Flying Elephant …

There was an elephant in my room last night. A pink one.

It flew in through the open French window at dusk, clattered about a bit and then hid itself where I couldn’t chase it out again. Seeing that it had apparently settlde down for the night, I gave up the hunt and went to bed myself.

This morning it was clinging to the inside of the curtain; I opened the window and poked my visitor out. It sat trembling on the windowsill, evidently traumatised, so I did what I would have done for a bee and gave it a large blob of honey. Maybe I killed it with kindness? Eventually it stopped fluttering and lay perfectly still, its nose and feet in the honey. Dead.

What a privilege for me to have been honoured by its visit. I feel quite sad that I wasn’t able to save this very beautiful creature. RIP.

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My gorgeous elephant hawk moth

Another elephant-related incident – a tenuous link, only because elephants never forget – occurred a few days ago. An old school-friend contacted me to ask, given my elephantine memory, if I could recall a song we sang in primary school (that’s over 60 years ago!). All she could remember was that Miss Stevenson had taught it to us and it contained the word Innisfree. As far as I was aware, we never sang Yeats’s poem so I knew it wasn’t that, but from deep in the swirly mists of my childhood arose a faint melody, flitting in and out of my consciousness but – like my moth – never quite catchable.

However, the following day I suddenly knew the title: The Flight of the Earls. Instantly, the melody returned and most of the words. Not Innisfree but Innisfail, the old poetic name for Ireland. I googled it, and found that it was a poem by Alfred Perceval Graves, set to a haunting melody by Charles Villiers Stanford. Neither name meant anything to me, but I was glad to be able to free my friend from her torment of forgetfulness.

What bothered me in all this, though, was that the name Miss Stevenson also meant nothing to me, although I distinctly remembered singing the song at school. My friend sent me a succinct description: “Grey hair, straight style, usually in grey clothes. lived till she was 102.” Sounds like a typical schoolmarm, but despite racking my brain nowhere can I find either an image of her or an echo of her name. The melody, however, lingers on. And so do the lyrics. I’ve been singing this old song as I go about my chores. Poor neighbours!

The subject of memory has been quite topical for me lately. In Sanibel library, towards the start of my vacation, I found a thousand-page biography of Marcel Proust on sale for two dollars. The size of this is commensurate with its subject, of course: A la Recherche du Temps Perdu may not be quite the longest novel ever written but it certainly looks impressive on a bookshelf (over 3,000 pages).

Now when I was about 20, my BA (Hons) course included a couple of trimesters studying the French novel. My reading list included hefty tomes by Balzac, Hugo, Zola, Flaubert, Gide – and of course Monsieur Proust, whereby the book on which we were to be examined was the double volume of Le Temps Retrouvé, which is the final link in the chain bringing the story full circle. That of course obliged us to read the entire set of seven volumes – no easy task in the limited time available – and it was competing with such heavyweights as Les Misérables, L’Assommoir (which is also one of twenty books in the Rougon-Macquart series) and my candidate for the most boring book ever published, Bouvard et Pécuchet.

I was able to boast truthfully that I had read all of Proust in French but I didn’t admit I had retained nothing! There just wasn’t enough time to digest all the imperfect subjunctives and unfamiliar vocabulary, and I was lucky in the exam that I was able to choose other works to write about. During the intervening half century, I’ve played with the idea of re-reading this magnum opus but – until now – it’s remained a vague idea.

Although the Proust biography was a bit heavy going for beach reading, I did manage to finish it (and bring it home for future reference), as it piqued my interest in Proust once more. Then I discovered I could purchase the version intégrale of A la Recherche for Kindle for a mere 2 euros! This time, I have the leisure that was lacking in my youth, the patience to linger over the notoriously interminable, serpentine sentences and the maturity to discover the charm, humour, profundity of thought, intensity of analysis, richness of language, the vivid evocation of la belle époque, and the sheer poetry of Proust’s account of his search for lost time.

