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Lessons from a not-so-little mermaid (why being a teenager sucks)

The Little Mermaid and I walk to the library to collect some pre-ordered books on the history of fashion. It’s bright sunshine, and I’m happy in my skirt and strap top, but she’s wishing that she’d worn something other than jeans. One of us has been lounging out in the garden and knows what the weather is doing today.

We pass the tennis court, where younger children are batting balls across the net, and flying paper planes. We talk, or rather she tells and I prompt and somehow despite working around the age gap and that weird sense of being family so knowing each other (and in odd ways being rather similar) whilst knowing nothing of each other we manage to get along.

She’s surviving the summer holiday; I’m having an education.

It strikes me that I assume all teenagers are teenagers like I remember from school. In my mind, they’re bigger. Furthermore, I assume schools are pretty much all the same – they’re not. The Little Mermaid has a locker and is encouraged to take a photograph of her homework assignments with her smartphone. I try and explain to her a Nokia 3310. She’s amazed at the idea of a phone without colour. It appears I’ve become one of those old people who grew up without modern technology.

I try and explain that we could do more than text. We had MSN messenger (the easiest way to put a virus on the computer). Surprisingly, she’s heard of MSN. It makes an amusing line in a very old French textbook. I learn a new word – télécharger (to download) – is how French textbook characters acquire music. The Little Mermaid is worried about the character’s ethics.

She’s also worried about me walking out in front of a car. She’s got that whole ‘stop, look, listen, live’ thing memorised whereas I’m still trying to shake of the influence of Cairo. That said, when she moves, she strides with purpose. I’m the one having to speed up to keep up.

Yesterday we visited an art gallery and saw some Wedgewood pots, some pre-Raphaelite paintings and some Japanese prints. She liked the painting of a goat and another in which a young woman was begging a soldier not to go to war. I liked one where an almond tree turns into a woman vexed with the inattention of her beloved. The young man looks quite taken aback by the ordeal.

I learn that being a teenager is hard work. Wearing the right clothes matters. As does having the right (read bountifully liked) social media. The most important thing is not to be trying too hard to be someone else. You must be authentically you AND on trend. There’s peer pressure, but also pressure from an abundance of very young celebrities. These are people achieving stuff right now. Or at least, having their picture taken lots.

My mind thinks of Einstein’s achievements at my age, and I say nothing.

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“She doesn’t binge.”

 

I step into the living room where the Blacksmith and the Midget are watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m red faced, you can probably hear my breathing from the sofa, and I’m wearing running shorts and a top I was kindly given after running 10km a few years ago.

“How far did you get?” the Blacksmith asks.

“5.8.”

There’s a moment of thought, and then he beams and starts excitedly saying how I’m getting to a good bit. I’m thinking 5.8km isn’t that impressive, especially since he knows how long I’ve been out since he passed me in the car as I was running up the hill. I look at the Midget.

My sister, always the chemist, corrects my absent units by clarifying that the Blacksmith is talking about seasons and episodes and I’m talking about kilometres.

“Oh, Buffy? I’m still on the second season.”

The Blacksmith looks surprised, confused and disappointed.

Despondently, the Midget explains: “She doesn’t binge.”

It comes across in a tone that suggests that there’s something alien about me, something terribly dysfunctional about me. The Blacksmith looks at me and back at the Midget as if wondering if the two of us are related.

“No, I don’t,” I say, contemplating that there was that one time when the Midget and I watched four episodes of Star Trek back to back… And still feeling guilty.

 

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What the weather ‘should be’ according to The Mother

weather

The weather in Poland last week was everything from bright, burning sunshine, to torrential rain, to thick opaque fog.

There’s a little sun outside, enough to make the Crookes Radiometer twirl gently, but not enough to make it whizz.

“This is not right. It should be rain this afternoon. Light drizzle.” And with that final statement on the weather the Mother strides off down the corridor to go and consult her tablet, her computer or her phone on the matter.

It should not be that the weather forecast is wrong. But it is wrong and this bothers the Mother. I don’t mind, I contemplate a walk.

Yesterday it rained all day. When we sat down for lunch the Mother stated that she knew it would be rain all today and a miserable (weather wise) bank holiday Monday. Naively, for I should know better than to argue with the Mother about the weather, I asked how she’d known.

And of course this isn’t random guessing, this is the Mother. I have no doubt that the Mother is more knowledgeable about the weather than me. The weather is linked directly to the complex ordeal of the laundry, and the two of them, the weather and the laundry, are like ancient Greek gods in their eternal battle, with the Mother making impossible things happen in the midst of their chaos. Of course the Mother has understanding I don’t.

But when she replies, her answer makes no sense.

“I knew it would be a miserable day, because last week it was forecast to be glorious sunshine all weekend, right through to today.”

Now I wouldn’t be one to judge, but personally, I think there’s too much reliance on weather apps and not enough stepping outside, looking up at the sky, feeling the humidity on your face, and if you think it might perhaps rain, perhaps pocketing an umbrella.

You know, the old fashioned way.

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Like a comet that’s got lost somewhere in the Oort cloud

Flying home

That green you can see is Yorkshire.

Whilst, physically, I’m back in England, mentally I feel like a comet that’s got lost somewhere in the Oort cloud. I have a to-do list, which I started compiling a week ago. It gets longer and longer by the hour as I think of more and more things that, ideally, I ought not forget. This time, I’ve only been away just over a month, but it feels like longer. I’ve spent the last three weeks on buses and trains, living in different hotels and teaching English to teenagers, sofa salespeople, established lawyers and determined grandmothers. My 15.4kg suitcase and I have had quite the adventure travelling around Poland, and quite the education. The suitcase limped home, tyre-less and battered. I’m a little better off, but tired all the same.

When you’re travelling, you can just forget about all the stuff you left un-done back at home. Especially when your bed gets made for you, your towels laundered and your dinner served to your table, you can just focus on what you’re supposed to be doing. But now I’m home, and I have this to-do list of competing priorities. Important things, like voting, sit side by side with nice things, like sending a thank you for a little crocheted coaster one of my room mates made for me while we were away.

And I’ve made so many notes whilst I’ve been away. There’s a huge amount of consolidating of information and learning that I need to sit down and just do. I’ve got a fair few thank you notes to write too.

Loosening my grip on the end goal helps reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. Having an end goal is crucial, but sometimes you need to stop staring at the horizon and work on what’s at your feet. What can I do without going anywhere, without any great plan, without thinking too much. Just do it. Bum on the chair and action. Often, when you’re overwhelmed, it doesn’t really matter what you do, only that you’re steadily making progress. Post travels, it’s more important to build momentum and get back into the habit of working.

Finally, to conquer this overwhelm that strikes me whenever I return, I know I have to let go of comparison. I’m me, not anybody else. Sure, other people might move faster, might recover quicker, might not care so much, might be better. But none of that really matters.

Small steady steps.

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Remembering the honour of seeing an Egypt composed of kindness.

Egypt

Egypt: a land of many colours.

People were out in the streets selling fruit at 4am on New Year’s Day.

It took me by surprise.

As did how Christian families wore red and gave each other gifts in their celebration of the New Year, rather than waiting a few days for Christmas on the 7th. Despite the Christian population of Egypt being just 10%, Santa was everywhere.

People were selling Santa hats on the streets

It was Christmas eve that was the big deal. With everyone bustling into church for a late night mass.

I spent Christmas day in Cairo’s antiquities museum, wandering quietly amongst the mummies. These were people who had believed themselves gods – kings in life and death. They were people who had worshipped the sun and the river. Their anamorphic gods enjoyed simple every day pleasures like measuring fields and writing (Seshat and Thoth respectively).

And these kings and their devoted subjects wrote love poetry that was simple and sweet.

The Flower Song (Excerpt)
To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me:
I draw life from hearing it.
Could I see you with every glance,
It would be better for me
Than to eat or to drink.

Translated by M.V. Fox

The ancient gods blended together over time

They amalgamated from ‘Amun’ and ‘Re’ to ‘Amun-Re’ as time passed and needs changed.

It was a religion that both stood still through time – with Cleopatra performing rituals and using imagery of the Pyramid builders who had lived thousands of years before – and changed as the society integrated with its neighbours.

Every society has rules to guide you towards a good life

The book of life (or the book of death as it’s more accurately translated) told you what you shouldn’t do. It was a guide to leading your life in harmony with others. Don’t sleep with someone else’s wife. Don’t kill. Leave your neighbour’s donkey well alone.

Don’t…

In the Catholic church, I was told off for crossing my legs

I cross my legs out of habit. But in today’s Egyptian culture, it’s seen as insubordinate. And being defiant in front of Jesus and God, is not seen as good manners. To not cross my legs, in front of everyone who was higher up in the hierarchy by age or status, was a constant challenge.

I know the rules of my own culture, but in Egypt I was often taken by surprise.

In Cairo, they’d built one Orthodox church on top of another Orthodox church

They were separate but for a shared foyer and simultaneous services. A young woman ushered me into the women’s part of the upper church, she had been given my hand mere moments before by a mutual, male friend. The rest of the family I was with had disappeared into the lower church.

“You have a phone?”

“Yes.”

“Be careful nobody steals it.”

They welcomed me in, and put me to use…

And when it came to communion I helped to clear the aisle of the extra chairs that had been brought out. We needed the chairs moved, because it was body against body in the great movement to be blessed. There might have been two churches, but the congregation could have filled four.  Amid it all, I held tight to my phone and tried to take chairs from beneath the bottoms of elderly ladies.

Persuading someone who has difficulty standing, to stand is difficult at the best of times. And I don’t speak Arabic.

