More tiling, more trauma with mirrors but finally some painting

Day Three (23rd December)

  • The bathroom was occupied by the man doing the tiling. He’s very polite and neat. Unfortunately, since the second toilet isn’t yet plumbed in, I have to ask him to move out every time I need a wee.
  • The mirrors, ordered yesterday, arrived. The Father doesn’t like them, so they’re going back and we’re still mirrorless.
  • The Midget started painting the new walls, and the Father did some plastering.
  • I kept out the way and did some sketching.

Seshat, Ma’at and a bunny

Ma'at and Seshat

Seshat (Goddess of writing and measuring fields) alongside Ma’at (Goddess of truth and justice). The rabbit isn’t very Egyptian, but James can’t be left out. Seshat wears a panther skin, whereas Ma’at has a feather sticking out of her head.

It’s Ma’at’s feather that your heart will be weighed against when you die to determine what will happen to you next.

The winged goddess Isis

Winged Isis

There will be a picture of the goddess Isis over the doorway. Her wings are enormous.

The multicoloured border (drawn by the Mother)

bathroom border in ancient Egyptian style

Around the top of the room is gong to be a border. The ancient Egyptians believed that demons would get into empty space on the walls so they crammed every section full of pictures, often simple repeating patterns. This border style is copied from a number of photos of Egyptian tombs but I’ve no idea whether it has any particular meaning.

P.S. Merry Christmas.


Measuring grids, shopping for mirrors and much waiting

Day 2 (22nd December)

Measuring up the grid

The painters of the original Egyptian tombs used grids to make sure that the figures were correctly proportioned. They stuck to this method so rigidly that it barely changed in thousands of years. The paintings in the pyramid complexes of the Old Kingdom kings was much the same as in the reign of Ramesses fourteen or so dynasties later.

This means, that to make my walls look ‘ancient Egyptian’ I have to follow the same rules. The first step was making sure that I could interpret the hazy guide in Egyptian Painting and Relief by Gay Robins, and draw my own figures on a small-scale.

Egyptian Painting and Relief by Gay Robins

Stood up, an ancient Egyptian is eighteen squares from the ground to their forehead. Working out the size of the grid for the bathroom project has made me long for my calculator.

It’s not as simple as splitting the available space into 18. The father, as Amun-Re, has enormous feathers coming out of his crown. From the ground to the top of his crown is actually 26 blocks. We also need a border, and the border has to fit over the top of the door leaving room for the image of a winged Isis, the wingspan has to be the width of the door…

After some waving of a ruler and the tape measure, I’ve defined the border as 11cm. This means that with a little fudging of the measurements I can have each block as a 5cm by 5cm square. I like 5s. I can do my 5 times table in my head.

Festival goer 18th dynasty ancient egypt

So my largest figures (not including crowns), are going to by just under a metre in height.

Mirrors and paint

To cut a rather tedious story short, we spent 4 hours wandering the dales searching for mirrors to come home and the Father order them online.

On a more positive note, we have paint. The chap at the paint place was a tad perplexed to have to mix nine very different colours. Each needed shaking by hand because the paint shaker only dealt with the bigger pots and we only need a little of each.

paint colours and the goddess Hathor

Now I’m just waiting for the final tiles to be placed and the Midget, as Overseer of Wall Preparation, to get the base coat done.

Clearly, I’m going to spend my Christmas day stood in the bath.

The eradication of the pink flowers

Day one

A Christmas project

Most people look to Christmas as a time to relax. Whilst we’re reunited as a family, the idea of lazing around is far from our minds.

The Mother has the wallpaper steamer in her hands and she’s attacking the bathroom walls with vigour. The ghastly pink flowers are wilting away into a sticky white goo.

pink flowery wallpaper

The Midget is helping too. I’ve designated her the Overseer of Wall Preparation. She wrote down wall measurements as I danced around with the tape measure first thing this morning, and now she’s the Mother’s sidekick with the steamer.

The Father is floating around the house doing some very important work (i.e. the sort he’s paid for).

