Snakes on The Line

Last night there was a medium-sized snake up the Palm Nut tree. The dogs went ballistic. The bird were in a frenzy. Quite so when a slithery thing is in the vicinity of your abode. I was simply curious, albeit with a mild frisson of anxiety when I though of the critter falling out of the palm onto a barking pooch. And it reminded me of the first time I met a snake as a young idealistic expat with no snake experience. The following incident happened in October 1993.

*****

About four weeks ago, just the day after I returned from a shopping trip to Ireland (which was lovely I must say), I met a snake for the very first time but was too stupid to make a big deal of it at the time. I have since learned that you treat snakes with a great deal of respect, and you certainly don’t do what I did. You do, in fact, make a very big deal out of it. In this corner of the world most people treat snakes according to the succinct Buddhist advice: “If you meet the Buddha kill him”. So if you happen to meet a snake on the Uganda Equator I have put together the following plan for immediate implementation.

1. Upon seeing this scary marvel of the wild back away – slowly or fast doesn’t matter but back away, even without reverse lights.
2. Open your mouth and yell loudly. This will ensure that people from both and near and far (after all everyone loves a break from work, especially if it involves an element of danger and fear – and perhaps machismo) will immediately run to your assistance.
3. Keep your eyes open and watch carefully while the brave men you have summoned examine the snake and then rush around madly to find sticks and stones.
4. Take the credit for finding the snake by telling everyone who has arrived to watch how scared you were when you first saw the unfortunate creature.
5. Close your eyes once more as the assembled men fling sticks and stones at the writhing creature making sure you are not targeted in the process.
6. Open your eyes when the victorious cry has gone up and press forward with the rest of the crowd to make sure the snake really is dead.
7. Hang around a bit longer recounting the story of the discovery and kill for all those arriving for the postmortem.
8 For the next few days tell everyone you meet how you made the grisly discovery, show them how big it was the way fishermen always do, and recount in embellished detail how it was killed.
This next point on The Plan is optional and only holds for really big snakes:
9. Organise mini guided tours to the spot where the snake was found and killed while recounting the story again to anyone willing to listen.

This is a good plan – not good for the snake, of course, and it will not be recommended by any wildlife organization – but it is a good plan. I did not do any of the above. What I did was stupid – I did get a lot of conversational mileage out of it since, but it was still stupid. This is how it went.

On a certain Tuesday I went home to make myself a light lunch and was humming happily as I thought of the wonderful lectures I would be able to write with the newly-acquired books (Philosophy 101 was on course after all despite the container heist when all my books were looted in Kenya), periodically relived various moments of the retail therapy, and wondered when I would use the smoked salmon sitting proudly on a prominent shelf in the fridge. The frothy eggs sizzled as they hit the oil in the first stage of being transformed into a tasty omelette, and they continued sizzling long past the stage when said sizzling should have fizzled out. The happy humming stopped while I wondered what kind of marvellous Ugandan eggs made so much noise.

As I looked under the table holding the small two-ring gas cooker looking for the source of a possible gas leak, I came face-to-fang with a huge (not fisherman huge but really huge) brown snake angrily hissing at me for daring to disturb its cool peaceful sleep with egg noises and humming. I calmly turned off the gas and crouched down to get a closer look at it. There it was, coiled in the corner: a quite beautiful snake but it was one annoyed snake and was letting me know it.

“What to do? Yes, of course Dee, dance for it. For what, the snake? Yeah, why not?” Why not indeed? Ten years earlier while walking in a forest in Southern Germany a friend had told me that snakes don’t like noise, or rather don’t like vibrations, and will slither away if they don’t like the approaching ambience. So there was nothing for it but to prance around the kitchen making incredibly loud stomping noises with my feet.
This manoeuvre is not in The Plan for the simple reason that it doesn’t work. What it does is make the snake even more angry and frightened, so frightened that it will start attack proceedings. For a snake this entails aggressive head raising and even louder sizzling while advancing slowly and menacingly towards the dancer. At this point I realised that danger was approaching and made a hastily ungracious escape from the kitchen. When the snake had finally stopped sizzling I crept back into the kitchen just in time to see my new acquaintance slither calmly through a frighteningly large gap, previously unnoticed, between the bottom of the back door and the floor, and into the safety of the jungle of my exotic back garden. I later revised this opinion of tropical landscaping and had the grass cutters in so that similar sizzlers couldn’t find cool refuge so close to my cooking table. I also rolled up some newspapers and taped them to the bottom of the door in case my friend wanted another performance of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Then I ate my lunch with even more appetite because of the unexpected exercise.

