Pumpkins!

‘Pumpkins! I ask you – pumpkins!’

‘Woss wrong with pumpkins? They’re orange. They’re effsfetic ent they?’

‘They’re not traditional though, are they?’

‘Ent they?’

‘Nope. You know the legend doncher?’

‘Er…’

‘The one about Jack.’

‘Jack wot climbed the beanstalk?’

‘Could be… anyway…’

‘Jack wot built the ‘ouse?’

‘Maybe…anyway…’

‘Jack wot went up the ‘ill with Jill and fell down and broke ‘is crown?’

‘ANYWAY….Jack sold his soul, see?’

‘Probably needed to raise the cash to build an ‘ouse. Costs a fortune that does.’

‘Whatever, but the thing is, the thing is then he got scared of the dark.’

‘Probably behind with the ‘leccy bills what will spending all ‘is cash on building an ‘ouse and buying beans and that.’

‘Well anyway, so then he made a lamp out of a turnip.’

‘Why?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Well, that can ‘appen when you falls down and breaks your crown. You can go a bit doollally. No amount of vinegar and brown paper’s gonna sort out brain trauma.’

‘Yeah well, anyway, he roams he does, Jack, looking for his lost soul or summat. So other people started to make lamps outta turnips too.’

‘Why’d they do that? Had he started a sort of franchise?’

‘No it was reverse physicilology or summat.’

‘Wossat then?’

‘No look listen, people made lanterns out of turnips and put them outside their houses to scare Jack away.’

‘Why turnips?’

‘Takes a real man to make a lantern out of a turnip. Turnips is hard. All that digging with a teaspoon – only a real man can do that and then when they eats the innards their farts can blow the scales off a lizard.’

‘Spect Jack was used to that what with the beans from the beanstalk an all.’

‘Wot you on about?’

‘Wot YOU on about?’

‘Well the thing is – it was TURNIPS! It was turnips till a few years ago. Then suddenly, it’s pumpkins everywhere and turnips don’t get a look in. And what am I?

‘You’re a turnip.’

‘Dead right. And what are you?’

‘I’m a turnip.’

‘You certainly are. So that’s why I’m mad. Blinking pumpkins. Coming over here, taking our jobs. It’s a liberty that’s what it is. A blinking liberty.’

pumpkins_edited-2

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

The Tale of a Tale

By 2009, I had sort of given up on any ideas of writing. What with work and young children and the aftermath of a stressful house/job/school move from Gloucestershire to Dorset, there just wasn’t time.

My father however, couldn’t stop making up stories. Every few months, he’d ask me to read a new novel, in which unlikely people had unlikely adventures in futuristic worlds. They were always good fun, although Dad’s feelings towards editing was much the same as his feelings towards decluttering (unnatural and diabolical).

One day, I said ‘why don’t you write about yourself or someone like yourself?’ and he said ‘because it’s boring. If you think you could make up a story about an old fogey in a wheelchair, be my guest.’

Dad was not your archetypal old fogey really. By this time, he had chronic arthritis but it didn’t stop him. If he thought a building wasn’t sufficiently adapted for wheelchair users, he would very politely explain this at length to the owner or anyone handy. On one occasion he visited in a café in my local (Georgian) town and finding the step awkward and the doorway narrow, popped out to get an Argos catalogue to show a café proprietor what ramps were available at a reasonable sum. The café closed down a few months later. I don’t think there’s a connection. He rushed around in either a scooter or electric wheelchair, regardless of anyone else’s feet or the suitability of the pavement. If he couldn’t be doing with the pavement, he’d drive down the middle of the road instead. One day Dad drove his wheelchair round a blind corner in the middle of Weymouth at four miles an hour with me and my sister running behind, shrieking at him to slow down. On another occasion, he lowered himself out of the wheelchair onto the pavement in order to take a ‘really good photograph’ of passing cars. My mother had to explain to concerned passers-by that he hadn’t collapsed and was technically quite well. I realised then that my father would embarrass all of us for as long as he could and I might as well accept it.

So there was the challenge: write about an old fogey in a wheelchair.

I still don’t know where the idea came from, but the whole story, just as unlikely as any of his, popped into my head as I was in the supermarket and I came straight home and wrote it on the computer in the freezing cold front room. It was called ‘Coffee at Tiffany’s’.

