Day 186: summer holiday 2018

Part 1: London

Day 1

“No, I don’t think we need any mangos,” I heard Mum say on the phone.

And so, of course, Talal picked up mangos.

Because “should I pick up mangos?” is a rhetorical question in my family, which is to say, it’s not a question to which the answer “no” is a meaningful response.

Having an inaugural meal that culminates with mangos is an established ritual when I come home. Last year the mangos capped up off a meal that began with dahl pooris and biriyani, the latter of which I suspect were made by Nina and then transported by some family member on a transatlantic flight, which is also well-established family protocol. When the mangos are produced, there are a number of acceptable topics that may be broached by the assembled company.

  1. Are these Alphonso mangoes?
    • If the answer is yes, then the following rhetorical question will inevitably be put to me: “you can’t get these in America can you?” I will invariably reply that they are not as commonly available but that actually, yes, sometimes you can get them; however the latter part of this answer is never acknowledged as carrying any weight.
    • If the answer is no, it is uttered in a rueful tone but will usually be followed by the caveat that they are Pakistani mangoes. A variation on the above rhetorical question will then be put to me: “You can’t get Pakistani mangoes in America can you?”
  2. Discussion of Mangos Eaten on Previous Occasions.
    • Hari Kondabolu’s bit on this phenomenon made me cry with laughter, it was so accurate. My cousin Kai wins the prize for the most ridiculously picturesque mango anecdote ever, which I still remember from last year’s inaugural holiday dinner. “Ahh,” he sighed, “this reminds me of childhood, when the rickshaw would come by selling mangos and I would sit under a banyan tree and eat them.” !!!

Part 2: Iona

Day 3

There are certain games, like “animal, vegetable, or mineral,” and “I spy,” that we only seem to play in the U.K., possibly because we spend more time over there than we do over here en famille for long stretches when there aren’t other entertainment options available. “Animal, vegetable, or mineral” is a particularly challenging game for us because Ada doesn’t understand exactly what “mineral” means and is, frankly, a bit fuzzy on “vegetable” too. She also, mystifyingly, sometimes chooses the same object she has used during a previous game when it is her turn to think of something, a case in point being “a daikon radish.”

Days 5 through 11

What is it about Scottish rolls? Or is it just Iona rolls? Or is just rolls baked by the Grants? And are they actually better than other rolls or is it just that they taste the same as when I was a child? And that you can only eat them on Iona where the air is fresher and your appetite is keener? (Answer: no, they are better than other rolls.)

Day 6, 7, 8, etc.

My barometer for gauging the temperature in the U.K. is whether the weather has tipped over from being absolutely beautiful, in Mum’s estimation, into being rather enervating. This tipping point was reached almost daily on this visit.

Day 7

It’s not a proper family visit until we’ve had our regular, semi-annual argument about whether anyone other than Mum believes the final t in the word trait to be silent. Mum maintains that everyone else is mispronouncing the word, which is French, and so the t should be silent.

This year I had a devastating comeback:

“And how do you think the word herbal should be pronounced, Mum?”

Day 7 and following

Both Ada’s reading materials and my will to make up bedtime stories were quickly exhausted.

“How about if we have a bed time conversation, instead of a story?” I suggested.

To my surprise, she assented. The conversations followed a particular form: she put questions to me, and I would then struggle to answer them. Her questions ranged from matters of fact to hypotheticals. They included the following. Why did dinosaurs become extinct? Was Alexander Hamilton African-American? Did Abraham Lincoln have children? Would toe-less socks (i.e. the sock equivalent of fingerless gloves) enable one to wear socks with flip-flops? Why did Elvis wear those big white suits? If there was a zombie apocalypse, where would you hide?

Day 8

I sighed heavily.

“What’s wrong?” asked Mum.

“Oh, I have to write this statement in which I talk about a challenge I’ve overcome in my teaching, and I don’t know what to say.”

“Oh,” Mum said.

Five minutes later she came back into the room with a little smile on her face.

“I know a challenge you’ve had to overcome in your teaching!” she exclaimed.

“What?” I asked.

