Keepsakes

…before you, life was desolate – the past hardly worth remembering – and now, each moment a keepsake I can’t throw away …

John Geddes, A Familiar Rain

Easter in Egypt
Easter in Egypt

When we were kids my brother was in a judo championship in Queensland and our Dad accompanied him across the country to attend it. When they came home they brought some souvenirs of their visit. My little sister got a T-shirt that said, “Kid for rent. (Cheap).” I don’t remember what my T-shirt said but I know I loved it. My Dad and my brother had been to Queensland and this T-shirt was from there. I’ve been obsessed with having keepsakes from places I’ve visited and of experiences I’ve had ever since.

Some of these keepsakes are more controversial than others. No-one could complain, really, about the hand-painted Armenian and Palestinian pottery from Jerusalem. Or the Japanese doll that was a gift from my favourite student in Gifu prefecture, Japan. Or the fridge magnet that my sister bought for us the day we visited Annecy.

My favourite memento from Egypt, though, has caused a bit more of a stir. When M and I visited that country this time two years ago, we fell into that old tourist trap of paying a small fortune to ride camels around the pyramids. It was magical. At one point our guide, walking beside my camel, bent down and picked something up from the ground. He told me to look at it. “See the colour of this stone?” he said. “You can see the layers of pink and white. Now look at the top of that pyramid. See the one with just a bit of the alabaster left at the top? This is a piece of that alabaster. I want you to have it.”

He tried to pass it to me but I wouldn’t take it. “No! If everyone took home a piece of the pyramids there’d be nothing left,” I said. He argued that it was sitting on the ground, being trampled under the feet of an endless stream of horses and camels. It wasn’t like we’d pulled it off the pyramid.

“No,” I said, “I couldn’t possibly. It belongs here. I can’t take it.”

“I insist,” he said. “I want you to have it.”

So I took it. I wanted me to have it too.

When I told M’s family this story I felt the heat of their condemnation. I came to understand how Ian McEwan must have felt when he was criticised for apparently encouraging people to pick up stones from Chesil Beach. I didn’t mention that my accepting this gift made me part of the long history of theft of artefacts that has made the British Museum so great. I just looked at the piece of alabaster that sits on my desk and felt the usual quiet thrill that I have it. I’m just looking after it for Egypt. Perhaps I’ll take it back one day.

The keepsake that I have from the gorgeous experience of being in The Vagina Monologues is a dress. Our costume dress code was black and teal. Anyone who knows me could guess that I had the black pretty much covered – I’ve lived in a fairly consistent uniform of black for as long as I can remember – but the teal was a bit more challenging. So I went out and bought a teal dress. And every time I wear it from now on, it’s going to remind me of all the gorgeous black-and-teal clad women who surrounded me on those beautiful nights in a theatre in Geneva in March, 2014. They’re not so ancient as the pyramids, but have every bit as much grace and beauty and wonder.

 

Just the two of us – part two

(A spoken word recording of this post can be found here.)

No challenge should be faced without a little charm and a lot of style.

The Bluetones

DSC08043

And so, a quick recap… Four years ago, M gave me a beautiful silver bracelet to mark the day we decided to make beautiful babies together. By the time we left Israel two and a half years later, we’d had five IUIs and an IVF and as yet there was no baby in sight…

A couple of years after we’d jumped aboard the baby-making train, I realised that I’d taken my eye off the destination. I was having so many hospital visits, tests, drugs and injections that it all seemed to have become about the process rather than about what we were trying to achieve. I needed to start thinking about babies again. I was walking along Jaffa Street in Jerusalem one day when I saw, in a shop window, a miniature version of the ethnic slippers I’d been thinking about buying for myself. I bought them and arranged them on the coffee table in our East Jerusalem apartment as a reminder of what we were working towards.

Until a short while before our departure from Israel, we’d thought that our next destination was going to be Kampala, Uganda. I was thrilled at the prospect of living in Africa for the first time but a little concerned that assisted reproduction for over-privileged foreigners would be at the bottom of the list of Ugandan national priorities. Soon before we were to make the big move, however, M was offered a job in Geneva, Switzerland. And so those little sparkly orange baby shoes came with us to live in the centre of Europe, the continent which, at least in 2010, led the world in Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART). (http://phys.org/news197093421.html).