Shortly afterwards I wrote a second story: ‘Katie is a Cat’. This was inspired from the rainy day when I crossed Westminster Bridge and saw on the other side of the road two people, one of whom was in a wheelchair. So far so normal. However, they also had a cat in a basket on the wall behind them. Trust me, that’s not usual for central London at rush-hour.

A few years passed and Dad became very ill. I decided to write another ‘old fogey’ story for his birthday, but it just wouldn’t quite come. By June 2012, Dad was in hospital undergoing tests, totally exhausted but still writing. I dug out the ‘old fogey’ story and tried again. It would be a Father’s Day present. But I couldn’t find the happiness I needed to write something silly and put it back to one side. My sister and I arranged a photograph of all four grandchildren instead but he never saw that either. Dad died two days before Father’s Day.

Well, more years passed and Mum kept saying how much she’d liked those two silly stories and I remembered the others which I’d started and not finished. And I recalled the little bits of writing I’d done as a sort of outlet for grief. And I remembered all the fun we’d had with Dad when we were children. Then I realised Mum’s 80th birthday was coming up.

It took me months and a lot of secrecy. It took a lot of asking Mum odd questions about things which happened a long time ago (without telling her why), digging out old photographs, writing on trains, getting exasperated, feeling emotional.

When I decided to illustrate the book, I asked Mum, as if from idle curiosity, whether she had any of Dad’s drawings. She dug out a story Dad had written for my sister which I’d thought was long lost. There was his sketch from all those years ago, of a startled squirrel pegging out her washing, being confronted by an eagle. As you do. Fortunately it was the typed version, as no-one could read Dad’s handwriting. Even Dad.

Somehow, pulling all these elements together, I wrote a book. The parts based on real events proved to be harder to write than any of the fantasy sequences. Life is not narrative, with a beginning, middle and logical conclusion. In the end, I stopped bothering trying to make it accurate and just started having fun instead.

And finally, with a few days to spare, I had a proof copy to give to Mum for her 80th birthday as a total surprise.

And now the book is published for sale.

‘The Cluttering Discombobulator’ is a celebration of my father: hero, eccentric, adventurer and story-teller to the end.

Part memory, part fantasy, it’s the story of an eccentric father with hero-worshipping little daughters and the adventures he has in his imagination when those girls turn into boring middle-aged women who need to lighten up.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Dad, ‘everything will be fine.’

And do you know what Dad? Somehow it is.

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Words and illustration copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Click here to buy ‘The Cluttering Discombobulator’

Memories

 

 

 

Father’s Day

I could not have asked for a better Dad; a less embarrassing one perhaps and maybe one who coughed up more pocket money. But love, acceptance, nurturing, support, guidance he had in abundance.

He didn’t believe in children contradicting their parents (even when the ‘children’ were in their forties) or in personal mental space and not much in personal physical space. This made him infuriating.

On the other hand, he had more than his fair share of hair-brained ideas and optimism. He also had much less grip on reality than he needed. This made him fun.

Here’s a true story to show you what I mean.

When my sister and I were teenagers, most of our friends had long slipped the leash and either holed up in their rooms with the radio-cassette-recorder OR if they had the bus fare, went to town. It was mostly the former, because friends were spread across several villages and the effort of getting to town wasn’t really worthwhile.

My sister and I were different. Dad felt that as long as we were still home and no matter how old we were, the family should spend all its free time together. This is probably why we both left home quite young.

Anyway, one day, I was about sixteen and my sister thirteen, Dad said we were all going to the beach.

I think it was summer, but you wouldn’t have known from the weather. It was cold and rainy. We looked at him askance.

‘And,’ he said, ‘which of you wants to do the filming?’

What did he mean? Had he resurrected the old cine camera? No. It turned out that he’d borrowed a trendy new camcorder from someone in the office. It weighed a ton but you could put a blank video tape in it and film. Then you could play it back through your TV. This was exciting. Half the people we knew didn’t even have VHS recorders to tape TV programmes, let alone the means to make their own videos. On the other hand…

‘Film what, Dad?’

‘Me,’ he said, ‘I’m going surfing.’

