Wednesday, 17 December 2008

X = Xmas

25 Things about Christmas
Bridgett and Lisa have done this, so having little imagination, I am following suit. I also cringe a little at using X for Xmas but I figure I can have a little leeway with only three letters left.

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags? Wrapping paper, though today I have just bought a gift bag for the first time, largely because I have a pair of murano glass ear-rings from Portofino, which come in their own pink velvet gold-inscribed bags, and would look silly wrapped up!

I like beautiful wrapping paper, but invariably baulk at the price!

2. Real tree or Artificial?
Artificial. I love the smell of real pine, but I have allergies ... sigh.

I’ve had my tree since the 1980s, and not having children it’s still in perfect condition.
I love my tree. It’s the only decoration I put up, and have lots of beloved decorations.

3. When do you put up the tree?
Usually around the second week in December. Whenever I feel the Christmas spirit.

4. When do you take the tree down?
Usually on or after the Twelfth night, when it feels as if the New Year is really starting.

5. Do you like eggnog?
No, I find it a bit sickly. Like mulled wine, it’s never really caught on in NZ, as at Christmas in the summer we tend to drink champagne or other long cool drinks.

6. Favourite gift received as a child?
Goodness, I can’t name one. Any gift was a treat, as we didn’t get things bought for us during the year. My sister and I always used to buy each other a book. A new book is always special.

7. Hardest person to buy for?
No-one really, except perhaps my husband. He’s hinting about a 32” flat screen TV, but he’s not getting it. He’s quite hard to buy for, as we tend to buy things as and when we need/want them (which sounds awfully indulgent).

I occasionally have “shopper’s block” but find I’m more likely to buy too many things for someone than too few. I’m a pretty good gift-buyer I have to say, as long as I’m not under pressure.

8. Easiest person to buy for?
My sister-in-law in Melbourne. We have similar taste, and love buying each other gifts, so I don’t really mind that her birthday is only 5 days before Christmas. She’s already said she’s so excited about the present she’s bought me that I’m feeling a little pressured. Though I think the French ceramic bracelet from Annecy in France will keep her happy!

9. Do you have a nativity scene?
No.

10. Mail or email Christmas cards?
Mail. That’s my task this afternoon. Though I do have a group of friends I met through the Ectopic Pregnancy Trust and I always email a Christmas message to them instead of buying and posting cards across the world, and donate the money I’ve saved to the Trust.

11. Worst Christmas gift you ever received?
Hmmm. When I was about six, I got given a cloth doll, the body was an open pocket for putting pyjamas in. I unwrapped it and loudly declared “oh no a DOLL!” That was my most badly behaved reaction to a Christmas gift, the gift itself was sweet.

Otherwise worst gift was probably a piece of clothing from my mother-in-law. Our ideas of taste and style don't come even close to intersecting. Fortunately she doesn't do gifts now, as my husband and I were running out of excuses why things didn't fit etc.

12. Favourite Christmas Movie?
Don’t have one. Couldn't name any I don't think!

13. When do you start shopping for Christmas?
Depends. Frequently pick up one or two things quite early in the year, but then get swamped with “birthday season” in August and October. Usually start shopping in earnest in mid November.

14. Have you ever recycled a Christmas present?
Probably. Can’t recall.

15. Favourite thing to eat at Christmas?
My famous mini-mince pies. Mmmm yummmmm. I bought the ingredients yesterday, baking them tonight.

16. Lights on the tree?
Sometimes. Not this year. Anyway – it’s light until 9-10 pm over Christmas. No point.

17. Favourite Christmas song?
Depends on my mood. Always love Silent Night though – it brought me to tears hearing it sung on my first Christmas away from home, when I was 18 in Bangkok.

18. Travel at Christmas or stay home?
Varies. Tend to alternate Christmas between husbands' parents who live in the same city as us, and my mother who lives in the South Island.

Although I enjoy Christmas I’m not sentimental, so don’t mind being away from family. On Christmas Days in the past we have
a) spent the day in an aeroplane travelling somewhere far far away,
b) driven around Oahu in a red mustang convertible,
c) in consecutive years explored northern Thailand in a red Jeep with my parents then his parents, and
d) spent Christmas in Bangkok with friends, and
e) celebrated Christmas in Vienna complete with cooked goose.

This year we’re renting a house on a beach “up north” and will have my sister, her partner and niece there in the morning, and will just be the two of us in the afternoon.

19. Can you name all of Santa’s reindeer? Nope, not a hope.

20. Angel on the tree top or a star? An angel from the Philippines.

21. Open the presents Christmas Eve or morning?
The Christmas Eve thing is a northern tradition I think. These days, with few children around us, we quite often wait till the afternoon of Christmas day.

22. Most annoying thing about this time of the year?
Several annoying things.
Writing the Christmas cards and never quite finishing.
Covering work priorities before the summer close-down.
Mr Bean.
No kids or other peoples' kids.

23. Favourite ornament theme or colour?
I love most of my tree decorations ... with a passion! It's the closest thing I have to a collection. They are all so special to me, having collected most of them on my travels. I have lots from Thailand, where I started my obsession over different Christmas decorations. They include little red felt sequinned elephants – very Christmassy don’t you know? - and my favourite horn playing fat angels, and a Thai script "sawatdee bee mai" or happy new year. From Holland I have a pair of ice-skates – not very NZ Christmassy but so cute) - Vienna (wooden violins), the US (angel), Budapest (a baby in a walnut shell), Italy (cherub who looked remarkably like my best friends’ daughter when she was three), etc etc.





I buy a new decoration every year – I choose very carefully. This year I found a cute silvery bird, for $3.50!

As I said above, they all have special memories. I also have one I bought to remember my lost Christmas babies, but in reality, they all remind me of the children who will never see my beloved decorations.

24. Favourite for Christmas dinner?
My favourite Christmas dinner was when we had a whole salmon stuffed with herbs, wrapped in newspaper, baked in the oven. (You’re supposed to wet the newspaper before putting it in the oven – what with champagne, and guests, and chatting, I forgot. In the nick of time I remembered and as I pulled it from the oven, a wisp of smoke was rising from the corner of the paper ).

But otherwise I glaze a ham and have lots of yummy vegetables/salads, new potatoes, and always always fresh strawberries or raspberries with dessert, often Christmas pudding made by my mother-in-law.

25. What is your favourite thing about the holidays?
Summer. Knowing that Christmas day starts an 11 day summer break at least, and usually a relaxed and lazy January.

W = Wronged and Windows

I’ve decided to do two Ws today, as once I get to Z I think it will be the end of my A to Z.

