All that bumbles isn’t a bee

Beware the barrenness of a busy life.

Socrates

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Chewing the cud.

My father is a very hardworking man. Even now, a few months before his 75th birthday, he struggles to say no when work is thrown his way. When my siblings and I were kids, Dad was determined to instil this work ethic in us as well, and he found it infuriating if ever he came home during a mid-morning break from work and found us still lounging around in our pyjamas. His determination on this issue bore fruit, too; none of his six kids could ever be accused of being workshy. My problem now, though, is where to channel that work ethic when I’m not working. Where is the line between enjoying an unexpected period of affordable unemployment, and becoming, to use my dad’s vernacular, a lazy good for nothing so and so?

On the last couple of days, when I’ve gone on my One-Hour Daily Walk, I’ve had the irritating feeling that I should be using my walking time constructively. Yesterday and the day before, I stuck my headphones on and listened to French podcasts as I walked. This morning, when I didn’t feel like walking, I realised it was because I wasn’t in the mood for studying French. OK, I thought to myself, I’ll use the time to think about a tricky plot point I’ve reached in a story I’m writing instead. So I headed out the door, my usual sunhat replaced by a serious frown and an ill-fitting thinking cap, and realised about half an hour into the walk that I still wasn’t enjoying it as much as I usually do.

Then the thought occurred to me. It’s OK just to be at peace.

Much of the average life, it seems to me from this lofty position of unemployment, is consumed by the sense that if we’re not crazy busy, running around and seeing people and getting stuff done, then we’re not achieving anything. But how much of the stuff that we fill our time with is actually necessary or worthwhile? Should we really be complaining that ironing the tea towels is stealing away our leisure time, or should we just not bother to iron the tea towels? Do we have to be doing something specific with our brain during a daily walk, or is a daily walk constructive enough in itself?

When I was teaching English in Japan, an easy way of starting conversation classes was by asking people what they’d done on the weekend. One woman, whose children were growing up and becoming slightly more independent, often detailed all the housework chores she’d managed to tick off the list. On one particularly busy weekend, she’d managed not just to wash all the inside walls, but also to clean every individual picket on the white picket fence surrounding her house. Really? People do that? Another woman almost invariably said that she’d spent Saturday morning shopping for clothes. When I commented that she must have a lot of clothes, given the amount of time she spent shopping, she said that most weeks she ended up taking back the stuff that she’d bought the week before! We truly are all busy fools!

My Dad’s getting much better at chilling out these days. Next week he and I are meeting up in Amsterdam and we’re going to spend a week wandering around the streets of his home town, drinking Dutch gin and waving to the locals from our house boat. And I’m confident that not once will it cross my mind that I should be doing something more constructive.

It’s only words

Poets, priests and politicians
Have words to thank for their positions
Words that scream for their submission
And no one’s jamming their transmission

The Police

Dome of the Rock

 A few years ago I was invited to attend the baptism of the baby of some great friends of mine. These friends are not religious but they knew that the Irish Catholic side of the family would be uncomfortable if the baby was denied the usual insurance against eternal damnation. They also thought, quite rightly, that a christening was as good an excuse as any to invite everyone to Dublin for a rollicking good party to celebrate the arrival into the world of their beautiful daughter. So the arrangements were made, the marquee ordered for the back garden, the food and wine planned and the godparents appointed.

Ah yes, the godparents. Standing by the baptismal font on the day would be the baby’s aunty and a lovely man who had been a great friend of the couple’s for many years. This man was also a great friend of mine, so I was party to the dilemma he faced in being conferred with this honour. While he knew that his atheism was of no concern to the baby’s parents – they’d chosen him for his loveliness and wanted him to be a special part of their daughter’s life – he was suddenly overcome by an uncharacteristic level of superstition about what might happen to him if, while standing in God’s very own house, he made all sorts of declarations that he didn’t actually believe to be true.

During a Roman Catholic christening, the parents and godparents of the baby have to make three declarations – that they believe in God, that they repent of their sins and that they deny evil. So the ironies here are interesting… Our friend doesn’t believe in God, but the religious superstition which still permeates even a reasonably secular country like England was enough to give him the uncomfortable feeling that God might smite him for his heathen deeds if he stood in a church and said that he did. It’s rather a muddle that organised religion has created here, wouldn’t you think?

The responses, psalms, prayers and practices of a Catholic Mass are things which I’m sure I’ll never forget, even in the unlikely event that I make the effort to try; one doesn’t come out of even a happy religious upbringing without some of its residue clinging insistently. But during this baptism ceremony, the only way in which my lips moved was in smiles at my friends and slight quivering at the inevitable emotion aroused in me by big events with friends and family. When we left the church, another lovely chum, who was also brought up Catholic and who had made the polite decision to respond to the priest and to say the prayers during the service, asked me why I hadn’t.