Meanwhile, I’ve surrounded myself with squared paper, book, computers and pencils. I have a huge roll of lining paper and I’m sketching out plans for grids.

lining paper

Grids, because this is no normal bathroom painting. The theme is ancient Egypt.

And I don’t mean that we’re going to have a small piece of touristy papyrus printed with Tutankhamun or Akhenaten hanging on the wall, I mean the bathroom walls will be completely covered as if they were an ancient Egyptian tomb—early 18th dynasty to be precise.

I don’t know anyone with a mural on their bathroom walls.

It’s not a common choice, in fact I’d say it’s just a little crazy. Wonderful crazy, like painting red polka dot knickers on the kitchen wall, but even more so.

What’s more, it’s wasn’t even my idea. It came straight from the parents.

Designing the walls

I know more than the average person about ancient Egypt, and I know even more about my family. The struggle is how do I draw something that conveys what I love about ancient Egypt, in a way that is meaningful to the family, yet still amuses visitors.

First challenge came with choosing a goddess to represent the Mother.

“But I don’t want a bird on my head!”

“I don’t want to be a cow!”

I went through the list of the better known goddesses of Egypt. The Mother also wanted to be someone who’s partner could represent the Father, so the pairing of Isis and Osiris was straight out the window.

“I don’t want your father to be green!”

Similarly, the Midget had some opinion on exactly which goddess she was going to be.

“I’m not the goddess of death!”

My family are stubborn and fussy, but you would probably be so if you were going to see this painting every time you went in the bath.

If you were to depict yourself as a god or goddess who would you choose?

On why cleaning one’s shoes is a bad idea

Sometimes you feel like doing something really good, like polishing your shoes. You get the shoe polish out the cupboard and find that when you bought your last pair of shoes from a real shoe shop, you also picked up a bottle of some spray-on ‘I clean anything’ magic lotion.

The first mistake is that you’re in sixth form, still at school, and although you don’t have lessons for the first two periods, and hence had a lie in, you do have lessons later on.

The second mistake is to throw every shoe you own into a box, carry them all downstairs into the smallest room in the house—the utility room—and proceed to spray on the cleaner.

Of course you don’t realise that you’ve made a mistake until every shoe shines. You stand up and try to breathe, but find you can’t.

In fact, the air is sticky. You wheeze your way into the kitchen, trying to breathe through your nose to see if that will help, and grab the back-door key.

You spend the next ten minutes stood in the garden. You drink large volumes of water, open every window and make a squeaky phone call to your mother to explain you’ve accidentally poisoned yourself with shoe polish. You text your friend who is already at school—speaking hurts—to say you’ll be late.

And you never, never do it again.
Large man statue in Budapest

Hunting for Wally, ladybugs and a purpose

The desire to be something

Everybody wants to be something. Often that something isn’t well-defined. Sometimes it’s outright hazy.

Nobody wants to be nothing.

Being something is satisfying. It’s meaningful. It’s a reason for getting up in the morning, for your heart to gallop and your cheeks to flush. It’s an excuse for expressing yourself across the waves of the internet. It’s a reason to be the one to speak.

Not everyone wants to be the same something. My obsession might be your greatest bore. What’s your life-long quest and holy grail might be meaningless to me.

And then you want to be something more.

It doesn’t necessarily mean fame, it doesn’t mean changing a million, a thousand or even a hundred lives – although many do. It simply means that your life adds meaning to something somewhere, and then somewhere more. Always a little more.

In practice, being something worthy takes time. Meaning takes work to create. And patience.

A childhood dream

From when you’re a child playing dressing up it’s implied that you ought to know the name of your something. But most people don’t, and many who do change their mind.

In primary school I copied my best friend, the Noph. She wanted to be a vet.

In secondary school, in some sort of citizenship lesson, I was sat down in front of a survey on a computer screen and told I had to fill it in. The wise computer informed me I should be a technology teacher.