At the time, Dad was, to us, ancient; that is, he was about forty-two. Nowadays I think that forty-two is a perfectly reasonable age to go surfing, but back then in our view, it was akin to a centenarian going base-jumping. He was also very overweight and not terribly fit.

‘But…’ said Mum.

‘I’m borrowing Dave’s wetsuit and surfboard and you can film me. It’ll be a great new hobby and when I’ve got the hang of it, we can all do it.’

‘But Dad,’ I said, ‘I don’t want to.’

‘Nonsense, of course you do. Don’t be a wet blanket.’

On the beach, the rain had stopped but it was colder and the wind had got up.

We sat on the shingle in anoraks, drinking tea from a flask and wondering how long it took for pneumonia to kick in. My sister and I were given no option. While our friends were in the warm, nowhere near their parents and being trendy, we were sitting with Mum being blown to bits, watching our Dad be embarrassing. Even I, full of romantic hopes, knew the chances of looking attractive were nil. My long hair plastered my face in damp tangles and my make-up smudged. I had refused to exchange a summer skirt for jeans on the grounds of femininity. Now I feared that at any minute the goose pimples on my legs might start to ice over. If an attractive boy was about to enter my life, I hoped he wouldn’t pick today.

The rollers were worthy of Hawaii. But the weather wasn’t. And nor were Dad’s skills.

In the borrowed black wetsuit, Dad looked like an elderly orca failing to catch a youthful penguin. He appeared and disappeared in crashing waves. He got on the surf board, lay down, fell off. He got on the surf board, lay down, got up on one knee and fell off. He got on the surf board, lay down, got up on one knee, almost stood up and… fell off. And repeat. We took it in turns to film him, swapping when our fingers went blue and started to shake. Although given the weight of a 1980s camcorder, they were shaking anyway. We finished the tea. After a while, my sister, never one for weather of any description (hot, cold, wet, dry, even now she takes it as a personal affront) refused to film on the grounds of potential frostbite.

We really wanted Dad to succeed. At every attempt we leaned forward and tensed, the camerawoman holding the camera steady against the wind. Then he fell off again.

After what felt like about a year but was probably about two hours, Dad gave up.

He emerged from the changing area dressed normally and more buoyant than he had been in the water.

‘Did you get it all on film?’ he said.

‘Yes, but Dad,’ said my sister, ‘you never actually surfed.’

‘At least I tried,’ he said, ‘which is more than you did. You three look like MacBeth’s witches after they’ve been through a car wash. You might have left me some tea.’

He patted the camcorder.

‘Can’t wait to see the footage,’ he said, ‘but first, lunch! And I’ve been thinking…maybe we won’t take up surfing as a family. Maybe we’ll take up hang-gliding instead.’

That was Dad.

I didn’t escape this sort of thing till I got a boyfriend and even then Dad wanted to come to the cinema with us. Not, you understand, because he wanted to protect me from any improper advances, but because he thought we could all watch the film and chat about it afterwards. He was rather hurt when I said no. When my sister got to sixteen, she just quietly did her own thing regardless and he never seemed to notice. Younger sisters get away with everything.

(NB the photo below is NOT from that long lost video. These are hardy young surfers at Bournemouth in January. Dad didn’t look as svelte by a long way, but probably it’s how he visualised himself and good on him. Perhaps if we all spent less time worrying if we should or could, we’d have more fun finding out!)

SurfersWords and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

 

 

Travelling Companions and other Small Pests

Dad always said that while a few months old, I chewed my way through a carry-cot when we travelled from Hendon to Scotland with an aunt.

This was of course, long before car safety-seats for children.

He said they placed me, safe in my carry-cot, next to the aunt. His implication was that when they arrived in Troon, I was rolling about on the back seat having eaten my way through a fair amount of synthetics, a metal frame and some bedding. He suggested that if we’ve travelled any further, I might have eaten the aunt as well.

I suspect he was exaggerating and I just chewed on a handle.

But it’s true to say that I wasn’t keen on constraint.

One of my earliest memories is about running out of the house to tell a neighbouring child I had a baby sister. Another time, I gave our dog the slip and sneaked away to look at some sheep on a hill, while Mum was nappy changing or something.

