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How to pack your life in a bag and other moving tales

Maciej Frankiewicz - The SuitcaseMy life is at it again.

You would think a child would settle it, make a homebody out of a nomad, fix my feet in the city where family and only some remaining friends were. When my daughter began pre-school two years ago, I thought this was it. We had signed on the dotted line to be Delhi dwellers forever, or at least till she graduated. Then past fifty I would become a farmer and live in the mountains, again. But forever is a tricky thing. It’s laughing behind your back as you make plans for love and life.

So here we are, on a 14th floor apartment in chilly (if you’re sitting at home) Dubai, overlooking yachts go by in one direction and an unmanned metro crossing buildings that The Jetsons swung their hovercraft around many years ago on the telly. And I’ve been cooking every single day of the one week we’ve been here, me of the never-step-in-the-kitchen syndrome. I’ve already begun an uncertain relationship with the stove. We had our first spat today. It screamed, I shut it down. Soon enough we were okay. I’m also doing the evening slides round with the girl, something we never had time for in the almost four years she’s been around.

I’m the person all the “I’m not going to do that…” things happen to. Never not going to work (current status screams ‘Not allowed to work’ on a stamped paper in case I didn’t hear it clear enough). Not leaving the country now. Not packing like a fool. One week before departure I told everyone how I had finished packing everything and things would be smooth hereon. I wasn’t going to get sentimental and try to take everything. Instead I would take the high road, not clutter our new apartment with non-essential items. Till a few hours before leaving for the airport, I was on Round 7 of the packing-unpacking routine. “I can’t live without Rebecca West’s Black Lamb Grey Falcon or the 75th Anniversary edition of Joy of Cooking. I don’t care if they weigh 3 kilos!”

I couldn’t carry everything (except those books of course). Does it matter? Can you really ever pack your life in bags? For the most part just getting up and leaving works too. We can build it here, piece by piece, not in things we buy and hang but memories of that-time-we-lived-here, however long it lasts. My last night in Delhi, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the “Why?” Why were we leaving? Our girl has seen both sets of grandparents around her from the time she was born. And isn’t family all that really matters. Why move to another city now. A better job perhaps but is it really. What if I sit on that white desk in the new apartment and can’t write at all? What if Delhi is where all the words will be? And then I slept, not fighting it anymore. This is what we’re doing right now. This is where we will be. Virtually present with families, physically present in a trio. Learning to live by ourselves, not starting out anew but moving forward.

I went to five different schools growing up. I never have a good enough answer to “Where are you from?” I am from here and everywhere else I’ve been. I am from the people I’ve met, the books I’ve read, the stories I’ve heard about strangers. I am from the places I’ve seen and those that mark my dreams. This life can never be packed in enough suitcases and would do just fine without it. It is to be lived and kept in open jars. May it always spill over.

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Framed by Wanderlust with Amrita Samant (Photographer, Mommy Shots and ThatWindowSeat), Chennai, India

Amrita is a baby-grapher who loves to travel (looking on from ThatWindowSeat), drink wine, chase light, eat good food and all this while dodging selfie-sticks across the globe.

She’s joining me today for a quick (and not dirty) Q&A about her wandering soul and its many journeys. Travel with us will you.

Amrita Samant at a Holiday in FranceLast place you visited: France (July 2015)

Three places on your travel wish list: Russia, Iceland and Japan

An unforgettable experience from a  journey: A haunted rented house experience in Bari, Italy. Doors would open and close by themselves. Another one, learning to kayak on the ganges was overwhelming but an experience that pushed me way out of my comfort zone.

Five things you always carry on holiday: My camera/iPhone, sunglasses, sunscreen, multiple shoe options (just-in-case) and pepper spray.

Would you rather head to the beach, the mountains or city streets: If I had to pick one, it would be the mountains, But I try and give my trips a combination of at least two. (Greedy me!).

A place you’d like to visit again and again: Italy. Anyday!

A place you wish you hadn’t visited: None. I’m glad that hasn’t happened yet.

A person (real/fictional) you’d like to go on holiday with, and where: Can I ignore this one?