“Your accent!” she said, brightly.

Day 9

Walking home from Port Ban, I passed by a farm with some sheep milling around next to the path. I wasn’t really paying attention to them, but my peripheral vision told me that one of them was a little less sheep-shaped than the rest and, sure enough, when I turned my head, frolicking amongst them was a bare-bottomed toddler, dressed only in a jumper and a pair of wellies. Exercising considerable restraint, I refrained from taking a photo, because I have a shred of decency left. And also because, earlier in our visit, I had overheard an American tourist sheepishly asking permission (and only asking permission having been intercepted in the act) to photograph cousin Neil’s fishing wellies, which were just sitting there on his doorstep, all Instagram-ready, and, I, shuddering slightly, had resolved not be That Tourist.

Day 10

Mum called my decision to allow the kids to watch “The Matrix,” which was in the house’s DVD collection, “deeply misguided.” I had another glass of wine and every time there was an epic shoot-out tried to drown out the racket by announcing loudly, “It’s really a film about Descartes.”

Part 3: Bristol

Day 12

“What is that?” I asked Roy, pointing to a tiny hut in the back garden.

“Oh, it’s just a hut for solitary bees,” he said.

“A hut for solitary bees,” I repeated. “Are bees solitary?” I asked.

I thought that one of a bee’s defining character traits (silent t or not) was its, you know, hive-mind.

“Well,” my brother explained, “not all bees live in hives.”

“They don’t?” I asked, truly incredulous. “Where do they live then?”

“Well, they just, you know, flit around,” my brother said vaguely.

“They’re like nomad bees?” I asked. “Something like that,” he answered.

“I have to say, you’re really blowing my mind here,” I said. “I never realized that hives were, like, a contingent aspect of bee-being. I thought they were essential to beeness.”

I mean, yes, there’s the Jerry Seinfeld bee in Bee Movie but that’s the entire joke of the movie—a bee who wants to be an individual! (N.B. that movie is also basically the same story as The Shape of Water but with Renee Zellweger and a bee instead of Sally Hawkins and a fish).

“So is there a bee living in there now?” I asked.

“Uhh, I don’t think so,” Roy said.

“To be honest,” he admitted, “I’ve never seen a bee go in or out of there.”

I decided that there were two possible explanations.

1) The house for solitary bees is actually a magical chocolate factory.

2) solitary bees are real and they are not only solitary but also stealthy, eluding detection by emitting a silent buzz not unlike the silent t that some say can be found at the end of the word “trait.”

3) Solitary bees are mythical creatures, possibly invented by bees, possibly invented by my brother, possibly invented by David Attenborough.

bee house

a hut for solitary bees, should they exist and be in need of a hut

Day 14

Left to my own devices, I don’t watch sports. But I can readily enter into them as well as anyone—possibly better than most—if I suspend disbelief and decide that I care; it’s like reading a novel. The conditions in England last month were particularly propitious for encouraging this kind of casual fling with football . The problem is (isn’t it always?) that, even if the relationship is casual, the feelings can’t be held at bay.

And so I found myself gripping Max’s wrist with what was apparently a painful intensity, covering my eyes and moaning repeatedly, “Oh God I can’t bear it, I can’t watch them lose on penalty shoot-outs, it’s just too painful.”

This from someone who was also asking questions like “are we red?” and “are we going left or right” at various points.

Even as the finer points of football (well points both fine and fundamental) elude me, certain cultural traumas have clearly seeped into my consciousness such that I couldn’t tell you exactly the rules of a penalty shoot-out but I know in my bones that losing to penalty shoot-outs in a World Cup knockout round would be a devastating blow.

Day 15

I didn’t know before this visit to Bristol that iced hibiscus tea is delicious and beautiful. Thank you, Roy.

Day 16

The whole day with Claire in Bath was glorious. Especially satisfying—because when do you ever find three great dresses—dresses that that fit!—within 15 minutes—was a whirlwind visit to a little shop called Bibico in Bath, where I wriggled in and out of lovely frocks as fast as I could, because I kept getting texts from Mum (but actually from Max, who had commandeered Mum’s phone) asking if I was done yet, to the soundtrack of Praying for Time era George Michael.

