Africa(‘s not had its) Day

Just before the blog *finally* gets back to recounting our Africa Clockwise adventures on the east side, I would like to make a direct appeal to the many idealistic young Africans we meet upon the way. As someone who has spent half my life in the UK and half in South Africa, and traveled overland across both continents in the last 5 years, I feel there are some things I should flag for your attention.

In the week of Africa Day, as hundreds more migrants were rescued from sinking boats off the coast of Spain, Italy‘s new populist government vowed that “the good times for illegals are over”, the Hungarian government introduced laws trying to criminalise those who would assist them and the French president revealed that the only guaranteed way for an immigrant African to be accepted as a citizen was to demonstrate the skills of a superhero. (#ThisIsEurope)

In addition, Australia’s infamous holding centre Manus Island reported its third refugee suicide this year, Trump’s zero tolerance policy at the US border with Mexico was shown to be forcibly separating children from their parents and 25 West Africans who set out on small catamaran from Cape Verde and sailed 3000km across the Atlantic were rescued off the coast of Brazil after 35 brutal days at sea.

Migrants are putting themselves at the mercy of a hostile world. At the other end of the scale, the brain drain persists as Africa’s finest young tertiary-educated minds continue to head out to pastures perceived to be greener in the academic and professional fields of US and UK. All too often, however, they find they have to be “ten times better” to be offered equal opportunities or acknowledgement.

Please young Africans hear this: Europe is not the promised land. Europe is a continent of aging people, spent resources and tired ideologies. Their governments increasingly sound like a bunch of pensioners in a cramped old age home squabbling over who gets to hold the remote. Their attitudes are selfish, their vision is narrow and their outlook pessimistic. Their glory years are behind them but it’s all they talk about. They’re too short-sighted even to see the writing on the wall.

By contrast 60% of Africa’s population is under the age of 25. The vibe here is youthful, enthusiastic and dynamic. There is no greater explosion of the creative spirit anywhere than in Jo’burg, Lagos or Nairobi right now. The innovative intensity of NYC or London may be legendary, but I would testify that Naija’s energy is greater: Lagos is hustling in competition with a population of 21 million compared to 8+ million, so it’s bound to be.

‘Wolof Fame’ from Dakar Biennale 2016, Senegal

The future lies with Africa. The continent is poised on the brink of harnessing the demographic dividend. It has six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies according to the World Bank – with Ethiopia currently clocking in at 8.5% – and is the second fastest growing economic region behind South Asia.

If the AU were to inspire African nations to invest primarily in upskilling their youth what fourth industrial revolutionary milestones might they achieve? Young Africans may be able to leapfrog ahead into the post-digital age in the way they bypassed landlines and went straight to smartphones. (Addis could start with speeding up delivery of the AU passport please, so we can start sharing knowledge with and of each other and capitalising on it.)

The African spirit is infinitely capable, infinitely resourceful, infinitely adaptable. This is how your ancestors have endured and overcome slavery, colonialism, the Cold War and finally capitalism. Despite great suffering, you remain generous to strangers, mindful of nature and humble before your gods. Generally, you are much nicer people, believe me: genuine, joyful, grateful.

Young African, Europe does not offer the hospitality that Africa prides itself upon. There is no warm welcome for the stranger there, no teranga, no karibu. European cities look good on TV, but the places you would end up living are as often as dirty and crowded as where you are now, plus a lot colder so you have to find money for heating as well as food. However intelligent and hard working you are, you will be treated like a second class citizen or a sponger, marginal at best, criminal at worst. However successful you become, you will be always be viewed with suspicion, as a terminal outsider if not a terrorist.

Young African graduate, by taking yourself on a one way ticket abroad, you are wilfully continuing the deliberate leeching away overseas of the superior strength of this continent that started with slavery. By taking your talent to the developed world, you are leaving the young and old of your extended family, your country, to cope without you. You will be striving to add value to the state and status of ex-colonial masters who will not appreciate your labour or your sacrifice. You will never be first choice for funding or promotion – anything you are granted will be seen as a favour, as ‘token’ or ‘quota‘, never on merit. You are severing yourself from your family, from your culture, from your roots – and for what? You will never enjoy the respect or attain the dignity you deserve. By all means go and get valuable experience – but please bring it back home.

I’m not completely naïve. I know Africa has its challenges, its Big Men, its corruption (although Spain was showing us this week you don’t have the monopoly on that). But right now Africa has resources the rest of the world want. Why is China here building all the new roads? While investing in your infrastructure, they are making deals for your minerals and your oil. Most of all, they’re going to need your people because their population is also ageing rapidly.

There is a bitter irony in this age of fear and loathing of migrants that soon, once again, Europe is going to be desperate for African labour. But it should be sweetened by the understanding that, this time, they’re going to have to pay for it.

Young Africans with brains and bravery and burning ambition: don’t go west where you’re not wanted – stay home and invest your energies here. Band with your peers, pool your ideas and and lift Africa up. Research and invent entrepreneurial strategies to tackle African problems, stop your short-sighted governments selling your resources off cheap and insist that the ex-colonial masters fund these initiatives as reparations. Not as aid, but trade.

Make Africa a continent that the Empires of Mali, of Ashanti, of Kongo, of Kush, of Aksum could be proud of; that Cleopatra and Askia the Great and Queen Njinga and King Shaka could be proud of; that NkrumahLumumba, Sankara, Cabral and Fanon and Biko and Fela and Makeba could be proud of. A continent that can teach the world other ways of being, other ways to do democracy – maybe even some manners.

I know times are hard and sometimes it feels like progress is impossible, but if all the go-getters carry on exporting their gifts, those left behind are condemned to exploitation unto eternity. Collaboration and confidence are what is needed – along with constant civil society pressure on governments to deliver economic power to the people rather than their own pockets.

Please don’t risk losing your life or your dignity. Stay where your skills are sorely needed and will be far more appreciated. Stay home and Make Africa Great Again.

 

“We must act as if we answer to, and only answer to, our Ancestors, our children and the unborn.” Amilcar Cabral

 

 

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Not the Acropolis

On 30th Oct it was exactly one month before Ruby flew into Cairo to meet us, and the week’s to-do list was intimidating: collect the new carnet from the SA Embassy in Athens, book the Big Green Truck on a RORO ferry, apply for Egyptian visas, book flights to Alexandria, get the pets to a vet for their final approval and, oh, find somewhere cheap to live for the days in transit because after making the ‘twice the value of the vehicle’ Egyptian entrance deposit to the AA, there was zero cash left in our account…. Yet all of this was causing me less stress than the fact that my capacity was shrinking at a rate of 10% per degree centigrade dropped.

Back to the city

We got up at 4am to avoid rush hour on our drive into the capital. Sampson was panicking thinking we were too late, but Greece wakes later than Africa – the road into central Athens was clear. Big Reg sailed down the wide open boulevards lined with impressive buildings, from what I could see from my bed, and arrived outside the SA Embassy at 5.45am. It was still bitterly cold.

Funky Athens

Early morning Twitter had a UK minister reportedly calling his secretary ‘sugartits’ in the latest #metoo scandal and President Zuma reportedly described as ‘a gangster like us’ by Agliotti. Hardly an edifying start to the day.

All roads lead to the capital

I was wasting so much energy trying to keep warm, wrestling layers of clothes on and off morning and evening, that I was beginning to avoid having showers because the effort was so exhausting. Pain was now constant, the aching in my back, hips, arms unable to abate in the absence of afternoon heat. But still I put on two hoodies and forced myself to do T’ai Chi outside on the cracked marble steps, watching the clouds of my breath freeze on the air. For I knew that once I gave up gently oiling my joints and stoking my internal boiler, I would be on a slippery slope back down to bedridden.

Greeks inspiring us with innovative ways of travelling with a dog

Cats on laps much easier in my experience

We were greeted at the SA Embassy by the fabulously warm First Secretaries Mrs Kgomotso John and Mrs Sejako Marole. Having picked up Big Reg’s third carnet, posted there by the AA in Jo’burg (thanks Bokang!), we were invited in for rooibos. We were exclaiming at the warmth of an African welcome compared to a general lack of greeting in Europe – though Mma John added that her last posting, Equatorial Guinea, was very dour as so oppressed. They told us some hilarious stories of how badly Greek people drive and how scratched cars are considered a matter of course here and nothing to make a fuss about!

Magnificent South African Embassy women: Sejako Morale (l) and Kgomotso John (r)

Sejako is so full of positivity, I loved her immediately. She’s a mother of four and was  telling us tales of the family setting off in the car to see Mount Olympus with just “water and salt” in the way she was brought up. That’s the soul of a true African adventurer!

Mma John was impressed by the cleanliness of truck (I had made a bit of an effort over the weekend to get the ‘en suite’ sparkling) and how Zola was reading Shakespeare. When she pressed €30 on me to treat him, it felt like a present from his gogo 🙂 He got on with school while I made lunch before collapsing on the bed for a couple of hours. The café Sampson was sat sending emails from was too smoky for me to go in.

* * *

I started writing the following 3 part poem late in 1994. It was the only thing I completed during the period I slipped from being moderate to more severely ill with M.E. It took me several months.

I was 24.

From the Bench

She sits like Patience on a monument
Smiling at grief

Twelfth Night, II iv 115

I               

Now I am an old woman
I stoop slightly
As if my spine aches to carry my heavy head.
My bones complain
           Noises hurt me
           Crowds fluster me
And sometimes I forget things.

Somedays it’s my heart
And somedays it’s my ears
And somedays it’s my back
And somedays I’m just
Weary

I am an old woman
Arthritic hands
Blue with cold on spring days
Not easy to carry bags of shopping
And stairs might as well be mountains.

                                               Walking through the Gardens I saw
                                               Two smiling white-haired old ladies
                                               Sitting on a bench, resting
                                                                their pink tweed suits
                                                                their thick ankles
                                               Pausing in the shade.

                                                They overtook me later
                                                As I sat on a bench, resting;
                                                I know how their old legs feel.

Somedays I am frustrated:
My body has betrayed me.
Somedays I feel life is passing me by
Yet I am content to sit quietly
Surveying the living
Blankly conscious
I have lost myself.

The most frightening thing is content.

* * *

The next day was another 4am start, driving to the shipping agency Minoan Lines in Piraeus. I sat wedged in the front wrapped in a sleeping bag feeling battered and bleak. Going back to bed from 5.30–8am saved me. At 10.30am I had to meet the shipping clerk Xanthi whom I’d been dealing with on email and turned out to be as lovely in person as I’d anticipated. She confirmed there was absolutely no option for us to travel with the truck, as zero passengers were allowed in the port of Alexandria.

A thousand thanks to Xanthi Nannou and Mari Papagrigoraki of Minoan Lines

For the first time on this trip, Big Reg and family Sampson were going to be separated. I was trying not to find the prospect of travelling without a kitchen or a bed in tow terrifying.

We called in on the Egypt Airline offices and got more bad news – they were no longer flying direct to Alex and all the flights I’d seen online had been cancelled between Oct-June. I was praying we weren’t going to have to fly to Cairo and then bus or train north.

We parked near the Acropolis just before it closed at 6pm. I realised there was no way I could possibly walk up there but still it was awe-inspiring to look up and see the Parthenon lit up at dusk.

This was the closest I got to the Acropolis

But I was delighted by the stunning exterior of the  museum at its foot

and the exciting view of excavations in progress below.

I was even more thrilled to find it was only €5 to enter the award-winning Acropolis Museum and that wheelchairs were available; I promised myself that Zola and I would get back for a shufty before we left Athens. After the boys had enjoyed their souvlaki supper courtesy of Mma John, we moved the truck at 11pm to be nearer to the Egyptian Embassy. Sampson posed Big Reg as ‘broken down’ surrounded by Papi’s orange cones in a restricted parking zone so I didn’t have far to walk.

Ist Nov dawned 15˚C inside the truck. Sampson got told off for looking like a vagrant while doing his exercises on a mat outside the posh shops. On my way to submit our Egyptian visa application forms, I saw this guy:

sleeping on the pavement outside Louis Vuitton #This Is Europe

On my return, I called out to Sampson, bent over the open bonnet in his overalls looking busy, “OK we can go now”. He started revving the engine to raise the brakes’ airpressure so Big Reg could move off. This takes several minutes (and then it’s another five before the engine is warm enough to switch to running on waste veg oil).

As this sent a cloud of choking diesel fumes into the Stavrolexo Café, I glimpsed a glamourous young woman at the bar throw her hands in the air. So I got down and took our Greek translation of the letter of introduction into her to apologise. When I touched her arm, she was suddenly crying over her cigarette. In between sobs, she said sorry, it had just felt like the last straw: she had not been paid for 3 months, didn’t know how she was going to make her rent and just didn’t know what to do.#This Is Europe

What could I say? I hugged her and told her to keep in touch. I know she follows us on Facebook, so I hope things have cheered up a bit for you by now Adeliki xxx

Finally, thanks to a brilliant tip from the SA Embassy, we parked off outside the Olympic Velodrome.