A good friend in Jerusalem had recommended her Geneva-based ART specialist to us and I was pleased to be told when I contacted him that he did not operate a waiting list; we were able to secure an appointment with him five weeks after our arrival in our new home. The doctor’s desk was decorated with beautiful lapis lazuli pyramids. I’m not really a crystal-healing kind of a girl so I won’t look for any symbolism in that, but I will allow them to at least give our doctor a name…

Dr Pyramid did not pull any punches during our first consultation. He said that at my age I had, at very best, a 10% chance of getting pregnant, and that each cycle would cost us 8,000-10,000 Swiss francs (that’s £5,500-£6,900, or US$8,900- $11,000). He also said that the HSG I’d had in Jerusalem could only detect 60% of any potential problems with my reproductive system and so suggested that I have a laparoscopy. This is a keyhole surgery in which a light source and a camera are inserted into the abdomen through the belly button to study the organs and tissues inside the abdomen and pelvis. The thought of it made my knees go queasy but we signed on the bottom line anyway and once again bought our season pass for the roller-coaster ride that is ART.

The next couple of weeks looked something like this:

October 23: During a pre-op consultation with the anaesthetist who would put me under for the laparoscopy, he put a stethoscope to my back and blithely mentioned that I have a heart disorder called mitral insufficiency. This is why I’ve spent my life staying as far away from doctors as possible. I’ve always believed my own press about being in perfect physical health but as soon as I started letting doctors anywhere near me they began to make lists of stuff that I should be concerned about.

October 25: I visited Dr Pyramid for blood tests and he said that he wanted to rule out any possibility that I’d inherited the breast cancer that had cruelly killed my mother when she was 41 years old. He made an appointment for me to have a mammogram the next day.

October 26: As I went past a construction site on the walk between the tram and the Clinique des Grangettes, I was hailed with the wolf whistles and shouting that anyone with breasts has become accustomed to. On the way back, when a mammogram and an ultrasound had confirmed that all was fine in my chest area, I wanted to whip out my X-rays and shout, “The doctor says I’ve got tremendous tits!” Sadly the construction workers all seemed to be on their lunch break.

October 29: M and I jumped on a train to Lausanne, where Dr Pyramid has his second office and where his embryologist is based. We were shown through a PowerPoint presentation of how the whole procedure works and what our various options would be if the process was unsuccessful at different stages, and given a rundown of the staggering costs that would be involved.

October 31: I checked into the hospital for the laparoscopy and was thrilled by the difference between hospital treatment in Geneva and Jerusalem. At Hadassah I’d had to walk through the hospital in a surgical gown and was expected to push my way to the front of the queue and shout louder than my sisters in infertility to get any attention from the hospital staff. In Geneva I was shown to a lovely private room with en-suite bathroom, given a menu and asked to choose the food that I’d like to eat post-operatively, plied with gorgeous drugs and wheeled down to surgery in my bed.

After I woke up, Dr Pyramid came to see me and said that they’d removed a couple of spots of endometriosis, and that all was well for another attempt at IVF in December. He also said that although they were unsure why, the laparoscopy itself often seemed to increase the chance of IVF success in the round that followed. So I felt positive as I tucked into the best hospital meal in the history of hospital meals – chicory salad with walnuts and blue cheese dressing, king prawns with a cream and lemon sauce, and apple strudel and proper coffee. You get what you pay for, I guess.

November 8: M and I had an appointment with Dr Pyramid, and in one of the more surreal half hours of my life, he showed us through detailed photographs of my internal organs. The good doctor revised the drug protocol we’d used in Jerusalem and confirmed that we were good to go.

*

When M took me on a surprise birthday trip to Rome the following week, I packed all the vials, syringes and sterile wipes that I’d need to begin the new drug regime during our stay in the Eternal City. (I also packed a letter from the clinic that I could wave under the noses of the Italian authorities if they thought they’d happened upon the world’s unlikeliest international drug smuggler.) The drug that I’d start with was Cetrotide, which suppresses the body’s natural production of hormones so that its goings-on can be chemically controlled by the physician. (I tried not to think too much about the long-term effects that all these drugs might have on my body.)

