Santiago Di Cuba: Part II – People

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In Spanish, the text of Castro’s ‘Revolution’ May Day statement from 2000 is represented next to his tomb in the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery.

“Revolution is having a sense of the historic moment; it is changing everything that must be changed; it is full equality and freedom; it is being treated and treating others like human beings; it is emancipating ourselves on our own and through our own efforts; it is challenging powerful dominant forces in and beyond the social and national arena; it is defending the values in which we believe at the price of any sacrifice; it is modesty, selflessness, altruism, solidarity, and heroism; it is fighting with courage, intelligence and realism; it is never lying or violating ethical principles; it is a profound conviction that there is no power in the world that can crush the power of truth and ideas. Revolution is unity; it is independence, it is struggling for our dreams of justice for Cuba and for the world, which is the foundation of our patriotism, our socialism, and our internationalism.” 

These are the words spoken by Fidel Castro at the May Day celebrations in 2000. I’m genuinely inspired by these words – and it’s not hard to see why many of the Cuban people dearly loved their hallowed leader, in life and in death. If a person can be remembered by what they said (rather than what they did) then, surely, these words are the ultimate in epitaphs. They are inscribed on a twelve-foot high marble slab that stands next to Castro’s memorial, the final resting place where his ashes were laid to rest in the glorious Santa Ifigenia Cemetery; his dying wish was that a ‘cult of personality’ should not be permitted after his death, which meant that he wanted no public places, streets, parks or institutions to bear his name and no statues, monuments or busts should depict a likeness of him. The granite monument in which his ashes are very simply interred (in a rock shaped like a corn kernel; the inspiration for the shape of the tomb was a line from a José Martí poem: “All the glory of the world fits in a single kernel of corn.”) next to the impressive monument to Cuba’s other national hero, Jose Marti, who was referred to as ‘The Apostle of Cuban Independence’ and inspired the revolution that led to Cuba’s first stint as an independent state back in 1868 (which you knew about already because you read part 1 of this essay … didn’t you?) which is just a stone’s throw away.

Not that you’d be throwing any stones of course, since both monuments are guarded by armed soldiers, with a goose-stepping changing of the guard ceremony taking place every half-hour – necessary because of the extreme heat in which these guards have to stand, albeit that they are afforded at least a little shade whilst on duty.

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Three new guards goose-step to their destination, guarding Jose Marti’s tomb.

The Santa Ifigenia Cemetery is a remarkable place, filled to the brim with the remains of ‘All of the revolution’s history’, including Antonio Maceo and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes del Castillo (the chap who freed his slaves and declared that first independence from Spain in 1868) as well as not-so-revolutionary Emilio Bacardi (son of the founder of the Bacardi dynasty) amongst many other illustrious guests. It’s also filled with thousands of tourists, who daily traipse through, marvelling at the magnificence that such bastions of revolution reside in. I’m sure some, like myself, find the juxtaposition of concept versus reality a little puzzling, but it is definitely a must-see when you do visit Cuba. It is quite a sight to see.

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So, starting with the dead always seems a little unusual perhaps, but it is impossible to visit Cuba and be unaware of the legacy that Fidel Castro leaves. For most of the people, he was their hero, who liberated them from oppression and guided Cuba to a better life. To many outsiders, he was a wicked despot who recklessly womanised and ran Cuba’s economy into the ground, silencing all opponents before they had a chance to cast any kind of aspersions on his leadership – he ruled with an iron fist. I find it difficult to marry the reality of the human being with his magnificent ideals, but it is always worth remembering that he was a man, a simple human being with all the flaws and complex emotions and feelings that informed (or clouded) his judgements of the best course of action in any given situation. I choose to be inspired by his words, if not his actions, although I’m not actually planning any political revolutions this month – I’ve still got loads of photos to edit!

Santiago Di Cuba is a colourful and vibrant place, full of sunshine and joy. Cubans go about their daily business with a calm, laid-back approach, which is fairly typical of island life in my experience. The faded elegance is in evidence almost everywhere, with an intriguing mix of half-millennial-aged, archetypal blue-and-white painted buildings and contemporary architecture; wide, tree-lined boulevards lead directly into the older quarters of the town so that you are travelling through varying degrees of ‘passability’ – sometimes you simply cannot overtake in the very narrow streets! The bright sunlight makes everything take on a more vibrant appeal.

In central Santiago, appropriately built atop the largest hill, lies Céspedes Park which is surrounded by some of Cuba’s most imposing architecture – the magnificent Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Assumption) dominates the square.

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Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Assumption dominates Cespedes Square in central Santiago

Two wall plaques offer a small clue about the building’s history:

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Wall plaques marking the dates the building was first erected on the site, then restored after four centuries.

