Friday, January 14, 2011

86. Alpha course and what now?

So, in May 2010, I reached 84. My travelling days were over and, if the fortune teller was to be believed, my time was almost up. I needed just one more adventure before departing this life. Then a dear friend, Angela Robinson, asked me if I would like to attend an Alpha course which, for anyone not acquainted with it, is a series of talks on Christianity. It was being held at the Helderberg Christian Church, a “Happy Clappy” Church; the kind that I had always regarded as being noisy and over the top. No way would I ever be seen waving my arms in the air, jigging around and shouting “Praise be to Jesus”, while hugging everyone in sight. And, just as no-one else should ever tell me “It cannot be done”, I should never say “never!”

The Helderberg Christian Church building is huge, with many rooms. The structure is basic, without an altar, stained glass window or wooden cross in sight. There are two regular pastors, Wesley and Gary, who preach wearing tee shirts and jeans, and there are occasional visiting preachers. Wesley plays guitar and has the perfect voice for singing hymns of praise. He is great fun and could have been a great stand-up comedian! Gary, a Londoner, often laughs at himself, which is a trait I like. Numerous talented youngsters play musical instruments and sing in the choir, and the congregation cuts across racial, social and economic boundaries.

This is a working Church and anyone is welcome to attend the services, but if you want to become a member you had better be prepared to work for it. This is not a Church where you file out at the end of the service on Sunday, to the sombre sounds of the organ, shake hands with the vicar and go home. There is much work to be done in Africa.

But, to return to the Alpha Course. There were nine people in our group, a very mixed combination. My friend Angela, an attractive bubbly 45 plus grandmother; Paul, a very good looking young husband and father with a lovely personality; Doug, late fifties, a very devout and knowledgeable Christian; Elaine, a mid-fifties frail care nurse, always cheerful, but with hidden sadness; Susie, mid fifties, who runs a landscape gardening business with her husband; a newly wed Indian couple, one a Christian one a Moslem; Mary, the only black member, a domestic worker in her late fifties; and myself. So you see, we were a mixed bunch.

On arriving at the Church we were offered iced fruit juice, and then we moved into the second largest hall where we were seated at our group table, beautifully decorated with coloured napkins, flowers and candles. At each meeting we were presented with an excellent meal, prepared in the huge kitchen and brought in by a team of hard working servers. The meals, for which one could make a donation or not, were followed by some songs of praise, then a talk or a video, recorded at meetings held by Nicky Gumbol. After that our group sat in a circle and discussed the subject of the evening's talk. Then we were served with tea and coffee and went home leaving the servers to clear up! It must have been after ten o’clock before everyone left.

It was after the first meeting that I decided to attend the Sunday service, and what an experience that was! The congregation, including children, probably numbered around six hundred. I was greeted at the door, hugged and made to feel very welcome, the atmosphere was so – loving. The first half hour of the service was taken up with the band, and singing. Very loud! People were walking in and out, children were running around and at one point a crowd of them climbed up on to the stage to sing and dance as well. After the music the children left to attend their own classes which were being held in other rooms.

Gary’s sermon was riveting, and not once did I wonder what I was going to have for lunch, or whether or not I liked that woman’s dress! We prayed and, for the first time in my life, I did not feel self conscious or fraudulent. The congregation seemed to be as one and joyful in their love of the Lord.

About three weeks later, there was a full Saturday Alpha, with morning coffee and cake, a very good lunch, afternoon tea and more snacks. Hungry lot, these wanna-be Christians! After lunch a delightful, a young black Zimbabwean preacher spoke to us and then asked if anyone wished to invite the Holy Spirit into his/her life. We prayed, and the young man went on talking about feeling the Holy Spirit entering into our bodies. Sceptics may call it auto-suggestion, or hypnosis, but I truly felt something happening and, to my surprise, I stood up ready to be blessed. Fortunately I did not have to walk to the front before thousands of arm waving people who had already been saved, because it was a small hall and I was already sitting in the front row! Some of us cried, and comforted each other.

For the following three days I walked round in a sort of euphoria, quite happy to tell my very Christian friends that I had found the Holy Spirit at last! They were all delighted, saying they had known it was only a matter of time, and that they had been praying for me for years! I truly cannot explain what happened but, for the first time in my life, I felt I was not alone any more. Afterwards I said to Angela who had brought me there, “I owe you – big time!”

I am told that life is a series of tests that the Lord sets for us to see how we cope and to build our characters. As I look back over this story it seems that I have been well and truly “tested”. If only I had known that I could have asked for help at the same time, my life could have been easier. But, I often had the feeling that there was “something out there” and I am certain that sometimes I received help without asking.

And so, as I come to the end of the road, I think to myself; “yes Lord, you have surely tested me and honestly, I did my best.” Do I see You smiling and nodding Your head? I now read my bible and earnestly pray daily that, on the day of judgement, You will rule in my favour! Amen.

So, my story, “It All Happened On My Way To 84” is finished. Piggy wig is still ticking as I approach 85. I will miss blogging you all, and wonder how I can now spend that time. Any suggestions?

Farewell, and may God bless us all.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

85. France

Maureen and Peter moved to France and suggested that I join them. The climate was mild and the area virtually crime free, so I decided to go there for a trial period. Maureen made a punishing round trip to Charles de Gaulle airport to meet me and escort me back to the little farming area in Normandy where they were living. I think she was travelling and waiting around for at least twelve hours altogether. Paris may be wonderful for lovers in the Springtime, but it was no fun for an eighty two year old granny dragging a heavy suitcase, albeit on wheels. We dragged it on and off the airport bus, along crowded streets which were being dug up all over the place, and up the stairs to the railway station which was dirty and uncomfortable with very few benches on which to sit. Maureen bought us two paper cups of undrinkable coffee and we managed to find a seat where we roosted while sipping. I looked in vain for a smart, chic Parisian! Most of the people did not even look clean. It was a horrid place full of dull, drab people. I think the train journey lasted about two hours and, fortunately, the train was clean, fast and comfortable.