I know that a lot of women hate the hormone injections associated with IVF and of course I completely understand why – stabbing yourself in the stomach with a needle full of hormones on a twice-daily basis isn’t exactly the dream. But I have to admit that, in a weird way, this is actually my favourite part of the process. While IVF has forced me to reluctantly confront the fact that I have absolutely zero control over my reproductive destiny, doing my own injections at least makes me feel as though I’m taking active steps towards achieving my dream. I’m very lucky that I don’t seem to be blighted by the terrible mood swings and weight gain that some women suffer (although M might tell a different story…). For me the weeks of hormones are a positive time during which I can live in hope that this time Lady Luck might be on our side.

It seemed, when I had the next appointment with Dr Pyramid two weeks later, that my positivity might be justified. The blood test and ultrasound revealed that all was as it should be, and Dr P prescribed a new drug that was supposed to stimulate the production of fewer but better quality eggs.

My positivity started to wane, however, when after five days of Menopur injections it became evident that there were only two eggs. Dr P doubled the dosage. But two days later he declared that despite the doubled drugs, there was now only one egg. It wasn’t worth going through the egg retrieval. So after weeks of hormone injections, the IVF cycle was cancelled. Dr P would give us an IUI instead (at our vast expense, of course) as a sort of sad consolation prize.

Meanwhile, back in my adopted homeland of the UK, Kate Middleton announced her pregnancy. In a brief moment of bitterness I wrote and submitted a letter to the Guardian’s “What I’m Really Thinking” column. The paper wrote to say that they were considering it for publication but they never printed it in the end. It’s probably just as well; I wouldn’t want to bring down the national mood. My letter read:

So Kate Middleton’s pregnant. How wonderful. Now not only will it seem that everyone in the world has babies apart from me but the whole country will be nattering about what a joy they are. Don’t talk to me about it! I already know! Otherwise I wouldn’t have spent three years and the GDP of a small country trying to have one!

People with small children tell me how much they envy my lifestyle. I can (and do) pop to Paris or Rome for weekends, I sleep when I want to and I’m not being crippled by childcare costs. “Want to swap lives?” they ask. Well, yes, I bloody well do! Superfluous sleep and weekends away are just consolation prizes; I want to be woken up at five o’clock on a Sunday morning by my child stomping on my head but that joy is being denied me so I go to Rome instead.

Some friends who know that I’ve been having fertility treatments for years try to console me by saying that you can still live a happy and fulfilled life without children. I’ll take that from friends who are childless, by choice or otherwise. But if another person utters those words while bouncing their beautiful baby on their knee I might just have to suggest that I take over the parenting of their child, then. They’d be just as happy and fulfilled without the baby, right?

Forgive me. It was a bad day.

And needless to say, the second-prize IUI didn’t work.

*

Without going into any further tedious detail, we had another round of IVF, which went right through to egg retrieval and embryo transfer, several months later. My eldest sister, who here I’ll call Luli, as our brother used to when he was a baby, had planned to come and visit us, and by coincidence her holiday ended up exactly coinciding with my surgery and our two-week wait. She was there when my bed was wheeled down to surgery (when M had had to go off to Lausanne to leave his contribution with the embryologist), and when I was wheeled back, fighting my sleepiness so that I could catch up with my beloved big sister.  She was there a few days later when we went to Lausanne for the transfer of three healthy embryos. She was there for the duration of the stressful two-week wait, as I struggled between a desire to be optimistic and a fear that again we’d be disappointed. And she flew out on the day that we received the test result to say that the IVF hadn’t worked.

One day soon after, M and I went for a walk in the hills around the beautiful nearby village of Chanaz, and I lost my Silver Bracelet.

The fact that we remained optimistic is both a testament to the human spirit and a boon to the IVF industry.

We wouldn’t give up.

To be continued…

Just the two of us

(A spoken word recording of this post can be found here.)

Man’s main task in life is to give birth to himself.

