Sunday, 27 September 2009

Swimming Around

I'm a sports dunce. I have no hand-eye coordination, my ankles are weak, and I was born without that love of competition that fires up others' pulses when balls are kicked or whacked or thrown. But boy, can I swim.

The first swimming pool I went to was in San Dimas, California. It had a rough concrete bottom you could stub your toe on, which I frequently did. I was only four and could not swim: I floated around in an inflatable penguin that was bouncy and slippery and made squeaky noises when I climbed into it. I remember sun-filled days, the shrieks and laughter of other children, the delicious coolness of the water, how it shattered into crystal when I splashed.

Our next pool was at the Riverside YWCA pool. It was nowhere near as nice as the outside pool in San Dimas; the stink of chlorine burned your eyes and weird people smells were trapped in the warm, chemical fug. I couldn't swim and I had no inflatable toy, the water felt greasy and everyone else there was old -- at least fifteen. They took swimming seriously, too: they lashed back and forth in the water, barely coming up for air, their faces grim, their conversation full of distances and times.

Next we joined the pool at the University of California, a delightful turquoise rectangle nestled among eucalyptus trees. There was a grassy verge you could lie on, bleachers you could sit on, a gallery where my non-swimming mother sat and read, only looking up when I screamed, "Look at me!" for the umpteenth time. I learned to swim at the UCR pool; I met my best friend there.

When I moved to Miami, the apartment building where I lived with my cousin had a pool, but we liked the beach better. I did the back and side stroke; doing the crawl in salt water made me nervous. My cousin didn't swim -- she couldn't. Her father threw her in the water when she was a little girl, to teach her to swim; she almost drowned instead. She sat on the beach and watched me.

When I moved to San Francisco, I took a swimming class at eight in the morning. The pool was kept unheated for the water polo team, who had their practice session at ten. It was tough going, getting into that frigid pool in the wintertime, but I never missed a class.

In Southern Japan, I looked in vain for a pool in my town, but the only one that was convenient was the university pool. This was chained off and marked 立入禁止 (No Entrance) and with good reason: the water was foul, the color of seaweed. The entire surface of the pool was covered with thick green algae; God knows when the filter had last been cleaned. One day my desire to be cool overcame my squeamishness: I climbed over the fence, struggled into my swimsuit in the dingy changing room, and plunged right into that foul water. I did the side and back stroke and kept my mouth tightly shut, worried about amoebic dysentery. The next time I went, my boyfriend joined me: our bodies coursed through the water, leaving trails through green scum. Believe it or not, there was actually a swimming competition in that pool. The day it was held, the surface scum was even thicker than usual. I came in fourth out of ten. When I climbed out, I cut my left shin on a protruding bit just a few inches under the surface: the water was so turgid I couldn't see it. To this day, I have the scar; miraculously I never got tetanus. Or amoebic dysentery.

In Amsterdam, I swam at a pool near Dam Square. Though swimming lanes were clearly marked off, they were also chock full of swimmers, and little kids swam over the barriers and got in our way, driving me close to distraction. The lifeguards never seemed to notice. I suddenly realized I had become one of those tense, grim swimmers, lashing back and forth in the water, thinking of times and distances. I swam around the kids and tried to smile.

In Wales, I swam a kilometer a week, right through my first pregnancy. Two weeks before I delivered, the lifeguard begged me not to come back. "Or if you have to, just not on my shift, okay?" I had a blast coming back the next week; I made sure it was on his shift both times. I swam through my second pregnancy too, in the Tokyo YWCA. Some of the women frowned at me, but they all came to look at my baby after she was born. "She'll be a swimmer too," a couple of them said. "Mark our words."

In Chiba, we took the kids to a swimming pool in Abiko, in the park. Sometimes the lanes were so crowded, you almost had to wait in line. On Sundays, we cycled five miles to a larger pool, where we all swam. During the week, the kids had lessons there. Both of them got good at it too. They splashed and they played, but they swam too -- not grimly, but well. I could hardly contain my joy.

In Scotland, the closest pool was a long drive away and a lot like the Riverside YWCA. The first time we swam in it, there was something unmentionable floating in the shallow end that had to be fished out messily and necessitated a lot of chemicals. But we still went there regularly; not swimming was not an option. The lifeguards got to know us well. We participated in charity swims and swam mile upon mile in that pool.

Here in our little exclave of Turkey, there is a swimming pool hardly a stone's throw from our house. It is surrounded by lemon and olive trees, and in the morning, doves and wagtails come to drink out of it, tilting their heads back prettily as they swallow. Not far away is a field of sheep; you can hear their bells tinkling in the evening as they graze, mingling with the call to prayer. I am in heaven in that pool -- I cannot believe my good fortune. I have swum through claustrophobic chlorine fugs, in the sea and the ocean, through pools crowded with swimmers and playing children, through the vilest scum and murky water with number twos floating about. This pool is cleaned regularly by men with poles and nets; the water is pristine and almost no one comes to swim there.