Aim higher.” The schools careers advisor wanted to push me. He told me to find out about being an academic. Professor Kate stood at the front of a lecture theatre talking symbols?

No, thank you.

The university careers advisor scratched his head and told me he couldn’t tell me what I wanted to be. He could tell me how to become many things. He could tell me how to get an internship. He could tell me how to get onto a Masters or a PhD course. He could tell me how to get a job in banking.

I know my something isn’t a physicist. But it used to be.

How to catch your something / How to find your purpose

I could see my something playing a game of Where’s Wally with me. Every time I thought I’d found it I’d turn the page and have to begin the search again.

Finding somethings, and finding love probably have a lot in common. When things ever get tricky with boys, the Noph throws me a piece of wisdom from a book we’ve both read (It’s not an exact quote as I don’t own the book, but wisdom isn’t dependent on exact phrasing).

Treat them like woodland creatures.

– Sarra Manning, Unsticky

I think it applies to men and my elusive sense of purpose equally. You have to stay alert. You have to keep watching. You have to be there to see it, but you have to be patient and you have to be gentle because it’s very easy to get carried away with ‘supposed to’, forget to listen and miss everything.

One purpose was never going to be enough for me. I’m hunting Wally’s whole family, not just Wally himself.

I don’t know how I’m going to change the world. I don’t know how I’ll describe my life when I reach 100. But all that fuss of feeling there should be a specific goal has dissipated.

I am something, and for now, even though I don’t know how to describe it or define it, I’m happy.

Listen, when I was a little girl I used to spend hours looking for ladybugs. Finally, I’d just give up and fall asleep in the grass. When I woke up, they were crawling all over me.

– Katherine, Under the Tuscan Sun (film)

When you have no memory, but plenty of stories

The desolate unfairness of Half of a Yellow Sun makes for a cruel story. My naïvety of world history catches me out when I read such books.

It’s set in Nigeria and the short-lived Biafra. I’ve heard of Lagos, but I hadn’t heard of Biafra of the Igbo people, and I couldn’t have pointed out Nigeria on a map.  I had no awareness of the atrocities I was going to read when I started the book. Yet the book isn’t all dark depressing and horrible. It’s a story of people, families, children and love.

But the backdrop to these relationships is horrendous. Emotionally, I can’t comprehend such unfairness. My brain has been washed with a lukewarm ‘there are people starving in Africa’, but most of the time my world feels no larger than this one bedroom house or the concrete office block where I work.

My closest understanding of Africa comes from my Egyptian friend, at college in America, my South-Africa colleague, applying for British citizenship, and my obsession with ancient history. To this Africa, I can relate. It’s educated and eats three meals a day, often with cake or biscuits. It looks familiar, barely any different from my world in my one bedroom house and concrete office block.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun shook me up. I need shaking.

And I have a huge amount to learn. If you have any suggestion of stories that have touched you and educated you about this world that we don’t see, please share.

But with regard to Biafra, and the characters of the story I just let into my heart, there’s a small fact that particularly jars at me.

From Wikipedia, “Britain supplied amounts of heavy weapons and ammunition to the Nigerian side because of its desire to preserve the country it created. The Biafra side on the other hand found it difficult to purchase arms as the countries who supported it did not provide arms and ammunition. The heavy supply of weapons by Britain was the biggest factor in determining the outcome of the war.”

Estimates suggest 3 million people died from the fighting or the associated famine.

Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns is a very different book. It’s not quite as tightly written as the Half of a Yellow Sun, but is definitely worth reading, especially, if like me your knowledge of recent history is sparse.

Again, I know the name Kabul from the newspapers, but in reality, I know nothing about the history of Afghanistan. I’m an independent educated woman, so Mariam in the book is alien to me. Her learning consists of reciting some religious verses and cooking. Her life is held within a tiny, closed world where as a woman her power is limited to a level that I simply cannot comprehend. The street outside changes around her: first by the Soviets, then by civil war, then the harsh rules of the Taliban, who in turn are pushed out by the Americans and the British declaring a war on terror.

