Tuesday, 29 September 2009

good craic

Last weekend a friend of mine came on a spontaneous visit from Florence.
I love that a spontaneous visit in Europe can mean crossing borders, mountains and languages:-) It's so romantic.

She arrived on Saturday afternoon (which gave me enough time to sweep all the underwear under the bed & remove the crusties from the fridge) and stayed until Monday morning. I must say that it was very pleasing to have a bit of Florence in the house although she herself is Irish. Unfortunately she came bearing sad news - my bella bici 'Speranza' had been stolen in Florence just the night before. Now officially I have no bikes at all :-(

Naturally I took A to see all the sights of Basel and we ate like ravenous pigs at an Indian restuarant after some rarver disturbing pre-dinner conversation which is oft the case when one has been imbibing beforehand.

The following morning I made A some of my arabic coffee thatI had brought back from Syria. I have only made it once before and it was - I was told - too bitter. Determined not to make the same mistake I added a cane train worth of sugar to this batch which made it rarver sweet. True to her Irish affable form, A replied that she would drink this caffee, so she would, if it was the last thing she did.

O, how I love the Irish charm.

Monday, 21 September 2009

I've been feeling a bit down about poor old homeless Philomena Philpott of late, which is an excellent excuse to procrastinate!! So far today I have cleaned the kitchen, found the floor of my bedroom again, wrote a new to-do-list (then divided said list into 3 sub-to-do-lists) organised my teaching folders; tried to phone friends ( the phone is making a rude beeping noise at me); and am even contemplating folding the washing. I am sure it will all pass.

In the meantime the editor of Clockwork Phoenix has been sending me some nice little comments about my fish story which is better than a poke in the eye, I suppose.

"The Fish of Al-Kawthar's Fountain" by Joanna Galbraith: "Singing and dancing fish? A pond that is the source of all rain? A lonely young man who tends said fountain? This is a gentle, sweet story and I really liked it."

Review by Not if you were the Last Short Story on Earth

Joanna Galbraith's "The Fish of Al-Kawthar's Fountain," ..., delighted me. More full disclosure: write Syria into a story convincingly and you start the game with seven thousand bonus points. Write the story such that it reads like an oral tale, or a translation of Arabic material, and you earn seven thousand more before I even begin to consider plot and character. Although one of the simpler pieces, I was left rather charmed.

Review by SF Site Reviews

Joanna Galbraith's "The Fish of Al-Kawthar's Fountain" is an adorable (albeit somewhat bittersweet) story about a magic fountain, the fish that live in it, and their caretaker. I could easily see this being made into a Pixar short!

Review by Sequential Tart

that's nice, innit!

Monday, 14 September 2009

Last of the summer Rhine

Yesterday I decided to brave the rapid current of the River Rhine using the floating fish my mother bought me when she was visiting last month. These floating fish are very popular here. Basically you put your clothes, towels and valuables into the fish-shaped tube and then roll it up seven times before afixing it with a strap. Then you are supposed to leap into the Rhine River and float down on the inflatable fish before paddling to the shore like a rabid dog. The rabid dog paddling is to ensure you don't accidentally find yourself in France where rumour has it that the water is murkish brown instead of crystal clear - a Swiss rumour you understand!
I can't say I exactly leapt into the water - it was pretty cold on the extremities - but once I got caught in the current it was actually quite fun. I even starred in a few tourists photos and successfully managed to avoid colliding with a bridge and a ferry full of people. It was only at the end that I realised how fast the current was going - trying to reach the shore line is quite a test of strength and I wanted to look cool and knowing - like I had done this Rhine lark before - but I ended up looking like a scrabbling rat or even worse a desperate frog who knows exactly where her legs will go if she crosses the border by accident.

Immediately after I got out of the water grey clouds appeared in the sky. Autumn literally arrived as I towelled myself down. Now the weather has turned and tonight as I walked home I felt a chill around my neck and a cold nipping at both ears.

Huzzah for autumn, Isay! I love season changes - all of them - but I love autumn most of all. Leaves turning brown, the smell of roasting chestnuts in the air, the chance to wear my orange coat which looks like it has been knitted out of muppet wool. Ah happy days

Monday, 7 September 2009

SlowUp Basel

Soon I will be getting my insurance rebate for the bike I had stolen back in May. Then I have to go through the horror of finding a new bike. I hate shopping for things like bikes. Everyone has a different opinion as to what bike is best. I quite fancy a citybike with a basket and no gears but everyone sounds aghast when I mention it.
'But what about when you see a hill? ' they despair. 'You need gears for a hill.'
I tend to choose a new direction when confronted by any sort of rise in the earth so I feel this whole 'must-have-gears' thing is a little bit over-the-top - but I have seen citybikes with 3 gears so perhaps a compromise can be reached.
In two weeks time they have a day called SlowUp here in Basel where everyone gets to reclaim the streets on their bikes. Two routes are marked out one that makes a circle into Germany and the other which makes a circle into France. The two circles meet in the centre of Basel so you can do one circle or two - as slowly as you want:-) I believe both routes are relatively flat although that may just be a ruse to trick me into participating! Either way I still say poo-pah to gears - apparently there are plenty of places to stop and taste the delights of German and French cuisine a long the way so i'm sure any hills will be successfully ascended once I have been refuelled.

I am still very behind in catching up with my life right now so for those few who I owe letters, emails and phonecalls to - you are not forgotten - you have been listed! And you know how much I value my lists.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009


It's another bright blue sky in Basel today (AARG where is the grey!!!) and I have been toiling at my desk trying to remember the forgotten art of 'lesson planning'. I seem to have lost all my skills in this area although no doubt there is a good reason for this. My brain couldn't possibly fit lesson-planning in with all my other recently acquired skills (eg, monosyllabic Arabic, running a bootcamp for my parents while trying to include enough time for napping and trashy magazine reading; turtle-petting 101!)

My parents left on Sunday which was sad for all involved but I think they had a great time here in The Schweiz. We actually did quite a lot of excursions to places I had never considered visiting before and dad managed to tick 'The Jungfraujoch' off his bucket list - quickly replacing it with a future trip to The Schilthorn to drink coffee a'la James Bond style. On Friday night we went out to celebrate his birthday which is next Sunday. I took him to a traditional Swiss restaurant where mum and I indulged in cheese fondue up to our eyeballs.

On Saturday we went on an excusion to Brunnen and Stoos. Brunnen is a lovely town lakeside with a pleasing Mediterranean feel to it. The view from the mountains above was spectacular although the three of us froze as we sat on the chairlift. Dad even offered to get his 'thing out' to warm me up - 'his thing' being a waterproof jacket' for all those gutter-brains out there.

We also happened upon a wedding in Stoos at a quaint church perched on a hill. An Alpine horn player came out to serenade the
bride and groom which thrilled the pares as they had never heard a horn 'live' before. A herd of very pretty cows complete with bells strolled over from a nearby pasture to listen to the music as well. It really was the most cheese-woi scene I think that I have seen so far. Made me look like the best bootcamp director though - fancy arranging a wedding and cows and horn players and yodellers and mountains all together at once.

Now they are gone though (sniff sniff) and I have no excuse not to get back in the swing of things. I hope to embrace my email inbox sometime very soon and pick my way through the remains of my publishing contact which are lying listlessly all around me. I think I am avoiding it actually - I might as well claim insurance for my stolen bike, get my liver tested ( after all my food problems), plan a few more lessons before I face anything really scary.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

nose back on grindstone

Well, I am back at work now although I seem to have adopted the way of 'Bitey' the turtle and can only move in a slow, deliberate way. I think I am more tired now than before I went away :-(
Nice to see the students again. One of my favourites has just returned from studying English overseas. He is now well ahead of my class which is great for him but sad for me. Some students are just so wonderful for class atmosphere you want to bottle them (with holes in the lid for air, of course) and cart them around to each room. Actually, I can think of a few I have had in the past that I wouldn't mind bottling sans holes in the lid but its probably best to leave this sentence at that.
Ma and Pa have gone on a mountaintrip to Jungfraujoch. Tonight they will stay in Lauterbrunnen for the night before making the ascent tomorrow ( with the help of Swiss engineering.) When I was 6 I camped in Lauterbrunnen with my family during the summer. I still have very strong memories of this trip largely because I had never seen such enormous mountains before, I also saw snow, cows with bells and one of the men working at the campsite came from Melbourne which I found beyond incredible. Fancy me being born in Melbourne and this man too! How amazing. I think this fact impressed me for the rest of the holiday.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

the Giant of Basel

I took my parents to see the giant of Basel who resides in a park near where I live. He's a friendly looking fellow, probably gets a bit cold in the winter as he only wears a toga; he's probably a bit lonely too . He actually wears his toga in quite a risquè manner - only covering half of his genitals which my dad gleefully noted by saying upon first inspection - " Look. You can see his beaver!" This I confess is all my fault as I educated my parents in the way of the beaver earlier in the week after mum kept on telling dad to put his badger away. (FYI - Dad's badger is actually the bushy mass of grey and black hairs he has on his chest that are so thick and wild up the top he sometimes looks as if a badger has been stuffed down his shirt.) Not something you want your dad shouting out in fortè voce but at least it means my parents actually pay attention to what I say ( sort of) and it is always nice to know you have been heard.