We eventually arrived Maureen’s house which was situated in a village called le Bourge in Normandy. There were probably twenty houses in the village, a church, a school and the Marie’s office. Every little village has its own Mayor who is King! Nothing is done without the Mayor’s knowledge and permission. The Mayor of le Bourge was a wonderful character whom you will hear more about later. The charming little house, which faced on to a quiet country road, had a small walled enclosed garden at the back. The wall separated the house from the little church and its graveyard of which I had a great view from my bedroom window. The church bell chimed on the hour from seven in the morning until seven at night and at 7.00 a.m., noon and 7.00 p.m. it chimed a particular sequence of chimes, numbering over one hundred in all, which called those working in the fields to pray the Angelus. Previous owners had sold the house because the chiming bell drove the wife nearly mad. I found the chimes quite reassuring.

The church was only used for funeral services and burials, the graveyard housing about one hundred departed villagers with room for a hundred or so more. Considering their healthy life style, the average life span of the locals was fairly short.

The village had a handy-man called Bruno and when I asked what he did I was told “everything”. And that was so. His many responsibilities included keeping the graveyard neat and tidy, doing all repair work, laying gravel where needed and putting sand on the roads when it snowed. He worked very hard and was not controlled by any union. Of course he knew everybody and everything, and could get you anything you needed. He liked his wine! With many smiles and much miming, I was able to inform him that I came from South Africa near Cape Town.

Coming from South Africa, where I clutch my handbag and hide my money in my bra when I go out, the relaxed atmosphere of le Bourge took some getting used to. I was looking over my shoulder, as usual, when Maureen said “You don’t need to hang on to your bag, Biddy, you are in France now.” The only time the locals lock their cars and houses is during the tourist season, when there are strangers around. I enjoyed sitting in the Supermarket watching the shoppers, mostly farming people whose families had been connected for generations, greeting each other with kisses on both cheeks. Until puberty the children are only kissed on one cheek, and I don’t think it matters which one.

Generally speaking, the population were an unattractive lot, but that might be caused by a certain amount of interbreeding. But, let me hasten to add, they were friendly, cheerful and self confident. They knew who they were and where they belonged. They did not have one child in Australia, another in America and everlasting clouds of indecision hanging over their heads wondering, do we stay or do we go and how can we afford the Medical Aid and Pharmacy bills; and who will Jacob Zuma marry next? Everyone appeared to be so relaxed. And I learned to control my “check out” impatience because everyone stopped for a chat as their groceries were put through the machine. It was not unusual for the cashier to leave her post in order to kiss the customer at the check-out on both cheeks!

Lunch is almost a sacred event for the French. Everything, except the restaurants, closes from twelve ‘til two Monday to Friday, and no offices of any importance open at all on Mondays. On Sunday morning the butchers and bakers in the village take it in turns to open, a Frenchman cannot be expected to face a day without his fresh bread and fresh meat. The confectionery and patisseries were stuff that drools are made of, but I was not served one decent cup of coffee. Many thousand English people live in France, they seem to have a delightful social life, and if I were half of a couple I would like to live there too. I sampled the medical system, which is very relaxed. Maureen’s doctor was a French Canadian woman who spoke English, which meant she had many English patients. I booked an appointment to see her and there was no receptionist or book-keeper around at the time and so, at the end of the consultation, I simply paid her, in cash, over the desk.

Maureen and Peter had suggested that I live with them, and I was very tempted. The medical system was very good, and almost free for an English pensioner. At my last annual check up I had been told that my porcine aortic heart valve was “calcifying” and that I would not be able to withstand further open heart surgery. However, there was a new procedure being used in America and France, which enabled valves to be replaced without getting out the Black and Decker.

We visited a friend who was recovering from a quadruple bypass. After ten days in hospital he was now “enjoying” six weeks recuperation, at the expense of the French government medical system. This ‘recuperation’ included daily physiotherapy, lectures and occupational therapy, in a rehabilitation unit set in beautiful grounds next to a golf course, beside a lake. To the French, food is of prime importance and our friend was served a generous continental breakfast, a splendid five course luncheon and a five course dinner! Avocado pear and prawns was not unusual for a starter! By the time our friend was discharged he could walk five miles with ease.

I registered with the French Medical system, intending to see a cardiologist as soon as my papers were through. But, unexpectedly, Maureen and Peter decided to sell their house and return to England, so it was pointless my making any long term medical plans. Meanwhile, back in South Africa, the new, still risky procedure had been carried out on three patients who had all survived. Unfortunately, it later transpired that I was not a suitable candidate for this op, so I must just make the most of every day and hope piggy wig will keep going a while longer. But, back to France!

Every year the Mayor gives a Christmas party for the “ancients” (French for oldies) in the area, which is paid for out of the Mayor’s fund. Mo and Peter were invited invited to attend, and so was I, but I would have to pay for my lunch as I was not yet a registered resident. At the appointed time we arrived at the restaurant and joined those who had just arrived, everyone greeting everyone with the customary kisses on cheeks, friends and strangers alike. I managed to say “ma nom est Cynsia, (the French do not pronounce th) je suis la soeur de Madam Comley.” For which I was rewarded with huge smiles and “Mais oui, mais oui,” and more kisses on the cheeks. That spelling is probably all up to maggots, but I don’t have a French/English dictionary and this is all more than my computer spell check can handle.