Shortly after that I went off my sister. The Young Wives came round and said she was gorgeous. As for me, I was fobbed off with a colouring book and told I looked just like my Dad. As he was rather plump, going bald and male, this was very upsetting.

And then there was the pram incident.

I should probably never ever tell a psychologist.

It was Mum’s fault really. I used to sit in a sort of chair on top of the pram. When we got to town, she did what all mothers of the time did and parked us up on the pavement while she went inside the shop. On this occasion, it was a chemist. In the window were three enormous glass bottles filled with bright coloured liquid. Deep at heart I always hoped that one day Mum would buy the blue one. She never did.

Mum was going to the chemist for rose-hip syrup and I thought maybe she’d get me one of those yummy hard fruit lollipops. But then I worried, what if she forgot? I needed to remind her. There wasn’t much time. I squirmed and wriggled and slid forwards in my seat so that I could drop to the pavement then run into the shop.

That was the plan.

It failed.

Mum came out and found me on the pavement with the pram tipped up. For a moment, she looked frantically round for the baby. Where had she gone? Had she been catapulted out? An aggrieved wail made her look under the blankets. My sister had slid down inside the covers and was making her views felt.

This may explain a lot about my sister and me. The pram incident is buried in her subconscious and she spent most of our childhood and adolescence trying to get revenge.

I sometimes worry that she may still be planning it. And we’re going on a road-trip in the Autumn.

Oh dear.

mwhah

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

The Unedited Notes of a Disenchanted Wine Critic

Chateauneufdusprat is a cheeky little vintage crafted by Jemima Sidesaddle from the little known Three Trolleys Vineyard.

Jemima, having lost her inheritance (including country estate and vague prospects of marrying into the aristocracy) in a calamity involving schnapps and loose elastic, scraped together the savings in her post office account and bought a selection of sunny slopes along the River Ooze (not to be confused with the River Ouse). Over the last three years she has astounded everyone by growing a vineyard entirely from planting small cuttings “obtained” from other vineyards and spitting grape seeds at the fertile banks.

Using ground breaking technology to create barrels from old oil drums and water sourced from the river itself (running as it does through the characterful towns of Scragg and Dumpe), she has developed unique wines quite unlike anything you will taste anywhere else.

This for example is a sweet white. Its aroma bears the delicate whiff of the hooves of fine fillies whose stable needs cleaning out. Holding the glass to the sun, it appears to be filled with tiny sparkles of glitter floating in the golden fluid, so magical they move of their own accord as if they are alive. This is really a wine with legs! The flavour is reminiscent of retsina if you replaced resin with the tangy, unforgettable taste of envelope glue.

A sip of Chateauneufdusprat (RRP 75p) will take you back to fond memories of seaside washrooms and the dark corners of bus-stops and telephone boxes on Saturday night.

It is truly a magical tipple. After drinking half a bottle, you will never want to drink anything else ever again.

Anything.

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Quiet Company

I saw the household ghost yesterday evening.

During office hours, I work alone in the spare room, shuffling paper, tapping on a laptop, making calls.

Outside, in the winter garden, the courting pigeons shift and flutter on the fence, prospective lovers trying their chances and being dodged. A crow flies down. He flexes his wings in dismissal and the pigeons scatter. He raises his head and looks around in disdain, waiting till all eyes are on him. Then he lowers his beak, and with slow deliberation, sharpens it on the edge of the fence. Even the slinking cat bides her time, hiding in next door’s cabbages. I may pause with a cup of tea to watch, then go back to work.

It has never felt lonely here. The ghost, a musical companionable presence, potters around. He plays the electric piano in the front room, wearing spectral headphones. All I can hear is the rhythm of thumping keys, which stop as I enter. He hums tunes from inside machines and knocks on radiators.

Sometimes there’s a tap on the front door. I have to stop what I’m doing to go downstairs. Who’s there? No-one. I imagine the ghost sniggering when he catches me out like that; his ghosty shoulders heaving noiselessly.

At night when the family is home, if I go to bed early, I can hear the ghost. He chats or sings with some other unbody. The voices are just too indistinct to understand and I know it’s not the TV or radio downstairs.

Other times, he thumps about in the attic, rummaging through boxes.

