Soldiers silhouette

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month

Lest we forget

Today, 11th of November, in Europe, is the centenary of the Armistice. It was signed at 11a.m. and marked the end of the First World War. Whilst I am not old enough to have experienced either the First or Second World Wars first hand, I am of that generation born in England in the fifties who nevertheless have felt their effects.

My great grandfather was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. His wife was left to raise five children alone, the eldest being my grandmother. My great grandmother couldn’t cope and my grandmother was forced to run the Two Brewers, the pub they managed in Shoe Lane, off Fleet Street in London, and help raise her siblings. The pub was a regular watering hole for the journalists and newspapermen that occupied Fleet Street at that time. I cannot imagine the working conditions she endured but I am sure they would not have been conducive for a 16-year-old girl.

My grandfather, who later became her husband, was a Sapper in the Royal Engineers and served in the trenches. He survived but returned from the Front, like many, with what would now be recognised as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He became an alcoholic. My father talked little about his childhood. It was not a happy one. There was always much shouting and arguing between his parents “because of the drink”. They lived in West Ham and one of the few stories he told me was how he liked to take his bike on the Woolwich ferry to the other side of the Thames, which was then still countryside. On one such occasion, he picked flowers to take home to his mother. Back at the house, an argument was in progress and it ruined his day. This, I gathered, was not unusual.

My grandfather attempted suicide when dad was 8. Arriving home from school, dad found his father with his head in the gas oven. Such were the memories of the conditions in the trenches, the killing, and the effects of the gas attacks he no longer wanted to live. My father had to grow up himself that day and felt responsible for his mother for the rest of her life. I discovered at his funeral that two of dad’s uncles had killed themselves with their service revolvers after the War as they could not cope with the aftermath and the trauma.

My memories of my grandfather are of a tall but stooped, thin, quiet man who liked to smoke a pipe or roll his own cigarettes. He sat in an armchair close to the television and always watched wrestling, followed by Bonanza on a Saturday afternoon. I don’t remember ever seeing him the worse for alcohol but as a child I may not have noticed. He died in his late sixties when I was about 12. My grandmother, by contrast, was very short and stern. I was afraid of her, but then I was scared of most adults! She lived until she was 91.

In the Second World War, to escape from home, dad lied about his age and joined the Navy. At age 17, he was captured at the disastrous raid on Dieppe in 1942. He swam around in the water for five hours before going ashore where the Germans were waiting. He had been swimming with his Captain but he had been blown up or as dad matter-of-factly described it “he went up in the air and came down in bits”.

He went up in the air and came down in bits.

Dad was taken to Lamsdorf in Silesia, now Poland, where he was held as a Prisoner of War for the next three years. In his latter years, he talked a little about this time. He regarded himself as being lucky. After a lengthy three-month stint in hospital with an unidentified (to me) illness, a New Zealand doctor took pity on him and found him a job in the prison kitchen. From what I gather he spent a lot of time peeling potatoes! However, it meant he was not doing the hard physical labour he might otherwise have been doing and for that he was thankful. Towards the end of the war, and with the Russians advancing, the Germans force marched all the prisoners to Germany (Lamsdorf Long March). Somehow, dad and a friend escaped the column they were in and reached the American lines. I can’t imagine how frightening that time was for him.

After the war, dad spent a year in what was then referred to as a ‘mental hospital’. We never discussed it in the family. He suffered periodic bouts of depression throughout my childhood. These could sometimes last several weeks and during that time, he spoke little. He only ever wanted a quiet, conflict-free life.

I now have two sons of my own. They are both a decade older than my father or grandfather were when they went to war. It fills me with horror to think of them in that position and I hope I never see the day when either of them (or indeed my daughter) are ever called to serve but that, no doubt, is how all mothers have thought throughout the ages.

The First World War was the war to end all wars. How often have I heard that? And yet, how many wars have taken place since then? Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, The Gulf, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen… the list goes on and on. We have world leaders using combative rhetoric and speech that incites agggression and war veterans with PTSD going on killing sprees. The human race does not seem to learn. Did all those young men and women die for nothing? The waste of life continues and we must never forget any of those who have died in combat serving their countries.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

(from the poem “For the Fallen” by Lawrence Binyon)

Old age

Old age and a narcissistic personality

I have just returned from England. I hadn’t visited the family since my father passed away in February last year. It should have been a pleasurable trip but wasn’t.