Reading a story makes her street my street. Her family is my family. Her heartache is my heartache. But her humility isn’t my humility, it takes me a moment to accept that I can’t comprehend what it is she goes through, I don’t know I have that depth. I’ve never been pushed to my limits.

So, with this all churning in the back of my mind, my thoughts on remembrance day didn’t go along the lines of ‘I remember…’. They went along the lines of what do I need to plan to learn next. It’s a way of thinking that started in Poland, as I was walking through a stunning, beautiful city I became aware that where each modern building stood had once stood a street where men, women and children fought until death for an elusive freedom.

I went to the Warsaw Rising museum, and came out wondering why I knew nothing. I know nothing more than the British school curriculum. This doesn’t once mention the Warsaw Rising or the Biafran War or the many other catastrophes that I know nothing of. It says nothing of the soldiers who, as I was listening to the teacher regurgitate the textbook, were fighting and dying.

Knight in Warsaw

Too much coffee. Too much cake.

[Written whilst travelling, posted from home.]

burger recipe polandI’m sat in a café with a goat beanie baby drinking tea – it’s Assam as anything that remotely tastes of what I’d call normal (Yorkshire tea or Lapsang Souchong) isn’t sold this side of the channel.

My coffee limit has been reached. Not particularly today, I’ve had one cup, but in general over the last two weeks. Tea’s a lighter welcome refreshment.

The overdose of coffee is part of a bigger problem. My entire diet is a disaster.

It begins with breakfast. I don’t fancy meat and cheese first thing in the morning. When we stay in places that offer a complimentary breakfast I’m overwhelmed and just drink more coffee, sometimes orange juice and eat the fruit.

When there’s no breakfast options then a trip to the nearest bakery for croissants and coffee is in order, and I’m not sure that this rates positively on the healthy scale, even if it tastes good.

When we’re self-catering, i.e. a hostel with kitchen or an apartment, then cereal is an option. Of course we can’t carry a cereal box around with us, but cereal comes in minuscule boxes anyway. Small enough that between two of us we can finish a box in three days.

There is little variety in the cereal sold here. And I feel the basic normal cereals are the ones that are missing. If you want something that’s soaked in chocolate and has a picture of a cartoon astronaut you’ll be fine. If you want something with the most minimal number of calories you’ll also have no problem. If you want normal cereal you’re screwed.

We’re darting between city centres so corner shops replace the supermarkets (although there was an underground Aldi in Vienna), this accounts for the lack of shelf space, but mostly I think the problem is that cereal isn’t revered like it is in my house at home where it’s bought 15 boxes at a time.

Meals that aren’t breakfast come under one of three types:
1. Ones we cook or make. Pasta with vegetables or bread cheese and salami.
2. Ones we eat at restaurants. Pizza or local dishes like gnocchi, veal stew or goulash.
3. Cake or pastries.

Three meals a day can therefore look like: croissant, pizza, cake.

Of course we also have snacks. Sometimes cake, but there are also Spar’s budget cereal bars (the banana one really is very bananary), strawberry and cream flavoured sweets originally bought in Hungary and rather unappetising butter flavoured crisps.

We had chocolate but that lasted all of ten minutes.

What food do you miss when you’re away?

Somewhere in Slovenia on the bus.

The Midget pointed out this graffiti to me
The Midget pointed out this graffiti to me

Hungary presented the first ‘autobus’ diversion. Like this one the train to bus transition was impressively efficient. The coaches stood in lines with competent multilingual men directing people and more men loading bags.

Of course it isn’t ideal, but on the train I was sitting next to a girl who stank of cigarette smoke and here I’ve got the Midget beside me – she showered this morning – and we’re surrounded by older women in gold earrings and coloured scarves.

It”s a different sort of view from a bus. Trains tend to travel across the countryside. Slovenia has stunning scenery, almost 60% is forest and there’s a surplus of hills. Buses however take you through places. Places with houses and allotments.