You must remember it all, she said, after so many years of going to church.

Yes, I said, of course I remember it, but I don’t believe in those words any more so I won’t say them.

Oh, she shrugged, they’re only words.

This morning, a Jewish Israeli man was shot dead by security guards at the Western Wall in Jerusalem because he shouted Allahu Akbar, which, of course, is Arabic for God is great. They were only words, and still this man, who had his hands in his pockets when the guards pulled their guns on him and fired, is dead. I’m writing this a couple of hours after the story broke, when little is known about what actually happened, what the man’s motivation was in saying what he did (if indeed his words weren’t misheard), or what provoked the guards to respond so brutally. All that is so far clear is that just two small words escaped from the man’s lips, and because of the place where he was standing when he said them, the circumstances in which they’ve been said before and the strength of belief and the fear and superstition that surrounds them, he will never say these or any other words ever again. This is just the latest terrible tragedy in a country which is sickeningly familiar with religious and territorially motivated tragedies, and it was only words that made it happen.

On the night of that wonderful Welcome to the World party in Dublin, there were pestilential winds of a biblical proportion. I still remember one friend doing a hilarious Irish jig in the pouring rain while the people around him struggled to secure the moorings of the marquee. Perhaps the wind and rain that night were signs of God’s displeasure at the fact that people had stood in his church and lied when they said that they believed in him. Or perhaps the wind and rain happened because we were in Dublin. Either way, while I choose not to be afraid of a potentially vengeful deity, my fear of terrified and small-minded people with deadly weapons is very well-founded. So although, as the Bee Gees would have us believe, it’s only words, I’m going to continue to be very careful about how I use them.

People are strange when you’re a stranger

When you grow up as one of six children, as I did, A Room of One’s Own is an unknowable imaginary land. It didn’t even occur to me to fantasise about having my own room when I was a kid; our household was made up of two adults, six kids and four bedrooms, so sharing was just the way it was. That doesn’t mean, of course, that my little sister and I didn’t have the odd territorial dispute. Sometimes these arguments culminated in the drawing of physical boundaries, a line of masking tape separating my half of the room from hers. Figuring out where the border should lie was sometimes tricky, and at times I’d find myself separated from my beloved bookshelves, and once even inconveniently distanced from the door.

This desire for a space of one’s own does not seem to go away as one enters adulthood. The expression “An Englishman’s home is his castle,” while raising uncomfortable gender issues and frequently lending itself to the right wing in conversations about the value of life versus property, summarises what seems to be a fairly universal desire to have a little piece of the earth for one’s own exclusive use.

This is all very well and very understandable – who doesn’t have a strong desire for a place to call home? – but the problems begin when the issues of belonging and ownership are extrapolated out beyond our own four walls to include the surrounding towns, territories and regions in which we might wish to raise a flag, and from which we might wish to exclude anyone but People Like Us.

In my day-to-day life here in rural France, there is absolutely no evidence of the historical animosity between the French and the English which is sometimes still played out or parodied in modern politics. I’m sure that M and I are probably known in our village as That Foreign Couple on the Hill, but I’ve never experienced any antagonism and I feel just as at home here as I could in any place where I don’t speak the language. That’s why I was shocked, when out on my One-Hour Daily Walk a few days ago, to see a piece of graffiti which would suggest that I’m not as welcome here as I’d previously supposed.

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(For the few people on the planet whose French is worse than mine,
this translates as Foreigner, you are not welcome.)

To say nothing of the considerably less-than-Banksy-esque artistic quality of this message, Tippexed onto an electricity pillar box, the sentiment behind the scrawl is one that is so far removed from the international nature of my current existence as to render it almost incomprehensible. I’m Australian, born of Dutch parents, and cohabit here in France with someone whose British nationality I also now share. The couple from whom we’re renting our house comprises a Japanese woman and her Italian husband. This weekend we have some friends coming around for a barbecue and without giving it too much thought I’d guess that the passports they’ll carry with them when they cross the Swiss-French border will be from at least eight different countries and no less than four continents. So I can’t even imagine the feats of origami it would take to fold my mind small enough to fit into the cranial cavity of someone for whom foreigners are so terrifying that they would choose to ban them from their land.

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(Danger of death with Le Pen as president? Yes, I expect there would be.)