We had arrived at the restaurant at noon and only left at five o’clock. I cannot remember how many courses were served, but the portions were very large, accompanied by lots of bread. The French have a delightful custom, which I saw copied in the homes of English friends we visited, whereby a little dish of lemon sorbet was served before the main course, to clear the palate. For my own taste, forget the pork chops, just bring on more sorbet! All during this Christmas luncheon, men would stand up and tell funny stories and the Mayor made three speeches in which he greeted new comers and visitors to the village. I could not understand any of the jokes, nor a word spoken by the mayor, but I laughed and clapped along with everyone else. Then we were handed song sheets, but as Frere Jacque was not included in the titles I was unable to join in.

There is a particularly evil drink that is brewed from apples and not sold commercially. It is clear white in colour, about 120% proof and laced with gunpowder. It should be used with caution and diluted with water, like Ouzo. I drank some neat and I think the hair on my head grew an inch in ten seconds. Driving through the lanes I could see plastic sheets spread under the apple trees to collect the fruit as it dropped. These droppings are then collected in piles in the fields and left to do their worst. There is some rivalry in the villages as to which family makes the most lethal brew. Devonshire cider is mothers’ milk in comparison.

Across the road lived a family with about eight children. Large families are encouraged in France and after delivering a fourth child the mother is given a medal. The child allowances are so high that neither the father nor the mother worked, their job being to bring up the children. I think the dad did “a bit on the side”, work I mean. They lived in a small house and the front yard would have done Steptoe and Son proud. But, the children were lovely, polite and friendly. Two more families lived in that row with two children a piece, all lovely kids. At Halloween they came to the door Trick or Treating, with other children from the village, and at Christmas one of the Dads came round wearing a Father Christmas costume. I was getting to like France more and more and began playing French language tapes in my bedroom.

The walks in the area were lovely. When some of the railway lines were closed, the French Government had them covered over with compacted earth and made them into cycle tracks and walk ways. These walks were safe and delightful, bordered by lovely trees and hedges, through open farm land. Maureen carried a whistle which she used to call her two Boarder Terriers to heel and one day she blew it and a huge herd of cattle came pounding across the field to the fence. It was quite unnerving. There was a wild cat that lived along one of our walks and she would always suddenly appear and join us. The dogs were so excited to see her and they played games together until she had been given her daily treat and then she would disappear back into the undergrowth.

Unfortunately, it was not all fun and roses for Maureen and Peter. They were trying to get things done which was very difficult when they could not make themselves understood. At least one English woman was making a fortune as an interpreter. People paid her a monthly retainer to be on call, or she could be paid by the hour. The one time Peter consulted her she messed up their whole telephone system and it took weeks to put it right. Maureen is a very well organised person who likes everything to run smoothly and work! The constant hassles, the inability to communicate, the lack of an English Library, the loneliness and the absence of the charity work she had so enjoyed doing in England was causing some distress. And, she hated driving on the wrong side of the road! Also, they had not been made aware of the laws regarding ownership of land and property in France, which were very complicated and restrictive. Property could only be left to the children, no matter how delinquent or far away they may be. When one partner died the survivor would need the permission of the deceased’s son or daughter to stay in the home! The only way round this law would be for Mo and Peter to get divorced and remarry under a special contract. Those property laws were one of the reasons for all the deserted, dilapidated farms and buildings one sees in France. The heirs are not interested in the property and yet it cannot be sold.

Normandy is steeped in History and I was thrilled to see the Bayeux Tapestries. I was unable to see the graves of the English and German soldiers, but we did visit the American cemetery and that was awesome. It is situated on the cliffs above the Normandy beaches where many, many thousands of men were killed. I wondered if the marked crosses actually had the right remains buried under them. The landings had been a disaster because of incorrect intelligence; some paratroopers actually drowned in waterlogged fields, trapped under their parashoots, while others were accidentally dropped into the sea. The Germans knew the landings were about to happen and were sitting at the top of the cliffs, waiting for them.

The German cemetery, which I glimpsed from the highway, is surrounded by trees, one for every soldier buried there. But I must not get “wound up” on the subject of war, just to say that the Normandy beaches and the cemeteries filled me with sadness and despair. Standing at every cross I could see the parents, wives and children of those men.

Maureen and Peter's house was sold and they were about to return to England, and so, having been away for  six months, I returned to Somerset Oaks.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

84. Food Poisoning

The day after we sailed away from Moscow I became ill with the most terrible tummy upset. I managed to get into the shower/toilet and my whole body exploded! I crawled into the shower fully dressed, turned on the water as hard as it would go and tried to clean myself, my clothes and the bathroom. It wasn't easy because I did not have any cleaning materials and I kept passing out. Because I had not appeared at dinner, one of the passengers from my table came to see if I was alright, which I definitely was not. Very late that night the ship's doctor, escorted by a tour guide, came to see me and it was difficult trying to describe my symptoms, medical history, medication etc., to someone who spoke not a word of English and looked a lot like Mussolini! He handed me one pill and later brought down the most ghastly medicine for me to drink, but I would have drunk anything to get better. He called twice a day for three days each time bringing me one pill and a draft of gunk. This upset meant that I missed three trips ashore, but on emerging from my cabin, I found that about 60% of the passengers and crew had been ill. We were a very grey looking lot. Later I handed the Doctor his envelope!

I did stagger ashore to see two churches that I particularly wanted to visit. They were onion domed, plain unguilded wood; the large one was for summer use and the tiny one for the winter. Both were built without using one single nail; they were held together with only wooden pegs. The churches were so unique that they were maintained by the World Heritage Trust and the notices on the information boards were written in several languages.

The about-face the Russian’s had made since the Communists were overthrown and foreigners invited in was quite extraordinary. The palaces and churches were being rebuilt from photographs and paintings, the original buildings having been totally destroyed, and that was why they were so bright and shiny. Millions of Rubles were being spent on rebuilding and hundreds of kilos of gold leaf made with which to cover the statues and pillars. The furniture, paintings and statues were originals but the buildings had an air of Disneyland about them.