At last, enough parking space for Big Reg

and loads of room to exercise

A thousand thanks to the Hellenic Cycling Federation for their hospitality

Zola was also having a tough day. Upon gentle enquiry, he admitted he was anxious about the upcoming crossing and also upset by reading facts in his EMS textbook about inequality in South Africa, pointing out ‘black households earn on average R7000 per month, while white households earn R62000 per month’.
“That’s almost nine times as much!” he said in a shocked voice.
God how I love that boy.

I was so glad he got royally treated on an evening out with Sejako and her kids (Susie 9, Kudzo 13 and Step 16). Zola went along with them to footie training, then the boys roamed around the mall together and got KFC. He felt very comfortable and really enjoyed their company, bless them for their kindness. I was sad to be too weedy to spend more time with their lovely mum.

* * *

II             

I am an old woman:
Sometimes grumpy
Sometimes clumsy
And sometimes I cry
When it pains me too much
To pin up my hair.

I measure out my energy
Like a child, honey
Like a miser, precious gold.
I pace my steps
            my days
            my months;
To rush me is a violent crime.

O for matches to prop open
My brain’s sightless aching holes

Ever fumbling for reminders
                              of thoughts
                              of memories
                              of how I used to be.

Sometimes I panic –
And sometimes I am tranquil as a zombie.
Sometimes I think I am acquiring Patience;
And sometimes I think she is a cruel taunting little girl.

My ankles are thinner
But we are all old women

Bitterness rides us like surfers –
On calm days we care little for what we cannot do
On rough days what might have been
Is everything.

Last year I was an invalid.
Now at least I have the strength
To turn over in bed
To lift a cup
To think

To hold my head up and tell you:
            I am an old woman
            I deserve respect
And
            No I am Not content
            To sit in sunshine

Winter is ever within me
Withering my vitals.

* * *

As Sampson and son set to filtering the remainder of the oil we collected in France, I sat inside the Velodrome on their wifi sending out copious copies of documents ready for Big Reg’s boarding of the ferry and investigating flights to Alexandria. This was quite enough to do without the extra hassle of blagging TWO pets onto a plane. I spent three hours hanging on the phone to Turkish Airlines over three days sorting it out. When you’re feeling very ill, unavoidable energy-sucking admin is pretty much my idea of purgatory – especially as at the weekend, I had to chase everything up sitting outside their closed doors on a camping chair during howling rain and wind wrapped in a blanket.

The first call centre operator told me requests for carrying pets could not be processed until our flights were booked. But after I’d paid for our tickets, the second told me that flights shouldn’t be booked until pet carriage had been approved, adding that it wasn’t going to be €10 for the cat, as the first woman had quoted, but $70. Eeek.

Because I’m worth it

I followed up that request with an enquiry about Sampson’s ‘emotional support dog’: he’d done the research online and obtained necessary supporting documentation from a psychiatrist. But when I mentioned ‘Doberman Pinscher’, the operator said no, that breed was forbidden. I quickly backtracked and said I can’t remember exactly what it says on his pet passport, but it’s mixed breed and only a puppy…

On day three, as the boys were getting everything out of the roof box and packing it into Zola’s bedroom in the nose cone for safety, I found out the cat had been accepted, but the dog refused because it was a Doberman. “Oh no,” I said “that’s not the case, it’s a mixed breed, Doberman and other, and very small – under 7kg” and re-submitted our request, adding “I really don’t want to be separated from my husband as I’m a wheelchair user – if we can’t travel together we will need to refund our tickets at no charge because we were given the wrong advice about booking before making arrangements for pets… perhaps I should submit a complaint?” Over lunch, Sampson was going into a flat panic, already planning how he would have to travel overland separately with Monte, with no thought to how I might manage to extricate the truck from the port alone. Thankfully, the lovely Emre called me back to say our request came back approved. Alleluja.

We all slept better that night

This was nearly a ‘train smash’, but Zola had a bike one: pelting round the carpark on his trusty Merida, he bashed his face into the wire fence and put a hole in his new jeans. I think what most freaked him out was that the people sitting in a car next to him didn’t rush to his aid. Hmmmm.

Not a little boy any more, but a scary looking teen.

Out of the blue, ‘The Backpackers Greece’ contacted us on Facebook having seen the truck, hoping to hook up. I left a message asking for accommodation advice as we were putting Big Reg on the boat two nights before flying into Alexandria to meet it. They called back and said we could stay at their place in Plaka, a few minutes from Acropolis Museum, free of charge! Travellers know there is nothing more precious than the kindness of strangers.

Meanwhile Jen Brea’s ME documentary Unrest was at long last launching in US and UK with news about it breaking everywhere – I was simultaneously so buoyed by the coverage and so frustrated at not being able to see it.

* * *

III           

Since I was a young woman, dancing
I have shrunk
My horizons, distilled.

I am no longer
Caring and carefree
But cared for.
Comforted.

I am silent
But I am not brave
I am tired
         tired
         tired
two years’ tired

I have clawed my way back to here.
Now I am struggling
To stand still.

My life is the fitful nightmare of frozen motion.

My ambitions sit beside me on the bench
Arguing with Patience

I look forward
Gathering myself to walk on.

We are all old women
Some of us are merely older than others.

I hope to be a wiser Old Girl
For this premature rebirth

I want to be ready to hug Patience to me
And swing her round, laughing

I want to dance again
On any old ankles

And be glad for this time
Pausing in the shade.

* * *

Those last three days in Greece were hectic.

The first day was one long slog, with the truck pulled over ‘broken down’ in No Parking zones all over Athens. Zola and I spent the morning traipsing up and down with Lucky in a carry case, dragging a reluctant Monte on a lead trying to locate a vet to get the pets signed off as healthy – bless you Dr. Calliopi Marouli and her assistant V.

It’s a good job they’re cute

After picking up our passports with visas from the Embassy, I trawled several supermarkets looking to stock up with rice cakes (as we were unlikely to find any in Egypt). We topped off the day with a late night sewage drop at a dump far out of town followed by a 23 point turn on the tightest corner ever on a narrow street of old Piraeus with me outside in a high vis vest holding back the traffic. I’ve never seen Sampson sweat as much at midnight in winter.

Day two we were finalising details on the Bill of Landing at Minoan Lines at 9am, before checking in with customs broker Mr Thomopoulos for clearance. We had lunch, washed up, locked down and Left The Truck. Eeek.

Three of us, with 4 cases, 2 bags of gluten-free supplies and 2 pets.

I’d been getting Lucky used to her carry case for a week. She still wasn’t impressed.

How we managed to transport Monte from Greece to Egypt

Big Reg was off on his own adventure on Grimaldi freighter the Grande Ellade…

The taxi driver I managed to flag down outside the port refused to take us when he saw Monte, but relented when we showed him the nappy and begged. When Sampson went into the Avis office to pick up keys, Zola and I hid with the pets outside. It was such a relief to pile our household inside that tiny rental car.

Plaka was soo trendy, with tiny winding old city lanes crammed full of smart cars, jewellry shops and expensive bistros teeming with hipsters. I remembered Barbs saying that the UK was at ‘peak beard’ in 2015 – Plaka was just getting there.

A glimpse of gorgeous Plaka – wish I could have explored

The Backpackers Greece greeted us warmly: the lovely Kiara is a vivacious natural beauty with a unique style, which brought to mind Angelina, Audrey and Amal  – masses of hair and brain. She’s studying Arabic and Islamic law. Her man Giorgos was a model of understated quiet like other adrenalin-junky thrill-seekers I’ve met – he’s a serious snowboarder. Check out their evocative 2 minute video of Athens here.

Giorgos Daskalakis and Kiara Tzivraili

This is a rubbish phone pic, rather follow their awesome travel adventures on Insta or Facebook 

for more pics like this!

and this!

It was so incredibly kind of them to go stay at her mother’s and leave us total strangers in their bijou flat with a pooing puppy and a freaked out kitten. The boys ate souvlaki again while I made gluten-free pasta in Giorgos’ mini-kitchen. I was beyond exhausted, but still unable to sleep with Monte whimpering from the bathroom all night.

Sampson holding the baby

Giorgos and Kiara’s cute flat was in the middle of this square

with some very truck-like space-saving design by Giorgos

Day three was my last chance to go to Acropolis Museum, and we were tantalisingly near. But Dr. Marouli had told us that we needed one more piece of paper to get the pets clearance to leave the country – an export document from the Ministry of Agriculture. I thought we might be able to get it done in the morning and go to the museum in the afternoon. But having left Zola in the flat minding the babies, Sampson and I spent most of day driving round the city searching for the right building – which turned out to be an unmarked office inside an unmarked block which was part of the Ministry of Transport – all to get two pieces of paper laboriously filled in and stamped by official vet Ms Aikaterini Dikaiou. We didn’t even get time to meet Kiara and Giorgos for lunch, because at 3pm we had to leave for the airport.

Rush, rush, rush…

(I try not to dwell on how a dog cost me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the Acropolis Museum. I tell myself I’ll go when the British Museum gives the Parthenon Marbles back. And the Benin Bronzes. And the Rosetta Stone. And… )

How on earth did I manage to do all this when ME was making me feel so ill? Well, that’s the million dollar research question, isn’t it?

The first ME book I took off the library shelf in 1993 told me that we have a dysfunctional metabolism so our energy levels are like a heavily overdrawn bank account. The only way to get in control of the condition is to invest in rest. You must only ever do half what you think you can and ‘bank’ the rest of the energy for healing. Slowly but surely you will build up your reserves. It may take months or years but, if you can avoid unexpected outlays, you can get back in the black.

Of course, terms and conditions apply: funds can go down as well as up. It’s perfectly possible to do more than you should, push yourself beyond balance – I can ignore my shouting body and carry on talking and walking to get things done in a pinch – but the spendthrift never gets away scot-free. You always pay for it. Often with whopping interest.

But because you only see us pwME talking and walking and smiling, and not lying on a bed in the dark for hours or days or weeks afterwards, you think we’re making this shit up. And I understand. It seems unbelieveable to me too. Looking at me then, sitting dizzy in their flat smiling wanly but looking absolutely fine, Kiara and Giorgos will never believe that those three days took me three months to come back from.

But hey: I had no choice. I was prepared to do whatever it takes to get back to Africa.

Goodbye Greece, and thank you

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A Crateful of Pomegranates

There was no denying it. Sampson was in love.

Devotedly

and

hopelessly

Besotted

Can your husband have an affair with a dog? Granted, Monte was a darling. Young, energetic, doe-eyed, silky-haired and constantly adoring – what’s not to love?

Dohhhhh

*Sigh*

So we went back to the lovely vet Dr Dimitri and got Monte and Lucky jabbed, microchipped and registered for €100 each.

Sampson with the kind and thoughtful Dr Dimitri Karamaridis

Preveza’s finest vet

who, with the help of his practice partner Bourkard Schwartze

sorted Lucky and Monte’s pet passports for the crossing back to Africa

But Preveza felt as tired and put upon as I was. The evidence of EU-imposed austerity was everywhere. There were so many empty shop fronts in the backwater towns – about a third of every high street – Greece had a feeling of being half abandoned itself. The run down pet shop was full of dust and piles of faded stuff.

Still, we spent another €100 on special food

and bowls and toys and a new bed

I shall remember Greece for orange trees after rain…

for citrus-flavoured chocolate (it took me months before I was well enough to eat mine)…

for the Greek yoghurt that now wasn’t!

dozens of heart-wrenching roadside shrines commemorating lost loved ones…

wistful graffiti…

and the farmer who didn’t mind at all that we’d parked overnight in his olive orchard but greeted me so kindly

As the pattern of being awake from 2am-5am between doggy doings became entrenched, everything was taking longer. Two hours to get up, then T’ai Chi was becoming slower and more painful. I was feeling sick all the time, not just nauseous after eating. I strapped myself into the passenger seat surrounded by cushions, with a travel pillow to support my neck and carried on. But whenever we stopped, the resultant brain-rattle hangover was making me feel very ill indeed. I was beginning to wonder if I could even withstand travelling in the bumpy truck all the way home.

* * *

By some cruel twist of fate, the person most responsible for the misrepresentation of M.E. – a disease first documented by Dr Melvin Ramsay following an infectious epidemic amongst 292 staff at Royal Free Hospital in 1955, mostly nurses – is Dr Simon Wessely, a fellow graduate of University College, Oxford.

He followed up on the work of McEvedy and Beard, two male psychiatrists, who in 1970, the year I was born, reexamined the Royal Free case notes and reported that “there is little evidence of organic disease affecting the central nervous system… and epidemic hysteria is a much more likely explanation…The data which support this hypothesis are the high attack rate in females compared with males”. McEvedy CP, Beard AW. Royal Free epidemic of 1955: a reconsideration. BMJ. 1970 Jan 3;1(5687):7–11

McEvedy and Beard came to this conclusion without interviewing any of the patients themselves, many of whom remained too ill to work decades later.