We also visited Thun which is a very pretty village situated on a lake of the same name. The water there is an icy mint blue and I would have loved to swim in it if I had come appropriately prepared. We had a lovely lunch in the town which we shared with a disabled pigeon - both of his feet appeared to be missing toes ( you know what I mean - bird anatomy is not my thing.) Dad reckons he had them lopped off deliberately. Dad is not trusting of birds at present having been recently assualted from on high. It probably explains the amount of roast chicken meals he ordered in The Lake District. Fear not though my father is a compassionate man - the memory will wane - and the birds will triumph again - insh'allah!

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

body is home - heart is still enroute

Back in Basel now with parents in tow - can have a bootcamp revenge of my own! ( Or at least I would if I could drag myself out of bed.) I am very happy to have them here with me in Basel but I feel quite melancholy about being back. It is as if my capacity to feel and sense the world around me has been dulled and all I want to do is sniff a bag of arabic cardoman coffee until my senses wake again.

It is really hot here too - in a sticky humid way. Yes. yes - I know Damascus was hotter but it was a dry heat and it was perfectly acceptable to spend one's hours in the hammam or eating Bakdash ice-cream. Here the western wheels of captialism spin round so everyone marches around doing what they 'must' looking very hot and bothered. (Hmm I think I better go and sniff some more coffee before I morph into scary, grumpy, post-holiday person - although i fear it is too late.)

Yesterday I took my parents to my old ladies' class at school. Dad got to be the much prized 'only' man and was a man of great charm to all the ladies ( much to the chagrin of mama - although i think she must also have been secretly proud as one must always be proud if one's sidekick behaves in a sporting manner in the public domain.) All the ladies were in a very chatty state - very happy to see I had returned - they have plans for me to marry a Swiss man so I stay and teach them ad infinitum. Not a plan I have embraced - it is very difficult to know where my Italian-Syrian-English blood belongs but I don't think Basel is its final desitination.

Here is a picture of Basel just for a bit of colour

Thursday, 13 August 2009

New land same stomach

Finally made a break from family boot camp to eat some sticky finger buns and sloth about in the apartment; I am exhausted. It is almost a week since I left Syria and time seems to have been swallowed up by the beast-of-early-risings-and-hearty-walks-in-the countryside – a most persistent beast I would like to add – it even has two heads. Right now the beast (aka - mum and dad) are visiting in-laws in Freckleton so I am trying to catch my breath and hunt down the internet which is surprisingly more difficult here than in old town Damascus.

It has been a good week here in the Lake District despite the boot camp although it started rather unappealingly with a festival vomit last Friday morning at 3 am. It must have been my grief at leaving Damascus or alternatively the bread-that-smelt-like-a-butcher’s-shop that Susan had given me to eat the night before. Either way I was throwing up like a seasoned pro by the time I got to Damascus airport. This was compounded nicely by the news that my ticket from Syria to London had been cancelled. No reason was given as to why - just that they (as in ‘Royal Jordanian’) were overbooked and there was no seat for me. Interestingly enough they were able to muster up a seat for me from Damascus to Amman but from there on, I was informed, I would be on my own. I decided to take the seat and tackle the next hurdle once I got to Amman. I sat next to a very nice Englishman on the short flight to Amman. He even gave me his sick bag when I had finished with mine which I thought was very generous of him.
Once in Amman I staggered to the transfer desk ( after leaving another calling card on the tarmac) and explained in a froth of bile and tears that I really needed to get on the flight to London. The gentleman at the front explained ( from a projectile-measured distance) that the flight was overbooked to which I responded with an even more spectacular froth of bile and tears. He eventually said that he would arrange for me to go down to the Sales Desk and I would be able to pay a supplement for my ticket ( which is interesting given I understood that they were overbooked) and get a seat. Another man took me though immigration and down to the Sales Desk where I tried my best to neatly throw up in the corner but got the Sales Desk Counter instead. By this stage any sort of shame had escaped me and I did my best to dab up the mess with a roll of toilet paper I kept in my bag. Fortunately the sales woman at the counter decided to take a proper look at my ticket and it was established that I would not need to pay any additional supplement but I would have to wait until twenty minutes before the flight to confirm my seat. Thankfully place was confirmed and I found myself wedged in a seat at the back of the plane next to another very nice English fellow who was studying climate change in Jordan. I think he might have been quite a lovely man to chat to had I not had my head in a bag or down the toilet for the next five hours. The worst part actually came after the plane had landed in Heathrow and I had to run into the crew galley to do a mighty throw which according to my trusty seat companion was 'I'm afraid rather audible for all but nevermind. Can't be helped.' At Customs, special branch picked me up and before I knew it I was in a wheelchair being wheeled through the airport ( nose in bag) to the waiting ambulance which took me to Hillingdon hospital for rehydration and anti-sick medication. Not quite the reunion I had imagined with mum and dad - me hooked up to an iv drip; them frazzled after a dodgy drive around the London airport roads. Fortunately I soon began to feel better and by the next morning the three of us were on the road to the Lake District - anti-sick pills in one hand and a packet of wine gums in the other.

Since then we have spent the last few days sloshing about in the mud, enjoying the beautiful scenery, trying out local pub cuisine and eating kendal mint cakes. I still don't feel fabulous as I think my insides are still playing host to Syrian buddies of the small, bacterial kind but it's been a lovely week all the same - apart from the early rising of course, and the mandatory ambling, and the fact I can't face alkeehol.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Ma -a-salaame

Today was Mini-Ramadan day (before the real thing starts next week.) It has another name which I can neither spell nor pronounce so Mini-R will have to do. On this day people do not eat or drink during the day (the same as Ramadan proper) but this one only lasts one day. Some sort of rehearsal for the real thing, I suppose.
I didn’t know it was Mini-R until the late afternoon when I came up to see the family and found them all lying in various states of death around the living room. Listlessly watching the clock apart from Ahmed (aged ten) who was clutching his belly and looking rather hungrily at his mother’s ample arms. They invited me to come break the fast with them at dusk which was very generous of them.
Earlier in the day I visited an artist whom I had met the night before over a falafel roll near the Mosque. I really liked his art work. It was very beautiful and evocative but there really isn’t any room in my luggage for anything now I am stashed full of tea and pistachio-nougat sweets. I feel disappointed about this because I like to support the arts where I can and I also haven’t bought myself anything very special while I have been. (Apart from a night in Shifa hospital I guess and a very pleasing ‘I love Syria’ key ring.) But then I kind of don’t want to buy myself something just for the sake of it. Last year I bought myself a lantern and mirror that I cherish very much and I feel they are representative of my love for this country as a whole rather than any trip in particular.

I spent the rest of the day visiting my usual haunts – trailing my fingers over the crumbling walls, Moorish wooden doors, jasmine flowers and any rogue chocolate doughnuts that should happen to cross my path.

Dinner tonight with the family was very special. We waited for the Umayyad mosque to signal that the fast had broken and then the whole family dived in like frenzied piranhas. I kept all extremities close by. The dishes were simple but very delicious apart from a scary bread thing that smelt like a butcher’s shop and I tried to hide amongst my hoummus. After a few minutes the children started passing out on the floor because they had eaten too much too quickly but Susan-the-reliable kept the fires burning. I felt very honored to spend this meal with them. There was an air of excitement to the meal, a bit like Christmas, and after dinner there were sweets which were devoured in a manner not unlike Joanna J when she encounters a packet of peppermint slice. Tea was then drunk while Ayah told me how it is better to be a woman under Islam than a man. She listed things such asthe man having to provide a house, food etc all very wholesome until Susan chipped in and explained that if the husband is away too much working the wife can complain that she isn’t getting enough and the Sheik will remonstrate the man for failing her most basic needs. Hmmmm

Then it was time to say goodbye. Yes, I can’t believe my four weeks are up already. I feel I am only just getting started. I think the hospital escapade kind of threw me a bit but I know I will return – it is written in my blood. I had planned to spend my last evening in a maudlin manner wandering the streets but I am glad I spent it with the family instead. We had a really fun time and I feel really touched to have spent such precious time getting to know them and their country better. It isn’t all bad though as tomorrow I touch down in London (huzzah how Londrous) where I shall be meeting up with the pares and driving to The Lake District for a week ( because The Lake District and Damascus should clearly be twinned for their obvious similarities and the fact that they both begin with ‘D’ sort of.)

