Friday, 18 April 2014

A lovely day out.....with a difference

A couple of weeks ago the children had their end of term holidays and I wrote down all the places they wanted to go, bearing in mind that not all of them wanted to go to the same place.  One of the firm favourites with everyone was the beach, and so one morning everyone got up to get ready for a barbeque on the beach.  But we live in Algeria….and we have workmen……in the house….when they turn up that is… there’s even less chance of anything actually going to plan.  And this day was no exception.  My husband and I left early to buy turkey, and also to get my temporary residency paper stamped for the umpteenth time at the police station, so that by the time we got home and had the workmen, who surprise, surprise did turn up, sorted it was around 1.00pm before we left home.  But having lived in Algeria for as long as I have, if I have learnt anything, it’s to grab any opportunity with both hands and run with it.

I love driving through the country roads to the beach with the fields on either side full of flourishing vegetables, past shops selling the most beautiful fruit and vegetables in all their glorious colours, and passing by hedges of bamboo that seem to stand to attention on either side of the road.  During the summer we usually frequent a beach that’s quite off the beaten track and therefore a lot quieter than the popular beaches, but this day we decided to go to one of the latter and were pleasantly surprised to see that it was almost totally deserted.  We were able to park quite close to a lovely spot on the beach where a fire was still smouldering away after its previous occupants had left it.  The boys went foraging for firewood and prepared the barbeque and the girls and I …..just sat and enjoyed the view.  I realised, as I sat there and felt myself unwind, that I have totally underestimated the importance of just sitting and being still.

The sea air gave the simple food the most wonderful taste, and wandering around the beach picking up shells and comparing ‘finds’ made the day a magical one Alhamdulilah.  As we were leaving I thought to myself,I hope nothing happens to spoil the beauty of the day. Almost…as if I had known……

As we were driving back I took some photos, and we came to a part of the road we had driven the previous day, where I had seen a glimpse of land jutting out to the sea.  As my husband’s idea of slowing down for me to take a photo sometimes means lifting his foot marginally off the accelerator and, as my camera is a simple point-in-the-direction-and-press-a-button kind, I decided I would be very clever and have my camera ready in my hand out the passenger window to take the ‘Perfect Picture’.  Suddenly my husband and the children in the car shouted, almost in unison, ‘The Camera!’  And I said, ‘what about the camera?’  Then I heard them all shout ‘The Policeman!’ I honestly didn’t know what they were going on about as my husband slowed the car to a halt and I looked at them all in amazement.   ‘WHAT policeman!  WHERE?’ I asked.  ‘The one outside the police station!’ they all shouted at me as if I was an imbecile.  WHAT police station!!!!  Honestly I didn’t have a clue for a minute until I looked back, out the window and saw a policeman come up to the car.  This is where my heart dropped to my feet, because one of the very first things my husband impressed upon me when we came to Algeria on holiday in 1987 that first time, was to NEVER take any photos of the police or navy, or any of their buildings.  And I’ve always been so careful to comply, but this time I was so busy waiting for the view to come in sight, with getting the right picture, I never even saw the policeman or the station, or realised that I was practically waving the thing in his face.  I handed over the camera and thought to myself that it was ok, as I hadn’t taken any pictures of them anyway, so they would see that for themselves wouldn’t they??????

The policeman was very polite and courteous and walked around the car to speak to my husband, but standing to one side, without actually looking in the car.  I have found this to often be the case when we’re stopped as a family, or even when it’s just me and my husband…..the police, out of respect do not want to encroach on our privacy and will usually stand to one side to talk to my husband.  On this occasion my husband got out of the car, and the policeman first asked if there were family photos on the camera (again this is out of respect as he didn’t want to offend my husband by looking at pictures of the women in the family, especially if there was a possibility that they weren’t wearing hijab), but my husband told him that there weren’t any…..just views of our day out.  Alhamdulilah I was so grateful for the fact that I don’t take any photos of people, and this day was no exception.

As he looked through the photos my daughter, who was watching surreptitiously from her vantage point in the back seat, suddenly exclaimed ‘They’ve found something!  They’re going back to the police station!’ As soon as she said it I remembered……that morning when we’d been chasing after my paperwork, I had taken what I thought was a nice photo of a general view with the new tramway……and…….a police station plonked right in the middle.  It was in the distance, but the unique blue and white colour made it stand out, and while I didn’t think anything of it at the time, the policeman, unfortunately, didn’t share my view. My daughter wailed ‘WHY did you take a photo of the police station?’

What I didn’t realise until my husband told me afterwards, was that the policeman actually said to him ‘let’s go into the police station where we’ll be more comfortable.’  If I had known this I would have had images of the whole spy story, cold war type ‘comfortable’…..the kind that brought up visions of chains and hands being hammered to old wooden tables with rusty nails.

We waited in the car and I sank into a pit of guilt, feeling so stupid and awful for spoiling such a lovely day, and also knowing that my husband was dog tired and really didn’t need all this hassle.  The children decided that they would watch for my husband to leave the police station to gauge whether he was mad or not – if he came straight out fast and didn’t say a word to the policeman who stopped him then he WAS mad and we would just all put our heads down and suffer the onslaught.  He did come out and came straight up to my window, handed me the camera and asked me to delete the photos I took of the police station.  My husband knows his way around a computer like nobody’s business but my humble digital camera totally defeated him and he couldn’t figure out how to delete them himself.  Then he asked ‘WHY did you take a photo of the police station’, and my reply didn’t sound any more sensible second time round.

He went back, and shortly after came back out, spoke to the policeman and then got into the car saying, ‘no more pictures of police stations, ok?’  There was nothing he could say to me that would have made me feel worse than I did at that very moment anyway.  It turns out that when he went into the police station he had to speak with the man in charge, who took one look at him and said ‘I know you’.  My husband didn’t recognise him at all, even when it transpired that they both came from the same area.  He was very polite and apologised for all the fuss but said that, with the Presidential elections only a couple of weeks away they were all being extra cautious (or, in my words, ‘jittery’).  He asked him a few questions, checked that I had deleted the photos (just looked at the number of photos on the camera), and then said to him that if there was anything he ever needed any help with, not to hesitate to come and ask him, and then he asked him ‘What was she trying to take a picture of anyway?’  My husband told him the particular view I was aiming for, and the policeman replied ‘But she can’t take a photo of that either…it’s owned by the military!’ 

I think it’s going to take a while for me to live this down…... if ever.

Monday, 14 April 2014

An Irish love story

My Mum had two sisters, her only siblings, who played a big part in my childhood and growing up, and who were always there for me even after my marriage and my becoming a mother.  Every trip home was not complete without either a visit from or to them.  The summer of 2008 was no different, and my Aunty Peggy came to visit me for a family dinner and get-together hosted, as always, in my brother’s home by my long suffering sister-in-law, their home being the very one in which I had grown up.  My Aunty Peggy had brought a dessert she had made, a berry crumble served with fresh cream, with berries she had picked from her own garden…no mean feat for a woman in her 80s who was in constant pain with the osteoporosis that deprived her of 7 inches from her spine. After dinner almost everyone went off to walk the dogs, or rather to be walked by the dogs, and my Mum and Aunty Peggy along with my sister-in-law sat on the comfy sofas drinking cups of tea and coffee, and I asked my Aunt to tell us, once again, the story of how she met Uncle Gus and ended up living in Kenya.

It was the spring of 1950 and while my parents were away in England on honeymoon her two sisters, Nancy and Peggy (Anastasia and Margaret to be precise and formal, although my Mum always called them Nance, and Peg), travelled up from their native Limerick to Cork to prepare the caravan, which was to be my parents’ home for the first 10 years of their married life while they built their home, for their return.  Irish families, being like Algerian families who seem to go on forever, my maternal grand uncle was married to a Cork girl whose mother insisted that any time any of the family came up from Limerick they should come to her home for a meal.  Somehow, without any help of the internet, telephone, mobile phone or any technology whatsoever she got wind of the fact that my aunts were in Cork and quickly dispatched her son to invite them for a meal.  While there her son asked if they would like to come with him to visit his brother who was convalescing from TB in hospital, and so that is how Aunty Peggy came to first meet Uncle Gus.  As she used to laughingly tell her children in later years ‘the first time I met your Dad he was in bed!’  He had been a teacher for the Jesuits but once he contracted TB they no longer would employ him so he was working as a rates collector. 

As time went on and she would visit my Mum in Cork she would see him in his mother’s house whenever she went to visit.  He finally got a teaching job, and a year later saw in the newspaper an advertisement for a job in the Aga Khan High School in Kenya for which he applied and was accepted. So he packed up and went, but not without first getting permission to write to Peggy.  At this point in the story my Mum interjected ‘you know….he kissed me before he ever kissed you!’  I cannot describe the look of total disbelief and yes, jealousy, on my Aunt’s face, or the smugness on my Mum’s, until she relented and said, with a laugh, ‘As he was leaving he kissed me on the cheek and said “Pass that on to Peg for me”!’

He corresponded regularly and was a wonderful letter writer but unfortunately Peggy wasn’t, and used to have my Grandmother constantly nagging her to reply. Gus eventually proposed to Peggy via letter and she accepted. Granny often said afterwards that she couldn’t believe she had ever let her go so far away and alone. I think that, at that time, my aunt was in her early 30s, and this was the 1950s and perhaps my Grandmother thought this was her last opportunity to get married. My aunt herself on the other hand would never get married unless it was the right person.   Uncle Gus then organised her whole trip
In February/March 1955 Peggy set off from Limerick to travel the breadth of Ireland to Dublin where she got the ferry to London. There she stayed for 1 night in a lodging house arranged by Gus, until his cousin came and brought her back to her home where she stayed until it was time to take the boat.

She sailed from London stopping off for a few hours in Gibraltar where the lady with whom she was sharing her cabin disembarked, so she had the cabin to herself for the rest of the voyage. They then stopped at Marseille and she was able to go ashore for a while and subsequently they stopped at Genoa, Ayman and travelled through the Suez Canal to Kenya. En route they went out in glass bottomed boats and saw the marine life beneath them. And in every port there was a letter from Gus.

She finally arrived in Kenya in early March and she and Gus travelled around and explored. Needless to say everything was very proper and she did not stay in Gus’ home.  They were married in Mombasa on 27 April, 1955 and I was always amused when I saw their wedding photos and it was raining!  To go all the way from Ireland to Kenya and still have it raining on your wedding day!!!  Not that it bothered Aunty Peggy one little bit… she was far too happy.  They went for their honeymoon to Nairobi, where there had been floods – so the honeymoon consisted of days out to different convents and monasteries!  They traveled up the mountains and fried eggs on the bare rocks, and she always claimed they were the nicest eggs she ever ate.

After their first son was born they returned to Ireland via England in 1956/57, but due to the Suez Crisis in 1956 they were unable to return taking the route Peggy had taken, but instead had to travel the much longer route South and around the Cape of Good Hope. In Cape town Gus had flu and Michael had an ear infection but there was a doctor on board to see to them and another of Gus’s cousins visited them there.

They were married for almost 14 years and had 4 children and a very happy life in Kenya where Uncle Gus became the headmaster of the Aga Khan High School in Mombasa. But in 1968 Uncle Gus was diagnosed with liver cancer and flown home to Ireland where he was brought straight from the airplane to the hospital. He had a whole line of seats to himself on the plane as he also had a nurse and medical equipment who traveled with him, and of course his family, who now included a little bird, an African Seed eater, who had fallen out of a nest and whom my aunt, who could never ignore a stray anything, be it bird, animal or human, kept wrapped in a towel on the journey and whose first few days in cold Ireland were spent in the airing cupboard.

I remember so clearly being woken up in the middle of the night to push over to let my cousin into the bed.  My memories of that time as a six year old were ones of deep disappointment….I had told all my friends in our local primary school that my cousin (the youngest was a week younger than me and was the only one who counted as far as I was concerned) was coming from Africa, and we all assumed….. as one does of course, being born in Africa…that she would be black!  But…instead she was fairer than me, being blonde and blue-eyed!  Oh the disappointment of it!  Her only redeeming feature was that she had her ears pierced…, at least, that was something exotic!  Aunty Peggy spent every day of the next 6 weeks going in and out to the hospital until Uncle Gus finally passed away.  The African Seed eater was named Twiggy and he lived for many, many years bringing much joy to my Aunt and her family.

My aunty Peggy loved Uncle Gus to the day she died and often, when his name was mentioned, she would have a tear in her eye. She, herself, passed away a few months after telling us her story, and, as my brother wrote in a text to me, ’Family gatherings will never be the same again.’

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Workmen in the house

Our terrace/construction site

We have workmen in the house….yet again.  As I have mentioned previously our house is a work in progress, and in addition like any property needs constant maintenance.  As a result of our living so close to the sea the humidity and probably also the salty sea air can wreak havoc with the outside of the house and eat away at the cement and, more importantly, the metal rods inserted within the walls and floors which are supposed to strengthen the walls, but if eroded could actually weaken the structure.  So finally after putting it off and then not being able to find someone with an affordable quote to come and do it for us, we found someone who started work during the last week of December.  This entailed knocking down and rebuilding non-supporting walls on the terrace and on one balcony for a start.

We have neighbours on either side of us and one is absolutely wonderful and helpful and always has been from the day we moved in, and the other one…isn’t. As the walls that needed rebuilding adjoin the latter’s house, my husband, in the interests of good neighbourliness (in other words to avoid the endless whining and nagging he knows would result otherwise) decided to build another wall against the existing one so as not to have any rubble (or even a pebble, and this is no exaggeration) falling onto the person’s property.  The next stage of the work was to put a protective surface on all the outside walls that would protect them from the elements.  There are various ways of doing this but the best, according to my husband who did his research, is to put a thin surface of pebble sand, from the beach, onto the wall, and this can be done with a decorative effect.
Beach....on the wall!
Work started off very promisingly as often does here in Algeria and then came to a shuddering halt.  First it was because it was extremely windy, then it was because of the rain.  Then one day the sun was shining and there wasn’t even so much as a breeze rustling through the leaves of the trees… and still no workmen.  But there were the heaps of sand and cement, stacks of bricks and bags of beach sand stacked up all over the place to remind us of them.

After about a week they returned, full of apologies, and said they had been called back to another painting job they had done for the army and who weren’t happy with the colour so they had to redo it.  No harm done, off they started again, only for it to rain the following Saturday, the first day of the week for them and then they didn’t return for a few days.  This time it was another small inside job they had undertaken thinking it wouldn’t take them long and they would finish by the time the weather improved.  They worked for a few days and then started coming in much later in the morning and leaving early, because one of them had a workman of his own in HIS house.  Then OUR workman said that he needed to do a quicker job, one for which he would get paid, so HE could pay the workman in HIS house.  This is where I started to feel like I was bang in the middle of a set of falling dominoes
To give them their due and to be absolutely fair, they did keep coming back and when they did turn up they worked very hard, even to the point of doing extra things that the job threw at them at times.  They have also done a superb job so far and the finish is even better than I expected, and they have put finishing touches that weren’t in the original plan.  They have said that they like working for my husband because he doesn’t nag them, hang over them while they work, and is easy going when things don’t always go to plan – qualities I’ve been criticising my husband for because I’m afraid they are taking advantage of his patience.  In my mind it’s ok for ME to take advantage of his patience…after all he acquired it in the first place after years of living with me, so I think it’s my right at this stage!
The 'before' picture.....
The whole experience has brought out the split personality which I never knew existed within myself.  On one hand I want to absolutely murder them once and for all and bury them IN the wall, and on the other I want to placate them and treat them well so they will finish the job and clear up the mess.  I feel like an abandoned child when they don’t turn up and then so gleeful when I hear the work going on when they do.  At other times,  I feel like a hostage to their whims and wonder if this is a bit like the Stockholm syndrome:  I want them to stay and finish the work and I want them to go so I can be FREE!!!! On second thoughts it looks like I have more than one split personality.

To make the whole experience even more interesting, we have had our water cut off 4 times in the past few months with no warning whatsoever, due to the fact that the powers that be are putting in new underground pipes in our area and someone somewhere keeps breaking or bursting a pipe so the whole area is without water for a few days.  We have a water cistern on the terrace for such eventualities, but the first time the water went it was empty because the workmen had to move it to do the wall behind it.  The second time it was full but we had to use the water sparingly because although, everyone knows where I shop, what I buy and how much I pay for it,  nobody seems to know anything as important as when the water might return.  The third time it went we had water in the cistern but it only lasted less than two days as there must have been air in it so it wasn’t full to begin with.  My husband brought plastic barrels of water to the house to keep us going and especially for the workmen.  At one stage we had that surreal moment when we had no water in the taps but the living room was flooded….from the workmen pouring water down the walls outside it.  Only in Algeria could you have drought and flooding at the same time.  What with workmen outside the house cutting off the water, and workmen inside the house making the mother of all messes, I’m trying my very level best not to become paranoid and think someone is out to get me….or at least the last vestiges of my sanity.
The Algerian version of the mafia 'cement shoes' perhaps?  I promise......there was no leg attached to this shoe!
At this moment in time the balcony outside my bedroom, the front courtyard and the rooftop terrace are a white cement hell with heaps of rubble, cement, sand, rubbish etc.  But the good news is that they have finished the middle courtyard and have actually cleaned up after themselves and done a really good job mashaAllah! Now they are going to start on the back courtyard which entails going back and forth through the kitchen which makes me think that the worst is still to come…….

I am extremely conscious that I am very fortunate to have a roof over my head to worry about in the first place Alhamdulilah, and although I am happy that we are finally getting around to doing this work, I know also, that nothing lasts forever, so I have to keep it all in perspective...a bit difficult at times when you're picking flecks of white cement out of your hair.

....and 'After;