This bus has a mesh across the windows which stops people looking in, but makes everything outside look slightly hazy. Lucky then that it’s only a short diversion.

[Written on my phone whilst travelling.]

Somewhere in Hungary on the bus

We’re somewhere in Hungary, although it might be Croatia, on a bus. There’s maintenance happening to the train track between Budapest and Zagreb.

The train (bus) passengers are an interesting bunch, due to us surprisingly fitting exactly into the demographic. The racks are crammed with rucksacks. The seats are filled with twenty somethings with bright English accents complaining about the rain, the leg room, the absence of wi-fi and the lack of a dining car.

Of course neither the Midget or I are actually complaining. I’ve got my earphones tight in and a good view to stare out of the window. Plus we shouldn’t be complaining, we’re on the bus that didn’t break down.

This journey is filled with unexpected pauses. We’ve stopped at the edge of the road atop a hill to lend assistance to the other bus and swap ticket inspectors. We stop again when the other bus gives up, and on the train we stopped multiple times to let other trains pass when it dropped to single track.

The Midget is sat watching a film on her phone. I’m watching the geese romp around a garden. If you’re patient then a detour isn’t a disaster.

Bratislava to Nitra: Mind the gap


The building in the distance is the castle in Bratislava.
The building in the distance is the castle in Bratislava.

‘Mind the gap’ is a phrase I’d normally associate with the London underground where it’s plastered on walls and tourist’s treasures everywhere you look. Whilst there does tend to be some gap between the train and the platform, I’ve always found the signs bemusing becUse it’s a very small gap.

That said, I did recently read some article somewhere that told a story of a man who got his leg stuck between the train and the platform. I think it was in Barcelona? I was amazed. Apparently he fell. Anyway, the rest of the passengers, a truly helpful bunch, hopped off and pushed the train over far enough that the man could get his leg out.

A few days ago, I boarded a train from Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, to a town called Nitra in slightly less touristy area when when you say “English” in an attempt to make it clear you didn’t understand the question, you’re met with a slightly fearful look and the body language of ‘I’ll go find my colleague’. This contrasts with the old town of Bratislava where you’ll find Slovakians who speak English better than me and make jokes about kebab shops.

[Side note: If you happen to be passing through Bratislava station then go down the hill, take a left at the T junction onto the main road, and on the right hand side is a lovely tiny pancake house. It’s the yellow building. From what I can tell the locals pop in at lunch time and order crepes to take away, although there are a few tables if you wanted to rest your legs. You can get a plain crepe for 25 cents and then there’s plenty of choice of sweet and savory fillings to add, even bilberry jam.]

So the Midget and I board the train to Surany, where you can switch to the local Nitra train. I clutch the ticket (which has a qr code) and the train timetable and nervously check exactly what time we arrive into each and every station. The Midget stares out the window gazing at the fields as they pass by, totally relaxed, calm as she could be, confident that I’ve got everything under control.

We arrive at Surany five minutes late, grab our bags and get to the door.

Now it should be noted that I’m not great at stairs. I’m uncoordinated when I’m not carrying a rucksack and have to hold on to the banister and watch where I put my feet.

And the platform in Surany (if you can call it that) was a long way down. It was more like just the pavement somewhere far below.

Nobody else seemed at all perplexed.

I jumped. And followed the crowd across the rusty train tracks to the building. Inside I looked for the departure board. There wasn’t one. There was a crackly tannoy system that kindly told me when the next train would be arriving and where it was going to, all in Slovakian.

The Midget leant back on the bench overlooking the tracks and the plant pots. I sat upright, nervously watching the other passengers wondering what would happen next.

I didn’t need to worry. The 11.33 train to Nitra pulled into the station at 11.33. It was the only other train. We stumbled back over the rusty rail track and I clambered aboard whilst the Slovakian women in their beautiful wedges and elegant jackets did so with comparitive ease. The Midget hauled the bags up above our heads onto the rack and plugged in her earphones.

I sat on the edge of my seat and watched the fields of dying sunflowers pass by.