REPORT A PROBLEM
She's looking pale in the white bathrobe. The shawl draped on the back of the rocking chair gives her the air of a Victorian convalescent. There is tiredness and relief emanating from her, as if she had just given birth.
It was going to be a simple operation; open up, cut it out, and stitch her up. Following the bad experiences with the NHS, she went to a small, private clinic. I've been there since; a few rooms, a waiting area decorated with pictures of newborns and thank-you notes, smell of coffee and sausages.
Uncomfortably like being back home.
For me, the atmosphere there was thick with patronising attitudes and office politics. She preferred it, though.
The first half hour on the rickety operating table the doctor spent trying to figure out what it was he was looking for. Where was this ill tissue which was causing her so much pain? Wait, what about that white thing there, near the artery? He poked it. She nearly fell off the table with sudden, unanticipated pain. 'Ah, here's the bugger', the doctor said with satisfaction.
More local aneasthetic was applied. It did not work. She was given morphine. It did't work.
'It was a horror movie scenario', she told me. She could feel it all, every move of the scalpel, every prick of the needle when finally, after over an hour and a half of chasing the slippery piece of tissue around the artery, they begun to stitch her up. By that time there were two surgeons on the job, all of them, including the patient, sweating like crazy in the face of so much pain. When it was over, the doctor told the nurse: 'Something like that is not to happen ever again'. Like it was her fault, poor girl.
It is official. Today I spoke to my cat for the very first time. And I mean spoke to, not just sang to, or made comical remarks about, or addressed as one may a pre-vocal baby, in that annoying rhetorical manner. No, I actually spoke to her as if she were an intelligent being capable of communicating back. I told her what was stressing me out. She looked at me with her big, round, silvery eyes, and yawned. A cloud of foul, putrid air washed over my expectant face. Overall, I think we were both satisfied with the exchange.
Right pleased with myself for letting the students work their problems out for themselves. It was quite fascinating to sit back and watch their minds at work, grappling for stucture, building consensus, being generous or predatorial with one another's knowledge. The temptation to step in and say 'Well, actually, you need to do x y z' was quite strong sometimes, as they sat in an awkward and puzzled silence. I remembered myself, from not such a far removed past, bossy and know-it-all book worm, taking control of the project, reaching the objectives but losing friends on the way.
"...a real blank face moment. I was teaching this group in the Intorduction to Social Science about the debate on reasons and causes. So we were talking about that, and suddently this Turkish sudent of mine says: 'I'm sorry, but I don't understand. In my language cause and reason are the same word - can you unpack this conversation for me?' !!! For me as a teacher it was a real moment of oh damn, what do I do! Or policy and politics, same word in Spanish right? I've spent my career arguing that policy is political, and for you it's obvious!'
'It started when about two years ago, when I begun going to the Arctic more regularly. Sometimes for three months at a stretch, during the arctic day. We'd just keep working, in the field, for 24 hours. We'd get a bit tired, from walking, but not sleepy. The sun gives you an amazing amount of energy. You just don't feel that tired there. In fact it was when I came back for the first time that I had the biggest shock. I had forgotten what night was night. So now my sleeping pattern is a bit all over the place.'
In a quiet corner of the soulless airport, I open the guide and look at a map of the city for thr first time. I find it difficult to be interested in my holiday locations until I am actually on the move; the effort of living in the future is too distracting. Now, with the call to the gate imminent, I feel excitement as I ponder the printed marks which are to represent the richness and madness of Madrid. Flat and abstract, the lines and geometrical shapes mean nothing to me. These are the bare bones of a foreign language.
Looking at the map of an unknown city is like trying to understand a foreign tongue by reading the grammar book. I'm unable to translare distances and directions, widths and breadths, into anything meaningful. I think forward to the first day of wandering these streets. There is nothing quite like the process of figuring out the layout and character of an unknown city, of making it ones own, appropriating cafes, and bars, and squares. Although cliche, the tourist amazement at "the cutest little trattoria we found in Venice" rings true. A new city invites discovery, and discovery naturally invites possession.
We emerge from the underground right in the middle of a tree-lined avenue. It is dark, and there are few people about. The air smells fresh and cool. This, then, is the City. The houses are tall and formal, the streets wide, the trees, to my surprise, still bare. I study them through a window of a small bar we end up in shortly after leaving our backpacks at the hotel. It smells of fried fish, and, by the time we are done with our jamon, polpo and beer, completely empty. The grumpiness of the waiters is only superficial.