W = Wronged

A couple of years ago I was involved in an employment law case. Without going into details, it was a case based on a complete misunderstanding. The other party felt wronged, and would not speak to me at the end of our negotiations. He said essentially although not in quite so many words, that I was lying to him (despite also admitting I had always treated him fairly), and firmly believed his own interpretation of events. There was no convincing him otherwise despite him being terribly wrong. I am very confident in the way I handled this. My conscience is completely clear. There was no other way I could convince him when he had already convinced himself of the exact opposite. But it saddens me. That there is someone in this world who believes I wronged him, and no doubt feels terrible about it. It haunts me, especially over the last few days, for some reason.

On a brighter note ...

W = Windows

A split second glimpse through a window, in the midst of a rushed day, a busy life, stops me. I breathe. And I smile. In all weathers and in all lights, I love the views from my windows. I love the grand old macrocarpa trees from the top of the stairs,
and the cabbage tree which finally appears to be splitting this year (after over 15 years),

the valley, and of course, my cats (even though Gershwin is in my bad books for jumping on my lap as I was typing on my new laptop, and ripping out the F7 key).

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

V = Vintage

Five years ago, I had a doctor who kept referring to “women of your vintage.” I felt like a wine that was souring, turning into vinegar, appropriately barren. He was trying to be considerate, but it would have been kinder if he had just been blunt.

Now, though, I am a very different vintage. Richer in character, able to stand up to time, changing and aging in the best possible way. I like to feel I’m maturing well. I like my vintage. It is one of the best. The kind to be celebrated, treasured, appreciated. So I do.

Vintage. There’s a lot in a word. And in five years.

Monday, 8 December 2008

U = Underwear

Some years ago when I was going through a difficult time, a friend suggested I go out and buy myself some sexy underwear. At the time, sexy was the last thing I felt like. It was feeling sexy that had caused all this trouble, after all!

But one day I did as she suggested. And although it took me a while to feel sexy again, I did feel

a) younger
b) more pert
b) more feminine (which was particularly important at the time)
c) more beautiful, and
d) a wee bit naughty!

Whatever size you are, whatever you might be doing, don’t underestimate the rejuvenating power of some new underwear, a sexy new bra. They can lift your spirits as well as those cheeks and boobs!

Friday, 5 December 2008

T = Trains

I grew up on a farm on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. To the east my nearest neighbours were in Chile. To the south west, the nearest town was 8 miles (I still work in miles when it comes to distances from the farm) away, and then beyond that were hills, and then snowy mountains. To the north and south, the nearest cities were about 3 hours drive away. The nearest airport was about 30 miles away. And besides, in those days air travel seemed as remote from my life as travel to the moon.

But every day, several times a day, we felt connected to the rest of the world when the trains went by. The tracks were about half a mile from our house, and we had a view up to the railway line. As we got older, we would cycle or walk or run up to the tracks, and wave to the driver. When we were learning to drive we used the rise to the train tracks for practicing hill starts, and later one of our neighbours blabbed to our mother that I had crossed a little too close to an oncoming train. There were regular freight trains and the daily passenger train. The passenger train which used to pass by when I was a teenager is now the Eastern Orient Express, running from Bangkok to Singapore. That’s a trip I would love to do one day.

To this day though, I have never been on a New Zealand passenger train. My first train trips were in Thailand as a student. Overnight third class train, hard wooden benches, lots of people, and the occasional chicken shared the carriage with us. At stations we would purchase food from vendors on the platforms, exchanging change for satay or sticky rice through the windows. We splashed out on second class travel when we went to Chiang Mai, and enjoyed the luxury of a sleeper. Waking up and looking out onto the northern Thailand countryside, steaming and misty as the day began, was magical to me, and was the beginning of my love for train travel.

Since then I have been to Chiang Mai several times since on the train, most notably with my parents. It was their first train trip too, I think. After I had retired for the night, I heard murmuring voices from my parents’ bunks across the aisle, and looked through the curtains. This is what I saw. They were sitting on the lower bunk, looking into the night behind the curtain (better to see without reflections of course), fascinated by being able to see the lives of the Thais who lived near the train tracks, cooking and eating outside. It is one of my favourite shots of my parents, perhaps because it reminds me of the wonder of travel, and gives me joy they were able to experience it.


Most recently I’ve experienced my fastest ever train trips. The first was on the TGV from Geneva to Paris, where a family sat near me and the petit garcon Jacques, about 5 years old, woke me by crying to his mother “maman, maman! Madam. elle dort!” They were going to Paris just for the day it seemed - speed has its advantages - and all were excited about the trip. The boy was most excited about seeing La Tour Eiffel, but papa was reading Rolling Stone magazine and looking forward to “mange sushi.” As we entered the outskirts of Paris, Jacques caught sight of a large power pylon, and leapt up shouting excitedly “La Tour Eiffel! La Tour Eiffel!” until a second then a third pylon came into view and he sat down disappointed and not a little embarrassed.

A few days later I travelled on the Eurostar from Paris to London, through the Chunnel. I would never fly between these two cities now. In the time it would take to get to the airport and wait to board a flight, you travel from the centre of one city to the centre of the other. Brilliant.

My most luxurious train trip was Quebec City overnight to Moncton, New Brunswick. We had booked a sleeper, and were welcomed onto the train by an attendant, shown to our cabin with the beds already made up with crisp white linen and big thick duvets. Bliss. But again, waking is the real pleasure, eating breakfast in the dining car, and seeing the countryside whizz by.

My most harrowing train experience was in India. An Indian colleague of mine was supposed to travel with me from New Delhi to Chandigarh, a few hours north, for a business meeting. But he was unable to come, and so the company in India had arranged for another gentleman to accompany me. But Indian bureaucracy stopped that. The ticket had been purchased for one person, and could not be transferred. ID must be shown, and names, gender and ages were printed on the tickets. Unfortunately my new companion was about 30 years older than my original traveller, and they would not allow him on the train. Despite our arguing and pleading, the guard remained implacable, immovable. So I boarded myself, off into the unknown. I heard later that on leaving the station, my new companion, at 72 years old, was struck by a vehicle, breaking a leg. I always think of him with guilt!

Train travel is so much more relaxing than a bus or a plane. There is more space, and it is easier to get up and walk around. I like sitting facing backwards, seeing the countryside gradually spread out before fading in the distance.

The Budapest to Vienna train took us through a frozen landscape which fascinated us. Even at the towns where we stopped, life seemed frozen, silent, deserted. The Philadelphia to New York train gave us our first sight of the city's skyscrapers from a distance, the best way to see them. On the train from Madrid, we knew we were close to Seville as we passed orange grove after orange grove. The trains in England wend their way through rolling green hills, with hedgerows and familiar looking trees, and past villages where there is always a church spire.