Your holidays are incomplete without:  A trip to the local food markets and a local movie at the theatres.

A stranger you met during a journey who you’re still in touch with: A (now) dear friend named Parvati whom I met in Halong Bay, Vietnam in 2012 on a terribly boring couple-y cruise 🙂 

If you’d like to participate in this series or nominate a wanderlust-afflicted friend, holler on Twitter or Facebook and I’ll be saying ‘Hi’ very soon!

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Rote Beete Suppe (Beet Root Soup)

It was 1975. Two Indian friends were visiting a common German friend in East Berlin, then capital of the German Democratic Republic. That friend’s parents had years ago left their Nazi occupied country and settled along the Polish-Ukraine border. She had found her way back to divided Germany. That evening she served them a pink, sour soup. It was something she’d learned from her mother.

It had enticed the taste buds of my Father-in-law, one of the visitors, so much that he learnt the recipe from her. Making it several times during his stay in the country, he eventually forgot all about it when he returned to India in the early 80s. That is, until recently, when the sight of Saure Sahne (sour cream), leftover from my mushroom soup experiment, brought back the unique flavour of the beetroot soup and he delighted us with blending it all together again.

The dish is a popular soup in Eastern Europe, finding its way into Poland and Germany, through people carrying stories and special recipes along as the settled in newer parts in the region, in the aftermath of the war. The elaborate version of this soup, with many vegetables and even meat, is referred to as borscht (in Russian) and by differing names as dialects change across borders. This is a red hot (or pink depending on how much sour cream you like in it) soup not only in its form but also in the debates surrounding its origin.

This dish has now travelled to me, sans borders and the limits names and places often impose on people, travelled like all good things do, free as stories from life should be. And now I’m sharing it with you.

Rote Beete Suppe (Beet Root Soup)

This recipe serves two.

Ingredients:

1 big bulb (or 2 medium or 3 small) of Beetroot

200 gm Saure Sahne (Sour Cream)

2 tsp Butter

Salt to taste

Method:

Peel, wash and clean the beetroot bulb. Chop it into small pieces, preferably squares.

In a grinder mix the chopped beet root and sour cream to make a paste.

In a pan heat 2 tsp butter, add a little salt to taste, add the beetroot & sour cream paste.

Stir for a minute and add water according to the consistency you want.

Once boiled, cool it.

Add Black pepper as per taste and coriander as garnish.

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A Good Home

Henri Matisse - Vase, Bottle and Fruit (1906)Spread across the centre page sat

a good home, its marble face shone

against the streaming light, falling

on a desk standing still, by the window sill

with pictures hanging all around.

 

Bright blue candles neatly climbing

the pyramid of books in glossy garb

and Chrysanthemums peeking

at straight lined cigars,

astride atop a China vase.

 

No feet roaming wild within walls,

pearly white and standing tall

covered in framed brushstrokes

containing the lives of other folks.

 

In this good house so perfect

and true, no stories spill

and spread unchecked,

colouring sleeping rugs that lay

lost in secrets of Mandalay.

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Parents Say ‘What!’: Q and A with Me

Beginning with me, the empress of the Eggfacemomhead kingdom, we’re going to ask parents to sleep a little less, think a little more and answer some questions about their almost always fun and never ever dull lives. Stay right here will you.

 

In one word, life as a parent is

Irreparable

The easiest thing about parenting

Nap Time

3 things that make you want to pull your hair out

The Amazing Race at meal time

Strangers telling you what’s what about YOUR kid

“When are you having the second?”

Something you’ve lied about to your kid(s)

How she was born. “We wanted a baby, we had a baby.”

Most embarrassing moment as a parent

Calling up room service during vacation to report room keys thrown inside toilet

One thing you’ve learnt from your kid(s)

Dogged determination

A pre-parenting thing you miss the most

Tuesdays with Morrie. Wait, “pre-parenting”? I thought we were born this way.

An unforgettable thing your child said or did

“No F*** That” at two. I blame the other parent.

You laugh out loud when

(Laugh inside my head) when I’m presented with a seemingly logical argument for something that was broken, spilled, done to the cat.

