Who is that masked man?

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

Susan Sontag

I'm special

Recently I’ve had a lot of conversations with fellow photography enthusiasts about how to go about taking pictures of people. If you see someone in the street that you’d like to photograph, do you ask them straight away for permission to take their picture, thereby potentially ruining the spontaneity of the moment that you wanted to capture? Or do you take the picture and ask for permission retrospectively? Or take it surreptitiously and hope they haven’t noticed? All are fraught in one way or another, and all wannabe street photographers seem to face this dilemma.

As my confidence with a camera increases, I’m feeling more of a desire to point my lens towards people – in addition to landscapes and architecture – so I’m having more frequent exchanges with potential “subjects” and have found, to my delight, that most of the exchanges have been incredibly positive and enriching. One day when I was walking around Coppet, on the shores of Lake Geneva, I asked a man sweeping the street if I could take a picture of him and his cart. Perhaps it was my hilariously broken French that made him so accommodating. Or the fact that I’m so happy when I’m out taking pictures that I’m constantly grinning and he found my happiness somehow infectious. Whatever it was, he smiled and laughed and chatted with me, then stood by his cart for a picture, then stepped away while I took a picture just of the cart. It was a wonderful few minutes which gave me more confidence for the next exchange.

Coppet cart

Another day, as I walked around Geneva, I was thinking about family portraits, which is the 2014 theme for the photography club that I’m in. As I thought about it I saw two women walking towards me who I supposed were mother and daughter. I love seeing mothers and daughters together, whether older than me or younger. Having myself been motherless for over 30 years and having had to comes to terms recently with the probably that I’ll never actually become a mother, I find the sight of mothers and daughters enjoying one another’s company incredibly potent, and I’m interested in exploring the relationship through the medium of pictures.

I can never assume in France and Switzerland that I share a common language with the people I’d like to photograph, so as these two women approached I asked in French if I could take their picture, and made sure that I communicated as much through body language – smiling and pointing at my camera – as through words. They didn’t speak, but silently nodded. Their facial expressions remained unchanged, I took their picture and said thank you, and they nodded once more and moved gracefully on.

Mother and daughter
When I was in London for the weekend recently I was so thrilled not to have to contemplate a language barrier that I was much less shy than usual about asking people whether I could point my lens in their direction. I don’t know if it was because I was at Borough Market, where people go as much to see and be seen as to buy amazing food, but whatever the reason, people were universally pleased to be asked. Nobody asked why I wanted to take their picture, they just stood and smiled while and clicked, then I thanked them and we all moved on. These exchanges resulted in pictures like these.

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I also had some experiences, that weekend, of people in the street wanting to help me, without me soliciting their advice, to get the best possible shot. In the first instance there was a man watching me as I took a picture of an interesting looking building. When I started talking to him, he agreed with me that the building was interesting but said that I hadn’t taken it from the best possible angle. He showed me that by standing in a slightly different place, I could capture not just that building, but also the Gherkin reflected off its glass walls. And later another man, standing looking up at the sky with his very professional-looking camera, saw that my eye had followed his to see what he was seeing, and so explained to me that we was trying to capture a picture of the Shard reaching in the heavens towards the top of the nearby sculpture. He wished me luck for getting the shot and moved on.

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All of these wonderful exchanges have helped not just to build my confidence in asking people whether I can take their picture, but also to recognise the potential for wonderful human interactions in the act of doing so. To the extent, in fact, that I’ve begun to feel a little sorry for the people who refuse the possibility of such exchanges. For example, one day in Geneva I saw a woman feeding the seagulls by the lake. My camera was very obviously not pointing towards her, but at the birds that swooped and dived over the water to grab their share of the food she was throwing in the air. The woman saw me with my camera and started yelling at me. My French wasn’t good enough to allow me to understand all of what she said, but I know it was unsavoury and I’m pretty sure that at one point she instructed the birds to pluck my eyes out. I think if I hadn’t had other lovely exchanges with people, this experience would have sent me scuttling back to the safety of photographing flowers. As it was, though, I just felt a bit sad for her, with all that suspicion and anger and misdirected rage. I wished her a happy day and moved on to more willing participants in the photographic exchange.

Having said all that, though, it’s so wonderful to occasionally find events where people’s whole reason for participating is to be photographed and admired. There’s no need for awkward exchanges – they’re there so that you might tell capture their beauty and grace for posterity. This weekend’s Venetian Carnival in Annecy was one such wonderful event. With any self-consciousness removed by the anonymity offered by their masks, the people strutted and preened and posed and positively delighted in being admired and photographed. This makes life easy for a fledging photographer like me. And the results make me hope that one day I’ll be able to capture people just as unselfconsciously when their masks – and mine – are removed.