I was deeply intrigued by the meaning of these plaques, which make more sense when translated from Old Latin so that they tell the story of the current building, erected in 1922 to commemorate the first building on this site, constructed four centuries earlier. It seems that there have been several buildings over the centuries that have been destroyed by pirates, inadequate design and earthquakes, but this current building has also been spruced up to celebrate Santiago’s quincentennial in 2015. We didn’t have time to explore inside and frankly, it was so hot we simply settled for a long cold drink at the Casa Grande, which flanked the square on another side. Directly opposite lies the Cuban National Bank building – very much a modern construction, all glass and simple lines. From one corner of the square, you can see quite how high the hill is by looking across to the hills opposite. Finally, the traditional blue painted wood and white-washed walls enclose the final side of the square. The overall effect is of a very mixed and lengthy history, which tells Cuba’s story in microcosm.

We came upon a sign on a side-street that just made me laugh loud and long… you have to admit, this guy is honesty personified!

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… who wouldn’t want the shoemaker for a partner?

One of the most memorable things about Cuba is the people. Not just because that’s what Communism is ultimately about, but because they are like no other people I’ve ever come across – immensely friendly, likeable and charming. I recognise that there’s a huge element of laying it on fairly thickly for the tourists, but many people were just going about their daily business, getting on with their lives, oblivious to visitors and all else besides, probably planning what to have for tea. Who cares if shutters are clicking all over the place when you have such a life to be living?

I am often reticent about taking photos of people because I’m aware that there are many who a) just don’t like to have their photo taken (I fall into this category!) and b) feel that the photographer is ‘taking’ something that doesn’t really belong to them – in an almost primaeval manner where the image of the person contains a part of their soul.

Fortunately for the photographer, in these days where virtually all the world’s people have smartphones, this issue is less thorny than it used to be, although I think a part of me still does subscribe to this idea. Certainly, in Cuba, most people are VERY happy for tourists to snap away, capturing people doing *crazy Cuban stuff*, so this actually encouraged me to take photos of people, much more than I usually do. Yes, it is perhaps a little staged for the tourists, but it does give peeple something to do and it has an infectious charm that cannot be denied.

Everywhere you go, it’s likely that someone will be serenading you, mostly with some kind of salsa (that’s the dance, not the edible accoutrement to barbecued meat!) … individuals, small groups and entertainers abound. Ariba, Ariba! It made me feel like dancing!

Cuba – what a fascinating and beautiful place to visit!

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I could sit here all day…

Thanks for reading… see you next time!

 

 

 

 

 

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Santiago Di Cuba: Part I

‘To travel is to live!’ declared Hans Christian Anderson or rather, more completely:

To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.”
― Hans Christian AndersenThe Fairy Tale of My Life: An Autobiography

I’ve long loved that quote, having travelled a fair bit myself, I’ve frequently found joy in just thinking about travelling and it makes me smile to recite it to myself in the deepest, darkest depths of winter when the cold winds and icy rain turns to snow, making simply getting to the shops a challenge worthy of The Crystal Maze. I’m very much a sun-bunny, I need warmth and light to maintain my mood more effectively than pills can and really, nothing beats sitting on a sun-drenched stretch of white sand, with the cool, inviting sea lapping gently at my feet, a good read and a cold drink in my hands.

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Sun-drenched sandy beach – just perfect!

One of the reasons we decided to visit Cuba last year was to try to experience what life is like there before it finally makes it into the 21st Century and becomes just *another sunny holiday destination*, similar to all the rest. Cuba has a remarkably fascinating history, like many other Caribbean islands, drenched in Colonialism and revolutionary fervour alike over the past three and a half centuries.

I’m not planning on penning a complete history of Cuba of course, but the potted version goes like this: native islanders (Mesoamericans or Arawaks) were subjected to Spanish rule after Columbus claimed the land in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth centuries, with sugar and tobacco plantations helping to bring reasonable prosperity to the island, dependent upon slave labour, of course. Cuba’s location meant that pirates and Buccaneers frequently raided the ships that carried essential trading cargos and for two centuries the lands were fought over, sovereignty disputed by the main colonial powers – the Spanish, Dutch, French and of course the British, with Spain generally winning out. Rebellion and general unrest (due in part to a desire to maintain slavery as an effective economic tool) led US president, Thomas Jefferson, to consider annexing Cuba to the US in 1805, but despite several attempts to further this cause, it remained in the hands of the Spanish until the first declaration of independence in 1868, leading to the Ten Year’s War and culminating in the eventual abolition of slavery in 1886, although the Spanish then took back control of the island.

There followed a period of war between the Americans and the Spanish in which many of the Spanish-speaking colonies (Puerto Rico and the Philipines amongst them) were fought over, with the two parties eventually agreeing to the Treaty of Paris in December 1898 that led to the first US occupation of Cuba –  maintained until 1902.

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Memorial stone commemorating the defence of the hilltop battleground in Santiago Di Cuba

And so it was that in 1902 the US government handed control over to a Cuban government, crucially securing the rights to maintain a military presence; Havana became a very popular American tourist destination and the naval base at Guantanamo Bay was established.