A tip (or two) for new parents

Scarlett O’Hara was right. ‘Tomorrow is another day’. You’ll get better with time

All kids tell everyone about everything. Speak less, listen more.

If you’d like to participate in this series or nominate a friend, holler on Twitter or Facebook and I’ll be saying ‘Hi’ very soon!

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And Yet the Books…

I’ve always found that poetry, more than any other genre of writing, seems to best capture moments in time, containing answers to nothing and everything. It is like catharsis, like an epiphany, like someone read your mind, picked at your thoughts and made them whole. And there they rest, outside your head, in words spun this way, reminders that all will be well, as long as you have these…

And Yet the Books by Czeslaw Milosz

Chateau X by Martino ~ NL on Flickr

And yet the books will be there, on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

by Czeslaw Milosz

Read about his work here:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/czeslaw-milosz

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/apr/07/seamus-heaney-czeslaw-milosz-centenary

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Book Review: A Carpet Ride to Khiva, By Christopher Aslan Alexander

Christopher Aslan Alexander_A Carpet Ride to Khiva

Christopher Aslan Alexander – A Carpet Ride to Khiva

With his tall, thin frame and bespectacled face, alongwith a Turkish middle name sandwiched between his Christian roots, Christopher Aslan Alexander would have stood out in most places. As destiny would have it, this Turkey born, Beirut-bred lad from Britain found himself in Uzbekistan in the late ’90s, while volunteering with an NGO to write a guidebook about Khiva. At this western border desert oasis close to Turkmenistan, Aslan (his adopted name during his stay) was nearly 700 kilometers away from Samarkand, the tourist-poster city of Uzbekistan.

During his seven year stay here he would find a loving family, a crumbling town still reeling under a Soviet hangover (“Khiva was to play a crucial role in pushing Russian south towards India”, Aslan informs us early on), a voracious appetite for bribes amongst all government machinery and a nation united in their love for a Mexican soap opera.

In his diary from the time, ‘A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road‘, Aslan takes us to the heart of the city, on foot alongside him through the labyrinthine streets within the Ichan Qa’la, or walled city, (‘the most homogeneous example of Islamic architecture in the world‘). He is also our guide in navigating the ways of this desert world, when he begins setting up a carpet weaving workshop, with help of his local family, recruiting marginalised members from nearby villages – the differently abled, the women secluded from society and those battling the rules laid by missing men.

The designs for these carpets are a stunning study in history, from Timurid patterns to Persian and Mughal miniature paintings. Traveling back to England during the time, Aslan meets with Jon Thompson, Oxford professor of carpet history, and gets his hands on Amy Briggs’ essay on Timurid carpets to prepare design inspiration references to take back to the workshop, being run out of an erstwhile madrassah. He enlightens us along the way on the motifs and their significance. Speaking about distinguishing features of Timurid carpets he writes, “The main giveaway that a carpet from Timurid was in the border, which consisted of stylized letters, evolved and embellished to appear like Celtic knots in some cases.”

In reference to miniatures, which are another major source of inspiration for the carpets created at the workshop, he tells us how the word itself has been derived “from a reddish-orange pigment ‘minium’, that was popular with Persian and Mughal minaturists” and “the centre of a miniature would never contain a human being, as only Allah could ever occupy this position.”

The love affair with silk is similarly illustrated through snippets from history, “Until 1924, the Khanate of Khiva was the only country outside China to use silk money, each note handwoven and then printed in the mint located in the Kunya Ark.”

When he is avoiding boisterous parties that end in intrusive questions on his non-existent marital life, this vegetarian traveler watches mountains of “plov, the national dish, ‘of rice, carrot-shavings and raisins topped with dumps of mutton and fat’” being readied for festivities, participating in them as much as a local.

We also follow him across the border into Afghanistan on a sourcing trip for natural dyes, a mis-adventure that is a reminder of what Aslan’s work in this region really entails. His love affair with the town, its people and his desires to make the workshop self-sustainable, are abruptly impeded by local authorities, threatened by the freedom, sincerity and appreciation the workshop has received. He is the outsider they would like to keep away and in the end they do, exiling him without proper documentation to prove the charges.

