lungful of the velvety evening before bed.

I rarely have time to be in my life.

It’s enough work just to keep up with the train of events! (A whole army of trains, to be honest. On an imbroglio of train tracks, stretching out and intertwining far into the future and way into the past.) It’s easy to lose your outlook when life is the car of a speeding train, rushing past hundreds of thousands of minutes and thousands of hours, until the days and the weeks become a blurry mess and the months become only dark spots on the dusty window; until you catch yourself watching the last seconds of your own slip like grains of sand from the palms of your hands – on the last minute of the last hour of the last day of the last week of the last month – and you think in horror “Good Gad! Where has the year gone?!” and promise solemnly to yourself to hang onto these grains of time a little more urgently from now on, to live more fully. To go out more, to rest more, to travel more, to see more friends, to do more sports, to sleep less and to work less. But before you know it, there are only more spots on the dusty window and you’ve only got a few more grains of sand left in your hands… Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one… JUMP!

It’s easier said than done, you know.

What I never realised until now was that there’s no point in jumping out of the train on a whim, say for the purpose of enjoying a leisurely picnic or a swim in the lake. If you do want to make the most of your time and living in the moment, you’ve got to halt the whole steely mammoth. Only then will you have enough time to find your bearings in the stillness outside, to adjust your eyes to the stationery state of things around you, to get your feet used to the firm and unmoving earth beneath them, to become one with the peace and quiet of the world after you’d become one with the out-of-control hurtling mass of your life.

It’s extraordinary how, in an unpredictable and extraordinary situation such as the current pandemic, I feel centred and in control.

I am myself.

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Quarantine With a View

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Greetings from the times of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic – the dawning of the age of introverts!

I’m lucky to live right next to a huge park (thirty seconds from front door to park gate, to be precise), which means that, alongside self-isolating at home, I can easily self-isolate en plein air. And because I have a particular fondness for this particular time of year, today I took my camera along to capture all the budding vernal beauty of the new season. 

{all images by Blue Jay & Bumblebee}

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Coffee With A Stranger Who Looks A Bit Like Me

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“You see? Everyone will ultimately betray their mother.”

Mine (mother, I mean) always made powerful prophecies. (Most of them self-fulfilling, which is actually mighty scary, if you think about it.) On this occasion, at some point in the late 90s, we lay sprawled in our respective armchairs in the living room, half-heartedly watching Sophia Loren: Her Own Story (a biopic) on our tiny TV. My mother’s comment was aimed at a scene where the actress, at age seventeen, was engaged in smiling conversation at a street-side café with her father, whom she was seeing for the first time since he had abandoned her mother when Sophia Loren was but a child.

I was a teenager then, estranged from my own father, who had been more interested in his work than in me for the first thirteen years of my life, and then largely absent after my parents’ subsequent grotesquely ugly divorce. To be honest, he was never interested in me at all, and that was fine because I had my mother. I was her staunchest ally for a very long time – unflailingly on her side in all circumstances, her most intimate confidante and her most trusted adviser, her best friend, her biggest love, her greatest pride. In our narrative, my father represented the greatest evil and embodied everything that was ugly and despicable in a human being.

Naturally, therefore, my mother’s comment resonated with me, and although it was inconceivable then that I would ever reconcile with my father with the same smiling nonchalance that Sophia Loren was portraying, I promised myself anyway that I would never betray my mother by making amends with my father.

Oh, well.

Of course, I did see and talk to my father since then. With the knowledge and consent of my mother, moreover. I spent a few holidays with him in exotic locations and accepted his money (after asking for it) when I made the decision to study abroad. But he was always the enemy. Not to be trusted, but to be mocked and to be faulted. The last significant time I spoke to him was in 2003, when I asked him for the last time to pay for my studies. After that, we never communicated. Until I received an e-mail from him fourteen years later, in early 2017.

Looking back now at my teens and twentues, I see myself as a prisoner of my mother’s mind. Living in an enchanted tower of a worldview that she spun around herself – and around me by proxy. A world that was (and continues to be for her) malignant, dangerous, and untrustworthy. Moving out of her realm of influence – and I mean intellectually and emotionally rather than physically (although both are connected) – was one of the most important milestones of my life.

It was some time after I had emancipated myself that I received my father’s email. Yet still, my first reaction was a primal, debilitating fear. My father was asking to meet me, and I was certain that his only intention could have been to hurt my mother through me. Luckily, a second reaction came on the heels of the first, carrying with it a speck of hope and curiosity. My father – whom I don’t ever remember hugging me or praising me (to think of him telling me he loves me seems absurd), who happily ignored consecutive years of birthdays and Christmases, and of whose life I presently knew nothing – was reaching out.

I agreed. We met in a café. We chatted. We smiled, and even laughed. I never told my mother.

We met again last week, after another prolonged absence (however, this time we exchanged birthday and holiday greetings – twice!) and I feel that a comical unfairness has been orchestrated by the fates.

Because my father, over coffee, is actually a very nice man.