I’m normally a fast reader, but here I have met my match. In four weeks, I’m only two and a half books down, four and a half to go, halfway through Du Côté des Guermantes. I know already that when I finally reach the end, I’ll have to start re-reading from the beginning to refresh my memory: maybe this is a project for the rest of my life! I think I will have to buy the hardbacks. Surely I’ll find a set in the brocante.

They will look very impressive on my bookshelf.

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Done And Dusted

I didn’t become an alligator’s breakfast, and in spite of minor hiccups, got home safe and sound. I apologise for my long silence, but I have been quite busy and several posts are brewing in my head, which I hope will get written.

My main preoccupation throughout the months of April, May and June was the sale of my mother’s house. Aha, you thought that had gone through at Easter, didn’t you? My fault for misleading you, sorry. No, the poor house stood closed up, empty and steaming with damp while my buyer’s solicitor appeared to twiddle his thumbs. Not good for the woodwork.

The evident aim was to get the price down even lower than the amount my insurance claim covered, and in that the ploy was successful, but they shot themselves in the foot because it meant that mould and mildew set in. In the end, in spite of the haggling, the buyer will have had to spend just as much on repairs as if he had paid me the price originally agreed. But at least they didn’t back out, and the sale was finally closed, albeit very late.

It was a war of nerves, and being on the other side of the world dependent on e-mails for news of progress – or lack of progress and galloping deterioration – didn’t help. Thank goodness I had plenty to distract me there, including the alligators, and could count my blessings as well as my frustrations.

There were stupid mistakes made – for instance, the insurance company paid the compensation to my Swiss sterling bank account in euros instead of in British pounds, obviously unaware that in Switzerland we use Swiss francs. There was a shortfall of a few hundred pounds. Vigorous protestation on my part, defiance on theirs, threats from me, then eventually the final payment arrived on my birthday, 20 June, exactly 3 months after the deal was supposed to have been completed.

And there were minor issues such as the fact that my signature needed to be witnessed on the final contract. By this time, it was June and I was back in Switzerland, where the idea of witnessing a signature is totally alien. I wanted to get the documents posted back that same day, but who could I ask to witness my signature? My neighbours were all out, my friends in different towns.

I had the bright idea of going to the bank and asking the bank clerk to sign. Oh dear no, no, no – that’s a legal document as well as being FOREIGN, in English! Go to the Town Hall and get it done there. The Town Hall will notarise a signature and affix an official stamp, but that wasn’t what I needed and anyway they said I would need an appointment and it cost a small fee.

I was getting frustrated and irritated by this time, and in desperation went to the Post Office where I managed to persuade the young lady at the counter that she wouldn’t be compromising herself by watching me sign my name and then signing herself below my signature that she had seen me sign personally. Young and straightforward she was, and I blessed her for her good faith as she took the envelope with the precious document and added it to the pile of mail to be sent.

A week later came a request for the address of my witness. I didn’t even know her name, but in a flash of inspiration simply gave the post office address, which was accepted.

Completion date was set for 15 June, a Friday, and I spent most of the day trotting around in circles, checking my e-mails, eyeing the bottle of Prosecco promised for the celebration, reluctant to leave the house in case …. Until I got a message to say that the buyer’s solicitor hadn’t transferred the funds in time, and it was all postponed till Monday. If my hair hadn’t been grey to start with, it would have been by then! My reaction on THE DAY was a mixture of relief that it was finally all over, and grief. I felt a bit sick, a bit weepy, and was glad I was alone. Two days later, on my birthday, I was ready to celebrate. And did!

My former neighbour is a friendly chap and has clearly been showing an interest in the work in progress and chatting to the new owners, so this week I received a series of photos of the poor house gutted and stripped to its bare bones, minus plaster and all fixtures. Looks as if they are making a very thorough job of it, and it will be fine once they have finished, and it’s resurrected.  As England is having a heatwave, the house has probably also now dried out completely.  IMG_0957.jpg

The garden is a jungle, and I can imagine that, too, will be ruthlessly rotivated and all long established plants removed, including Mom’s beloved roses. That’s the only thing that is still giving me a pang of pain: as for the house, which has now lost all its character and quaint charm, my ties with it are now severed. I feel detached. I am glad to know it will be well restored. I really hope they do make a decent job of it and will be very happy in their new home. Maybe sometime next year I’ll be able to see what they have done.