Day 17

The most relaxing part of this whole trip? It was the morning of our final day in Bristol, when Roy took the cousins out for breakfast and then to the park, so I could stay home to pack up our stuff.

I had the whole house to myself and it was glorious. I packed while listening to Joan and Jericha and shaking with laughter and, since I had followed JK’s tip and packed an extra duffel bag, the packing was not fraught but oddly soothing, even with all of the extra items acquired along the way, not to mention the fact that the two copies of War and Peace Max and I had brought along, were, neither of them, any lighter or less bulky than when we started, nor much more read either.

The packing went so smoothly that I had even had time to read a little—not War and Peace, but rather Amy Schumer’s memoir, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, which I had noticed on the bookshelf of the guest room, and which beckoned to me just as insistently as my fingers resisted the urge to crack open War and Peace after day four of our trip. I had started the Schumer memoir a few nights earlier.

“My favorite chapter so far,” I had told my brother, just the night before, “is about being an introvert. It’s how about how even when you’re with people you really like, even people you really love, you sometimes need to be by yourself for a bit. To recharge. I mean, honestly,” I added, “I don’t think that’s being an introvert, I think that’s just being human, wouldn’t you say?”

He made an expression of assent, I thought.

The point is that, that morning, I had time to read a little more, and then to shower in a leisurely fashion and put on one of my lovely new dresses, and then to walk to meet all the rest of them at Pi Shop, a really fantastic pizza place in Bristol, for lunch. And slipping into my new dress made me think, naturally, of George Michael, and so I listened to his greatest hits as I walked to Pi Shop, beginning with “Faith,” and indulging in a little fantasy that I was sauntering through Pond Square while George Michael was still alive, and that I just happened upon him, leaning against a wall strumming his guitar, and that we did a little two-step there in Pond Square, just the two of us. And then I played “Freedom 90” and just the opening beat was enough to make me suck in my stomach and lift my chin and muster up as much supermodelish poise and stature as a person of five foot three inches and a quarter wearing flip-flops can muster. I walked tall and the sun felt good, and when they all came into view—my children, and my niece, and my brother, and my sister-in-law, and my mother—all sitting together at a big outdoor table eating olives and drinking cold beer and drawing dragons—it was a sight for sore eyes.

Part 4: London

Day 17

I have to preface this by saying: we are all OK. There were no broken bones, just scrapes and bruises; the toll was mostly psychic. I still can’t quite make sense of what happened. I was looking up at the escalator at Paddington station, and there they were: Max, then Mum, then Ada, sailing up before me; I looked down for a split second to make sure I had all the bags and when I looked up again everything was topsy-turvy: Mum was now upside down, her head beneath her feet and she was moving not upwards but downwards, on her back, on top of Ada. Someone screamed—I’m not sure if it was me—and, thank God, in response to some passerby’s quick reflexes, the escalator stopped moving as I dropped the bags and ran up, trying to cradle Mum’s head and then at the same time, as Ada’s face began to crumple and she looked to me to help her, I tried to lift Mum off Ada’s body and started to feel myself flooding with chemicals of some kind as the thought entered my mind that perhaps I shouldn’t be moving anyone’s body.

Suddenly there were strangers everywhere; and this was a good thing. Two men lifted Mum under her shoulders and I saw that she was able to walk. Another man, a passerby, knelt next to me as we moved Ada. He spoke gently, introducing himself to her in softly accented English, and explaining that he was just going to look at her legs and that he would be very gentle. He told me he worked for the Red Cross. I think his name might have been Paulo. Her legs were indented with marks from the escalator slats, but the injuries all seemed to be superficial. Somehow we got up to the top of the escalator (did he carry her? Did she walk?) and Ada sat down in a chair next to where Mum was now also sitting having scrapes and bruises tended to.

