Idle Thoughts about Bank Holidays

I love Bank Holiday Mondays.  Even though I now work from home, so weekends and Bank Holidays are of little consequence to my timetable, I nevertheless get out of bed with a sense of anticipation, of mild excitement, at the thought that it’s officially a non-working day.  I feel very virtuous when I sit at my desk on Bank Holiday Monday, and only moderately guilty when I decide to take the day off.

Bank Holiday Mondays.  Here in Britain, these three days are tacked on to the weekend.  Why risk a holiday in the middle of the week, when people might also take the days in between off?  Still, a long weekend is eminently practical for all concerned, I admit.  Bank Holiday.  I wish there were names for these days, rather than something decreed by the closure of cold and now not very popular institutions such as banks.  It’s always made me feel a tiny bit uncomfortable.  A day when banks don’t trade, when there is no financial speculation, instead of a day to celebrate something or someone – be it a saint, the First of May, or the anniversary of independence.  I wonder if any other European country has nondescript, apparently random days off.  When I first arrived in the UK, I asked where these Bank Holiday Mondays had originated.  Were they former saints days? Pagan festivals? Historical anniversaries? No, people replied.  They’re just Bank Holidays.  It seems that in this country we’ve been ruled by banks for some time now… I can’t help but wonder if this is why Britain has among the lowest number of holidays in Europe.  Economy in all things! Waste not, want not.  A penny saved is a penny earned, etc.

My favourite Bank Holiday Monday is the August one.  I can’t really say why.  Perhaps because it’s the last Bank-sanctioned day off before Christmas Day, nearly four months later.  In Catholic European countries, there’s at least All Saints Day in the middle.  But we, with our staunch Protestant work ethic, work valiantly till Christmas.

Perhaps, also because, having been brought up in Catholic countries (although I am not myself a Catholic), where 15th August, Assumption Day, is a major religious holiday, I feel cheated unless I have at least one day off in August, albeit at the very end of the month.

People change, I guess.  When I was young, living in Italy, I would dread the approach of August.  The month when, just because of that one Assumption Day, the country seemed to sink into officially-sanctioned torpor for a whole month – and still does.  Ferragosto.  Why do you stand in the crushing heat, waiting for a bus for forty-five minutes? Because it’s Ferragosto.  Why are so many shops closed? Because it’s Ferragosto.  Why are all your friends away, either at the sea or in the mountains, leaving you to be bored to tears in a ghost city? Ferragosto.  My family could not afford holidays, so as a teenager, I hated the month of August with a purple passion.  The intense heat, the lack of social life and entertainment, the nationally-approved inefficiency of the City of Rome.  I couldn’t wait for the traditional, violent thunderstorms in the second half of the month, that heralded the end of this unbearable inertia.

In a way, something similar happens in the UK, when the end of November signals the start of general laziness, inefficiency and incompetence because it’s Christmas.

Now, nearly thirty years later, I find myself longing for Ferragosto in Rome.  As a freelancer who, noblesse oblige, never turns down work, I yearn for a government-approved month of quiet, of sleep, of doing absolutely nothing.  A whole month of lounging about, reading, writing, dozing in the sun.  I remember with unexpected fondness the streets outside the tourist-infested city centre almost totally deserted, the blocks of flats with the blinds of almost every window shut tight, the bliss of not hearing the neighbours’ TV because they’re away.  I long to have a lengthy afternoon nap, with the blinds half down, listening  to the maracas of a dozen cicadas rhythmically lulling me to sleep.  I have fond memories of lying on a reclining sun lounger on the balcony, until past midnight, staring up into the black, starry sky until I was no longer sure if I was falling into the stars or the stars falling on me.  And counting shooting stars.  Blink and you’ll miss it.

I miss being in a climate hot enough to eat watermelon.  Bright red, sweet as sugar, with large, black seeds I can then crunch – not the pathetic rubbery white ones of under-ripe fruit.

Above all – and especially in view of these three months of grey, wet, chilly transition between last spring and next autumn in Norwich, that you cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, call summer – I long for bright light in my eyes, and hot sun on my skin.

Scribe Doll

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Midnight Cha-Cha-Cha and Tabasco

I am about sixteen.  I wake up in the middle of night.  The sound of distant crunching, faint music and the light spilling into the corridor lure me like the tune of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.  I get out of bed.  Naz, the canine of miscellaneous origin curled up at the bottom of my bed, opens his sleep-glazed eyes briefly, then closes them again.  No cause for alarm.  He’s seen this happen before over the years.  Many, many times.