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Getting on with getting old

Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.

Terry Pratchett

One of the great joys of my new post-chateau, return-to-civilisation life is the photography club that I’ve joined. I’ve only met with the group twice so far but already its activities and intentions and the thoughtful observations of its members are changing my perspectives.

The first meeting that I attended was all about lighting. One of the group members, a professional photographer, had brought in some of her expensive equipment to show to the rest of the group. After giving a detailed tutorial on how it all works, she encouraged the Nikon users (whose cameras would be compatible with her equipment) to experiment with it. Canon users (for most seem to have a strong preference for either one of these two brands) could play around with the Canon-compatible lighting gear brought in by the organiser.

So my fellow photographers had cameras and lighting equipment and the requisite knowledge to use them both. But they didn’t have a subject. So I, having neither a Canon nor a Nikon nor any other kind of photographic equipment other than a trusty little point-and-press, volunteered.

“Modelling” was fun. All I had to do was sit or stand as instructed and be a passive subject for the light to bounce off. Nobody told me to smile and I wasn’t deliberately doing so (although when one of the group commented on the fact that I’d been smiling non-stop for 90 minutes, I was glad to know that the joy that I feel in life is apparently reflected on my face.) And I learned a lot about lighting while I sat there and listened to everything that was said about the umbrellas and soft boxes that were being moved around me, or I around them.

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(Thank you to Wilna Weeda for this photograph.)

But one of the greater lessons that I learned that day was, I’m afraid, more about the subject than the subject, if you see what I mean. Let me explain…

After the session ended it occurred to me that of the hundreds of photographs that were taken of me that day, there might be one that I could like enough to use as my profile picture on this blog. My current picture is, as I’ve explained, six years old now, and is starting to feel a little dishonest. Perhaps my new photography friends, I thought, might be willing to share some of their photos with me.

And then they did. And then I found myself struggling with the brutality of the truth.

You see, I’ve always wanted to embrace the process of ageing. Every birthday, rather than thinking, Oh my god, I’m yet another year older!, I try to think about what I’ve done/seen/experienced/achieved over the last twelve months and think, Well, yes, it takes time to do that stuff. Of course I’m another year older. It doesn’t always work but that’s how I try to think.

When we lived in Jerusalem, I realised one day that I was then older than my mother ever lived to be. In her mid to late thirties and early forties Mum was operated on, injected, zapped with radiation and filled with all sorts of odious medicinal concoctions, all so that she might be able to beat cancer and be granted more life. More years. More experience. More time with her loved ones. More lines on her face. And each one of those lines would have been a reflection of all that she’d lived and all the people that she’d loved. And in the eyes of the only beholders that mattered, those lines would have made her all the more stunning.

But cancer won. And Mum was buried young and beautiful. And because of that I recognise that every day that I live is a gift and a privilege. Why should I give a shit that I have lines on my face? I’m alive! Getting older, I learned at a young age, is far better than the alternative.

About 20 years ago I attended a Guardian literature event in London. That was, of course, pre-Google Images, and I had no idea of what some of my favourite writers looked like. I browsed curiously through the brochure about the authors who would be speaking that day. Among their pictures was a shot of the brilliant Hilary Mantel, young, blonde and slim. It came as a shock to me when she walked out onto the stage. Only the blondeness was still recognisable from her profile picture. I found myself feeling annoyed with her. The fact that she’d put on weight was beside the point – an author’s dress size is no more relevant than a tennis player’s attractiveness, as I wish the media would recognise – but I thought the fact that she wasn’t prepared to claim and proclaim who she was now was unworthy of her. (I’ve since learned that Mantel struggled with her body image after her rapid weight gain, which was caused by endometriosis, a hysterectomy and the prescription of high levels of hormones, all of which she’s written about in her memoirs, Giving Up The Ghost. No wonder she wouldn’t allow herself to be portrayed as she was; she didn’t know.)

I’ve never understood people’s nostalgic sighs of,  Ah, if only I could be 19 again… I wouldn’t go back to that age for anything! God, if we’re talking about the trials of body image, do you remember what it was like to be a teenager? Those years were tough! I’m so much happier now that I know myself a bit better, now that I’ve got some life experience under my belt. In some situations I can even be fairly sure of the best course of action to take because I’ve made so many mistakes before that I know well enough not to make them again. And finding new ways of fucking up is fun! We’re all human, aren’t we? That’s what it’s all about! What is it about our society that makes us value youth over experience?