As I said, I didn’t know then what I know now, and a week later during a lull in a conversation I mentioned my pre-lunch dance routine to some colleagues. The following conversation should be read aloud quickly and with raised decibels.
“You did what?”
“What size was it?”
“What colour was it?”
“Did it have a flat head?”
“What were its markings like?”
“You really did that? God!”
“You’re mad! You danced at a Puff Adder! Dee, that thing is really dangerous. It could have bitten you because you cornered it.”
“But St Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland,” I protested.
“He what? Who?”
“St Patrick. He drove them all away so we Irish people have no training in snake-related behaviour.”
That excuse just didn’t justify my actions. They all looked at me with strange expressions: this mzungu (white person) is nuts their faces said. She is stupid their raised eyebrows said. But she may well be just a little bit brave their wide eyes said, because we would have followed The Plan.

In the time since then I have surprisingly made the acquaintance of a few more snakes, and while I haven’t quite followed The Plan, I haven’t done any ballet for them either. I now have a few theories about snakes.

1. You only see them if you want to see them. Some colleagues who have been in Africa for a lot longer have seen fewer snakes than I have.
2. Someone up there is making sure that the snake-deprived Irish abroad complete their educational experiences by allowing them to encounter more than their fair share of Eden’s bad guys.
3. Snakes only appear to those who believe in them — this theory works much in the same way as Douglas Adams’s theory about extra-terrestrials in strange flying crafts manifesting themselves to the gullible.

I am, however, quite proud of my actions on that long-ago Tuesday because the snake didn’t die. “I saved a snake life”, I often think to myself smugly. It didn’t get its head bashed in and die in agony all because of some wise advice given freely while stomping through the knee-deep leaves of a damp Bavarian forest floor.

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On Living in a Bone House

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Jesuit Gerald Manley Hopkins. I have always had a great love for his poetry, so much that the paperback I owned (and often loaned) fell apart. But Lady Luck was smiling on me, and I found an early edition hardback in a second-hand bookshop in Namibia last year — one footnote actually replicates his signature from letters to Robert Bridges!). For those interested in his correspondence, four new letters were discovered in 1993 (https://www.gerardmanleyhopkins.org/studies/letters.html), one of which gives a very human account of his vow ceremony, while another is to Cardinal Newman lamenting the state of University College Dublin.

The following was first posted in 2013.

GMH

Yesterday evening I re-read a poem I last glanced at the night before ‘A’ level English Lit many moons ago; the poem was ‘The Caged Skylark’ by Gerald Manley Hopkins. Wowee! What a powerful piece of writing, powerful, but seriously depressing and gloomy at the same time. I myself have been trying to follow all the latest advice to be at peace with my body, to live in the now, not to be worried, to be good and to be kind. And here’s himself, that unhappy Victorian Jesuit describing our bodies as dull cages” as a “bone house” in which we are “day-labouring out life’s age”. I do realise that many, many people of the time did, in fact, struggle simply to get through each day of hard work with the hope of heavenly reward at the end of it all — much in the same way that way too many people in Uganda still do today.

But despite our being in prison, GMH admits that both the wild skylark and ourselves (the caged ones) can sometimes sing the sweetest songs, although we can still be overcome with rage and fear. Our embodiment, our flesh-bound existence is an endurance for all us mortals. But, says GMH (with a fair bit of restraint), we will not be at all distressed with, at the end of it all, our “bones risen”. I should think not.

This is the poem (accessed at http://www.bartleby.com/122/15.html).

AS a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells—
That bird beyond the remembering his free fells;
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.

Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage,
Both sing sometímes the sweetest, sweetest spells,
Yet both droop deadly sómetimes in their cells
Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage.

Not that the sweet-fowl, song-fowl, needs no rest—
Why, hear him, hear him babble and drop down to his nest,
But his own nest, wild nest, no prison.

Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound when found at best,
But uncumbered: meadow-down is not distressed
For a rainbow footing it nor he for his bónes rísen.