I scrutinised him thoroughout our conversation – looking for parts of me in his features, his mannerisms, finding evidence of common characteristics in the things we talked about. It was pleasant to talk to my father – we discussed books and current events, we came to eerie understandings on certain issues that were more emotional than factual (and therefore not as inviting of accord). I found myself hesitatingly admiring him – his wit, his knowledge, his understanding of the world – and even being endeared by his antiquated old-man opinions.

And that’s what’s comically unfair.

It’s not fair that I can have a pleasant and stimulating conversation with my father, to whom I have no emotional attachment, while my relationship with my mother, who loved me and cared for me through extreme hardship, is drowning under emotional baggage.

My relationship with my mother has… evolved. Today, there is very little we talk about that I find stimulating or interesting or informative or amusing. Every minute I spend in her presence, I study her meticulously so as to absolutely prevent becoming (or being) what I see her to be – a fearful, ignorant, selfish child. I make every effort not to snarl in frustration and exasperation at this child for whom I can only scrape the meagrest positive human emotions: an ounce of pity and a quantum of affection, wrapped with the stiff bow of daughterly duty. Whatever has my mother done to me to deserve this?

I know, I know. It’s not about her at all. It’s all about me.

After our last meeting with my father, while crossing a busy street, he said something that seemed to be a boulder rolling off of his chest, pushed out by the wave of emotions lifted at the urgency of our parting. Smiling sheepishly, and putting his arm around my shoulders he blurted out, almost in spite of himself: “I wish I hadn’t lost so much time.”

It’s not fair. But that’s the way it is. And I’m grateful for all of it.

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Ottolenghi & Me: A Year of Cooking Simple

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You know I never finish anything. (Who in the world ever does?! Except for books, of course.  Good heavens, but it’s hard to put down even the most terrible book.) As of this day, however, I am proud to say that there are two notable exceptions to my never finishing anything. They are the following:

  1. A memoir, written in 2017.
  2. A cooking project consisting of my making all the recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Simple cookbook in the course of 2019. (All the meatless recipes, that is, of which there were 97.)

To be honest, I almost gave up near the end. 

In mid-November, I still had some 30-odd recipes left to cook, most of which I wasn’t particularly interested in since I’d cooked all the ones I was curious about early in the year. But then I decided to leave the unfinishing unfinished, managed to shame and scold and guilt myself into summoning the last dregs of enthusiasm, and cheerily ploughed on until the glorious end (seaweed spaghetti and sesame salad with tahini dressing). 

It was a journey full of discoveries – some joyful, some less so. I discovered the wonderful potential of fresh tarragon, and the divine combination of caramelised onions and rose harissa with tomato sauce and pasta, as well as a number of bombastically flavourful  (yet still incredibly simple) sauces and dressings. Most importantly, Ottolenghi managed to hammer it into my head (finally) that putting in a little bit of extra effort in the kitchen can take you forward by leaps. On the other hand, it will be a while before I eat cauliflower again (I don’t mind the vegetable, but good heavens there was too much of the good thing in Simple), and I grumbled at the un-seasonality of some of the recipes, giving up cooking from the cookbook completely during the summer months in order to make the most of the tomato and peach seasons. Also, most of the desserts were way too rich for my liking, but I’m beginning to nitpick and that wasn’t my intention.

Overall, the book is a delight to cook from. I’d recommend it most heartily to those who like hosting groups of friends for laid-back feasts. Ottolenghi stands by his word in the title, and all the recipes are shockingly easy, making it a breeze to assemble an array of dishes in a couple of hours that can then be laid out on a table and devoured in combination throughout a long and relaxed evening. There are even suggestions at the end of the book offering combinations of recipes for various themed feasts.

To give you an idea, here are some of my favourite recipes from the Simple cookbook. (You’ll find that most of them are available online, either at Ottolenghi’s website or in his column for The Guardian.)

  1. Braised eggs with leeks and za’atar (p. 6)
  2. Beetroot, caraway and goat’s cheese bread (p. 16)
  3. Tomatoes with sumac onions and pine nuts (p. 34)
  4. Herby courgettes and peas with semolina porridge (p. 63)
  5. Pappardelle with rose harissa, black olives and capers (p. 188)

Bon appétit! 

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A Day at a Meditation Retreat

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“Hearing. Hearing. Hearing.”

The alarm beeps at four in the morning, and although my body is reluctant to extract itself from the warmth of the covers, my mind, after only five hours of sleep, is unexpectedly alert. I roll out of bed, wash my face, brush my teeth, and pull on some leggings and a jumper. Briskly, so as not to lose a single minute.

At half past four, I sit down on a cushion to meditate. Beginning with the so-called mindful bow, which serves to align the mind with the body, I follow-up with a 45-minute walking meditation and a 45-minute sitting meditation. After almost one week at a vipassana retreat, my task remains unchanged: to be in the present moment and to register my thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. And to label them all in my head, always three times.