There are still lots of train journeys I would like to do. There is a luxury train in southern Africa which sounds wonderful, and the Orient Express of course. We might venture to Alice Springs via train one day, through the Australian Outback. If I have the stamina in the future I would be interested in the Trans-Siberian, and the trip in Canada through the Rockies to Banff and Lake Louise has been on our “list of things to do” since about 1989. I haven’t even begun to think about the possibilities in South America, or train travel in China yet, but will get there. India ... well ... I might try it again ...

As for New Zealand, we don't have a lot of passenger trains. However there is at least one trip I must do, the TranzAlpine, from the east to west coast of the South Island, through the Southern Alps. It is said to be spectacular. There's no excuse for not doing it.

Monday, 1 December 2008

S = Slice

Just before I got married, the women of the rural district where I grew up threw me a “kitchen tea.” This meant that everyone did some beautiful baking, we all got together for an afternoon, and then I was bestowed with gifts for my forthcoming wedding. These were women I had grown up with, the mothers of my friends and all the children at school, the women I had seen since I was tiny at community events. I knew them as well as I knew my aunts and cousins, in many cases better. They had taught me to sew, knit, play tennis and coached me at netball. They followed my year in Thailand and my university career.

The gifts they gave were small, intended for the kitchen. Tea towels and can openers, cake tins and spatulas. All sorts of gadgets. Mrs C (Peter’s mother) came up to me with her gift, a simple and inexpensive long- bladed vegetable knife. “(Mali),” she said, “I want to explain why I gave you a knife, because you might think it is a silly gift. A good knife is invaluable to a cook. You can’t underestimate the value of a knife that cuts beautifully, and once you find one, you will hang on to it as long as you can.”

I have been married 25 years and that knife is still with me. It sharpens beautifully, cuts through carrots and pumpkin with ease, and moves from my hands to the dishwasher, rarely making its way to the drawer where it should live. I frequently marvel at how much I like using it, especially when I work in other people’s kitchens, struggling with their always inadequate knives. And from time to time, I think of Mrs C and the thought that she put into that gift.

Mrs C’s knife can’t chop herbs though, or cope with meat, and for years I have sought a suitable knife to cope with that. I bought a meat cleaver in a market in Vietnam for US$2. It is good for chopping things, but isn’t as sharp as I would like it to be. From time to time I’ve bought other knives, which have looked good but never passed the carrot or pork test. I’ve coveted some of the beautiful, expensive, high quality chef’s knives which are kept behind glass, in locked cabinets, at the Knife Shop in Petone or at Moore Wilson’s, the store where all the local chefs buy their equipment. But the choice and price range was overwhelming, and so I never got around to getting a new knife.

Till last weekend, when, at the Home and Garden show at the stadium, I came upon the Victorinox stall. Knives, knives, everywhere. I picked up one that looked the size I wanted, and was the Japanese style. I was surprised how light it was, and how comfortable it felt in my hand.
“You don’t have any carrots for me to test this on,” I said to the stall-holder.

“You don’t need to test it with that knife,” he said confidently. “Look how narrow the blade is. Feel how strong it is. This knife will cut anything. In 20 years, I’ve never had any complaints with this one.”

I looked at him suspiciously. Looked at the price. But looked at the fine, strong blade. Then looked at my husband, who said “buy it.” “But what if it won’t cut carrots?” I said pathetically. Then I looked at the price again. “I guess it is only the price of a meal out at a decent restaurant,” I reasoned, feeling silly for having waited so long. “I’ll take it,” I said, and signalled D to get out his wallet.

I couldn’t wait to get home. The stall-holder had promised me it would cut meat beautifully, and that I could carve meat with it.

I cut up Agria potatoes and threw them in the roasting pan. The knife went through so easily the potatoes felt like butter. I took a carrot, with some trepidation, and sliced through it. Perfectly. An hour later, the vegetables were roasted and the peppered fillet of beef was ready. I took up the knife and started carving. The knife slid through the meat, smoothly, allowing thin beautiful slices.

I love my new knife. I can’t wait to chop things for dinner. I’m finding excuses to put finely diced onion in everything I make. I want to slice, dice, chop and carve endlessly.

I feel a little guilty about neglecting Mrs C’s knife. But it will always be there. Like my marriage, it has lasted. But the new knife will be, I hope, a symbol of the next stage of our relationship, our next slice of life. New, strong, fine, and exciting, cutting edge, and of course, long-lasting.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

R = Relax

I can feel it. It’s coming.

We sat on our deck last night. There was no wind, and the sky was clear and blue. The birds were singing in the pine trees above us, and in the ngaio trees below. Gershwin was lying in the sun, stretched out, basking in it. Cleo came along, jumped onto the bench beside me, in another quick movement onto the covered barbecue, and surveyed her empire. D and I had glasses of cool sauvignon blanc, enjoying that Friday night feeling.

Early summer. December is almost here. Christmas is coming. Our summer break is not far away. It’s in the air. I can feel it.

The year is almost over. So we’re going to start relaxing now.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Q = Quality vs Quantity

I’ve been thinking about endings a bit lately. My father had a very difficult one. Unconscious after days of pain and distress, anxiety and hallucinations. Death truly came as a final release. Lengthening his life span would not have given him any quality of life, only quantity.

But his life was one of quality. It wasn’t an easy life, in any way. He worked so hard, but he knew when to enjoy himself too. And I am so proud of him. I am in many ways especially proud of the way he and my mother handled retirement. They saw it as their reward for having worked so hard for so long, having scrimped and saved for their entire lives. It was their time, time together without children, time to relax, time to enjoy life. It was wonderful to see. They travelled the world, despite having to wait until my father was 62 to leave the country. They travelled throughout New Zealand and did it as cheaply as possible, these old age pensioners in their tents or cabins. My father loved meeting up with international travellers in the camping ground kitchens, and would always strike up conversation and find out all about them. He bought a Lada four-wheel drive, and drove it everywhere. That old Lada, without power steering or any mod-cons, took him off-road, away on fishing trips up remote rivers in the Mackenzie country, it took him duck-shooting and white-baiting, and regularly to golf. It gave him freedom, and he used it.

I compare his life to that of another elderly gentleman in my life, who has now had four more years of life than my dad. He too worked hard, raised his family well, was a responsible and respected member of the community. In contrast however, he saw retirement as the end of his productive life. He felt useless, cast on the rubbish heap, and he brooded, and became depressed. Unlike my dad, he had the financial means to do whatever he wanted, and the education and experience to be able to contribute and remain active in the community if he so desired. But his life these last 20 years has been one of quantity (not that he is happy about that either), not quality. He is the only reason he is not happy. And he doesn’t seem to know how to be. Nothing we say really seems to help. Fortunately, he can afford the best medical treatment, as he has needed this. But he doesn’t appreciate his extra quantity of life, and doesn’t really make any effort to improve it in terms of quality.

I find it very sad. But there's a lesson in it too.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

P = Procrastination

Procrastination is an art form, and I long since graduated from apprentice to journeyman to master.