Three decades of semi-independent governance, with an uneasy relationship to the US, ended in 1934 after a Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Cuban people, declared that Cuban peasants would have legal ownership of their own lands. Its success was short-lived: the US soon backed a right-wing anti-government revolt, called the ‘Sergeants’ Revolt’ which ended this brief period of stability and restored the political status quo and whilst  the country enjoyed an economic boom in the post World War II era, after Fulgencio Batista seized power in a bloodless coup d’etat in 1940 corruption was rife and political and economic disruption gave the Communist Party, with the infamous Fidel Castro at its helm (inspired by Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara), much greater power in the eyes of the Cuban people.

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Fidel Castro’s hometown, Biran – posters like this adorn many of the highways in Cuba

Castro took control of the country after a bloody revolution lasting six years, from 1953 to 1959.

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Revolution Square, Santiago Di Cuba; a simply huge structure entitled Antonio Maceo
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The 23 giant machetes are awe-inspiring
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… to show the sheer scale

The Castro years led to significant tension between the US and Cuba, with the Bay of Pigs incident in April 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, amongst many other significant events of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Castro ruled with an iron grip, largely because the Cuban people considered him to be THE national hero and were willing to invest wholeheartedly in Communist ideology, heavily supported by Communist bloc nations, particularly the USSR; with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the consequent collapse of Communist Russia, this support was promptly withdrawn and the country struggled to survive. Castro’s isolationist policies meant that Cuba became a nation immured in what was effectively a ‘time bubble’, with many pre-1950’s American cars and glorious mansions simply left by their wealthy owners who fled to Florida (mostly) during the conflict.

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Elegant mansions, abandoned by their wealthy owners, were reassigned as communal properties under Castro.

This conflict remained unresolved whilst ever Castro lived and is only slowly adapting to change since his death in November 2016.

Which leads me very nicely to where we came in … this is precisely why we wanted to see the Cuba that exists in this ‘bubble’ before commercialism and Capitalism takes a more firm grasp of their economy. It’s definitely changing and that’s what makes it such an exciting place to visit. The Hemminway-esque mystery of this unique island was calling to my sense of adventure!

And so our eight-and-a-half-hour flight was booked and off we popped. We opted for a resort holiday so that we could relax and investigate different parts of the island on tours and trips, although hiring a car to drive independently (always our preferred way to explore) didn’t really seem to be an option, so we resigned ourselves to being shown whatever it was the tour guides felt they wanted to show us of their little piece of paradise. Initially, we had thought we might take several of these tours, after all, we had two weeks to fill! We’d be able to see everything in that time, surely?

Well, actually, not really since of course, we had assumed Cuba=Caribbean island THEREFORE small, easily circumnavigated and everything within commutable distance.

SHOCK NEWS: CUBA is HU-YUGE!

Map of Cuba in Caribbean
Map of Cuba in the Caribbean: Barbados is that tiny weeny dot way out almost in the Atlantic, for size comparison purposes!

Within a couple of hours of arrival, we realised that our vague plan of taking a day-trip to Havana was not feasible, simply because at almost 800km (nearly 500 miles), even if the roads were reasonably passable (which they’re not!… more in a moment on this), that’s a ten-hour drive to get there. An organised trip was possible, but it involved getting a flight and an overnight stay in Havana, which frankly was quite expensive and potentially prohibitive for me as my disability is not particularly well catered for.

We consoled ourselves with the promise of taking the coach trip to Cuba’s second city, Santiago Di Cuba, which is of course on the southern coast, facing into the Caribbean (not very far from Guantanamo Bay in fact).

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Jorges, our excellent tour guide

I really must thank our intrepid Tour Guide, Jorge (pronounced ‘Horhey’ as he was at pains to point out to us!) for the wonderfully humorous and informative manner in which he conducted this two-day tour. It was epic.

 

 

 

Firstly, we noticed the roads, the condition of which can be described as ‘Fair, on a good day’…

… and only occasionally did we come across something slightly *odd*, such as this road to nowhere…

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Occasionally, you’d see something odd, like this

One thing that became very obvious early on was the system adopted for public transport in the countryside. There are vast swathes of greenery and countryside that are crisscrossed with these long straight roads and very few public buses pass by on a regular schedule, so the people simply gather at the crossroads, waiting for any and every vehicle passing to catch a lift from… there are inspectors randomly placed to ensure that every vehicle traveling is fully occupied – it is Communism in practice and works remarkably well. Petrol (or diesel) is rationed and therefore a highly prized commodity, so it is deemed to be appropriate for every Comrade to help others by offering their spare seats to strangers when they need to get into the town from the countryside and vice versa. The only vehicles that are generally exempt from this system are the tourists’ guided tour coaches, which coincidentally tend to be of a higher quality than most other local vehicles.