I could not begin to describe the paintings and artwork in St. Petersburg; better you look for a book in the library, or search google. But there was one item I must mention and that was a piece made out of green jasper , in the shape of an enormous bird bath which dwarfed me as I stood beside it. It took 14 years to produce and when it was finished in 1850 it was transported to St. Petersburg on carts drawn by 160 horses!

When the remains of the last Czar and his family were discovered and eventually returned to St. Petersburg, they were entombed in the cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, in a specially built chapel next to all the other Czars and, along side of them, laid the faithful servants who were killed with them. In 1988 Dignitaries worldwide collected for the special service of dedication. Also in the cathedral was a large display of photographs of all the Romanoff's known to still be living.

I was interested to know how all the candles were lit in the dozens of chandeliers that hung from the ceilings of the great ball rooms. It seemed to me that when the servants got around to lighting the last candle the first would be burnt out! Apparently, the candlewicks in each chandelier were all connected by a thin oil soaked thread. One servant was stationed at each chandelier and, on a given order, the end of each thread was lit and the flames spread rapidly to all the candles at once. It must have been quite a sight.

Russia is bigger than United States, Canada and Mexico put together. It crosses eleven time zones and is the world’s largest producer of diamonds, iron ore and oil (they pump 12 million barrels a day and in 1980 three million barrels a day were exported). They are the second largest producer of coal and gold in the world, and they have the largest resource of natural gas. Three hundred and sixty eight million cubic meters of timber are felled and dressed every year. Their resources in Siberia are largely untapped and unknown because of the dramatic weather where fifty degrees below freezing is regarded as a mild day! The supports on which the houses are built are made of metal and filled with oil to prevent them cracking in the cold.

The artwork for sale in the markets, apart from the usual kitch, was beautifully made, especially the amber jewelry, a Russian specialty. I was enthralled by the panels covering the walls of the Amber Room in the Winter Palace. These had been removed piece by piece during the war, moved to safety and had only recently been reconstructed; unfortunately one panel had been “lost” and had to be reproduced. Originally all the houses, buildings and churches were built of wood, which was plentiful, and it was Peter the Great who imported French and Italian styles of architecture and employed engineers from Scotland. At one time, there was a large settlement of European builders and craftsmen in St. Petersberg.

We visited a market where fresh produce was sold. I have never seen such an array of beautiful, colourful, high quality fruits, vegetables and flowers. Everyone looked so healthy and jolly. Helen had asked me to buy her a set of Russian dolls and the one I bought her contained forty inner dolls, the last being about the size of thumbnail. Unfortunately I bought it on the boat, about the second day out, and later saw much better ones on shore, but I had no luggage space for any more. Talks and entertainments were given on board, as we sailed down the rivers and through the lakes. As in other countries, some of the lakes are man made and it was not unusual to see a church steeple protruding from the middle of an expanse of water so navigating must have been a bit tricky. I thoroughly enjoyed sitting on deck, watching as we passed the villages with their little wooden houses and the fishermen sitting at the side of the river. It was difficult to imagine that, in a couple of month’s time, all that would be frozen over.

Considering that religion was banned under Communist rule it was surprising how many churches were still standing with the ancient icons and paintings on the walls, although I don’t think services are held in them. In three of the churches we visited, groups of men - usually four - were singing religious chants very beautifully, and I bought a couple of CDs which are very calming and soporific. The singers were not part of a church choir, but a nice tourist attraction.

Amongst all the glories of Russia, one lasting impression was the lack of public toilet facilities. The charge for the use of a clean facility in a building could be up to R20.00. Portable street toilets, with an attendant in charge, cost R10.00. The only free toilet we found, late one night, was as bad as any I have found anywhere. It was only outclassed with the toilets at the Colosseum in Rome!

In spite of the toilets, and being ill for three days with food poisoning, the visit to Russia was the most memorable and brilliant experience of my life. I would recommend it to anyone but advise them to take along a large picnic hamper and several gallons of pure water.

Arriving back in England I needed something very special to top that trip and I found it in Carlisle, in the shape of Emily, my first great grand child. What a little “bobby-dazzler”, as Tom would say.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

83. Moscow to St.Petersberg

It was August 2006, and a year since our lovely visit to Bali. My eightieth birthday had passed and time was racing by. Nearly forty years ago a medium had told me that I would live to be eighty four and although the women in my family generally lived well into their nineties, they had probably been healthier than I am. So every day must count. But, count how? Every morning I vow to be tidier, work harder, be kinder, get thinner, to nag myself less and to tackle the long list of “things to be done”, which is endless. When I complained to a wise man once, when Tom was very ill, that I seemed unable to cope he said, “No matter how much you fret and worry you can only do one thing at a time. Focus on that one thing, do it and forget about all the other things, they must take their turn.” It was good advice. I should take it.

Should I try harder every day to earn a seat in the stalls on “the other side”? What and who is over there? My friends generally are very knowledgeable about the Bible; they attend church, study and pray, what is more, they have faith. But none of them really know what is in store for us. It would be nice to be able to put right at least some of the wrongs I have done, but that would probably take another lifetime! I once wrote down all the things I could remember doing, or not doing, that were wrong or hurtful and then, as far as possible, put a monetary value on each incident. Saying “Hail Mary’s” would have been cheaper, but I figured I would not be here long enough to say them all. And anyway, I am not a Catholic so it probably would not have worked. The sum total was considerable, and I paid it off in monthly installments, secretly, to ordinary people in need. In a silly way, I hoped their pleasure at receiving an unexpected gift would fly out into the atmosphere and help negate the unhappiness I had caused. All sounds rather daft, but it helped put the sad stuff behind me. I now do this every New Year, instead of making and breaking New Year’s resolutions, and my misdeeds must now be decreased in accordance with my shrinking income. I am a stickler for paying my accounts.