At the small kitchen table, my mother is leafing through an out-of-date Il Corriere della Sera or Le Monde which she hasn’t had time to look at sooner.  She’s at the office all day and sometimes doesn’t come home until late.  She is buttering a row of three of four grissini, trying not to break them, balances a small piece of parmigiano on the pan flute-like construction, then shakes a bottle of Tabasco sauce over it before putting it into her mouth.  The sharp scent rushes up my nostrils.  Soft music is playing on the radio.  While munching, she reaches for a red felt tip pen and marks articles she intends to cut out later.

She is startled.  “Oh, tesoro, did I wake you up? I’m so sorry.  I’m going to bed in a minute –  I was on my way, as a matter of fact, but I suddenly felt hungry.”

The clock on top of the fridge shows half past midnight.  Suddenly hungry after midnight.  As usual.

I sit at the table, yawning.  My eyes wander over the maps that cover practically every inch of the wall.  Israel, Italy, Turkey, France, Greece, USA, Germany, Luxembourg.  My mother’s way of helping me learn geography.  Scraps of paper  with quotations.  Francis Bacon, Erasmus, Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, Ernest Renan, Trilussa.  Her way of helping me learn to think.

I reach out for a grissino and crunch off the tip, lazily.  “Are you hungry, too?” she asks, quickly swallowing her mouthful.  “Here, help yourself.” She pushes the packet of extra long, thin, Piedmontese-style breadsticks, the butter and cheese closer to me.  Then she stands up and opens the fridge door.  “What else would you like? Oh, look, we have some fontina – would you like some?”

I shake my head and keep crunching my grissino.

She suddenly gasps and turns up the radio slightly.  “Listen, listen.  You recognise it, don’t you?”

“Dvořák’s Symphonic Dances.”

She gasps again.  “I adore this.” She softly hums along.

I cut myself a piece of cheese.

“Here, don’t you want some Tabasco sauce on it?” Her expression turns pixieish.  “It’s very, very hot.” She picks up the small bottle, throws her head back, and shakes some sauce on her tongue.  Her eyes narrow.  “Mmm… Delicious!”

She’s daring me.  Or else she wants confirmation that I’m really her flesh and blood, that she can be proud of me.  I want her to be proud of me.  I accept the bottle she’s handing me and put Tabasco on my cheese.  The sharp chilli and vinegar taste wakes me up.

“Good, isn’t it?”

I nod.  I’m like her.  My mother’s daughter.

She sits down again and returns to her snack.

“Your Auntie J. and I, when we shared a flat, sometimes, when we had no money and no dinner invitations, we would sit and eat grissini and Tabasco sauce at night.  And we would dance the bossa nova or the cha-cha-cha. ”

I’ve heard this before, but I love hearing it again.  My mother and her Iranian friend, a stunning-looking woman with ivory skin, black hair and bright blue eyes – Auntie J. to me – and their exploits in early 1960s Rome.  Via Veneto till four in the morning, a month’s salary on a pair of soft leather Magli shoes, chasing after singer Domenico Modugno in J.’s Fiat 600 (until he stopped his car, came out and looked around to see the two girls waving at him), dancing in nightclubs on boats moored on the Tiber, coloured lightbulbs strung on the deck.  Like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

Before I came along and made it all abruptly impossible.

“You can dance the bossa nova, can’t you?”

Yes.  She taught me on one of the other nights like this one.

“And the cha-cha-cha?”

I wish I could say yes.  But it’s 1981.  My school friends and I go to discos with bright flashing lights, red laser beams.  We dance to Richard Sanderson singing Reality and want to look like Sophie Marceau.

“Come!” My mother goes into the living room and switches on the lights.  “Come and stand next to me.”

My face has an uncontrollable grin of anticipation across it.  I’m going to bond with her.

“Now look at me.  One, two, one-two-three.  One, two, one-two-three.  Wait!” She kicks off her slippers and sends them flying across the room.  Her feet have exceptionally high arches.  Nothing between the ball and the heel touches the marble floor.

I park my slippers next to the sofa and follow her example.

She takes me by the hand.  “One, two, one-two-three.  Now this isn’t ballet school, so sway your hips a little.  Like this.  Good.”

Good.  Well, I can’t sway as gracefully as she.  Just like I’ll never get into her 60-centimetre waist silk and satin evening dresses – the ones she wore before I came along – which she is saving for me for when I grow up.

Suddenly, an outraged, astounded face appears in the doorway.  Without her glasses, my grandmother’s large, slightly protruding eyes look even larger.  This cameo is also part of the routine.  She looks at my mother.  “Are you crazy? It’s one o’clock in the morning! The child has to go to school tomorrow! Katia, go to bed.  And look at you, barefoot on the stone floor.  You’ll catch a cold!”

I reply, on cue, “Oh, no, not yet, please!”

“Yes, yes, Mum, you’re absolutely right,” my mother says with a total lack of sincerity.  “We’ll both go to bed soon.  I promise.  Why don’t you come and dance with us?”