This fact of life in Cuba (limited resources) also means that people become much more creative at finding methods to travel any distance – so horses and horse-drawn carts are pretty standard methods to get around the fuel rationing issues. In addition, locals use trucks with many spaces (which effectively become buses) and many other ways to scrimp and save fuel – here’s just a few of the wonderful variety of vehicles we saw:

There’s a LOT of countryside and, for the most part, it’s very green, which was contrary to what I had expected – the blazing heat in the Caribbean frequently burns the grass and other crops in fields a yellowy-brown, so that you get the impression of an almost desert-like terrain. So from the roadside, most of what you see on the 3 hour-long drive through Holguin and Santiago Di Cuba provinces is green countryside, edged by distant mountains where coffee is the main product.

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Tiny villages in little enclaves seem to exist with little or no acknowledgement of a world beyond their border. For a Communist state, there are a surprisingly large number of sometimes breathtakingly beautiful churches – which are attended daily by locals. We visited the El Cobre Basilica, high in the hills around Santiago Di Cuba, which is dedicated to the miracle of a tiny statue of the Virgin Mary holding an even smaller baby Jesus in her arms that was found by three fishermen in the early 17th Century. People celebrate and worship at the shrine by strewing sunflowers all around. Naturally, enterprising locals sell bunches of sunflowers to all visitors, which affords the scene an innocent charm that is quite beguiling.

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The defence of the city of Santiago Di Cuba from pirates, buccaneers and other potential invaders was primarily conducted from the beautiful cliff-top castle fort, the San Pedro de la Roca Castle, which offered us some stunning views over the sea and bay of Santiago Di Cuba.

(Here’s a fantastic short video from UNESCO giving a much more detailed view and history of the castle)

In Part II of this essay, I’ll tell you more about the town of Santiago Di Cuba, which is simply spectacular, along with some portraits of the most interesting part of Cuba… the wonderful, friendly people. You won’t find a better welcome anywhere!

Once again, thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

Lost. Found. Recovered.

Some of you may recall that I recently had a bit of a run-in with one of my neighbours. Welcome to the second instalment…

 

About ten days or so ago I decided to order a copy of this picture as a large canvas print.

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Beach Post on Pebbles Beach, Carlisle Bay, Barbados

It was meant to be for my fab hubby to remind him of our perfect Caribbean holiday, which seems so very, very long ago now. We’re having a bit of a tough time right now, what with dodgy finances and (the FAB Hubby’s) heart surgery and a distinct lack of purpose in life, coupled with an increasing feeling of having been tossed onto the scrapheap of sentience. I don’t want to impose my life complaints on everyone, but these circumstances are not helping my increasingly severe depression and most days I spend staring at my computer screen, trying to find any kind of motivation to get something achieved.

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I have occasional spurts when I try to ‘pull myself together’ like a pair of curtains, but these rarely result in much tangible success, although I do keep on trying.

So actually gathering  enough *oomph* to select and order this picture was a major happening for me. I was so pleased with myself for achieving something.The picture is particularly sentimental for us as it is of Pebbles Beach, in Carlisle Bay, Barbados, where I learned to swim as a small child. Taking Mark there was one of the first things we did when we got into the hire car – the satnav wasn’t working, but I managed to guide him to the place without too much of a detour, largely based on forty-year-old memories and a keen sense of direction. To be fair, the island is only 14 miles by 21 so it’s pretty easy to navigate around, but I was still chuffed to have found it so easily.

Standing on the exquisite white sand in the most brilliant sunshine, I was suddenly eight years old once more, in my tiger swim-suit (long story !), whiling away my days, collecting precious shells and rolling in the surf on Pebbles Beach. The Aquatic Club bar – ‘Pebble Beach Inn’ as it was known then – also had a swimming pool although it’s gone now, having been redeveloped in the intervening years. Patrick (my bestest of boy-friends) and I spent day after day either in the sea or the pool, only being dragged out to eat or drink something then back in the water we went, like a pair of water babies. It’s a strange misnomer, because there isn’t a single pebble on Pebble Beach – and there never has been as far as I can recall, so it was shells that we collected on the rare occasions that we emerged from the water.

Showing my husband of thirty-six years this precious memory meant that finally we could share it together and this of course called for a stroll along the length of the beach. I snapped the picture from the top of the steps, then he helped me jump down the steps and being a rather rotund shape these days, I tippled forward and he, being the gallant knight that he is, staggered forward to help me, so that I would be spared the indignity of rolling into a ball on the hot sand. He’d been taking his specs off and replacing them with his new sunglasses – another, whole different story –  so this process was interrupted during the rockin’ and rollin’ around in the sand.

Fast forward for about an hour as we stroll the entire length of this gorgeous beach and begin our return journey. By now, the heat has gone from the day and the sun is beginning to set -the light is fading exquisitely albeit rapidly, as it does in the Caribbean, being so much closer to the equator and all that. I’m happily snapping away with my new camera at the scenery, the sand, the water, the sky, everything in fact. I turn to take a snap of the FAB Hubby; he’s looking puzzled and just ever-so-slightly panicky.