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One of the little features that gave the house character and charm, now gone.

 

Sleeping With An Alligator

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My “I-Spy-Wildlife” list is getting longer, with the addition this week of a firefly and an iguana. The firefly was gleaming like a misplaced Christmas light in a bushy palm tree one dark evening. Wondering who on earth would have put a fluorescent green LED there, I was on my way to investigate when it took flight and vanished into the night. Beautiful, miraculous, amazing! Ogden Nash’s verses on The Firefly occurred to me:

The firefly’s flame
Is something for which science has no name 

I can think of nothing eerier
Than flying around with an unidentified glow on a person’s posterior. 

The iguana appeared before me on the bike path, popped into the undergrowth and reappeared a minute or two later as I rounded the corner. I didn’t get a proper look at it, so was very gratified when another one (or was it the same one stalking me?) showed up a quarter of an hour later on another bike path in no apparent hurry. An incredible looking creature, wearing emerald-green enamel plating on its body and bright flaming orange and red scales around its head and neck.  Sadly, I didn’t have time to get a photo. I know dinosaurs are usually depicted in muddy colours, but I can’t help trying to visualise Tyrannosaurus Rex in iguana hues. What a feast for the eyes!

My stay in Paradise is drawing to a close. Most of the snowbirds have flown home, and the rainy season is upon us. Being British, I don’t mind rain. In fact, I’m enjoying these showers and deluges with intermittent bursts of sunshine. The temperature is still in the 80’s F (around 30°C) so even if I get soaked as I ride my trike through the raindrops, it’s no hardship. It was certainly needed, and the earth is soaking it all up. The ibis, pelicans, egrets, crows and anhingas don’t seem bothered by it, nor do the rabbits.  I suppose they all have waterproof outer coverings. And the woodpecker is still pecking away loudly.  IMG_2460

An anhinga (also called a snake bird) got into trouble at the edge of the lake a few days ago. We could see its wings flailing and a lot of splashing and squawking, but couldn’t quite see what the problem was. Had the alligator got it by the toe? Was it fighting a fish? A large white heron fluttered across to its side, probably curious, and half a dozen crows started wheeling around cawing menacingly above it. Were they simply waiting like vultures, or would they actually dive and give the victim the coup de grâce, validating the phrase “a murder of crows”?

We were on the point of going out to see what was the matter when a young couple in a golf cart drew up alongside and hurried to the rescue. The bird had caught its foot in some netting that is presumably intended to retain the muddy bank. The man tried to free it using his golf club, but that wasn’t enough so my friend offered him some scissors. He eventually managed to cut away the mesh trapping the anhinga, which was not only exhausted but probably also in shock by this time, as it made no effort to fly away at first. Our neighbours also came out to see what was going on and offer assistance if needed, but the bird then decided it had a large enough human audience, rose gracefully into the air and disappeared on the other side of the lake. That one, at least, lived to tell the tale.  IMG_2430

The anhinga is a very beautiful bird. Its alternative name of snake bird comes from its appearance in the water, as not being very buoyant most of its body is underwater when it swims, and only its long neck and head can be seen, resembling a snake about to strike. It is much like the cormorant in that its feathers aren’t completely waterproof. That has the advantage that the bird can stay underwater longer when it dives for fish, but the disadvantage that when it emerges from the water its wings are waterlogged and it has to sit a while with wings outspread to dry.

Right from my first night here, I have been aware of some slow heavy breathing as I lie quietly in my bed. I made sure that there was nobody else in my room with me, and dismissed the thought that maybe I had a ghostly bedfellow sharing my king-size. The window was open, so the sound was coming in from outside, and I rapidly deduced that something must be slumbering among the mangroves in the swampy nature preserve a few metres away across the road. INNN-hale …. EXXXXhale …. INNNhale … EXXXhale. I needed only to listen to it for a few seconds, and I was instantly in dreamland. I described this to a visiting friend who confirmed my suspicions. “Yep, that’s an alligator.”