While Platonic dualism is very much a part of Hopkins’s worldview, he was also a bit of an oddity himself in terms of the things of the body. He tried some pretty weird ascetic stuff as a kid at school — like not drinking anything for a week! Later, at Oxford, he gradually became more reclusive; and it is generally thought that rather than confront his homoerotic tendencies, he chose to reign them in by becoming not only a catholic, not only a priest, but a Jesuit also (ordained in 1877)!

The last years of his life teaching classics at University College Dublin were apparently a terrible burden on the poor man. Many of his gloom and doom sonnets come from this time and they make for harrowing reading. Probably today he would be diagnosed as seriously depressive and given a few happy pills to keep him going. But can you imagine the reception given to this poetic Englishman trying to teach Latin and Greek to some of the lads from Dublin or beyont? The poor man must have suffered in class. He also suffered with his bowels, and finally they got the better of him. He died with typhoid fever in 1889, and his hard-worked bones lie in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin awaiting to be “bones risen”. At a dinner I once attended at Newman House in the late 80s, and feeling the urge to empty my bladder to make room for more of the great wine served there, I was directed to a washroom for ladies on the ground floor. When remarking on the lovely coving on the ceiling, someone later told me they had been the rooms of our very own GMH when he had lived in Dublin. I still don’t know what to make of that.

But for all his eccentricities, oddness, strange ideas, and out-dated theology, I love the work of this Victorian Jesuit who did not like Ireland or the Irish; sadly, he became physically sick amongst us. And yet, his way with words is simply breathtaking. Read these few lines from ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’:

AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name …

And this from Duns Scotus’ Oxford:

TOWERY city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped and poisèd powers …

And what I love most about Hopkins is his ability to describe nature. While he doesn’t hold out a lot of hope for humans, nature remains fresh, deep, mysterious, and enriching as these lines from ‘Spring’ tell us:

NOTHING is so beautiful as spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

And despite the heavy footprint we humans leave on the earth: it will remain fresh.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. (‘God’s Grandeur’)

Sweet, sweet words so well put together!

I could continue, but I’ll stop it there. Go over to the Bartleby site and have a read for yourself.

Caprines on the Equator

I have been pondering a hefty question recently: why do you not see dead goats on Kampala roads? You do see plenty of dead dogs, a few dead cats, and some other less-identifiable animals, but not the goats – and parts of the city could be called Goatstown, so plentiful are the creatures. Does this mean that goats have more road sense than dogs, or what? The Man answered this question rather neatly when he observed that most people don’t eat dogs – which I took to mean that any goat without the sense to cross when the road is clear is quickly scooped up and taken home for the pot. I myself don’t eat goat (very strong meat if the truth be told, and anyway I think goats are lovely, quirky animals), but it is a delicacy for many locals, and goat-on-a-stick is a feature of many BBQs.

At one stage when we lived on the Equator I had a small herd of goats – well, three to be exact. It started off by accident because I wasn’t really into animal husbandry. We were invited to a party but when we got to the venue the main course was still tethered to a tree and hadn’t been killed yet! It was a rather handsome goat, but when I had a closer look, I was sure it was pregnant. I just couldn’t let it be cut up and put on sticks. So off I go into the bush around the Equator, up and down mud roads, until I see a herd of goats grazing by the side of a small hut. A fair amount of bargaining went on until we reached an agreeable price, and the old man tied the young buck’s legs and hefted it into the boot for the drive back to the party. Young male goat was duly handed over to the chefs without too much remorse, and pregnant lady was led down to my place and tied to a tree out of the way of the pooches. I called her Lucky because I reckoned she was. And so Lucky would be taken out to pasture each day by the garden guy, while a trainee builder was commissioned to put up a small fence around the dog house. I waited in vain for goatlets but none came. It appears that when goats have eaten a lot their bellies swell so much that they all look pregnant, even the boy goats. No-one told me. I felt very Jacana-like at that moment of realization.