Why’s he fumbling in his shirt pocket?‘ I ask myself. Then I ask him the same question of course, to which his terrified face blurts out ‘I’ve lost my specs!’.

Now, I should probably explain here that FAB H is virtually blind without his specs. Modern technology has reduced the thickness of the glass these days to something that resembles one of those convex coffee-table paper-weights that people have favoured pressed flowers encased in, as keepsakes or whatever. Jam jars are a thing of the past. Well, mostly anyway. The thing is, he genuinely cannot see a thing without them. So this was a BIG deal.

The entire holiday was on the verge of ruin, for without his eyes, how would he see everything? How would we manage?  Plus, the damned things had just cost an arm and a couple of legs to ensure he had them in time for the holiday. Usually he has photo-chromic lenses which means he doesn’t need separate sunglasses, so there was considerable cursing of the incompetent optician’s assistant whose fault it was that we were now having to negotiate our holiday of a lifetime, minus the ability to actually see anything, since the actual reading glasses had taken themselves off for a little holiday of their own.

It’s quite a long beach it turns out.

We retraced our steps, trying to remain positive, in spite of the increasingly fading light, turning every grain of sand over with our hands and feet, checking to see where they may have been washed into the sea, for, of course, just to complicate matters a little further, the tide was coming in. Fast.

We’d almost given up as we arrived back at the steps to clamber back into the car.

And then I saw them, quietly, even contemplatively, watching the sunset  sitting squarely in the sand, exactly where he’d knocked them out of his pocket when he chivalrously came to my aid earlier.

Lost. And then found again. Just like the beach was.

Perfect.

Now, let’s get back to the present shall we… stop all this lazing around on tropical beaches!

So, I’d ordered this picture to remind him of our wonderful holiday and perhaps to help motivate us both into better frames of mind. I got a great deal and ordered it in a large size – my pictures are meant to be viewed in large formats. This one was about 60cm x 80cm. That’s about 2 feet by about 2 feet 8 inches for those who don’t do decimals.

Thrilled I was.

When I received the email saying it would arrive on Tuesday, I was still feeling thrilled.

On Tuesday I went out of the house for the first time in about … well forever… to go help some friends hang an exhibition in Scarborough hospital. I almost asked my other neighbour to keep an eye out, but she was busy with her three children, so I left it, thinking ‘We’ll be back in good time, it’ll be fine.

Famous last thoughts. ‘It’ll be fine.‘ HAH!

Upon returning home the neighbour and her offspring were still in their garden so I asked about the parcel and she told me our other neighbour, the chap from downstairs, the evil one who made me clean his drains out recently, he was the one who’d taken it in. I sent my son round to go pick it up, but there was some confusion about my apparently ambiguous instruction and the long and short of it was that no-one went to get the parcel that evening. I fretted and worried and got antsy and my *long-suffering men*  ignored my slightly manic state and pressed on with the heavy responsibility of watching TV (or rather, snoring in front of the telly) and raising hell in some imaginary computer game world. Ahem.

Fast forward again to the next morning, when, as usual we were woken by the sound of the recycling truck and staff collecting the recycling waste. Thinking nothing more than ‘Did you put the bins out?’ I turned over and went back to sleep, whilst the FABH got up and pottered about downstairs for a while.

When I rose,  Cleopatra-like, from my slumber a little later on, my first thought was about the picture so I asked if FABH had yet retrieved it and he agreed to put some trousers on and go to collect it. It’s best to not ask about the trousers – just let that one go for now, OK? 

He returned, empty handed, reporting that our (despicable) neighbour had no knowledge of any parcel whatsoever.

I was distraught.

I was beside myself with tormented thoughts.

It wasn’t adding up.

How could he not have known about the parcel? What could have happened to it? Where did the UPS chap leave it?  Did anyone see what he did with it?  These and many more questions began encircling my tiny brain Liz birdies– like the little cartoon birds that used to fly round Sylvester or Tweety Pie’s head when they crashed into something.

I fretted a little more. I envisaged every and any possible scenario regarding my parcel’s fate. Each  a more grisly fate than the last.

The FABH of course remained implacable in the face of potential chaos. He phoned the delivery company (UPS) and we had a delightful conversation with a lovely lady called Sarah, who assured me that the records showed that the parcel had been left in a porch around the back. I explained that this property isn’t what it seems and that ‘around the back‘ are two separate, distinct apartments. She sympathised and suggested that the delivery man might call me himself to explain where he left the parcel. We thought this was an excellent idea and readily agreed.

Then we waited.

Only, I’m not really very good at waiting.

The ants in my pants told me to do it.