Unfortunately I am also married to a master. Perhaps together we have encouraged each other to refine and hone our skills to this level of performance, and I only have myself to blame. But there are times when it frustrates me. Drives me crazy, in fact. When I want nothing more than to make a decision, and just do something for god’s sake. But my chief procrastinator is till procrastinating, yet not allowing me to go ahead and do things myself. Let me explain.

Summer is almost here. In New Zealand that means that during the height of summer there are about six weeks when it is impossible to get anything done unless you do it yourself. We have a half built project. A deck to expand our outdoor living space. We need a building permit, and if we don’t get it in the next few weeks, we won’t be getting it till February, when all the good building weather will be over. But D is procrastinating. Don’t ask me why. All it takes is getting our plans to an engineer for approval, then back to the Council. Shouldn’t be too hard? According to him it is, as our plans have changed a bit since they were drawn up. But this has delayed our project for years.

We also need a builder, as part of the deck is a good 4 metres from the ground (hence the need for the building permit). Previously builders shunned our small project, preferring bigger more profitable jobs. So whilst normally this would be an excellent time – the housing market is slowing and those builders might now be prepared to work on it – all builders will be on their summer holidays till February at least. And I want my deck now. I want to be able to sit on it in a deck chair, under some shade with a cool glass of something, and a good book. I want to be able to entertain friends over the summer. We have friends who are returning to New Zealand after two summers overseas. The deck wasn’t done then and we were already the laughing stock of all our friends and family. The deck still is not done now. I’m starting to feel like the village idiot.

I now know real sympathy for my mother. She spent many years waiting for my father to decide it was the right time to approach his mother about getting the family farm, which he had worked since he was 13 and managed since he was a teen, transferred into his name. Only then could they borrow the money needed to build a new house. My mother had spurts of enthusiasm, designing the house herself, drawing up the plans. Then she’d fall into a pit of despondency, wondering if anything would ever be done, and what was the point.

I feel a bit like that now.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

O = Opportunity

Over the last few weeks, I have frequently found myself thinking how lucky I am.

I knew how lucky I was ...
  • as I walked the streets of London, savouring the delights of one of the world’s greatest cities, renewing friendships made in Bangkok in 1991 ... and trying not to think about the exchange rate
  • as I stood inside the House of Commons, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Ectopic Pregnancy Trust (for which I volunteer). It was thrilling to look through the windows of the member’s dining room to the Thames, a view more commonly seen from the tourist boats on the river itself, and to emerge into the late evening in the grounds to see this sight.
  • as I shared time with friends met, made, kept and nurtured over the internet.
  • as I sat with a good friend in Geneva, drinking wine and planning our week to come
  • as I marvelled at the 360 degree view of the Alps from the top of the Nufenenpass, or earlier as we stopped on the side of the road, and listened to the sound of cow bells from across the valley
  • as I searched for George on the shores of Lake Como, sadly in vain, but not a bad place to search
  • as we climbed higher and higher above the Mediterranean, periodically catching glimpses of the Cinque Terre villages we had left or were heading for
  • as I licked a gelato, well-earned, after one climb and before the next
  • as we relaxed in what quickly became our "local," over a pre-dinner glass of vermontino and antipasto, and relived our encounter with some Italian wild boars and bores
  • as I drove through the magnificent snow-covered landscape after the Frejus Tunnel, and the next morning as I pulled my curtains back and was greeted with the sight of green fields and golden trees, chalets and snowy mountains, and a pony in the bottom of the apple orchard
  • as I pottered about a French market with one old friend and one new. On a sunny, autumn Sunday morning, we drooled over the cheese, fruit, 15 different types of mushroom, etc
  • as I enjoyed MY day in Paris, alone, to do what I wanted, with Paris putting on a perfect, autumn day, just for me ... or so it felt anyway
  • as I woke in Paris at 4 am to hear the results of the US election and listened to the President-Elect's acceptance speech
  • and as I arrived home, to a man who had missed me, and didn’t begrudge my adventure

I have had and continue to have opportunities many people can never dream of.

I do not take them for granted.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

N = Nanowrimo

I was introduced to this whole blogging deal after completing Nanowrimo. Two years ago I felt I had finally found myself again after a few years when I was struggling with that. I was enjoying my professional life, but unlike many had the luxury of time and was keen to try some writing. I heard an enthusiastic blogger speaking on Radio NZ National about this Nanowrimo thing. Most particularly, he said “you’ve always said you’d write a book one day. Well, now it’s one day.” I liked the idea of that, and thought that I should see if I could in fact do it.

I cheated a little, and wrote a story based on some of my own experiences. But I found it exhilarating, and when it ended, found a link to the x365 page. From then I was hooked. Last year I wanted to try it again, but was overseas for the first few days and didn’t really have the motivation to get stuck in once I got home.

In a few hours I’m going to Europe for three weeks. Maybe I’ll find inspiration there to start working on it. If not, there might be some good blogging material.

See you in November, though I’ll try and pop in with you all while I'm away, perhaps from the Cinque Terre.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

M = Mali

Mali means jasmine in Thai. I always thought that if I started an interior design business I would call it Jasmine Design. Or perhaps run the Jasmine Day Spa. (I could get free massages and facials. How good would that be?)

Teachers and friends at school in Bangkok gave me the name Mali. Now, only my husband calls me Mali, usually when he’s showing off that he can still speak a bit of Thai, or when he is trying to butter me up for something. So it feels strange to think that there are a group of people who only know me as Mali. I don’t think I’m any different as Mali as I am when I am [******]. If anything, I am probably more like me. There is something liberating in anonymity, although I'm not entirely anonymous. I few of my friends who know me (as opposed to my friends who have never met me) read this blog, though they don’t ever comment. (Hint!).

So Mali protects me. Besides, it is much more exotic than my name. A very 60s, middle New Zealand kind of name. I think I would like to be exotic.

"What's in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet"

But would it?

Monday, 6 October 2008

L = Letters

Lately I’ve been playing with a project, looking back on my experience living in Thailand as an exchange student. I’ve come to realise that I did some pretty unusual things, and that it might be interesting to write about it. (????) I’ve been surprised how strong my memories are 28 years on, but have also reverted to my diaries kept that year to clarify details.

I've realised I was a crap diary writer. Whilst I recorded some of my inner-most feelings, more usually and much like George Orwell, I often merely listed a few lines, usually consisting of what I had for lunch that day.

I suspect I was not inclined to record the details of my day because I was doing a lot of letter writing at the time, especially in the first few months of my time in Thailand, when I had not yet begun school, was still struggling to learn the language, and was quite lonely. I wrote detailed, descriptive letters, trying to help my family and friends at home see, feel, hear and smell what my exotic life in Thailand was like, to help them feel as if they were there too, sharing the experience.