Sir Simon Wessley took this patronising arrogance to the next level in the late 80s/early 90s – deliberately recasting M.E. as a psychosomatic condition called ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’, a term adopted by the Centre for Disease Control in the US in 1988 following the Lake Tahoe epidemic of 1984/5 affecting around 175 people in Nevada, which was infamously characterised in the press as ‘Yuppie Flu‘.

This summary of Dr Wessley’s contribution to M.E. research (or the derailing of it) by the heroic Margaret Williams is well worth reading if you can stand it. I’ll be honest, it took me four months to work up the strength to do so because when it was published last Christmas I was at such a low ebb, I knew if I attempted it, my anger would lay me out flat for a week.

Let me try and distill the dilligent labour of Margaret Williams into a few choice quotations:

“Dismissive of the fact that the WHO has formally classified ME/CFS as a neurological disorder since 1969, Wessely has spent the last 30 years denying the existence of ME and striving to get “CFS/ME” re-classified as a mental (somatisation) disorder…

Not only has he consistently denigrated people with ME, but he has dismissed, ignored or ridiculed the substantial body of international biomedical evidence published over the last 30 years that proves him wrong… it worth noting that the Medical Research Council itself now acknowledges that there is evidence of immune dysfunction and inflammatory mechanisms in the brain and spinal cord of people with ME.

In 1989 Wessely wrote in the British Medical Journal:
“(neurasthenia) is back with a vengeance. My local bookshop has just given ME the final seal of approval, its own shelf. A little more psychology and a little less T-cells would be welcome”. (BMJ 1989:298:1532-1533).

Much was already known at that time about the role of dysfunctional T cells in ME/CFS but such was Wessely’s influence that his personal beliefs prevailed throughout the NHS: important research findings were ignored, with Government and other institutions such as the medical insurance industry gratefully and uncritically accepting as fact Wessely’s assertions that ME/CFS is a behavioural disorder, thus depriving claimants of financial support to which they were legitimately entitled….

Wessely is renowned for his damaging assertions about ME/CFS, some of the more memorable ones being:

“Most CFS patients fulfil diagnostic criteria for psychiatric disorder….Other symptoms include muscle pain and many somatic symptoms, especially cardiac, gastrointestinal and neurological. Do any of these symptoms possess diagnostic significance? The answer is basically negative…. It is of interest that the ‘germ theory’ is gaining popularity at the expense of a decline in the acceptance of personal responsibility for illness…. The description given by a leading gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic remains accurate: ‘The average doctor will see they are neurotic and he will often be disgusted with them’ ” (In: Psychological Disorders in General Medical Settings Ed: N Sartorius et al Pub: Hogrefe & Huber, 1990)

“It seems that ME sufferers prefer to feel that they have a ‘real’ disease – it is better for their self-esteem (and) the label ‘ME’ helps legitimise their dealings with doctors” (Report of meeting held on 15 April 1992 at Belfast Castle; Pfizer Invicta Pharmaceuticals, pp4-5)

“I will argue that ME is simply a belief, the belief that one has an illness called ME” (9th Eliot Slater Memorial Lecture, Institute of Psychiatry, London, 12 May 1994)

“The term ME may mislead patients into believing they have a serious and specific pathological process….The possibility that abnormalities of immune function play a role in the pathogenesis of CFS has attracted considerable attention. Such abnormalities should not deflect the clinicians from the biospsychosocial (psychiatric) approach and should not focus attention towards a search for an ‘organic’ cause….No investigations should be performed to confirm the diagnosis” (Joint Royal Colleges Report on CFS, October 1996)

“The majority of patients seen in specialist clinics typically believe that their symptoms are the result of an organic disease process…. Many doctors believe the converse….Many patients receive financial benefits and payments which may be contingent upon their remaining unwell” (Gen Hosp Psychiatry 1997:19:3:185-199)

It is only human for doctors to view the public as foolish, uncomprehending, hysterical or malingering …..One challenge arises when patients have named their condition in a way that leaves doctors uncomfortable, as occurred with chronic fatigue syndrome….It may seem that adopting the lay label (ME) reinforces the perceived disability. A compromise strategy…would mean treating chronic fatigue syndrome as a legitimate illness while gradually expanding understanding of the condition to incorporate the psychological and social dimensions” (BMJ 2003:326:595-597)

It was twenty eight years after Wessely successfully called for “more psychology and less T-cells” that on 27th December 2017 The Open Medicine Foundation announced the First T cell Project Meeting for the ME/CFS Collaborative Research Centre at Stanford.

““OK folks, nothing to see here, move along please” seems to have been his standard response to everything he has investigated when he has been proved wrong, for example, ME/CFS, Gulf War Syndrome, the potential dangers of mobile phones, and the Camelford poisoning disaster, a stance which seems to have made him useful to UK Governments of whatever party and he has been rewarded accordingly: a knighthood and a Regius professorship are not awarded for speaking inconvenient truths that may expose vested interests and the incompetence and liability of Departments of State….”

* * *

We paused in Itea, a humble little town on edge of the Gulf of Corinth. I imagine it’s very busy in summer, but there were no tourists in winter, and you got the feel of an intimate community going about their business.

Beautiful Itea

from below

and above

I loved how in Greece, bicycles everywhere were left unattended, unlocked. Kids playing carefree on the jetty would throw their bikes down and run off laughing. This would be unimaginable at home in Cape Town. What a lovely way to be.

We parked off by the harbour

First thing in the morning, Sampson and son were outside in the sunshine taking Monte on his first walk around the harbour. They made a video of Zola doing tricks on his unicycle – it was just 6 weeks since he got it. I was unable to take part in that section of day because it was taking me so long to get up. Monte was getting stronger, wrestling Lucky and giving as good as he got. His legs were a bit wobbly, but he was trying to gambol. I felt a similar level of capacity myself.

* * *

Following my diagnosis in late 1993, I started arming myself with information.

My mother was horrified at the list of recommended dietary restrictions that arrived in the post from Action for ME: “What on earth are you going to eat?!” But only by cutting things out of my diet, did I become able to recognise the drastic effects they had on me when reintroduced and how much energy they consumed as I struggled to digest them.

One of the first things that pwME (people with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) realise is that they competely lose all tolerance to alcohol. I hadn’t been able to drink since an epic night on Mekong whisky in Thailand in 1992, as now the after-effects of even half a glass of wine were so horrible: legless and the hangover from hell. Now I came to realise that caffeine gave me an instant migraine. Sugar made me nauseous and sweat buckets. But by far the greatest culprit was gluten. As soon as I stopped eating wheat, I started feeling better. Eventually I reluctantly had to abandon rye and oats as well. The consequences were too blatant to be ignored: 8 months’ pregnant-bloating within 20 minutes, excruciating pain and a feeling of toxic shock.

After several months of trial and error, I found that sticking to rice, pulses and vegetables was least demanding on my system. Anything processed, anything with additives, anything unnatural would immediately make me ill. I found myself lucky amongst pwME that I could still tolerate fruit. (I may not have been able to get drunk in 25 years, but I have been incredibly blessed to enjoy melon, mangos and strawberries. How would I have survived this trip without being able to eat bananas?)

I found out there were some famous people who had M.E.: round the world yachtswoman Clare Francis and Chariots of Fire director David Puttnam among them. Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin, who both retired indoors with unexplained conditions after hyperactive early lives, were also suspected sufferers. I wondered if ME might be what had affected the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and why she loved living in Italy.

(Since then jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, author Laura Hillenbrand, soccer player Michelle Akers, director Blake Edwards, actors Cher and Michael Crawford, musicians Randy Newman, Stevie Nicks, Flea from Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the keyboardist of Suede, the lead singer of Belle and Sebastian, rapper Trip Lee and Lady Gaga have joined the list.)

Our harassed and exhausted Coventry GP, who hadn’t given me more than 5 minutes attention before, turned out to have a wife incapacitated with M.E. for more than a decade. But even he couldn’t give me any useful advice beyond ‘Rest, rest, rest’. Still, I could not keep warm. I couldn’t stand up for more than a minute. The only way I could go shopping was on a municipal mobility scooter looking like a pensioner. Except a pensioner wouldn’t be laid out flat for 2 days afterwards. I sat huddled indoors by the radiator in a black wool overcoat. More than once I had muscle-spasms around my heart so severe that I couldn’t breathe in for several minutes. There was no option but to learn to be patient the hard way: keep calm or you don’t get to carry on.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. My Mom decided to send me to stay with her sister in Johannesburg, a place I had never planned to visit, but with an average February temperature of 26˚C.

It was 1994. What a time to witness history happening in South Africa.

* * *

A group of giggling girls about Ruby’s age watched me do T’ai Chi that morning. After I finished, I went over and explained to them what I was doing and why:
“Don’t laugh at other women. Life is hard enough, we must stick together.”
Chastened, they agreed. One of them told me proudly that she did Tae Kwon Do.

They explained they were off school because tomorrow was the Public Holiday Ohi Day commemorating 28th Oct 1940 when their prime minister Metaxas defied an ultimatum from Mussolini, with a spirited “No!” which prevented an Italian invasion and precipitated Greece’s entry into WWII. This was why the sea scouts were practising marching up and down with their flags. I hiked up the road to get copies of documents for Ruby’s Egyptian visa so that Sampson could post the original Parental Consent Affidavit to SA to allow her to travel.

During school time, I read a review of the film Unrest, written by a woman with severe ME who said the opening shots of the film where the protagonist was crawling up the stairs had only made her feel jealous, as she hadn’t left her bedroom in 15 years. This gave me some much needed perspective. I felt gratitude to be in the world at all, even for fraction of the day. I wrote in my diary:

“I am very aware that if I was living at home, I would not see my son at all during my functioning time of day. In this moderate state, before 10am and after 5pm I’m pretty useless. So I feel very lucky to be spending lucid time with him when he can still experience me as an intelligent being.”

The bitter wind had me piling on boots, a jacket and my fake furry leopardskin hat to go one block to the supermarket. Zola was also feeling hyper-sensitive, but to the sharp looks and suspicion of the refugee-wary locals:
“Mom, what percentage of people are racist?”

I didn’t want to dismiss or downplay his fears so I explained the background to theirs, but to cheer him up added,“Don’t underestimate how gorgeous you are – quite a lot of those looks are ‘wow’ ones – you’d better get used to it for when you’re famous!” I’d seen the girls checking him out that morning…

It worked: he gave me a sheepish grin. We drove out of town and found a quiet place by a deserted hotel, next to the sea.

Peace

sunshine

and fresh air

* * *

The Wessely School’s convenient blurring of the distinctions between people suffering debilitating fatigue as a result of clinical depression and other chronic conditions and people with ME, an organic neuroimmune disease caused by an as yet unidentified viral trigger, has led to GPs insisting on inappropriate and – in a tragic number of cases – detrimental treatment advice.

Wessely-sanctioned Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Graded Exercise Therapy (GET) are the only treatments currently offered by the NHS to ME patients. Yet the results of the enormous PACE trial, published since 2011, ‘proving’ their effectiveness have been thoroughly discredited – thanks to the superheroic efforts of an international cohort of citizen-scientists and maverick Californian investigative public health journalist Dr David Tuller exposing egregious scientific shortcomings and manipulation of results. Open letters 2015-17 to The Lancet and Psychological Medicine signed by more than 100 scientists and 50 ME charities from countries around the world asking for an independent reanalysis of the data have yet to receive a response.

As the Independent has noted in an excellent summary of the history of ME so far:
“Throughout it all, patients were depicted as dangerous militants in the media for criticising the trial, even though they turned out to be vindicated.”

Dr David Marks, Editor of the Journal of Health Psychology has concluded:
“The many wrongs committed by psychiatry and medicine to the ME/CFS community can only be righted when the PACE trial is ultimately seen for what it is: a disgraceful confidence trick to reduce patient compensation payments and benefits.” https://inews.co.uk/essentials/news/health/scientists-furious-row-pace-trial-journal-special-edition/

GET has proved significantly counterproductive, leading to many moderate pwME relapsing with post-exertional malaise into years of severe suffering. Unsurprisingly this has caused depression and despair for many.

The following are difficult to read, but please, I beg you, as we approach  #MillionsMissing ME Awareness Day on May 12th, do the mothers of these young women the courtesy of clicking on their names and bearing witness to their stories:

In 2017, after 6 years bedridden, 10 days after her 21st brithday, Merryn Crofts passed away and became the second person in the UK to have ME cited as cause of death. Those of us outside UK can’t see this Channel 5 news clip of her mum Clare Norton, but read her account of her daughter’s bravery and salute her dignity:
“what other illness gives the least attention to the worst affected?”