I went downstairs and around the back and knocked smartly on my (beastly) neighbour’s door. He was on the phone and clearly, visibly, ignoring me. I could see him through his window. Eventually he gesticulated for me to let myself in, which I did. I asked him about the parcel and he flatly denied all knowledge of it.I described it in detail and he shook his head and threw up his hands, asking me what I wanted to DO about it?

I asked for permission to check his outbuildings- an aluminium shed and another, smaller, store-box, but it wasn’t there. I was even more puzzled now and asked him what I was supposed to think when I’d been told that the delivery man had left it in his domain, but it seemed to have simply vanished. As he sagely nodded his head and attempted to stand up to encourage me to leave, he slumped, in a drunken stupor, to the floor. After helping him to the nearby sofa, I took my cue and left. Clearly, I wasn’t getting anywhere there.

Upon my return, the delivery driver, Carl, rang and we discussed the situation with him. He suggested that usually in these cases, the ‘thief’ makes the mistake of putting the packaging into the rubbish bin, to which the FABH calmly stated that it’s unlikely he’d find any rubbish in the bin as today was collection day… and then we both looked at each other in horror as the realisation of what might have happened set in.

With tears (of anger, frustration, utter disbelief and the ultimate pain of loss) rolling down my face, we thanked Carl for agreeing to pop by the next day to check on the location of the parcel and then all we could do was sit and wait. Again.

I am really rubbish at waiting – we’ve already established this – so around six-ish, I went to call on our other (Polish) neighbour to see if perhaps Carl had been mistaken and left it in his kitchen instead. He hadn’t. And it turned out that our Polish friend had actually seen my parcel in the other neighbour’s kitchen.

What can you do when faced with such evidence? Clearly, I live next to an unstable and apparently vindictive man who thinks nothing of stealing our mail. I considered going to the police, as well as our mutual landlord, but persuaded myself these options seemed drastic. I even emailed the council in the hopes that someone might have spotted the brand-newness of my parcel and put it aside perhaps… to no avail of course. I didn’t sleep a wink and when Carl arrived the next day having taken a good look around the neighbour’s property, he agreed that the only thing to do was set everything in motion to replace the picture. He promised to drop the necessary paperwork off early next week and then he left.

Imagine how delighted I was yesterday morning then when Carl arrived with my replacement parcel! He confided that the paperwork hadn’t been required since, upon ‘further investigation’ (I know not what that entailed), my dastardly neighbour had admitted that he’d taken the parcel in and then put it straight into the recycling collection. Part of me still mourns for that lost picture, but at least now it’s sitting where it’s meant to be – above the sofa across the room from the FABH, so he can be re-inspired each time he looks at it.

Lost. Stolen. Recovered. Or at least replaced.

It’s a picture with a story to tell…

Thanks for reading again!

 

 

 

 

 

Who needs a GUS Pass?

Well, that went well.

It’s been a week of good fortune so far in the Gregory family. Good news for our daughter who has secured a fabulous step on her ladder to success which is likely to involve her moving back to London and jetting around Europe and the US doing what she loves and is brilliant at – publishing books. She’s a very private person so I won’t go on about it too much here, just enough to make it clear that I am very proud of her.

Good news also for the GUS.

It was a tense weekend, with sessions in front of the TV, watching the ‘How to pass your practical driving test’ on repeat for most of Saturday, followed by a couple of hours more rehearsing for battle in the chariot on Sunday.

The L'il Tykes car is parked in the dining area on Toby's first day at Kindy, in 2000
The L’il Tykes car is parked in the dining area on Toby’s first day at Kindy, in 2000

I was mindful of his first attempts at driving, which involved a turquoise, cerise and gold coloured ‘Li’l Tykes’ vehicle, powered by a pair of very sturdy little legs, in a somewhat haphazard fashion around the large living room of our various apartments in Hong Kong – some of the rooms were large enough to cope well, some weren’t. I do recall (vividly) Toby’s elder sister, Natalie and her teenage friends attempting to squeeze themselves into said vehicle to provide an exemplar for the little chap; indelibly etched upon my memory are the sights of Elle (who was actually mostly small enough to sit reasonably comfortably in the tiny driving seat) and Tom (who, frankly, wasn’t) with legs akimbo protruding from the non-existent windscreen and a backside hanging out of the equally hypothetical rear window, which gave new meaning to the word ‘booty’.

Thankfully, these long-buried anamneses have not adversely affected the GUS’s will to learn to drive, although I suspect there may be some therapy bill in the future for ironing out issues raised by such recollections!

In the US, young drivers can begin ‘Drivers’ Education Classes’ in many high schools – I’m not certain, but I think they have to be at least fourteen and a half years old to begin learning to drive. I’ve always thought it would be one very important thing that here in the UK we could consider. Get ’em whilst they’re young and perhaps this will result in more careful drivers when they eventually obtain a full driving licence. It’s not common practice here though, since in order to drive any vehicle at all in the UK the driver MUST have reached the age of seventeen (or, in some exceptional cases usually involving an enhanced mobility component, sixteen). Farmers children can and often do learn to drive tractors at an earlier age, which I think they’re allowed to do on private land (i.e. around their farm) but unless you have some exceptional reason for needing to drive at a younger age, seventeen is the magic number for young motorists here.