Erich Fromm

I try to be very honest in this blog. I’ve sometimes written about things that were quite personal, and I’ve been so grateful that people have taken the time to read what I’ve written, and sometimes sent messages to say that my experiences have chimed with them. But I must confess that I’ve only been telling a fraction of the story…

My blog is predominantly about my experience of being an expat, and as my experience is generally very positive that’s the tone that I most often try to maintain. But the other day a friend posted a status update on Facebook that made me think. She wrote:

As much as I am happy that all my friends are having happy days, it painfully reminds me of how crap my life is… — feeling sad and lost.

My inclination, when something is troubling me, is to hide myself away and work it out on my own; I’m very aware that everyone has problems of their own and I don’t want to risk boring people with mine. But my friend’s words made me wonder if that’s perhaps a little dishonest of me. While my family and my friends that I see regularly have generally been apprised of what’s been going on with me for the last four years, those at a greater distance only see the highlights of the happy times. Sometimes people tell me how lucky I am; they say they’re jealous of my adventures or playfully ask if I’d like to swap lives. But that’s only because they don’t know the whole story. The truth is that I AM incredibly lucky and I DO have a wonderful life. But nobody has it all and I’m now just about at the point where I’m starting to have to accept the possibility that I won’t ever have everything that I thought I would.

I know it’s not necessary to share everything with everyone – a stiff upper lip and a determined, independent resilience were two things that were deeply ingrained in me as a child – but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s incumbent upon people who’ve been through the experience that I have over the last four years to start talking about it for the benefit of those who might go through it after them. The taboo around the subject seems to be being broken down slowly in the States but I’m not sure that’s yet the case in the UK. In fact it’s still such an uncomfortable subject to discuss that even I, who have been living with it for the past four years, am having trouble spitting the word out. But here goes. I’m going to be brave.

This is the first of three posts I’m going to write on the subject of infertility.

Nearly four years ago I got on a plane in London, where I then lived, and flew to Johannesburg, the closest international airport to Pretoria, where M then lived. M picked me up from the airport and we made the most of the sunshine by having lunch outside at an all-organic, all-artisanal street market, and it was over our chickpea curries that we decided that we were going to start trying to have a baby. M bought me a beautiful silver bracelet from the market stall beside us to commemorate our decision.

The next six months were not our proudest in terms of environmental impact. M’s job with an international humanitarian organisation and my work for a UK-based global technology company meant that we were not then able to live in the same country. The many emails we exchanged during that time helped to solidify our relationship across the distance, but the act of flying was as essential to our family planning as were any more traditional baby-making activities. The miles flown between South Africa and the UK stacked up until they almost toppled over, and in April M accompanied me on a work trip to the States. And all the while we looked forward to the time when we would occupy the same hemisphere and have more time to concentrate on turning the two of us into three.

I wasn’t terribly worried, in those days, that each month brought another negative pregnancy test. I’m from a vastly fertile family and M had no reason to doubt his fertility, so we just enjoyed the brief periods we were able to spend together and hoped for the best. I never wanted to be one of those women who took her temperature every morning and obsessed about whether she was ovulating – what a turn-off that would be! – and I was sure that sometime soon we’d be swapping air miles and hotel loyalty schemes for prams and baby-friendly restaurants, just as most of my friends and all of my family had done some time before.

When our chance to occupy the same landmass arrived six months later, I was even secretly relieved that we hadn’t got pregnant up until that point… Call me old-fashioned but I can’t help but imagine that joint parenting decisions are made most easily when both parents inhabit the same country as the child. The fact that that landmass was the Middle East was thrilling; M was posted to Jerusalem and I felt privileged to be able to join him in such a fantastically vibrant and historic city. I reluctantly resigned from my job and could have kissed my boss for requesting that I continue to represent the company at all the international broadcast exhibitions that I’d attended previously. He also asked if I would assume responsibility for maintaining the company’s relationship with a technology partner in Tel Aviv, just down the road from my new home. Perfect.

Nine months after Silver Bracelet Day I was back in the UK for a few days after a work trip to Amsterdam, and decided to have a chat with my GP about fertility. I knew that M and I needed to spend a lot more time together if we were serious about starting a family, but I wanted to check that there wasn’t any obvious impediment to pregnancy. My GP carried out the initial rudimentary checks – for syphilis and other assorted STDs, it seemed – and after giving me the all-clear on those he double-checked my file and realised with horror that I was 39 and therefore beyond the allowable age for NHS fertility treatment. He had no choice but to eject me from his office.