Many people born and brought up in Australia tend to think of borders as fairly immutable things; when your home is “girt by sea”, as our national anthem so poetically puts it, it’s difficult to imagine how the outer limits of the land could be challenged. But borders do, of course, change all the time, and while some countries are champing at the bit to form strategic allegiances with others, there are also still regions for whom separation is the ultimate goal. Our house here in France is in the departément of Savoie, but when we cross the bridge to get to the nearest major town, Culoz, we suddenly find ourselves in the departément of Ain. Until recently, there was a white line drawn on the road at one end of the bridge, with Savoie written on one side and France on the other. It turns out that there is a small but significant group which seeks regional autonomy for Savoie and Haute-Savoie. There is also a party, the Ligue savoisienne, or Savoyan League, which supports the independence of Savoy from France.

Changing world map

(Go to the website and click on the timeline to get an idea of some ways in which the world has changed. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/themes/maps-interactive/maps-in-time.htm)

Separatism is not always a bad thing – the benefit of hindsight has told divorced couples and countries alike that two becoming one is often a bad idea from the outset – and the word should certainly not, in every instance, be lumped together with more divisive (as well as derisive) concepts like racism and religious segregation. But when the desire for separation is fuelled by nothing more considered than the fear of one’s neighbours, then surely some time spent getting to know one another would be better than time spent daubing blobs of mindless xenophobia on infrequently accessed public utilities.

Central Europe is currently in the throes of a heat wave and I noticed, on my Daily Walk earlier, that the cows are sheltering beneath the trees to avoid the burning sun, the cats are refusing to come out of the shade and even the scarecrows seem reluctant to be Outstanding in Their Fields. I’m hoping that the bigots, too, are hidden somewhere in the shadows, and that by the time they come out into the sunshine again they’ll have thrown away their masking tape and learned to play nicely with their little sisters and their foreign friends. Until then, though, I can only feel sorry for them… There shall be no shrimps on the barbie for them this weekend.

Give us this day our daily walk

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

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I don’t know what they’ve been putting in the water in England lately but I’m not sure that I like it. It seems that all the people that I could previously rely upon to be slovenly sofa-dwellers like me have taken to…eugh, I can barely stand to say the word…running. In fact, it’s not just in England. My six-year-old niece in Australia did a 5k run for charity the other day. Six years old! Five kilometres! What the hell’s going on? Where is everyone suddenly getting their energy and motivation from?!

OK, I have to admit that I’m a little bit inspired by all the activity I’m seeing around me. I draw the line at running, mind – my two friends whose running shoes jogged them straight into the operating theatre for major knee surgery last year are proof enough to me that running is just not natural – but I guess I can be driven enough to walk. In fact I have few excuses not to. Job? Er…no. Kids? Uh-uh. Dangerous highway on my doorstep? Not so much. All right then. Walking it is.

I know that two walks do not a habit make, but having donned my hiking boots yesterday and today and found a perfect one-hour walking circuit that starts and ends at my front door, I’ve realised what a fool I’ve been to neglect this opportunity for the last six months. It’s gorgeous out there! And I feel great when I get home! Why didn’t I do this before?!

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When we lived in East Jerusalem, our lovely apartment was six kilometres from town, so all the things that we spent our leisure time doing required at least a brief stint behind the steering wheel. (I did occasionally go walking around where we lived but the requisite consideration of the modesty of my attire followed by the inevitable attention of locals curious about the obvious outsider meant that my strolls were rarely leisurely.) So when M got a new job in Geneva, I was determined that we’d live right in the thick of things, so all I’d have to do to get to where I wanted to go was step out of the front door and start walking. We had that for a while, too. For a gorgeous four months, we lived in a lovely apartment in Jonction, Geneva, (so named because it’s the point at which the Rhone and Arve Rivers meet), and our feet and the occasional tram took us to all the lovely places we wanted to visit. But then, of course, this house came up for rent and all my plans for inner-city living went up the 18th-century French chateau chimney in a majestic plume of smoke.

People who regularly indulge in this exercise thing often say that physical activity gives them the time and space to think. I’ve never really got that – all I used to think about on the rare occasions that I panted and sweated my way around the gym in Jerusalem was the fact that I couldn’t wait to go home – but my new Daily Walk might, it seems, be a step in the right cognitive direction. For example, it occurred to me as I walked today that all the things that I want to do are still on my doorstep, it’s just that the things that I want to do have changed. Nice, huh?

I keep watching as my friends keep running further and their running times on given distances improve. Have no such expectations of me, please. My One-Hour Daily Walk, for as long as the scenery around here remains so utterly breath-taking, will remain my One-Hour Daily Walk, and will continue to start and finish at my front door. What I can promise, however, is some pictures of the ever-changing but always beautiful scenery, and a bottle of wine on the finish line to anyone who’s prepared to come and join me as I go up the hills and down the dales of this gorgeous corner of rural France.