The first person to have ME on her death certificate, Sophia Mirza, died in 2005 after 6 years’ illness aged 32, when she suffered a massive relapse after being forcibly sectioned and locked in a psychiatric ward for 2 weeks despite the desperate efforts of her mother Criona Wilson to protect her.

Emily Collingridge died in 2012 aged 30 subsequent to some brutal treatment in hospital. She had been ill since the age of 6 and wrote a book Severe ME/CFS: A Guide to Living in 2010.

Australian Alison Hunter died in 1996 aged 19 after a decade of suffering. She was the founding president of MEYA (ME Young Adults) in Sydney.

Lynn Gilderdale‘s mother Kay, a former nurse, wrote this open letter following her acquittal of murder after assisting her daughter’s suicide in 2008. Lynn was 31 and had been severely ill – almost impossibly ill and yet still alive – since aged 14:
“I wish with all my heart that I knew at the start of Lynn’s illness that graded exercise at this acute stage causes further damage. She could have been spared seventeen long years of unimaginable suffering if we had done the right thing at the beginning and listened to what she told us.”

Martin Lev director of Action for ME and former child movie star committed suicide in 1992 aged 32.

Vanessa Li of Hong Kong committed suicide in 2015 at 34 having been ill since she was 19. She was a founder of the crowdfunding campaign for the Microbe Discovery Project.

Dr Nancy Klimas, Professor of Medicine and Immunology at the University of Miami and one of the world’s foremost AIDS and ME/CFS physicians said in the New York Times, 15th October 2009:
“I hope you are not saying that (ME)CFS patients are not as ill as HIV patients. I split my clinical time between the two illnesses, and I can tell you that if I had to choose between the two illnesses I would rather have HIV.”

Stanford Professor Ron Davis, who used to work on the human genome, has said:
“This is a much more serious disease than many of the other things that people are worried about. It’s more common than MS, it’s more common than Parkinson’s disease, it’s more common than Aids. This is probably the last major disease that we know so little about. And it’s because of its nature that it’s been hidden. The severe patients are often just in their home being looked after by someone and no one knows they exist. But it can get very severe, people have tried to make some measures in terms of debilitating illness, it’s generally viewed as worse than many other diseases that have been ranked in terms of quality of life.’’

The most savage irony of all is that in 2012, Wessley was awarded the inaugural John Maddox prize for his “courage” in the field of ME/CFS and Gulf War Syndromes for “standing up for science”:
The prize rewards individuals who have promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest, with an emphasis on those who have faced difficulty or opposition in doing so”

For HIS courage???

His courage in the face of all those pesky patient activists who, despite Wessely’s refusal to acknowledge the biomedical evidence of more than 6000 peer-reviewed papers over the last 30 years, continue to insist their disease is real?

This breathtaking hubris has exacerbated the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people, predominantly women and children, who have been forced into CBT and GET in order to access state grants and medical insurance, despite evidence that this therapy can significantly worsen their conditions.

We continue to ‘make a fuss’.

* * *

As I couldn’t walk that far, I had to miss the Ohi Day parade. Instead I spent the weekend doing washing with Zola’s help because my arms were not up to wringing the clothes out. In between, he taught himself how to bunny hop off a step on his unicycle, which was very impressive. Sampson was bleaching and gaffer-taping the holes in the floor in an attempt to get rid of the smell of dog pee.

Phew

Huge achievement of hand-washing

which had to be rehung inside because of sudden rain

At dawn through church bells, I was dreaming of Hub, yearning for him. I woke up and realised that my libido had surfaced for the first time in months and I needed to seize the moment. I snuck into bed with Sampson, confident that the teenage zombie upstairs couldn’t be disturbed.

My man was keen and conscientious as ever and I was totally ready despite the pain in my joints making relaxation difficult. I moved on top and we were so nearly there together – he looked so beautiful, underneath me in the half light, just shaved last night, his face like the young him. Then suddenly I was crying – I had had so clearly a sense that this could be The Last Time. “Am I nuts? Am I torturing myself unnecessarily? Or do I genuinely know my body after all these years of living with this, and know how rapidly I’m deteriorating?

He came when I put my hands on his torso and I was happy, just to have felt well enough to try. I don’t think it was possible for my body to orgasm today, it requires too much energy and I was too weak. But at least I slept another hour cuddled together, and that felt like a gift. I woke with a GASP – the second time this week. Why do I feel like I can’t breathe enough? Is it because we have an extra being exhaling carbon dioxide into the truck? (Dog under the bed.) Or because my blood cells are getting less efficient at making oxygen?”

* * *

My aunt in Johannesburg hadn’t seen me since I was 12 and didn’t know me from a bar of soap. She was aghast to see me sleeping so much and took me to her doctor, an overconfident man of 30 who didn’t listen and proscribed Prozac. I refused to take it. I knew I wasn’t depressed – I’d been at my happiest ever when I first fell ill while travelling in 1992; in 1993 when I deteriorated I was living the life of freedom and theatre I’d dreamed of. My body just couldn’t handle the twin challenges of a malfunctioning immune system and a cold climate.

South African sunshine saved me. The energy my body didn’t squander on trying to stay warm it could put into building up my strength. Slowly but surely, I became more resilient. Being in such a fascinating place at such a fascinating time helped – I spent the first month reading an encyclopedia of South African history and the weekly Mail&Guardian. I was honoured to work processing the queues at a polling station at the first democratic elections in April 1994, getting blisters adding last-minute IFP stickers to thousands of  ballot papers and explaining the difference between national and provincial votes to men in leg irons at Leeuwkop prison. I was also delighted to be taught how to speak South African by my young cousins who would not believe that ‘naartjie’ wasn’t an English word.

After a few months convalescing at my aunt’s, I moved to Cape Town to share a flat with her friend’s son in Vredehoek. I felt so much stronger at sea level, I decided I’d been leaning on my parents long enough and got a job on a stall at Greenmarket Square. In the winter months of July and August I only worked a couple of days a week around the rain, resting in between, but as summer approached this increased to three in September then four in October.

Almost overnight, I relapsed.

I couldn’t understand how I was so much worse than I’d been the previous November in England. My parents had just taken early retirement and came out to investigate, renting the flat next door. By Christmas I was hardly upright at all, in constant pain and in a haze of brain fog. I could barely hold a pen. My ever present sore throat made me feel like I was swallowing through knives. I couldn’t regulate my temperature and was drenched in sweat whenever I got cold. The effort of getting down the hallway to the toilet once made me retch. It became apparent this illness wasn’t going away anytime soon. Desperate times call for desperate measures. They decided to buy a house.

This was South Africa in early 1995. Far more people were emigrating than immigrating. My folks would never have had the balls to sell up and make such a risky financial move were it not for these circumstances. But I wasn’t going to get better in a UK climate so they felt they had no choice.

I maintain that no one – but no one – can truly understand what it’s like to have M.E. unless they’ve had it themselves or lived 24/7/365 with someone who has. Even then it’s still difficult to appreciate the capricious nature of it. My husband never knew me in my acute phase, or during the following year I spent mostly bedridden. He never saw me sleeping 20 hours a day. He never had to lift my head to drink. He never pushed me in a wheelchair.

I only met Sampson when I was 26, finally back on my feet and able to drive again. He knew I had to rest for a week after every night out together in those first few months; he learned to read my sudden pallor and try stop me from overdoing it; he could see the drastic consequences of me accidentally eating wheat or being exposed to chemicals. But he never had to feed or bath me like my parents did in 1994/5 when I was briefly one of the severely affected 25%. So he has no concept of what the risk of relapse truly means to me. Or could mean to all of us.

* * *

That morning, a geezer who’d been beavering away all weekend in the local allotment behind the truck came up to Sampson. He thought he was about to reprimand him for staying too long, but the gardener smiled and handed him a small crate of pomegranates which had blown down in last night’s storm. Greece really did feel like the best of Europe and Africa together – the wide availablity of good cheap food plus genuine human warmth and generosity. We sat and chowed through one each before folding up all the clothes and packing up to leave. The pomegranate juice felt like healing magic.

Windfall

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Pantokrator

Somehow, between Montenegro and Greece, it seemed all ideas of giving Monte away to some kind people had evaporated. We crossed into the Hellenic peninsula on Sampson’s 51st birthday and I think he felt the universe had given him a puppy.

Greece at last

Gloriously verdant

and no potholes

Hooray!

The adoration…

was mutual

It was the first time in 20 years I’d been too ill to write him a birthday poem. At least I had bought him a present before we left SA: Barbarian Days – A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. It was supposed to carry him dreaming across the desert, surfing vicariously through the stories until we could make it back to the waves.

Birthday chilling

As we approached border, we were ready to brazen out the fact of Monte sat on a towel on the floor at our feet with a “found this starving puppy, on our way to the vet now”. But Greek officials were far too busy taking apart a car stuffed full of luggage driven by a chancer in aviator shades and excessive gold chains to worry about us.

Playing it by ear as usual

Sampson celebrated with pack of 12 birthday choc ices from Lidl and passed several of them on to little girls in the waiting room of vet Sophie in Ioannina who lanced and drained Monte’s swollen joint (infected from another dog’s bite) and provided worm tablets, antibiotics and special intestinal treatment dog food. Which gave him even more spectacular diarrhoea….

I fell asleep before the lights were turned off, forgot to clean my teeth even, and woke up freezing without my sleeping bag on. It was increasingly wintry. The temperature inside was not helped by Sampson getting out twice to relieve Monty. Twice he didn’t make it in time. Lucky had taken to sleeping next to me. I woke at 8, but it was so cold, I got back into bed for an hour until it was warm enough for me to venture out. There was mist on the lake outside. The boys had porridge for breakfast and I made a gluten-free version: stewed pears and raisins with ricecakes crumbled into it.

It was time to get back to the sea.

* * *

So how did I get M.E.?

I was brought up in Coventry, an industrial town in the middle of England, and sent to a fee-paying high school that for centuries had been a sausage factory to shape up the lazy-ass sons of the mercantile classes for redbrick university entrance. My parents were teachers in the state system and made huge sacrifices to give me a better education. Five of my original class of 28 got in to Oxbridge.

Girls had been accepted so recently that my first year marked the inaugural appearance of female pupils in the 6th form. They didn’t need the same kind of pressure putting on them as the majority slacker boys but no one had worked that out yet. I knew what it cost my family every day to send me there – so I never took a day off in seven years. I left school with a bristling array of qualifications, a bad habit of staying up very late to write essays and the capacity to completely ignore all symptoms of ‘flu.

Coventry in the 1980s was vying with Newcastle for the title ‘Murder Capital of Britain’. It had massive unemployment due to the closure of so many of the Midlands’ car factories that my grandfather had worked in. You know that song Ghost Town by The Specials? They were from Coventry. The city centre could be a violent and dangerous place on drunken evenings, especially for teenage girls. I had to wait for my younger brother to get tall enough to escort me before my parents would let me go out dancing to House DJs at The Dog and Trumpet on a Saturday night.

I survived the sublunary dullness of my school years thanks to a couple of inspiring and committed teachers and the opportunity to get involved in acting. I even performed Shakespeare as part of the school’s first production at the Edinburgh Festival. After a gap year working in London at a women’s magazine, I went to Oxford to read English, keen to pursue a career in theatre and writing and looking forward to getting involved in as much drama as possible.

But the drama that dominated my life there was far from the thespian type I’d been anticipating. University College is Oxford’s oldest. The year I arrived, 1988, men had been studying there for 739 years. Women undergraduates had been allowed across the hallowed portal only 9 years before and made up 30% of the student body. There was one female fellow.

My first weekend, I was asleep in my single room at the top of the building very late on a Friday night when the 2nd year lads who shared a suite nextdoor came back from the bar with a few mates. One of them was the new Beer Cellar president and had obviously been treating his pals to a few afterhours drinks. They were so rowdy they woke me up, for the first of a hundred times that year.

I phoned my boyfriend from the landline in my room to witness the level of noise – he was a jazz pianist, at work in Covent Garden – and he told me to lock myself in. When my neighbours and their guests progressed from banging on the wall to banging on my door I got concerned that the latch was pretty old and looked round for something to defend myself with. It was when I caught sight of myself in the mirror with a serrated little kitchen knife in my hand that I got angry: what the hell was I doing? How had I been reduced to this?

I only found out this was ‘Fuck a Fresher Week’ afterwards. A whole rash of incidents had taken place that weekend. What happened to me was – and still is 30 years later – entirely unremarkable. The boys were quietly reprimanded by the Junior Dean. I was treated as a trouble-maker for making such a fuss. That was week one.

In the third term of my first year, I was elected college Women’s Officer; I spent most of my second year fighting for justice for rape survivors within college and negotiating Univ’s first Code of Practice for Sexual Harassment. I was subsequently elected Oxford University Student Union Women’s Officer (the last time it wasn’t a sabbatical paid post) and in 1990 carried out the first university-wide sexual harassment questionnaire. The damning results were published in The Sunday Observer the week after Thatcher resigned.