But would you credit it? My youngest daughter will not swim in it.

"Too cold!" she protests, pulling out her foot, a grimace on her pretty face.

"No it isn't!" I say through gritted teeth, trying not to think about the ice-cold water of the university swimming pool, where I regularly built character.

"What is that thing floating there?"

"A leaf." And that's all it is, folks: one freshly fallen, clean, crisp leaf. In my mind, I see that floating jobby being fished out of the pool in Scotland.

"What's that?" she frowns, pointing.

"That would be a wasp." She jumps half a foot and I take a deep, steadying breath: I will not think about the green scum in the Oita University swimming pool.

"It's crowded!" Amazingly, three people have just arrived.

She goes back to the house; I swim a mile and feel like crying.

Later that night, there is an e-mail from Eldest: I've joined the swimming pool, it's fantastic! I swam a mile the other day.

Who knows? Maybe Youngest Daughter will do this too one day. Right now she's trying to learn Chinese.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

To Istanbul, With Style -- And Dog Food

I don't know why it is, but when I travel, I picture myself as a fashionable person. If you remember those old movies from the forties and fifties where the traveling ladies are always wearing high heels, dressed smartly in suits, and carrying new-looking matching luggage, you'll know what I mean.

I honestly can't account for this. Even when I teach, I don't get much fancier than decent skirts and quasi-ironed cotton blouses with low-heeled pumps. I don't do matching shoes and handbags, and I avoid pantyhose like the plague. A few years back, my husband and I bit the bullet and bought a couple of decent suitcases, but for most of our married life, we've traveled with nasty old hand-me-down baggage, backpacks from our China, Sudan and Guatemala trekking days, and bulging canvas sports bags with tears, patches, and broken straps. So where does this passion to look like Audrey Hepburn come from? Why in the world do I think that what I never manage to accomplish in my daily life -- sleek, effortless style -- I will somehow magically attain when I travel?

When our Eldest was just eight months old, we traveled to Japan. A few weeks before we left, we bought one of those MotherCare travel cots. The photograph on the package shows a gorgeous young mother with a cute baby balanced on one hip. Her hair is a smooth, shining pageboy; she is wearing a business suit and low heels and looks like a million bucks. The baby's clothes and face are clean and it appears to be laughing. In short, you couldn't find a mother and baby combo much more different from my firstborn and me, but when I bought that travel cot, I guarantee you, I saw myself as that mother, our Eldest as that baby. The MotherCare mother carried that travel cot like it weighed five pounds. She balanced her fully cooperative baby on her hip with effortless skill; somewhere on her person was hidden a diaper bag containing all the essentials: drinks, snacks, diapers, ointment, changing mat, wet wipes, spare pacifier, spare outfit -- the works. My baby and I were going to look the same when we traveled: I just knew it. That was one of the reasons I went for the cot in the first place.

The reality, of course, was completely different. I was a sweaty, miserable wreck all the way from Wales to Tokyo; Eldest fussed, spat up milk, and only fell asleep during the last fifteen minutes of our flight. The travel cot weighed a ton. Wrestling it through the streets of Yokohama, Eldest strapped crying and struggling to my chest, I almost dislocated my shoulder.

In fact, the reality is always different, but that still doesn't mean I learn. Instead of the efficient, seasoned, woman-of-the-world globetrotter I hope to resemble, I'm the frantic, fly-haired madwoman fumbling for her passport, dropping her boarding pass on the escalator, shrilling at her kids in the waiting room.

But on this last trip back to the Near East, I came close as I ever have to living up to my image. I had come fresh from seeing two teenagers off to university. I was frazzled and hassled, true, and as I packed, the small black backpack I intended to use as my carry-on bag became so full of over-spill -- handkerchiefs, small souvenirs, packages of tissue, books, Japanese-English dictionary -- that I ended up begging my friend Dina for a larger bag to put it all in. Still, I looked good, I felt, wearing my newest jeans, my trendiest top. I had on decent kid-approved shoes -- no mud in sight -- and carried my daughter's cast-off suitcase -- far better and roomier than my own.

I hugged and kissed my dear friend Dina as she saw Youngest Daughter and me off at the airport. My bags weighed a ton -- the carry-on seemed even heavier than when I'd first put it in the car -- but what else was new?