Months went by and although M now spent most of his time “at home” in Israel and the Occupied Territories, I continued to travel frequently. (How does one say no to paid international travel which allows you to do a job that you love in Berlin, Dubai, Las Vegas, Singapore and London? Oh, if only I’d known…). When I was at home in East Jerusalem, the fact that I was spending half of my life on planes didn’t stop me from morphing (illogically) into that woman that I’d promised never to become. The basal body thermometer was purchased and every morning, when the rest of East Jerusalem was waking up to the call to prayer, I was recording my temperature and sometimes wondering how best to word my request that M pop home “for lunch” later that day.

When nothing had happened by June – 18 months after Silver Bracelet Day and a year after we moved in together – we decided that M should have the simple checks necessary to make sure that all was well with his contribution to our baby-making efforts. He took himself off to Hadassah Hospital in the Jerusalem Hills, and was delighted, as I’m sure most men would be, by the doctor’s use of the word “Superman” in describing his sperm quality. I had to fly to Singapore for work soon after and I tagged on a trip home to my native Australia, where M joined me to spend a week catching up with my family. We joked that we’d name our baby after the place in which it was conceived, but ultimately decided that lumbering our child with Ningaloo or Fremantle would be a less than loving first parental act. Anyway, little Ningaloo decided not to be conceived in Australia so her name was a moot point.

At around this time we started to wonder if perhaps we were too old for the “cross your fingers and hope for the best” approach to starting a family. One of my four sisters had recently had a baby at age 43 so there was evidence of longevity in the fertility of my family, but as this was her fourth child her situation wasn’t really comparable to mine – I’d never been pregnant despite not always having been super cautious, so a little seed of doubt was now planted in my mind about whether perhaps I couldn’t conceive.

It was time to take drastic action. At the broadcast exhibition I attended in Amsterdam in September, I told my boss that I’d no longer be travelling for work. I cried when I told him. I’d always known, of course, that I’d have to make sacrifices if I wished to have a family, and having waited until such a late age to start trying, I was more than prepared to make them. Perhaps naively, however, I’d imagined that the need for sacrifices wouldn’t begin until after the baby was on-board. Having worked in jobs that I’d loved for my entire adult life, I was daunted by the prospect of giving all that up to concentrate on the possibility of conceiving. But with M living on one continent (in which I was not allowed a work visa) and my job being on another, I seemed to have little other choice.

When we met with the head of fertility services at Hadassah Hospital, he explained that contrary to popular perception, one doesn’t just launch into a course of IVF without first exhausting all other avenues. It was around this time that I first became familiar with the acronym IUI, for Intrauterine Insemination. The procedure is designed to eliminate the variables involved in human procreation, like, erm…sex. The best of a man’s contribution is introduced directly to a ready-to-be-fertilised egg, right in the place where the party is set to start. This, despite there being no drugs or major interventions involved, was not a cheap procedure, and every visit to the consultant’s office was preceded by a tricky conversation with the hospital’s finance department, who insisted that I sign forms written in Hebrew whose contents I had no way of comprehending.

In retrospect, the hospital staff and I were quite endearingly optimistic about my first IUI. The consultant didn’t even bother to do ultrasounds to monitor my egg development. He just took me at my word when I told him that my thermometer suggested I was ovulating, and after M had made the dread visit to the special-purpose room in the hospital, our doctor found his way around the apparently quite spectacular twist in my cervix and placed the sperm where it needed to be, wished me luck and told me to come back for a blood test in two weeks’ time.

It was lovely, that first optimistic two-week wait. I ate well, exercised gently, thought about baby names and calculated when the baby would be born. I wondered which of our two spare bedrooms we’d make into the nursery and thought about how our neighbours in East Jerusalem would react to the sight of a western woman going about her business with a new-born baby strapped to her chest. There was no question of whether or not the IUI had taken; I was just waiting for the confirmation that it had.

It came as something of a shock, then, when a blood test indicated that there was to be no baby.