‘Go to sleep,’ I tell him.

My husband mutters ‘what?’ then rolls over to snore.

No-one else ever hears the ghost. Until yesterday I had never seen him.

Recently, I’ve been so busy, I haven’t stopped to chuckle or admonish him. I’ve been meeting deadlines, correcting drafts. Then I had to work away. In my hotel there was nothing to hear but city noises: buses, trains, strangers. Finally home, I went to bed too tired even to read, let alone feel charmed by voices from another world. Too tired to say ‘hello’.

Then yesterday evening, I saw him. Through a gap in the hall curtains, night pressed against the glass. Then there was a flash of movement.

‘That’s the ghost’, I thought, ‘what’s he doing outside?’

Today, I am alone in the house again. At first it was silent. Then the letter-box rattled. Now it’s silent again.

Was the rattling from inside or outside?

Where is he? It is very quiet.

I am lonely.

I get up and start down the stairs. Will I find a real person outside? Has my ghost left?

There is no-one there. My shoulders relaxing, I bound up the stairs.

‘Naughty ghost!’ I admonish.

Suddenly syncopated rhythm rattles the pipes, the dishwasher croons and someone is playing hopscotch in the attic.

Shaking my head, I turn to my work again and smile, no longer alone.

Forgiven.

piano-5

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Ghost Coin

My husband removed the 1980s bath-panel and found something bizarre.

A 1914 penny under an upstairs bath in a 1950s house.

We put it safe and ‘Googled’. In 1914, a penny bought half a pint of beer or loaf of bread or pint of milk.

The penny’s since disappeared.

Our friendly ghost’s playing tricks again. It often plays piano or rattles pipes. Bet that’s who put the coin where it shouldn’t have been.

No doubt it’s now sloped off with phantom mates to buy spectral beer at The Headless Spook Inn, which I suspect is in our attic.

Typical.

ghost-pint

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

From a prompt on Thin Spiral Notebook

Resolutions

Day one: 1st January 8.30am.

Determined, I crunch through the frosty grass to the shed where my husband has put the exercise bike.

“Peddling will warm you up.” he calls cheerfully from the bedroom window, then gets back into bed with a hot cup of tea.

It is nice in the shed. Or it can be. The sun angles onto the pine walls as I peruse the resolutions I’d pinned the day before:

  • Lose two stone. Do not lose six pounds in two weeks then nothing in the third then give up. Eat more vegetables. Make everyone else eat more vegetables.
  • Do more exercise. Walk, don’t drive. Use exercise bike every day for at least half an hour, come rain or shine. Look for second hand rowing machine. Don’t let the family laughing get you down.
  • Be more creative and frugal. Adapt charity shop clothes or make own with massive stash of hoarded fabric in attic. (Do NOT buy a size too small because you’re in denial.)
  • Declutter. Start with attic. (Maybe exercise bike could then move indoors.)
  • Drink less wine and less tea.
  • Read more intellectual stuff.
  • Be more positive.
  • Be more patient.
  • Have faith.
  • Laugh more.
  • Stop biting nails.

At the bottom of the page is a scanned in honest photograph of myself in all my podgy glory; plump cheeked, muffin-topped, oozing, wearing my husband’s wedding ring because mine won’t fit (and his no longer fits him either).

OK so the biting nails one has been on my resolutions list since I was twelve, but one year I’ll manage it.

My daughter must have sneaked in sometime on New Year’s Eve, because between the typescript and the photograph, she has scrawled “Believe in yourself. You are awesome! XXX”

After half an hour of pedalling, I get down from the bike and try to work out the optimum time I can spend in the freezing shed, getting my breathing back to a rate which wouldn’t have smug-guts laughing his dressing-gown off but not cooling down so much I’ll get hypothermia.

Day two: 2nd January 8.30am

Fifteen minutes into pedalling: It’s boring out here, even with the smugness of self-satisfaction to keep me company. I’ll have to download some audio books or podcasts and listen to them while I cycle (that could tick off the intellectual reading resolution too). Maybe I could get some posters on the walls. Maybe I could get my son to make some kind of film that could be projected on the wall so I could pretend I was cycling somewhere exciting. Smug-guts is in the kitchen making bacon sandwiches. Every time. Every single time I try to lose weight he finds an insatiable urge for bacon, belly-pork, roast duck… How can you eat salad in the face of that?