So there we have it – evidence that at points in my life I’ve occasionally had some good and worthy thoughts about life and ageing and appearance and expectation.

Ah, but it’s so very easy to be sanguine about ageing when you’re young! It’s so simple to say that you’ll never have Botox or plastic surgery when you don’t even understand what the word “elasticity” means when it’s used in the same sentence as the word “skin”! It so easy to look condescendingly at women who’ve gone under the knife when you’ve never caught a glimpse of an ageing person in a shop window and not recognised that ageing person as yourself!

(A side note to my 90-year-old self, by the way: I know that compared to you, I’m a spring chicken at 43, and when I say “ageing” I don’t mean that I think I’m very old now. I know I’m not. I’m just acknowledging that I’m older than I used to be. I’m trying to grow comfortably into the skin that you now inhabit. Be gentle with me please, older and wiser me!)

I was very grateful to my new photography club friends for sending me some images from our lighting session but I have to admit that my first reaction to them was, Noooooo! I can’t possibly show these to anyone! I look so old!

But now I realise that I can’t just talk the talk. I can’t just spout on about how I think our personal and societal concerns about the outward signs of ageing are beyond ludicrous. I can’t just say that I value the laughter lines as evidence of the laughter, and the sagging skin as proof of the much appreciated and ever growing number of days, weeks, months and years I’ve spent on the planet. I have to truly accept them. I have to put on a brave face. A brave ageing face. I have to put a brave ageing face on my blog.

So here it is.

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(Thank you to Catherine Hieronymi for this photograph.)

Take that, ageists. I’m out and proud as a middle-aged woman. Come back in ten years. In 20. Hopefully even 30 or 40. Then I’ll really have some stories to tell you. And all you’ll have to do to hear them will be to look at my wizened old face.

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…

The travails of le travail

After I graduated from university in Australia a very long time ago I panicked about finding a job. I had a plan to go and teach English in Japan but I needed to put some yen in my pocket, and fast. My panic lasted for a week, until I signed up for a job at Austudy, the Australian government department that gives a living allowance to students. And from that day on I was always in fulltime employment. I was never interested in a career, as such, but I was lucky enough to always find jobs that I loved and that paid well enough to make my life livable.

And then three years ago I met a man who invited me to live under the same roof as him. No problem there – it was a rather marvellous invitation, in fact – except that his roof was in East Jerusalem. It’s tricky, I discovered, to hold down a fulltime job in the UK when Palestine is your primary place of residence.

My boss, however, was brilliant about it. He asked me to take responsibility for maintaining the company’s relationship with a technical partner in Tel Aviv, and also to continue to attend all the major broadcast exhibitions I’d been to every year before, in Amsterdam, Berlin, Dubai, London, Las Vegas and Singapore. God bless ‘im. So I carried on my working life pretty much as I had when I was still living in England, spending some time in an office, some working from home, and some on planes to faraway lands.

My old colleagues would tell you, if you were ever lucky enough to meet them, that I clung to that job with my fingertips. The situation was not really sustainable but I was determined not to let it go; it was only when I’d started to think about the possibility of giving up work that I realised how much I defined myself by it. But as anyone who’s ever travelled out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport will tell you, it’s not an activity that one should engage in any more regularly than necessary, and I finally realised it was time to pull the plug on my super long-distance commute.

It’s a very disconcerting thing to give up a great job when one has little to replace it with. My partner was prepared to support me financially (again I say God bless ‘im), but I soon realised that work meant far more to me than just a pay cheque. For example, one of the first questions that new acquaintances ever ask you is, of course, what you do for a living. I always had an answer to that. These days, when I meet people and they ask me what’s brought me to Geneva, I’m reduced to talking about what my partner does for a living. Eugh.

I know that saying goodbye to the nine-to-five is the dream for most people on the planet, and I do appreciate how utterly privileged I am, but I wonder how many people in the same lucky position as me could actually manage to fill all of their new time constructively and give structure and purpose to their newfound freedom. For parents of young children, of course, it would be a doddle – 48 hours crammed into one day would probably still not be enough time to achieve all the stuff they have to get done. But in my day-to-day life it’s just my partner and me. So what does one do with the dream of having unexpected time on one’s hands?

One way that I occasionally keep myself on the straight and narrow (by which I mean not opening that bottle of French red wine at lunch time) is by volunteering. In a few weeks I’m going to be a volunteer reporter at a UN conference that’s taking place at the International Conference Centre in Geneva. As there will be 3,500 participants, many hands will be needed to make it happen. When I met with the organisers last week, I asked them if it’s ever difficult to find skilled volunteers for all the many positions they need to fill, from translators to IT support staff and photographers to multilingual receptionists. They replied that it’s actually quite the opposite; people whose CVs should allow them to command six-figure salaries are tripping over each other to be granted the chance to give their time for free.