I knelt on the ground next to Ada. A uniformed station worker knelt down next to us and took our names and details and our description, so far as we could provide one, of what had happened. He was South Asian with a London accent; he looked and sounded like he could be a cousin of mine. Maybe it was that along with the way that he knelt next to us that felt comforting. Ada seemed unable to speak and didn’t respond when asked, very gently again, what hurt. The station worker wiped her scrapes with an antibiotic wipe.

“You’re a brave man,” he said to her, “because that must sting.”

“She is brave,” I affirmed.

“Oh, she!” he exclaimed, sheepishly.

“My little nephew has really long hair,” he added, by way of explanation, which might seem like a non sequitur, but I understood him perfectly. His tone was not “kids these days!” but “gender! It’s so fluid innit?”

When we got home and Mum was lying down (later she went to the emergency room to get checked over, at La Bonavita’s urging, where the doctors confirmed there were no major injuries) and the kids were conked out in front of the iPad, I shut myself in the bedroom and texted Roy. When he called back all I could say for some time was “we’re all all right,” in between sobs.

Day 18

I slept poorly that night, which was our last night.

I kept waking up drenched in sweat, my skin itchy. I wished I could plunge my body into cold water. And so when it was light, I decided that I would, and I walked to the Highgate women’s pond, enjoying noting which women walking the opposite way on Merton Lane had just swum; they were distinguishable by their damp locks, plastic carrier bags, and the barest hint of a self-satisfied smile playing around their mouths.

“The water is cold and deep,” declared the sign on the gate and my soul said “yes.”

deep and cold

It’s cold and deep and also silky, somehow. It was perfect. And so too was the sight of all these ladies—they were all here! The ones swimming in schools like porpoises. The ones with their daughters. The one executing a perfect swan dive off the deck. The gaggles lolling in the meadow.

We had a plane to catch so I couldn’t dawdle: I swam a circuit of the pond, which was just enough to feel my blood pleasantly cool, and then I climbed out, barely dried and pulled my clothes over my still wet suit (actually, Claire’s suit). And I walked back up Merton lane, with my wet hair and my plastic bag and my hint of a self-satisfied smile, and I went straight to the newsagent to buy a Guardian for Mum and croissants for all of us … and I could tell that, unlikely as they looked, sitting there on the counter next to the Oyster card machine, that they were going to be my favorite sort of croissants, the kind with a bit of heft to them, what I think of as a Germanic or a Mexican style croissant.

And they were.

***

“West End Girls” came on the radio right when we were passing through Ladbrooke Grove on the drive to Gatwick. Made me smile.

***

Best captain’s announcement ever on the flight back to L.A.: “You probably think the match between England and Sweden is all over. IT IS NOW. England 2, Sweden nil.”

Well-played, Captain.

You probably think this post is all over; it is now.

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Day 88: Iona

When I was a child I thought of the journey to Iona as a string of peculiar place names. It started ordinarily enough: London, Glasgow. But then, beginning with Oban, things started to feel foreign.[1] Oban itself struck me as a relatively straightforward name, or at least it did until my first year in grad school when I remember overhearing a group of American grad students and would-be-single-malt-scotch-connoisseurs, all men in their early twenties, waxing lyrical about the Obahhhhn, pronounced to rhyme with how Americans pronounce the Italian city Milan. I sniggered because I thought they were taking the piss by Frenchifying it. But when I realized they weren’t joking I felt compelled to explain to them that it should be pronounced with the accent on the first syllable as in the American store name Loehmann’s. I don’t think they really believed me.

After Oban all those words that haven’t formed on my lips in twenty years come thick and fast: Craignure! Tobermory! Fionnphort! The latter is pronounced as, let’s see, this is tricky; perhaps finnifurt is the closest, but without a strong r in the final syllable? The ferry ride from Fionnphort to Iona itself is marked by an incantation of place names as (depending on the weather) particular sights swim into focus; can you see the Dutchman’s cap? Ooh, I see the Abbey! There’s the jetty! Is that Mark’s boat?