When another two “natural” IUIs had failed, it was time to bring in the stims to kick my body into fertility overdrive and ensure that next time the doctor drove around that tricky bend there would be many an egg ready to welcome our new friend to the party. The daily injections about which anyone interested in fertility treatments hears so much became a normal part of my existence.

I was pleased to have stopped travelling internationally for work – what was I ever thinking in so drastically reducing my chances of conceiving by being away from M so much of the time? – but I still wanted to enjoy the adventure of living in this fascinating country. Over the months that followed, when the first IUI with hormones failed and led on to the second and then to the third, my drugs came with me wherever I went. The long list of places in which I gave myself hormone injections included an underground Hellenic water cistern at Beit Guvrit, a waterfall in Ein Gedi, a guest house in Petra, and the car park by the Ramon Crater in the Negev Desert.

After the third of these procedures had failed, our doctor suggested that I should have a hysterosalpingogram (or, for the less linguistically gifted among us, an HSG), which would determine whether there were any blockages in my fallopian tubes which might prevent pregnancy. The procedure is very bizarre. In the company of two men and a woman, I had dye injected into my inflated uterus and we all watched the monitor suspended from the ceiling to see whether the dye would fill the tubes and spill out into the abdominal cavity. I was later given a DVD of the whole procedure to share with my friends (or perhaps just with future consultants). Although it was good news that the HSG revealed no problems, the diagnosis of “unexplained infertility” provided its own frustrations.

In the background of all these goings-on was the added stress of knowing that when M’s contracted work in Jerusalem shortly came to an end, we’d have to contemplate a move to a country with considerably less to offer us in terms of assisted fertilisation than our current home. The first two requests for M’s particular skillset came from Liberia and Uganda, both countries in which I’d be fascinated to live, but neither with an international reputation for advances in reproductive medicine. For that reason, our doctor allowed us to skip the last of the usual half-dozen attempts at IUI and bring out the big guns. Surely an IVF treatment, we thought, was all we needed to finally realise our dreams of a family?

M’s contract expired a week after I’d had the embryo transfer and he had to fly out to Geneva for a debrief. We’d packed up our East Jerusalem apartment and sold our car, so I rented an apartment in West Jerusalem for a week and spent the time in a similar happy reverie to that I’d enjoyed after our first IUI. Then on the last day of the two-week wait, when I stood looking at the beautiful view of the Jerusalem Hills from the Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem, I wept as I told M on the phone that the IVF had failed.

The next day I got on a plane out of Israel and flew into an uncertain future.

To be continued…

It’s only words

Poets, priests and politicians
Have words to thank for their positions
Words that scream for their submission
And no one’s jamming their transmission

The Police

Dome of the Rock

 A few years ago I was invited to attend the baptism of the baby of some great friends of mine. These friends are not religious but they knew that the Irish Catholic side of the family would be uncomfortable if the baby was denied the usual insurance against eternal damnation. They also thought, quite rightly, that a christening was as good an excuse as any to invite everyone to Dublin for a rollicking good party to celebrate the arrival into the world of their beautiful daughter. So the arrangements were made, the marquee ordered for the back garden, the food and wine planned and the godparents appointed.

Ah yes, the godparents. Standing by the baptismal font on the day would be the baby’s aunty and a lovely man who had been a great friend of the couple’s for many years. This man was also a great friend of mine, so I was party to the dilemma he faced in being conferred with this honour. While he knew that his atheism was of no concern to the baby’s parents – they’d chosen him for his loveliness and wanted him to be a special part of their daughter’s life – he was suddenly overcome by an uncharacteristic level of superstition about what might happen to him if, while standing in God’s very own house, he made all sorts of declarations that he didn’t actually believe to be true.

During a Roman Catholic christening, the parents and godparents of the baby have to make three declarations – that they believe in God, that they repent of their sins and that they deny evil. So the ironies here are interesting… Our friend doesn’t believe in God, but the religious superstition which still permeates even a reasonably secular country like England was enough to give him the uncomfortable feeling that God might smite him for his heathen deeds if he stood in a church and said that he did. It’s rather a muddle that organised religion has created here, wouldn’t you think?

