May 31, 2005


Mon oncle.Mon oncle (the one I drew on May 7 lying on the floor beneath a hospital bed) died today thankfully released after a month of misery. I don't want to let his passing go unmarked so here is a picture I took of him only last year. He was 92 and didn't look it. Ancient Combatant, veteran of WW2, he had been a prisoner of the Germans, held in a castle somewhere for a long time, an experience which affected him deeply and which he was oddly nostalgic about. For the rest of his life until retirement he worked in admin for the Post Office in Paris and lived with my aunt in a tiny one-room apartment in Montmartre at the top of six flights of stairs which they both climbed daily carrying their bicycles. When they retired they moved out of Paris to a bungalow in the suburbs. He was good with his hands; his hobby was building minutely detailed models of palaces, castles, ocean liners etc. He also collected stamps and other objects and kept meticulously neat records of anything and everything. He and my aunt never had children. Rest in peace Georges known as Robert, you are free.

I am going to Paris on June 3. There will be the funeral and much for my sister and I to do and our aunt's fragile future to be worked out. I'll be gone for about a week.

Other news: it wasn't easy but after a lot of insisting I managed to extract over the phone the result of my cheek-thingy biopsy. You'd think I was asking for the key to the Da Vinci code the way they held on to this banal information. Anyway it seems the Thing is benign, no big deal, just a slight swelling of the salivary gland. But they want to see the result of the ultrasound (July 11) before telling me whether they think it should be removed. Well I'm telling you right now: surgery schmurgery I ain't havin' no facial surgery. No way. Harmless it is and harmless it will stay.

Nat at nine.And to keep you coming back while I'm busy with family matters here's something to add a touch of the real to the remembered. N as she looked aged nine, being prevented from running around in ecstatic circles (why one braid is so much thinner than the other I do not know - thick hair didn't run in our family, alas). The other picture is the very house in San Antonio, Paraguay, the crenellated roof of which held the water tank the checking of which caused mother to fall off a ladder causing N to run uselessly screaming towards the Rio Paraguay which would be right at the bottom of the large expanse of land in the foreground could you but see it. I may have already posted this picture some time ago but I like it so much there's no harm in repetition.

When I get back from Paris, I'll post a continuation strip of critical moments from childhood.

Our house in Paraguay.


May 28, 2005


They always surface in artworkof one kind or another and no doubt will appear in altered form in the gnovel.

I'd rather not try to psychoanalyze why certain moments stand out as significant in my life or even why I remember them so much more vividly than others which should perhaps be of more importance. I think it's enough to be able to revisit them sometimes and to realise that they are my raw material, a supply of clay waiting to be given form.


May 26, 2005


Inspired by Danny Miller's excellent post about five critical moments in his life, I decided to make a list of all the critical moments in my life. After the first few childhood ones, I realised that most of the others were too intimate, too personal to reveal in public. But it was a very useful exercise and I recommend it to anyone who is wondering who they are. Thanks Danny.



May 24, 2005


When I asked if it was going to hurt (no anaesthetic) the needle-wielding person, a pleasant lady with a comforting Portuguese name, said: "It's similar to having a blood test". "A blood test doesn't hurt," I said. She smiled inscrutably. "Pain thresholds differ," she said. "Hmmph," I thought. "I want you to hold very still now," she said. The smiley blonde assistant nurse took hold of my hand in case I suddenly tried to break free though I had no intention of being anything but stoic. I shut my eyes so did not see the size of the needle. It was huge. It hurt like hell but I suppose it could have been worse. Smiley blonde continued to pat my hand while Doctoressa went to her slab to examine contents of needle: "In case we didn't get enough," she said. "Are you kidding?" I thought. Thankfully it was enough. Results will be posted to me in a few days. I got out and went into Planet Organic around the corner from Heal's, off Tottenham Court Road. I was hungry, it was crowded but eventually I ate a nice vegetable lasagne and eavesdropped on the conversation between two women at my table. For some reason, this question ocurred to me: would you rather have been Shakespeare or Cole Porter? My answer was, I'm afaid: Cole Porter.

Not a bad day, on the whole.


May 22, 2005


Allright I'll admit that the quiz was a distraction. To distract myself from what had been a wasted day, a waiting day. I had to present myself at the MaxilloFacial Unit of a hospital because I had asked my GP a few weeks ago what this hazelnut-size, smooth, invisible, painless little lump is doing under the skin of my cheek, next to my left ear. It's been there at least a year, hasn't changed, doesn't show, doesn't bother me. I just wanted to know what and why it is. After I mentioned "parotid mass" - a term I learned from Joel who recently had surgery for something similar - the GP turned to his computer screen and together we looked at a diagram, located the salivary gland (visits to a doctor nowadays can be like Googling together if you're an information junky like me) and he said I needed to get tests done. Hence the Maxillofacial waiting room on Friday.