Oh, I also spoke to my Syrian Pal who is back in the desert now. It was his birthday yesterday - not that I think his current employers did anything of great merit to celebrate his life. I felt sad saying goodbye to him. He has a hard life – like so many people here. But I don’t want to end on a low note given how high I have soared while here.
Syria is a complicated, beautiful country and every day I spend in it helps me to know myself and my world a littler better.

PS – even though I leave tomorrow I am thinking of attaching some photos over the next few weeks just so I get more chances to yabber on about my current destination of choice! I have found Syria most conducive to blogging as you may have noticed.

'Ana Fattoush' - I am Fattoush

So I yesterday afternoon I went up to the fam to give them a box of dates I was given in Palmyra because I can’t fit them in my backpack and they asked me to eat lunch with them. I explained that I had just eaten and they asked what so I reeled off the usual suspects: fattoush, tabbouleh, hoummous, labneh etc and I said ‘oo-hib-boo fattoush’ (which means ‘I like fattoush’.) Mahroun (aka S.H.) who had been lying in a stupor on the floor rolled over and said with a big cheesy, moutachey grin ‘ana fattoush’. (‘I am fattoush and you can eat me.’) Racy Bugger. Susan started laughing so much she was like a little bowl of jelly fit to explode. Honestly this family has discussed cystitis, venereal disease, penis size - you name it - with such gusto I doubt there would ever be a need for ‘the talk’ with a child. I’d say it is pretty much covered by age four.
I had a nice day yesterday. I did a bit of shopping in the morning. Saw a very lovely heart pendant (to rival the heart of the ocean to be sure) but I don’t think my budget can accommodate it. Where is my smarmy Billy Zane equivalent when I need him? (I have Titanic on the brain because every child I meet seems to be gripped by the tragic romance of Jack and Rose. I believe that it is all their not-so-secret wish that their own love story befalls a similar fate - the odds of which are, ironically, probably quite high. Romeo and Juliet is also a big hit.) I met a nice American girl from Texas in the same shop as the pendant and we had a mutual bond about Syria. It’s interesting but I find most foreigners I encounter here tend to be very closed off. They wear this expression which says that I-am-currently-amidst-my Middle-East-experience-and-I do-not–wish-to- acknowledge-any-outside-influences (or inside for that matter - the number that glide past the Syrians with barely a smile or a word it is quite staggering.) I, on the other hand, probably smile far too much but I’m just making up for the times in my life when the smiles have flowed less freely.

In the afternoon I sat by the fountain behind the Umayyad Mosque and talked with some of the local shop-keepers. One of them was the Syrian twin of Jeff Goldblum right down to the pinstripe pants. They all spoke very good English but comforted me with the fact that English is very easy for them because they hear and see it from an early age whereas there are still many things of about Arabic they are yet to learn. They gave me a rather concise but lively account of what they referred to as the ‘non-shit history of Islam’ which they lamented was rather short but had some very good points. They said that 70% of what you and see and hear today about Islam is not true Islam but is the result of politics confusing itself with religion. Jeff Goldblum (aka Samir) also told me an amusing story about a trip he had to London where he met a couple of women on a bus. They asked him where he was from and he said ‘Syria’. They drew blank faces so he tried to describe where it was and as soon as he said it was next to Israel they latched on to the idea he was an Israeli and spent the rest of the bus trip telling him how wonderful Jewish people were and did he not agree it was great to be part of such a special race. Samir, himself has no problems with Jewish people from what I could tell, but he felt that by the end of the bus ride he should at least try to clarify his identity and said that he didn’t actually live in Israel but could be regarded as a very nice neighbor. The men also told me how sometimes they go to Europe to buy things to sell back in Damascus and how they once bought some trinkets in Austria for about 50 Euro and ended up selling them back to an Austrian here in Syria for 120 Euro. Really I should have been appalled at such sneakiness but there is something innocent and cheeky about the way they explain it that makes you want to forgive them of everything. Of course they then invited me back to one of their shops and I said ‘what so I can buy something from Austria?’ and they said ‘Oh no you aren’t from Austria. We will sell you something from some place else.’

In the evening Susan asked me to come on a networking excursion with her. She said it would only take an hour. Five and a half hours later we finally made it home after visiting a shoe maker, a light-fitter, a pet shop filled with jars of snakes – fifty maybe sixty to a jar squirming about in the water. Honestly my stomach dropped at the very thought of even one of these jars actually tipping over. There was also a parrot who said ‘salaam alaykum’. We then visited a coffee shop I know and a hotel I stayed in (which my story ‘The Fish of Al-Kawthar’s Fountain’ is inspired by) so she could meet the people I know and ask them to send travellers her way if they need long-term rooms. It is a very strange thing when I start introducing Syrians to each other for the purpose of business – I feel it is another step closer to my assimilation. I even thought about charging an introduction commission in true Syrian spirit.
I finally got home around 10:30 pm and went to Al-Nawfar to smoke nargileh -which made me thoroughly sick. I followed this with falafel and chocolate doughnut and went to bed feeling less than wholesome. Oh I also saw the most wonderful ‘yowl of cats’ lurking below one of the overhanging windows of an old Damascene house. I watched them for a while and then suddenly these huge meteors of meat scraps started hurtling out the window. Clearly they have an understanding with this house.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Billy Ray's Syrian cousin

Last night a man wearing a mullet to rival Billy Ray Cyrus brought his uud to our courtyard and sang for the family. It was a different man to the one we had visited the night before (apparently his attack of shyness was still in full throes) but I suspect this eighties throwback had a bit more kick to him anyway. His uud even had an outlet for electricity so he could really get down and jam when he wanted to. ( An Uud, by the way, is sort of like a guitar with the peg part bent back as if it came second in a bar brawl.) According to Susan he performs in a swimming pool on the way to the airport. I suspect she means at a swimming pool complex rather than in because all that water would wreak havoc with his stylishly waxed hair (not to mention the uud.) Anyway we were very lucky to have a private performance of some of the most popular traditional Arabic songs. They were all about love of course (those hopeless romantics) - lost love, abandoned love, denied love, forbidden love etc. the family went wild when he played certain songs – lots of clapping and singing and hip thrusting (and that was just the men – apart from poor Mahroun (aka Saddam Hussein) with his missing elbow who could only wiggle in his seat and wince.) After the show I was invited to join the uud player for dinner at a restaurant. I had a distinct ‘you-should-marry-this man-he-is-an uud-player-and-then-you–can live-in–Syria-with-us–forever’ kind of vibe from the family which made me a little uncomfortable. Fortunately I had actually arranged to meet a friend in Bab Sharqui at 11pm for a drink so I could decline in good faith.

Yesterday I treated myself to lunch in a restaurant. Many of the restaurants here are set in courtyards with climbing vines up the walls, orange trees hanging overhead and bubbling fountains filled with swimming watermelons trying to keep cool. I wonder if you get a free meal if an orange falls on your head? They are really nice places to relax and eat my favorite Syrian dish – fattoush. Apparently I have quite peasant tastes as fattoush is really nothing more than a salad and Syrian cuisine can get a lot more complicated and elegant than this. I am quite comfortable with the peasant label though – after all I do look upon Lambrusco as the drink of Queens as well. The waiter put me right next to the fountain (a highly coveted spot) which was very nice of him. At the table opposite me was a quatrobond in full force. Four women who had come together to share a meal, smoke nargileh and enjoy a cunning game of cards. It made me think of those Rickety Kate days in Ireland with my own quatrobond and I had fantasies of us all coming together in the restaurant for a game of cards as well.
After my meal I took to the streets for a purposeless meander – the best kind of meandering I find. I bought myself an enormous bag of flower tea (which I imagine would look highly suspicious if I were to stuff it in with a boogie board and bring it through customs) but I’m going to take my chances because I am sure this tea is the secret to eternal life. I also got roped into a few shops to look at jewellery and carpets although most of them really weren’t that interested in making a sale. They just wanted someone to drink tea with - oh and to go for La Fottage should the opportunity arise. La Fottage for those not in the know is the deliberate attempt to caress a woman’s breast with a passing arm gesture that the fottager tries to make look accidental. Even though I have given the word a French twist here I suspect it has its origins in the Middle East. I am quite adept at pre-empting La Fottage but on the rare occasion I get caught out I have the most excellent ‘I-know-the-Syrian-Secret-Police-personally-and-they-are–not-amused’ face.