Life will seem very dull when I get back home,

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A Place In The Sun …

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Did you miss me?

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No news is good news in my book, so I trust you weren’t unduly concerned! Yes, I’m on that peaceful paradisiacal island in Florida, where the sun shines and everyone smiles – Big Rock Candy Mountain has nothing on this place!

I’m back riding my trike, which gets me everywhere I need to go, swimming 50 laps of the pool every day (before breakfast if I can manage it, when no one else is around) and tending my suntan. My best friend is taking excellent care of me, and I am trying not to be too difficult and inconsiderate – she deserves a gold medal for her patience!

The wildlife here is as fascinating as ever. We have alligators of various sizes, which emerge occasionally from the golf club lakes – the small ones to bask on the grassy shore, the big ones to roar like a lion as they seek the females.

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Signs tell us not “to feed or frighten the alligators”, a reminder that we are just as scary to them as they are to us. The lakes are also home to duck and moorhen families, the little ones strung out behind the parents and paddling as fast as their little legs will go. The adults often join us in the swimming pool, swimming around and preening themselves.  Since they can’t read the sign saying “Don’t swallow the pool water”, they drink it tooI

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I have encountered a softshell turtle three times, twice as she was crossing the road and the third time as she meandered around in our garden looking for a place to lay her eggs. She dug several holes, keenly watched by the iridescent black sea crows who like to eat the eggs, so we added a bit more sand cover for her eggs after she had finished and plopped back into the water. Hopefully, some eggs will escape the crows and the babies will hatch, though I’m told they could take a couple of months, so we aren’t going to see them.

IMG_1072These turtles are strange looking creatures, with a long round nose like a snorkel and a telescopic neck that suddenly pops up periscope fashion to allow the animal to get its bearings. They can move unexpectedly fast, and I wouldn’t necessarily bet on the cute little brown bunnies (which also abound here) if they were racing together.

We have birds galore: a woodpecker who wakes us with his hammering each morning, doves, cardinals, ibis, egrets, herons, ospreys, sandpipers – and of course, pelicans.

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These remind me of pterodactyls, so ungainly when they waddle around on land but graceful as swans on the water and incredible acrobats in the air. What is the collective noun for a large group of pelicans? A platoon? A plethora? A posse? A plunge? They can nosedive at speed into 18 inches of water without getting their bills stuck in the sand, and come up with fish every time. I marvel at their ability to spot the fish in the sandy waves, and wonder how they manage to avoid colliding with each other when they plunge.

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There are also some beautiful plants and especially trees on this island. I brought my water paints with me, but have been too lazy to do much with them. I am enamoured of one particular banyan tree that I have photographed and hope to immortalise in paint before I leave. Or when I get home. One day.

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In the meantime, I’m relaxing and not troubling my little head with all the problems I could find if I wanted to, such as the sale of my house in England and what the insurance company will or won’t cover … it will all work out in the end. Things always do. To quote the Dalai Lama:

“If you can’t do anything about it, why be dejected?
And if you can do something about it, why be dejected?”

Keep calm and carry on …

“Are you looking forward to your holiday in Florida?”

I ought to be. The prospect of sunshine and sea should be filling me with bright expectation. But no. I’m spending too much time and energy trying on summer clothes, checking what still fits and looks reasonable, horrified at my stubby white legs and rolls of fat around my midriff that have been insulating me during the winter months but now just look plain unsightly. The snow has gone at last, and spring is starting to spread its blossoms around, but trying on shorts and sun tops still feels surreal and vaguely indecent.

My suitcase is bulging already, not only with clothes but also sun creams, packets of coffee and … cheese fondue by special request. I can’t lift it. Something will have to come out. My skinny friend – my hostess and travelling companion – manages with a rucksack: tiny bikinis, shorts and tops occupy a fraction of the space my XXL swimsuits take up. Admittedly, she also has a wardrobe full of apparel in her Floridian home.