Waiting to be seen.Extremely tall doctors in grey shirts with rolled up sleeves, keys dangling from their belts, keep walking in and out, slamming doors. They slam because all the doors are hermetically closed and there are coded locks on each one. Maybe the tall men with keys are not doctors but guards. Why there should be maximum security in Maxillofacial is beyond comprehension but there you are. The waiting room is small, narrow, windowless and airless. I am reading an excellent book about Paraguay (At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig by John Gimlette). A Rabbi in full mufti enters the room and sits down beside me. He immediately pulls a handsomely bound volume from a briefcase and opens it. Out of the corner of my eye I notice the large, beautifully wrought Hebrew lettering. Strangely, at that moment I am reading a chapter about the Nazis who went into hiding in Paraguay after the war. I don't dare ask the Rabbi what is written on the page of the holy book he is absorbed in. The Rabbi and I are the only people reading in the waiting room, everyone else is staring into space.

After waiting an hour and a half, I go to the receptionist and say that my appointment was for 10 AM and it's now 11:30. She looks at me as if I'm not there and says she called my name three times. She has a thin, grey whispery voice. I never heard her call my name. I go back to my seat beside the Rabbi and continue reading about Paraguay where I had a happy childhood and much later, a mostly happy marriedhood. Eventually, I'm seen by a tall doctor who asks if he can call me Natalie. Obviously he doesn't read my blog. He says that I must have two tests done but not today and not at this hospital. He gives me a form which I must present to the next place, next week. In between time I'll receive a letter to say when the second test (ultrasound) will be done. "And come back to see me in 6 weeks, Natalie".


May 20, 2005


Everybody and Coup de Vent did it so I did the quiz too. Does it mean anything? No. But I don't like that fundamentalist bit and I thought I was more than 19% romantic and more than 6% modern. What do quizmakers know that I don't know? Still, 100% Cultural Creative can't be too bad.

Cultural Creative
















What is Your World View?
created with


May 17, 2005


"My readers will go away if I don't post every day or every other day or very often anyway" is the mantra that haunts the blogger. We check our stats and our fears are confirmed - visitors do drop away when we haven't been at our posts. Because mine is an illustrated blog and because I'm not fast on the draw and because lately I've had things on my mind and on my plate that are not blog material, I've been plagued by that typical blogger's angst. There was something I really wanted to post (apart from the sad stuff) when I got back from Paris but I haven't been able to get round to it. Here it is, late but freshly drawn.

Africans in Paris

The African presence in Paris is nowhere more evident or more vibrant than on the RER platforms of the Gare du Nord and on the commuter trains. On my way to and from the suburbs where my aunt and uncle were hospitalised, I was enchanted by the spectacle of ordinary Africans going about their daily lives dressed in dazzling exotic plumage, colours that we consider clashing, patterns we disdain as garish, fabrics knotted and draped every which way over solidly curvaceous bodies in glorious, cacophonous harmony. Birds of paradise glowing against a background of concrete, steel and soot. I don't know their individual stories, where they came from, what they feel about living in France, whether they're happy or miserable or resigned. But compared to them, the rest of us seem to be in some kind of uniform, whether it's designer grunge, designer chic or just plain drab global sameness. The Africans in Europe (at least those who don't dress "like everyone else") wear their continent on their bodies and I for one am grateful to them for bringing such joy to my jaded eyes.


May 10, 2005


(illustrate this one in your own minds)

I have made a list of the major kinds of shit that we humans are heir to, in no particular order. I probably forgot some but anyway, it's a start in classifying what will henceforth be known as OSH (Our Shit Heritage).

1. Death
2. Pain (physical and/or mental)
3. Cruelty/abuse/violence (from others or self)
4. Abandonment
5. Loneliness
6. Bereavement
7. Rejection
7. Betrayal
8. Humiliation
10. Indigence and economic inequality
11. Oppression/ repression
12. Loss of faculties (physical and/or mental) via ageing or illness.
13. Injustice

As I was meditating upon the odoriferous metaphor of OSH, it ocurred to me that excrement is a product - a necessary waste product of our physical operating systems. To be healthy, our bodies eliminate this waste on a regular basis. But on the psychological level we experience OSH as happening to us, part of the human condition, not as something we ourselves produce. And we certainly don't seem to have a built-in system automatically eliminating OSH from our lives every morning or with a little help from Ex-Lax. So what's the deal? Can I push that metaphor higher up the mound of OSH?