For about 18 months I slept an average of 4-6 hours a night, and almost never the night before handing in an essay. We were set three a fortnight in our second year, on subjects such as the History Plays or the entire works of George Eliot (one of the very few women on the syllabus). Anxiety and eating disorders amongst my fellow female students were rife. I still thought I was superhuman and could cope. Sickness was something that happened to other people.

The second term of my final year I went down with glandular fever (mononucleosis) with a blood test showing evidence of Epstein Barr virus. The doctor recommended I drop out to recover properly and take my finals the following year. But I didn’t want to spend a single second longer in that place than I had to, so I carried on, pushing through my exhaustion as always.

That summer I escaped to London, eager to pay off my student debt and earn some money to take a year off to travel.

* * *

Sunday was gorgeous but my energy was drained by the first day of my period and I was not up to walking. I sat with Monte while Sampson went for swim and watched Zola bounce out the truck and back in for his goggles. I love how the sea turns the teen into a keen bean again. Zola spent the morning washing his clothes while Sampson did some serious lying down recovering from his third month in a row up all night with a needy baby.

Naps

I weighed my options up carefully and decided that, sadly, the cold wind was going to come up too soon to justify the extra effort of setting up outside, so I lay down on the bed instead. I edited till 4pm then dragged myself up to chop a pile of veg for supper. Birthday boy had no idea what the cooking cost me. Finally I had a shower while the pot simmered – I hadn’t even managed a wash that morning.

My Sunday night movie treat was half a pomegranate. I love pomegranates. There’s something so intense about the ruby redness of their jewelled seeds, the juice explodes on your tongue like distilled summer heat; it seems to give a huge vitamin C boost to my system.

There was a storm the next day, so it was wet but warmer. It was stupendously tiring to have to drag so many clothes on, but once I was strapped in to jeans, socks and walking boots I felt more capable. Zola was in a great mood and we zapped through school.

Hard at work

Preveza

In Preveza, Sampson tracked down another vet, who was willing to do the pets’ innoculations even though they were not yet 3 months old, because jabs needed to be done 3 weeks before our flights.

He came back with a collar and lead, and special expensive dog food. When I queried his assumption that we were keeping Monte, my husband said, “But we agreed”. I didn’t want to row in front of Zola but felt it was time to point out that an exhausted silence does not equal acquiescence.

* * *

In Jan 1992 I set off with a friend to volunteer in Bangladesh for a few months. I had an amazing time and travelled marvelling on through Nepal, India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. In Sumatra in July all seven of us on a trek went down with dysentery. But I was the only one who never recovered.

I pushed on through Hong Kong and across China and Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express to Prague where I ran out of money and got a job teaching English in a middle school. I was still so ill, I went to hospital and was given anti-giardia medication for a second time.

But I continued to be constantly exhausted and feverish. By December I was coming home at 4pm and falling asleep at the table. I had had diarrhoea for six months and was feeling increasingly weak. I had purple welts on my thighs and cheeks like an AIDS patient. I couldn’t speak enough Czech with doctors to find out what was wrong with me. Finally, I gave in and got a coach home to Coventry for Christmas.

It took another year to diagnose. The first round of tests – including a barium enema – found nothing wrong and I was told I just had IBS. I resolved to pull myself together, packed up and set off to Manchester in the spring to start a theatre company with my best friend from college, who’d been at drama school training as a director in my absence. It was the life we’d dreamed of, in a city full of excitement and opportunities. I felt full of optimism for the future.

But I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. My energy, which used to be boundless, was unreliable and sometimes absent altogether. My Mancunian GP ran more tests, found I was seriously anaemic and insisted I stop being vegetarian. But even forcing down liver did not restore my capacity. I found myself crying outside the supermarket because I didn’t have the strength to walk home with 2 bags of shopping. I was 23 years old.

As winter came on, it got worse and worse. I was sleeping 12-14 hours a night. I would wake to find clumps of hair on my pillow. I had constant nausea and dizziness. Worst of all, I couldn’t think straight; I struggled to read and I couldn’t write. When I told my young GP that I had been unable to get a lump of Blu-tack/Press-stick off the wall because of the pain in my hand she took a deep breath and said, with obvious reluctance, “I think you may have M.E.”

M.E.? I’d never heard of it… Was it something really serious, like M.S.? She couldn’t tell me anything apart from the fact that this was a possible diagnosis if, after 6 months and all other tests proved negative, post-viral patients were still ill with unexplained pain and fatigue. This was Before Google, so I went to the library and found a book, written by a doctor with M.E. And there it was, a comprehensive list of symptoms laid out before me. I had every single one of them, even the ones I hadn’t realised were connected, like noise and light sensitivity. It explained that M.E. was characterised by post-exertional malaise, pain in muscles 24-48 hours after doing even light exercise. It told me that the only way to avoid it was to do half as much as you thought you were capable of. Except this was impossible, because your capacity and limitations shifted daily.

The book said that a particular type of person tended to get M.E.: those that don’t rest when they’re tired or sick but push on through. This means a disproportionate amount of sufferers are women, who often have no choice but to carry on for the sake of their children. It also said 25% of patients recover spontaneously within 2 years; those that don’t reach a plateau of symptoms between mild and moderately affected; the severely affected remaining 25% end up bed-ridden in darkened rooms.

Even though the prognosis was bleak, I was ecstatic. It was a huge relief just to know I wasn’t going mad and I wasn’t alone. But if this disease was already known about and documented, why on earth had it taken 18 months for someone in the medical profession to mention it to me?

I soldiered on but by November I was crippled with arthritic pain and brain fog. The only time I was warm was when I’d just stepped out of a hot bath. I couldn’t push through this time, I wasn’t able to look after myself anymore – my brother was having to interrupt his studies to come round and cook for me. For the second Christmas in a row, I gave up and went back to Coventry.

* * *

We parked off by the deserted Castle of Christ Pantokrator in Preveza. I set off slowly to explore; Zola overtook me on his unicycle.

The fortress of Pantokrator

named after the small church built on top

was constructed by Ali Pasha Tepelena in 1807

during a century of Ottoman rule over Epirus

It’s now abandoned

and covered in graffiti

Christ Pantokrator is largely an Eastern Orthodox conception of the Almighty

as mild but stern, “Christ the Teacher” – this 6th century icon from St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

It was cold

but very beautiful

and very quiet

Sampson was up twice in the night again with Monte and I didn’t get back to sleep in between. After dawn I dreamt that I was a small child and had two toy dogs that came to life: their teeth started snapping at my hands as I was feeding them. I woke feeling so much worse than the previous day despite my attempt to fend off the effects of the cold by sleeping in my sheepskin hoodie. Today I had second degree malaise, a horribly stiff neck, debilitating spinning nausea and pain in my arms and hands from typing yesterday. It was a huge effort to sit up, an hour to come round enough to stand, two hours to complete the process of getting up.

Nothing better than Greek Greek yoghurt for breakfast

Meanwhile Sampson went for a surf. There was hardly a wave but a good paddle miles out the back is always good for his head.

Worth a paddle

But there was a storm coming

I knew which way the wind was blowing. After he came back in and had eaten ravenously, I sat down opposite him and said,

“Look, the day we found Monte, remember I said we couldn’t possibly keep the dog as well as the cat? I have Not yet agreed to take on another (potentially huge) child! Lucky is 2 months old today and I haven’t slept through the night since she arrived. I will not be besmirched as somehow lazy for not picking up puppy poo in the small hours when I didn’t sign up for this.

You leave me no option but to spell this out: I know I physically can’t do it and I shouldn’t because keeping the dog means a significant risk of relapse for me. With temperatures as low as they are, I have no buffer as it is. This is the time I should be focussing on building up my strength ahead of the huge hurdle presented by the demanding admin tasks and physical crossing to Egypt – with the added stress of doing it all without the guaranteed safe food and rest provided in the truck. The only way I can get through this is if I can sleep enough to save up enough energy to cope with the challenges. But with you getting up every night and waking me, my insomnia is getting worse not better and I feel like I’m on a very slippery slope.”

The risk of disabling me when my skills were most needed was crazily obvious to me, but my husband seemed willfully oblivious. Never mind the expense or inconvenience of a big dog in a small space or the commitment of hours of training time ahead. He was adamant I was exaggerating, even scoffing at me, confident with Zola on his side. Our son was remembering fun times with Mia in the summer in France – they both wanted to keep Monte. I wanted to keep him too, and felt so angry to be put in the position of killjoy. There was no one else to stand up for looking after me; it would probably not even have been different if Ruby were with us, she loves animals so much.

I asked Sampson, begged him, to carefully consider the consequences of taking on another newborn when I was already in so compromised health, when we had the most challenging border crossing yet ahead of us, as well as Ruby on her way for a precious holiday.

What do you think?

Reader, he chose the dog.

Posted in 20a Europe | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Brothership

Of all the countries on the European continent we were due to pass through, I only had misgivings about Albania. Beyond vague inferences concerning Balkan ‘baddies’ in Hollywood movies, I could find for no logical reason for this sense of unease. Albania seems to have a similar reputation in Europe as Nigeria has in Africa – undeserved shade thrown by a fistful of exported gangster heavies and underground smugglers that by no means reflects the majority of the population.

Zola pointed out to me that Voldemort had been banished to Albania: that probably explains it!

The road to the border began to look more like Africa than Europe:

The road to the border…

offered no signs, cones or danger tape…

to warn of sudden roadworks on a collapsed bridge halfway down a very steep slope

Men with shovels standing amidst the CAT vehicles, cheerfully called Big Reg over the half-repaired road. My Dad would have had a heart attack.

The slow-moving queue at the border checkpoint made us nervous, but turned out to be due to a computer malfunction. A frustrated official repeatedly scanned our passports, while a 6 foot tall Albanian policewoman in a black uniform with red piping looked on, rocking her knee high boots, full glamour make up and aviator shades. She looked like she was auditioning for Rizzoli and Isles and was prepared to kick ass at any moment. But they waved our Green Card insurance copies through, no problem.

We drove in still feeling a bit tense, but the first man driving a donkey cart we saw split his face into the widest toothless grin and waved – Sampson and I automatically both waved back, delighted. This was a different style ‘We Are Not Europe’: it was a relief to be beyond Euro norms, back in a relatively tourist-free zone where it was natural to acknowledge your fellow human beings.

To us, Albania came across…

as more friendly…

far more colourful…

and more house proud…

(they love balconies… and lime… and purple)

than Montenegro

Albanians seems to take great pride in their houses, which are often colourful, and always dripping with balconies, pot plants and trailing vines. The first mosque we saw had a Disney-esque dainty white fluted minaret, and a church right next door.

Peaceful vibes

Sampson stopped to change an oil filter, and asked for water outside a restaurant and function venue that looked like a castle. ‘Location location location’ seems not to be a principle applied in Albanian real estate investment; this enormous building deserved to be surrounded by rolling lawns if not a moat, but was slap bang next to the Rruga Nacionale. Milling young boys called a waiter called Emejdi who spoke awesome English and invited us round the back to fill up. He was almost fluent after only 5 years of lessons at school – an extraordinary achievement without ever interacting with a native speaker. I take my hat off to his teacher.

An Albanian’s home is his castle: crenellated grandeur of Vllazmia bar restaurant

l to r: Kristi Tali, Aurel Tali, Romaldo Kupa and Emejdi Lagi aged between 14-17

It was so cheering to meet a 17 year old sincerely saying “We work hard to support our parents where we can”. The four of them work there after school every day. They reminded me of my grandparents’ generation: short back and sides, work ethic and all. Emejdi taught us how to say ‘Thank you’ in Albanian – Faleminderit in case you ever need to know – and explained that Vllazmia was built by two brothers, is staffed by extended family and the word itself means (he hesitated for a moment as he sought the right translation) “Brothership”. What a gorgeous evocation of friendship and brotherhood, personified by these shy lads. Or I misunderstood and it just signifies the bros are football fans.

As we drove south, I reflected that a relatively poor Eastern European city looks very much like a relatively rich African city: the same half finished buildings, dodgy roads and lack of traffic lights. There seemed to be no town planning or zoning – residential, retail and industrial were all mixed in together. I kept seeing super modern corporate architecture, all angles and mirrored glass, next to crumbling appartment blocks or marooned like spaceships in the middle of arable land. Albania had an extra line in flourishes such as the mock mini-palace office two storey with a giant Buckingham Palace sized statue of rearing horses and a fountain.

No feed lanes resulted in occasional traffic chaos

There were also men en masse in bars drinking coffee in the middle of the day. I only saw one woman in a cafe in the whole of Albania. This was to become the norm back in North Africa, but at this point it still felt strange that half the population had just disappeared.

Apart from the ‘for sale’ signage that made Sampson snigger…

and the giant ‘EHW’ sausage adverts…

the most striking thing about Albania…

was the size of the petrol stations

These huge double volume service stations were always right next to an extraordinarily flash hotel and bar. The forecourts were generally empty. Was it a case of ‘Build it and they will come’ or some massive money-laundering loophole?