The morning is filled with hazy sunshine, flattening colours into monochrome. Eating breakfast, I peer through the large windows onto the street below. The narrow fronts of bars and cafes, which last night radiated an inviting warmth, are still shut. Busy pedestrians pass them in a hurry. I study them intently, particularly the women. I am rather worried that in my choice of cotton dresses I may have underappreciated the temperature in Madrid during March. We are a good six hundred meters above the level of the sea, after all, and the fire is still not on under the pan.
The city park is huge, and formal. Neat paths of fine white soil wind around mock ruins, carp ponds, marble statues, and ornamental fountains. The main arteries are asphalted, long, and lined with plantain trees. The grass is only slowly turning green, and on the bare branches screetching parakeets are easy to spot. The main attraction of the park is an artificial lake, enclosed at all sides by railings and fences. It is small, but big enough to support a rent-a-boat company. By the time we return late in the evening, the water is full of optimistic boaters.
Walk slowly, admiring nature's ingenuity. There are drainage pipes gaping from the prak walls at regular intervals, and they've been put to use. Each pipe has at least one sparrow to it, poking its head out with an owner's air, giving the overall impression of a busy bird condominium.
Crossing a wide double-laned road which separates us from the Prado, I look down, away from the centre. The land slowly slopes away, and in the distance a small town with a church spire is just visible in the haze. This is welcome context, and suddenly Madrid becomes more real.
The air was strangely warm and humid inside the Prado; even at this early hour the queue is long, and the crowds swarming. Fortunately gone are the days in which I felt obliged to see every single piece at an art gallery, to pacify the gods of Insecurity. So in the morning we went to gaze hundreds of years into the past, at Durer's first humans. In the evening we came back to delve into the dark madness of Goya's Black Pictures. Disfigured, greedy, slobbering faces, senseless violence, gut-churning, mindless cruelty. And a pleading dog on a golden background.
Looking at these, I think about the conversation I have been having with Alex, about the connection between suffering and creativity. These pictures of humiliation and pain must have come from somewhere. But the most incomprehensible thing is their location, at the walls of the house in which Goya lived. Every day, drinking his coffee, eating his dinner, he would see the contorted faces of his demons, mocking him. What did he think, looking at the bleeding stumps of the headless torso forever being consumed by Jovis? Did he speak to his creations? Were they his companions? Or his nightmares?
We spent the whole day wondering the streets of Madrid, perching in the little bars for canias and a tapa, slowly making our way across the jumble of the town towards the river. After the dense build-up of the city centre, with Plaha Major in the middle like a gasp of air, the riverside was spacious, open, and alien. Covered in white stone, and recently lined with hundreds of saplings, the banks swooped down to meet the shallow, shimmering river. The strangeness was compounded by the low bridge, nearly touching the water. Spring floods were clearly not an issue.
Sitting at the riverside, we could see the mountains not far off in the distance. The wind was picking up, sucking the moisture off my lips as soon as I licked them. The sun was pounding down, giving an idea of what a roasting pan this place must be in high summer. Painfully we climbed back up towards the palace, a baroque atrocity typical of the Hapsburg, arrogant and unnatractive. The wind was draining me, the dustdevils throwing sand in my eyes, so we hid in a small cafe, and caught the comfy metro back to the hotel, siesta time.
The day did not start well. We had missed our train to Toledo, the next one was full, and figuring out how to get across town to catch a train to Segovia was a bit of a nightmare. I kept pushing for it though; I've had enough of Madrid, I wanted to see something different. We spent a funny three quarters of an hour looking at sparrows and the industrial landscape of the northern part of the city, waiting for the super-fast train to be ready for boarding. It whipped us away, towards the mountains, across the parched land.
The new station was built away from the town, and so we emerged in the middle of nowhere, on a high plateau with mountains in the background, and cows grazing. The eye went on towards the horison, unobstructed by a single tree.
A pleasantly jerky bus took us to the aqueduct, towering at the end of the street like a weird shadow, like a dream of stone, like an exclamation mark of: 'We Have Been!'.
The town took my heart away. Every time I caught a sight of the barren valley below us, I felt alien, and new, and shivered.
The sand-stone buildings, the warmth, the size, it was all perfect. When we were leaving, after a day's wondering its streets, I looked back at the castle from the road leading towards the train station. The sun was setting, and everything was golden. Beyond the church, above the crazy turrets a cloud of alpine choughs was circling. And I felt really sad the day was over, that the time spent here was now in the past. I usually don't like returning places, I don't think you can re-live experiences like that. But there, I would come back to.
Funny how two places seemingly so similar can have such a different feel. Toledo is dominated by the palace, a 16th century symbol to the power of gunpowder. With its ugly thick walls and tight-fitting roofs, it dominates the city with the sheer molecular weight. On the UNESCO list, the town is also over-run by tourist shops, and has none of the slow, relaxed feel of Segovia. We had a nice lunch with the sparrows, and met a friendly cat, but all in all I left with a vague feeling of distaste. It may have been the light.