Yep, I can. I look at the above list and imagine myself faced with all that shit, or some of it (if it's actually happening obviously I don't need to imagine it). What's my normal reaction? Sadness, tears, fears, anxiety, misery etc. The human condition in other words. But what would be an ab-normal (coming from the abdomen) reaction? A belly laugh. A smile. A song. I know what this sounds like: everything-is-rosy-bullshit, smile-and-the-world-smiles-with-you-bullshit. But hang on. Isn't it also smiling-Buddha bullshit? Zen koan bullshit? Good bullshit?

The thing is, whether we laugh or cry about it doesn't make any difference to the shit that happens. We can rage and cry, or we can laugh and sing. Our choice. Simple, but I never looked at it this way before.


May 7, 2005


A tall old man lies on the floor halfway beneath a high metal bed, one hand raised in supplication. A pool of blood is spreading under his head and blood spatters his blue pajamas. An Indian family (gaggle of daughters, pride of sons) stand in the empty hospital corridor calling for help. Nurses arrive at the same time as we do, moi et ma petite tante. I had taken her downstairs to the cafe in the lobby (CocaCola-sticky formica tabletops dusted with sugar) for a change from the cramped hospital room upstairs. My tiny aunt is wearing a red dressing gown, her hair in curlers. I gave her a mise en plis when I arrived, dipping the comb in a cup of water, coaxing strands of sparse grey hair onto the spiky rollers - a lift to the hair is a lift to the spirit, I always say.

We enter the room, aghast to see my uncle on the floor. "Mon pauvre mari! Vous l'avez jeté parterre?" ("My poor husband! You threw him on the floor?") She brushes away my restraining hand and leans against him protectively as the nurses lift him up onto the bed and begin wiping blood from the gash at the back of his head. The Indian family in their saris and pristine white shirts are still standing outside the open door, genuine concern and sympathy on their faces. I thank them effusively. I want them to be my family. I want them to be looking after my aunt, my mother's sister, my only surviving French relative. The uncle - him I do not love, but he is dying of bitterness and cancer and I give him water to drink through a straw and stroke his pale hand. The hospital staff do their job, some with a smile, some with a frown but they don't have time for straws or curlers or instant response. They are not an Indian family. Or an African family. If I had one of those, I wouldn't be here alone, trying and failing to resolve an insoluble problem: what happens to your very old relatives when they can no longer look after themselves? They will one day be us, you and me. When the time comes, who will call for help if we fall out of bed and hit our heads?




Left: Goussainville station, about 40 minutes from Paris.

The days are spent running back and forth between Paris, the hospital and the little suburban house where my aunt and uncle lived for about 40 years until a couple of weeks ago. He fell and aunt couldn't move him so she called les pompiers who took the couple to the local hospital where it became evident that they couldn't go home again. He is 92, has advanced cancer of the pancreas but so far, mercifully, no pain. She is 99 and not in bad shape though exceedingly frail. Both of them, apart from occasional memory loss, have most of their wits about them. Now they have been flung into that frightening bureaucratic whirlpool called Social Services or "Where To Put Useless Old Gits Cluttering Up Our Space". O extended Indian family! Why can't we all have you instead of institutionalised "Care"? Ma petite tante, like a trusting child, rests her head on my shoulder. But I am abandoning her, returning to my London life where there is no room for her. I reassure her that I will be back (and I will) but I am heartsick.

There is a secret cry inside every heart, sometimes so deeply hidden that it may not even be audible to the person who hides it. Whether they are complete strangers or someone you think you have known all your life, if you can hear a person's secret cry then all your defenses and criticisms crumble. You become one with them and you cannot do anything other than love them as yourself.

Bold grafitti are sprayed on every perpendicular surface along the tracks between Paris and all the stations of the banlieu (suburbs). AMER, this artist's pen-name, means bitter. I sit on the grimy double-decker commuter train back to the Gare du Nord where I trudge daily along miles of corridors to catch the Metro to my sister's empty apartment (she is away).

This past week, much of the time feeling bitter about everything and everyone (apart from my tiny aunt and the kindness of strangers) I learned something. L'amèrtume, bitterness, is a slow-acting poison. Allow it to pass through the gates guarding your soul and it seeps in, gradually corroding you from within. How many hours do we spend feeling bitter in a lifetime? All those hours when we keep on playing back bitter words and looks inflicted on us by others or inflicted on them by us, playing them like favourite songs plugged into our inner i-pods. That's when the poison does its dirty work. There's no denying that shit happens and bitter is what we will often feel about it. But why not establish a strict time limit - ie ten minutes, max, for bitterness? During those ten minutes we can really wallow, pig-out on our particular bitternesses. Then the alarm clock goes off and bingo, that's it. We brush off the bitterness like dead skin and go about our imperfect lives, slowly slowly perfecting them.


May 3, 2005


Am back from a not-for-fun-at-all trip to Paris. Will report as soon as I've got my energy back. Infinite thanks for all your good wishes and comments and for not deserting me in my absence. A tout a l'heure mes amis.