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Working-class woman to world

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Confucius

We all know the gorgeous joys associated with taking a break from the daily grind. When you’re used to a hectic working life, there’s nothing more pleasurable than a holiday, when you can stay in bed for as long as you like (or have a more leisurely breakfast than usual with the kids), maybe visit an exotic location or two, and perhaps even have the luxury of switching your brain into a lower gear for the peaceful contemplation of your long-ignored navel. For those of us in the strange and unexpected position of un- or under-employment, however, a shift up a gear into even a short-term engagement can be equally refreshing.

There are very few witnesses to my daily routine, but my only interested observer, a friendly neighbourhood cat who seems to have decided he lives with us, was confused from May 17 to 23 to see me springing out of bed at five each morning, putting on makeup and a suit and heading out the door for at least the duration of the day. Pepé (à la Pepé Le Pew, so nicknamed because of his ineffable stink the first time he purred his pretty way into our home) was equally confused when I got home at seven or eight each evening and curled up on the sofa with a laptop to write up the day’s reports. What strange new behaviour was this?

Living room with cat

This, I failed to explain to my stinky little friend, was my week as a volunteer reporter at UNISDR’s 4th Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction. What a great time I had, pretending to be a valuable and contributing member of society once again! Each day I had to attend sessions and side events dedicated to the discussion of developing resilience to disasters, and the hope that preparedness can prevent natural hazards from turning into natural disasters, and the major challenges to disaster risk reduction, such as urbanisation and overpopulation. Or something. Then I had to write summarised reports of no more than 300 words…

I think it’s obvious to all that I’m prone to a little more verbosity than that, so needless to say this was something of a challenge. I managed to submit most of my reports within the 24-hour deadline, however, and was rewarded with the pleasurable task, on the last day of the conference, of conducting video interviews with fellow reporters and photographers for inclusion on the International Communications Volunteers’ website. Oh, and I was also tasked by UNISDR to report to them whenever there were interventions by 28 named parliamentarians, and I took it upon myself to join the media team in tweeting about the event whenever I had a spare moment.

Parliamentarians

(I was secretly rather pleased with this one: “How many parliamentarians does it take to change a disaster risk reduction strategy?”)

When using the Global Platform hashtag (#gpdrr13) I was, of course, obliged to accentuate the positive, but now that I’m my own boss again I can talk about some of the funnier/more controversial things that happened during that very exciting week…

This 4th Global Platform was the biggest event to have ever taken place at the Geneva International Conference Centre, and the venue was bursting at the seams with 3,500+ participants from countries all over the world. You can imagine the chaos, then, when some bright spark in the “market place” in the foyer decided to store his empty polystyrene coffee cups under his desk by the electrical cables, and started a fire which resulted in a mass evacuation. The good folk of Save the Children were busily in conference with a huge bunch of kids on the mezzanine level when the fire started, and the conference organisers were, of course, concerned about the kids in their care. Shouting up from ground level, they pleaded, “Save the children!”, to which the staff from Save the Children, calmly bundling up the young ones for whom they were responsible, shouted back, “We are!”

In the meantime, the fire engines amassing outside were battling to gain access to the building, as all the diplomatic vehicles had been parked in the no-parking zone by the entrance, their drivers having dispatched sundry VIPs, then presumably nipped around the corner for a sneaky cigarette.

These self-same VIPs, I’d learned to my shock earlier in the conference, also had priority access to the building. Before the conference was actually underway and I was not yet assigned to reporting tasks, I was stationed at the entrance and instructed to direct people to the appropriate queues for registration. The system was simple: Very Important People went one way, and All The Others, those, I guess, who are Not Very Important, went the other. In my own small, rebellious, egalitarian way, I challenged the elitist system by welcoming people with a cheery Bonjour! and leading them all the same way. I think my radicalism was noted, however, as I was soon taken off the task, presumably to be replaced by someone with the classist wherewithal to ask all comers whether they were significant or simply the scrapings from some Big Shot’s shoe.

All joking aside, though, it was a privilege to be involved with this conference, and I made some great new friends and was inspired by some amazing people. (Margareta Wahlström, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction is, for example, my new hero.)

At OAS, Presentation of United Nations Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction

(Thank you to http://www.unisdr.org/who-we-are/srsg-drr for this picture.)

And I must remember, when one day I find myself back in fulltime employment and hear myself complaining about having to go to work, that there was once a time when my fulltime holiday was punctuated by the happy pleasure of an honest week’s work, and few experiences brought me greater joy.