We didn't find the dog food until five minutes before boarding. Youngest Daughter's mobile phone (so much more trustworthy than mine in that she answers it) rang and I heard the following one-sided conversation:

"Dog food? No, of course not! Oh, wait a minute -- her bag is right here, hang on--" (Youngest Daughter opens my vast over-spill carry-on bag and rummages through it.) "--Is it in a kind of yellow bag? Oh wow, you're right, we do!" (Giggling and pinching her nose shut) "I wonder how that got there because I didn't... No. Sorrrry! So, what should we do? Ha ha, no, you can't, can you? Will they be hungry? Oh, poor things!"

Somehow, 3 kilograms of rather smelly dog food -- enough to feed Dina's two spaniels for a couple of days -- had found its way into my carry-on bag, right next to the souvenir cookies and chocolate I was taking to my colleagues. (Dina will tell you that it wasn't as much as 3 kilograms, but it sure as hell felt like it and besides, this is my blog.) How it got through baggage check when my lipstick and hand lotion didn't, I'll never know, but there you are.

On the plane, I prodded Youngest Daughter. "Can you smell it?"

She wrinkled her nose. "No. Well -- maybe."

"I can smell it." I sure could. In fact, I worried about what it might be doing to my souvenir oatmeal and ginger cookies.

The stewardesses swished back and forth, all stylish efficiency and stay-in-place hair. Stewardesses travel stylishly too -- just go to any airport and you will see. They wear neat little hats and pressed suits and panty hose and high heels. Their suitcases don't have marks and dents all over them, and the handle-thingies on theirs always pull out all the way.

"Just leave it on the plane, mom."

But how could I? If I left the bag on the plane, I knew exactly what would happen. Those trim, practical, overworked stewardesses would come along, wrinkle their pretty noses, and throw it out immediately, cans and dry chow. They wouldn't take it home to their dogs, they're stylish travelers and would never choose to heave smelly dog food around in their neat little carry-on bags. And I may travel like a slob, but I'm not wasteful -- that's the bottom line. I might not carry that dog food right down to the gates of hell, but I'm betting I'd get pretty close.

I carried my 3 kilograms of dog food straight through Atatürk International Airport and onto our next plane and off, right through customs. I breathed a sigh of relief that no trained police dogs were on duty, sniffing people's baggage for drugs: how in the world would I have explained their reaction to my carry-on bag? I took the dog food to my university and gave it to a dog-loving friend. Her dogs, I am told, very much enjoyed their first taste of British dog food.

So I still haven't attained my stylish traveler ideal, but then you can't have everything in this world. Besides, there's always the trip back next year.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Driving Me Crazy

When I was a kid, my family used to go to Thrifty's Drug Store for pancakes. They had a long counter with glass cases displaying things like glazed donuts and lemon meringue pie, and their breakfast menu had, in addition to the plain pancakes we always ordered, many fancy varieties: strawberry shortcake pancakes, drizzled with strawberry syrup; chocolate chip pancakes festooned with loops of snow-white whipped cream. For years, I went along with the flow and let my frugal mother order for me; we always got the plain ones, served with butter and syrup. But in my heart of hearts, I wanted the fancy pancakes. I wanted to be one of those lucky people who had set in front of them a steaming plateful of pancakes studded with strawberries and lavishly sprayed with whipped cream. One Sunday when I was ten, after years of whining and begging, I finally managed to wear my mother down: she let me order chocolate chip pancakes. "You'll never finish them," she insisted. "They'll make you sick. Your eyes are bigger than your stomach." I was determined to prove her wrong, but halfway through my towering stack of pancakes smothered with cream and liberally peppered with chocolate chips, I gave up. I felt sick of cream and butter and chocolate chips and I didn't mind if I never saw another pancake as long as I lived. And -- shock of shocks! -- I left pancakes, uneaten, on my plate. We did lots of weird things in my family, but leaving food on our plates was not one of them. So a trifling thing like this which might have been quickly forgotten in any other family went down in our family annals as a Big Deal.

My family never forgot my greedy, wasteful lust for chocolate chip pancakes and they never let me forget it either. After the chocolate chip pancake incident, whenever I wanted to order anything in a restaurant that was a little exotic, a little off the culinary beaten track, they reminded me of the chocolate chip pancakes I hadn't been able to finish. And I kid you not: twenty years later, they still remembered it and brought it up from time to time, whenever we went out to eat -- my sisters, my father -- even my mother. Needless to say, this got old fast.