Day three: 3rd January 7pm

It’s really not the same after a day at work. I can pretend I’m slamming down on the emails with each pedal, but doesn’t really work. It’s dark too. The big battery operated lantern doesn’t really fill the corners. Spiders are sniggering I expect. I got on the scales this morning. I hadn’t lost any weight. Still, my hair was wet. It’s amazing how heavy wet hair is.

Day four: Look it was a bad day at the office OK?

Day five: 4th January 7pm

Those spiders have brought their mates in to snigger, I swear. Mind you it’s hot in here this evening. Next door had too much paper and cardboard after Christmas and the recycling van wouldn’t take it. He’s too lazy to take it to the dump and he’s made a bonfire on the other side of the fence. Isn’t there a law about when you’re allowed to light bonfires? Is it before or after 7pm? Something about washing on the line. There certainly ought to be a law about lighting them near a fence in a small garden next to another small garden with a shed in it. The smoke is getting to me and it’s boring out here anyway. I’m going in to see how my son is getting on with that video.

9pm
Well that’s an evening we’re never going to forget. It was a nice shed. I wonder if the insurance will pay out for the melted exercise bike too. I could buy a nice new outfit with that money. The firefighters were nice though. Good to see a man in action. Men. Admittedly they were more interesting in flirting with my daughter than me but then she’d made them all a cuppa once the fire was out.

Walking back to the house I pick up a scrap of scorched paper from the grass. It has a picture of a woman on it. The kind you can cuddle. Above her are the words:

Be more positive.
Be more patient.
Have faith
Laugh more.
Stop biting nails.

Beneath, written in teenage scrawl: “Believe in yourself. You are awesome! XXX”

I take a glass of wine from beloved and smile. I think I can succeed with those resolutions.

Well, maybe except the one about biting nails.

awesome

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Menu Del Dia, Plat Du Jour

I was only fourth in line that Saturday morning. Two female butchers, head to toe in white, were serving ladies one and two. Lady three was chatting at a hundred miles an hour with ladies five and six and also with ladies one and two. Ladies seven and eight were just entering and picked up the gossip as if they’d been there all along. I just smiled in a friendly manner and looked (probably) foreign or at least, not local. They smiled back, said hello and returned to the latest news.

The place was spotless. Clear laminated diagrams of dissected beasts decorated the walls, should you not know the cut you were after; or in my case, what they were called in Spanish. Local eggs and honey decorated the top of the deli chiller, where cured meats and sausages were lined up like fat pencils alongside boulders of cheese.

I had been there a few days earlier and bought a chicken which had been deftly cut into twelve pieces, but today I wanted a whole one. Husband and children had left me to do some window shopping in the street outside. “I won’t be long,” I told them.

The only thing was… ladies one and two seemed to have both asked for half a pig’s side cut into wafer-thin chops. This involved the slender, feminine butchers bringing down a cleaver at one centimetre intervals (an alarming thing to watch but very impressive) to make twenty or so potential chops and then the rather slower (and judging by the glowing foreheads, quite strenuous) activity of sawing through bone. Husband and children reappeared to find out what had happened to me. The mercantile part of the town was very small, and they’d run out of shops to look into without actually buying anything. It was already 30°C (86°F) in the narrow streets even in the shade of the ancient white buildings and it was only 9:30am. I sent them back out as they were getting in the way of ladies nine and ten.

Lady one having been served, satisfactorily rounded off her bit of the conversation and departed. Lady three approached the counter and asked for… well it was all a bit fast to understand, but the butcher was reaching for another side of pork and flexing her muscles. I longed to be able to speak Spanish properly and to ask whether it was a Spanish thing to eat wafer-thin chops on Sunday or just a local tradition and how they’d be cooking them, but the few words I knew got tangled in my head and I was too shy. I just kept smiling brightly and wondering if I’d get served before lunch time.