All in all though Syria is a very safe place for a woman to travel. I feel very relaxed in the streets and most of the time the people are very kind and welcoming. I even went for a stroll through the streets last night after I had met my friend at Bab Sharqui. Apart from the green glow of the minarets, there was very little light in the streets apart from what the moon cast down from overhead. All the lanes were silent apart from little clusters of men sitting outside their houses smoking on pipes and playing backgammon. As I walked passed they would whisper ‘welcome’ and then go back to their games leaving me to enjoy their beautiful streets alone with my thoughts. After a while ( I got a little lost – am not quite a local yet) I felt hungry and was confronted with the rather pertinent question:’ Where does one go in the land of kebabs to find a late night kebab?’ I was amused to find the trusted staple of Europe, Australia and England just wasn’t available in the wee hours of the morning. I had to settle for a chocolate doughnut from my favorite bakery instead (the 7/11 equivalent I suppose.)
Today I am going to continue meandering the streets and I’ll probably stop for some nargileh at the old coffee shop by the mosque. It had been my intention to write while I was here but I have chosen to let it take a backseat to living. Besides, I really do believe that stories find you so I have just to sit and wait until they track me down.

Oh,and here are a few more pictures to entertain.

* dustbin blending doy-style
* Me at Salaam gate
*my local buddies

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Panorama-ed at last!

Well, it’s another choob kiteer (very hot) day in Damascus. There is a beautiful wind that sweeps through the lanes after dark but in the morning the streets are like ovens and the only breeze you can feel is from the swish swish of ponies’ tails as they go about delivering watermelons. There is nothing more delightful than watching a pony stare down a truck in a narrow lane and win!! Reversing just isn't in their repertoire.

Bitey, the turtle, has decided to take refuge with me which I am quite happy about because one of the other travellers staying here poured insecticide on the floor outside her room and I am terrified that Bitey will get some on her claws. I can hear her crunching on biscuits under my bed as I type.

Yesterday I finally made it to the October War Panorama after yet another false start in the morning. The first time I got there I discovered they wouldn’t let me in unless I had my passport – no spies allowed – they were very apologetic but firm so I had to try and find my way home which was quite a trial on the highway. I eventually stopped at a garden centre to catch my breath amongst the plants where I was given a tour of all the different sections by the head gardener. Things went a little awry when he tried to handfeed me a very long, phallic-shaped cucumber behind the jasmine flowers but I managed to clear that ‘misunderstanding’ up and we had a chaste cup of tea amongst the ferns. When I left he loaded me up with plants (even though I explained I really couldn’t keep them for myself) so now my family has an even more verdant oasis than before.

Once home I napped (I mean I had been up since 9:30 am) and ate another very pleasing chocolate doughnut. Doha, Ayah and Jemaan each took turns in visiting me to tell me about their days. Doha is such a beautiful girl. She studies hard every day and has great plans to see the world. She came in to see me after morning Madrassa, flopped onto my couch and said in a very perplexed voice. ‘I don’t know why I love you so much.’ It was said with such dramatic angst, as if it was troubling her to understand why this might be. As if there was some deeper meaning to it that she couldn’t fathom. I just gave her a big cuddle and she started to smile again. I feel very sad at the thought of saying goodbye to her but I don’t feel like it is forever. Just like Florence I know that Damascus is somewhere I will always return to or dare I say – belong.

Anyway in the afternoon I decided to tackle the October War Panorama again. I walked through Souk-Al-Hamidiyya first because I wanted to visit the underwear section on the way. The crazy, feathery, glitzy (complete with electronic songs in the crotch) knickers and bra ensembles never fail to amuse me; particularly when the very serious salesmen start pressing all the buttons so as to impress me with the full razzle-dazzle. I spent a good twenty minutes there being entertained before finally finding a taxi with a meter (as opposed to the let’s-pluck-a-number-out-of-our butt-method which a lot of the drivers do at the sight of a gringo.) The Panorama occupies a very grand space. Lots of water features, green trees and polished marble floors - quite the oasis of peace !?! Apparently it cost an awful lot of money to build; money which was largely fronted by the North Koreans. I asked why the North Koreans had felt obliged to give so much money to Syria to build this memorial and I was told it is because Syria and North Korea have such a good understanding. (eg ‘They both hate America.’)
On one side of the main building are Syrian tanks and weaponry from the actual war. Many of them were built by The USSR and Czechoslovakia (as it was then) and some of them still have their rockets attached. I had a very informative guide whom I shall simply call K. He gave a very interesting spin on the whole Panorama which I won’t write about here. Suffice to say I learned a lot of new things about Syria.
On the other side of the building sat the remains of Israeli tanks and weapons largely built by the Israelis, the Finnish and The Americans. A sign rather smugly referred to them as ‘booty’.
After inspecting the weaponry I watched a short film on the battle for The Golan Heights but first I had to stand for the Syrian national anthem. Quite a rousing tune actually and everyone else in the auditorium sang it with impressive gusto. The film was very old (you’d think the war had happened at the time of the Boers) but it showed the Syrians capturing a communication post or something like that. Everyone in the room applauded very enthusiastically at the apparent victory. Upstairs was a painted panorama of the battle at Quneitra, they even transported sand/mines/barbed wire from the area to give it an authentic 3D effect. This also received a rousing applause although given the current situation in The Golan Heights it makes me wonder what the accompanying oral presentation (given all in Arabic) actually says. It was all very detailed and immaculate but I can’t help wondering if the money might have been better spent helping the poor people in Syria, particularly those whose men served in the military. I guess the overall impression of the Panorama for me was what I usually feel when I see war commemorations – sadness and frustration at just how stupid it all is.

In the evening I ate with my family before visiting a man who makes and plays the Uud. He had an attack of shyness and asked that we return the following night to hear him play.
So instead of listening to music as planned I wandered Straight Street with the women of the family where we ate ice-cream, nearly got run over by insane service taxi drivers and met a man who was both Christian and Muslim and liked to call himself Joseph or Youssef depending on whether the woman he is trying to woo is Christian or Muslim.
Ah, how I adore their cunning ways.
After this I drank some wine and cosied up with my bed bugs for another dream-infested night.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Naked and shopping - another day well spent!

I have just returned from a successful shopping excursion to track down an elusive minkar for my Bellini buddy back in Australia. A minkar is a special kitchen utensil used to take the cores out of zucchinis so they may be stuffed with meat and then baked. My Bellini buddy has scoured the shops back home for such a magic wand to no avail so upon hearing of my planned trip to the homeland of the stuffed zucchini she bribed me with Prosecco to find her one. (Note to favour-hunters – Joanna J will do pretty much do anything (except George W Bush perhaps or anyone with orange peel skin for that matter) for a glass of the sparkly stuff!)
Being the local I am, I headed in a slow, almost stationary pace, to Souk-al-Bzouriyya where I had previously spied a few household stalls amongst the spices and sweets. I must confess that lady luck eluded me at first and all my cried of ‘minkar minkar’ accompanied with appropriate de-coring-of-zucchini-mime-actions seemed to bring me little joy. Someone offered me a potato peeler though which at least meant the vegetable theme had been taken on board. Anyway perturbed but not beaten I finally spied a man putting on the culinary equivalent of a fireworks display on a rug in the street by the Umayyad Mosque. Sprays of carrot, potato and tomato everywhere – cut into latticed wheels, shredded like explosions and lo and behold amidst all the vegetable-inspired frenzy sat a minkar on the verge of de-coring. I asked the man to demonstrate its wizardry a number of times before purchasing two: one for my Bellini buddy and one for myself in the hope that its addition to my kitchen tool kit will bring forth a more substantial meal than chips, salad and Thousand Island dressing.

Shopping mission achieved I then spent the next two hours roaming the streets of the souks looking for nothing in particular and finding everything instead. There are some absolutely gorgeous fabrics here in Damascus. I adore the way they sparkle in the shops but fear they would translate into tack central if I were to export them into my room beside my lava lamp and plastic plants. I ended up having tea with shop-owner Assiz and his father Mohammed. Mohammed used to manage the Damascus museum and is an expert on all things Islam. I was invited to ask him any questions I might have on such topics but all I could think of asking was how exactly they make their hoummus so creamy without a blender. The family also has an Ali Baba cave behind the great mosque full of ancient, elegant things which Assiz took me to see. Amongst all the beautiful things was a writer’s chair from the sixteenth century that a writer used to sit on outside the Government offices. Whenever someone needed the services of a writer (to scribe an official document for example) they would come to this office and choose one of the writers from the row of men sitting on their chairs. Each porcelain chair was illustrated by the writer so prospective clients could see the quality of their work; a form of early advertising I suppose – quite practical for the writer’s bottom as well. The Ali Baba cave had a terrace as well with views of Jesus’s minaret and Saladin’s dome and I have been invited to return ( with camera) to have lunch one day. Apparently Assiz’s older brother is a very good cook and it is mandatory that I taste it for myself. ‘Come around at 1 pm any day’ where the specific instructions. I told Assiz how much I wanted my parents to come see Damascus and he suggested we marry to make them come. Actually he was polite enough to assume there was a waiting list for my hand and asked only that he be added. I’d let all these declarations of love go to my head if I believed a single word.

I also went to a hammam today. Honestly some days I wear a sloth’s skin and do nothing at all and other days I am ’action man’ without the lump of plastic in my pants. So being in the latter category today I decided to visit my local – the Hammam Bakri – for a bit of a scrub down Syrian style. I am not really a hammam-type person typically speaking. Sweaty nakedness with unknown persons in close proximity is not my forté (I have very English blood) but this is actually the reason why I go. To challenge myself, to stretch my limitations, to let the hairy beast breathe where other beasts go to breathe as well.
Anyway the hammam itself was very beautiful. Carpeted seating surrounding a courtyard brimming with plants and cool, flowing water. Above it was a charming old dome with holes that let the Damascus sky in. I suppose God is allowed to peek in from above since She is a woman after all! I decided to go for the full scrub massage thing – if you are going to challenge yourself you might as well do it properly – which began with me squatting in a steam room until my eyes bled. Then a woman carted me away and got me to lay down on the marble where she encouraged me to remove my swimwear (no easy feat ) and scrubbed my flawed skin until it shone like polished sand. Then she massaged me gently ( none of this Turkish sumo wrestling style here) and left me to loofah and wash myself with all the other women. It was very relaxing and it was nice to be left to my own devices – to prance about naked with all my other naked sisters. The last time I went to a hammam ( which incidentally was my first time too) was in Syria too - in Hama, a lovely town three hours from Damascus. That experience had been completely different. The hammam had been crowded with local women all determined to scrub me senseless. It had been a wonderful experience filled with dancing, singing and a lot of home cooking but I actually appreciated the solitude this time. The quiet thoughtfulness of washing.

Now I am scrubbed and shopped and ready to face dinner with the stomach of soldier.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Passing the time

I suppose the last few days have been kind of busy although if I try and think about what exactly it is I have done it just seems to amount to a blur of dust, tabbouleh and short, hot nights. There are a few Italians staying at the house now which means any chance I have of learning Arabic has gone right down the toilet since I just love listening to the bella lingua of Italia. The girl who moved in opposite me spent her first day scrubbing the whole place down. The thing is the house is very old and run down but it is actually very clean. I think she was disappointed with the results because it looked just as decrepit after she had finished. Not being one with a close relationship with Mr Sheen or Mr P. O’Cleen I have adapted to the dilapidated surroundings with remarkable ease. I can’t believe I have already been in Syria for over three weeks.

On Thursday I climbed up Jebel Qassioun to take in a view of Damascus from up high.
By climbed, of course, I meant I took a taxi but the way it grunted and groaned its way up the hill I felt I had done the climb as well. The mountains around Damascus are really little more than great mounds of dust – very Luke Skywalker home planet if that means anything to you. On one side I could see the ranges that mark the beginning of Lebanon and on the other I could see the great sprawl of Damascus. Lots of sandy box-shaped buildings, interrupted by minarets and bursts of park green. Even though the view was quite arid and rugged I found it very beautiful.

The taxi driver stopped at a few points for me to take photographs but he refused to stop at one of the many cafes along the ridge because they are all run by the Syrian mafia. I don’ think such a stop would have resulted in anything more sinister than a rudely over-priced coke but the way he ‘tsked’ and shook his head I decided not to dabble with the Syrian underworld. (Although with the number of different Syrian officials calling at my house on an average day looking for bribes I can’t help feeling the whole country is an underworld save perhaps the little boy who sells sweets down a nearby lane. He always gives me a very good price – or does he?)

I also tried to go to the October War Panorama on Thursday with my Syrian pal . He is very horrified that I was hospitalized on account of Syrian cuisine and has made it his personal mission ( apart from meeting up with endless relatives and trying to get a transfer ) to make sure I see lots of interesting things to do with his homeland other than hospital food and IV bags. Anyway, the Panorama is an interactive exhibition (apparently you get to ‘be the battle’) created by the Syrians with the help of the North Koreans to commemorate the 1973 war with Israel. Unfortunately it was closed but I plan to return before I go. My friend has never been to the Panorama but I think he thought it might have been interesting to see it with a foreigner.

Yesterday I spent the night with my friend's family out in a town I swore never to return to after a rather challenging single-woman experience there last year. But I was eventually persuaded to see it again with new, wiser eyes. It also helped that my choices were either to visit my friend's family or go with my hoummus loving ( or should that read ‘Hamas’ loving ) host family to a ‘farm’ where they promised swimming in a stagnant hole – something I fear that my currently uncooperative immune system might just not survive.

Easy choice really!!!

Well, Maria Von Trapp eat your heart out – My friend comes from a family of 10 children and they all thought I rocked. (Who says I can’t ‘do’ children!?) The actual size of the family was originally 12 but two had died tragically in the last couple of years along with their father. Suffice to say, they are a very poor clan but they still shake their bellies and dance like the mad snakes whenever Arabic pop appears on TV.

They all live together ( apart from my friend and two of his brothers) in an unfinished house with a view out to the other unfinished homes and beyond these to Roman ruins. Quite surreal really. The family lives on the first floor because the ground floor seems to be a museum dedicated to a life not yet lived. The front room has been decorated in an elegant Islamic style but it is very hot so nobody ever wants to sit down in there. Next door is a sparkling kitchen which has never been touched followed by a bathroom with a bath which doesn’t see any action. They all seem to prefer the blue jug and bucket sitting on the floor.
Upstairs is where the family lives, sleeping along a hallway that is open at both ends. Here the ha’wa can blow straight through and keep them cool during the night. Their kitchen is a kerosene stove on the ground in a dim room. They bathe in there too. The girls seem to spend the entire day mopping down the cement floors and cleaning all the walls. They keep the place immaculate but to a naked eye on first visit you would think it was filthy. Desperate, without furniture, save for a few old mattresses and a TV, and a few bags stuffed with clothes and photographs of the dead.
Yet it is most definitely a home – it has a heart to it that I have seen lacking in places far grander than this.

For dinner they asked me what I would like to eat because they wanted to honour my visit. I said I would prefer not to eat goat head or goat tongue or balls for that matter. The mother
laughed so much she rolled about on the floor. Apparently she doesn’t like this particular specialty either. Anyway what we ended up eating was colourful and delicious and most definitely goat-free.

Now I am back in Damascus, alone with old 'Bitey'; there's a cupcake with my name on it in the baker's oven down the lane.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Start the day with a song

This morning I couldn't sleep so I got up and lay on the cool pavement of the courtyard and listened to the night air fill with prayers. The particular songmeisters in my neighbourhood
are quite tuneful fellows so it wqas actually a really peaceful way to start the day. Normally the courtyard is abuzz with shrilling tortoises, chickens, children, adults etc so it was really nice to have the place to myself.

Here is a picture of Jemaan one of the daughters in the house where I live. Every morning she gives me a kiss on the cheek and says 'I love you'.

Yesterday I had dinner with another family from Damascus. The food was absolutely amazing even for a hesistant diner such as myself. I can't believe they just whip these amazing

dishes up. It puts my salad and Thousand Island dressing skills to shame. Of course there was way too much food for me to eat so I had to make room in both my lungs so as not to offend.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

a good day for bad news

I think I am sharing my bed with some rather amorous bugs because I keep waking up with lots of frenzied bites on my legs and back. Much as I appreciate their rabid attention I think a course of extermination may be in order. Or I could probably buy a new mattress at Souk al Hamidiyya and be done with it. I can practice saying ‘adesh’ (how much?) and feel smug.