This book is a journey into a fascinating culture and its crumbling edifice, of daily triumphs amidst layers of corruption, of a young man finding a new life, a new family and a purpose in a land he now calls home.

“I wrote A Carpet Ride to Khiva because I needed a way of gaining closure on my time in Khiva, and I didn’t know what else to do”, Aslan said in an interview in 2010. He continues to find his way back to Central Asia, most recently working with yak herders to find distribution for their wool. When he’s not writing, he is “living the sequel”, one the world is waiting to read.

If, like me, you’re fascinated by this region, here are some more books on Uzbekistan to add to the reading list:

Travels in Central Asia by Arminius Vambery

A Ride to Khiva by Frederick Burnaby

Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, by Tom Bissell

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10 Lessons from 15 Years of Love

Jacqueline Roque by Pablo PicassoLast month, we turned 15. “We” meaning the husband & I before we were the husband and I, including the time we didn’t feel very “we” if you ask me. We’ve known each other too long you’d think, for there to be any surprises. But surprise each other we do, every now and then, with the serenades, the same yet different notes in each other we’ve come to recognise and love and with how colossal fights can be (the frequency is 1 almost-tear-us-apart sort every 5 years).

Like all things in life should do, we’ve accumulated lessons (which I dole out to love newbies every other day) and which hopefully he and I will remember each day, particularly when the next big war is due.

1. You’re a team

As easy as it sounds, this one gets lost in the melewe of the daily grind, resembling You vs Me most often. Life (spent together) will take enough rough shots at us, and our ability to fight them will always be determined by whether we add each other to the enemy line or stand beside each other (with the gloves on) and take ’em down.

2. Simplify Simplify Simplify

For the sake of arguing, there’s a whole lot to pick up on. But very little of that is truly important. So before you start building ammunition to take each other down, stop and think if it’s really that important. Because some arguments are important and deserve to be shared. Do them justice by leaving out the riff raff.

3. When it comes to each other’s families, play a good guide

You know your respective families the best. So guide each other on some basics on what might be within respectful behaviour lines. Each family is different (don’t have the which is better argument EVER) so just follow each other’s lead and you’ll be fine, as long as you respect the guidance and follow through. (Corollary to #3: Never begin a sentence with “Your mother…”)

4. Go for Core Competencies

It’s amazing how we’re so happy to delegate responsibility in accordance with core competencies at work but in personal relationships we’re often hoarders, refusing to budge from ‘our terrain’. The home world is a happier place if you share work. And avoid a postmortem analysis!

5. Don’t Sleep on an Argument

Unlike other problems that seem to improve when you revisit them the next day, it actually helps to sleep on a clean slate when it comes to things bothering you about your relationship. If your concern passes the test in #2 then it’s better to say it now rather than later. Collecting only results in avalanches much later and are certainly more damaging.

6. The Little Things are the Big things

Vacation romances and weekly/fortnightly dates are important, but the morning hug, the random email during the day (because it feels more like a letter than an SMS), the smile at dinner are markers of the “we” you chose to become. It’s the reason you wanted to wake up to and with this person every day of your life.

7. Don’t let the humour die

Jean Luc Goddard said a couple that doesn’t enjoy the same films will eventually divorce. I like to believe a couple that doesn’t laugh at atleast some of the same things will grow apart. A common language of humour is the pillar that holds it all together. Because if you can’t let out guffaws with each other, life will resemble a silent motion picture that isn’t even cool.

8. Introspect

To become better versions of the “we”, you need to make time to look within the “you”. We’re always so busy telling the world what is wrong with it that we hardly have time to know ourselves. Don’t lose out on a wonderful opportunity to understand what you’re all about. Then every relationship will not be reactive, but rather a conscious, living action of who and what you want to be.

9. Don’t Compare

We all know that couple who always posts happy pictures from countless holidays or their always – perfect home. Sometimes we play that couple too. But it helps to remember that everyone is fighting some or the other battle, even if they’re doing a wonderful job cloaking it. Holidays are for leaving the phone behind, life is for the relentless pursuit of your version of happiness. Do it your way, carry along the people that truly matter and focus your energy on the living, not necessarily the way – it – looks – on – Instagram variety.