So when the GUS reached the designated number of days upon this Earth, he sent off for his provisional driving licence and studied, off and on, to pass the theory test. More off than on the first time round as I recall… but that obstacle was cleared in a matter of two or three months and since then he’s been revving up the Astra on a regular basis with those badges of progress emblazoned firmly on the front and rear of the vehicle – the dreaded ‘L’ plates.

We tried the magnetic ones to start with. Twelve sets of little white squares fluttered joyfully into the ether, freed from their entrancing tethering before we gave in and stuck the markers to the car. It may have  been a tad embarrassing to careen around in a carriage marked as an inexperienced coachman, but such is the lot of parents – to do what needs to be done and be thankful for the opportunity.

The day finally came yesterday when the GUS would be tested on his SACKs of motoring proficiency. For those who aren’t teachers, I should probably explain what SACK means – it’s an acronym that stands for Skills, Attitude, Concepts and Knowledge. It’s always made me giggle to think of students carrying around these ever-growing hessian duffel bags filled with parcels labelled ‘Skill: can type quickly’ and ‘Attitude:is considerate of others’, as well as ‘Concept: understands how to walk across a road without dying’  and the inestimable  ‘Knowledge: reads at level 43(b) with great expression’, as if this is any use to anyone, except for OFSTED inspectors, but I digress once more. I’m not supposed to be moaning about the burden of teachers any more. Or maybe I will moan thus, but not today.

He’s a good driver. He can make the car go forwards AND backwards at reasonable and responsible speeds AND he knows where to find the tyre pressure requirements at a glance (which, incidentally, was more than I knew until Sunday, perhaps an indicator of how useful this knowledge actually is when you’re driving!). He’d overcome his fear of heeding his father’s advice to make it obvious when he’s looking in the mirrors so that the examiner cannot be under any impression that if there was a twenty-foot tall green and purple dinosaur strolling somewhat inexplicably two cars behind, then Toby will have definitely have made eye-contact with it and have a fully-formed plan of action to deal with any unheralded flight of fancy that it might take.

He was ready.

Nerves?

Schmerves!

He passed. First time. With only three minor errors.

Way. To. GO!

COngratulations on passing your driving test first time Toby!
COngratulations on passing your driving test first time Toby!

Clearly months of driving back and forth to York along the infamous 64 has its advantages – experience will always stand you in good stead. I’m really very proud of Toby for this success – job well done. Onwards and upwards from here!

Thanks for reading again my friends – looks like we may crack a milestone sometime very soon – almost ten thousand hits already!

Serenity

A new piece of art this evening – a simple digital collage from our walk in the woods a couple of weeks ago. I love the way the light found its way through the trees, creating an atmosphere of serenity. I hope it gives you peace to see it.

Serenity
Serenity

Happy Birthday Toby!

Happy 18th Birthday Toby!
Happy 18th Birthday Toby!

It is finally here… our youngest child had reached adulthood at last. Tobias Mark Gregory was born this day in the Matilda Hospital, on Victoria Peak in Hong Kong at 3.56am and so he has now reached the grand age of eighteen, which makes him a proper, fully fledged grown-up person. Actually, due to time differences, we noted he was actually 18 at 7.56pm last night!

It’s a day I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. If you read my last piece, you’ll know what I mean when I say that the prospect of an empty nest after all of these years with at least one small person to take care of, to look out for, to nourish and to cherish, is a somewhat daunting one. It’s a momentous day for us.

Toby was a wonderful addition to our family who has brought so much joy and happiness with him. He has sunshine in his heart and something else that is all-too-rare a quality, he is a genuinely kind and loving person. I don’t know what the future holds for him of course, but I know that the world is a much better place for having him here in it.

He has grown from a wee little Piglet (his older sisters were Pooh Bear and Tigger) into a gentle giant with grace, a keen eye for detail and a robustly dry and quick sense of humour. He is great fun to be with.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing of course… the sheer number of times I’ve been astounded that he is still alive is too many to keep count. From febrile convulsions in infancy and falling head first into a playground sign (five stitches in the forehead, aged three) and again from a thirty-foot rock face (overnight in hospital thanks to concussion, aged five), through a dozen sporting injuries and consequent trips in ambulances from pitch-side to A&E departments – that’s what you get for playing hockey AND rugby from such an early age I suppose – to peritonitis and broken ankles in later teenage years. He has a medical rap-sheet of misadventures that belies his cheerful smile. I can only say that it’s a good job he isn’t actually a cat, because he’s used up ALL nine lives and then some!