A few months passed and bedad didn’t I get a goat for a present! To this day I don’t know why the giver chose a goat instead of a book or a scarf or something, but there you have it. And so Hope joined the family. Lucky and Hope: had a nice ring to it, I thought. The difference between having one goat and two boils down to the noise levels of an early morning while the ladies headbutted each other and tried to escape their dog house to get to the grazing sites. By that time I had gained the reputation of being a goat lover, soon-to-be goat breeder, people said knowingly. And then … yep, I was gifted another goat! This time I got a boy – all the better to impregnate the girls – a mix between a local goat and an exotic breed, a very handsome (and expensive) boy who quickly became the boss of the dog house. I called him The Boy because he was. And so it was now Lucky, Hope, and The Boy. The plaintive maaaas got louder and the headbutting more serious, the poop increased as The Boy grew, and the pungent whiff of goat pee began to waft up to my bedroom.

And then an edict was passed by the powers that be: all animals, except dogs and cats, must be removed from campus. And so it was with quite a bit of relief that I had my herd moved to the university farm down the road. They were tethered there for one night, one measly night! The next morning I got the news that my trio had been attacked by a leopard in the darkness and then dutifully buried by the local farm workers at dawn. WHAT? There were no leopards in our neck of the woods, and you simply do not bury a goat: you cut it up and roast it, irrespective of the manner of death, that’s what you do! The long and the short of it was that bad people stole my goats. I was more upset with the lies than with the loss of the goats. And when I rushed to tell The Man what had happened, he said: “well, Lucky wasn’t lucky; there was no hope for Hope, and as for The Boy? …”. I could have strangled him. On hearing the news in the afternoon another colleague made exactly the same comment. I gave him the chilliest look I could muster, turned on my heel, and walked away. He still doesn’t know why. Throughout the day, people stopped by my office to commiserate on the fate of the goats, even though ALL of them knew it was well nigh impossible for the creatures to have been eaten by a leopard and then buried by kind villagers in unmarked graves. But they kept straight faces nonetheless, and I accepted their condolences with similar visage. I have to tell you I wished many bad things on those goat thieves, things I hope did not actually happen to them.

But that was not the end of my caprine adventures. When we moved to the Big Smoke, I got a goat as a going-away present. I had gone off goats at that stage and snuck away from the party without it, thinking I was saved from another period of goat ownership. But jeepers, the very next day I was sitting outside having a quiet read when I heard a plaintive maaaaa, maaaaa, maaaaa, MAAAAA getting louder and louder. Didn’t they go and put the goat on the back of a pick up and driven it 84 kilometres to Kampala. Whaaaa! What’s a girl to do with a live goat, two non-goat-loving canines, and a back garden full of cheeky monkeys? To cut a long story short, the goat went to market like the little piggies. Except that I had to get a letter of authority from the Local Council guy to put the goat on a string and walk it to the market. That goat sold for the equivalent of $15. I kept the cash. I figured my goat ownership days had entitled me to it. But I do have to tell you that if someone gave me a goat now, I would be ever so grateful. I would make it an enclosure (far away from my bedroom window), take it out for grazing every day, and milk it (read: get it milked) every evening to make yummy cheese with.

Mary, John, and the Ancient City of Ephesus

Some three and a half hours from Jerusalem in a leafy glade on Mount Koressos (the Turkish name translates as Mount Nightengale) lies the House of Mother Mary (Meryemana), a unique shrine venerated by Catholics and Muslims alike. Located near the ancient city of Ephesus, legend has it that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the apostle John lived here after they fled the persecutions of the Romans in Jerusalem.

The Mother Mary House was located only relatively recently, following visions by a generally bedridden Augustinian nun in Dülmen Germany. Apparently Anne Catherine Emmerich’s descriptions were accurate enough for French priest Abbé Gouyet to uncover, in 1881, a crumbling dwelling house where Sr Catherine said it would be. In 1891 priests from Izmir “re-discovered” the site. But the locals had been going there for centuries, venerating it as a holy place for both Christianity and Islam.

While the Ephesus story (dating from the fourth century in Christian literature) is at odds with the long-held belief that the mother of Jesus died at the site of what is now the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, it appears that Pope Leo XIII was a supporter of the Ephesus story; he visited the place in 1896, and apparently bestowed special privileges to those making a pilgrimage there.

The legend cannot, of course, be proved or disproved. However, there is strong support for John’s presence at Ephesus, and the sad ruins of what was a magnificent church (built on the hill of Ayasoluk by none other than Justinian) in nearby Selçuk reputedly house his tomb (according to second-century sources Polycrates and Irenaeus).