All these memories flooded back to me today

Little things, like the way people knelt in the street when the song for prayer started echoing around the city. The generosity of almost everyone I met. The kindness of Christian and Muslim alike – the sharing of tea and chocolate.

It made me, who has no religion, open my eyes. And when individuals commit atrocities, it’s important to remember that fear is not all that lives in these ancient lands.

Articles on yesterday’s terrorist attacks:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-39553079

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-39548645

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Speed isn’t everything (a Little Mermaid story)

Running with the Little Mermaid

Illustration by the Little Mermaid.

Normally, when I go out for a run, I get a few looks of encouragement and support. Today, although it was my normal route, I suffered looks of pity instead.

It wasn’t that I had injured myself, or that I was running badly. The heavy breathing and pink cheeks are typical for me after running up the hill. If anything, I was moving faster than normal.

And it wasn’t like yesterday, where a class of French school children all wanted to pass along the narrow path and through the little gate into the church cemetery at the same moment as me. Their French accents as they apologised and got out of the way were all very sweet, but not at all pitying.

No, the pitying came because of the comparison

Today wasn’t a case of running along by myself looking brave against the backdrop of the Bronte’s moors. No, a light-footed young lady had darted past, most elegantly, moments before. Dressed in sleek black lycra – rather than an old second-hand hoodie – and running up the steep cobbles like they were a flat, freshly lain road, she was impressive.

The girl in question is my Little Mermaid

My cousin is half my age and it appears, twice as fast. She’s not yet as tall as me, but we share a shoe size and some genetic wonders that mean we both run with our feet pointing inward. She’s got better shoes and more experience racing than I have.

From her, I learn stretches that are particularly suited to my body and our shared inheritance. The Short Aunty joins in, proving that her legs bend in strange ways too.

However, the Little Mermaid is still categorised as a child

Even if she’s considerably taller than her mother, Short Aunty. For her age category, cross country racing is limited to 3 km. Although she also does 5km park runs – and her times are a good few minutes quicker than my own. Even so, her park run is somewhat flatter than my great hills and so she lacks practice on longer 5.7km runs with a 167m elevation gain.

Whereas I specialise in slowly running uphill

It started when I lived in a mountain village in northern Spain. Whilst my friends there would complain about how far away the beach was and how much effort it would take to go down the hill and run along the beautiful flat stretch beside the beach, I ran up.

And once I was back in Yorkshire, living in the bottom of a valley where the only way to go was up, I found myself running up more.

I’ve got experience of up.

And yet, without a doubt, the Little Mermaid beat me up the hill

She was impressively quick. She jogged on the spot as she waited for me to catch up. I gulped down air and shouted left and up, or right and up, as the next direction. We passed through the gate where the French school children had caused the delay the day before, and she darted ahead.

She skittered around a group of tourists going out for a walk on the moors, maps and rucksacks to hand. They apologised for getting in the way.

“No, it’s good, you hold her up,” I said laboriously.

“You should have shouted earlier!”

“Couldn’t.”

The Little Mermaid paused at the top of that bit of hill. I pointed to the highest point on the moor, and she set off again. The rough terrain had no effect.

Little Mermaid 1 : Aged Cousin 0

We carried on running. I pointed out the route and she sprinted off. I didn’t bother trying to keep up. Undoubtedly, I was running quick. When you’ve got someone to compared yourself to, and they’re making you look slow and out of shape, it’s an incentive to move your arse.

But then something funny happened

We reached the 3km mark. At this point in a run, I’ve warmed up. We’re on the moor which is gorgeous, the big open landscape is my landscape. This is home and it feels good. The Little Mermaid’s quick pace means I’m flying along, and since we’ve passed the top, we’re now running a gradual down. I know these paths, they’re all familiar to me. I feel surprisingly fresh.

We pass the same group of walkers, who in a jolly show of friendliness leap out at the Little Mermaid who’s still far ahead of me, pretending to slow her down. I tell them that they failed.

“It’ll do you good” one of the chaps calls as I run past.

He’s right of course. It is doing me good.

The Little Mermaid however has passed the point where she’d normally stop

She’s thinking about a glass of water, a sit down, a quiet stretch, a shower and something nice to eat as a reward for her hard work. However, she’s still got 2.7km to run.

She slows, and we run side by side for a while, then she’s running behind me.

“Can we pause at the next bench?”

I agree. My sister, the Midget, is always too proud to ask for a pause – she just internally bad mouths me when we run instead. Speaking out when you’re reaching your limits is a sign of strength.

I take off my hoodie and re-do my pony tail. My hair bobble snaps.

Which is annoying

But what’s also annoying is that I’m suddenly in the rhythm of things and we’re now heading downwards very slowly. We almost amble through the village. At the top of our road, the Little Mermaid decides that I should go on ahead. We can meet at the bottom.

Little Mermaid 1 : Aged Cousin 1

The tortoise wins.

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