That night we pulled off at Eurostop, where friendly waiters were happy for us to sleep overnight and enjoy the free passwordless high-speed wifi. I ate the last of our tuna and sweetcorn soup and sat online late into the night scrolling through the latest in the post-Weinstein avalanche of ‘revelations’ which were not a surprise to me or anyone female. One of the reasons I got ME in the first place was the toll taken on my health fighting in vain for justice in a series of rape cases at college when I was Womens’ Officer.

Sampson was feverishly downloading podcasts – I’m not sure when I wrote the following but feel the need to include it for British readers:

* * *

I just found out via a comedy podcast that Jacob Rees-Mogg is standing for leadership of the Conservative Party. Quelle horreur. I only came across him once during my time at Oxford. It was my first week, when I went on an introductory tour of the Oxford Union – not the student union, OUSU, but the exclusive pseudo-gentlemen’s club which you had to pay an extortionate price to access. It wasn’t going to be an option for me, but as Benazir Bhutto had been a recent President, I was keen to sneak a peak at how this venerable university institution was evolving.

As we freshers filed through the foyer, Rees-Mogg was standing in the entrance hall. He was in front of a fire place, with his hands behind his back Prince Charles-style, wearing a tweed jacket and a bow tie, with his glasses and side-parting looking pompous and middle aged already. I laughed out loud and looked around to see if the others had noticed.
‘Good on ‘em!’ I thought, ‘Kudos to the Oxford Union for paying a student actor to perform the stereotype of upper class Tory twat to acknowledge how far they have moved beyond that, by inviting lower class yobs from the Midlands like me to join.’

As we were shepherded past, without comment from our guide, the dawning realisation that he wasn’t an artful parody but the genuine article was one of the many black-hole horrors I felt engulf me that first week. Another was the sentence I cut out and kept from the OUSU Handbook: “The good news is that Oxford has a thriving live music scene and a wide range of DJs and dance venues. The bad news is that every word of that is a lie.” No wonder that more often than not I was on the last coach up to real life in London every Friday night. Thanks to Sunship for keeping me vaguely sane…

* * *

I warned you these catch-up blogs were going to be random. Like my veiled awareness at the time – hazy with brief periods of shocking lucidity.

Welcome to Eurostop!

In Albania there were Euro mentions…

and EU flags everywhere…

It seemed weird that Montenegro and Albania were trying so hard to get into the EU when the UK was trying so hard to get out.

I was increasingly foggy: the slow undermining of the constant cold combined with exponential effects of longterm insomnia meant my capacity was on a slippery slope.  I kept missing photo opportunities as I was lacking quick reactions to pull my camera out in time. Holding it up for too long gave me debilitating arm ache the next day.

I will always regret not capturing the turkey herders! We saw so many but I never managed to snap in time.

As Big Reg trundled along, Sampson and I sat in the front with the puppy on a bit of old blanket on the floor between us and discussed names:

‘Stig’ seemed wrong…

‘Montenegro’ a bit too jingo-tastic for my liking…

‘Kernow’ not quite him…

Twiggy Ba(r)ker?

Sampson loved ‘Monte’ best and already he seemed like his dog.

Monte spent most evenings lying on Sampson’s chest till he got his strength up

Sampson was as patient and tender with him as a newborn…

cleaning up the wees he did on the floor and exclaiming in delight at “proper poos!”

We were lucky to find this beautiful spot…

past Fier by the river

where Daniel’s music and honey hut resides

It was the first time Monte stood up and walked

As Sampson coaxed Monte to explore, Zola and I took our French translation outside in the last of the sun at 5pm, while the cabbage was cooking and the rice fluffed in the hot box. We reflected that the cat had become ours by default.

I was so tired I slept through the mossies and Sampson wiping up Monte’s middle of night poo-on-the-floor that made him gag. It was so cold by the river, I was grateful Lucky came to snuggle on my feet.

Sampson took early pics of Albanian fishermen throwing nets like in Angola

In the morning, Daniel was bemoaning the constant tug-of-war that is Balkan politics: “Kosovo and Serbia, Macedonia and Greece, Turkey and Kurdestan – Albania, we don’t have a problem with no one”. He played me some wonderful a cappella music which he told me is one of two UNESCO protected pieces of Albanian heritage – the Balkan folk harmonies somehow reminded me both of Celtic ballads and isiXhosa throat singers. He sits here all day in his hut by the side of the river selling his CDs and listening.
“I love nature too much” said Daniel dreamily.

Sampson with Daniel Mehmetaj at Mallakastër Poem who gave us an Albanian folk CD to remember him by

We figured he must have a sideline; people on motorbikes were popping by till very late and we couldn’t imagine that their need for traditional folk songs was that urgent.

Sampson also chatted to a passing Polish couple, who were somehow managing to travel home from temporary work in Croatia without passports. This was certainly not Europe!!

Tom and Anya – hope you made it home!

We drove on through the countryside

Had to get out to take a closer look at this amazing bronze of Ali Pasha at Tepelene

looking over the western lands of the Ottoman Empire he ruled with an iron fist

More wifi and another bath for Monte at another huge Autostop

While others went about their daily business

The weedy among us rested

This was the first day Lucky and Monte started playing together.

We got to the border and found it closed! Apparently Greek customs officials were on strike. I was so glad that we were not stuck and forced to sleep in cars like others there. It was a great excuse to drive 30km back to the city of Gjirokastër, Albania’s second example of UNESCO World Heritage that Daniel had told me about.

Gjirokastër, from the old Greek for ‘Silver Town’

I left Zola doing school and Sampson walking Monte…

and set out for the fortress above…

the ‘City of Stone’

I slowly climbed up the hill thanking God we had stopped and parked below

– even cars were struggling to negotiate the steep corners in the old town

On the road up to the fortress…

there were a scattering of energetic old ladies selling crochet work and bits of filligree lace, one with amazingly long silver-grey plaits like a venerable Pippi Longstocking

From up here you could get the best look at the ancient stone houses for which Gjirokastër is famous

The fortress has been here since before the 12th century

Artillery captured by the Communist resistance against German occupation is displayed…

including Italian tanks

as well a US Air Force plane symbolising victory over the ‘imperialist’ western powers

Ali Pasha himself added the clock tower in 1812

and the extraordinary self-proclaimed King Zog expanded the prison in 1932

The National Folk Festival is held here annually

The views are stupendous

I began to understand the Albanian obsession with castles. There was a supreme feeling of safety and stability in the solidity of the stone.

The fortress gave me great perspective over the last few hundred years: like the view from the clock tower over the valley, I could take in the sweep of history from the might of the Ottoman Empire, over the Nazis and the Communist republic. The tanks in the gallery all pointed to the inevitable rise and fall of fascists and dictators. All oppression will eventually be overthrown as its excess becomes too much even for the apathetic or the brainwashed to bear. It was a comforting thought in the age of Trump and Zuma.

Hidden away towards the back of the castle…

was a sacred shrine of two Bektashi Sufi Babas from 16th and 17th centuries

Before I knew anything about the sect or their beliefs…

I was overcome with a feeling of great calm

I can’t explain the feeling that descended on me as I entered that tiny courtyard under the trees. At the time, I knew nothing about the Bektashi and their panentheism, or the widespread religious persecution in Albania under the socialist regime. An information panel on the wall told me that the Bektashis were not forbidden alcohol and women went unveiled in public. Their were no gender divisions within the tekke and no strict rules on times of prayer or fasting. Above all, Bektashism taught tolerance of different nations and religions.

The tranquility of the Babas’ tomb wasn’t just generated by the green leafy calm and the lilting birdsong echoing off the ancient stone walls; no, there was something more tangible, created by hundreds of years of prayer, offerings and reflection in this glade. Great great peace.

This was the last time I walked anywhere alone for three months.

Posted in 20a Europe | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

We Are Not Europe

You are going to have to bear with me for the next few blogs. I usually write my most vivid impressions down as we’re going along, and polish them up for consumption later, but from November to February I was too unwell to type anything insightful at all. I’m having to put these recollections together from scribbles in my diary.

I am going to leave them, patchy and uneven as they are, because that is the only way to do justice to my memories of places that are hazy, blurred by brain fog.

* * *

We crossed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 15 minutes. Or at least, the sliver of it that lies between two tranches of Croatia, with the tiny town of Neum its one foot on the coast. As now it seems almost everyone is “famous for 15 minutes” as Warhol predicted, I’m going to be the first to assert that, in the future, everyone will spend 15 minutes in each country.

Welcome to Bosnia’s 20km of coastline

Bit more cramped than Croatia’s

Disappointingly, Big Reg didn’t encounter any wild boar

It’s a complete sham of course: I can’t say I’ve “been to Bosnia”. These pics are the equivalent of barging in for a selfie with a celeb and then telling everyone you’re BFFs. You need a week minimum to get even a taste of a place and a month is preferable to soak in its atmosphere. Passport stamping in-and-out stuff is pointless. Reminds me of those twerps who used their interailing ticket to try and ‘tick off’ all European countries within a month. It’s no coincidence that the places we’ve loved most deeply during our travels are the ones we spent the longest time in: Liberia and Senegal.

Now this guy is genuinely famous – so proud to see Black Coffee posters all along the Adriatic coast advertising summer gigs we’d just missed

*  *  *

Back in Croatia, we pulled over in a convenient bay for an early night, where a coachload of tourists from USA were already paddling and swimming. We could tell they were American because we couldn’t help hearing their accents – two of the women were talking so loudly, we could hear every word despite being 100m away. Why do so many Americans think it’s OK to dominate public space? I was tempted to ‘have a word’ but was just too tired. I sat on a low wall and watched them shout platitudes at each other across the water.

A lovely overnight spot

except when the peace is shattered by the shameless

I’d been trying to talk to my husband about my declining health, but he was resisting. The worse I get, the more his back hurts him, like his body is performing the equivalent of “la la la I can’t hear you”. He has always relied on me to be the strong, resilient one, and I know my increasing frailty frightens him. I understand that. But sometimes it feels like he subconsciously punishes me for daring to share, implying I shouldn’t mention my vulnerability as it’s a threat to his fragile mental health. I can’t bear the ‘listing of symptoms’ becoming a competitive sport, so I shut up.

But loneliness compounds suffering.

It wasn’t just the Americans. We were woken at 2am by a drunken old French couple in the camper next door showing off their fold-up bikes to another drunken old French couple. They were just enjoying life, wine and being jolly bon-viveurs and I felt bad interrupting with an “Excusez-moi, on essaye dormir…” They weren’t to know they had bombed my rest and condemned me to a day of pain.

I didn’t get back to sleep till 6am when I dreamed I somehow reached my hand through the wooden headboard to hold Sampson’s hand. When he woke up, the first thing he did was to stretch his hand over the top to find mine. Only the chronically sick will understand how something so small can be so comforting.

Martin Kapfhammer, a German cyclist who’d asked us for water two nights previously, saw us exercising and stopped off specially to have a chat, bless him. It was lovely to have a conversation with such a thoughtful young person. He’s not overkeen on Angela Merkel, too at the whim of voters in his opinion, with no firm policy on refugees “or indeed anything”.

Adventurer Martin, whom we hope to see in South Africa one day

I replied wistfully that the lack of backbone in a leader was such a European problem, on a different level from ours – hanging on to our civil liberties and state integrity by our fingernails in the face of the Zupta onslaught. Martin got my point, “but we should all be better!” His righteous indignation really cheered me up and he sheepishly overcame any German reserve when I gave him a big African hug goodbye !

I sunnily greeted the hungover Frenchies too; they seemed relieved. But it was tough climbing back up into the truck.

As we drove into the historic town of Dubrovnik, Sampson became nervous. I leant out to ask a couple of police what the height restrictions on the bridges were, but they didn’t know! We just had to chance it…

Are you feeling lucky, punks?

Suddenly Big Reg found himself next to a fort…

with enormously thick walls…

There was nowhere to park…

no way out but to be funnelled down the one way…

squeezed between castle and fortified wall and praying we’d make it underneath…

then flushed out onto a packed square heaving with 1000 tourists who’d just disembarked from the cruise ships in the harbour

This pic of 12 storey beast courtesy Zola Sampson

Apparently the popularity of Dubrovnik as a destination has boomed in recent years thanks to its appearance as ‘Kings Landing’ in Game of Thrones and ‘Canto Bight’ in The Last Jedi. We decided against battling the throng to see inside, but drove up out of town and were rewarded with a spectacular view from above. It was the only way for me to see the city without exhaustion.