My grandmother stands in the doorway for a few seconds.  “Well, goodnight, you crazy night owls.”

She vanishes as quietly as she appeared.  Such a light step.  “She never even wears out her shoes,” my mother often says.

Now that I’ve mastered the basic steps, we come to phase two of the lesson.  My mother goes to the bamboo bookcase that holds all our records.  She pulls out an Ella Fitzgerald LP, places it on the Philips turntable, lifts the arm, carefully lowers the sapphire stylus on the right track.

You-ouuuuuuuuuu – you!

You’re driving me crazy

One, two, cha-cha-cha.  One, two, cha-cha-cha.

We dance together.  Ella Fitzgerald speeds up.  The words are sung faster and faster,   spiralling beyond the possibility of any dance steps, so it becomes a free for all on the marble floor.

It’s half past one.  We’re both breathless, suppressing our laughter to avoid waking up my grandmother.  “Now go to bed, tesoro,” my mother says, her face suddenly authoritative although the corners of her mouth are still dimpled and her eyes sparkling.

I go to bed.  My mother returns to the kitchen.  I wonder how long she’ll stay up.  I wish I weren’t so sleepy.  I wish I didn’t have school tomorrow.  On my bed, the dog is snoring.  I slip under the blanket, taking care not to push him with my feet.

I fall asleep, smiling, my hand under my pillow, the previous couple of hours tight in my fist.  Like a treasure I never want to lose.

Scribe Doll

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Scriptorium

Some people have studies.  Others dens.  Or offices.  I have a Scriptorium.

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In our previous home, H. worked in the spare room, and I at the dining table in the living room.  After a while, however, I found it hard to do any of my own writing in a space that was, ultimately, communal, especially outside working hours.  So, after the usual period of grumpiness and seething dissatisfaction, I came up with a solution. I bought myself a small, folding, wooden exam desk – complete with pen-carrying groove – and a small, folding chair.  I placed them in a corner of our bedroom, between the window and the chest of drawers.  There was enough space for a few white fairy lights to give this corner an air of celebration, a candle for inspiration, and, of course, enough room to write.  Because, at the time, I was translating an Italian novel set in 11th century Venice, complete with copyist monks and illuminated manuscripts, I began jokingly referring to my little corner of freedom and creativity as my Scriptorium.  The term soon became shorthand for “do not disturb”.  So if H. asked what my plans were for that afternoon or evening and I replied, “I’ll be in the Scriptorium,” he knew I would be off limits. Consequently, when I grew exhausted, irritable and/or discontented, he would gently suggest “spending a few hours in [your] Scriptorium“.

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When we moved to this house, at the end of April, he kindly offered the spare room to me.  “Think about it,” he said, “you can have a whole room for your Scriptorium and not just a corner.”

50ff3dc9b165e1240e5d15a5884bc145It had been a while since I’d had a space I could arrange to please myself and myself alone.  As I stood in the room, surrounded by towers of unopened boxes, I tried to picture it the way I wanted it, constantly reminding myself that it was going to be my room, my space.  I could have it look and feel the way I wanted it.  I didn’t have to compromise, to ask anyone else if they minded this print or this plant or the furniture arranged this or that way.

Oh, bliss.

A print of Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea had been stored in a box since I’d bought it from the Villa Farnesina gift shop a few years ago.  H. doesn’t care for it.  It was the first print I unrolled, smoothed, and hung on the wall, almost as a declaration of freedom.  Naturally, my beloved Tobias and the Angel, by Verrocchio, took prime position, above a small sofa bed.  A small futon that turns into a chaise-longue, covered in a red and black Abruzzo-style woollen throw from my school days.   Not really suitable for overnight guests, but perfect for reclining on for an afternoon nap, getting absorbed in a good book, or simply lounging and looking at all the familiar, friendly objects in the room.

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A bookcase devoted exclusively to books on medicine and healing, one with a row of dictionaries, a shelf for religion and philosophy, and at the bottom, a collection of world folk fairy tales and mythology.  Books in Russian, French, Italian and Spanish.  And then a shelf for my guilty pleasure: the crime novels of Donna Leon.

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My elemental friends, of course, live with me in this room.  Among them, the lemon plant I’ve grown from a pip, the pink busy-lizzy on my desk to cheer my working hours, and my oldest companion, the weeping ficus plant.  A Bahamian friend gave it to me in Cambridge, over twenty years ago, before she went back to the Bahamas.  At Christmas, I thread white fairy lights through its branches.

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Fairy lights, of course.  An odd wine glass with white ones.  A jar with coloured ones.

