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?”

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.

Once in a Blue Moon …

 

… comes the privilege of witnessing, live, two men of genius performing at the same event. Two days on, I’m still glowing from the reflected glory and deep inner joy, all enhanced by the memorable timing of this experience on the eve of the Super Blue Blood Moon.

What event am I mooning about? I have already mentioned my old friend Norman Perryman in two previous blogposts (here and here – please read them again, and have a look at his websites). Naturally I’ve seen some of his impressive static paintings, and videos of his kinetic art, but this was my very first opportunity to see his unique genius in action, live, right before my eyes.

When he told me that he was coming to perform with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra on the evening of 30 January, of course I knew I had to go to the concert. So near, yet so far: Zurich is only an hour and a half away by train, so I’ve always considered it easily accessible. However, as I get older and feel more vulnerable, I have become ever more reluctant to take the train late in the evening because there are “some weird folk” abroad at that time, hanging around stations as well as on the train. There is probably little risk, I know, but I feel that my fear is palpable and that, like animals, these people can sense fear and are attracted by it. So call me cowardy-custard, but I prefer not to take the train after 9 pm if I can avoid it.

My Darling Daughter came to my rescue once again. She lives close enough to Zurich that the train journey is not so fraught, and anyway she looks after me so well, I don’t have to worry about anything. Plus, she offered me a bed for two nights. She was so keen to go, she actually bought the tickets, so another treat for me. In fact, I don’t think I would have found the concert venue on my own, though once you know its location it’s actually very easy, practically next door to the railway station.

The programme was an interesting and lively mix: Stravinsky’s “Basel” concerto for strings in D with Norman’s kinetic watercolours, followed by Mozart’s piano concerto no 21 (with the famous Elvira Madigan Andante 2nd movement) featuring the extraordinary Radu Lupu, and culminating in a rollicking rendering of Beethoven’s second symphony.

Stravinsky, I freely admit, is not among my favourite composers although in the past I have enjoyed watching ballets to his music. It is, I’ve always felt, more a vehicle to move to than music to listen to, and have disparagingly referred to the opening movement of this concerto as “Music for grasshoppers”. It had struck me as suitable for the soundtrack of some film noir, but with Norman’s synaesthesia supplying the colours and the paintbrush providing the choreography, I suddenly found this work palatable. Kinetic art is the perfect partner for this piece. To my surprise, it touched feelings and emotions in me that were buried very deep, arousing a sense of a profound connection to universal truths and meanings that flashed in and out too swiftly for me to catch them. Almost cathartic. Certainly beautiful.

We had seats in the middle of the front row so that we would get a good view of the screen where the art is projected. This also gave us a new perspective on the Steinway during the piano concerto, a true worm’s eye view of the mirrored inside lid. It didn’t matter. I’m one of those people who close their eyes while listening to classical music, preferring not to see the writhing and grimacing of many gifted musicians as they perform. All I could see of the soloist Radu Lupu, once he had sat down, was his left foot barely pressing the pedal. But my daughter, who was slightly better placed in the aisle seat, was struck by his stolid impassivity as he played, in such contrast to the delicacy of his touch and the power of his performance. No writhing or grimacing here. Yes, unmistakably a genius, able to coalesce with the music and the instrument, proving how much greater is the whole than the parts. Mozart must have been very pleased by this interpretation.

Then, after the interval, the Chamber Orchestra came into its own with an exuberant rendering of Beethoven’s Symphony No 2 that must also have had the composer wanting to jump up from his grave and join in. This, surely, is how it is meant to be performed, the conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste truly channelling the composer, and the musicians wallowing in the stirring spirit of the piece. Hard to imagine that Beethoven was anything but happy when he wrote this symphony, but in fact its composition coincided with his despair when he realised he was now permanently deaf.

This performance was joyful, jolly, jubilant. I couldn’t see the conductor’s face, but the musicians were all beaming and exhilarated, as was the audience. “Beethoven rocks!” laughed my daughter, as we watched the Leader of the orchestra rolling around on his seat, feet in the air much of the time as he put lots of gusto and brio into his bowing and his Stradivarius responded full-heartedly. The cellist was also sawing away so energetically that the strings of his bow were visibly disintegrating and by the end of the last movement there was a pile of fluff all round the feet of his chair. It was a rousing end to the programme.

How its first audiences must have been blown away by this fresh, exciting music that came with the new eighteenth century; no wonder the ladies were fainting and swooning, their corsets tight beneath their Empire dresses!

Happily, we were also able to catch Norman on the way out, and have him to ourselves for a few minutes before he had to go and mingle with the throng sipping their champagne in the foyer. We saw no point in lingering longer, so instead of champagne we went home for a cup of tea, and to tell my Dear Son-in-Law what a delight he had missed.