I hate the run-up to travelling. It seems so much more of a hassle nowadays than it used to be. Yes, I have my passport, ticket, API, ESTA, and US dollars. Make sure they are in my hand luggage and not in the suitcase. The boarding pass now comes magically onto my phone, supposedly simplifying check-in at the airport. My suitcase  – contents halved – still seems to weigh almost as much as I do. Luckily, it’s on wheels – but I long for the day when I’ll say, “Beam me up, Scotty!” and that will include whatever luggage I need. For now, there’s a walk to the station, the train, a car ride, the plane and another car at the other end before I can relax and say, “I’ve arrived!”

This time, though, in addition to my usual pre-travelling nerves, I also have concerns related to my still unsold house. The mills are grinding, but very slowly. Various experts have looked at it, including (at last!) the insurance company representative. Bless him, he has written today offering me a lump sum covering all the work, to be offset against any diminution in the value of the house. Well, at least the sale can now go ahead and it will be the new owners who inherit all the headaches. The house will, hopefully, arise like a phoenix (from water, not fire!) – aptly enough, given that it’s Easter. I am happy to relinquish it. “All things work for good for those who believe.”

What has helped me keep my sanity through all this? Well, “Keep calm and carry on crocheting” could be my devise. Whenever I felt my blood pressure rising, I picked up my Afghan blanket, which is growing apace. Something positive comes from any negative experience …

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I’m calling this Pythagoras – the square on the hypotenuse …

 

Disaster – Or Golden Opportunity?

Our family home in England went back on the market at the end of September, after the prospective buyer withdrew her offer. I was disappointed, as she had seemed the perfect person for the place, but it wasn’t to be,/

Finally, just before Christmas, another turned up with an offer rather lower than we had hoped for, but – hey, beggars can’t be choosers, and the house wasn’t improving by standing empty through the bad weather. If you know the UK, you will know that for the two weeks around Christmas and New Year, life comes to a standstill. So I had to be patient until mid January, when I learned that my buyer’s mortgage application had been approved, and the solicitors contacted me for confirmation of this and that detail. The estate agent was very reassuring throughout February, and I had high hopes of completing the sale by Easter, when I shall be flying off to the sun again.

But March duly came in like a lion and the Beast from the East (as the weather-people nicknamed the violent freezing blasts from the Arctic) and storm Emma were out to wreak havoc. Temperatures overnight plunged to -8°C. Then came the thaw.

My neighbour phoned me on Sunday morning: “I’m afraid I have bad news …” My first thought was that someone had died. So it was almost a relief to hear him continue, “A water pipe has burst in the loft and there’s a waterfall cascading down the stairs.” Exactly the same had happened in his house, and another neighbour had also lost tiles from her roof and had snow inside her house. Does it help to know you are not alone in your trouble?

I had had the foresight to check with the neighbour only a few days before to make sure that the central heating was still on and the house was warm, but the loft was very well insulated, and the pipe in question, although it was lagged, was located above the insulation and therefore vulnerable in the icy air.

First aid came in the form of our trusty plumber-electrician, who ought by rights to be retiring but has more work than he can deal with. He turned off the water, electricity and gas to make the house safe but didn’t have time to stop and repair the pipe, as he had a list as long as his arm of further emergencies to attend to.

On the Monday morning I e-mailed the estate agent and a chartered surveyor friend who has helped me in the past with building maintenance work. Both of these sent building contractors to have a look, and assess the damage. The builders both said the same: the floor and wall coverings need to be removed so that the fabric of the house can dry out, and possibly the water has got into the electric circuit, but an electrician will need to look into that.

Good, I thought, things are moving. I had forgotten this was England. Things don’t move that fast if you aren’t there to wield a whip. It was ten days before a skip was hired and the sodden carpets taken up, and it will be about three weeks before the plumber gets around to repairing the pipe. Then an electrician can go in and see if the circuits are OK.