Eventually it was my turn. I asked for a chicken. I could tell everyone was a little baffled, although, the butcher wore an air of one to whom a brief respite has been given. She asked me how many pieces I wanted it chopped into. “No gracias. Entero por favor,” I answered. There was a lull in the general hubbub of conversation. She doesn’t want pork? I could hear them thinking. She wants a chicken and she wants it whole? The butcher looked as if I was doubting her skills. How to explain in my extremely inadequate Spanish that I wanted to roast it for Sunday dinner but to a Spanish recipe with garlic and almonds and raisins and sherry? I just smiled. I left with my chicken and dignity and imagined them thinking: is she mad? Why would you want a whole chicken? She can’t want to cook a whole chicken in this heat? The following day, roasting it while the temperature outside our holiday let was 43°C (109°F) and the temperature in the kitchen was probably high enough to fire clay, I did wish I had bought some wafer thin pork chops and made my husband barbecue them.

This happened two years ago. The town has a supermarket, in fact it has at least three. There is the small Eroski on the outskirts and there are a few low scale franchises in the winding white streets, where you could buy everything you need. We used the Eroski mostly and it sold meat of course, but it was good to go to a butcher and buy exactly what I wanted. The villa had a very poor internet connection, so we didn’t use it. This took us back to how our holidays were years ago. Out of connection with social media and news, a little more connection to the area we were in and each other. We did have an excellent mobile signal so we were able to keep in touch when we needed to and any cafe with free wifi resulted in heads down for two teenagers who had forgotten how bereft they were while they were jumping in and out of the pool and reading and actually talking to people in the same vicinity, apparently having fun.

I count myself very fortunate to have been able to visit France or Spain every year for the last twenty-three.

In the beginning, my husband and I were touring and camping, travelling from place to place with a French Michelin guide to campsites. Using a mobile abroad was so expensive, we used them for emergencies only. Using the world wide web… well it didn’t even exist to start with. My husband’s linguistic skills are useful in a restaurant and that’s about it. I can speak French (rusty but adequate) and can manage Spanish at a very basic level. I learnt it for one year at school and then had to choose my O’ Levels. With no advice provided whatsoever, I assumed future employers would want me to have a science. Physics was the only one in which I had any hope of passing but was in the same option group as Spanish. If it had been in the same option group as Geography, or if I’d realised that no-one was ever, ever going to ask me what I knew about Newton’s Laws (not much) or Brownian Motion (nothing), I would have chosen differently.

Since both of us like being in obscure, back-of-beyond sorts of places, we just had to manage as best we could in shops and restaurants (and pharmacies/surgeries when that year’s medical incident occurred), making atrocious linguistic mistakes but getting by: cooking and eating delicious local food: cleaning mussels in the shade of the tent; making ratatouille on a two ring stove. We ate in out-of-the-way restaurants and cafés, finding (usually by chance) places the locals frequented, not always knowing what we’d been served but always finding it delicious and excellent value. We once hired a small villa in Andalusia, all on its own on a mountainside up a winding, precipitous stony track flanked by prickly pear. I bought a whole chicken then too, but didn’t realise, when they said whole, they meant guts and all. I would have handled this better if the hot water supply hadn’t just broken down.

We didn’t really notice or care that we couldn’t get in touch with the outside world. If we were desperate for news, we could check out yesterday’s British newspapers in the shops or pick up the Herald Tribune or seek out the publications for ex-pats. Pretty much the only time when we were worried was when we went touring with a trailer-tent to the South of France in 2000. We had a son, just over a year in age, who had been walking since he was nine months old and I was six weeks pregnant and suffering dreadful morning sickness. As we travelled south, we noticed people queuing at petrol stations and wondered what was going on. Or rather my husband did, I was mostly trying to control the nausea and feeling distressed by the fact that surrounded with lovely cuisine, all I wanted was toast or fast-food burgers (which I usually loathe). Arriving at our final destination, we discovered there was a fuel crisis and we had no way of being certain what was happening. Desperate notices were posted up around the campsite: “we have to catch a ferry from Dunkirk on Friday, can anyone siphon some diesel for us from their own tank? We’ll pay good money.” Ringing home at extortionate rates elicited little sense from either sets of our parents, the newspapers were a day behind. Would we be able to get home? We only had enough petrol to get us half way up France. Fortunately for us, the crisis lifted before we had to drive north.