Mysteries and secrets intrigue me. I want to know more about nature, tribal customs, magnetic forces, geopathic stress lines, the paranormal, all things one cannot see and touch. And I find history fascinating, all the millions of people who have gone before us and left their mark in some infinitesimal way. One day soon I will be history, and it will not matter at all that I died on a bad hair day, twenty pounds overweight with chipped fingernails and untidy cupboards. Where is all this leading to? Ah, yes, well I decided to stop being introspective, to cease worrying about things I don’t understand and to have an adventure. And that preamble was my way of trying to justify my decision to go to Russia, on a cruise of the lakes and rivers between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Yes, I know I said that I would not go on another holiday, not fly on another plane and not board another boat, but this boat would not be on the ocean and we would be getting off every day to see different places. The medium had also told me that in my last incarnation I had been a peasant! Maybe a Russian peasant, who knows?

“You will love it!” I was told by people who had done the same cruise. I really wanted to see Red Square, the Winter Palace, the cathedrals, the gold painted onion domes and all the wonderful treasures that had, somehow, survived the Russian Revolution and the Second World War. The brochure in the Travel Agent’s office was very colorful and seductive. The tour startedat  Heathrow and, on the way back, I would be able to visit my sisters, Jane was also now living in England, and best of all I could see my first great grand daughter, the beautiful Emily.

The flight from Cape Town was due to leave on the day of a big terrorist scare. Security was tight and my nice little transparent plastic carrier bag was confiscated and replaced with an ordinary plastic bag. There was a possibility that the plane might not take off, but fortunately it did and we endured the usual hours in a zero comfort zone. The following morning Heathrow was chaotic and I was so grateful to be an “assisted passenger”. My sister Jane, being terribly independent at eighty eight although only partially sighted, refuses to be an assisted passenger, preferring to get lost, to lose her luggage and nearly miss her connection, rather than sit in a wheelchair. I say this concession is the only advantage to being over eighty, and I do not object to being wheeled down long walkways and up and down lifts by someone who knows where they are going. I also like being whizzed through immigration and customs.

My luggage had been booked through from Cape Town to Moscow and so my assistant was able to wheel me through all the highways and byways of the airport and transfer me onto a bus which took me to another terminal, where I was met and taken straight to a little lounge reserved for assisted passengers. The ground hostess greeted me, and apologized because the plane for Moscow would be twenty minutes late taking off! Was that all? Two people who were on my SAA flight, had not checked their luggage right through, and were delayed so long claiming and clearing their cases that they missed the flight and were four days late joining the trip. Two other happy holiday makers lost their luggage completely and had to borrow clothes from fellow shipmates, which was difficult because one of them was very large! When I returned to Heathrow two weeks later, unclaimed suitcases were stacked in huge piles waiting to be reunited with their owners who, by now, were probably scattered throughout the world! Being an assisted passenger is the closest I will ever get to being treated like Royalty!

Going through security my book, the newspaper given to me by the hostess in the waiting lounge, and my ball point pen were taken from me. I wonder what happens to all those confiscated ball point pens. There is something I would like the security experts to explain to me. Why did they confiscate my eyebrow tweezers, because they represented a sharp object and were therefore dangerous, but allowed me to purchase a bottle in the duty free shop, take it on board as hand luggage where it could be smashed, thus providing me with a very dangerous weapon indeed! Taking away our pens meant that we could not complete the immigration forms required while airborne. I could have written mine in blood but I had nothing sharp! The crew had no pens to lend us, which I thought strange, but somehow, one of the passengers did have a Parker, and so this was passed round the cabin.

Russia is about four time zones away from England and so, by the clocks at least, it took something like eight hours to get there and twenty minutes to get back! Perhaps that is the secret of eternal youth; if you keep going backwards you will never grow old. Counting the very early breakfast served before arriving in London, we seemed to eat a breakfast every time we passed through a time zone. Most peculiar. Moscow airport was a madhouse and I was pleased to be in a wheelchair. The tall, very thin young man in charge of me did not speak a word of English (why should he?) but he took my passport with much smiling and we went straight to the head of all the queues. In the arrivals hall we found the tour guide who asked us to stay there with the other members of our party, while she waited, holding a board on the end of a pole, for the rest of her flock. The board had “Peter The Great” written on it in large letters and, during the days and tours that followed I learned not to lose sight of it. I was very grateful for the wheel chair because there were no seats or benches in the hall, and two hours passed before the tour guide gave up on her lost passengers and collected us. Despite going into one of my foreign language mime acts, my escort had refused to leave me to wait alone, but I did not know if he was afraid of losing me or the wheelchair. And so I sat and waited and observed. The first thing I noticed about the Russian men was their shoes; they wore the longest winkle pickers I have ever seen, the tips extending a good four inches beyond the foot. Looking very smart, young men wearing uniforms walked around in polished boots and, like my escort, they were just boys, and the high fronted hats made them look even taller. They were not at all threatening, in spite of the guns in their holsters; they could have been just playing soldiers. The women wore very high heels and very tight skirts, and they were all slim, well dressed and pretty. Everyone was very pale, but I would imagine there are few sun tanned Russians around.

The day was sunny and hot. Why did I think it always snowed in Russia? I had seen many Russian plays where the sun shone and now, beside me, was a florist's kiosk full of beautiful flowers. I could not do a financial conversion, but they seemed to be expensive because people tended to buy just one rose.

The tour guide, having given up on her lost passengers (which pleased the rest of the party because they were tired of standing) I was signed for and handed over like a package. My escort was more than happy with his gratuity, the tourist season lasts barely four months and every ruble counts. The drive from the airport to the boat was depressing. Hundred of residential tower blocks about twenty stories high filled the skyline, grey and bleak, with flaking paintwork, and generally the balconies were full of washing and rubbish with, occasionally a plant pot or two. In fact, the place screamed POVERTY and overcrowding. In some of the buildings one could see four different types of window frame which indicated the financial standing of the occupants, rotting wood, solid wood, brown plastic or white plastic. There were very few trees in sight but hundreds of hoardings, some home-made, some industrial and, naturally, the wording was all in Russian. Now, I can usually make a little sense out of French or German, but the Russian alphabet, like Arabic, is incomprehensible to me and nowhere did a European language appear as an option. One hardly needs a caption for Coca-Cola or Kentucky Fried Chicken!

In contrast to the tower blocks, the Government and University Buildings, monuments and statues were beautiful. Unlike other countries where past dictators are pulled down from their pedestals, in Russia not all the statues of Lenin and Stalin have been removed because they were considered to be part of Russian history. In fact one tour guide joked, as we were looking at a statue of Lenin, that it was appropriate that his right hand was pointing towards the prison. I later saw many lovely parks in Moscow and people walked through them even quite late at night. It must be a way of escaping from those awful high rise buildings. It is surprising that so much money and effort is spent on growing all the beautiful flowers that can be enjoyed for such a short time each year. The tourist season in Russia lasts only three - four months, for the rest of the year the rivers and lakes are frozen or freezing so nothing moves. I guess there were about two hundred cruise ships doing the Moscow to St. Petersburg to Moscow route, averaging two to three hundred passengers each. The Cruises lasted for fifteen days, so each boat completes about eight trips a year. It is a very short season and I wonder if they go somewhere else during the winter. The crewmembers, cooks, dining room staff and tour guides must find alternative work during the winter. We had four resident tour guides on board, pretty girls - university students - who spoke excellent English, and local guides joined us on the coaches for some specialised tours. One of our guides told us that both her parents were doctors, but that their salaries were so poor they relied on the “envelopes” patients gave them to keep up any standard of living. I did not work out how the envelopes worked, whether they bought early appointments, or medication or preferential treatment - I don’t know.

My cabin was basic in the extreme, a double bed pushed against the wall, a small cupboard that was full of extra bedding with no room to hang clothes, and a tiny fridge. No chair, table or desk. There was also a very small shower cubicle, hand basin and toilet with instructions not to flush ANY paper down the loo. The water was not for drinking, or even for brushing ones teeth, and bottled water was very expensive on board. We quickly learned to buy bottled water on shore.

The Cruisers would be docked five or six deep and we had to walk through other ships to reach the landing stage. My impression was that the German and French ships were superior to “Peter the Great”. The majority of our passengers were Canadians, members of an oldies touring club, I was seated at a table with five Canadians, two middle aged ladies and a father with two grown up daughters. They were all good company. Meals, apart from self serve breakfasts, were awful and it was embarrassing when so many plates were handed back to the waitress with the food untouched. We were served a great deal of very boney, unrecognisable fish which I suspected was caught as we went along! They were quite disgusting. The waitresses were very pretty, charming and wore traditional costumes and we were served with a free glass of  - I'm not sure what, probably vodka, bur I am not qualified to comment.

The trip lasted fifteen days, three days in Moscow, four days in St. Petersburg and the rest cruising down rivers and across lakes, stopping off at little villages en route. Everywhere was packed with tourists, a large number being Chinese, or maybe Mongolian. Tours through museums and palaces had to be booked and timed, and we were monitored. In some places we were given covers for our shoes to protect the floors, which was a very good idea. On our first day out we went into Moscow to see Red Square, the Kremlin and the Armory. The “Red” in Red Square had nothing to do with the colour of communism, red means beautiful. The Square has been in use since the 13th century and was Moscow's gathering place for all state and religious festivals and was also used as a market place and the venue for executions. It is 1100. ft long and 230 ft wide but looks much larger. I had not booked for a tour of the Armory because I do not like guns and stuff, but the Armory actually housed the most magnificent museum of jewels, a collection, which was started in the 14th century, so I really missed a treat. Some tours were part of the “package” and some were extra.

Since 1547, all the tsars of Russia had been crowned in Moscow with a magnificent diamond, ruby and pearl crown and regalia, which I saw in another museum. The number of diamonds in this crown should have been blinding but, probably because of the old fashioned cut of the diamonds and the fact that they needed cleaning, the display was disappointingly dull.

I had expected to see one or two official Ladas being driven across Red Square, but I didn't. The roads around the city were jammed with traffic, everything from Beetles to Mercedes. The big car mystery is how  people can afford them on such poor wages, and where did the drivers park their vehicles? Riding in the coach one day, over half an hour out of town, we passed a large area where there were hundreds of shacks. For a minute, I thought it was an informal settlement, but the guide told me that those were all garages. Muscovites take a bus from their flats to the garages, take their car out for the day, return it to the garage and take a bus back home!

Russia is probably the greatest treasure trove in the world, and it is amazing how much survived the war. As the Germans were about to invade Stalingrad, trains were loaded with treasures which were sent to Siberia to be hidden, but not everything got away and the amount of treasure later looted or destroyed is unknown. Oh dear! This could develop into a book about Russia, the most fascinating country I have ever visited.

But before we leave Moscow, I must just tell you about the Moscow underground railway. You may have seen photographs of the special stations with crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceilings, pictures in mosaic tiles and the magnificent, life size bronze statues of “the workers”. But the afternoon we toured the underground there must have been a million Russians going home at the end of the day. We were not the only group of tourists trying desperately not to lose sight of our guide amongst the thousands of commuters. Guides all carried boards, or things on the top of poles, everything from teddy bears to huge sunflowers, ours was Peter the Great. Suddenly I saw our board being carried along by the crowd and onto a train and I knew that if I lost sight of it I would be completely lost, so I pushed through the crowds with all my strength and got squashed in the closing doors and was quite bruised!