I was in Germany at the time, so I phoned the insurance company and explained the situation. There was a certain amount of confusion over the policy, which had originally been in my mother’s name and has only been in my name since last July. Apparently, that isn’t long enough for it to be retrieved easily in the computer. In the end, the woman on the phone found it in her system and confirmed that it was valid, and I should call again to make a claim when I was back home.

That delayed us another week, and no work can be done until the insurance company has sent someone to inspect and assess the damage and received quotes from the two building firms. Then, I gather, they will take over and arrange for whatever repairs are necessary. I hope I understood that correctly.

Meanwhile, the central heating is off and this weekend it’s snowing again.

It has now been two weeks since the leak was discovered. I have photos of how my poor house looked ten days ago, but I dread to think of how much worse it must be by now: sodden floorboards and walls, the woodwork swollen with water, and the front door has jammed.

Does the buyer know yet? The estate agent says he is waiting to be able to give him the good news, viz. that he will be spared the work and expense of removing old carpets and wall coverings, and the walls will be re-plastered and papered free of charge. He may even get new floors. Will it affect the sale, or delay completion? I’ll soon find out.

This weekend is the anniversary of my mother’s funeral. Although (as my daughter says) the soul had gone out of the place as soon as she was no longer living there, a year ago I was still so closely attached to her house that I couldn’t begin to think of handing it over to strangers. I was distressed when I saw the garden beginning to run wild in the summer, and it was a harrowing task to de-clutter and clear out the house last September.

However, as autumn and winter advanced, I began to look forward to closure and the idea of someone else bringing it back to life, with a young family making it their home. It will be liberating to hand it over to them. I like the idea of the timing, that they will become its new owners exactly 80 years after my father and mother (aged 24 and 21 respectively) moved in, in April 1938.  Springtime is surely the best time for new beginnings. I hope and pray that all goes smoothly now.

 

Vintage Friends

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Visiting old friends is like putting on a pair of comfy slippers and a dressing gown. I have just spent ten days with such an old pal, whom I don’t see or speak to often enough, but it’s one of those friendships where the connection is so deep and strong we can pick up the threads even after years of silence. We first met more than fifty years ago, both of us young English women exiled in provincial Germany, each with a little girl and, as we discovered, a great deal in common besides.

We have stood – metaphorically if not always literally – shoulder to shoulder through many ups and downs, good times and dreadful, and though we may have sometimes had different perspectives on things, we have never fallen out or spoken angrily to one another. We can take criticism and plain speaking from each other without offence, knowing that neither of us is being judgemental in such cases, but only wants the best for the other. We know each other’s shortcomings, but we are also aware of our strengths. For this friendship, I am eternally grateful.

This time it was my turn to offer my shoulder to cry on, and lend a willing ear for confidences she could share with no one else. I hope I gave good counsel, but my chief contribution was simply being there. We also revisited old haunts, many of which have altered out of all recognition, mostly for the better but sometimes not, and cheered ourselves up immensely by finding genuine bargains in the sales.

These buildings summarise some of the changes that have taken place between 1968 and 2018:

Being in the place where I lived so many years ago, and which I hadn’t visited for a decade, my path also inevitably crossed that of other friends, family and former acquaintances. The cruel passage of time had made most of us unrecognisable to one another, but after the initial blank stare, the familiar features of the younger face began to impose themselves and we usually caught up on the intervening half century in a matter of minutes: the girls I knew in the first flush of love, engaged and then married, now widows and grandmothers; the dashing young footballer, his infectious smile still intact, but now wearing six thousand euros’ worth of technology in his ears; the slim, energetic young tennis player now a roly-poly diabetic walking with a stick. But all of them cheerful and apparently glad to be alive still, all with their stories to tell if they can only find an audience.

It’s a truism to say that you can never go back. You may be able to open a window onto the past, but it remains a window to look through, not a door you can pass through. An old friend can look at the same view with you, and maybe notice things you have missed. That’s the joy of finding a person to reminisce with over shared memories that bore the socks off the grandchildren.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, disaster was striking. But that’s another post.