So I was thrilled when my mother said to me years later that she had kept all my letters from Thailand. Some time after, she gave me three shoe-boxes full of letters. “You never know,” she said, “someday you might want to write about your year.” I stored the boxes away without a glance, happy that I had them safe.

Years passed. Then, a few weeks ago, I decided to dig out the boxes. I knew where they were, had never forgotten them, and opened the first box with excitement, a feeling of trepidation.

I pulled out the first envelope. But wait, that’s not what I want. I pulled out the next and next. With a growing sense of dread and horror, I rifled through the box, and the second box, and the third. I couldn’t believe it, and went through each box over and over again, as if through sheer persistence I would conjure up what I desperately wanted to be there. I went back to the cupboard where these boxes had been stored, and looked. No, these were the only boxes.

But they were not MY letters, the ones I’d written. They were letters written to me while I was in Thailand. The ones from my parents and sisters will be precious to keep. The rest – well frankly I couldn’t give a hoot. I felt sick. As if I’d lost a part of my history, through my own negligence. The worst thing was, I couldn’t phone my mother to ask her to check if she had the letters I had written, the ones which recorded my experiences, week by week. She was away for a month, helping my sister and bonding with her new grand-daughter.

After a day or two the sick feeling abated. D reminded me that my mother is a hoarder and wouldn’t have thrown them away. I knew that. But I couldn’t shake off the fear. What if she, like me, thought that those three boxes contained my year of letters? So finally, at the airport on Tuesday, as I met her from one flight and put her on the next, I told her. “Oh yes,” she said, very matter of fact. “I have YOUR letters at home!”


Aargh!


Phew!



PS. I’ll believe it when I see them.

Friday, 3 October 2008

K = Knitting

Bridgett’s alpha entry on knitting brought back memories. When I grew up, every woman I knew knitted. When I think of my grandmother, I mainly picture her sitting at her dining table where she spent her days knitting, cigarette in mouth and ashtray precariously close to whatever cabled masterpiece she was making this time. Her gin in the evening didn’t seem to affect her accuracy either.

Likewise, at dancing lessons every week, the mothers (except mine who saw knitting as a chore) would sit there knitting at phenomenal speed, and at family gatherings, my aunts would sit together knitting and chatting, completing fiendishly difficult patterns without even looking at what they were doing. Or so it seemed.

Before artificial fibres arrived and the New Zealand import markets freed up in the 1980s, the most cost effective warm winter clothing were layers of home-knitted jerseys (sweaters in US lingo). In a nation of sheep farmers, it made sense to use the plentiful, high quality wool. As I said, my mother was not a keen knitter, so she bought a knitting machine. My father liked gadgets, and knitted quite a few of our winter jerseys on the machine in the lounge on wintry days when the weather was too bad to be out in the elements.

Girls tended to learn to knit (whether we wanted to or not) at primary school, and we knitted scarves and mittens and jerseys for ourselves. My mother still wears a jersey (with a lovely lacy yoke done on a circular needle) I knitted at university in the 80s. And it still looks good. The most fashionable girl I knew at university, a model and honours student, knitted a beautiful blue, slash neck jersey which she wore with jeans tucked into cute ankle boots. I thought she was the height of fashion, and as soon as it was seemly knitted a similar shaped jersey of my own. I knitted a delicate lace white outfit for Sharon’s first child, and posted it to Delaware. I remember sitting in my apartment in Bangkok, air-conditioning on full, knitting a fairisle jersey to wear on our mid-tour leave in Europe, as I had neglected to bring any cold climate clothes with me to Bangkok. I have a favourite photo of me wearing it on the Isle de la Cite in Paris.

Bridgett spoke of the debate between left-handed and right-handed knitters, the advantages and disadvantages of both, the labels these styles are given. This debate is all new to me. I didn't know knitters were so conformist! I think of those women at my dancing lessons and my aunt and grandmother, who were so very fast, fingers almost blurring with speed as they flicked the yarn around the needles and clicked them in and out to create beautiful patterns. In my recollection they all had very different styles, needles under different arms, hands holding the needles underneath or from above, winding the yarn with different flicks of their fingers, etc. I can’t quite figure out how Bridgett knits, but that’s because I can’t see her. I wish I could.

There's something comforting about knitting though, getting into a quick easy rhythm and seeing a garment grow. I haven't knitted for a long time. Fashions changed, imports became cheaper, and suddenly knitting became a more expensive option, especially as work pressures grew. The convenience of throwing something in the washing machine and then drier smashed that old protestant work ethic of making our own clothes. Plus I remember knitting my last jersey, when Cleo and Gershwin were just kittens and thought that the ball of wool on the floor was there for their entertainment. It irritated me enormously. Cleo is now 15 and still loves to chase things. I don’t knit anymore.

But I do smile, thinking of Bridgett knitting for herself and her family. I’m glad that the tradition still lives.

J = Jack of all trades ...

… that’s me. Good at many things, exceptional at none. Sometimes I wonder, do I have attention deficit disorder? Or am I just indecisive? Or is it laziness, this inability or unwillingness to focus on one subject.

Even as I am brushing up my French for a trip to Geneva in a few weeks, I am thinking about refreshing my rudimentary Italian for the weekend we’re spending at the Cinque Terre. I’d dearly love to be fluent in one language, but even now I cringe as I contemplate a lifelong commitment to one language, and all the others that would be left unspoken.

I was like that at school too. Good at pretty much everything I tried, sports, music and academically. Maths and music were my best, but they each seemed too narrowly focused. Just think of all the other fun things I could learn that I would miss out on! So of course at university I double-majored in history and political science, before deciding on Political Science for my Masters. The widest of subjects, it seemed to meet my need for looking broadly at life and society. And I didn’t feel as if I was missing out on anything fun.

My career has seen me pretty much always in a generalist role. That’s what a diplomat is, after all. One day dealing with aid programmes and the issues of irrigation in the arid regions of Esarn, the next looking at human rights issues as Cambodia came back into international society, the next promoting trade relationships or analysing political parties, and on the weekend, visiting the New Zealander arrested for drugs at the police cells down by the river. I know about fireblight (an apple disease) and trade subsidies, pine forest management and harvesting, and plastic bucket manufacture. A marketer and company director too must be generalists. I now know more about dam safety, road maintenance management or curriculum development than I ever would have considered necessary or desirable! More latterly, I know more about women’s reproductive systems and pregnancy than most women who have had children. Each subject is fascinating to me … but never exclusively.

Of course, this isn’t unique to me. My former colleagues in the foreign ministry are adept at getting to grips with a myriad of subjects, as are journalists, editors, teachers to name a few. But perhaps that’s what I’m expert at? I don’t have a narrow and deep focus, which I think at times would be immensely rewarding. But I see things more broadly, picking up information on a wide variety of subjects and putting them in context.

Maybe this isn’t a skill. Maybe I am just fickle. But it’s more fun than being an accountant.

Friday, 26 September 2008

I = Intelligence

Sometimes there is need to reassess the meaning of intelligence. I think I did a little of that in my previous post.

I like it when sterotypes are questioned. It keeps us alert, aware, on our toes.

This news item was my favourite of the week. I suspect bird nerds will like it too. It’s worth listening to, or follow this link and watch the videos.

Don’t stone the crows!

Hitchcock would have loved it.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

H = Heroes

When I was young there were certain accomplishments I aspired to, that I thought would make me happy. Generally, I admired the people who had achieved what I wanted, and wanted to emulate them. The successful, powerful people who seemed so full of the confidence and financial security I never had.

Now though I know what it can take to make these achievements. The type of person you might have to be to get there. What you might have to do. I’ve come to know executives who will walk over their friends to get what they want, diplomats you can’t trust, gossips who will make up anything, politicians who neglect their families, and business people working such long hours they’re never there to say goodnight to their kids or be with their partner, hoping the big house or fancy car will be recompense. And I’ve been through a few things that have lead me to look at life differently. I finally realised that reaching that next big goal is not going to make me happy long term. There’s always another goal coming along. Relishing the process of living, of striving for something worthwhile, sometimes just being, is where I now feel joy and pride.


So, today the people who are my heroes would probably not have made the list twenty years ago.
  • Those who care for vulnerable friends, an ill parent, or a lonely child
  • Those who dedicate their lives to working with young people, despite not being able to have children themselves
  • Those who nurture their relationships
  • Those who take the road less travelled, whatever that might be
  • Those who volunteer for their community
  • Those who make me laugh without bringing someone else down
  • Those who deliver warmth and encouragement to fellow bloggers
  • Those who understand “for better or worse”

These are my heroes, life’s true success stories. I’m so proud to know you all.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

G = Gales

It’s blowing a gale outside today. It is the equinox, and the temperature difference between the tropics and polar regions is at its peak at this time of year. This difference drives the Roaring Forties winds in our latitude. The gales arrived right on schedule last night.

There is a parade today celebrating Wellington’s win over Auckland to take the coveted Ranfurly Shield for the first time in 27 years. Gale force winds won’t stop that from going ahead. Gale force winds don’t stop a lot in this windy city, except for long hair styles and wrap-around skirts.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

F = Facts (6 unspectacular ones about me)

I’ve been tagged by Indigo Bunting. As luck would have it, I was up to F for Facts, and so can respond to her request to write six unspectacular things about me:

  1. When I concentrate (particularly when playing the piano) I stick my tongue out … just a bit.
  2. I’m addicted to Sudoku – one a day keeps the Alzheimers away.
  3. I'm a secret Dr Who fan.
  4. I’m the classic middle child. I'd like to rebel against that, as long as it didn't upset anyone.
  5. I operate the VPMS (Volcano Paper Management System). Pile things high. Whatever is important will rise to the top, what is not will slide off the side.
  6. Mali is not my real name. (But you knew that already didn't you?)

I don't think I can tag anyone - I think all my favourite bloggers have already been tagged.


Tuesday, 16 September 2008

E = Entertaining

  1. Love it
  2. Don’t do it enough
  3. Had friends over to dinner last night
  4. Menu included lamb tagine, and later, an almond and raspberry tart
  5. There was music, wine, warmth, love, and laughter
  6. Love it
  7. Don’t do it enough
  8. Must entertain again soon

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

D = Distance

On Sunday, Father’s Day, we had a cheerful discussion over lunch with the in-laws who have decided it is time to plan their funerals. D is the only one of four sons who still lives in New Zealand. It seems his parents are planning their funerals based on the fact that they don’t expect their other sons to come home “all that way” just for the funeral, despite the fact that they all live just one direct flight from NZ! (Don’t get me started!) But try to explain to people in their 70s and 80s that there is really no place on this earth that could be considered too far away these days.

It got me to thinking.

When I got the letter telling me I would be living in Thailand for a year, for the first time in my life I would be leaving behind everything and everyone I knew, going to a country that was a mystery to me. I would be alone. It was frightening.

I was however excited at the opportunity – going into the unknown was a wonderful opportunity. I had dreamed of travelling overseas since I was a little girl, standing on the stony beach at the edge of our property, looking across the Pacific Ocean, and imagining the lands beyond. Waiting until I was 17 had felt like forever, but finally I would be able to see the world. The unknown was exciting. The fears and dangers to come were as unknown as the joys. This was in retrospect a good thing.

The separation was not going to be simply physical, but there would also be a very real emotional distance too, without the support of family and friends.

Now when I travel, I take my cellphone with me, I text my 75-year-old mother from Santiago de Compostela or Vienna or Manila, and we talk about the weather! I email regularly and keep in touch with friends and family through cheap phone cards.

But in 1980, none of these were available. Growing up in New Zealand’s countryside, it hadn’t been that long since we had stopped using a party line shared with our neighbours (our ring was short long short). The telephone was for necessary transfer of information, not for chit-chatting. Toll calls were expensive. International calls were … inconceivable. There was no prospect that I would be ringing home regularly. (In the end I rang home just twice). Unlike exchange students these days, I would not be emailing or texting or skyping my family and friends the night I arrived. I went armed with a pile of aerogrammes. Remember those? They would be considered antiques today.

This is of course part of the point of a student exchange. It is necessary for a student to adjust and fully commit to their new environment. If they’re connected daily with home and their old life, they might find it harder to make that adjustment. Still, support and encouragement from across the miles would have been welcome. Having to wait 6 weeks for my first letter from home (my parents had been given an incorrect address for my host family) was hard.

At least though I knew it was only for a year. I thought of my ancestors, saying goodbye to their families in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France, setting out on an arduous sea journey to a strange land on the other side of the world, knowing that they would probably never see their families and home again. Now, that was distance.

Monday, 8 September 2008

C = Cowboy Dan

I was a bit of a tomboy when I was very little. Our neighbours called me my dad’s “little shadow” as I could be found following him all over the farm. Then I discovered books. Sometimes my two worlds met.



One of my favourite early books was a small, picture book about Cowboy Dan.



“I’m a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy

and my name is Cowboy Dan

I can ride a horse

and rope a steer

As fast as any man.”

40 years later I can quote that so easily. It must have been read to me many many times. Google tells me it was written by Andy Cobb, and that I am not the only girl who was entranced by this story.