Other than that, it was nice to be away from the media and to be in our own little world, dabbling our toes in another culture. We tended to shop in the smaller shops and supermarkets, which in the main sold food for the national cuisine and if you were desperate for a taste of home (which in our case meant British strength tea, fresh hot chillies and curry paste) you had to hunt for the shelf which sold foreign food and hope for the best. Thus UK branded tea and biscuits rubbed shoulders with sauerkraut, American mustard, soy sauce and tacos. In France, you might find a section for Vietnamese style cuisine but not Indian or Mexican. Cheese was unquestionably French. It was not always easy to find fresh milk. In Spain, you might not find lamb and instead of beef there might be veal. In both countries however, there would be an array of vegetables like a work of art, fresh, varied and vibrant and a fish counter of gleaming scales and live crabs, many of which were from British waters, since the British won’t always eat them. We loved this. We both cook well and, since in the early days the exchange rate was very favourable to sterling, having such a choice meant that we had to restrain ourselves from buying more than we could cook.

So much has changed in the last few years, an evolution we barely noticed, as the children grew older. We started going on holiday with my in-laws whose generosity is overwhelming both in terms of financial input and helping with the children so that we had a break. But as time went on, even before the exchange rate dropped, eating out for six became expensive and trailing six people round looking for obscure places is much more difficult than when there are just two of you.

Over time, menus of the day have crept up in price as economies struggle across Europe. The local speciality, aimed at the tourist, is now likely to cost more than something generic. Meanwhile, in the supermarket, UK, Irish, American and German brands nestle in amongst French and Spanish, even in the cheese section. If I want to, I could pretty much buy exactly the same things in France or Spain as I do at home, in the same anonymity. Even on the high street, the same clothes shops appear everywhere with the same prices. Walking around the shopping district in Malaga, you might as well be in Southampton (albeit you need shelter from the sun rather than the rain). It’s not so easy to guess where someone is from by their clothes anymore.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t got wifi, you’ve got 3G. You can access the whole world and your social media contacts twenty-four hours a day if you want to. Without making a deliberate choice to do so, you can’t get a break from the political machinations, the desperation of refugees, injustice, celebrity gossip, the online arguments: all of which you can do nothing about.
What’s the point of all this?

It’s nice to be able to get in touch when you want to and know everything is all right at home when you need to. All the same, I miss those days when we didn’t know what was going on, when we just sat and watched the view, sipping local wine, eating local food. I miss going into a shop and having the challenge of working out what to cook for dinner with what I can get hold of.

I wish more people realised the joy of being part of a Europe which is rapidly disappearing and dividing. What really seems tragic to me, is that while everything appears homogenised (food, brands, clothes, behaviours), people seem further apart. Heads down at devices, taking photos of ourselves rather than everything else, eating our own food rather than trying someone else’s, worrying about what’s happening elsewhere rather than enjoying the here and now. People no longer have to make the effort to communicate if they don’t want to. So they don’t.

I wish I had hadn’t been too shy to ask about the pork chops. I wish I hadn’t been too shy to explain about the chicken. Very likely, no-one would have understood my terrible Spanish, but I like to think they’d have got the gist. I hope I get the chance to find those out-of-the-way places again and next time, work up the courage to do more than smile.

balloons

Words and photograph copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Candy Haikus

Apologies to all real poets and Haiku writers. These are from a prompt to write horrible Haikus about candy. Brought on a wave of nostalgia. As you can tell from the first few, I had a misspent youth whenever I had the opportunity.

As you can tell from the last one, any coins left in pockets because people can’t be bothered to empty them before putting clothes in the laundry, become the washerwoman’s (e.g. my) reward…

Marathons, spangles,
A penny for four blackjacks:
A candied childhood.

Spittly Gobstopper:
Spat out wet and examined.
Slurping through rainbows.

Dry out licked toffees,
Wrap them with tongue-stuck-out care:
Gift for my sister.

Oh Flying Saucers:
Rice paper glues my palate,
But my tongue fizzes.

Opal fruits are wrong
When called Starburst. My childhood
Winces in anguish.

Laundress collects coins:
Lazy family pays for
Housewife Pick ’n’ Mix.

fair.jpg

Words and photograph copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission