The things that become part of your life are different from the things that you just learn about when you live in a new place. Most places that I’ve lived have left some impression on me but a few have left me with a new habit has become an indelible part of my life.
Take Ireland for instance. It was a chance conversation that took us there and between making the decision and packing up my life in Britain, I didn’t really have much time to research or even think about the new country I was about to live in. I have to be honest about this bit and share the shock that I got when I actually got there.
Living on the largest of the British Isles, there is an assumption that everyone on all of the other islands in our little archipelago, looks the same, speaks the same and is the same. I had unconsciously subscribed to this line of thought and I had a rude awakening when I went across the Irish sea. Generally speaking, people do look the same although now I think I’m much better at recognising the Celtic features of a difference race. And yes, people in Ireland do speak English but it’s a wonderfully different kind of English that reflects the foundation stones of the Irish language. For instance, in a multi syllable word, the emphasis would be on a different syllable so the entire word sounds different. People rarely say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – it’s much more usual to hear ‘I will’ or ‘I won’t’, ‘I do’ or ‘I don’t’ and there were words in frequent use that I realised were not in my general vocabulary.
‘Delighted’, for instance. I don’t think I’d ever in my life said ‘I’m delighted to see you’ – maybe it’s just not a working class word in the North East of England? Or saying to someone ‘Aren’t you great?’ One of my favourites, that I still use as often as I can, is ‘Sure, it’ll be grand’, which means don’t stress about it, everything will work out.
This all made me pay attention to the English language in a way that I hadn’t since being in India and I also came to realise how lucky I was to be able to experience a new country and culture in a language that I was familiar with.
But language wasn’t the thing that stuck with me from living in Ireland. I learned a very important thing that I now carry with me throughout my life and I have shared this with many people, who I believe are now converts. I learned that a hot whiskey, prepared in the correct way, is the first line of defence for hundreds of different ailments and, indeed, is the cure for many things.
I learned this through unavoidable experience – whenever I expressed to anyone that I was in the slightest bit unwell, without exception, their response was ‘Have a hot whiskey’. Usually, before I had responded, the said hot whiskey was in my hand. I must add here that I am not a whiskey drinker. I like a drink, I like getting drunk on occasions and over the years I have sampled most things. I like gin and vodka and at a push, I’ll drink rum but I have never chosen to drink whiskey. I spent many years in Scotland in the company of people whose eye would wander up to the top shelf in the bar as the evening turned into early morning, just to have that “wee dram of the good stuff” . I was never tempted so I wasn’t too enthusiastic at the beginning when this hot whiskey was thrust into my hand. Good manners must prevail and of course I always drank it.
This usually happened in the evening and then, next morning, I would be miraculously cured.
I started to pay attention to this phenomenon and I noticed that whatever the problem was, from a cold to a brain tumour, from a broken bone to feeling depressed and everything else in between, ‘Have a hot whiskey’ was the answer. So every time I was feeling anything remotely like ill, I did the same and…. it worked. I was always cured over night.
I’ll share the recipe with you – pour about an inch of whiskey into a glass. Add a spoonful of sugar. Take a slice of lemon and stick a few cloves into it. Drop this into the glass and add boiling water. Stir till the sugar is dissolved and drink it while its hot. Especially do this before you go to bed or if you do it too early in the evening, have another one. You will be right as rain in the morning.
On the opposite end of the scale in relation to temperature is something I gained from living in Scandinavia. I was only 17 when I lived in Denmark so obviously very impressionable but I don’t think that’s the reason why I got into cold water.
It was in the 1970’s when I first escaped from grey, conservative Britain and headed across the North Sea to Copenhagen which, at that time, was the coolest, hippest place in Europe. It was sex, drugs and rock and roll ….actually the music wasn’t that great but Denmark was certainly renowned for ‘free love’, communal living, easily available stuff to smoke and a general sense of fun and freedom. My life wasn’t quite like that as I was working at the residence of Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Denmark – one was required to behave.
I certainly had my eyes opened in the year I was there, not just about general fun and frolicking around Copenhagen but also about how the other half (small percentage) lives. Her Majesty’s Ambassador and his guests lived very well and it was the first time in my life that I had ever come across ‘excess’ in relation to food, drink and general life. I’ve often looked back and thought how much that job politicised me or at least began the process of thinking ‘hey, this isn’t right’.
Coming back to the cold water, the sauna is a most wonderful Scandinavian invention and I was introduced to it in Denmark. I’d go with some friends to a large swimming pool on the edge of the city but swimming wasn’t the main attraction. After the pool, we would go and sit for as long as possible in the sauna and this was also my first introduction to naked people. British people in the 70’s simply did not do things that required taking off your clothes and certainly not in public. Danes, on the other hand, had no problem with nakedness and men, women and children sat around in their birthday suits in the lovely wooden sauna room. But saunas are not just about being hot – in order to get the main benefit from the experience, one needs to periodically be very cold. In Copenhagen, this involved jumping into a very deep pool of extremely cold water – so cold that I’m sure my heart momentarily stopped and it was impossible not to make a very loud gasp. The first time I did this, I had no idea how cold it was going to be but I guess that growing up on a beach in the North East of England was good training – I survived.
That was tame though compared to other parts of Scandinavia where the norm is to either roll in the snow or cut a hole on the ice to jump in the fjord. It does change the whole sauna experience and I learned that Danes also have a very cold shower at the end of a normal shower every day. This is the bit that has stuck with me – I never feel that my morning shower is complete without a final, very cold invigorating rinse.
The time I spent in India was probably the most number of unforgettable things that can happen in a short period of time. It was the first really exotic place I had ever been, it was more challenging than I had ever imagined, I couldn’t believe that these people talking to me were speaking English, we built a house there, I had a baby there, I learned how to plaster with cow dung and bake bread on an open fire and so much more. I learned so many things about myself and about how to live in a different way. That experience changed my life forever and I can’t pick out one thing that has stuck with me.
Or maybe it could be my connection with the Scarlett O’Hara approach to life -‘I’ll think about it tomorrow’. I guess I later came to recognise this as the acceptance that ‘The Universe will provide’ which also connects with ‘Sure, it’ll be grand’. But let’s talk about Scarlett first.
When we first went to India, a British passport entitled us to remain there for 52 years – I have no idea where that number came from -an relic of the Raj I guess but it made our choice of which country to move to, a lot easier. However, while we were there, a load of quite heavy political stuff went on and suddenly, the visa law was changed from 52 years to 3 months. This was somewhat dramatic and obviously had quite an effect on our plans. We were alright for the first year, having made the right kind of friends in our area but having children and a farm alongside a 3 month visa was not sustainable. Life was suddenly not working out as we really wanted and to add to it all, I was ill. Actually I was kind of wasting away but that’s another story.
Our general plan didn’t really involve money or at least, not large amounts of money to get flights home but it seemed that we really had no choice but to somehow leave. A very prophetic reading of the I Ching influenced that decision and we eventually, sadly, decided to say goodbye to our lovely little house half way up a mountainside in the Himalayas. We headed off to Delhi after introducing our neighbours to the concept of a Jumble Sale. I was really ill at this point so at New Delhi station, I lay down with all our bags on a bed in the waiting room and Davy went off to the Embassy to sort out getting repatriated to the UK.
There is a generally accepted concept in India that if you can’t see other people, then they cant see you. So if you turn your face to the wall to have a shit or to eat, then no-one can see you. It really works. I lay down and pulled the sari length over my head, turned to the wall and became invisible. (I also love the fact that there are beds in Indian waiting rooms). Some time later, Davy came back with the children and the rather dramatic news that Margaret Thatcher had changed the law and the British Government no longer offered it’s citizens the option to be repatriated in dire situations. This was somewhat shocking because it basically meant that we were homeless and destitute with two small children, in Delhi and we didn’t actually have a Plan B.
Its a bit hard to know what to say to news like that so to give myself time to think, I got up and washed my face, then I looked at Davy and said – we have to take the Scarlett O’Hara approach to this – we’ll think about it tomorrow – lets go and have a nice day in Delhi. So we did.
We wandered about, looking at interesting, colourful, smelly things and the occasional large white bull or dead dog. We ate some equally interesting, colourful food, checked into a cheap hotel and didn’t mention our dilemma once. When I woke up the next morning I immediately remembered someone in Britain who would most likely lend us some money. We spent the morning making phone calls – this was pre internet so making an international phone call was quite a complex undertaking and within a few hours, some money arrived at a Western Union office and we were saved from a life of begging on the streets of Delhi – all thanks to Scarlett O’Hara.
My life has had a lot of connections with Scotland most especially the fact that my children’s father is Scottish and we lived in Galloway for a number of years. What could I have picked up from living there? Eating haggis – yes I do that but not often. Drinking whiskey – no, we’ve discussed that. Wearing a kilt? No, I don’t think so! A love of rain? Hmmm… No, the thing I learned in Scotland was how to say ‘fuck’.
A friend of mine who is an educationalist and not Scottish, told me that it is the most versatile word in the English language – it can be a verb, a noun, an adjective, an adverb….it’s a veritable shapeshifter of a word – it can be anything. And it’s so useful – I often wonder how I ever expressed myself without it. ‘For fuck’s sake’ is the ultimate in exasperation – it can go to the next level by adding ‘oh’ at the beginning. ‘I couldn’t give a fuck’ leaves no doubt what so ever. ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’ is a question that demands an immediate answer. ‘Away to fuck’ is so deliciously Scottish and so much better that saying ‘I don’t believe you’.
I always remember a Scottish friend of mine calling to her young daughter and shouting ‘For fuck’s sake Emma, will you stop that fucking swearing’
I would never tell anybody to fuck off – that’s quite serious and I don’t use it as every second word in my speech as sadly, many young people do today. But I guess as I get older, I couldn’t give a fuck what people think and I seek opportunities to challenge the stigma around this word and incorporate it in regular speech. I guess my favourite phrase is ‘Fuck this for a carry on’ which usually precedes me leaving somewhere. How did I manage to express myself before?
I’m living in China at the moment and to be honest there is little about the life of a sleep walker in an authoritarian state that can’t decide if it’s Communist or Capitalist, that is going to remain with me forever…. except maybe hot water.
As well as being confused about their politics, China is confused about health and medicine. Everyone is wonderfully proud of their 3000 year old traditions on various things including Traditional Chinese Medicine. I’m very interested in this myself and spent some time once studying the meridians and understanding that the flow of Qi is quite connected to quantum physics and is something I’d like to know more about. I like the old adage that traditionally in China, you paid your doctor to keep you well and stopped paying them if you got sick – that’s quite refreshing.
However, the attraction of all things Western here means that you often see people walking along the street wheeling an IV drip of some kind and pharmacies are always very full. But, alongside the Western medicine, people will also pay attention to their diet – not in a calorie or nutrition line of thinking, but more about what affect various foods have on your health and in particular about temperature. There is a great aversion here to eating and drinking cold things. Consequently, it’s quite hard to get a cold bottle of beer and the first thing you get in any restaurant is hot tea or water.
I’ve drunk hot water so often here, that I now like it. It fills in that gap when sometimes you cant decide between a tea or a coffee but you want a warm drink. I do now think that warm water helps the digestion of your meal and I suspect that this is something I’m going to take away with me from China. But drinking warm beer will not be on that list – one has to draw the line somewhere.
So I can have a cold shower, follow it with a hot whiskey, think ‘fuck this for a carry on’ and know that I can think about it tomorrow with my hot water for breakfast……and then go and see what’s round the next corner.