I always see this sign on the way to JFK airport. There are plenty of billboards and signs along that road, of course, but this one doesn’t change from year to year and it makes me smile every time I see it. Finally, I had the presence of mind to snap a quick photo of it as we crawled past in heavy traffic.
Kaya and I flew in to NY to help my mom attend to some health stuff (Kaya was there for morale, me for logistics) but nothing dire. While we were there the story about the Egypt Air flight “disappearing” broke. Is it just me or would anyone else rather the media not talk about planes vanishing? I feel like this is something I would say to my kids, but just because you can’t find something doesn’t mean it’s gone.
Anyway, as our flight home took off, there was a persistent beeping sound in the background. It didn’t last long (no doubt someone had noticed it was unsettling and turned it off) but as I listened to it I had a moment of clarity. I looked over at Kaya who was gazing out the window as the plane lifted off and I thought that if our plane were to “disappear” it would be a horrible shame for his life to be cut short. I’d have done anything to spare him that.
On a certain day in September, a friend of mine was on his way into a certain building when a plane crashed into it. He looked up and saw stuff falling out of the sky. There was a woman standing next to him, frozen to the spot. He grabbed her and ran. I always thought that was pretty revealing – he wasn’t thinking, he just reacted to his circumstances purely reflexively. Seems to me, those are the moments when you know what you’re about.
I sometimes wonder what my impulses would be in an emergency, and in that moment in the plane I felt a little closer to knowing what I might do. It wasn’t a hugely emotional thing, it lasted a second at most, and afterwards we both promptly fell asleep.
Actually I can’t believe that Popcorn Chicken is an actual thing. For those of you lucky enough not to have encountered this disgusting idea, it may come as a relief to learn that the thought of it is more horrible than the thing itself, which is innocuous. It is basically small scraps of chicken aggressively salted and battered and then deep fried. It is, like chicken fingers, merely a food with an extremely unfortunate name.
We have been running incubators in our apartment to hatch chicks. We used to do it the natural way, you know when a hen gets broody and sits on about 20 eggs and gets nasty when you try to move here. The thing is, once the chicks hatched (rarely more than half the eggs, for us) the other adult chickens would attack them and eventually they all ended up dead. This was a huge turning point in my relationship to our chickens. I mean, I grew up watching cartoons with motherly hens wearing aprons showing their chicks what’s what, so I was unprepared for this descent into the harsh realities of nature.
Ali’s approach to this problem was to suggest that we get an incubator, but I couldn’t see it. Why buy a machine to do what an animal could do just as well? We could separate her from the flock to raise her chicks. Well, we tried that and ended up with a hen that had nowhere to go once she lost interest in her chicks after three weeks because her old coop-mates wanted nothing to do with her. So I relented and we got the incubator.
And that is how chickens became the fastest growing aspect of our garden life.
We got chickens in the first place almost by accident; some friends brought us our first group – a rooster and three hens. We had one little coop and we didn’t let them out for the first year because we wanted to protect the plants. Then we realized that chickens are great pest patrollers and that they are particularly fond of eating scorpions, which we had plenty of, to our dismay (and ticks too – the first year was pretty horrific. I even saw a tick crawling on the wall. And it was moving fast!). So from then on our chickens have ranged free and we have caged in our flowers and vegetables, creating chicken-wire perimeters around vegetable and flower beds.
Soon we outgrew our first incubator and got a bigger one. The smaller incubator became the hatchery, where we would move the eggs on day 18. Because here’s the thing: eggs hatch on day 21 like clockwork. Which brings me to popcorn chicken.
Chicks can live for two days after hatching without eating a thing, because they hatch with some yolk stuck to them (and they will peck at one another to get at it, which made me nervous but nothing came of it). That’s why you can order chicks in the mail. And they can stay in an incubator for up to 24 hours after they hatch without suffering any ill effects. Anyway, you can’t really take them out until they dry off – they hatch wet and scrawny looking and will catch a chill if they are taken out into a drafty cage right away. You want to move them when they are fluffy, like the chicks you would imagine.
Sometimes the chicks hatch while we are in the garden and we get there 12 hours or so after the fact. If it is light out and the chicks are energetic, they all cheep like mad and when we lift the lid of the incubator they start leaping about and if you are not careful they will spill out on to the table.
Baki is learning about the Bubonic Plague in his Social Studies class, and came home talking about fleas and rats and doctors with beaks, so naturally the first thing that sprang to mind was pomander balls, especially with Christmas around the corner.
Plague doctors wore masks with beak-like protrusions on them (you might be familiar with the Venetian “doctor” mask, which is quite similar to the one in this picture, if a bit more ominous). This was because the beak area could be stuffed with aromatic herbs; it was believed that sweet smells could ward off the disease. That’s where pomander balls enter the picture. (picture credit: Paul Furst (1608-1666), “Der Doctor Schabel von Rom”)
Every year at Christmas time we open up the boxes of Christmas ornaments and the same smell rises from them – oranges and clove, with faint scents of pine. This is the smell of Christmas to me, and it is mostly coming from the pomander balls in the boxes, some of them decades old.
My mother said that she learned how to make pomander balls when she was in high school, but couldn’t get more specific than that. All I know is that for as long as I can remember, the clove studded oranges have made their appearance at the end of every year. In my mind they were synonymous with that time of year and I didn’t think much about it beyond that.
Pomander balls in their present incarnation as clove studded oranges showed up in the 19th century; a gift of a pomander ball at that time was said to indicate “warmth of feeling.” Making pomander balls is pretty straightforward – just cover the orange with cloves. You want to leave a little space between them because the orange will shrink a bit as it dries, but not too much or it will look patchy and balding. When we set Baki to the task, though, it was about thirty seconds before he was complaining of sore fingers and declaring himself bored to death.
Then my mother had a wonderful idea.
“Why not use a fork?” she said.
I had on occasion used a toothpick to poke holes for the cloves , but by using a fork you make the holes and ensure even spacing. A dessert fork is best for the meticulous (me), a dinner fork for the underachiever (Baki).
In this manner, we were able to make our pomander balls in record time.
And of course there is the added pleasure of the smell – cloves smell great, and there is something heartening about the smell of orange peels. Make one and see – and keep it for decades! It’ll still hold up, smelling of the Spice Isles and bringing a whiff of the Plague to your holidays.
In Antalya, our summers are perfectly dry. For about four months, it is not reasonable to expect any rain to fall. The temperatures soar and then coast along in the upper regions of the thermometer. This must be why people come here on holiday – no risk of staring out at the rain soaked beach from your hotel room, with your sun hat in your hand. But it turns the forest into a tinderbox – one thing that you are sure to see every summer is the forestry department planes flying by with bags of water trailing behind them. And in the garden, the extreme heat and lack of water means that for us, summer is the busiest season. We spend our days watering everyone – the plants, the trees, the chickens, the cats, the dog, ourselves. In the sense of feeling that we are fighting the weather to keep everyone alive and happy, and that every living thing is undergoing some sort of stress, I feel like summers are our winters. Winter in Antalya is a breeze – it gets rainy and muddy, and it even gets cold, but the plants are delighted by the weather, the vegetable beds are full of lettuces and cabbages, and we have cozy evenings by the wood stove, roasting chestnuts and all sitting around the table to peel and eat them. I look forward to winter every year. I dream about getting the wooly sweaters out.
It can be tiring to trudge around the garden in the pounding heat, and when I get overwhelmed by taking care of the garden and the family, I dream of being alone. There are very few times in a summer day when I am not interrupted by someone who needs something from me. This is the chaotic charm of family life, but it grates sometimes, when I want to think my own thoughts, uninterrupted. I began to plan a little escape. I would go to London in the fall, after my mother came here. I would stay in a hotel near a Waitrose supermarket so I could roam its tastefully curated aisles and read stacks of newspapers, drinking milky tea, or coffee from my Aeropress. I’d visit some museums, and definitely go to the cinema – it had been years since I had done that. I could even eat at a restaurant without wondering when one of the kids was going to start careening around the room. And I did it all.
It was a grey weekend, only intermittently rainy (although I did get badly caught in the rain once and had to duck into a cafe to nurse a coffee and dry out) which is the perfect weather for tea and toast. I had bought a quarter loaf of sourdough bread and a salty unpasteurized butter. A friend of mine remarked that I didn’t post any photos of food from my trip on Instagram, and this was mainly because I was so happy eating buttered toast with a mug of milky tea, that this is what I did, again and again. Not great nutrition, perhaps, but deeply satisfying all the same. Likewise, although I was whiling away the entire weekend doing nothing much of great use to anyone, I felt at the end of it that I had been fed in some intangible way.
I have a lot of good reasons for not living in the city anymore, and most of them are to do with my desire to be closer to nature and more involved in the day to day mechanics of my life – in the garden, we fix our own plumbing, chop our own wood, kill our own chickens. But that does not mean that I am immune to the charms of city life, or to the sense of wellbeing that beautiful architecture or gardens can evoke. One morning, while walking to the British Museum, I noticed a clipped tunnel of trees and walked through it – I discovered later that these were linden trees (the living corridor is more correctly known as a “pleached lime cloister”). It was so enjoyable to be walking in the leafy embrace of the trees that I almost doubled back to do it again, but time was of essence.
I was drawn to the museum because I had read that there was a show of metalpoint drawings there. It has been a long time since I drew with any regularity, but there was a time when I dreamed of art school, and of all art forms drawings are my favorite. I bought my ticket and was directed to go “up the staircase.” This was in the beautiful skylit Great Court, with its huge round stairwell winding importantly upwards. I realized that there couldn’t be any other staircase to refer to in such a nonchalant manner, so up I went and as I ascended, with the cloudy sky dimly visible through the glass ceiling, I found myself level with the Ionic capitals of the classical facade of one of the buildings sheltered in this huge indoor courtyard. It gave me the sensation of floating upwards, or at least of something not quite possible, and this only deepened when I followed the signs pointing towards the exhibition and find myself walking through a room full of mummies. If only Baki were with me, I thought.
Then I entered the small and perfectly silent gallery where the drawings were displayed. I handed my ticket over and was directed into an even quieter room off to the side, with glass cases all along the walls that had wooden bannisters in front of them. As I went to the first drawing, I could see why those bannisters were there because the drawings were so intricate and so beautiful that they drew me towards them and almost without being aware of it at all, I rested my elbows on the bannister and leaned in as close as I could, until I could see my breath on the glass. And as I did, I saw more and more clearly the sharp, precise lines and marveled at how with such hard styluses and unforgiving material these delicate and vibrant drawings had been made. There is something unbelievable about looking at a drawing that was made by artists as far back as the 14th century. Some were sketches or studies, but all executed with a deftness that was visible centuries later. I made my way around the room slowly, silently. The drawing that I loved the most was a study of drapery by Leonardo Da Vinci. It was so beautiful, my eyes filled with tears. And look, I can share it with you here, courtesy of the British Museum’s free image service:
I was disappointed when I went to buy a postcard for my mother that the reproductions seemed so lifeless compared to the real thing, but I was overjoyed to find this image reproduced and available for use. I thought I’d never see it again, and any reproduction is better than that!
This monument caught my eye, probably because I have been reading about World War 1 lately (at the moment I am reading a very good, if sobering, book called 14-18: Understanding the Great War). My trip came directly after Remembrance Day, so there were red poppies on lapels, placed at the foot of monuments such as these, and even hanging on the grills of taxis.
I visited the WW1 galleries of the Imperial War Museum and pored over exhibits of grisly handmade clubs and knives from the trenches, children’s toys of Lord Kitchener, shells from Big Bertha guns. I had thought that it would be a quiet, lonely visit, but the museum was packed with people of all ages, all buzzing with conversation, and the WW1 galleries were so crowded that walking through the exhibits was a slow business. So there are all these other people, I thought, thinking about these events a century ago.
The city is not the place where I would expect to find human connection; it seems that the great lesson of city life is how to be alone in a crowd. However, I did have a wonderful experience on my trip where I remembered just how helpful it can be to talk through a problem, even with a stranger. I had always been curious about the School of Life, and there happened to be a class there during my trip called How to Realise Your Potential. I signed up for it and then didn’t tell anyone in my family about it because I thought they might laugh at me. I told them about it when I got back, though, because it was a really fun evening where I talked to several very interesting people. It turns out that when you have a room full of people puzzling over something in their lives, it results in a willingness to talk through it all with the person in the next seat. I avoid interacting with strangers like the plague, and I think it was really good for me to not only get over it for an evening, but also come up with some concrete ideas for doing things such as write here more often.
I returned home feeling just as I had hoped I would – feeling energized and ready to get back to work. It was not a very glamorous trip, but it was just what I wanted – just some time to wander around in a city I enjoy and in my own thoughts.
Don’t you love friends? The way they are always there for you when you need them most and the way they make you feel better about your more questionable decisions, or listen to your endless rambling? And most of all the way they call you out when you have been really lazy and not written on your blog for ages and ages.
“I visited your blog the other day,” said my friend, “and I was pretty disappointed.”
Busted. I changed the subject by telling her about a photo I had seen on Istagram that was taken by someone who had gone on a pilgrimage of sorts to see the late, great explorer, Wilfred Thesiger. That did the trick, and we chatted until she had to go and she said, “One day, I’d like to hear the story of how you met him, again.”
In 1987, we were living in Nairobi and I was in 6th grade. My father was a reporter for Time Magazine, covering all of Sub-Saharan Africa. He was always busy – it seemed as if coups d’etats broke out every week, or at least any time we attempted a family vacation. When my father was home, the evening news via shortwave radio (a huge device that sat atop a chest of drawers in my parents’ room) was a sacrosanct occasion, treated with utter silence. We usually left him to it alone, but we all sprawled on the bed together to listen to Alistair Cooke read his Letters from America once a week. Not to sound too crusty around the edges, but these were the days where news bureaus had telex rooms.
Therefore, I am not exactly sure how my father came to discover that Wilfred Thesiger was living above a gas station in a town called Maralal, up in Samburu County. It certainly wasn’t the internet! But we had a constant procession of visitors passing through for tea or dinner – reporters, aid workers, lots of priests, monks and nuns, anyone with interesting news to share. We also had regular visitors. We could always expect Maryknoll priest Father Quinn at the door on Sunday afternoons, calling “Hodi!” and awaiting our welcoming call of “Karibu!” He would ply us with tales of how he had used his Black Stone to help people bitten by venomous snakes – there were plenty of those about; I grew up keeping a sharp eye on the ground in front of me.
At any rate, someone must have told us over tea or a succulent roast beef (we ate the most insanely opulent Sunday dinners back then – roasts with Yorkshire puddling and gravy were de rigeur) that they had spotted Thesiger in Maralal, and that got the wheels in my dad’s head spinning. War and famine were his bread and butter, for better or for worse, but he did the odd profile piece as well. So it was that he, my mother and I headed up to Maralal in search of Wilfred Thesiger.
When we moved to Kenya, my parents had the brilliant idea of allowing me to choose my own school, and I chose to attend a Catholic convent school, mostly because I liked the idea of a school uniform, I think. Anyhow, in our geography lessons, our teachers would dictate notes about Kenya and we had to write them down, complete with red margins and double underlining where required, and many many maps of Kenya. I had a cardboard template in my notebook that I traced around and would then fill in the appropriate geographical feature, for example the fresh water lakes of Kenya. The largest of these was Lake Turkana (Lake Victoria is bigger, but not all of it is in Kenya) and Maralal is to the south of that.
It was a long time ago now, and I don’t remember a lot about the actual visit. I am left instead with feelings and impressions. This is what I can recall: that Thesiger was very tall and gnarled like a tree; that he was sharing a house with Samburu men that he said all snored at night; that he took us to a place called the End of the World, a dramatic escarpment that we sat at the edge of, with stippled clouds overhead and a rocky shrubby valley down below; that he walked very fast. For some reason we met up again in London, for tea at Brown’s. My father was stressed out because we were running late. We took a cab there and passed him striding down the street and although he was some way away, he came through the door only seconds after we did. And while we had tea, he said something I always remembered. The conversation had turned, somehow, to the topic of sleep and I remarked that I could sleep anywhere without trouble. He looked at me and said seriously, “That is a great gift.” and from then on I treated effortless sleep as just that. It is my great natural talent, sleep.
The impact of meeting him continued later, as I read what he wrote and came to understand through his own restlessness and adventure that there is something that all we seek that will put us at ease. It might seem crazy to cross forbidding, uncharted desert by foot, but it made perfect sense to him. For most of us, it might not take something quite so extreme – running in the woods might work, or a sense of connection with a community, or a feeling of contributing to social justice, or a garden.
I didn’t know what I was looking for in my life until I found it. We were visiting our land for the first time (or, the area at least – we did not actually know which bit was ours until we had moved here) and as we rounded the curve in a road there were cliffs overhead, forest to either side, and the hot dry air was full of the chant of cicadas. A wild grape vine hung from a tree by the side of the road and we ate warm, sweet purple grapes from it. I felt something unlock inside me and I had the unexpected thought that I may have found my home. I felt a sense of freedom, of being away from everything that weighed me down – traffic, my job, other people. It was a feeling I had known while I was growing up in Kenya where I used to stare out across wide open spaces, all the way to the horizon, and was uplifted by how small it made me feel and the feeling of space it created in my mind. When I came to our garden, I remembered that feeling again.