I can’t tell you how elated I was not to have missed it entirely 🙂

Try lining up the next three images left to right

in your mind, to get a sense of

the spectacular panorama, ‘cos I’m too foggy to work out how to

I bet this cable car view is nearly as good as Table Mountain’s

encompassing the magnificence of the Minceta Tower

Dubrovnik Cathedral

and the graceful sweep of the harbour of this once independent maritime republic

Keep hold of your energy and carry on

* * *

First impressions of Montenegro were not good.

We hit the border at 4pm on Sunday, perfect timing when aiming for the least chance of getting hassled about leaving the EU. But no one was bothered about customs clearance for our tyres: instead we got hustled for extra vehicle insurance. We weren’t anticipating any trouble as we’d paid for 3 months’ ferociously expensive Green Card Euro-wide cover (mostly squandered while stranded stationary in a French garage) and then extended it for Sept and Oct.

But the border official rejected the proof emailed by our Dutch insurer parrotting “nothing online, originals only” and referred me to “the Chief”. I stood waiting for ages in the cold outside an empty booth, until a Basil Fawlty-esque bloke arrived, all uniformed and uptight. He blatantly ignored me and went and sat inside. I recognised the type, sighed internally and waited another 5 minutes before knocking.

I became irreproachably polite. I even crouched down so I was lower than where he sat, half to perform deference, half because I was just too damn tired to carry on standing. I didn’t dispute his premise of never accepting online copies, just pointed out that we live in a truck and thus have no address to which to mail originals, so how were we to proceed?

I then made the mistake of mentioning that our online evidence had been accepted everywhere else across Europe. Mr Arsey bristled.
“We are not Europe!”
He nearly spat the words. I don’t know if I was reading into it, but his statement seemed both defiant and resentful at the same time. Montenegro has been negotiating the manifold hurdles to its formal entrance to the EU since 2012. So officially #This Is Not Europe? Brexiteers take note: it sucks being sidelined.

I think this was the first time on our journey that I met a border official who was absolutely immovable. His whole demeanor radiated brick wall. I was completely prepared to fight this blatant injustice on principle, ring Holland the next morning and get Maria to DHL the Green Card to Dubrovnik or speak to Mr Arsey personally – until I found out from the prematurely weary young man in the insurance office opposite that local insurance cover for a car was €15 for 15 days. He didn’t deny the listing of Montenegro on our Green Card was valid or that the copy was “Fine by me, but policeman…” He let his sentence’s tail-off do the talking.

So basically this insurance policy is a state-sanctioned swindle (like the Mauritanian border). The con was beautifully judged – not so expensive anyone could be bothered to complain, but not so cheap it wasn’t adding up a tidy amount for every European car queuing to cross the border that day. I paid for €18-worth of flimsy tissue paper to cover the truck and returned to find a young Italian woman having the exact same argument with Mr Arsey, waving a cell phone photo of her Green Card in vain. The way he was behaving with her made me more angry than the way he spoke to me: he was obviously getting such a kick out of wielding his little bitter bit of power. There was just no need to shout so much or refuse to listen to a word she said in such a disdainful manner.

I got back to the truck about 5pm to find Sampson chatting merrily to a Mossel Bay couple in the queue who greeted him when they saw the CA numberplates!

Montenegro initially looked a bit scruffier and dodgier than Croatia…

but maybe that was the effect of a plethora of poor design, bad fonts and no proof reading

The billboard blessings made up for it: ‘I give you my peace’ and ‘Mother with us’ in Montenegrin

We pulled over in a superb place at the opening of a massive quiet bay just beyond a busy ferry crossing. I was so glad I’d cooked our veggie supper at lunch time, in anticipation of border crossing day. I wasn’t up to standing up over a stove after all that.

Lying on the bed while the food was warming up, I scrolled through the news on Twitter – on top of everything else, it was the week of #MeToo. It was like watching the same frustrated rage I felt as Women’s Rep at my college on behalf of the raped-and-silenced ripple and magnify a million times. Have we advanced so little in 30 years?

That night, I dreamt a Mr Gradgrind-browed school caretaker in a dark uniform had been prodding my breasts under the guise of repositioning a necklace of words lying across my chest. I was laid out on a table with a crowd of girls watching as he leant over me, and I woke myself up shouting forcefully “If. You. Touch. A. Woman. Without. Her. Consent. That. Is. Sexual. Harassment!!!” Hmmm. Metaphor for yesterday revealing my deep-seated anger at toxic masculine authorities’ ongoing abuse of power at all?

GOOD MORNING MONTENEGRO!

Big Reg dwarfed besides the vast Bay of Kotor

We set off after Maths, as usual

Zola and I were trying to do a deadly dull English lesson

but kept being mesmerised

by the views through the window

Montenegro was like Croatia on steroids –

the mountains seemed sterner…

slopes steeper…

islands rockier…

beaches longer

and hotels bigger.

It

was

breathtaking

Montenegro seemed to be trying hard to sell itself but coming across a bit ‘trashy cougar’ compared to the delightfully understated Croatia – lots of flashy casinos. The road was also much bumpier here. It was hard going in the back.

Really?

Rather let nature do the talking

Away from the tourist centres…

Montenegro’s hidden corners…

had a fairytale quality

of mystery and magic

Boys digging it

but I couldn’t get down and up again so stayed in the truck

I was busy filling in parental consent affidavits to support Ruby’s Egyptian visa application. We paid for wifi in cafés en route by buying a hot chocolate, and as we passed through Croatia, Montenegro and Albania they got steadily thicker and stodgier as the weather got colder! It was now getting dark by 5pm. I was loving listening to Sampson and Zola chat over their stretching and unicycling before turning in for the night.

My ME-induced insomnia had settled into a ruthless pattern: no matter what I tried, I would wake at 3am and only be able to drop off again at 6, if I was lucky. Those two hours after dawn have always been my favourite time, when I walked beaches all along the West Coast of Africa. But now they were the difference between being mobile that day or not, being in bearable or debilitating pain. I had to sleep. I had to teach. But there was no energy left for anything beyond that.

‘Patience is its own reward’

so they told me in 1992

* * *

Overnight spot on the road to Ulcinj

in somewhat trashy Montenegro

My husband doesn’t like walking. In all these years he’s rarely come with us for a walk on the beach unless there was a surf at the end of it. So why on earth Sampson chose this day to walk up a hill to take a look at the dump at the top of it we’ll never know. He heard a tiny yelp and this little feller crawled out:

Meet Stig of the Dump

an abandoned Dobermann puppy, about 8 weeks old

too weak to make another sound for days

He looked like he’d been there a week without food or water and couldn’t stand. Sampson came back crying at the state of him, bathed and dried him like a baby, fed him bread and milk and mopped up his frothy diarrhoea.

This is why I love him folks.

Awwww – that takes me back

His innate nurturing skills cannot be faulted

Should we call the little feller Luckier?

What Europeans throw away: a diesel tank, an old patchwork quilt, a pedigree puppy. #ThisIsEurope!

Come in and meet the fam

Lucky bemused

That afternoon, when I sent pics to Ruby on WhatsApp, she immediately burst into tears and sent us a sobbing voice note expressing her profound joy! What a pair of oversensitive wazzocks I’ve got 🙂

I messaged my best friend, “Obviously, we can’t keep him, but hopefully he’ll live and we can give him away to someone kind in Greece before we put the truck on the ferry…”

Hmmm

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Turning the Corner

It’s been so long since I’ve posted a blog, not because I’ve been too lazy or too busy, but because I’ve been too unwell. One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to be more upfront and unapologetic about the effects of having M.E. so please let me attempt to explain how my capacity unravelled over the last few months. I beg you to bear with the patchiness of my recollections – brain fog’s a bitch, but I’m still here underneath.

It was great to be moving again. We hit the road out of Milan playing ‘Name That Tune’ shuffling an 80s hits compilation Sampson had downloaded at Luca’s. Singing along to Katrina and the Waves’ Walking on Sunshine, I felt ridiculously happy.

Off we go again

Our original plan to visit northern Italy in August and move down the Adriatic coast in September would’ve been perfect for me climate-wise. Late in October it felt like we were pushing our luck. Mountains seemed to be bearing down on me, their snowy tops threatening.

Brrrrrrrrr

Big Reg drove as quickly and directly as possible, while forking out for as few euro-munching tolls as we could wangle. Not easy.

But we had a couple of very lucky breaks. Firstly, we pulled off the road in Precenicco, and by chance parked overnight next to the Mariussi Mercedes Benz service garage. In the morning surfer/biker Luigi Mariussi came out to take a pic and Sampson ended up being given fiddly parts for the diesel tank he’d just spent a whole month looking for fruitlessly in Marseille.

Thanks to Luigi at Mariussi Mercedes Benz…

and his employees Ethiopian Thewongel Yeshak and Emanuele Framzo for the fuel pipe connector

here where Italy flows into Slovenia

Secondly, before we left Milan, at the point in the admin avalanche when (after making the AA vehicle deposit and paying for carnet, ferry and assorted flights) we thought we were just going to make it into Egypt by the skin of our financial teeth, we were told that the cost of getting Big Reg out of Alexandria port was going to be €920. It was non-negotiable and a real kick in the teeth. We were down to the wire so Sampson asked his brother Paul if he could assist by advancing us a month’s rent from their Mum’s old house.

He replied that, as he was sitting at his computer wondering how else he could help, news came through from the probate lawyers about the liquidisation of a long forgotten offshore investment of their Mum’s. It had been delayed due to a rejected photocopy of a document; when the shares were sold he reckoned the proceeds should come in at about £2000.

When I got his email I started crying. It was like a sign from heaven. Without Joy we’d never have survived this journey: even though she passed on just after we left in 2013, she’s provided us with the shelter of her house when we got derailed by Ebola in 2014, rental income to cover Ruby’s boarding fees so we could carry on in 2016 and now emergency cash to get Big Reg back over the sea to Africa. It was like she was prodding from the other side to make sure we made it over this bump in the road!

Thanks Mum: Joy Sampson on her 70th birthday in 2004

The bright side of the 6 week delay in France, was that this side of Europe was much emptier than it would have been in high summer. Zola was very relieved as he hates crowds, especially lily-white ones. He feels too conspicuous. We both couldn’t wait to get back to Africa.

Our son was in fullblown teenage transition. The most obvious sign was his sleeping: waking him up in the morning was becoming more and more difficult. It seemed incredible that just over a year ago he was leaping up at dawn to walk with me on the beaches of Morocco. He was changing so quickly, almost weekly, and I felt so glad I was right next to him witnessing it. His shoulders were suddenly twice the width of his waist – even he couldn’t believe it when we measured him! His face was rapidly losing its rounded boyishness; as his face lengthened, his jaw line was becoming as prominent as his stubbornness.

The Guilty Feminist podcast had overtaken Claire in the Community as his favourite thing to listen to while doing the washing up, which, in the absence of his sister, was now his sole responsibilty. I must say he handles the relentlessness of the chore better than she would have. He loses himself in his music, jamming on the keyboard or rapping along to downloads.

We drove across sunny Slovenia in 45 minutes. Autumnal colours of the falling leaves were reflected in the terracotta and Tuscan yellow houses. Here, where Italy meets the Dinaric Alps and warm Mediterranean colour meets Swiss order, they had the same cute shutters, but more chocolate box prettiness – ‘Heidi’ vibes were creeping in. It was fascinating to see the countries flow into each other.

Wish I could taste how they do too, hey Juz?

I felt embarassed to be so ignorant about Eastern Europe. Until now, pouring over Papi’s maps, I had no idea Croatia calls itself Hrvatska, Montenegro is actually Crna Gora or Albania is known locally as Shqipëria, Land of the Eagles. I was also rather delighted to discover that Viola must have been shipwrecked somewhere along this coast, for “This is Illyria lady”. Finally we’d turned the corner and were heading due south towards Africa and proper sunshine with warmth in it – I was just praying we’d get there in time.

Turning the corner –

at long last, we were heading south

It had been an ambition of mine to visit Croatia since I met a wonderful Croatian girl in Prague in 1992. (She’s now a wonderful woman who lives in Scotland.) So despite the delay, I insisted we not put the Big Green Truck on a ferry from southern Italy to Egypt but stick to our original plan of driving 2000km along the Adriatic coast.

Welcome to Hrvatska!

Croatia did not let me down. It was by far the most beautiful place we saw in Europe, with the bluest sky and the most spectacular lonely coastal road. Imagine driving from Camps Bay to Chapman’s Peak, but for three solid days, with ever more stunning views around every bend… it was like that.

Gobsmackingly lovely

with a bit of this

and a lot of that

Hooray for Croatia!

The sea was clear as crystal and just as cold: Sampson went swimming at Sveti Juraj at 19˚ while I could barely stand the icy wind coming off the mountains on the islands of Krk and Rab opposite.

Fancy a dip?

Both the boys ventured down…

but only Sampson was nuts enough to dive in

Zola found more sensible ways to exercise: unicycling on a wall

Our first morning in Croatia, Zola was still asleep and we were outside doing our exercises in Novi Vinodolski when a local smoking outside the café opposite came to greet us, in valiantly broken English. When he heard which continent we had crossed, he pulled a face and wondered if we weren’t frightened of “black people from the jungle with red things in their hair?” Seems some Croatians’ ignorance about Africans is on the same scale as mine about Eastern Europeans. #This Is Europe!