Monday, January 10, 2011

82. Bali

A few months later Tony telephoned me and said “We are going to Bali for ten days, why don’t you come with us?” It had been three years since I vowed never again to travel overseas on holiday, but I really needed a break from Elaine, and this holiday would be different because I would not be travelling alone, and Bali would be unlike any other place I had visited before. And, indeed it was. The flight to Singapore was extremely comfortable, Singapore airlines are a cut above all the rest, and Tony did all the organising. There was a small mix up about my reservation on the onward flight from Singapore to Bali, but that was sorted out and later I received a lovely wooden box containing a huge candle as an apology from the airline! If that were the policy on British Airways I would buy shares in a candle making factory! The Airport at Singapore was amazing, spotlessly clean, orchids everywhere and the customs and immigration desks had bowls of sweets for the taking.

The hotel in Bali was magnificent, set in beautiful grounds which stretched right down to the beach. The atmosphere was cool, calm and restful and the weather was perfect; we seemed to be surrounded by trickling water and thousands of orchids. The hotel staff members were tiny, pretty and smiling and the girls wore long, slim colourful dresses made out of light brocade and their thick, black hair was combed back into rolls and adorned with flowers. The whole setting was like a Hollywood movie. The food? I have never seen the like before or since and the presentation was a feast for the eyes with carvings made out of fruit or ice or butter. Every kind of food I could imagine was offered, and many delicacies I had never seen before. And the display of deserts made me wish I had four stomachs instead of one, and it was all included in the price of the package. The only thing guests were required to pay for was drinks, other than fruit juice. If one wished to eat when the main dining room was closed, there were two other dining rooms where a more limited choice of food was available. It was piglet’s paradise!

Entertainment was also provided. One evening we listened to an excellent female singer who would sing almost anything on request, another evening we watched a troupe of dancers performing the traditional neck jerking Bali dances, and then the members of staff performed for us, very energetically after a hard days work. But the very best entertainment of all was the children’s evening. There was a circus training school in the grounds of the hotel were, every day, the children were taught how to work on a trapeze, how to tumble and perform acrobatics, it was a wonderful opportunity for them to enjoy themselves doing something quite different and they just loved it. They must have worked very hard because the final evening performance was a sheer delight. One little girl, who was obviously a trained gymnast, gave a spectacular performance on the trapeze. I applauded until my hands were sore.

There did not seem to be many children around, and that may have been because the beaches on our side of the island were not sandy and so were unsuitable for paddling, or playing, but the swimming pool at the hotel was huge. There were hotels all along the beach but it was sad to see one enormous building standing empty and uncompleted. The tourist trade had been so badly affected by a couple of terrorists’ bombings that the hotel’s developers had withdrawn. Our one trip into the town of Bali was not a great success because hawkers clung to us like limpets and made walking very difficult and unpleasant and we were pleased to return to the hotel.

The porters and drivers at the hotel were not allowed to tout for trade among the guests, but with little side remarks about “my brother who has a mini bus” deals were made. Thus a leisurely tour of the island was arranged; the tour had to be almost at walking pace because the roads were absolutely jammed with thousands of motor scooters. I remembered saying, in Bulawayo, that I could not take Jeni and Juliea to the doctor’s on my Honda scooter, but these Hondas were laden with husband, wife, a couple of kids, shopping and household goods. Traders carried all their stock of vegetables, or whatever, in huge panniers fixed all round their scooters. Some drivers wore crash helmets, others wore turbans. It was a kaleidoscope of colour, accompanied but a thousand motor horns. I was fascinated by the parade.

Everywhere people carried offerings of flowers to be laid at special places. The driver explained that because there were so many festivals in Bali, at least one a week, businesses had to employ migrant workers or nothing would ever get done! There is no doubt that Bali is a very poor island which relies mainly on tourists for revenue. Although there are hundreds of rice paddies, in fact the whole countryside seems to consist of rice paddies, they only grow enough for their own needs, there is nothing left to export. Rice is even grown in terraces on the hillsides.

We had lunch at a restaurant high up on a mountain, overlooking an inactive volcano - well, it last erupted in 1963 so it could go off again at any time. The food in the restaurant compared poorly to that at the hotel, and traders blocked the entrance, pushing and shoving so much I just wanted to escape into the bus. Jeni did not escape until she had bought, for me, a hand made chess set; My 92 year old neighbour at Somerset Oaks was teaching me to play chess, but I was not at all good at it. The Balinese revere animals so it was surprising to see so many mangy stray dogs on the roads. Dog collars and dog licences were unknown and, since the islanders eat mainly rice and vegetables with a little fish, the dogs probably never eat meat. Dog food would be much too expensive for them to buy.

The carved figures and carved furniture on sale were beautiful, but far too large and heavy to take back by air, but they could be ordered and shipped. But most of the island consisted of rice paddies and the one, dormant volcano. And we saw monkeys, hundreds of monkeys for whom we bought bananas. The monkeys in the monkey forest are sacred and may not be touched. It is a tragedy that terrorist activities deterred people from visiting Bali; the surfing was among the best in the world. Of course my opinion is based only on the hotel in which we stayed, but the service was outstanding, and the little people so pretty and polite.

The day we were due to leave I enquired at the reception desk about the procedure for handing out gratuities, only to be told “Thank you very much, but gratuities are not accepted!” So, all inclusive really meant just that. On the journey back we stayed overnight in Singapore but the stay was too short to visit the places I would have liked to see. Again, the hotel was magnificent and the breakfast outstanding. To the Indonesians, the presentation of food is an art form, but outside the hotel ugly MacDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises were packed with young people eating chunks of fried food out of cardboard boxes!