Basilica

The sad remains of St John’s Basilica

On the day we visited Mother Mary House, there were busloads of tourists queueing to enter the small chapel, drink or collect water from the holy well, or simply light a candle and say a prayer. Nonetheless, it was a tranquil place, and the prayers of centuries doubtless cast a spirit of peace over us. As we left this holy place and drove to Ephesus itself, I was struck by how close Turkey was to the beginnings of Christianity. If indeed John and Mary made the journey to Ephesus and set up home there, I wondered briefly how they made a living while he was writing his Gospel. And finally, I thought about the bed-ridden German nun who knew exactly where this place was. “There are more things in heaven and on earth …” as Hamlet wisely put it.

Ephesus must have been some city in its heyday. From its earliest beginnings in the tenth century BC, right up to its abandonment around the fifteenth century AD, it was coveted, fought over, conquered, sacked, vandalised, and rebuilt by many, including Ionians, Commerians, Lydians, Persians, Spartans, Syrians, Romans, Goths, and none other than Alexander the Great who liberated the city from a tyrant in 334 BC. The Lydian King Croesus — he of much gold – also had a part of play in the building of the city, notably the Temple of Artemis (of which only one column remains today).

One of my favourite images of this ancient city of marble streets is the communal men’s loos on Curetes Street. Running water made this a not-so-stinky place, and with seats placed close to each other, no doubt a lot of gossip and information was passed from one to the other as these cosmopolitan citizens went about their daily business.

Loos

Intimate toilet seating

Another building that gave me a sore neck was the magnificent library of Celsus. Built by a son in memory of his father (Roman Senator Celsus Polemeanus), it held up to 15,000 scrolls – a modest rival to the great library at Alexandria. A tour guide told us that there was an underground passage between the library and the nearby brothel. I can find no confirmation of this, but can imagine a John Cleese-type gent telling his wife he was off to the library to catch up on some light reading dear! Given that Ephesus was a bustling port city and the brothel was likely to be a place of much activity, I wondered how the brothel workers had protected themselves against pregnancy and venereal diseases, the age-old hazards of the job.

LibraryLib2

The library of Celsus

In contrast to the sex workers, four elegant female figures guard the entrance to the library: Sophia (wisdom), Episteme (knowledge), Ennoia (intelligence) and Arete (virtue). Unfortunately these are copies because the originals were hauled off to Vienna by Austrian archeologists in the nineteenth century. Ravaged by the Goths in 262/3 AD (later to be substantially re-built by Constantine), and demolished by many earthquakes, the library, like most buildings of ancient Ephesus, eventually stopped trying and simply crumbled away. What did happen to all those scrolls?

Sophia

Christianity took an early hold in Ephesus after the visit of Saint Paul, although it was a tough task battling the centuries-old worship of Artemis. He almost started a riot after a silversmith named Demetrius complained that Paul would be the cause of their loss of income and damage to the reputation of the goddess Artemis (New Testament, Acts of the Apostles 19). But given its rocky start, Christianity flourished in the region, and the Patriarch of Constantinople was a significant figure in Christian circles in the centuries to come. The place also appears to have been a hotbed of theological activity: the Christian bishops held the third ecumenical council at Ephesus in 431, a meeting full of doctrinal shenanigans and theological intrigue.

In geographical terms, however, it would appear that Ephesus was doomed. Constant earthquakes – which kept the stonemasons busy for centuries – coupled with the silting up of the harbour, had serious economic consequences for the city. By the time of the crusades it was barely a village, and by the fifteenth century, its inhabitants had grown weary, even the stonemasons, and simply upped sticks and moved on. European archeologists in the nineteenth century – keen to unearth the romantic roots of Greek and Roman civilization – did much to excavate parts of the city, but they removed many artefacts that should have been left where they were found. The British Museum has more of the Temple of Artemis than currently remains in Turkey!