Postcards with Mediaeval and Renaissance paintings of learned, inspiring women.  Christine de Pisan.  Veronica Franco.  Photos of favourite trees.  A Cedar of Lebanon in Norwich, Maritime Pines in Rome.

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Beautiful words.  Saint Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures, the faith of Julian of Norwich.  The term “Joy” cut out from bright yellow paper, pinned to the noticeboard above my desk.

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Favourite objects.  A toy spinning wheel, a piece of flint with a quartz inclusion picked up on Hunstanton beach.  Candles.  Things treasured because they were given to me by friends.

A white swan and a black and shimmering blue-green magpie feather.  A Schornsteinfeger from a New Year’s Eve in Hamburg. A cartoon from the New Yorker.  Christian Dior fashion pictures from the 1950s.  Drawings of Commedia dell’arte characters.

On my desk, the books I’m currently translating on the wooden stand, an Oxford Concise Dictionary, a small wooden box with “Fulham SW6” printed on it, found in a bric-à-brac shop – a reminder of my London life – for pens, scissors, markers, calculator, candle snuffer, and other bits and pieces.

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Etc.

And, of course, something on which to play music.

Friends who come in look around, not knowing what to make of the room at first.  Then they comment on how “peaceful” it feels.

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As I write this, H. has come to sit here too, to read yesterday’s Guardian, while listening to William Byrd.

“What do you think of my Scriptorium?” I ask.

“It’s comfortable,” he replies. “Secure.  Snug.”

Scribe Doll

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Learning to Live in a New House

H. and I moved two months ago.  My fortieth-something move.  That’s not counting packing up the contents of my college room at Durham on the last day of every term, then unpacking it again when term restarted.  No, it doesn’t get easier or smoother.  Your body and mind – mine, at least – start screaming Enough is enough!

I’d never lived in a whole house before.  I’d lodged in a few rooms that happened to be in houses, mainly during my student days, but I’d never had my possessions spread over two floors until now.  I’m finding the experience somewhat unsettling.  Disorientating.  As someone raised between Italy and France, where most “normal” people live in flats, unless they are inordinately wealthy, have inherited their homes or live out in the sticks, houses – especially late 19th – early 20th century English houses – are for me best read about in novels or seen in the kind of magazine pictures that make the interiors look bigger and brighter than they actually are.  I don’t care for all the traipsing up and down the stairs every time I need my glasses, forget a book or go to the bathroom (I practise Qi Gong every morning, I do not want to “exercise” on stairs).  Moreover, any property with character is sure to lead to a personality clash with me.  I have more than enough character to fill a living space, I don’t want the personality of the house or flat to interfere with it.  Therefore, my ideal is rooms all on one level, with straight walls, high ceilings, large windows that open in full.  No quirky arches, historical protrusions, charmingly irregular corners or period alcoves, thank you.  I want to place my furniture exactly where I please, without the building dictating to me what it wants and where.

To H., born and bred on the island of Albion, however, it is inconceivable that any adult should deliberately opt for a flat.  And so, after spending our first two and a half years in Norwich living in a flat, the opportunity of a house came up, H. liked it immediately, and I thought, well, fair is fair – especially when said house comes with a lovely landlord and bypasses contact with the un-evolved life form that is the average letting agent.

An early 20th century house with dinky stairs probably built by a lover of Jonathan Swift’s Lilliputians.  Only half the plantar side of my size 39 foot fits on the steps, while H. has no choice but to put his size 48 feet sideways when commuting between floors.  It’s the sidesaddle stair travel style.  The one that goes with the walk-in-from-the-street-straight-into-the-front-room feature.  Then, there’s another peculiarity.  In the room that is now my Scriptorium, the main light fixture is not in the centre of the ceiling, as you would expect it to be (Please tell me I’m not alone in this assumption!) but right by the window, leaving the rest of the room unlit.  Most puzzling.  “What kind of jackass would have the one and only light in the room right by the window?!” I said, when describing the new house to a friend at the local health shop.

“I can tell you why.  I’m an electrician.”

In shock, we turned to the young man standing behind us, who’d overheard our conversation.  Now what are the odds…?

“They used to do that in the bedrooms of Victorian and Edwardian houses so that, when you got dressed or undressed, the light was always in front of you, so no one could see your shadow from the street.”

“Seriously? You mean it’s actually deliberate?”

“Yes.”

“But what kind of jackass would get dressed or undressed by the window?”

“Well, just in case, you know… People used to be…”

What? Puritanical? Stupid? I was having a surreal experience.

The house has other eccentricities that led me to rant that the British are the best actors in the world, wonderful writers, that they have given us the Magna Carta and Harry Potter – but keep them away from building bricks.  “But what about all these wonderful Medieval cathedrals you love so much?” H. said, in a gentle attempt to guide me back to some kind of balanced thinking.

“They were built by Normans!” I snapped.

A few days later, when our dream queen-size bed was delivered but had to be returned to the shop because the pocket-sprung mattress would not turn the corner on the dinky Munchkin stairs, I declared war on the house, my anger growing into a wise and constructive I’d-rather-be-right-than-happy attitude, otherwise known as slicing off your snout to spite your mug.  I remembered a lovely Norfolk-based writer telling me that you need to feel settled in order to write.  Well, I didn’t feel settled in this house, I never would feel settled in this house, so I would never write again.  And never translate again.  Or cook.  Or do anything.

So there.

*   *   *

When we first saw this house, and H. saw the only item of furniture it came with, a long, sturdy pine dining table, he announced that this was where he would be working.  Unlike in  our previous two homes, I could have the second bedroom for myself.  “You can have a proper Scriptorium,” he said.

“But don’t you want to have your study?” I asked.

He insisted that he wanted to work on that huge, sturdy table.  I suspect he was being generous.

After two weeks of solid sulking, I got bored.

A Scriptorium with the light by the window.  I put my large red anglepoise lamp on the opposite side of the room.  Ha! Another small anglepoise on my desk.  Nice.  A large crystal, long-stemmed wine glass filled with white fairy lights, and a jar with coloured ones.  Now we were getting somewhere.  My beloved National Gallery print of Verrocchio’s Tobias and the Angel would look good on the back wall.  Among the rolled up posters, I discovered Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea, which I’d never put up because H. doesn’t like it.  I unrolled it carefully.

It dawned on me that perhaps houses were like people.  If you were rude to them, they would be uncooperative.  Hmm.  I was right to be angry with the house.  But being right can become lonesome after a while.  The pine doors are actually quite attractive, and I like looking at the swirls and knots in the timber.  The sun floods into one side of the house in the morning, and into the other in the afternoon.  The bedroom window looks out, in the distance, on the tower of one of Norwich’s Mediaeval churches, and when the sun goes down, it sets the brass weather vane ablaze.  The long pine dining table allows room for more guests.  And we have a black and white neighbour with staring eyes who rushes to me and rubs her muzzle against my hand whenever she sees me, and purrs.

After a few weeks of polite diplomatic negotiations, the house and I drew up a treaty of mutual support and cooperation.  We have an understanding that is slowly developing into trust.  The house doesn’t hold my preference for flats against me.  I am learning to laugh at its quirks.  The Munchkin stairs are still a cause for minor tensions but – what can I say? – no home is perfect.  But it’s home now.

Scribe Doll

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A Crack in the Viewfinder?

Last year, I was at the Easter Sunday service at Norwich Cathedral with a new acquaintance.  In the distance, I noticed a lady in the congregation whose face was very familiar.  “I think I went to College with her,” I told my acquaintance.

She didn’t miss a beat.  “Oh, that’s V. – you know, she had cancer last year.”

And I knew that very second that I would never be friends with my acquaintance.  Why? Because I do not want to be friends with someone who can find nothing to say about a stranger except that she’d had cancer.  She could have said that V. was a splendid cook, an outstanding gardener, an avid reader, or even simply that she was a lovely person.  At a push, “Oh, that’s V. – you know, she had cancer last year and recovered by using such-or-such treatment/philosophy/herbs/breakthrough surgery etc.”  Instead, she chose to describe a person exclusively by her affliction rather than by any personality characteristic she might have.  As though this woman was defined by her illness and nothing else.

It has been my experience that most people find it much easier – almost unhealthily more comfortable – to relate to another person’s unhappiness than happiness.  As a literary translator, I know that it is much easier to convey grief, fear and unhappiness from another language and culture than happiness and humour.  Unhappiness travels at the speed of light.  Happiness, for some reason, doesn’t.  It’s stopped at every corner, questioned, analysed, its visa checked, its motivation examined and viewed with suspicion.  Too much happiness is viewed as superficial, twee, unrealistic, whereas unhappiness is frequently described with such complimentary terms as “profound”, “real” and the arts programmes’ favourite, “dark”.  Happy endings are automatically considered flawed, while tragic or unresolved ones are worthy of respect.  Love stories that turn out happily are chick-lit, but the ones with characters battling each other’s demons are more likely to win literary prizes.  When and why did we decide that darkness is worthier than the light?

A few days ago, some neighbours were expressing their sympathy at my husband and me having to move house for the fourth time in as many years, and asked about our plans for the future.  “It’s very simple,” I said, flippantly.  “I’m going to buy a lottery ticket, win the jackpot, then buy a house in Norwich and an attic apartment in Rome.”

Interestingly, they didn’t comment on the obvious flaw in the premise of my plan.  Instead, their faces turned sad and they replied, “Ah, yes, but then when you buy a place you can end up with the neighbours from hell.  And then something always goes wrong and repairs are so expensive…”  There it was – the zooming in on a tiny crack in an otherwise perfect crystal vase.

“Not too bad…” increasingly seems like the favourite British response to the question “How are you?” and people are surprised when my reaction is, “Oh, dear, have you been unwell?”  To me, “Not too bad” implies that things could be worse but, well, they’re not good at the moment.

“A friend in need is a friend indeed” is a saying common to many different cultures, and yet it’s much harder to share good news with a friend than bad ones.  People rally around you at bad news, offer help and sympathy with an enthusiasm that (I hate to say this) sometimes verges on a hint of gratitude.  They plunge into the pool of your unhappiness and swim in it for hours.  Give them a tale of success, independence and joy, and, sadly, they’ll all too often walk around your pool of limpid water looking awkward, almost afraid of dipping their toes in it.

In a café, I overhear a woman at the next table talking to her sister about her forthcoming fiftieth birthday.  “It’s a brilliant age,” I volunteer light-heartedly, being two years her senior.  “It’s when you find out what you really want.”

The woman beams at me.  “Oh, I really don’t mind turning fifty.  In fact, I’m quite looking forward to it.”

“Ah, that’s what she says now,” her sister says.  “Just wait for her to be really fifty and then she’ll feel old like the rest of us.”

That’s what I call toxic.

More and more, I find myself drifting away even from people I love if their default setting is one of pessimism or their focus automatically on the negative.  If I can’t tell them about my joy, then I will not give them the satisfaction of wallowing in my unhappiness.  They have their own.  I have no inclination to encourage Schadenfreude.  

Why do so many of us accept only a vision of a flawed, doomed world? Is there a crack in our mental viewfinder that distorts our perception?

What makes us more attuned to misery than to joy? To pessimism rather than optimism? To despair rather than hope? Why is it often easier to sink under the gravitational force of darkness rather than dare to push upwards through the clouds and stand in the sunlight?

In a world that is a resounding “YES” why do we primarily hear a stream of little “no”s?

Scribe Doll

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Gender Equality: Women’s Attitudes.

International Women’s Day makes me feel uneasy.  The fact that there should still be a need for it.  For all the leaps and bounds we’ve have made in Europe and other countries since the relatively recent times when women couldn’t vote or own property, there are still many issues to address before true equality is achieved between the sexes. And one thing I feel very strongly about is that more could be done by women themselves to redress this imbalance.

Every International Women’s Day, I mentally give thanks for having a vote and for all the countless other rights I enjoy which were denied to my female ancestors and, still now, to millions of other women all over globe. But I also feel deeply sad when I think of how many women – perhaps inadvertently – still fuel this gender inequality with their own attitudes and the signals they send out to men and, especially, to other women. Perhaps our first step should be true independence and self-sufficiency.

Naturally, I am speaking here about women who have a choice.

A few weeks ago, I was at a lunch, surrounded by half a dozen or so women I admire greatly for their education, their professional achievements and their indisputable intelligence.  Every woman at that table could be a role model for any little girl. This is why I was somewhat shocked to discover that I was the only woman there who had not changed her surname after getting married. The others had kept their own names in the professional field but, in their personal lives, had legally taken on their husbands’ surnames. Time and again, I am surprised by the overwhelming number of women – and young women at that – who take their husbands’ surnames after marriage. Some will argue that most of us carry our fathers’ and not our mothers’ surnames, anyway, but there’s a huge difference between being given a name as a baby, when we have no choice in the matter, and consciously, actively choosing to take on a man’s surname in countries where this is no longer a legal requirement. Doesn’t that send a message akin to saying, “because we love each other I will let you own, change, part of my identity”? I hate to say this, but to me, this is setting the tone for inequality from the outset.  Please explain this to me if I am missing something here.

How can you attain equality without self-sufficiency? A landlady I used to lodge with when I was a student once prevented me from doing an easy repair on the cat flap. She said her boyfriend would do it when he dropped by later.  When I tried to insist, she said, “Never learn to do DIY, or you’ll always have to do it.”

Brought up in an all-female household where we fixed our own taps, I was shocked. Actively refusing to learn a skill you didn’t enjoy simply on the grounds that you might have to use it at some point in your life struck me as willfully curtailing, in however small a way, your self-sufficiency.

My landlady was not an isolated case. Too many women delegate financial matters to their husbands because they’re “hopeless at maths” (I confess I was guilty of that in my first marriage).  Too many women lack the most basic DIY skills because “it’s a man’s job”.  Women who – and that’s something I cannot understand – don’t have a bank account of their own.  Fair or not, having at least a little of your own money is the first step to self-preservation, never mind independence.  Many people choose to cohabit without getting married because it’s important for them to feel that they’re in the relationship out of choice and not because they’re bound to it by a legal document.  Trust me, the legal document can be dealt with much more easily than the crippling, paralysing fear, deep at the back of your mind, that you couldn’t leave even if you wanted to because you couldn’t afford a roof over your head or keep yourself in the style of life you have been accustomed to.

I believe that loving and respecting your partner or husband is also expressed by not being totally dependent on him, because every ounce of dependence you place on someone else is the amount by which you prevent him or her from being fully him or herself.  Of course, we all depend on our partners in many ways, emotionally, if nothing else.  However, being financially dependent not only gives your partner power over you and limits your freedom, but places you in a potentially very vulnerable position.

Every Friday night, walking past the pubs in the city centre, you see young women in sheer, short or very low-cut dresses despite the cold weather.  The men, on the other hand, are dressed for the season.  Apart from feeling astonished that they don’t feel the cold, I   can’t help but wonder: Why not just bring a jacket or a wrap in case they feel cold later  or in case it rains? Are they so sure of their health? Are they consciously or unconsciously relying on a man gallantly giving them his jacket? I see these young women balance on such high heels, it is anatomically impossible to – should, God forbid, the need arise – run or even walk fast on them.  As an older woman watching them, they appear to me like the picture of vulnerability and, consequently, potential dependence.

A bugbear of mine is women demanding to be paid maintenance after a divorce if they don’t have young children to support.  Women who feel that, having given “the best years” of their lives bringing up a family and then finding it hard to get jobs in middle age (and, yes, this is a social reality, unfortunately), they are entitled to be supported after a marriage has ended.  As a divorce lawyer I once met put it: a marriage is a relationship, not a pension plan.  Having no children myself, I cannot begin even to imagine how hard or even almost impossible it is to keep earning while raising a family well.  But I also know women who, as soon as their children started school, began attending courses, keeping abreast of developments in their professional field, and taken on part-time work.  Admittedly, many cannot go back to their original, pre-family careers, so they learn new skills.  I am not, not, not suggesting this is easy.  Only that it is worth doing whatever it takes to keep as much of one’s independence as possible.  How can someone who consciously allows herself to be dependent be viewed as an equal?

I frequently come across women doing work they enjoy, often artistic jobs, which don’t pay enough to support even just them alone.  They have the luxury of being able to do this because their husbands have “proper” jobs.  Apart from the blatant unfairness of the situation, what if these husbands suddenly lose their “proper jobs” or decide they want a divorce? Are these women equipped to survive financially? I know only too well how soul-destroying an unfulfilling job can be, but, surely, we have a responsibility to have at least the potential to keep the wolf away from the door, don’t we?

I love it when my husband or a male friend automatically pays for me in a restaurant or coffee shop.  It’s so chivalrous.  But, sisters, we just can’t have it both ways.  In general, I am often surprised by the number of self-proclaimed feminists who turn all 19th century fair sex as soon as it comes to putting their hands in their pockets.

I feel very strongly that one of the ways towards gender equality is also solidarity among ourselves.  Wherever possible, it’s important that women stick together, encourage one another, are sympathetic towards one another, and not undermine members of our own sex.

Let’s stop watching one another in the mirrors of ladies’ rooms, trying to assess who is better dressed, better made-up, more attractive, more of a competition out there where the men are waiting.  Let’s stop putting one another down.  It is deeply sad but undeniably true that too many women see other women as competitors rather than allies.  Too many catty remarks are made where praise and appreciation would be much more constructive.  At the beginning of last winter, wearing a new russet-coloured coat and a Tudor-style, brown velvet hat on a slant, I went to see a female friend.  The two men I was with had commented on how lovely I looked, so I rang my friend’s bell, a smile on my face.  She opened the door, took a quick look at me from top to toe, and said, “Gosh! Russian winter, is it?” My smile disintegrated.

A couple of years ago, a friend invited me over for tea on the occasion of her birthday.  H. had a prior commitment, so I went alone.  To be fair, my friend didn’t bat an eyelid, but the other woman in her living room, complete with husband, said, “What? Without H.?” Her arch tone and raised eyebrow suggested a hint of disapproval rather than genuine surprise.  But perhaps my making it an odd number of guests made the room look untidy.

Many a man is invited over for supper, by the wife of a couple, while his wife is away, “so he doesn’t eat alone, poor thing”.  How many wives are invited over for dinner while their husbands are away?

When a woman is single, it’s true to say that – at least in this country – attached women will socialise with her when their husbands are otherwise engaged and seldom invite her to couples’ outings.  Are they afraid that she cannot hold her own in a conversation without a man present?