Today I had bread straight from the oven for breakfast. It is so pleasant to stroll down the street and pick up my food fresh off the street. Orange juice from Ali, bread from Assad – I mean I say this now of course – later when the food turns I will have panging thoughts for Sainsbury’s. I have just finished a short Arabic lesson for the day. I am not naturally gifted in the world of pronunciation ( a fact confirmed by an Italian teacher many years ago who said my pronunciation was ‘an abomination’ – I don’t tend to use that sort of language with my students. I find it can be a tad disheartening.)My Syrian friend is trying his best to give me lessons. Susan allows him into her sacred courtyard because he is ‘my teacher’ which holds a lot more water around these gossipy streets than ‘a friend’. It seems that it is just not possible in their minds for a man and woman to be friends without some sort of frenzied passion taking place behind closed doors. I tend to listen to him talk more about Syrian life than I do learn Arabic. He tells his stories almost crying with laughter/ sorrow and then at the end will raise his hands and exclaim ‘but what I do’.

I have just received very disappointing news that my publisher, Swimming Kangaroo, is going under thanks to the recession. Right now I feel quite heartbroken about it as they aren't far enough in the editing process to continue with my story so I will be released. I always knew this was a bit of a risk with a smaller indie publisher and they had admitted to having problems earlier so I suppose deep down there must have always been a part of me cushioned for a blow. It still hurts though and I'm really trying to put this in the perspective it deserves. I have my heath ( now!) I have a good job, I have an imagination and right now I am living a magical existence here in Damascus. So the road has thrown me another obstacle, I'm sure I'll find my way round it some how. And in the meantime I can celebrate my small writing triumphs and value them even more for what they mean to me :-)

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Visa extension joys

Today I had to get my visa extended which ended up being quite a protracted affair - of course. Fortunately I have experienced getting a permesso di soggiorno in Italia before so I am familiar in the way of the orderless queues and lack of structure. My Syrian friend has come down from the desert so I was able to employ his native tongue to great effect. By the end of the process he had a whole team of gringoes he was working to help. From what I can tell getting the visa involved going to one man and filling out a very unintelligible form. Then taking the form to another man who looked at it, nodded and grunted. Then taking it back to the first man who looked, nodded, grunted and wrote something. Then we had to go to the big cheese's room ( with the only air-conditioner) where he looked at it and grunted. Then we went back to the first man again who gave it another stamp. Then we took it back to the big cheese again who did another stamp and a sort of a 'you-are-finished' grunt.

To celebrate my visa extension I promptly passed out on my bed for a nap. I really should call this blog ' from where I am sleeping'. Actually I don't feel so bad for sleeping in the day because it is far too hot for everything else and it is only at night that the streets wake up anyway.

Tonight I am going to enjoy Nargileh ( and perhaps a glass of wine) in Bab Tooma. Ah these wild wild days.

Another day in paradise

The night before last I dreamt I was bitten on the finger by ‘Bitey’ and had to go to hospital for a tetanus shot. Fortunately I knew exactly how to get there. No such drama in the real world though. It seemed hotter than usual today and this evening I will be able to employ my latest Arabic phrase ‘leyleh kteer choob’ (tonight is very hot!) I am looking forward to stunning my family no end with my prowess.

Did a bit of writing this morning. I have become fixated with the third step leading down into Sharia Al-Qaimariya from the Umayyad mosque. I can’t help feeling it has seen a lot of action and would quite like to speak to any bottom open enough to listen. (Open in a literal sense you understand.) I sat there earlier today and I could hear the mew of the tiny tabby kitten I have watched playing amongst the shops the last few days. Today is Friday so his usual shop is shut with him locked inside but we soon found a way to play a game of fingers and paws from under the grill.

I walked the back way to the new town today past Bab Salaam where people were buying watermelons and peaches under the shade of its grand arch. It was a silly time to walk really – mid afternoon – but I was looking for a money exchange because I want to buy some rather pleasing Barbie dolls who recite the Qur’an. I couldn’t find a money exchange place in the end so I had a coke at one of the outside coffee shops near my haunt from visits past. I met two lovely girls from Denmark there who were just beginning their trip through Syria. We had a great bond over Prince Fred and the importance of hairy knees to detract from would-be gropers.

Tonight I will meet a friend for dinner and enjoy the Damascene sky at night . The lights of the city have a beautiful way of merging with the night so you don’t know where the stars begin.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

My relative Saddam

This morning I went for a walk along the Street they call Straight. I end up here most days at some point, poking my nose in the dusty shops, trying to tempt ginger cats into my clutches. The street is very narrow in parts (although this is no deterrent for an ambitious Syrian behind the wheel) and it is far from straight. I like this street because here you can see the craftsmen still toiling away in their dark, windowless workshops making things that have been made for many years now. There is the wooden-utensils-man whose front is overgrown with carved spoons, rolling pins, back scratchers, bowls etc and out the back you can see him bent over whittling out another. Near him is the-straw-man with a shop full of straw inspired instruments and he too sits in his dark cave weaving new products. There is the man who sells labbeneh and another who fixes bikes. A man with a painted goblet shop and another with lanterns. Each one is the shopkeeper but they are the creator as well. The old city really is its own little self-sufficient ecosystem and despite all the consumerism that has taken over much of the world they still produce individually for the locals not simply for passing tourists. I met one man who has offered to make me a mosquito coil holder out of an old lidded pot of his. I will probably go back and ask him to do it because I can see he is itching to try his hand at a new creation.

Last night I had success in the cupcake department and I also found a little restaurant to push some food around my plate. As I ate I watched a man and his many wives tuck into a feast in the courtyard below.

After I strolled the night streets near my home. At night they take on an almost fairy world appearance. Faint yellow light and the luminescent green of the mosque lights glowing between the vine leaves. People in cloaks, hoods and beautiful women in sparkling shoes jostling down the thoroughfare. I got caught up in an Ishr at one stage. I don’t know much about this Muslim tradition but it happens in the evening and tends to involve a lot of men in skull caps and jalibehs singing and shouting in the street while beating out drum rhythms. Eventually they go into a house to continue their frenzied almost trance like homage to Allah. The other day I was invited to have a look in a room where one was in full throttle. The men were singing and sweating, ripping off their shirts I was very surprised they let me see such secret men’s business. I didn’t stay long though in case they invited me in as an honorary man and I had to strip too.

An immigration officer came to the house this morning. Poor Susan has been visited numerous times since I went to hospital. They want to know if she poisoned me (and get money from Susan to say she did not). The walls have ears though so generally we just pay the small bribe and he goes away.


It's now much later in the day. I have had a busy afternoon having my knees groped by a street cleaner who pretended he was picking up rubbish. Fortunately I have legs like the amazon jungle a hundred years ago so that must have shocked him; that and my mighty push perhaps. I also supervised a heated game of hopskotch although to be honest I had no idea what the rules were because they were jumping on lines everywhere. Every so often they would turn to me for an adjudication and I would say 'tamam tamam' (ok ok) and everyone seemed pleased. I did well scoring on the sweets and biscuits front too - every shop I went to wanted to give me a 'welcome gift' ; ah if only my stomach was a little more open to such treats.

Tonight I learned some Arabic from my family and discovered they are all lovers of Saddam Hussein. He was a relative of theirs and they liked him very much. Given Susan married her third husband because he looked like SH I can't help wondering how close the family is??

Now it is after 1 am and it is time we Damascans went to sleep. xo

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

food - ish

The street I live on is called Al-Shamiya, which means long, winding lane with no room for cars but plenty for willful donkeys loaded up with watermelons. It may also mean place of insane boys riding bicycles three sizes too big; cat alley; or perhaps even the tunnel of a 1001 wails. I quite like the wailing. Some of the participants are actually quite tuneful. The only time I don’t hear it is at 4 a.m. which one might think is a blessing but I find disappointing. I love lying in bed listening to the day break. I can’t think why I don’t hear it since I hear every other wail of the day. Perhaps they whisper this one in deference to all the crazy neighbours who have been up until the wee hours drinking shandy and watching Turkish soaps. Then again I can’t quite imagine the sheik deferring to sleep over Allah. I must be sleeping well – at last!

This morning I made myself a boiled egg. Progress! Everything in my kitchen has a touch of Uri Geller to it so it was quite a challenge to find a pot that could hold water, a knife that would cut and a spoon that could hold egg. I felt quite a sense of achievement at the end. Perhaps that’s why I travel: why I want to live in foreign towns: so I can appreciate the simple things in life once again.
After breakfast I had a rest – as you do – and went for a stroll in my hood looking for water and deodorant. I stopped at the coffee house beside the Umayyad mosque and watched all the old men gossiping over their pipes. There was quite a lot of lip licking going on so obviously something very salacious had happened – a wantonly exposed knee perhaps.