Does the somewhat phallic symbolism of the harbourside mural in Novi Vinodolski…

celebrate the might of Croatia’s Christian heritage?

Meandering through the small towns and villages from Senj to Maslenica…

on a road sweeping above then below…

it just kept getting more and more beautiful

The skies were as astounding…

as the seas

It seemed like an endless thrill ride

with occasional hearts in our mouths

and a multitude of delights in our eyes

Olive orchards and vineyards stretched over the hillsides all the way down to the Adriatic. It was relatively underdeveloped, how I imagined the South of France looked like 50 years ago, and the light was glorious. If it was warmer, I would love to live here.

But my God it was cold.

Overnight above the Bay of Novigrad

When the temperature drops below 20˚C I  experience dramatically negative effects on my health, as do many people with ME (pwME). Every degree lost equals a reduction in my capacity of about 10%. I’d been just about managing to function at 18˚C in Italy. But in Northern Croatia, with a biting wind blowing down off the Alps, when it dropped to 13˚C inside overnight, the cold became crippling.

After a good sleep (under two sleeping bags, wearing my sheepskin hoodie over my pyjamas) I might wake up relatively warm and manage to get outside for T’ai Chi only to realise I have zero energy. It’s like I’m failing to recharge overnight and my batteries are flat. So even though I’ve been in bed for 11 hours and asleep for maybe 8 or 9 of them, I’m still operating on the equivalent power of 3 or 4 hours’ sleep. Every day. And that’s a good night.

After a bad one, it takes me 2 hours to get up. I wake dizzy and completely disorientated as if I’ve just stepped off a fairground ride. I feel sick with nausea and my heart is racing like I’ve been running all night. I have arthritic pain in my joints and when I step out of bed, the soles of my feet feel like I’m walking on needles. I can’t speak because everything is too raw and I’m overwhelmed by sensory perceptions – light is brutal, any noise booms and the cold is a violent assault. I can’t be hugged because it hurts.

I drag myself up, start T’ai Chi, and slowly begin to feel a bit better as the movement gently thaws my body. When sun breaks through, the warm makes such a difference to my feeling of wellness, it feels like a blessing.

It was sad that all the blackberries had shrivelled on the bushes before we could get there to pick them.

At 13˚C inside, it was 10˚C outside and 8˚C in the oil tanks – no wonder Big Reg was struggling as much as me. It was taking a lot longer than normal for the heat exchange plate to warm the waste veg oil enough for it to flow through the pipes like diesel. We were forced into extreme measures:

Using a boogie board to keep the radiator cosy!

On day two we drove from Zadar to the posher end of the coast, south of Split. There was a marked return of “Massive Yachts” (in the accent of the Russian dealer in Cabin Pressure) we last saw in Cannes. I was very sorry to miss Diocletian’s Palace – but I was not strong enough to go and walk around the town.

Massive Yachts. For Ann-Sofie xxx

and more stunning views

At 4pm, I had to go and lie down in the back. My whole head was throbbing, my brain feeling bruised. I kept waiting to come round but somehow the Ibuprofen wasn’t working. Finally Sampson said “You’re feeling shaken-in-the-cab again” and I realised he was right: I was feeling as bad after 2 days on a good tar road as I did after 6 days in the tumble dryer on the Road to Foulamori in Guinea in 2015. It was a blow to realise how much weaker I’d got since then.

The next day we pulled off here outside Camping Linda in Lokva Rogoznica to rest

The boys climbed down to go snorkelling

whilst Lucky and I restricted ourselves to more modest pursuits

Utterly exhausted, I couldn’t go down 100 steps to the sea,  but cooked supper at lunchtime then lay down to write.

It was Zola’s first day back to school in term 4 and for English that morning, he’d had to do an unprepared speech. I set the topic as “I’m looking forward to travelling down the East Coast of Africa because…” and he said, without hesitation, “My sister is coming.” GULP.

What a darling

Waking up the next morning, I initially felt bit better but quickly realised that I was running on empty again; somehow all the energy had been knocked out of me as if I’d been winded with a baseball bat. So we stayed an extra day.

Not a bad place to have to stick around in

Sampson helped me hang the handful of pants and socks I hand washed in the sink

but it still left me with dead arm pain the day after. pwME call this post-exertional malaise (PEM)

A few hours of unbroken sleep bolstered me into waking Zola with a blast of Anarchy in the UK on day 3. I was surprised to reflect on how tuneful and lyrically complex this classic from Never Mind the Bollocks was compared to modern toons – 3 verses! I am definitely getting old.

Goodness knows what we’re doing to the poor kid

We moved a couple of km along to Auto Camp Sirena

whose genial owner generously offered us water and a free berth

Back in dubious Maths territory, the brain fog common to pwME wasn’t helping me grapple to explain negative integers to Zola. I comforted myself that for him to see me battling to understand but persevering was a good lesson in itself.

Long faces and long nails over maths

I was hammering away at the satirical This Is Europe blog. When she was featured on Desert Island Discs, Sandi Toksvig described the process of editing as filleting a fish, delivering only the best to the reader. But for me, editing is more like sculpting: an infinitely delicate chipping away to achieve an ultimate smoothness that looks effortless. But the sudden yawning gaps in my brain were affecting my judgement, my capacity to make connections. Everything was too jagged.

That afternoon Hub helped me down the shallower slope of Sirena to the sea

In a special hour in the heat of the day, he found these for me

and explained how sea urchins work – how had I not known till now?!

We lay on the beach until it got too cold at 3.30pm. Ruby was pouring her heart out to me over WhatsApp: how she’d cried in Afrikaans class today because she felt so humiliated. She’d missed 31 months of Afrikaans lessons between 2013-2016, but her teacher was making her feel like she was stupid or lazy. The school could not allow her drop it and substitute French for Matric because Western Cape Education Dept rules state that exemption from Afrikaans can only be granted after 2 consecutive years out of the country.

We’d submitted an appeal late in 2016 (explaining that I would have taught Afrikaans if there was a textbook available in English) but despite dozens of chasing emails had not yet received a response from the WCED. I felt terrible about this unintended consequence of travel for our daughter; she was scoring above 70% in her other subjects, but her 20-30% in Afrikaans was bringing her average way down.

One of worst things about being a person with ME is the appalling insomina. Cruelly, the tireder we get, the less capable we are of recuperative sleep. That night, I got less than 2 hours. I don’t know how I managed to shower the next day, let alone teach. Zola was recalcitrant, mulishly resisting my efforts to illuminate the subtraction of negative integers. In end I confronted him: “Why this sulky overreaction to constructive criticism? This is not preprimary school, where encouragement comes before everything else. I need to correct you when you’re wrong, before you go miles off course.”

When I wondered if he thought that I thought he was stupid and thus so touchy  – “that’s the negative voices in your head saying you’re stupid, not me” – the penny dropped. I saw realisation dawn in his face. I suspect he may have been telling himself he’s stupid since Grade 2 when his (old, white) teacher assumed all the Xhosa kids in her class were dim (rather than labouring under the burden of trying to learn maths in a second language). It took her till term 4 to realise he was “actually quite bright” – always the tone of surprise, grrrrrr.

Later, after supper, Zola said “I think I learned a good lesson today”. Bless him. He’s so gracious, especially compared to his sister at 13 – and she’d be the first to agree with me. He also did some brilliant conjugating of French reflexive verbs that his Dad certainly couldn’t do!

We moved on down the Makarkska Riviera

It just got wilder…

and prettier around every corner

until Sampson lucked upon the best spot so far

Big Reg squeezed in under the trees…

to this tiny picnic area that was 50 kuna a day in summer, but deserted now

Beyond exhausted, I crashed out that night and managed to achieve a decent sleep. It was a joy to wake to less pain and the sound of sea washing against shingle. Zola and I walked uphill around the corner and were rewarded with the most turquoise and cobalt sea ever. It was a privilege to share the great peace of walking not talking with my boy. We turned back when we reached a village – he shrank from seeing strangers. At times like this, I sorely regret taking him away from the close friends he is comfortable with.

On the way home he ran back to fetch my camera so I could snap this shot of the bay we parked in

And capture the sea’s dozen different shades of blue:

from cobalt to the most exquisite turquoise.

It was Juzzie heaven.

Zola brought my camera back on his unicycle (I wasn’t going to make it up here twice)…

and managed to whizz back down this slope…

and around this corner without coming off!

Gotta love this zoom and that kind boy

I was so thrilled to get these pics and will forever feel touched and grateful that he ran to do this for me without complaint.

Sampson soaking up some Croatian solar power

We did afternoon school on the beach that day, after a picnic tray lunch of cheese, lettuce and grapes. Zola amused himself by teasing his Dad, tickling his feet, throwing pebbles and acting all innocent until caught out.

I captured these shots of him on the cusp between boy and man.

So forgive me…

for being a bit self-indulgent…

but just how mischievously beautiful is this boy?

Don’t

let

his

avoidance of the spotlight

fool you into thinking

he’s not got anything to say

While Sampson sunbathed, Zola and I moved into a rocky corner to avoid the chill wind. He interrupted me as I started to warn him about danger of wedging a deckchair backwards on a shingley slope. You can imagine the painfully put-upon teenage tones:
“I know how to sit on a chair, Mom…”

Way too cool for school

Tsssssssst…

Whilst I was typing up a script I’d scribbled down first thing this morning, he was reading out water facts from his Life Orientation lesson in a shocked voice:
“It takes 200L of water to make 1L of milk??”
His textbook predicted that Cape Town would be water stressed by 2012. No kidding. The day before we’d found out about the new level 4b water restrictions for our drought-stricken home city and I’d woken up with a fully formed idea in my head of a useful video we could make. (We filmed it when Ruby joined us – see it here.)

Half an hour later, the chair subsided – luckily sideways not backwards, so he just missed falling into the sea!

He had grace to laugh with me and let me take this.

It was a wonderful day. I felt like I’d achieved a lot and would sleep well. But another ghastly night followed. I woke every hour and never got down deep enough to recovery level. Aching and sweating, I felt so unwell I couldn’t get comfortable and woke with my heart thumping, feeling like I couldn’t breathe. On nights like this, pwME wake up more exhausted than when they went to bed because it feels like they spent all night fighting to sleep.

That morning 14th Oct, I wrote in my diary:
“Seriously I wouldn’t be surprised if I had a heart attack any time from now, it doesn’t feel like it’s coping. I don’t feel scared, just relieved we set off travelling when we did. I’m enfeebling at such a rate of knots, it feels like it will be a miracle to make it home.”

* * *

Billy Connolly once said “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes”. We’d only planned to be in Europe during summer, so had packed all our winter gear back into the attic at Noordhoek before we left Cape Town (thanks Eckleys) and couldn’t afford to spend euros on jerseys or coats that we would only need for a couple of months. The solution? Back in France, Sampson had delighted in digging around in recycling bins for second-hand clothes. “Fishing” he called it.
“Well,” he said, “it says here they’re meant for Africa; we’re just delivering more directly”. Shameless.

As soon as the cold hit, he took every opportunity to poke around trying to extract a jersey big enough for him and at last succeeded in snagging a spectacularly ugly padded gilet as well as these municipal worker trousers for Zola.

Sampson fished these rather fetching baggy clown trousers out of this bin with a stick

In Italy, a kind delivery man at IN’s supermarket left three bagfuls of labelled street wear outside the truck at 6am, which gave Zola a completely new winter wardrobe.

Best of all was when we pulled over outside an antiques market in Antibes. Amongst the artisanal coffee and heaps of bric-a-brac were piles of second-hand clothes of astonishing quality. There were rails and rails of pure wool and even fur coats. I snapped up a €2 pair of T’ai Chi troos and a much needed jersey for Hub for €3.

Sampson modelling his new gear

But the very first thing I saw was this patchwork quilt. I knew immediately it was exactly what Sampson was wanting for his bed. I had already commandeered Ruby’s extra sleeping bag as well as our one blanket and he was struggling with just one layer. I’d envisaged what he needed, something light enough not to weigh on his bad back and wide enough not to slip off with his constant tossing and turning. And there it was: perfect.

What is magical about patchwork is that each of the patterns sampled may be quite ugly in isolation: old curtains, ancient duvet covers, faded and unfashionable colours or prints. But it is the very act of recycling – searching out the best bits, placing them carefully in relation to each other and stitching them together so diligently – which makes them beautiful. Every morning when I lift and fold this blanket, I can feel the love in it, of the woman who worked the thousands upon thousands of tiny uneven stitches by hand, all those years ago.

This blog is the patchwork quilt I am slowly sewing for my children, to comfort and warm them in wintry times to come.

Lovelovelove

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