Several years ago, a friend invited me to her engagement party.  “Please bring someone,” she said.

I was single at the time, so told her I’d be coming alone.

“But you’ll have no one to talk to!” she replied.

I hadn’t realised that it was a “bring your own conversation partner” event, or that she viewed me as a ventriloquist’s doll.  Needless to say, I declined her invitation.

My new female friend L. tells me this strong territorial instinct is a naturally-programmed leftover from our primitive female ancestors, who had to fight tooth and nail to keep other women from their males in order to ensure their very survival and that of their offspring.  I like to think that we have evolved since then.  We’ve had the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Sturm und Drang, and the Suffragettes.  It’s time to shake off the primitive leftovers, right?

Time to take full responsibility for ourselves, and treat our fellow women with compassion and encouragement – always.  The fact that many men still consider us as second-class citizens is not a reason to lose our self-respect and our dignity, but, on the contrary a reason to consolidate it.  This isn’t about their attitudes, but ours.

Scribe Doll

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Renters or Second-Class Citizens

The phone rings.  It’s the letting agents.  “This is a courtesy call to let you know that the landlord wants to sell your flat and this is your two months’ notice.”

The words hang over your head, making the air oppressive .  “Courtesy call.”  It’s what you associate with a computer helpline ringing to check you’re happy with the service provided, or with a hairdresser confirming that you will be attending your hair appointment.  A “courtesy call” to inform you that you’re being turfed out of your home.  Yes, your home – no matter what landlords and letting agents bully you into believing.  For as long as you’re paying rent for it, it is your home.  The home that the agent comes to check every six months to make sure you haven’t trashed it.  The home for which you have to pay rent six months in advance because you’re self-employed.  Where you have to ask permission before hammering extra picture hooks into the walls.

Once you’ve stopped reeling from the news, a list of questions pertaining to the required move starts multiplying in your head.  You call the letting agents.  “We’d like to pop in and see you –”

“What is it concerning?”

“Well, we have a few questions –”

“Can you ask them over the phone?”

You raise your voice, “Look, is it all right to come and see you or are we not allowed to?”

At the letting agents’ office, the individual who deals with you enunciates their syllables as though they think you can’t keep up.  Their politeness has so much added artificial sweetener, it positively makes you want to retch.

You’re told that, even if you’ve been asked to move out, you still have to abide by the contractual obligation of giving a month’s notice if you find another place earlier.  That you still have to have the flat professionally cleaned, even though it’s going to be sold and not rented.  They don’t sound particularly interested when you tell them you’d like to stay on the agency’s books.  You wonder why, and then it occurs to you that letting agents may consider it too much effort to notify renters if a suitable property becomes available – it’s up to the renters to hunt through the internet, find properties, and hassle the agents.

Moreover, you discover that your deposit will be returned “within 28 days” of your moving out.  This not only means that you have two months to raise a substantial sum of money, but that you won’t be there when the agents examine your flat, and can’t protest if  they decide to deduct any “damage” costs from your deposit.

Renters in the UK are second-class citizens.  You’ve known this for a while, so why are you so shocked, so upset? Haven’t you heard, on numerous occasions, your neighbours (who own their properties) make comments about rubbish being left around or other nuisance being caused, undoubtedly, by “the renters in No. this or that”? The law is on the side of the landlord, not the tenant.  The landlord has rights.  The tenant has obligations.  It’s back to the Middle Ages.

You walk into the other letting agencies.  They rush to you before you’ve had the time to close the door behind you.  “Hello, can I help you?”

“Hello, yes, could I speak to someone about rentals? –”

“What’s your budget?”

No come in, no take a seat.

You wish you could find your next home without going through letting agents.  From what you’ve experienced, they actually appear physically incapable of any warmth, feelings, or respect.  From the robotic way they act towards you, they seem impervious to any sense of shame.  Remember that word? Shame.  You haven’t heard it used for a while.  Shame.  It seems to have gone missing.  Disappeared.  Like honour.

You look around the flat you’ve cared for and made your home, your sanctuary, for the last two and a half years.  Only two and a half years.  You had so hoped you could have been allowed to stay longer.  You see all the books that need packing.  All the CDs, clothes, crockery, and all the odds and ends that can’t be categorised but which make it your home.  You notice that the bathroom sink needs to be cleaned.  You reach out for the scourer then stop.  What’s the point? You’re moving out soon.  You go out for a walk to clear your head.  It starts to rain.  Let’s go back home, where it’s warm.  But, suddenly, it’s not home anymore.  It’s an assembly of walls, floor and ceiling where you no longer feel welcome.  Where you no longer feel safe.

Time to pack.  You tell yourself your next home will be even better.  Yes, much better.  But how long will you be allowed to stay there?

Scribe Doll

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