The responses, psalms, prayers and practices of a Catholic Mass are things which I’m sure I’ll never forget, even in the unlikely event that I make the effort to try; one doesn’t come out of even a happy religious upbringing without some of its residue clinging insistently. But during this baptism ceremony, the only way in which my lips moved was in smiles at my friends and slight quivering at the inevitable emotion aroused in me by big events with friends and family. When we left the church, another lovely chum, who was also brought up Catholic and who had made the polite decision to respond to the priest and to say the prayers during the service, asked me why I hadn’t.

You must remember it all, she said, after so many years of going to church.

Yes, I said, of course I remember it, but I don’t believe in those words any more so I won’t say them.

Oh, she shrugged, they’re only words.

This morning, a Jewish Israeli man was shot dead by security guards at the Western Wall in Jerusalem because he shouted Allahu Akbar, which, of course, is Arabic for God is great. They were only words, and still this man, who had his hands in his pockets when the guards pulled their guns on him and fired, is dead. I’m writing this a couple of hours after the story broke, when little is known about what actually happened, what the man’s motivation was in saying what he did (if indeed his words weren’t misheard), or what provoked the guards to respond so brutally. All that is so far clear is that just two small words escaped from the man’s lips, and because of the place where he was standing when he said them, the circumstances in which they’ve been said before and the strength of belief and the fear and superstition that surrounds them, he will never say these or any other words ever again. This is just the latest terrible tragedy in a country which is sickeningly familiar with religious and territorially motivated tragedies, and it was only words that made it happen.

On the night of that wonderful Welcome to the World party in Dublin, there were pestilential winds of a biblical proportion. I still remember one friend doing a hilarious Irish jig in the pouring rain while the people around him struggled to secure the moorings of the marquee. Perhaps the wind and rain that night were signs of God’s displeasure at the fact that people had stood in his church and lied when they said that they believed in him. Or perhaps the wind and rain happened because we were in Dublin. Either way, while I choose not to be afraid of a potentially vengeful deity, my fear of terrified and small-minded people with deadly weapons is very well-founded. So although, as the Bee Gees would have us believe, it’s only words, I’m going to continue to be very careful about how I use them.

Give us this day our daily walk

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

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I don’t know what they’ve been putting in the water in England lately but I’m not sure that I like it. It seems that all the people that I could previously rely upon to be slovenly sofa-dwellers like me have taken to…eugh, I can barely stand to say the word…running. In fact, it’s not just in England. My six-year-old niece in Australia did a 5k run for charity the other day. Six years old! Five kilometres! What the hell’s going on? Where is everyone suddenly getting their energy and motivation from?!

OK, I have to admit that I’m a little bit inspired by all the activity I’m seeing around me. I draw the line at running, mind – my two friends whose running shoes jogged them straight into the operating theatre for major knee surgery last year are proof enough to me that running is just not natural – but I guess I can be driven enough to walk. In fact I have few excuses not to. Job? Er…no. Kids? Uh-uh. Dangerous highway on my doorstep? Not so much. All right then. Walking it is.

I know that two walks do not a habit make, but having donned my hiking boots yesterday and today and found a perfect one-hour walking circuit that starts and ends at my front door, I’ve realised what a fool I’ve been to neglect this opportunity for the last six months. It’s gorgeous out there! And I feel great when I get home! Why didn’t I do this before?!

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When we lived in East Jerusalem, our lovely apartment was six kilometres from town, so all the things that we spent our leisure time doing required at least a brief stint behind the steering wheel. (I did occasionally go walking around where we lived but the requisite consideration of the modesty of my attire followed by the inevitable attention of locals curious about the obvious outsider meant that my strolls were rarely leisurely.) So when M got a new job in Geneva, I was determined that we’d live right in the thick of things, so all I’d have to do to get to where I wanted to go was step out of the front door and start walking. We had that for a while, too. For a gorgeous four months, we lived in a lovely apartment in Jonction, Geneva, (so named because it’s the point at which the Rhone and Arve Rivers meet), and our feet and the occasional tram took us to all the lovely places we wanted to visit. But then, of course, this house came up for rent and all my plans for inner-city living went up the 18th-century French chateau chimney in a majestic plume of smoke.