My fifth birthday is memorable, not because it was the day I started school, but because I got a little (fake) leather bolero jacket with a badge that said “Deputy Sheriff” and a holster and toy cap gun. (It was the 1960s after all!) Murray, the boy across the bull paddock, had a similar outfit but he had chaps, and I was so jealous! A broomstick was my horse of choice, but I was always frustrated I couldn’t rope a steer.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

B = Bookclub

The cats knew something was up. They'd been fed early and without complaint. The house was clean and quiet, still tidy after my mother's visit on the weekend. The gorgonzola and Evansdale brie were out of the fridge, soft and luscious, the virgin olive oil was dark green and pungent, the dukkah spicy, the Highfield chardonnay and Saint Clair pinot gris chilled just right, and the Kawarau Reserve pinot noir was coming nicely to room temperature. Our new couch looked great, the cushions neatly arranged, the CD player was loaded, and the husband had been dispatched to see a movie.

The box of books was downstairs, waiting. As host of the bookclub this time, it was my responsibility to add some new books to our pool. My choices were largely based on books I'd read recently, some bought on impulse at bargain warehouse stores, others specially sought out.

  • Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones
  • My Name Was Judas by CK Stead
  • The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Note: I couldn’t find Walking to the Moon last night to add it to the pool, but will do so.

Each book is very different, but I wanted to know what the others would think of them. New books are eyed eagerly, fallen upon greedily, clutched possessively. Negotiations are sometimes necessary, schedules and commitments over the next month or two are weighed and compared, reading capacity determined, and books eventually selected.

We manage to do some serious reviewing of the books, their language, the characters, what we liked and what we didn’t. Recommendations are made carefully. A less than enthusiastic review can sentence a book to the bottom of the box for months if not years, neglected, unchosen. Other books become lifetime favourites, candidates for our annual Bookclub Supreme Award. Books are sometimes hotly debated, loved by some, detested by others. Despite knowing each other so well, we’re never quite sure who will love and who will hate a particular book, and why. That’s what keeps it interesting. Why we keep coming back. It’s not just for the friendship, wine and cheese.

A = Aging

My mother visited on the weekend. It is of course always nice to see her, but often quite distressing. She is almost 76, and has not had an easy life. She is aging. I have to repeat things. Frequently. Always a worrier, she worries more now, because she forgets to tell herself to stop worrying. Did I mention I have to repeat things?

She is coping wonderfully since my Dad died, but does find it lonely at time, as self-sufficient as she is. Whilst my sister lives nearby, I worry about her on her own. (Worrying runs in the family!) Then my emotions become confused. I am glad that her daughters are around to care for her, whatever she might need. But as I do more and more for her, and as she needs me to do more and more for her, selfishly my mind turns to my own old age.

Who will look after me?

Friday, 29 August 2008

Z = ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

I love my sleep.

There’s nothing quite like the anticipation of sleep: sinking my head into a soft, fluffy pillow, clean crisp sheets, a warm (but not too hot) duvet to nestle into, my body relaxing, all worries gone temporarily from my head, left to be faced tomorrow.

Even better if it is cold outside, not too windy, raining gently.

And all this is perfect if it is Saturday or Sunday the next day.

Only a few hours more to wait ...

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Y = Yiminy and other Ys

“Do you know what yiminy means?” I asked my friend as we left Sweet Mama’s restaurant on Courtenay Place. Jambalaya with friends on a cold night after seeing the film Prague is an excellent way of passing a cold rainy August Monday evening.

“Yemeni?” she said, “as in from Yemen?”

“No, yiminy as in by yiminy.”

She looked at me quizzically. I started to explain, but how can you really convey the essence of Helen and keep the story short or avoid being distracted? (Note: for clarification, see comments on X=XX) Anyway, after an afternoon of googling yiminy, and consulting my well-read friend, I was really none the wiser.

So we turned to other things. Twenty minutes later we were still talking furiously as I pulled up outside her apartment, still talking as she got out of the car, and barely stopped as she shut the door. By this time we were debating the merits of a gold medal in the shot put over a bronze in the 1500 metres.

The two of us could talk the hind-leg off a donkey, as my dad would have said. Why is it that possessors of the Y-chromosome just don’t get a woman’s need to converse, and the pleasure that can be taken, sharing ideas and lives? It should be admired, but instead “yak, yak, yak,” they complain.

Yiminy!

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

X = XX

What does it mean to be a woman?

A lot of people will say that you are only a real woman if you have had children. Only when you’re a mother, do you know what it means to be a woman.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with that kind of definition. I’ve always liked being a girl. I never played with dolls or held fake tea parties or whatever it was little girls did. But I never wanted to be a boy.

Growing up in the country in New Zealand is a very liberating experience. I could do everything and anything my male neighbours, cousins or students could do, other than standing up to pee. I was taller, faster and stronger. I didn’t need boys to do anything for me. I had no brothers, so unlike a friend of mine wasn’t raised having to make her twin brother’s bed! My sisters and I learned to drive the tractor, toss hay bales out to the cows in the winter, yell at the dogs (though I will admit I never learned how to whistle properly), jump the creeks, climb over or through the fences, chop the wood and carry it inside to the fire. When our “townie” male cousins would come and visit, we took great pleasure in their squeamishness at lambing time, or ignorance over what an electric fence would do if you placed a blade of grass on it. Boys were contemptuous creatures in our world.

There were few concessions made to us being girls. I say ‘few” rather than “no” concessions because I did learn, years later, that my father deliberately put the rams out with the ewes in a paddock a long way from the house to protect his delicate daughters! This upbringing fitted well with the societal changes at the time. “Girls can do anything” was the catch cry. I was confused. Why say it? Of course we could!

I waited for the maternal instinct to kick in until my late 30s, when it turned up rather belatedly, to the beat of a biological clock so loud it was suddenly deafening. The strength of the emotions that arrived were surprising and disturbing to me. I was equally surprised at how I felt less of a woman, judged by others, and isolated from much of society, through my simple and not uncommon inability to give birth. My failure to have children made me question my femaleness in a way that my previous lack of desire to have children never did.

After a few difficult years, my confidence has now returned, my sense of self is stronger than ever before.

I am who I am.

I’m a real woman. Because I know I am.

Monday, 18 August 2008

W = Winter

Dusk is my favourite time of day. The day is done, a relaxing evening awaits. Dusk on a winter’s evening is a particular favourite, full of nostalgia. Tonight a cool mist rises from the earth, all is still, even the smoke from chimneys hangs in the cold air, as the houses around us glow yellow and warm, promising an evening filled with hearty winter comfort food, a comfy couch, a good book or movie (or another night in front of the Olympics on TV), and maybe a nice glass of red wine. Life is good.

I love to be out at this time of night, bracing against the shock of the cold on my skin. I love the soft warmth of a woollen scarf around my neck and face, a heavy coat keeping the cold out, a hat and gloves. But I also like the sensation, if I stop moving my feet, of the cold reaching up through the ground, tentacle-like, through the soles of my boots, threatening to chill my warm toes.