I was reminded yesterday, as we climbed to the top of Dùn I, the highest point on the island, that when you holiday in one place every year, as we did for most of my childhood, the holiday consists largely of annually performing a certain set of activities, or perhaps “rituals” is a better word, most of which are tied to a particular place. When I was a child, a holiday on Iona was not complete if it did not include the following: cycling to Gordon Grant’s in the morning to buy fresh rolls, half white, half brown. [2] Running at full tilt and leaping off the grassy “cliff” that jutted onto the beach at Sandeels Bay [3]; when tiring of that, building a dam to try to stem the tide coming in; when the dam inevitably broke, eating rolls filled with sliced cheese and tomato. “Swimming”: which for me did not entail much swimming as such but a lot of squealing and frenzied treading water because the water was so frigid. I also found it massively entertaining to plunge my head under the water, which would unfailingly make me start to black out. When I came back to the surface I would yell “I can’t see, I can’t see!” as the darkness closed in. Then, when I’d recovered, I’d do it again. Afterwards we’d sit on the beach, wrapped in towels, munching chitterybites, teeth chattering.

What else? Watching my Dad trying to coax a fire in the rain, so that we could boil a kettle for tea at Port Ban. Walking on the machair, and either hearing or telling the story of my aunt seeing the Viking ghosts there when she was a girl. Looking for Iona stones on the machair beach and at Columba’s bay; looking for sea glass everywhere; obsessive-compulsively collecting cowrie shells at Port Ban. [4] Frolicking in the nunnery. [5] Going out in a boat with an older cousin to set out lobster traps (I can’t remember any lobster ever actually being caught …). Buying cake mix from Alison’s shop, whipping up a cake, and presenting it triumphantly to the family for tea; buying Angel Delight from Alison’s shop, whisking it into airy, dreamy mousse, and presenting it triumphantly to the family for pudding. [6] Visiting Uncle Walter and Aunt Ann next door and wishing desperately that I had a dog like sweet Eshan. Looking for ancestors’ gravestones in the Abbey graveyard. [7] Dutifully traipsing around the Abbey and wondering when we could go to the coffee shop. Joyfully taking refuge from the rain in the coffee shop and drinking tea (never coffee!) and eating millionaire’s shortbread. [8] Cycling fast to the North end, weaving in and out of the daytrippers to whom I felt immensely superior. Drinking tea in the elephant’s grave. [9] Trudging along the road to the village in the rain wearing head-to-toe yellow waterproofs and slightly-too-big wellington boots. Eating fried scampi and chips at Gordon Grant’s. Walking home from Gordon Grant’s using a torch to light the way and squealing as we stumbled in the darkest dark I’d ever seen, Londoner that I was.

After being here for over a week, the family re-assembled now with children in tow, new memories overlay the old: sipping a gin-and-tonic at the elephant’s grave while sitting on a blanket in the sunshine with my darling niece; climbing Dùn-I holding tight to my daughter’s hand; conducting endless, wearisome negotiations over what the kids are allowed to buy at the two shops on the island, both of which stock items that both children really need; sipping an honest-to-God excellent cappuccino at the Craft shop—finally, Dad, I wish I could tell you: you can get espresso here now! Cycling to the village with my son running beside me and keeping up all the way; sleeping in the back bedroom with my daughter curled next to me; cream tea at the Argyll hotel: my God, those scones. Seriously. Eaten with wonderfully tart blackcurrant jam in the hotel garden looking out onto the sea as the children wrestle each other like over-excited puppies on the grass.

Experiencing Iona as a parent also gives me some hint of what my childhood holidays here would have been like for my mother: making endless cheese and tomato rolls; zipping up anoraks; wrapping slightly crunchy, air-dried towels around shivering, slightly blue children; pockets always laden down with “treasures” found on the beach; and, for her, as for me, those parenting experiences would have overlaid her own childhood memories of the island.

Those three different time periods—twenty-teens, nineteen-seventies and eighties, and nineteen-forties, when my mother holidayed on Iona as a child—seemed to co-exist for a brief moment yesterday. One way the passing of time reveals itself on the island is through the presence and number of cars. We were walking home from the village yesterday, when a tractor barreled passed us a little too fast and close for comfort.