We really enjoyed our tour around this most ancient of cities and were stunned by the obvious wealth of what it must have been in the Byzantine period. It makes you think: in the days when the inhabitants of Dublin and Belfast were just out of the cave, living in mud and wooden huts while eking out a living in unsavoury hygiene conditions, the citizens of Ephesus had running water – some even had indoor loos – spacious bathing facilities, wide, oil-lit streets paved with shinning marble, a library and a medical school, alongside a theatre that seated 25,000. And yet … the city just crumpled away. As a fascinating place to visit, I give it full marks, pipping Hierapolis and Pamukkale to the post by a good few lengths. I really do recommend a trip away from the coast for those willing to embark on the longish road trip.

Main street

Turkey Once More

Last week I met a woman in the Aegean Sea – we were staying near Alaçatı (about one hour’s drive from Izmir), a town on Turkey’s Çeşme Peninsula. She was wearing a little bikini like a flat-chested twelve-year old, big dark sunglasses, and a wonderful hat. Hanging around, she was, enjoying the water while her boyfriend was at meetings. She told me her name and we chatted a few minutes. I just loved the way she said “my boyfriend” – she must have been 75 if she was a day. Later I saw her doing some incredibly flexible yoga on the beach. Message to self: the age of your body is not always relevant to how you live your life. May the rest of your days be lived out in eternal youth, Lady With The Hat in the Aegean Sea!

***

I have a new theory: Turkish carpet salesmen are like expert fishermen. The skill is in getting you interested in the lure, interested enough to take a further look. Once you’ve done that and you are actually inside the shop, you’re easy prey. I know. I took a tentative bite and was reeled in expertly by three of the most charming guys you could hope to sell you a carpet (Magic Carpet is the name of the store in Sultanahmet). Coffee, tea, water, baklava? Nothing was too much trouble. We bought a wonderful creation that I am now afraid to walk on (it gets rolled up when the senior dog painfully makes her way to our bedroom and her bed), while Sheridan and Annabelle completed the underfoot requirements for their new build.

But making carpets is no easy job and we saw a few women who spent their days working a loom in the window area of a carpet shop. Their weavings of hand-dyed silk and cotton are works of art but the women had arthritic fingers, painful backs, and failing eyesight from long hours of following a pattern so intricate as to defy description. Not surprisingly, this most ancient of art forms is dying out. Young people are not willing to endure the pain of a two-to-three-year stint producing one carpet. Granted that carpet will sell for upwards of fifteen thousand euros, but I suspect the carpet shop owner will snaffle the lion’s share of the proceeds. Computerised machines will do the job in the future and we, all of us, shall be the poorer for that loss of our common heritage.

I have another new theory: everyone who works anywhere in Turkey (shoeshine guys, street sellers, hotel porters, waiters, you name ’em) either sells carpets or has a brother/uncle/cousin who sells carpets, or knows someone who sells carpets “just around the corner, Lady”. We did indeed follow some fishermen to their employers’ places, and we enjoyed the whirling-carpet show they put on inside. I have quite a heap of business cards if anyone out there wants to buy a carpet!

***

Back in Istanbul we carved out a path through the restaurants area near the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, and dutifully trod that path every evening in search of sustenance. Well, every restaurant has a fisherman outside, and his job (we only saw one woman on the pavement) is to get you to read the menu and then lure you inside. The menus themselves are simply genius, designed to have you salivating in five seconds or less. Each item is pictured in full colour just in case you cannot read the Turkish/English/German/French descriptions. I did indeed find myself drawn to the cholesterol-ridden dishes that depicted soft melting cheese oozing through crispy-on-the-top phyllo pastry on a bed of spinach or smoked asparagus or some other wonderful purée. And in every single case, the fisherman would ask “where do you come from?” Sometimes we pretended not to speak English, but then they switched to French/ Italian/German/Spanish (one guy, to my absolute astonishment said “Cad é mar atá tú?” – ‘how are you?’ in Irish!!). It was better to be honest. So when one evening a young guy asked the question, I simply said “near Malin Head” while continuing my brisk walk. Well, didn’t he run after me with: “my son lives in Limavady”. You could have knocked me over with a feather. While Limavady isn’t exactly on the way from Belfast to Inishowen it could be if you took the scenic route. I was intrigued. And of course now that a connection had been made, it was de rigueur for us to stop by his place on the next hunt for delicious food. We did. It was fine. But his story was a sad one of divorce with no visiting rights (even if he could afford the travel and get a visa). We left him a larger-than-usual tip after telling him a little bit about the Limavady he would never get to visit.