I’m doing well this morning. “Happy. Happy. Happy.” I’m not at all impatient while walking and never once doze off while sitting. After meditating for an hour and a half, however, my stomach tentatively grumbles for attention. “Hungry. Hungry. Hungry.”

Breakfast is served at 6.30 a.m. and is a completely silent affair. The rules here are exacting: no mobile phones or other entertainment (my notebook is tucked away until after the retreat); no meat and no eating after lunch; limited beautifying products and other luxuries. The whole day is dedicated to meditation, practiced in various intervals and with short breaks, which is why everyone carries pocket timers. And because we’re all here for the purpose of introspection, we’re discouraged from interacting with others.

I find it amusing that everyone here looks like they’re attending a funeral. Is there really nothing to smile about on the inside? Either that, or they’re taking themselves too seriously, I conclude. “Judging. Judging. Judging.” Spreading delicious home-made apricot preserve on a slice of bread, I wonder what I must look like to the others.

After breakfast, I meet my instructors – a lovely couple – who are helping me navigate the meditation process. They ask me about my progress and adjust the length of my sessions. Today, I share with them a brilliant idea that occurred to me during a slow moment I experienced the night before: I started labelling in the voice of Stringer Bell, Idris Elba’s character from The Wire. This makes them both laugh, but they gently remind me to also label similar shenanigans: “Playing. Playing. Playing.” Stringer Bell approves.

For mid-morning meditation, I make my way to the sunny common meditation room. This is my favourite time to meditate. The sun is shining in through the large windows, my belly is full, and I feel content, alert, and determined to give this next round my all. After all, what other opportunity will I have to spend virtually unlimited, exclusive time with myself? I like that we’re our own masters here, meditating at our own pace and according to our own conscience. Nobody comes to check whether we’ve really woken up at 4 a.m. or whether we’ve had a snack in the afternoon. Likewise, I appreciate that vipassana is free of ideology. Rather, it’s a technique intended to help one stay in the present moment – an exercise in mindfulness, in other words.

Lunchtime at 11.30 a.m. is the highlight of the day. The landlady indulges us with hearty soups, creative mains, fresh salads and fragrant pies. I enjoy every bite, eating slowly and mindfully. Lunch eaten, I throw on my jacket and head outside for some fresh air and a cuddle with the patron of the remote mountain cottage that is my temporary home. An old and shaggy cat, veteran of many skirmishes, comes over for a rub, purring like a revving Kawasaki engine. I imbibe the mountain air, the warming sunrays, and the peace and quiet. But only for a few precious minutes before it’s time to get back to work.

With short breaks, I meditate until 6 p.m., which is when an evening snack of yoghurt and chocolate is served in the dining hall. Why this particular choice, you ask? It’s because the Thai monks that practice vipassana consider a small amount of yoghurt and chocolate not food, but medicine! I love that.

Following “dinner”, I allow myself a longer break to take a shower and wash my hair. I retreat to my room for the evening, where I’m by now intimately acquainted with every knot on the hardwood floor. I meditate until night-time. I’m tired and impatient. I keep falling asleep, sneak glances at my timer and moan about the pain in my back. Stringer Bell recites empathetically: “Bored. Bored. Bored.”

Shortly before 11 p.m., I drink one last cup of herbal tea, brush my teeth and crawl – mindfully – into bed. Tomorrow will be the same, and yet it will not be the same at all.

“Excited. Excited. Excited.”

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Madeira

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Ponta de São Lourenço

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Ponta de São Lourenço

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En route to Pico Ruivo, Madeira’s highest point at 1 862 m.

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Crossing from Pico do Arieiro to Pico do Ruivo.

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Crossing from Pico do Arieiro to Pico do Ruivo.

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Almost at Pico do Ruivo.

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Exploring the poncherias of Caniçal.

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Along the levada from Machico to Caniçal.

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Along the levada from Machico to Caniçal.

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Along the levada from Machico to Caniçal.

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Along the Levada das 25 Fontes (25 fountains).

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Somewhere in Madeira. :)

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Somewhere in Madeira. :)

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The Laurisilva – an ancient laurel forest that is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

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Somewhere in Madeira. :)

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Funchal viewed from Cabo Girão.

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Somewhere in Madeira. :)

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Somewhere in Madeira. :)

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Somewhere in Madeira. :)

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Somewhere in Madeira. :)

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Curral das Freiras (Valley of the Nuns).

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Parque Santa Catarina, Funchal.

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Statue of Sissi, Empress of Austria (who had a villa in Madeira) in front of the Pestana Casino Park hotel, designed by the brazilian architect Oscar Niemayer, Funchal.

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Somewhere in Madeira. :)

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Fish soup! At Venda da Donna Maria, Funchal.

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Somwehere in Madeira. :)

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Sunset views from the Barreirinha bar, Funchal.

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A banana plantation.

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Near Jardim do Mar in the North of Madeira.

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Near Jardim do Mar in the North of Madeira.

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Somewhere in Madeira. :)

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Somewhere in Madeira. :)

{all images by Blue Jay & Bumblebe}