The woman came down to the river side, and started shredding bread. She threw the pieces, not into the water, but onto the bank. Seconds later, rats appeared. There is a perfect setting for them there: burrows hidden under the gnarly roots, fallen leaves for hiding in, and a nice lady that comes to feed them. When you stand around for long enough, the sparkling eyes and mobile noses poke out, and soon there is scurrying. We've taken to watching them on the way to work. Such content creatures, and yet enough to wipe out half the population of Europe.
Well, I never would have believed it if I had not seen it with my own eyes. The two of them, I mean. Just goes to show you that you never know what will make another person happy. I remember us back at high school, and I can see a common thread of wackiness and oddness which united us all, and I can explain to myself how they could have grown into one another, but still, it is a funny thing. The experience of moving abroad, and facing the shit storm hand in hand, should make their marriage pretty unbreakable.
It was great to laze about in Bristol. A very different city to any English city I know. Grand, sandstone buildngs mixed in with sixtiess atrocities, mixed in with pastel-coloured terraced houses, all suspended in the moist, baby blue air of a town which is near a sea (and if you could not make that out by the colour of the sky, the seagulls are a dead giveaway). All in all, in spite of all the glory and the drama of its past, today the city just feels - homely. Comfortable, and friendly in a sort of unobtrusive way. Nice.
Sitting in the floating harbour was the best part. The jetty rocked gently underneath us, set in motion by the passing ferries, or the weekend traffic. We cracked some beers and watched the world go by for a while, sprawled out on the wooden deck. The happy inhabitants of canal boats climbed out and were taking the sun. Tourists came and went, off to look at SS Great Britain, moored just accross the canal. The gulls called. J took endless pictures. We talked about nothing very much. The tension melted away, seeped through the slates, and dripped into the river.
The pressure of new responsibilities is piling on, but this week there is only one thing I can think about. I have become the most single minded person alive. I go to sleep thinking about it, and I wake up thinking about it. I read unseeing, listen unhearing, I smile but I am not there! The proofreading is nearly all in, I need to sort the formatting out, print it, and bind it. Until I have it in my hands I don't think I can relax. I know it will go smoothly, but until it's in, I'm not at peace.
It is weird. Everything is ready. The chapters have been proof-read, the introduction, conclusion, and abstract okeyed. All I have to do is print and bind it. And yet, anxiety is gripping my throat and my bowels, constantly. It's been a week now that I can't sleep. The moment I put my head down on the pillow, my brain switches on. I am alternately grinning with joy, and clenching my teeth in misery. Faceless, unreasonable worries assail me like harpies. I even dreamt of my external supervisor last night. Until I hand this in, my life is on hold.
In my darkest hours, when I thought there was no way I could finish, I would think forward to writing the acknowledgments. And a wave of gratitude and love would sweep over me, and I felt I could go on again.
A big thank you to all the participants of this research, for their generosity and friendship, and for their willingness to share their stories, and their wines.
A big, big thank you to my supervisors. You have challenged me, reassured me, and always encouraged me to go a step further. Thank you for all you have done for me.
Thank you to all the g staff for creating a supportive and collegiate atmosphere.
Thank you to all my friends at the department, we have had some unforgettable times. Special thank you to RT for feeding my heart and my body; to MC for his wacky cheer, and to ANZ, for the moments of complete madness.
Wielkie podziękowania dla mojego taty. Dziękuję, że zawsze mi ufałeś, i że popierałeś moje decyzje. Bardzo cię kocham!
Thank you to AM, for being so wonderful.
And the biggest thank you to K. You make me happy every single day.
So I handed in.... And I feel no different! It was great to have so many people come out to the park to celebrate, and drowning a pengiun at the pub was great fun, but maybe because of the length of the build-up, or maybe because I've been doing other things , maybe because this is not The Final Step yet (hold breath for viva), it just does not seem like that big a deal. It's just life; you achieve something, and a new mountain appears before you, responsibilities multiply, life goes on.
Maybe it's just not hit me yet!
How luxurious. In the sun. Sun tea brewing on the fence. A book - a book on vines and winemaking, a memoir. I can't believe I am enjoying reading this, the trauma must have faded away. The cats scuttle in the shade, and leap suddenly after huge, lazy bumble bees, still dozy from the cold. My legs ache pleasantly. The tea is acidic and fresh. I am fully content, relaxed, and at peace. And then the gate opens, the cats scat, and he steps into the yard, and I am even happier, and I bounce up to give him a hug.
The Tip Jar