My mother is now 94 and still lives alone in her own home. The recent phone conversations I had had with her had taken bizarre twists. She insisted she had visited countries such as China, India and Peru that I knew she hadn’t. She repeatedly told me of a village she had been to in South America (the location kept changing) where girls had been thrown off cliffs into a raging river as sacrifices to the gods. Often she didn’t answer the phone although I rang at times when I knew she was home. My siblings thought she was just playing a new game. Over the years she has perfected a surprising number with which to taunt us and we now do not know what to believe. In my opinion, she has a narcissistic personality disorder but that has never been, nor ever will be, diagnosed.

It was immediately apparent her short-term memory was diminished. She had forgotten the day I was coming. She greeted me without her front teeth which she was looking for when I arrived. Like all narcissists she has always been particular about her appearance, so this, in itself, was odd. She professed not to have any milk but two pints in a plastic bag mysteriously appeared in the kitchen after I had bought some. My query drew a blank look. Apart from the memory loss, she is unstable on her legs but will only use a stick when she is out of the house. Inside she prefers to hold on to furniture. She also stands on her chair lift.

The next day a neighbour arrived. This kind lady had been doing mum’s shopping, cleaning out the fridge, sorting the recycling and other small jobs. She now has cancer herself and was anxious about mum’s well-being. It was clear she no longer wanted the responsibility for my mother and nor should she have it.

A stressful and emotional time followed for me. Under normal circumstances I find mum difficult and have to shield myself from the negative energy that emanates from her. She perceives herself as a victim and is prone to play the ‘poor me’ martyr role. Nothing is her fault and everything she thinks has gone wrong with her life is because of her father or mine.

There’s nothing wrong with me!

My task was to put systems and processes in place and so remove the responsibility from her charitable neighbour. There was much opposition. According to her, there was nothing wrong with her and she could manage on her own. I pointed out she at least needed someone to do the shopping and gave her two options: staying in her own home with carers coming twice a week or going into a home. She didn’t want either and was vociferous in her objections.

I arranged a care company to visit and discuss options for care. She was charm personified to the male owner and ignored the lady Care Manager. She was rude to the volunteer who came to pick her up for the church lunch club whilst they were there as she was enjoying chatting to the young man about South Africa, her country of birth. The carers came. She was rude to them. She didn’t need them, she wasn’t ‘doolally’ and didn’t know what they were there for even though we had already had that conversation yet again earlier in the morning. Now I am no longer there, I’m sure she will try to dismiss them. She would prefer it if I went to live with her and look after her myself but I have to preserve my sanity.

I am not ‘doolally’!

It is difficult to explain to anyone who has not had to deal with a person with narcissistic personality disorder, the emotional stress and anxiety it causes. If you relate instances of their behaviour, it seems unbelievable. It is even harder when it is your mother that is the narcissist and someone whom society deems you should love and care for.

I was constantly on edge. As a child, I had learned to tiptoe around her. Her moods could change rapidly and I never knew how she would react to any event. To the exterior world she was always charming as long as the company she was in was of the right social status or was wealthy. I suspect she wasn’t so charming to those she deemed inferior. Behind closed doors, we never knew where the next explosion might come from. After Dad moved into a nursing home, there were many in which she threatened to kill herself as life wasn’t worth living. (This wasn’t because she missed him and we did alert her doctor.)

When I was 9, I was playing with two friends at an old mill. It was in the winter and the river was swollen. I fell in fully clothed and couldn’t swim. My two friends pulled me out and we spent about half an hour trying to dry out my winter coat as I was afraid of what mum would say if I went home soaking wet. Anyone who has experienced a grey English winter’s day will realise the futility of the exercise but such was my fear.

During my stay this time, I cleaned out the freezer whilst she was upstairs performing her lengthy morning ablutions. My stomach churned the entire time I was doing it and not because of the state of the unidentifiable, dried out or frost covered pieces of meat wrapped in cling film. It was at the thought of how she would react if she found me doing it. I am now in my early sixties and yet she can still produce in me the fear I had as a nine-year-old child. There were other tasks that needed to be done. I surreptitiously removed papers from the many, many piles that had accumulated around the house. Each time I went away for a day or two they seemed to multiply. I scrubbed the kitchen sink which she had told the cleaner not to clean. Her disapproval and antagonism enveloped me but I carried on anyway.