I think it’s partly because of the phenomenon of the “trailing spouse” – (some) men and (mostly) women who give up their own careers in order to be able to live in the same countries as their partners, who are in itinerant jobs with international organisations. These people (by whom I mean me and my friends) seem to be largely underutilised in the paid labour force, often because it’s impossible for them to get working visas in their temporary countries of residence. And so they give their time without expecting fiscal reward, sometimes out of altruism and sometimes just to have a reason to get out of their pyjamas.

Something else that keeps me from drinking dry the cellars of the winery down the road is the fact that my partner has challenged me to finally write that novel that I’ve always dreamed of writing. I have no excuses any more, right? And then there’s the fact that I’m living in France and my French is appalling and I can only get away with sign language for so long… And there are all those piano pieces that I’ve always been desperate to master. And there’s the weight of responsibility in the knowledge that there are at least a billion people on the planet who’d give anything to be unencumbered by the heavy weight of the daily grind…

Right, I’ll just have a cup of tea, then I’ll do something to try to make myself worthy of this opportunity.

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Patriotism – a dragon to be slain?

For a long time now I’ve kind of envied people who have a strong sense of national pride. I still remember when I told my Dad that I was making England my permanent home, having moved there years before from my native Australia. He said that he felt sorry for me because from that point on I’d never really belong anywhere; I’d be considered Australian in England and English in Australia. As a post-war Dutch immigrant Dad knew what he was talking about but I didn’t completely grasp his point for a number of years, so busy was I enjoying the novelty of my new home.

But then one night I was in a pub in London watching a football match with a crowd of English friends. A lot of them weren’t really into football but every single person in that pub – with the glaring exception of the expat girl in the corner – shared a patriotic passion for their country and a desperate hope that in this football match, England would triumph. There was no question for them. But I wasn’t English so I didn’t feel that blind sense of nationalistic love, and I realised that my loyalty to Australia had been diluted by the years I’d spent in England. Dad was right – the moment I boarded a plane out of Australia at the age of 20 I gave up my right to the rousing sense of community that made every other person in that room into a part of something bigger. I left the pub in tears.

Having said that though… I’m a little perplexed today by the increasing popularity of the idea that England should have a national holiday for St George’s Day. I completely understand the desire for countries to promote a sense of national solidarity, especially when their freedom and independence have been hard-won. I can get behind France’s Bastille Day, American Independence Day and Australia Day, each of which celebrates a historical event which has led to the formation of a free and independent nation (without, for the moment, getting into what that might have meant for indigenous peoples…).

But St George’s Day? In recent years I’ve been surprised, in my travels, by the widespread adoration of the saintly George, who I’d always associated with my adopted homeland of England. In Palestine I visited St George’s Monastery in the Wadi Qelt, and learned that George had lived in Palestine as a child and is patron saint of Palestinian Christians, many of whom have a stone-engraved picture of him in front of their homes to evoke his protection. In Coptic Cairo I visited a monastery where they display the instruments of torture apparently used in the vain attempt to force George to renounce his Christian faith, and where tourists are invited to seek St George’s grace by wrapping a chain around their necks and bodies. In Pérouges, a medieval city in France, I saw several representations of the saint, who is considered by local legend to have fought and defeated the dragon which appears on the city’s crest.

Coptic Church of St George

And these are just a few places that I happen to have visited. It only takes a minute on the internet to discover that St George is also considered patron saint or protector to Bulgaria, Georgia, Portugal, Montenegro and Ethiopia, the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo, the city of Beirut in Lebanon and the German city of Freiburg im Breisgau, as well as the Boy Scouts of America and sufferers of skin disease and syphilis, to name but a few.

Part of my pride in getting a British passport a few years ago (to sit happily alongside my Australian one) lay in my belief that I was officially joining the ranks of a people who strive to be rational, just and fair, and, to a very large extent, secular. This is why I struggle to understand why such a large percentage of the population wishes to celebrate, by virtue of a national holiday, a man who was born in Eastern Turkey,  moved to Palestine and became a Roman soldier, then went on to erm, slay a dragon, then become a martyr to his Christian faith. Yes, his bravery, fortitude and loyalty are to be commended, but isn’t there a better way of celebrating a proud and open-minded nation than this?

I’m open to suggestions.

St George's Monastery