10. Give Thanks

How often have you said thank you to your partner? Yes there are things you think is their duty but it certainly doesn’t hurt to show love and gratitude, especially when our daily lives resemble a chihuahua on a sugar high & roller skates going downhill. Stop, take notice and let them (your partner, not the imaginary chihuahua) know why they’re extra special & why you feel butterflies-in-your-stomach excited when you spot them in the crowd.

Have any lessons from your (im)perfect love and life to share? I’m all ears!

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The Week That Was: How I (Almost) Lost My Mojo

You know how, when your parents are doctors, they make you take an annual full-body scan (around your birthday). What? Yours don’t? (Too late in the day to call child services. Oh wait, we don’t live in Canada).

So where were we? Ah yes, body scans (that don’t involve hot Polish flight stewards). There’s this hoopla around my birthday each year (because that’s the only way I’ll remember it) involving blood letting followed by numerical shame. So far it’s been sane. But this time I flunked, miserably. Having prided myself over being a non-fainter, a fever-avenger who only discovered what a body temperature rise feels like at boarding school flu epidemic, age 10 (Oh, so that’s what a fever is), my blood count in the recent test has fallen below borderline, causing much eyeball widening action by the medicine man & woman. Truth is, I wasn’t surprised.

For the first time, perhaps ever in the history of my life, I was sapped of energy, of mental faculties, of interest in everything, for a whole week. It was like my body was begging me to stop, catch a breath, lay still. It was unpleasant. It was not me. I knew I wasn’t eating too well, working out or even breathing normal. Work, by nature, is always frantic. Toddlers are always unpredictable. And yet after going through the motions for months, I was suddenly losing steam.

And after all the promises of doing something about it, “making time for myself” was not on the to-do list. Until the numbers came.

Single digit haemoglobin counts are not my thing, me of the floating above average on the body tests. But suddenly, with the enemy being real and writ in ink, I seemed to be jolted out of running through the day on high speed rails. I was forced to acknowledge each breath, to make it count, to slow the heck down. After weeks I stopped to look at the sunset (without & through my camera lens), to flip through the bedside poetry book, to hear my heart settle, without scrambling ahead.

IMG_20150427_234313

Numbers will stay below (blood) poverty line for a while. Routines will follow the clock I often lose to. But I’m hoping I won’t forget to keep my promises, to me.

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The Thing About Grey

It pulls me in from the crowd, makes me go weak in the knees, colors my dreams. Out of a thousand things in rainbow shades, I am extremely likely to pull out the grey. It’s hot stuff, if you ask me.

Let’s suffice it to say, I have ‘a thing’ for grey, referred to (quite unfairly I feel) as the color “without color”.

The crowds may chant bleak, boring, old and sad to its face, but I find there’s much beauty and fun to be had in it. Of course if this were the 18th century, and Paris, I would have been quite the ravishing enchantress about town in my swishing grey gown.

Charlotte_Walsingham,_Lady_Fitzgerald_by_John_Hoppner

Or a happy fly on the grey wall buzzing over Whistler’s Mother as she sat in perfect composure for this portrait.

James_Abbott_McNeill_Whistler_-_Portrait_of_the_Artist's_Mother_-_Google_Art_Project

Wikipedia offers a grim reflection on one of my favorite hues by (horribly) stating:

In Europe and the United States, surveys show that grey is the color most commonly associated with conformity, boredom, uncertainty, old age, indifference, and modesty. Only one percent of respondents chose it as their favorite color.

And goes on to make matters grey-er by quoting color historian Eva Heller.

“Grey is too weak to be considered masculine, but too menacing to be considered a feminine color. It is neither warm nor cold, neither material or spiritual. With grey, nothing seems to be decided.

Bah, Humbug I say!

Let a girl salivate o’er grey

Ogle at the grey sweater-chest,

slip on a plain grey dress,

jump off the steel-grey train,

dance under the glowing grey rain.

Images via https://www.pinterest.com/manikadhama/