Do you even love me?

She subjected me to the full barrage of narcissistic weaponry: shaming, guilt tripping, patronising and belittling. It was relentless. I was exhausted when I went to bed each night even though I had done little. My aim was not to lose my temper and to keep the irritation out of my voice. I didn’t succeed on the latter but at least I didn’t shout at her, pack my packs and leave as I had done on previous occasions. I ignored the poor little old lady who plaintively told me she had loved me from the day I was born and asked if I even loved her. I didn’t respond to the comment she had always been able to talk about anything with her mother but she couldn’t talk to her own children. To many this would seem harsh and cruel. To me, it was self preservation. I have 60 years experience of her manipulations.

I am proud I stood up to her and refused to be drawn into her games. She is used to being in control and getting her own way. Dad disliked conflict which enabled her behaviour. The advice for anyone who has a person in their lives with a narcissistic personality is to go ‘no contact’ or, if you can’t do that, use the ‘grey rock’ approach. Whilst my father was with us, I could not stop contact although I had reduced the number of phone calls. This was the first visit since dad passed away. I didn’t engage much in conversation. She was never interested in my opinions if they did not agree with hers and she was always right. Now all mum’s thoughts and conversation are focused on her early life in South Africa. She appeared to delight in telling me about the sad or early deaths of people she had known, but that is nothing new. I can remember being frightened as a child with some of the stories she narrated about people dying in tragic circumstances.

I could see the vulnerable old lady in her. It grieved me she wouldn’t permit me to help, but that has always been the way. If I didn’t help, her response was “my mother said there wasn’t always going to be someone around to help so you have to do everything yourself”. If I helped, I was taking control and ”nobody was going to tell her what to do”. I would never win on that score.

Nobody is going to tell me what to do!

She wore me down eventually, I returned home tired, depressed and feeling guilty that I could have done more/been kinder/less impatient. This is typical, I believe, for anyone who has been involved with a narcissistic personality. I promise myself each time I will not return but I succumb. She is, after all, still my mother and I have to live with my conscience.

A week later, two yoga lessons, a reiki healing session, some meditation, sleep and solitude and I am back on the way to my ‘happy place’. I hope that when the time comes, I can accept my age and its consequences gracefully. The trip has reinforced my determination never to be like my mother. I just have to remember that when I am 94! (But I’m sure my daughter will have tucked me up into a care home long before that!)

Bhutan

Tourist or Traveller? Which are you?

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see. – Gilbert K. Chesterton

Is there a difference between a tourist and a traveller? I think so but how do they differ and at what point do the two cross over?

Tourists, to me, take holidays. They are away from home for a short period to escape the stresses of daily life. They may go to a foreign country and look at the sights, camp at the beach, hike in the mountains, go on a cruise or lie in the sun by a hotel pool with a cocktail in hand. Their holidays entail planning, predictability, an expectation and a limited time frame.

Rome
Rome

Travellers, however, go out of their comfort zone. They experience a measure of uncertainty and spontaneity. They don’t know what might happen or what they will discover next. Their trips incorporate experiences, engagement and interaction with the local people and their way of life.They might include staying with a family or taking part in a cooking course (or, in my case, Andean back strap weaving!) or even doing voluntary work.

Until recent years, I have taken holidays as a tourist although my style of holiday has inevitably changed with the passing years, stages and experiences of life. My parents first took my siblings and me on holiday when I was a child of nine or ten. They borrowed a tent and tried out camping on a trip to Scotland, a country not well known for weather conducive to living in a tent! I can remember my mother in a campsite near the beach in Nairn sewing up the rip in the tent caused by the strong wind. Nevertheless, they decided this was the way they could afford a family holiday and bought their own.

We made several trips to Rome, where I have an aunt and cousins, camping along the way. We spent one week getting there, stayed for a week and took a week for the return. Dad selected different routes each year. Camp sites weren’t booked ahead but dad knew which town he wanted to stay in. My siblings and I sat, cramped in the back seat of the car, on our bedding, in the heat (it was always in August), for long periods each day.