People who regularly indulge in this exercise thing often say that physical activity gives them the time and space to think. I’ve never really got that – all I used to think about on the rare occasions that I panted and sweated my way around the gym in Jerusalem was the fact that I couldn’t wait to go home – but my new Daily Walk might, it seems, be a step in the right cognitive direction. For example, it occurred to me as I walked today that all the things that I want to do are still on my doorstep, it’s just that the things that I want to do have changed. Nice, huh?

I keep watching as my friends keep running further and their running times on given distances improve. Have no such expectations of me, please. My One-Hour Daily Walk, for as long as the scenery around here remains so utterly breath-taking, will remain my One-Hour Daily Walk, and will continue to start and finish at my front door. What I can promise, however, is some pictures of the ever-changing but always beautiful scenery, and a bottle of wine on the finish line to anyone who’s prepared to come and join me as I go up the hills and down the dales of this gorgeous corner of rural France.

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A big room full of books

Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.

Francis Bacon

I’ve never really known where I stood on the great “find your passion and follow it” debate. I guess the fact that my degree is in English Lit and Communications means that I followed my passion for books at least as far as university. But when the time came to earn some dollars/ yen/ pounds/ shekels/ francs/ euros to finance my other passions (travel, food and wine being uppermost amongst them), the pursuit of activities that someone would pay me to indulge in became an inevitable necessity.

I was thinking about this as I entered the Palexpo convention centre in Geneva for the Salon du Livre on Friday. The physical space I walked into was utterly reminiscent, at first glance, of the places I spent so much time in when I was working in the broadcast industry – huge, high-ceilinged, temporarily carpeted spaces packed with stands staffed by people desperate to sell their wares.

Me at Screen

(Me in a previous incarnation.)

There was a big difference this time though… When I’ve walked into exhibition centres before, I’ve been confronted by the bewildering technologies behind the dubious joys of television. The halls of Palexpo on Friday, however, brought me face to face with…books! Writers of books! Sellers of books! Children learning to love and appreciate books! Surely this was heaven, and the kind of environment that I should have been working in for my entire adult life!

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The enormous and immovable grin with which I walked around those halls prompted many a book tout to try their luck at selling me stuff. Their shoulders almost invariably slumped, however, when I responded with my usual, Pardon, je ne parle pas bien le francais, although a few accommodating traders switched optimistically into English. One enthusiastic new-business owner asked me to become an ambassador for the ingenious bit of kit he’s developed to encourage reading and multilingualism in kids. (My French isn’t good enough to really be of any use to him, but I did think his product was brilliant – http://www.lirekit.ch/).

I also had a conversation with the marketing director of a publishing company that a friend of mine is employed by. (Now there’s an example of someone fortuitously following her bliss – 24 years old, living in Geneva’s Old Town and with a fulltime paid writing gig… You go, girl!). I walked away from their stand with a copy, en gratuit, of a tome that my friend has worked on, and moved swiftly on to a talk being given by the Stanford University Librarian on The Future of Books.

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I was encouraged to hear Michael A. Keller explain that the definition of books has now had to be broadened to incorporate digital editions. The fact that my partner and I move countries every two years means that the purchase of heavy paper volumes makes little sense for us – most of the 350 kilos we shipped from Jerusalem to Geneva consisted of the books we’d accumulated during our stay there – but I still feel a pang of guilt every time I visit Amazon online to invest in another download for my Kindle. If only I could make these purchases from an independent bookseller, who Michael A. Keller described as a “threatened species”.

Perhaps the best thing about working in an industry which is not directly related to one’s bliss means that one’s joy doesn’t have to be sullied by the confines of commercialism. I can read and enjoy books and not have to worry too much about their profitability. I can attend gatherings of the Geneva International Book Club and talk with brilliant and inspiring minds about the most influential books of all time, without having to be concerned about the books’ bottom line. I can give my honest opinions about books that I read, love them or loathe them, without hearing a whispered warning at the back of my mind that my frankness might affect my bonus.

Yes, the books on my shelves are my bliss, and the time I have to read them is my passion. The stuff I’ve had to do in the nine-to-fives of my life just paid for my bliss to be there.

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