These feelings always evoke so many memories and emotions, particularly of my father, our life together on the farm, and more recently his death three years ago yesterday. August is often our coldest month, but it is also the time of year when lambs are born, and when I was growing up, lambing season coincided with a three-week winter break from school. So naturally on the farm we were put to work.

Every evening, just prior to nightfall, we would go around the sheep and lambs, to check that all was okay, to try to reduce any losses overnight. August memories are of these freezing evenings in the paddocks with my dad, sister, and the farm dogs. The newborn lambs feeding, their tails wagging frenetically as they drink, their mothers’ size protecting them, keeping them warm. The grass already heavy with dew, a frost looms, and the skies are clear and cold. As we headed home, the stars would appear, like tiny glittering specks of ice. Shivering now. But always there was the promise of a warm, happy house and a hot dinner waiting.

Friday, 8 August 2008

V = Vacillate

It’s time for V.

I thought about writing about vegetables. I love vegetables, as long as they’re done in interesting ways, like the Moroccan salads, but I’ve talked about those over on my travelalphablog. And intend talking about vegetables when I write about Spain too. After all, travel and food go together. I love tomatoes, and could wax lyrical about them and them alone, but might need to save that for T if I go through the alphabet again.

Or should I just turn to my travelalphablog and write the “U is for …” entry. After all, T is for Thailand has been sitting there for a while now. But then I’d have to hunt up all my old photographs, scan them etc. Takes ages. Not in mood. And V won’t go away.

I had a V for Valour written – but that was appropriate for ANZAC Day which is in April and it’s now August. Gaack, it’s August!!

I love the word varmint (I’m surprised it’s in the Concise Oxford!) but aside from liking how it sounds, have nothing to say about it.

I could do V for Venison, and write about my dad going deer-stalking, but only ever eat farmed not wild venison so the link is a bit artificial.

V could be for Vanity but my vanity has already been exposed under U is for Uniform.

And V for Vernacular is tempting, but there’s been such good writing about language elsewhere recently I’m not going to try and go there. Not this time round anyway.

I’m not in the mood to write about Vile, Vicious, Villain, Violate or Violence. I’m not a Virgin, a Victim, Vulgar, Vexed or particularly Vigorous today (any day?).

So perhaps I should work on my other project? Except that I’m listening to some interesting stuff on the radio right now and can’t do the two of them at once. Not very well at least. Verily, verily.

I should really do some work tasks that have been lying around for a while. But I’d need to concentrate. See above re radio discussion keeping my attention. Perhaps I should do V for Vacuous, or Verisimilitude.

I could have a nap. I feel sleepy. But the guilt would be overwhelming when husband slaving away at work … V is for Valid.

Or should I go do the ironing? Nah. Doing that during the day reminds me that although I might be a company director, I’m also a domestic slave. Sigh. That brings me to V for Vicissitude.

V

It’s for Vacillate.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

U = Uniform

Kiwi girls grow up with uniforms. School uniforms are compulsory. I've always thought that was a good thing. There was no stigma about clothes, no competition, no embarrassment or false pride. We all wore the same. There are some girls I probably only ever saw in their school uniform.

At primary school I wore a dark brown pleated tunic with a white shirt. It’s taken me years to realise that dark brown actually looks great on me.

Secondary school was even worse. The uniform was a "bottle green" tunic with white shirt, and a red and green tie (which is why I can’t face red and green Christmas decorations). That, coupled with my mother’s intense dislike (almost superstitious fear) of green, has meant that it took me years to find that deep greens look great on me too!

Growing up in the country meant that we didn’t need many other clothes. We had farm clothes – warm, comfortable, durable, often patched, frequently hand-me-downs. Good for wrestling hay bales, or for being around sheep and dogs, mud and muck. We didn't go out much - life was school (or after-school in our uniforms) or at home. We had maybe a couple of sets of “good clothes” which came out for visits to town or outings on the weekends. It might have been different for town kids. (And I suspect it is very different for schoolgirls these days.)

Then I went to Thailand. They wear uniforms there too. Long navy blue skirts and little white blouses. They were okay. There was no way I was going to blend in though – standing a head taller than most of the girls at school. The most painful part of that uniform was the footwear. Little black mary jane shoes with white socks. My shoes had to be made to measure. They were incredibly uncomfortable. Wince. In Bangkok I even voluntarily wore my school uniform on outings to the Weekend Market as my schoolgirl status always helped when bargaining for the best price, saving a few baht here and there.

My first ever full-time paycheck was spent on a delicious soft wool jewel green (yes, green) dress, in March 1986. I loved that dress. Sigh ...

By the late '90s, our mortgage was easier to deal with and New Zealand designers started doing new and exciting things. I discovered Trelise Cooper and Kate Sylvester, and Penny introduced me to the joys of a designer coat with a $20 T-shirt underneath. Such excitement!

I am so lucky. I need never look exactly like other women again. Don’t have to be one of the crowd. Don’t have to wear a uniform anymore. The best thing is that no-one does, with apparel duties lifted and a flood of cheaper imports meaning clothing is cheaper than ever before.

So why do so many women stick so slavishly to what is "in fashion" even when it doesn’t suit them? Or so religiously wear black (Wellington CBD looks as if it is in perpetual mourning) even when it washes them out and ages them. It’s so depressing in the middle of winter. Rain, clouds, wind, gloom, black, black and more black.

It’s just another uniform. Why are so many women afraid to be different? To express themselves? To have fun? Was all that crushed at school in our uniforms?

Sunday, 3 August 2008

T= Trade

Part of the annual cycle of living on a farm is the harvest, or in our case and that of so many farmers in New Zealand, when the sheep trucks come to transport the unlucky chosen to the freezing works. That those sheep might end up on a dinner table on the other side of the world was taken for granted. New Zealand exports its agricultural products to the world, so international trade and the rules that govern it are very important to us.

Farmers here in the 1970s received a subsidy in the form of supplementary minimum prices. I remember discussing this with my Dad who, with his typical pride and dignity, believed that it was wrong to give hand-outs to farmers. He felt that you either farmed well and profitably, or not at all. He did not want government support. So he didn’t complain about the changes in the 1980s when government subsidies to agriculture were dropped, despite the timing of these that ensured the value of his land dropped just before his retirement and sale of the farm.

So I was disappointed and angry but not surprised to hear on Tuesday that the latest round of international trade talks – the Doha Round – have collapsed yet again.

I am angry at the rich west that has enough money to subsidise its farmers, artificially lowering the cost of their produce that then competes with that of much poorer, developing countries. Yet at the same time, the US (and Europe?) refuses to allow the developing world the right to provide some rudimentary protection to their farmers through emergency protection measures when they are adversely affected by the west’s cheap subsidised goods flooding into their markets. That’s not free or fair competition. And yet they claim to be in favour of free trade.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s hypocrisy.