In the afternoon I met up with a brother of my friend A. A is in the army right now out at some inhospitable stretch of desert by the Euphrates. His brother was in town to do an exam so we met for tea. I wondered if I would recognize his brother amongst all his ‘other brothers’ but as soon as I saw his face I knew they were family. They have very delicate features – not really the type you imagine crawling the sands in camouflage and khaki. We walked through the old town and he told me of his dream to be a journalist and a nurse. I believe the nurse part is to help him avoid the full army experience by working in a hospital instead. He was very interested in inspecting my bruised arms (from the IV in hospital) and to learn words like ‘ambulance’. I almost taught him tachycardia too – ah the gift of ER it just keeps on giving.

Now I am back home after dodging a near kiss by a shop-keeper and I am seriously contemplating eating a meal tonight. What I would really like is one of the freshly baked cupcakes the baker down the road makes in his hole-in-the-wall oven. When they are finished they sit in their little metal holders cooling at his window and I feel they would make a mighty addition to my egg and potato diet.

Let’s hope he bakes tonight. Insha’Allah!

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Syria - at last!!!!

So the plan had been to blog about Damascus for the entire month I was in Syria. Now that I have been here for over a week it is clear that this plan has gone in the way of all my other best blogging intentions – down the Great Brown Tube. Still, in my defence, it isn’t the only thing to have gone the way of the GBT so perhaps a little leeway is in order.

I’m not even going to bother to give a blow by blow of the last week, perhaps just a few of the highlights ( or lowlights) to bring myself ( and my one reader – I know who you are!!) up-to-date.

Arrived in Syria last week loaded up with duty-free perfume to combat stinkiness - ready to live La Vida Arabia. Took me a few days to find a room to move into largely due to my trusty contact going to the beach/ to bed/ out instead of meeting me as arranged. It actually made me laugh. I wonder what it is exactly about Syria and Italy that I love so much. Probably not their respect for the appointment. Anyway I finally found a great room off a courtyard in an old Damascene house not far from Bab Tooma. I have the bottom floor to myself not counting the rabid, hungry tortoise (‘Bitey’)who has taken a shine to my red toenail polish. She lurks amongst the courtyard greenery waiting to ambush my toes and makes this gorgeous shrilling sound like a lost baby dinosaur when she wants attention. There is also a deek (rooster) living above me who likes to crow through the hours. I have decided not to bond too closely with him as he is off to the market this Friday.

The family living above me is very friendly and crazy in that uniquely Syrian way I have come to love. Susan is in charge. She speaks quite good English and likes to eat from dusk until dawn. As she said to me over a mouthful of biscuits “when you go to grave you can only take the stomach.” Her husband Mahjoun looks like Saddam Hussein (the reason why Susan fell for him in the first place). He is husband number three. He currently has no elbow after falling off the roof of his house and is waiting for an operation. All he does is smile and then wince; smile and then wince. There are five children – 2 boys and three girls. The youngest Ahmed likes to spend his days running to the mosque to read the Qur’an. Apparently the sheik gives him a sweet every time he reads a little bit more. Mahmoud the older son is fourteen and desperate to marry a European girl preferably one with a big bottom. The three daughters Ayah, Doha and Jemaan are very beustiul and sassy. Ayah is 15 and thinks Syrian men are very very bad because they just look at women’s bodies. She thinks European men are much better (must remember to burst that bubble pronto.) Today I spent most of my time in the courtyard with them and a visiting neighbour, a very old man with a penchant for beer. I taught him what a shandy was and he has been happily guzzling this ‘revelation’ ever since. He says that the shandy has ruined his heart forever for he will love beer even more now. I think because I am western he assumed I would drink beer and used me as an excuse to crack open the tins. Given I am currently on a potato and water diet I think I was a disappointing sidekick. Still he has promised to return with more tins and 7-Up (sob – I don’t even like beer.)

I actually moved into my room a week ago but am only finding my way about now thanks largely to the great bacterial beast who decided to visit me last Wednesday and then forced me to stay at Shifa hospital, Damascus, instead of my new home. I have never passed out on a bathroom floor before but when I woke up to find my head wedged beside the toilet and a vague idea that I must be somewhere in the world but no clue as to where exactly, I knew it was time to go (to the hospital that is although if you’d asked me at the time I might have thought the hereafter as well.) The hospital staff were great. They attacked me with all sorts of needles simultaneously which was actually a little terrifying (particularly when one of my veins wouldn’t work and they had to dig about for another) but then once I was tested and hooked up to fluids and drugs I could see how their terrifying tri-pronged assault had actually distracted me from the excruciating stomach pains for at least a solid ten minutes. My first nurse was a Palestinian called Mohammed. He was responsible for me in the ICU and had to spend a lot of him time shooing away the onlookers, which tended to be anyone passing by. My doctor, Dr Bishar, was brilliant and could teach other doctors a thing or two about combining the fine art of professionalism with bedside manners. He was so clear and compassionate and honest and it was very exciting when he mentioned my heart was a little tachycardic because I felt all my diligent study of Grey’s Anatomy and ER had finally found some meaning. He told me it was a bacterial infection and that as revolting as it was at the time I would survive. When I was stable I was sent down to the normal part of the hospital where I was given my own room with a lovely big window overlooking the city and out to the desert hills – apparently – I wasn’t in the mood for appreciation at that time. There was a full length sofa in the room which D was allowed to sleep on (D and I happened to overlap our visits in Syria just long enough for me to throw! He has now made a very thankful escape.)In the evening nurses came in and made up his bed and gave him a hummus ladened dinner. I passed! The night was long. I had an awful fever for hours and a Charlotte-esque moment ( a la SATC in Mexico) which was quite pleasing. In the middle of the night a patient in an adjacent room died and the corridors were filled with this terrible, broken wailing. It made me sad to listen.

Now I am home again. Chugging down drugs, imagining a day when food is once again friend not foe. Tonight I shall go to the market to find a fine potato and ‘Bitey’ and I will enjoy a quiet mangiare a mia casa.

ps today my family sang me a song about two moons. It goes something along the lines: ' When I step out my door I can see two moons. One in the sky and one in my eye.' The moon in the eye is supposed to be their lover but whether they are also standing rear -naked is probably a matter of interpretation.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Just to let you know 'Clockwork Phoenix 2 -More Tales of Beauty and Strangeness' is out now for your reading pleasure. :-) See here for further details http://www.clockworkphoenix.com/#buy2

On a completely different note, happy impending first birthday to the A-star and the C plus (just in case my crappy head fails me on the day).

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


Yesterday I made a friend on Tram 16 while on my way to work. Surely that's a skill I can add to my cv.
She was a very old, weathered-looking woman who was sitting on the seat in front of me to the left. She seemed very quiet until a ticket inspector came through the tram to make sure no one was guilty of a schwartzfahrt (ticketless ride). I think she had a ticket. I'm not really sure. She started showering the ticket inspector, confetti-like, with any scrap of paper she could find in her purse. Quite pretty really. The Insepctor seemed amused though and secretly I was feeling very joyous because it reminded me of the old tube-freaker days back in London town.
Anyway the Inspector got off at the next stop and she started shouting in slurred Swiss German stuff I couldn't understand but was definitley of the good-natured, albeit, raucous type. She then turned around to the face the carriage which was the cue for everyone bar me ( the deer in the headlights) to start browsing their papers. So she caught my eye and said ' Schones tag.' I said 'Schones tag' back. I mean why not. It so rare that people say hello to you here. I'll take a hello where I can.
Anyway then she got up because the tram was coming to her stop and she wrapped her arms around my head and pressed her cheek to my cheek and started to stroke my face. She did it about three times while shouting things which I couldn't understand but I did hear the word 'honesty'. At this point I feel I should add that she had breath like a whiskey brewery and it was just after twelve o'clock. She then got off the tram and as I was waiting for the tram to leave I heard banging on my window. Now she was out on the pavement tapping my window while blowing kisses with the other hand. The rest of the tram was laughing (although secretly I think they were all jealous.)

I smelt a little boozy for the rest of the day which was quite pleasing actually.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Primavera in anticipo

Today is the weekend which I suppose, if one really thinks about it, means that it is the weekend everywhere else too ( Ah yes -it's that kind of impressive acumen that got me through my law degree!)