We wandered round some lovely shops and markets but the clothes were all very small, I don’t think the racks had ever held a size 18! How I wished that Tom had been stationed in Singapore instead of Egypt.

Friday, January 7, 2011

81. Helen's wedding

Two years previously Granddaughter Helen had met Michael, in Milton Keynes, and they now decided to marry. To the delight of us all, they chose to be married in South Africa in a dear little chapel in the Drakensburg Mountains. The chapel stands in the grounds of the Cathedral Peak Hotel in Natal, a favourite venue for weddings. Michael’s Parents, Helen and Oz came from England together with Juliea, Maureen and six other friends. Jane, who was still living in Zimbabwe at the time, came too. Of course Jeni, Tony, young Tom and Bronwyn, his fiancĂ©, were there and, having been declared fit to fly, I was there too.

The drive from Johannesburg to the hotel took over four hours, but the scenery through Kwa Zulu Natal was beautiful and we passed through many small rural villages with clusters of little rondavals built with bricks made from cow dung and straw, and covered with thatched roofs. Picturesque no doubt, but how on earth do they survive there, with just a few cattle and no vegetation in sight? It must be bitterly cold in winter. Two pictures remain crystal clear in my memory from that drive. The first was seeing ten sparkling white nappies on a clothes line, blowing in the wind outside a rondaval which stood on a dusty, barren patch of ground. I wondered how far the mother had carried the water to wash the nappies, where in that deserted area, did she buy the washing powder, and how did she find the money to pay for it? The picture would have made a wonderful washing powder advertisement. The second picture was that of a little boy wearing the minimum of clothing, driving his herd of goats with a stick, chatting away on his cell phone! Who could he have been talking to? Another little boy who could not afford to go to school but could afford a cell phone? Those are the sort of questions that always interest me. I am intrigued by the logistics of things.

Cathedral Peak Hotel is built among the mountain peaks, and the guest rooms are built on about four terraces above the hotel. My room was located on the very top terrace and I did not think I would manage to climb up that high, but I did. The views were spectacular. At the breakfast buffet table we not only met a lady from Milton Keynes where Helen and Mike lived, but her husband had served in the Rhodesian army at the same time as Tony! A couple I spoke to in the foyer lived in Bangor, Northern Ireland where we had lived. All these meetings up a mountain in Africa!

The bride was beautiful, the wedding ceremony was beautiful, the scenery was beautiful, all the guests were beautiful, I had survived major heart surgery and life was beautiful

Thursday, January 6, 2011

80. Recovery and more about Elaine

The recovery period was long and slow, and I was now very aware of my mortality. Maureen came over from the U.K. to look after me for a few weeks and then Jeni arrived and we enjoyed some very relaxed time together.

Each day I walked a little further and, on my post-op six week check up I was declared fit, having made “a remarkable recovery”. For the time being, the amount of attention I could give Elaine had to be reduced drastically, although I still attended to her accounts, nurses' wages and so on.  Assuming that Elaine would outlive me (there was nothing much wrong with her physically) there would be nobody to take over her affairs when I “snuffed it”, as Tom used to say. I was also very concerned about Elaine's mind, which seemed to be deteriorating. She needed full time care and I could not provide it. Going into “frail care” is literally the last but one move off the planet, to be avoided at all costs, and persuading Elaine to move, away from all her books, would be difficult. But a long term plan had to be made.

Two years later she did move into Robari, supposedly for a trial run, while I was away somewhere. It was a terrible period of adjustment, and when I returned she was in a very distressed state and had forgotten all about her flat and Somerset Oaks.

I visited her daily, reading her episodes from the journal she had kept during one of her trips overseas and even, at one time, read stories from “Winnie the Poo” one of her favourite books. I wheeled her over to the coffee shop for “naughty cakes” and to my house for lunch, but she no longer recognised Somerset Oaks as the place where she had once lived and where she still owned a flat. And so I decided that, while I still had POA, I would sell the flat so that she would have enough money to pay the charges of the home and also to hire additional private nursing.

Clearing out Elaine’s flat, was a monumental task. Her valuable books on ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, which took two hours to pack and load, filled a Combie van and were taken by the University of Cape Town. Scrap paper and stationery went to schools, car loads of clothes were given to Hospice, workmen in the complex took anything left outside the front door and somehow everything was given away. Disposing of some items was very hard, for instance, her school reports since the age of six, her mother’s Black Magic chocolate/sewing box and an ancient chocolate Easter rabbit given to her unknown years ago, and kept in the refrigerator. Once cleaned and repainted, and with the agreement of her lawyer, who carried out the transaction, the flat was sold.

The next step was to advise the lawyer that, because of my age and state of health, and Elaine’s state of mind, it was no longer practical, or even safe, for me to continue holding the Power of Attorney. How could I go about relinquishing it? This was when I wished I had never accepted the responsibility in the first place. What a performance! I was told that it was my responsibility to apply to the High Court for a curator to be appointed, by a judge, who would act on her behalf. The cost of the application was about R72 000.00 which, fortunately, Elaine was able to pay. I had to make a four page sworn affidavit, we had psychiatric reports, medical reports and goodness knows how many other reports. I wonder now what would have happened to her if there had been no Power of Attorney. Someone would have had to appoint someone, and I could not do it because I was not her next of kin! The application was eventually approved by the Judge and Elaine’s lawyer was appointed Curator. The use of the Power of Attorney and curator is so open to abuse that it is frightening, but I had chosen the most reputable legal practice in the town and that was all I could do.

Shortly afterwards Elaine failed to recognise me. She had frequently told people that I was “The love of her life” and I believe that to be true but, after six exhausting years, it was time to let go.