***

Of course the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet Square, the Mosaic Museum and the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, the Arasta Bazar, the Galata Tower (to be truthful the queue was too long to join), Taskim Square, the Grand Bazar, and all the other wonderful places of Istanbul were intriguing as usual. I will visit again – I think part of my soul has remained in Byzantium, this now sprawling city with so many layers of history, culture, and tradition.

Endings and New Beginnings

28 February 2019

On this day four months ago, Luna had her first – and last – litter of puppies with Finley. On this day one year ago, I officially retired from academic administration and paid employment. And on this very day, my younger cousin is being buried. Mother of three, cancer survivor twice, and living with MS, an aortic aneurism finally robbed her of older age on the 23rd of this month. We “know” that death is the end of our mortal strivings, but a sudden death never ceases to remind that we are not guaranteed a tomorrow. Death often stops you in your tracks and gives you an unexpected punch to the gut. But in the midst of heaving with sorrow and pain it also acts as a reminder to live life to the very fullest and to be grateful for it, at least for a while until familiarity with old routines rubs the raw edges of grief and realization back to comfortable levels.

Rilke

This is my resolve for now: drinking deeply of life’s red wine. And as I raise my glass to you I say: “rest in peace Ali, rest in eternal peace!”

On a less sombre note, as I come to the first anniversary of retirement from paid employment, I have to say that the ride has not always been a smooth one. It took some very long months before I was finally able to stop turning the period into a comma, to stop thinking about my work. And for those months of mental – if not physical – engagement with my previous employment, it was ever so hard to disengage the cruising button, to shift from 5th to 4th, from 4th to 3rd, and finally down to neutral. The gears were always moving, my worries constant, and my disengagement ever so slow. But finally, just before Christmas past, when the last connections were, rather painfully, cut with what I consider to have been a wonderful achievement in my final working years, I made a decision to let the period remain a period. Both of us did. The Man and I lit some candles, burned some incense, and watched the past rise wisp-like into the evening sky above the lake, its power over us broken, a beginning of sorts in the making.

I will be celebrating my sixty-third birthday later this year. And because 60 is supposed to be the new 40, I have decided to start enjoying myself – read enjoying ‘my unpaid academic work’! After thirty-odd years of hard slog, I am now a woman of otium liberale, living a life of unashamed academic leisure, reading what I want, and taking a great deal more pleasure in my world of books and other things too: landscaping the garden where the big tree came down, making jam and chutney, traveling a bit more, experimenting with Irish soda bread recipes, getting back to calligraphy and playing the piano, and cleaning up after the canines.

New beginnings can be exciting, especially if the path isn’t charted. Not knowing what’s around the corner can be liberating (as well as a little scary if the truth be told) and I am up for what’s coming. The long shadow of my past has finally slipped back from my heels, and I do believe I have gained a little bit of wisdom. I am officially a crone and am embracing cronehood whole-heartedly. Maybe I’ll throw a party and invite the other crones to come and skinny dip at midnight. Or maybe I’ll just chose an inviting book and have an early night.

Carpets, Churches, and Cupcakes

A few weeks ago The Man and I, together with Sheridan and Annabelle, (re-)visited Byzantium / Constantinople / Istanbul for what they call a long weekend city break, and we enjoyed every second of it. Three things stand out for me – as the title of this blog might give away – except that you should really substitute baklava and Turkish Delight for cupcakes: the alliteration opportunity was just too tempting to ignore.

First carpets. Forget “Do you want to build a snowman?”, “Do you want to buy a carpet?” became a constant question on every street corner. After a while they sort of had us brainwashed, and bedad didn’t we take ourselves off to a carpet shop to see what they had to offer. Well, the floor show was magnificent. The OTTness of it all! Once it became clear that we might be serious punters, out came the wine and the baklava – and very tasty it all was too. The head honcho was a born actor who never missed a clue in private conversation between us two couples, all the time whirling his carpets around like Ali Baba and giving instructions to his guys in rapid Turkish.