When we arrived at our destination for the night, I helped dad put up the tent and my sister filled up the water container. Mum arranged the beds and cooked the dinner. The following morning, we took down the heavy frame tent and hoisted it onto the roof rack. Dad packed the rest of the accoutrements of camping and our clothing into the boot or under and around us children.

Camping at the beach
Camping at the beach

One year, the car broke down in France. The ‘big end’ had gone. That was serious! My father decided we should stay and have a holiday at a riverside campsite instead of returning home immediately. Chatting about the trip recently, my brother, sister and I all agreed this was our best holiday. I’m sure my father concurred as he was not spending each day driving long distances on foreign roads. It certainly didn’t suit my mother. She wanted to see and do as much as she could. Staying on a campsite, without a usable car, did not meet her criteria but then her idea of a holiday was most people’s idea of an endurance test!

My parents were not well off so getting to ‘the Continent’ stretched their limited resources. It meant that we never ate at cafes or restaurants and rarely had an ice cream. My mother brought as much food as she could with us and cooked on a Primus stove. The luxury of a camping gas cooker came later. We regarded a Vesta beef curry (dehydrated meal for those who don’t know) a treat. My sister still hates camping!

Whilst not enjoyable at the time, these holidays instilled in me a love of road trips. However, I like to do them in more comfort these days. I don’t rush and love having the freedom to meander down roads that capture my fancy just to see where they go. I have a destination in mind but what happens along the way depends on the day. It is amazing what you find and who you meet without a rigid timetable.

As a young adult the sun, beaches and bars of the Costas in Spain or Greece allured me. I would lie on a beach all day, frying, and adjourn to the bars at night (sunburn permitting!) A holiday such as this would be an anathema now but in those days it was wonderful.

Campervan in Australia
Campervan in Australia

Holidays evolved again with the arrival of children. Unlike my parents, we took easy options. Renting a holiday house or camping, preferably at the beach, and staying in one place for several days seemed like a good idea. Resorts in Vanuatu and Rarotonga with all their facilities appealed. As they grew up, we became more adventurous and rented a campervan in Australia and explored a patch of Northern Queensland. There were also trips back to England to see the family, but I never regarded these as holidays. Anyone who has travelled with three children intent on spending the 24 hours flying time watching movies I’m sure will understand!

Sign post in Bhutan
Sign post in Bhutan

Growing up and older I joined tour groups. Was I a tourist or a traveller? The trips were easy. I didn’t have to think or worry about the details. It was possible to view everything from an air-conditioned bus and stay in hotel chains that are the same worldwide (although I avoided this type of tour). The tours I took were in countries such as Bhutan that I would have found difficult on my own as I had never travelled solo. However, there was still a limited time frame, a predictability and organisation and I wasn’t engaged enough for them to fit my definition of travel. I was still more tourist than traveller but the lines were becoming blurred.

In recent years, I rented out my house and spent three years away, doing a mixture of solo backpacking, house sitting, travelling in a tour group, and visiting family. Now this was travel! When I was backpacking, I rarely planned or booked anything more than 2 or 3 days ahead unless I had to book a flight (and even then it was sometimes last minute). Anything could transpire during the day as I meandered around. Sometimes it was challenging and worrying but now I find I resist any form of organised trip.

At my current stage of life I consider myself to be a traveller but appreciate having a home base from which I can take off for a month or two knowing I have a beautiful place to return to. I am retired and fortunate to have the means to enjoy this way of life. Long term travel is no longer for me although there are many people doing it, taking advantage of the opportunities that abound these days to work and live on the road. Are you one of them? Are you a tourist or a traveller?

Guatemalan Bus

Do you love to travel?

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
― Augustine of Hippo

Balloons over Bagan
Balloons over Bagan

I love travelling. I have scores of travel books on my bookshelves, some describing places I am never likely to visit and others high on my list of ‘must do’s’ (and the list keeps changing!). Even as a child, other countries held a fascination. Back then, it was with Russia and China when they were still behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains. (I have yet to visit either.) Now, it is almost any place with a different culture. Was this born in me or bred? My mother sailed to South Africa to visit her family when she was expecting me. Was prenatal influence a factor or did she transfer her constant yearning to escape to me? (It might account for my incompatibility with the sea as she was seasick for much of it!) Maybe it is just part of my genes? Who knows?