I can’t think of a better way to congratulate my big boy, who will forever be my Neanderthal, although I suppose now he’s an adult I should call him my ‘Young Man’. I’ve collected together some photos of his life so far and I hope this little Tobys 18th birthday (click on the words to watch it!) slideshow works to say Happy Birthday Toby!

Click here to watch the show!
Here’s to you kiddo!

Thanks for reading!

 

Linus and The Great Pumpkin Patch

Linus and sally await the arrival of The Great Pumpkin
Linus and Sally await the arrival of The Great Pumpkin

Oh, far too many years ago than I’m prepared to count (I haven’t enough fingers!), I recall adoring Charlie Brown and the gang from the Peanuts cartoons. I used to carefully cut them out of the newspaper each day and paste them into a scrapbook, which was a cheap(ish) way to retain the stories so that I could reread them over and over. Charlie Brown’s posse seemed so idyllic to me, a lonely singleton, inspite of two elder siblings – who left home long before, or at least not long after I was born. I loved the idea of the companionship these characters offered each other. Yes, at times they were rather harsh with each other, but you could feel the love they all shared and I bought into their lives big-time.

As a small child,  living in Barbados between the ages of five and eight, much of my early childhood that I can clearly recall had a very Americanized feel to it. We had many American friends who gave us an insight into their culture as it differs from British, more specifically from English, culture. Some of the traditions of Halloween were observed, perhaps not as ubiquitously as it is today, but certainly more so than in England at the time. Trick or treating was undertaken in small groups around the neighbourhood, usually unaccompanied by any adults and I recall faring well from our outings, which I always enjoyed -especially the dressing-up part.

When we returned to England after Daddy died, in 1969, I forgot about these things. It simply wasn’t noted here much at all – partly because Bonfire Night falls just a few days later on November 5th each year, commemorating the downfall of the Catholic Guy Fawkes’s band of braggarts’ attempt to blow up Parliament in 1604; the run up to this event used to mean a couple of weeks of avoiding groups of lads who wandered around with firecrackers in their pockets and weren’t afraid to throw them at you, if you so much as looked at them sideways. And woe betide any small animal, such as a cat or little dog, for they were frequently mercilessly tortured by these little thugs. I was always incredulous of this event, finding it very difficult to buy into the whole ‘penny for the Guy’ idea. Burning an effigy atop a large bonfire seemed crazy to me, even as a ten-year-old. And I hated fireworks. Loud, noisy, stinky and often quite dangerous, I still don’t see the attraction.

But distraction it was from the whole idea of Halloween. Not really until we returned from Hong Kong in 2005 did I begin to realise how much things had changed here – nowadays, it all goes completely crazy in the stores in the weeks before and you cannot get through October (or even September) without being ‘oranged’ out. It is everywhere. I’m sure it remains a much bigger deal across The Pond, but some places really do get into the spirit, bedecking their houses, gardens and even street furniture with anything deemed remotely ‘spooky’ – fake cobwebbing, giant plastic spiders, polystyrene gravestones, witches’ cauldrons, broomsticks, Frankensteins, vampire bats and black cats being amongst the most popular accoutrements for the evening. In the village where my daughter and grandchildren live, they have a whale of a time, going around together in little groups and thoroughly scaring each other in a safe environment – which is lots of fun for everyone I think.

A few days ago we drove past a local farm who has really got in on the act, growing several thousand pumpkins, presumably to serve the high demand in local supermarkets. Still, they have many left over that they sell directly from the farm shop. I was enchanted by their pumpkin patch though and was instantly transported back to my own childhood, recalling the hours that poor Linus spent, sitting amongst the pumpkins, impatiently awaiting the arrival of the mysterious Great Pumpkin, every year, without fail. Poor Linus. I smiled at the memory and made the decision to get up early one morning to go and photograph them as the sun rose.

Cold. Definitely nippy. But reasonably dry at least.

Still dark as I arose, getting dressed and grabbing the camera and paraphernalia, so that we could leave home and drive to the pumpkin patch before the sun really got its act together. I was worrying that it would be too dark.

It wasn’t.

We timed it pretty near perfectly.

As I took photos, standing ankle deep in mud, crouching down to find a good angle, tip-toeing through the umbilical vines that fed these earthy vegetables, I found myself truly ‘in the zone’. Linus would definitely have approved. The light was magnificently magical.

The Pumpkin Patch - hundreds of them!
The Pumpkin Patch – hundreds of them!
Waiting for the sun to pop up over the roof
Waiting for the sun to pop up over the roof
They have one or two for sale here
They have one or two for sale here
Morning dew sparkles on the pumpkin
Morning dew sparkles on the pumpkin
Pumpkins snuggle into the warm Earth
Pumpkins snuggle into the warm Earth
The sun rises a little higher...
The sun rises a little higher…
Sunrise over the pumpkins
Sunrise over the pumpkins

I hope you enjoy looking at these pictures as much as I enjoyed capturing them.

Thanks for reading, once again!