“Ooh,” I remarked, “that was close. There are so many more cars now.”

My mother addressed the younger, “do you know, when I used to come here when I was your age, there were no cars at all, only horse-drawn carriages.”

This in itself seemed hard to fathom. But then Mum continued, musing aloud: “yes, they used to swim the horses over across the channel.”

“They used to what?” I said, thinking I’d misheard.

“They’d swim the horses over from Mull,” she said, and I laughed in delighted disbelief at the image of horses emerging from the waves, shaking their manes as they scrambled up onto the shore.

My favorite Iona story is the one I mentioned earlier, the one about my aunt as a little girl seeing the Vikings on the machair. She puzzled at first over why they were all cut off at the waist, as if stuck waist-deep in mud, and concluded later that it was because of changing land levels. She grew up to become a geographer.

I quizzed my aunt endlessly on what it had felt like to see those Vikings; was she terrified? Did she run home immediately? Did she tell anyone? It’s been a long time since I talked to her about it, and I don’t remember exactly what she replied, but I do remember my own certainty that in her shoes I would have been absolutely paralyzed by fear. As a child I would always walk quickly across the machair just in case the Vikings popped up somewhere.

On this trip I’ve been preoccupied, not by what it would feel like to see the ghosts, but rather, by what it would feel like to be the ghost who is seen. I imagine those Viking ghosts waiting and waiting for hundreds and thousands of years. And finally a wise little girl comes along and sees you, really sees you.

What a moment it would be.

Notes

[1] I don’t have any distinctive childhood memories of Oban, but I know for sure that there wasn’t a giant Olive Garden on the pier last time I was there, which was twenty years ago. I honestly kind of wish it was a MacDonald’s. I have a peculiarly vehement hatred for the Olive Garden. It’s something to do with its commodification of rusticity.

[2] The rolls are now all brown; and they are nice enough, but not sublime, the very essence of fresh, wholesome bread, which is how I remember them.

[3] To my disappointment, grass has grown over the whole area beneath the “cliff,” so that you can no longer jump joyously into the sand.

[4] I’ve discovered this week that I still really enjoy searching for shells on the beach. I may have spent a good couple of solid hours looking for cowrie shells yesterday. I find it hypnotically absorbing.

[5] I’d never noticed until this trip that there’s a window in the nunnery that is framed by an image of a woman with splayed legs. At least that what the sign says. It’s a bit difficult to make out. And it’s not clear what the significance is: the nunnery was in fact a happy house of ethical sluts? Or, more likely, I would suspect, opening your legs is the shortest route to hell? Yeah, it’s probably the latter.

[6] My memory is that we never had Angel Delight at home because my mother thought it was revolting, and, food snob that I now am, I’m quite sure that I’d agree with her if I were to eat it today.

[7] Mum pointed out one just this afternoon: her grandfather, James Archibald Love Tindal. I wish I had known (or remembered) that “Love” was a family name; I would have proposed it to He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved as a middle name for our children. (If you know my daughter’s first name, you may understand why this would have been particularly tempting in her case.)

[8] Of course shortbread by itself is extraordinarily delicious. Butter, flour, and sugar: what more do you need? Minimalist perfection! (Tessa, I remember watching you make it at your house in Cambridge!) Well! Millionaire’s shortbread says fuck minimalism and gilds the lily with a fudgy caramel topping. And then thinks hang on a sec, why stop there, and tops the fudgy caramel with a thick layer of chocolate. It’s essentially a homemade Twix bar, but bigger and with better quality ingredients. Or at least the coffee shop version was. But the coffee shop no longer exists and I have to admit that the one piece of millionaire’s shortbread I’ve eaten since arriving here has disappointed my, it must be said, exceedingly high expectations. My cousin Louise and I tried to make it one year. But our fudge didn’t set properly and so we abandoned the project and used the fudgy syrup instead as a decadent topping for toast.

[9] The elephant’s grave is the family name for a mound with a grassy seat cut into it that is in the back garden of Sandbank, which is the name of the house. It’s sheltered and so an excellent place to sit and drink tea, or nap.

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