I travelled a little in my twenties but regretted not being more adventurous. At that age, I was too cautious. An au pair job in Austria and waitressing in Paris was as far as I went. Gap years or Overseas Experiences were not the norm in those days, at least not in England.

My husband and I emigrated to New Zealand in our early thirties. Over the years, we made several trips back to the ‘home country’ with the children to visit family and friends. We had holidays in the Pacific and Australia. We lived in a campervan for 6 months, when our boys were pre-school, and travelled around the South Island (in winter!). Otherwise, travel was curtailed whilst the children were growing up. Later, I joined tour groups to India, Myanmar and Bhutan. This re-awakened my dormant desire!

Sewing shop in India
Sewing shop in India

When a massage healer in Rarotonga, whom I had consulted for my aches and pains, asked me what had I most wanted to do as a child, my obvious answer was “to travel”. Her reply? “Why don’t you then?”. Why not, indeed? And so a new life was born.

I embarked on what I expected to be a one year adventure. It extended to three. When I set off, I had never travelled on my own. I proposed starting in Mexico because my eldest son was living there. I would continue through Central America and maybe South America. As there were (and still are) one or two dangerous countries in that region. I joined a tour group in Mexico City and travelled with it to San Jose in Costa Rica. After that I was on my own.

At first, I found the transition difficult. I went from being part of a group of similar aged people to being alone. I eased into it by continuing on the same route and meeting up with them, on occasions, during the first week. Whilst crossing the border into Panama, I met another ‘not so young’ female solo traveller. She had sold her house in London and was permanently on the move. She gave me encouragement. With hindsight, it was a fortuitous way to start.

Boat to Omatape in Nicaragua
Boat to Omatape in Nicaragua

Whilst not young, I was naïve about travelling in poorer countries. From the tour leader, I learned to keep cash in my bra and not to store my bag under the seat of the bus. I became more aware of the hazards whilst still in the relatively safe environment of the group. (It didn’t stop me being robbed on two occasions, later, but it helped!) Carolyn, the solo traveller, gave me tips and a little more confidence. I still felt trepidation and nervousness each time I moved on but if she could do it, so could I.

Travelling on your own, I discovered, is liberating. You can do as you please and go where you choose when you choose. You don’t have to adhere to a schedule. I am comfortable in my own company. However, when I wanted to have people around me, I stayed in hostels (albeit in my own room). If I wanted to meet local people, I booked an Airbnb. If I wanted to be alone, I stayed in a hotel. If I wanted to stay in one place, I found a housesit. I also went on walking tours of cities and not only met the people in the tour group but also learned more about the history and local customs of the place.

Cloth seller at a park bench in Antigua, Guatemala
Cloth seller at a park bench in Antigua, Guatemala

Speaking the local language helps. I couldn’t, but still conversed a little (and, if all else failed, used Google Translate). Taking local buses, such as the ‘collectivos’ in Peru, provided an insight into the way of life. ( I never did understand why one ‘collectivo’ would stop for you and others wouldn’t.) By staying in people’s homes and chatting to them, I learned about the bigger issues facing a country. Sitting on a park bench on a Sunday afternoon and just observing was entertaining and rewarding (although, as I discovered, I might end up purchasing something I didn’t want or need!).

I encountered few other ‘mature’ backpackers (men or women) so my companions were younger people. More than one of them said they admired me and wished their mothers would do something similar. Those words gave a boost to the self confidence! At home, female friends commented how brave I had been and they could not have done it. I do not consider myself brave. Naivety played a part and, with hindsight, I realise I took one or two risks that could have ended badly (and very nearly did). Moving to a new place was nerve wracking. Getting from the bus stop to the accommodation carrying all my belongings and relying on taxi drivers whom I regarded with suspicion was anxiety ridden. However I survived and believe I am much stronger and more confident for it.

I am home now but my love is unrequited. My itchy feet are ready to go and I’m planning my next trips. Are you an armchair traveller or do you also need to explore for yourself?