IMAG0988

After some few hours had passed, we settled on one traditional carpet for ourselves, and Sheridan and Annabelle selected three more modern pieces for a new build. Well, the guy thought he had died and gone to heaven. More wine was called for. The prices were haggled a bit, and I know we did pay more than they were worth, but it was an experience never to be forgotten. He even threw in the cost of the DHL and handling – although at the price we paid, he had a nice hefty profit from which to extract his costs. Ours has just arrived at home having spent the Easter vacation in a Kampala warehouse awaiting the revenue authority decision on taxation. All in all, it was one of the nicest shopping experiences of my life, and when visitors say: “what a lovely carpet! Where did you get it?”, they will hear the whole unedited story.

And now to Churches. On the shores of the Sea of Marmara stands a small building called the Little Hagia Sophia (Küçük Ayasofya), formerly Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (fourth-century Syrian martyrs). This church, a mosque since the time of the Ottoman conquest in 1453, was built by Justinian and his wife Theodora between 527 and 536, and despite damage from earthquakes over the centuries and the advancement of the city, still retains its dignity as a house of God.

HS Little.jpg

Its plan consists of a small basilica with the dome resting on an octagon. Sadly, its original beauty and decoration can only be guessed at because the interior was plastered when it became a mosque.

interior LHS

This little picture shows the dome of the San Vitale church at Ravenna; the Little Hagia Sophia would have had similar interior design.

SV Dome

But the octagonal shape is what captured my attention as I immediately thought of two other octagonal churches: Ravenna and Aachen. It could well be that the Ravenna Church of San Vitale (capital of the western Roman Empire at the time) was inspired by the Little Hagia Sophia given that it was commissioned by Bishop Ecclesius (what a wonderful name for a bishop!) after a visit to Byzantium. San Vitale was consecrated in 548 and its mosaics are considered masterpieces of Byzantine art, no doubt inspired by those of the Little Ayasofya.

mosaic SV

The final member of this trinity of churches is the Cathedral at Aachen, begun around 793, commissioned by Emperor Charlemagne and built by Odo of Metz, and it is, as with the other two octagonal churches, a world heritage site. Charlemagne had moved the capital of the Frankish Kingdom from Ravenna to Aachen so there is a likely link between the Little Hagia Sophia of Justinian via Ravenna and the Church of Charlemagne at Aachen. Although Charlemagne’s cathedral is mostly Romanesque, the octagonal design forms its centre. The Palace Chapel at its core was built from columns and marble from the ancient buildings of Rome and Ravenna (given by Pope Hadrain not looted as was to happen in centuries to come), creating a link between Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, and Charlemagne, the new Constantine who kick-started the Carolingian Renaissance where one of my academic interests lies.

aachen outside      aachen dome

But trends change quickly: just seventy or so years later Charlemagne’s grandson built his own church: Notre Dame de Compiègne. This time not an octagonal design but a full-on Gothic Church. It has been suggested that a poem penned by my friend Eriugena (the ninth-century Irish scholar who worked at the palace school of Charles) Aulae sidereae (starry halls) was written to commemorate the consecration of this church in 877. But how I wish the builder had used the octagonal design: that would have made a neat quad of churches built on eights with roots at the very heart of Christendom!

As for the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, the Grand Bazzar, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, and all the other magnificent places we visited, that will be for another day and another blog as I have to serve desert now. The people of Turkey are serious about their sweet stuff, baklava and Turkish delight being the tip of the iceberg. We found a cafe that serves only tea, coffee, and deserts / sweets. The Man thought he had died and gone to heaven. His only problem was choice! It was indeed very good but you wouldn’t want to be going there every day for a cholesterol special.

A short time later, just like with the carpet shop, we stopped a fraction of a second too long outside a sweet shop. In a blink of an eye we were whisked inside and given explanations of all the goodies on display. Really interesting and complex, but it was the samples that did me in. The Man smiled through it all and ate all his without complaint. They even found him a seat so that he could be more comfortable. I had the job of choosing which items to put in a box to carry carefully and lovingly back to Kampala. And while I was doing this, the two men were diverted to a section of the shop that sold sweets laced with what I suspect was viagra. “It will make her very happy tonight”, they were told with a Frankie Howard wink; “it will make her smile tomorrow”, they added. And with another saucy wink, your man slipped a sachet of the stuff into each husband’s coat pocket. “You will get two free if you buy ten”, they persisted. But that was just too much for their manliness to deal with and all cajoling to buy the stuff fell on deaf ears.  And in any case, the credit cards were maxed out after the visit to the carpet shop.