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Unravelling the story I'm trying to tell

The Netherlands: And the King’s birthday celebrations

king's day

The streets were crowded with people and their unwanted belongings. King’s day is the only day where it’s legal for anyone to be a street seller.

Looking out of the apartment window, on the evening of the 26th April in the Netherlands, I could see teenage boys in hoodies washing the street. This is not quite as friendly or community minded as it sounds. The marks they were washing away were the names of other Dutch children. The territorial battle ready for the day ahead: the king’s birthday.

So the next morning, I awoke to the sound of young girls singing American cheerleading songs. I assumed they were also dancing, but they were down on the street, and I was up in the apartment sleeping so I couldn’t see.

So why a territorial battle and cheerleaders?

The 27th April is King’s Day. Or at least that’s what the English language marketing calls it. It’s the celebration of the Dutch King’s birthday. There’s occasionally some confusion with tourists as for a long-time Queen’s Day was on the 30th April and older guide books will quote this date. To make matters more confusing, the 30th April wasn’t really the Queen’s birthday, it was her mother’s birthday. The Queen’s actual birthday is mid-winter, but moving the festivities from the end of April (where they had been previously) to mid-winter wouldn’t have been good for a celebration that typically takes place out on the streets.

Suitably prepared, I wore my orange dress

Which was borrowed of course, because orange is not a participant in my wardrobe. By the time I’d dressed and eaten my breakfast, the cheerleaders had run out of puff. Their chanting gave way to the quaint tune of the barrel organ.

Meanwhile, the children who weren’t pom-pom aficionados had brought out their old toys, clothes and other belongings and were flogging them to one another.

king's day

You had to walk slowly through the streets to marvel at the contents of people’s lives.

King’s day is the only day where anyone can sell stuff on the street

People crowded the streets. I cooed over Spot books by Eric Hill (I learnt to draw by copying pictures of Spot – Dribble in Dutch). And saw a pair of old fashioned ice skating blades. The sort you tie to the base of your boots.

If you wanted kitchen equipment, old videos or a satellite dish, you could have found what you were looking for. It was like a car-boot sale on mats on the street.

A girl arduously playing her cello impressed me. I tossed her a few coins to keep her spirits up. She played well, and for the briefest of moments, I wanted a go.

Mostly though, the displays made me think of all my excess belongings

Many of which I haven’t touched for a decade. I can’t help but think I might have got something out of trying to sell them when I was younger in such a fashion. There’s got to be some good bargaining and money management skills learnt in such an environment. And I liked that the children were both benefiting and working for their toys.

But most of all, I liked that in a culture where throwing stuff away is the easy norm, this second-hand stuff was getting a new leash of life.

What toys and games could you put on your mat?



Books I finished reading in April


They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

No Matter The Wreckage: Poems by Sarah Kay

Borrowed from the Midget.

Sarah Kay writes and speaks poetry. I read her poems, sometimes in my head, sometimes in a whisper, occasionally aloud, before falling asleep in the evenings. They’re playful, but sometimes melancholic. The words twist and dance. They’re not following rules and there’s no rhyming scheme I understand. But all the same, they’re picture painting.

My favourite is one called ‘Dragons’. I don’t know why.

I’d read more of her work. It’s comforting.

Contagious: Why things Catch On by Jonah Berger

Library book.

A very general kind of book about what causes us to share ideas. It’s marketing in a breezy conversation with psychology. Between them they’ve agreed on some concepts and come up with some ideas.

The premise is if you want someone to think about something, you’ve got to show them the idea in the first place, and then you’ve got to continue to trigger it, again and again. The idea must appear to have worth to the individual – it makes them look good or allows them to provide genuine help to someone whose opinion they care about (makes them look good). The best packaging for a message, surprise surprise, is a story. Fairy tales and religious texts have been selling their morals and lessons for ages. But it also helps if the message is specific and individual. It has more power if it feels exclusive, unique, important, special… Exclusivity, ‘sale’, this week only…

Just a bit of light reading. Not particularly recommendable, but not a worthless read either.

One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

It’s not mine, but nor I don’t know whose it is…

This is a good book, a well-written book. An easy to consume, eye-opening, descriptive but constantly on the move book. It’s an account of one day of one prisoner’s labour camp jail sentence based on the author’s own experiences. The details bring it alive.

It’s not a depressing though as I imagined.

It’s a book that makes you question your own materialism. Solzhenitsyn makes you pause before you next eat. You find yourself looking a little closer at the plate in front of you, piled high and hot. This book has a horrible backdrop, but explores the uncomfortable setting through the delights of a puff on a cigarette, or an extra 20 grams of bread. For the protagonist to dwell on the horror of the circumstances he’s in, would be overwhelming. It goes unwritten, and is saved for the reader to feel when they step back and compare the comfort of one day in their own life to the hardship of one day like that.

Would recommend.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Borrowed from the Mother, who apparently bought it in a jumble sale, before she was married, according to the name inscribed in the front, but who has never read it.

It’s not my first Evelyn Waugh book. I read and enjoyed Scoop some years ago. Knowing I liked the author’s writing and having heard the name of the book a few times, I thought Brideshead Revisited would be a good read for me.

Now, I can’t disagree that it’s a good book, but I can’t claim to like it. In a way, I think the emotional journey through it was too close to my own emotions and my own frustrations, even if the actual story and characters are nothing like my life. Maybe that’s the mark of good literature, that it gives a different way of looking and feeling something that’s inherently the same.

But, frustratingly, nor do I dislike the book. I just don’t like the feelings it induces in me. There’s a hollowness it conveys, which is uncomfortable. And the reasoning, like so much of my own reasoning, is circular and blown out of perspective. It doesn’t make sense. But I know how it feels to have life not making sense around you. Damn frustrating.


Resilience: against cold rain, hail and the things that pull us down in life


Not easy walking – sand-dunes on the Fisherman’s trail of the Rota Vicentina, Portugal.

It starts raining. I pull the waterproof cover across my bulging rucksack, zip up my coat and pull up my hood. I’m prepared for the shower that comes, but it hits quickly, and all I have on beneath my coat is a t-shirt.

I’m wearing a short stretchy black skirt and a pair of black tights. To me, it’s comfort clothing. Stretchy, dark, doesn’t take much room up in my bag. Not perhaps ideal for a storm.

I soldier on

What an interesting word choice. A military attitude for a holiday walk.

The hail begins, and it strikes my legs. The tights aren’t much protection. I wince, and decide since there’s nothing I can do, I will ignore it.

Protection, that’s a thought, a barrier between the weather and me. My coat is thin, but it keeps what it covers dry. The landscape is open here. Not long before there were masses of trees, but not now.

And the weather continues

Soon, I’m cold. My ankles are wet. My knickers are wet. Then my feet become wet as I wade across a puddle and misjudge a stick that I was relying on supporting me. I sink and I shiver.

Gritting my teeth, I march against the wind.

Until the sun comes out

And, deftly, urgently, I strip off the coat, pull on a cardigan, a jumper, a fleece and then my coat again. I eat a piece of chocolate saved for emergencies. I laugh at the situation, determinedly. To laugh means we’re alright, doesn’t it?

I will not whine, I will not mope, I will not complain.

Perhaps one might criticise me for walking without waterproof trousers? Or for choosing a skirt which left my ankles to become sodden, and tights which were too thin to offer any pain relief to the sharp ice? But nobody will be able to say that I was not strong enough to endure without whimpering. There will be no crying.

Unlike Snowdon

Where, perhaps ten years previously, unfit and undisciplined in my complaining, I moaned about the climb and the snow and the effort it took, and the pointlessness of it all. And then I moaned some more.

Or the Lake District, a few years after that, where, unfit and undisciplined, I let everyone know of my aching limbs and tired body. Every meter of climb that I faced was an ordeal.

But not now

I have learnt that all one needs to internalise the pain. Choose something mundane, like the force of your breath and meditate on it. Breathe in, breathe out. Say nothing. Keep your eyes on the floor. Let the legs ache, the thighs complain. Let the aches and the complaints pass away with the rain.

Nothing is permanent. Sunshine will come. There will be a small café with a toilet in which tights can be changed and dry socks can be swapped for. There will be a strong espresso, with a teaspoon of sugar, no, two espressos. And a sandwich.

Most importantly laugh. Do not cry.

This is what resilience is, isn’t it?

Or is it?

Is resilience acting as if we’d never fallen, never been hurt? Or is it more about recognising the need to eat that bar of chocolate when the time comes?

Without self-compassion does resilience exist, or is it just denial?

I’m starting to think that it’s not the ferocity of the hail that makes you stronger, nor the saturation of your socks. It doesn’t matter how strong the winds were, or how cold the rain was. It’s not about marching on stoically and keeping the ordeal contained.

The chocolate melts in my mouth.


Crossing contours: The passage of time and the influence of travel


The path heaped with autumn leaves after a storm.

From the small window of the aeroplane, you could see a defined line, circling the Alps. A line more clear, more smooth than a  contour on a map. While winter has come for the bronze mountains, it has not yet reached the dark green valley.

I see no defined line, but I know that as the seasons change, travelling is changing me.

Outside the apartment, the sky is cold grey and holds a chill. Its blue shades contrast with the warm gold autumn leaves and the red brick of the square tower. Inside I’m warm. The gentle Italian man whose life I am borrowing pours my coffee. We talk about the migration patterns of birds. He comes alive as he talks.

I’m constantly delighted, yet the toll of this onslaught of experiences can’t be ignored. How many miles have I gone? How many welcoming smiles? My mind snuggles in my bed, deep beneath the covers, hiding from the chill. Who is around? What obligations have I today? My determination to have a discipline shrivels up like those autumn leaves that float down from the sky, dragged around by the momentum of the air. Whistled away.

Yet, often I wake early, thrilled to see dawn. There’s an energy that’s warm like the sun which gets into my bones. I want to write or draw before I even rise for breakfast. Everything’s bright and I’m alive.

Boundaries and walls are the art of my mind. Where are they? I want to know.

I’m painting with my questions, drawing in experience. It’s a gale. My hair blows free behind me. I’m living all at once at the excitement of the new – a castle, a trampoline, shellfish. I pull my coat around me tight, bind my scarf around my neck and tug at the worn gloves hiding my fingers. The stillness in uneasy, anxious hours of fares and tickets is taxing too. Back and forth. Weather never stops.


Written Modena, November 2016.



Remembering the honour of seeing an Egypt composed of kindness.


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.


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?”


“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: