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My Blogging with Friends project this week calls for a “response post” – beginning with a question raised by a writer in a poem or book. Mary Oliver asked,

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”

I have never really known the answer to this question. I didn’t know the answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question when I was a kid, when I was at university, and at various stages through my life. Sure, I’ve had ambitions, and wishlists, and I still do. (And no, they are not bucket lists quite yet!) I’ve never found one particular career that was my “passion.” I get annoyed when people who have been fortunate enough to find a job that they are passionate about think that everyone can do this. They can’t. I’ve been luckier than most, I suspect, in that I’ve had some great experiences in certain jobs, and felt that I’ve helped to improve the world, along with the inevitable problems we find everywhere. After all, any workplace is only as good as its manager, colleagues, and organisation. I’ve never worked anywhere that was faultless. Has anyone?

I have many interests, but nothing that absorbs me overwhelmingly, except perhaps blogging. And travel. But travel is not something I can do every day. It’s not something I can do now, and due to this pandemic, may not be able to do it for a year or two. I’m going to have to rethink travel aspirations. But I’m lucky to have so many travel experiences to look back on too. And I love doing that.

I’m a bit of a jack of all trades, and always have been. I find a lot of things easy to do, and so haven’t found just one activity that I want to focus on, that I do above and beyond everything else. And so because I don’t specialise, I don’t become an expert in any one topic or activity or job. Yes, I understand the appeal of digging down into the detail of a particular subject (whether it is your job or a hobby). I love learning about new topics, and getting into detail. When I was volunteering for a a charity focusing on ectopic pregnancy, I loved learning all the medical and psychological information surrounding our bodies, and our psyches. I know that delving further and further into one topic would be very satisfying. But for me? Only for so long.

I’m pretty sure that doing one thing above everything else would see me suffering from FOMO (the fear of missing out). I’m very appreciative of people who do specialise, but it is not really for me. I mean, I have multiple blogs and Instagram accounts – focused on those of us without children, an old travelblog that I keep talking about rejigging, and this one, because I wanted the freedom to cover whatever I feel like talking about!

When we eat, or I cook, we traverse a range of cuisines and foods. I listen to a variety of music, I dabble in a variety of languages, I can sew and knit and crochet and embroider, but I don’t do much of any of those. I took up photography, but only to learn more about it, and improve my own skills. I’d love to be better, but struggle to juggle all my other interests with it. So taking it much further to become an expert doesn’t really interest me. Even at school, I was an all-rounder. I won best sportsperson because I swam and ran and jumped and played netball! (Though I don’t do any of that any more.) And when we travel, we travel reasonably widely, whereas I know people who go back to the same destination or same country every year. I understand that too, the comfort and delight of getting to know another place intimately, and to feel as if you belong. It appeals to me as well, and I’ve often thought about the idea of having a holiday home. But frankly, I would never want to feel so restricted, obligated to go back to one place all the time, when there’s a whole big wide world out there waiting for me.

So here I am, in my mid-50s, a generalist but comfortable with that, because it gives me an overview of the world I live in, a broad appreciation of the people who share it with me, and a desire to see more, and learn more. I read, I learn, I experiment, I study, I travel. What am I doing with this one wild and precious life? Perhaps the simply answer is that “I explore.” Physically, intellectually, emotionally. I’m exploring the world that is available to me, making the most of it (even when it is as limited as it is at the moment), expanding my perspective and understanding. Hopefully, anyway.

I have a great topic to write on for my 2020 Blogging with Friends project, but it’s going to take some thought. I love having these different and challenging topics to blog about! So in the meantime, it is time for another Monday Miscellany.

The thought of winter coming (it feels like it has arrived today) and colds and flu and more COVID vulnerability has me trying to boost my immune system. So I’ve been exercising more than I did all summer! (Though to be fair, the weather is so much better now – calm and clear, if cooler.) I can feel my muscles strengthening, which is great.  I’ve had a sinus cold for weeks (months?) and it seems slowly to be clearing up, which makes me feel more positive this morning.

I’m a bit grumpy at a member of our extended family. We have included our father-in-law (FIL) in our “bubble” because he is 90 and living alone. But a well-meaning (I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt) cousin of my husband’s decided that the rules didn’t apply to her, and she (and her 75-year-old vulnerable husband) visited him last week. Bursting our “bubble.” If she visited him, I wonder who else she has visited in contravention of the rules. Putting FIL and us all at risk. I am not impressed. I know the risk in NZ is very low. But I’m still not impressed at her cavalier attitude. She has been “someone of importance” in our city and country, as well as a former healthcare worker, so clearly thinks she knows best. Double grrr.

I made my own Easter eggs on Sunday! New Zealand’s favourite Easter eggs, traditionally, have been marshmallow egg halves, covered in chocolate, and joined together. Then, a year or so ago, Cadbury stopped manufacturing these (and other kiwi favourites) in Dunedin, and took everything to Australia, telling us that we’d all still be able to have our favourites. As a popular beer ad (commercial) says sarcastically, “Yeah, right!” Sure enough, last year before Easter, they announced their equipment in Australia couldn’t make these eggs, and they introduced a single layer chocolate covered “egg” that wasn’t even egg shaped – it had a flat bottom! There was widespread outrage throughout our country! Thankfully, a small local manufacturer (thanks Rainbow!) took up the mantle. But Cadbury dominance meant that smaller supermarkets didn’t stock them, and although we found them in a large supermarket last year, this year we couldn’t get to it.

So, to make a long story short, I made my own, finding a great recipe online. I found the marshmallow easy to make, but really really hard to get shaped in my half-egg mould. (I’m going to have to research how to fix that before next year.) Only a few eggs looked remotely like eggs, though I managed to trim them down to join them together, getting that double layer chocolate crunch we love here so much. Wow, they were rich though!

A chocolate-covered marshmallow Easter egg with a bite out of it

Marshmallow Easter egg

I’ve never liked food waste, though I’ve certainly contributed my fair share to it. But suddenly, when shopping is more difficult, it seems criminal. So we finally delved into the bottom of the freezer and dug out a rack of lamb that has been there for (embarrassed shrug) years, and cooked it on Saturday night. It was delicious, and we suffered no aftereffects! (So much for all those guides that say you can only freeze meat for three months!) On the schedule this afternoon is to either bake a banana cake or banana muffins, with some brown bananas. And as we’ve run out of bread (before the supermarket run tomorrow), lunch will also be something from the freezer – I’m liking the thought of pumpkin gnocchi I made at the end of winter last year. We’ve only had an extra freezer for about a year (before that we only ever had the one in the bottom of our fridge/freezer), and it’s really paying off this month!

I finally finished a book I’ve been reading for two months, and hoping to get into some more books, as I’ve slipped behind schedule in my Goodreads challenge for this year. I can’t afford to get behind – and I had such a good year last year I want to keep it up. Reading provides such enjoyment!

All the other jobs we wanted to do this autumn are on hold, because we can’t get to the hardware store, tilers, etc. I need to sort out all my clothes, but I’ve been waiting for my husband to fix one of my drawers. I’m still waiting, so my summer clothes are all sitting around waiting to be stored away, and my winter clothes are also strewn around (well, in neat piles) to leave the drawers empty. Sigh.

I have a daily dose of happiness just before I cook dinner (and during – I set up my ipad on the kitchen bench), watching a live safari at Ngala Game Reserve (and Djuma Reserve) on Wildwatch Live/ Andbeyondtravel on Facebook or Youtube. Yesterday,  in an hour or so, there was a leopard sleeping in a tree (then jumping out when she heard something), a lion drinking out of a pond, another lion pride gnawing on buffalo bones, elephants digging holes in the dried up river bed to find water to drink from, a golden orb-weaver spider, kudu and wildebeest and oh-so-beautiful impala, a tortoise, and my favourite bird (a lilac-breasted roller). I hope all these places survive their shutdown, and that one day I can go back and thank them.

P1010088 roller web

Lilac-breasted roller

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red blooms

I photographed this tree a few weeks ago, thinking it was a New Zealand rata tree, with these bright red flowers. Rata, though, generally flower just after pohutukawa, in January or at latest February. But here it is, photographed in late March, flowering profusely.  After  featuring the eucalyptus flower on the tree at our front door for the last Thursday Tree post, I walked past this tree again just a few days ago, and wondered if it is same tree. I am not sure – the flowers look redder – at least in my photograph. If it is, I have tree envy – this specimen is much more impressive!

It is one of the joys of this autumn lockdown though – getting to go on walks around my neighbourhood, and enjoy everyone else’s trees too.

A large tree covered in reddish flowers

Another in the Thursday Tree Love series – find all the other bloggers doing it here.

My French fantasyland

When I was kid, I used to look forward to Sunday evenings. We’d have tea, a bath, and dash into the living room (sometimes wearing nothing but a towel) to catch the beginning of the weekly Disneyland programme. My favourite was always Fantasyland. I adored it. The magical landscapes, the fantasy of magic, the cute gingerbread-like houses. I wanted to be there.

I was in my late 20s when I finally got to Europe. I remember being amazed at how old the city centres were, how authentically they were kept, how magical they felt. The Left Bank in Paris, the old city in Bern, Rothenberg in Germany were all so much more like the fantasy lands I had watched on TV than I had ever expected. Ten years later, we went to France for a much longer trip. And I fell in love with Sarlat-la-Canéda, in the Dordogne. The market square of Sarlat was straight out of Disneyland. Cinderella could have grown up in one of the stone houses in the narrow winding streets. We sat at a bar at one end of the square sheltering from the rain, sipping an aperitif – a kir royal for me – and writing postcards, whilst gazing at the buildings around the square. I was entranced* and could have stayed there forever. And – apart from the drink –  I felt like a delighted 10-year-old.

But we ventured out to other nearby villages, and discovered each one could have been the fantasy of a Disney artist; Rocamadour, La Roque-Gageac, and Domme were all gorgeous too.

I continue to adore European old towns and villages. There are a number in Italy that are very special to me, but those villages in France stole my heart, and kept the child in me alive.

 

* So entranced, that I forgot to take a photograph that day, though perhaps I can blame the rain.

Déjà vu

This time four years ago, I have been reminded by an app, I was also in lockdown. I’d just broken my ankle, and my mobility was severely curtailed, with my foot in a cast, forbidden from putting any weight on it. I was pretty helpless the entire month of April, reliant on my husband for almost everything. Things quickly got worse too, as it became stressful in the middle of the month when my father-in-law had a heart attack, and then another one a few weeks later. My poor husband had to look after me, go to work during the busiest time of his entire two-year contract, then afterwards drive hours a day picking up his mother (who was no longer driving in her 90s) and taking her to the hospital and back, worrying about them both. To say he was stressed would be an understatement. To say we ate a lot of takeaways (takeout for the North Americans), would not! At the same time, I was executor of my mother’s estate (along with my two sisters), and we were trying to finalise the sale of her house, etc. I remember negotiating the price with the real estate agent (and my sisters) from my bed! Everything had hit at once!

I noticed that I said I was trying to write, and I was studying Spanish. I’d forgotten that, but I made a point every morning of doing an hour or so on my Spanish language app. It’s time I got back into doing that! I learned to whizz around the dining room and kitchen on my computer chair (with wheels), which made life a bit easier during the day. And I slid up and down the stairs on my bum. (I couldn’t handle going up and down the stairs on my crutches, given the nature of the stairs, lack of handrails etc).

Frankly, this lockdown is a lot easier. I think that’s easy for me to say because a) NZ doesn’t have as many community transmission cases as many places, b) it’s lovely autumn weather (so far), and we’ve been able to go on walks almost every day, and c) I don’t have kids to worry about/make the house noisy. But I’m mobile, my father-in-law is doing okay with daily healthcare visits, and everyone I know is in the same boat.

The fact that everyone is in the same position does help in many ways, and that even in four years, technology is so much better able to cope. Online communities are doing amazing things. My friends who are avid music lovers are talking about the livestreams of favourite singers, our local symphony orchestra is doing them, and I saw one from the British Ukelele Orchestra the other day too. When I was laid up with my foot in plaster, I couldn’t sit at my computer as easily as I can now (it hurt!), and so writing or reading or watching livestreams online wasn’t as possible as it is now. The best thing is what I am watching now, as I write this. As you may know, I love safaris. They’re my “happy place.” And one of the game reserves I’ve visited in South Africa (Ngala) has linked with another, and with WildWatch Live, and they are live-streaming game drives twice a day (they do them at sunrise and in the afternoon, on Youtube and Facebook). They are perfectly timed for me, as their sunrise drive has been in the late afternoon for me. I’ve linked them above, if you’re keen to see a real safari drive. They are true to form – sometimes a bit slow, other times everything happens at once. But they are absolutely like being there – except you don’t feel the fresh air, or the cold(!) air before the sun comes up, the bumps in the road, and we don’t have to duck to avoid the spiky thorns. Also, we don’t stop for hot chocolates with amarula liqueur to perk us up! (Though I did watch one the other day with a glass of chardonnay!)

As with April 2016, I have to stay at home. But it’s not so bad.  Like my broken ankle, I have hope that the world will heal, though maybe not as quickly. But I hope in four years, I am reminded of this and it seems like a dim and distant even in the past.

And so to brighten your day (and mine), I’m going to share two of my favourite photos from a safari that I went on IRL. The impala photo is from the same reserve where the livestreams are based:

A 40 Year Reunion

I shared my post  about my AFS year a few weeks ago with those very students who were such an important part of my year, and remain an important part of my life. 33 of us are on a Fbk group, and we’re individually in touch with one or two others who don’t “do” Fbk. There are a few who continue to be elusive, having lost touch in the intervening years before the internet reunited so many of us.

As it was our 40-year anniversary, we had talked previously talked about whether there was a possibility of a reunion there. I’d been planning a trip, another person was waiting for a wedding date there before she could commit, but the likelihood of more than one or two of us getting together there was slim. I was sad about that, but resigned to it. It is 2020, after all, and there’s a global pandemic, so travel is pretty much impossible, and if not impossible, then it is definitely unadvisable. But then Sharon B had the brilliant idea to do what lots of people are doing during this pandemic.

“Let’s have an online reunion!” she suggested.

After a little organisation – mostly because the Kiwis complained about getting up at 3 am – we fixed a time. Cocktail hour for many of the Americans on  Friday night, and early afternoon for the Kiwis the next day worked perfectly. Those of us who had never used Zoom downloaded it. We tried to link in a few who weren’t part of the Fbk group too – at the last minute I realised Madeline wasn’t in the group, and linked her into it just in time.

At the appointed time, we logged on. It was fantastic, watching each person sign in to the meeting, seeing their face for maybe the first time in 39 years. Exclamations of delight, helloes, waves, and big grins all round. It took quite a while for everyone to get on, especially as many of us had learning curves. A few didn’t quite realise their discussions with the families would be heard (Jane putting in a crucial beer order, for example), but we all figured it out eventually. And at least we weren’t like the young woman I read about last week, who was on a Zoom meeting with her workplace, took her laptop into the bathroom, placed it on the floor, and sat on the toilet, before she realised they could all see her! We may almost be boomers, but we’re technologically capable, thank you very much.

Fifteen of us signed in, which is not a bad turnout given the circumstances. We had a great catch-up, finding out where people lived and what they’ve been doing the last 39 years, who had been back to Thailand, were still in touch with their Thai families, etc. Of course, we indulged in some reminiscing. Some of us drank tea or coffee or water, others enjoyed wine or cocktails, one fell asleep on the couch after a busy work week, Jen dialled in briefly from her car (when she wasn’t driving) in Australia, and right at the end, Cee cooked her dinner. Gradually people started signing off, all with commitments to do this again, sending love and safe wishes.

When it got down to the last six or so of us, it was a more manageable conversation, and my goodbyes when it got down to three of us were lengthy, as we chatted easily, and didn’t want to sign off, but after three hours, figured it was time.

Technology makes life so much easier, so much richer. Even in times that are hard, when people might feel isolated from others, when people were already feeling divided, technology allowed us to come together. I’m still smiling now as I think about it.

My Year of Mandarin

Week Eight of Blogging with Friends

Twenty-five years ago (and a couple of months) – I can’t believe it has been that long – I started studying Mandarin Chinese. My workplace – a government agency – had advertised two positions based in China and Taiwan respectively, and I had been successful for the Taiwan position. The successful candidates would spend ten months studying Mandarin Chinese full-time, prior to taking up the positions in these countries for a three-year term. The process was rushed, with interviews and assessments occurring in just a couple of weeks, followed almost immediately with the beginning of the custom-made course at Wellington’s Victoria University. My husband and I had some misgivings, but we thought that we could make the position work. We knew we had to make arrangements for work for him overseas, or for how our relationship would cope with a separation.

I had, in fact, always wanted to study Chinese. I had applied to study it at university in my first year, after returning from Thailand. But the professor wouldn’t let me join the class, as – due to the timing of my return from my student exchange – I would be starting two weeks after everyone else, most of whom had already studied the language at high school. The following year, when I wanted to take it up again, he had left the university, and – this being the 1980s in New Zealand – Mandarin was no longer offered. I took up Japanese instead, but pursued it just for one year (despite getting an A).

Several years later, in my first workplace, Chinese and Japanese language courses were offered as part of our career progression. Like my subsequent workplace, we had to apply for the positions and meet language assessments. I sat the Modern Language Aptitude Test (used for the US State Dept), found it surprisingly easy, and scored very highly. But precisely at the time they were to make the appointments, the Trade Department and Foreign Ministry merged, and all appointments went on hold.

So, about seven years later when the opportunity to study Chinese came up for the third time, I applied again. I’d spent six weeks in Taipei the previous year relieving in the position that was available, and found it fascinating. Taipei reminded me a lot of Bangkok, and I liked it and knew I could cope with it. So when I was offered the position, I took it up.

There were four students undertaking this special course, two from our organisation, and two from another (ironically, one I had left just a year or so earlier). We started studying about a month before the university academic year began, and concluded about a month after the year had closed for other students. For five hours a day, five days a week, we studied Mandarin. I’d then go home every afternoon, and study some more. We couldn’t afford to slip behind even for a day, given the pace of the course. We spent our time in a little bubble, four students squashed into a tiny room in a little old house that had been converted to part of the Asian languages department. For five hours a day, we watched the teacher and the whiteboard, both only a metre or two away from our desks. This is the year my eyesight deteriorated, the year I needed to wear glasses full-time.

We had two native Chinese speakers teaching us, with oversight from the Kiwi Head of the Chinese Language Department at the university. His input for an hour once a week was useful, as he was able to explain particular issues from the perspective of an English language speaker. After struggling all week with certain concepts, suddenly he would show us the light.

Our Chinese speakers came from Beijing and Shanghai respectively. We struggled with their accents. One in particular was very pedantic about how we should pronounce words and tones, but was completely oblivious of the fact that she pronounced words differently than she thought she did. So mimicking her was at times fruitless! We learned Chinese with a Beijing accent, which was appropriate I guess because three of the four of us would end up living and working in Beijing. Consequently, I speak Mandarin with a completely different accent to my Malaysian sister-in-law, who speaks with a southern Chinese/southeast Asian accent. I guess it’s the difference between British or Kiwi or American English.

We also learned the simplified Chinese characters – used in mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia (promoted by the Chinese government in the 1950s and 60s to improve literacy) – rather than the traditional (and much more complex) characters that were still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Once we became more proficient in reading and writing, I had to start learning not just the simplified characters so I could be involved in the course work, but the traditional characters as well. This required a lot of extra work. You can see the difference here. I also tried to bear in mind the different pronunciations, but I figured they would come once I was immersed in it.

Traditional and corresponding simplified characters

Traditional character on left, and its simplified version on the right. From http://www.hackingchinese.com/media/pictures/simptrad.png

As I mentioned above, I had studied Japanese in my first year at university many years earlier. Although I couldn’t remember any of it, I could remember the feel of writing the characters, making the shapes. This helped. Maybe too the fact that I could speak, read and write Thai meant that I was used to seeing odd symbols and interpreting those as language, or to go back even further, reading symbols as music. They do say that language, music, and maths abilities all go together. It makes a lot of sense to me.

I was diligent, finding the idea of studying as my job to be motivating, and it was easy to be disciplined. It was a very different experience from studying at university the first time! I realised why adult students often get so much more out of their studies than young, fresh-out-of-high-school students.

By the end of the year, we had completed close (but not close enough) to a full undergraduate Bachelor’s degree course in Mandarin Chinese. I was able to read simple articles in Chinese language newspapers, and we could hold conversations in Mandarin, but was still far from fluent. (Two of my colleagues went on for another full year of study in Beijing, before beginning work there.) I found that Mandarin had chased out any other languages I had locked away in the language-centre of my brain. Going to a Thai restaurant was very confusing, as I would start to speak in Thai, but the Mandarin words kept getting in the way.

Unfortunately, at the end of the year, and as a result of a key personnel change in HR, my agency reneged on agreements – sadly unwritten – made earlier in the year, and on which basis I had agreed to spend the year studying. This change in terms of my appointment meant that it was no longer viable – financially or in relationship or career terms – for me to go to Taiwan. It’s a long story! Anyway, they were not prepared to negotiate. I could probably have taken an employment case against them, but I didn’t want to go on that basis. Foolishly, my employers threw away the commitment of a dedicated staff member who had spent a year working very hard to come top of the class. They wasted the salary they had paid me for that year, the salary they paid for the person who replaced me at work, and the fee they’d paid for the course to be delivered. All to allow one arrogant and unprofessional HR manager to save face. So I never went to Taiwan.

I’ve not been to China yet either. Though I did share a brief conversation with a woman in the transit lounge of Shanghai airport on our way to London. She was hawking a Chinese language course. I told her, in Mandarin, that I had already studied it and forgotten it all. She replied that I clearly needed to buy the course. She was right.

I remembered the head of the Chinese department telling us that the first time you learn a language you forget it. But the second time, it sticks. Here’s hoping I get the chance to test that theory.