Unfortunately I need to go shopping because I have to get some new sandals . The thing I hate the most about shopping in Basel is when I line up behind fourteen year olds at the counter and they each pull out a 100 frank note to pay. Where do they get that kind of money from? I have to try not to look like the jealous kid who gets sandwiches for lunch instead of the latest crispbread ensemble. It's a challenge. Still the fact that I need sandals means summer is in the air which is very pleasing given the long, brutal winter we just had :-)

Makes me want to play my current favourite song - Primavera in anticipo by Laura Pausini (feat JB)

have a day J

Friday, 12 June 2009

Man o' dreams

Art Basel (http://www.artbasel.com/) is in town right now. This is a ritzy sort of Art expo where people with a lot more money than myself go and buy £65000 chairs and million dollar paintings. It is a big celebrity puller and one of my students saw Brad Pitt there on Tuesday buying some heirlooms for the kiddies. I wouldn't normally name-drop celebrity sightings (probably because I never have any) but I feel compelled to mention this one because I ended up having a dream about him the following night in which he leapt out of an enormous "catermeran-car" ( just you wait until those babies take off!!) so he could run to me and say' hey babe'. The curious thing is I would never have actively chosen a 'hey babe" scenario involving Mr Pitt as topic of my dreams. Not that I have anything against the guy. I don't even know him. He strikes me as someone who would probably pass my mandatory ' real man' test though. EG:
1. Whom would carry whom out of a burning building?
I mean obviously I would have no problem running out myself or helping someone else out too but if a man draped himself across my shoulders and expected me to hoist him out I might feel a little underwhelmed.
2. Would he be prepared to give his last chicken drumstick to a starving cat (or a fat cat for that matter)?
I feel fairly confident he's the fire-rescuing type (great media oppurtunity!) and as for the cat well I can't imagine him in a last chicken drumstick situation anyway so it's probably a reundant question.

But I seem to be digressing....my real point is that I find it very interesting how often my dreams never feature the people I really care about or have secret crushes on.
Ok there are the odd exceptions:
My Barack-Obama-embrace-that-was-cordial-to-the-onlooker-while-highly-erotic-for-the-participants-dream.
Or perhaps my Clive-Owen-oooh-stepdad-dream. ( Less said about that the better!

But in general no one I fancy ever makes it to the cutting floor. I suppose it is my brain's way of protecting me from disappointment. Imagine dreaming that Slaven Bilic had selected me as assistant coach of Croatia only to wake up and find out it was all just a beautiful dream.

I guess I should just be thankful that my mind uses the likes of Brad Pitt to entertain me in a harmless way so I never suffer real disappointment.

Hooray for that I suppose.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Goodbye number 3

So my bike got stolen in Basel on the weekend. :-( Outside my apartment. With its lock on! This is the third bike I have had stolen in the last four years. Two of them were in Italy (R.I.P Crazy Cat and Elisabetta) but I am finding this theft more of a shock. In Italy I kind of expected it (and both times I either didn't lock my bike or didn't lock it properly) but here it was locked and I'm always telling people how safe Switzerland is. I suppose the only ray of light to come out of it was that I got to go to the Polizei and make a report to a very handsome policeman called Grosso. (Grosso by name, I would like to add, certainly not by face.) He even let me practise my dodgy version of German which probably sounded a bit like this -' bike-away-sad-locked-help-big seat' and wrote up a very nice report which I can keep as a remembrance card for said bike.

aufwiedersehen bici

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Non c'e male

Hi there

I had a mail from the editor of Clockwork Phoenix 2 the other day to say that the upcoming anthology has received a starred review by Publishers Weekly. A mighty achievement I have been told. Here is the review.

Clockwork Phoenix 2: More Tales of Beauty and Strangeness Edited by Mike Allen. Norilana/Fantasy (www.norilana.com), $11.95 paper (296p) ISBN 978-1-60762-027-3

Allen finds his groove for this second annual anthology of weird stories, selecting 16 wonderfully evocative, well-written tales. Marie Brennan's thought-provoking “Once a Goddess” considers the fate of a goddess abruptly returned to mortality. Tanith Lee puts a stunning twist in the story of a morose prince in “The Pain of Glass.” Mary Robinette Kowal's “At the Edge of Dying” describes a world where magic comes only to those at death's door. In “Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela,” Saladin Ahmed tells of a small village on the edge of a desert, a hermit and a woman who may be a witch. Each story fits neatly alongside the next, and the diversity of topics, perspectives and authors makes this cosmopolitan anthology a winner. (July)

Big congrats to Marie Brennan, Tanith Lee, Mary Robinette Kowal and Saladin Ahmed for their special mention. I feel grateful just to be included in this constellation of sixteen stars. (And relieved that the review didn't say something like 'All the stories rocked apart from the dodgy one about the fish which tanked.'

In other news, I have just discovered the delights of home made daquiries which are proving to be vital given the sudden soar in temperatures earlier this week.
I am also thinking alot about a very special friend back in Brisbane who is about to deliver a little star of her own. Good luck EB :-)

Friday, 8 May 2009

The Bad Egg

Ok so I didn't quite manage to keep up the blogging but I did have a fairly solid excuse - living la dolce vita in Firenze. Io ho fatto un tempo bellissimo. Io ho mangiato tutti, ho parlato con la mia amica, sono andata in citta con la mia bici 'Speranza', ho vistato La Mostra dell'artignano e ho comprato ciccolato, olio, formaggio, salsa di pomodori e crema. :-)

I have now added a new story 'The Bad Egg'to the writing section of my website in an attempt to look up-to-date and savvy with the ways of the web. Don't ask me how long it took to format it correctly as it may possibly take hours and be the most boring story you have ever heard in your whole life. Apart from that other one about how important taxes are!

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Still committed-ish

So for the second day running I have written in my blog - surely I deserve a biscuit for such diligence.
I have just come from a rather wearying teacher training session on how to incorporate games into the classroom. As the whole class was taken in German I feel that perhaps my learning potential was ein bischen curtailed. Oh well - half a brownie point for persevering!

Tomorrow I go to Florence - my hometown, my great love, the birthplace of my book (to be.) I can't wait until I am sitting on the train passing through the majestic mountains between Switzerland and Italy watching as my carriage slowly transforms from deathly silence into a cacophony of Italian enthusiasm - che peccato!! non mi credo!! che bello! Mamma Mia!!!!!!

Once I am "back home" I plan to roam the streets with Speranza ( my bike), eat piccole tortine, visit San Ambrogio Mercato, drink coffee in my favourite bar, light a candle in my favourite church, stroll along the Arno, smell the sweet scent of drain and two-stroke, gobble gelato, buy handmade Florentine paper and sit in Santa Croce. In short I shall remember the best days of my life.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Mi dispiace

Ok, so my commitment to blogging is a little wobbly but hey so is jelly and no one complains about that! No specific excuse really although I would like to plead (in my defence) that I have been * working many hours and have been * enduring a rather insane night life of late ( in the sense of completely wacko dreams - the other night I dreamt I was sitting by Lake Walter Burley Griffin and I saw a Judge eating her sandwiches on a wooden bench. The next minute a polar bear happened to stroll by and bit off her arm before carrying on his way. Everyone who saw it acted as if this was the norm ( although they did admit it was regrettable too.)

Anyhoo to remedy my slackness I am going to try and blog every day this week ( or near abouts - don't want to set too high a target) and today I am going to start by telling you a little bit about the puff piece you can read about me in the latest monthly newsletter published bySwimming Kangaroo Books. Yes, I wrote it myself - and yes it took me a long time to work out how to write it because this whole writing lark is actually an elaborate front to hide my true heart's desire which, if I am honest, I am still trying to lockdown but I suspect has something to do with champagne, talking cats and the coach of the Croatian football team. One thing I would like to point out about the article is that yes I did choose the photograph and no it is not because I am a boozehound although I can see ( now in hindsight) how such a link might be 'accidentally' made. I actually chose the picture because it is one of the most recent pictures I have of myself on my own and it was taken at The Baron Hotel in Aleppo where Agatha Christie wrote some of 'Murder on the Orient' Express.
Oh Lawrence of Arabia also forget to pay his bar bill there too which I thought was a rather smooth move.

Here's the link http://www.swimmingkangaroo.com/newsletters/apr09.pdf

J :-)

Sunday, 29 March 2009


Today marks one year since my 'lickle' pet Ambrose crossed over the rainbow bridge. I can't find the words to express how it hurts - only that my heart feels as if it has been filled with sand.
I still wait for him to come to me like Sooty, Badger, Tess, Lucy and Simon often do. I know he will come - I just have to wait. I think I feel guilty for not being there for him at the end so I try to focus on all the times I was there for him and he for me.

sleep well my sweetheart

Joanna xoxo

ps - I have a litte residence for him at The Rainbow bridge ( http://rainbowsbridge.com/residents/AMBRO001/Resident.htm) if you would like to visit him.