The best cup of tea ever

Routine pleasures have a way of being overlooked…

This past Monday night, I made myself a cup of herbal tea as I always do, adding a scoop of collagen powder for good measure (this will likely make perfect sense to a few people and strike others as bizarre, but I won’t get into it now). It’s a nightly routine, and I mostly do it automatically. But last Monday night it was simply heavenly and I felt so deeply grateful for this daily treat.

By way of background information, I ought to mention that my mom was diagnosed with ALS (also known as MND and Lou Gherig’s Disease) in August of 2016. Her initial symptoms were a very slight slurring of speech that only a few of us could hear but quickly progressed into difficulty swallowing. It took almost a year to get to the bottom of what was causing her troubles, and I then spent the hottest weeks of the summer grappling with her diagnosis in Antalya while she mulled it all over in NYC.

My mother, for those of you who do not know her, is a feisty lady, and she has dealt with all of the challenges thrown at her with great aplomb. When swallowing became a tiring and scary prospect, she consented to have a feeding tube put in and has adapted marvellously to her new way of eating. She still cooks, of course. Although she now eats pretty much nothing at all by mouth, she spotted three overripe avocados on my counter this evening and whipped up a quick guacamole so they would not go to waste.

So when she got into a real flap on Friday morning because she couldn’t breathe properly, I was alarmed. And when it happened again in the afternoon, I declared that it was time to go to the hospital. Ali and I spoke on the phone briefly and decided that I’d better take her to the Akdeniz University Hospital because we had heard that there were doctors there dealing with ALS, and the university hospital had a reputation for being a sensible place where the doctors are not in the least profit driven, which cannot be said for some of the private hospitals.

We went in to the emergency room. “Can’t breathe easily” is a vague complaint, but they were quick to bring my mother in and set her up with a nebuliser, and before long she was breathing easily and seemed more relaxed. They took some blood and did a chest X-ray. And we sat around a lot – I’ve been to the ER with my a few times now, and there is invariably plenty of waiting. It’s like being on a plane – you just have to let go of the time and let it pass unobserved or you get edgy and despair tugs at you.

A neurologist came to see my mom and encouraged us to visit the neurology clinic the following week, because a professor there was doing work with ALS patients. “They’ll admit her tonight because they found pneumonia,” he said, conversationally, “so she may still be here on Monday.”

“They found pneumonia??” I echoed, aghast. Pneumonia is no walk in the park for anyone, particularly once you get past a certain age, but it’s especially bad news for people like my mom who can’t cough without assistance from a machine, or spit stuff out. It can be a serious danger, so I found myself suddenly grateful to be in the hospital.

My mom was admitted that night and moved into a room with a diabetic woman who was apparently completely chock full of cortisol and no one could figure out why. I went home to get some things for us both and tell Ali and the boys the latest.

When I got back, my mom was writhing in pain. “The IV needle hurts,” she wrote on her board. I went to find the nurse and told her what my mother had said and she tutted sympathetically. “It’s the medicine – it burns the veins.” 

“Wow,” I thought, “that really sucks,” and went to break the news to my mom.

So for the next few days we found ourselves caught up in the routines of the hospital ward. Lights on at 6, blood pressure, temperature, antibiotics. Breakfast cart at 8:30, but no food for my mom. When they heard she had a feeding tube they were happy to leave her feeeding to me. I got food though, from the Companions food cart. 

More antibiotics at 12 – the burning one. Lunch at 1:30. And a blood thinner at 2 and more antibiotics at 6 and more fire water at midnight, with the dinner cart in between. Sometimes there were other, weird things like the time that they got my mom out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to weigh her. And the days passed surprisingly quickly with all of these regular occurrences to mark the time.

Her room was almost at the end of the hall, across from a bright lounge area. People drifted in to the lounge to compare notes, commiserate, or sometimes to just nap. I discovered that my mother’s roommate had been there for three weeks, while the young man from down the hall had been looking after his diabetic mother there for two weeks; her foot was infected. The day we left, he told me strickenly in the elevator that they were going to amputate it in a week’s time.

On Monday morning, a head nurse marched in folllowed by an orderly pushing a cart piled high with sheets. “Let’s clear that window sill,” she said briskly, pointing at the thermoses and feeding paraphenelia I had lined up there, “and put your bag in the cupboard.We’ll  change the sheets. Can you untie that plastic bag from the bed? That’s not allowed. Doctor visits today – the room should look it’s best.” So I hid everything away, and they changed the sheet while my mom was in the bathroom. When she got out she raised her eyebrows at the lack of plastic bag for her tissues – “it’s forbidden,” I explained. She shrugged. Later that day she spat into a tissue and held it aloft for a moment before defiantly throwing it on the floor. We laughed behind the curtain dividing the room, feeling complicit. Then I told my mom that in Hong Kong when you blow your nose in a tissue it’s called “making won ton” and we laughed over that. “Give your won ton to me,” I said.

The nurses had alluded to the fact that my mom would be discharged on Monday if she improved when they changed shifts, and a doctor breezed in and asked for a blood test and phlegm sample. Once these were tested, my mom had a green light to leave.

Of course, leaving a hospital is never especially straightforward, so it took us all afternoon to manage it and we didn’t get back home until 7, after a stop at the pharmacy to buy her antibiotics. I made a quick dinner for us all and my mom went to bed and the kids got ready to go to sleep and I put the kettle on to make my customary cup of tea. 

What a joy to be standing in front of my own stove, waiting for the water to boil, and to pour the water over the tea and smell the scent of it. What a pleasure to walk down the hall to my room and settle into bed – my own bed, not a fold out chair, in pajamas not my days-old clothes. Oh and what a relaxing and lovely feeling to take a sip of tea and reach for my book!

(My mom is on the mend, though the antibiotics don’t agree with her and she’s still kind of congested. It is pneumonia, after all…)


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.

Popcorn chicken

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.

Please forgive the quality of my photos today; I was shooting with my phone because I couldn’t keep these lovelies waiting!

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.

Popcorn chicken.



Aromatherapy Christmas craft project – pomander balls

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.

Pomander balls in the Middle Ages, when the Plague was a major health concern, were not actually made from oranges at all, but were pieces of jewelry with aromatic herbs inside. The name comes from the French, pomme d’ambre, meaning amber apple – ambergris was one of the sweet scents inserted in the lockets.

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.

Zanzibar (a small group of islands off the coast of Tanzania) was once known as “the Spice Isles” because they were the world’s largest producer of cloves. When Omani sultan Sayyid Said moved to Zanzibar, he decreed that every farmer plant three clove bushes for every coconut palm on their land. These trees formed the backbone of a major industry, and one that Zanzibar continues to be associated with (unlike the other major function that Zanzibar served at that time – a slave port).

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).

Although Baki got off to a slow start with pomander balls, he did come up with a very nice little trick – when making holes in the orange, place the first tine of the fork in the last hole that you made so that your spacing really will be robotically precise. 

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.

Merry Christmas to all and sundry!

Escape to London

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.

IMG_4756I 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.

IMG_4757I 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:metalpoint

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!

Edit Cavell was a nurse shot by a German firing squad for her role in helping allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. She was controversial to both sides of the conflict because she would treat any soldier, regardless of which side he was fighting on.

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.

There is a menacing beauty in the symmetry of these 15 inch guns at the Imperial War Museum entrance.

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.