This will never be repeated and I may never see either of these geniuses again. Radu Lupu is more or less a recluse and his public performances are now extremely rare. Norman is due to perform at the Symphony Hall in Birmingham in the autumn, but it’s unlikely that I can make it there since I no longer have a permanent base in England. So I bask gratefully in the beautiful memory of an exceptional event on the blessed eve of the Super Blue Blood Moon.

 

New Year’s Eve: Taking The Plunge

Sylvester 2017.pngAmong the many Swiss customs marking the end of one year and the beginning of the next is the annual gathering around midday on 31 December on the shore of the Walensee, the beautiful lake next to Walenstadt in eastern Switzerland. I admire these hardy souls, who walk, run, plunge, or step daintily into the cold waters, regardless of the weather or temperature of the water.

This year, they were lucky: the weather was sunny and bright on Sunday, although it had been snowing on Friday and did so again on Monday. St Sylvester, the patron saint of 31 December, was obviously on good terms with St Peter, who is reputedly in charge of the weather and on New Year’s Eve, the sky was blue, and the water was a balmy 7°C.

A score or more of intrepid bathers, young and not so young, took on the challenge. Last year, they were served a hot dish of goulash as they emerged dripping and triumphant. This year, although they had made a fine fire beforehand to warm their blue limbs, the person responsible for last year’s reward felt his efforts had not been duly appreciated, and there was only a plastic beaker of wine to greet them – not even Glühwein. They seemed undaunted, nonetheless, and there was a general air of merriment and self-satisfaction at the accomplishment. Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t allow me to upload the short video of this momentous event.

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Me join in??? NO WAY! I am and remain an onlooker. But I hope this custom doesn’t die out, and that Saints Peter and Sylvester will remain friends.

Beanies, Minnie Mouse And Pompoms

My newest great-granddaughter was one year old last Monday: so what should I give her as a present? She’s the second little girl in the family and the youngest of four, so has more than enough toys and clothes. I want my gift to be something useful, something she needs. What doesn’t she have?

IMG_2788I look at her, and know immediately; the only thing she lacks is hair. This pretty blue-eyed baby is perfect in every way, but she has only the finest covering of down on her head, not a single little curl! No, no, I didn’t give her a wig – but the next best thing. I crocheted her three hats.

First, these two simple beanies from wool I had in my bag – I can’t call it a stash. You should see what my daughter has tucked away in drawers and cupboards! That’s a stash. You may recognise the wool in the white/grey hat as it’s the remnant from my cardigan and cobweb shawl. Perfect for a bald baby, very soft and light but warm. The blue one matches her eyes and has flaps to keep her ears warm.

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I was inspired to find a pattern for a Minnie Mouse bonnet with pompoms (two black ones on top for ears, and pink ones at the end of each braid) and a big pink bow on top. The bow looks rather sausagy on this photo, because of the angle – the hat is a shade too big – but in real life it looks cute.

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Thank you to my Dear Daughter for her invaluable assistance here. We have a knitting shop in my village, but I had only ever walked past it and never gone in. I decided about a fortnight before the Birthday that I’d support local trade, and get my wool there but unfortunately it was closed. The sign in the window said “On vacation till 25 November”. That was annoying, but it still left me a week for my project.

However, when I struggled through the rain and wind to the shop on Saturday, 25 November, it was still closed. At this point DD stepped in and offered me wool from her stash, so I was saved. I managed to make the little hat in the couple of days still available to me while I was staying at her house, and once again it was DD to the rescue when it came to making the pompoms, as we went out together and bought pompom makers (that’s a new invention since my youth: we just used cardboard cut into circles). That inspired me afresh. I have a few beanies I made last year that would benefit from being crowned with a pompom.

After I got home, I ventured out once again to the knitting shop in my village. This time, it was open. It’s very tiny, with some flashy hand knits on sale, a limited selection of extremely expensive wool, and an intimidating lady running it. I poked around a bit, but didn’t find anything that appealed to me so when SHE challenged me (I can think of no better word for the tone in which she asked me if I was looking for something special) I just stuttered that I was looking for white wool to make pompoms.

With that withering look sales assistants in boutiques cast at anyone over a size 0, she produced a plastic bag with several small balls of yarn, obviously leftovers. Yes, there were two skeins of white virgin wool. Fifty cents each. I paid and crept out.

To cheer myself up, I decided to learn some new crocheting skills from YouTube tutorials, and am now proficient in making fancy cables. However, cables use up a lot of wool so a whole 50g has gone into this little piece. That’s 100 metres of wool. What will it become? I’ll let you know when it’s finished. One thing is sure: though I shall need more wool to complete this project, I won’t be buying any from the village shop.

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