I tell you this story because my family's reaction to this silly incident had a profound effect on my own parenting. I vowed that I would never do the same to my kids: I would never remember some trifling thing they had done at some point in their young lives and rub their noses in it again and again, even when they were adults. I told myself I would forget their foolish deeds, that I would keep an open mind about their irritating foibles and habits and wait for them to mature and change. I just knew that by keeping an open mind -- and to the extent possible, a closed mouth -- I would gain my kids' respect and trust. And whatever they may tell you, I've been pretty good about this. They may maintain that I recall all too clearly the embarrassing events of their youth, but I've never come close to being as obnoxious as my parents were over the chocolate chip pancakes.

So the other day, when Eldest Daughter and Acquired Daughter said goodbye to me as I set off for Manchester International Airport with my husband and Youngest Daughter, I bristled when they teased me about ending up in Wales on my way back to Scotland. Just because this happened to me last year -- just because I struggle to find my way, being directionally challenged -- does not mean that I will necessarily make the same mistake twice. Even without my husband in the car to navigate, there was every chance that I would make it home just fine. Especially since this time I had consulted Google maps.

"You have filled the car this time," said Eldest. "Right?"

I ignored her.

"Call me when you get to Wales and I'll try to sort you out!" snickered Acquired Daughter.

This really got my back up. After only a year of shared residence, I've got the goods on Acquired Daughter and she knows how discreet I've been. So why is it that the restraint, the Herculean strength of will, has to be on the mother's side only? Why do I have to keep it all in, but they get to goad and tease and remind me of past embarrassments?

After seeing my husband onto the plane bound for Istanbul, Youngest Daughter and I got back into the car and, after a minor glitch or two, I got on the right road. I drove past the turn-off for Wales; I made it past Warsall and Lancaster and Preston, and although the possibilities for messing up were endless, I never wavered. As I drove, my heart filled with joy and pride: I had made it! I could go home now and wipe the smiles off my daughters' silly faces. Youngest sent them a triumphant text message: Five minutes from home! Mom is amazing! It was like she knew the way!!

The next thing I knew, though, she was tugging on my sleeve. "Mom, that was the turn-off. You missed it."

"What?" I frowned. "That wasn't the turn-off -- it's coming up, isn't it?"

Youngest stared straight ahead, then leaned forward onto her folded arms. "I can't believe it! I just said we would be there and you missed the turn off!"

I peered out the window. "Are you sure we've missed it?"

But even as I said it, I knew she was right. Youngest squeezed her eyes shut and banged her forehead gently against the dashboard. For five minutes, she wouldn't talk to me: she couldn't trust herself.

If her irritation seems extreme, I should add that we were hungry and thirsty and the car was virtually out of gas. And the next exit would not be for over 30 miles.

Two hours, a tank of gas, and a whole load of mother-daughter angst later, we made it home, in the pouring rain. Driving to Wales and missing the turn-off: they'll never let me forget it, will they?

I think I need a plate of chocolate chip pancakes.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Computing Disasters

To everyone who still reads this blog: I have not abandoned it -- I will be back! My internet system, for some reason, won't let me get on my blog, but I'm hoping we'll be able to figure out what is going on. In the meantime, I just want you to know that I'm still full of things to write -- just lacking in the technical skill to sort out our computer glitches.

Hope it won't be too long...

Monday, 7 September 2009

Standing Tall

The woman in the restroom at Manchester Airport was tall – tall as in well over six feet. She was putting on mascara, standing in that classic applying-make-up stance, the upper half of her body tilted forward, mouth slightly open, one hand braced on the counter, the other carefully brandishing mascara wand, her eyes fixed on her image in the mirror. My daughter and I stood drying our hands, watching her surreptitiously: she was that compelling. I felt a wave of sympathy for her: it’s not easy being the tallest woman in town. Believe me, I know.

When I was studying in Kyushu, I was the tallest woman in the university. I’m barely 5 feet 7 inches tall, but in Japan, this was colossal. My next-runner-up in the tallness department was a graduate student in social studies who stood almost 5 feet 6. Our height was all we had in common, but we bonded over it.

Wherever I went on campus, people stopped talking and turned to stare. Part of this was because I was a foreigner, but my shorter foreign friends hardly ever got the attention I got. “Wow, you’re tall,” was a comment I soon got sick of. My first week there, in a restroom, I was washing my hands at the sink when a woman came out of the cubicle behind me. She froze, falling back against the toilet door and clamping her hand over her mouth as she stared up at me. Another woman entered the restroom just then and I got stereo shock as they both gazed at me in wonder. “God, she’s tall!” one of them breathed to the other. I felt so foolish, so awkward. I dried my hands and stomped out, my face burning.

Every morning, when I took the train to my university, I spotted another woman who must have been at least my height—possibly even taller. She was Asian and spoke fluent Japanese and she never paid me the slightest bit of mind, but looking at her, I always felt a strong bond. I knew that she knew what it felt like. In a country where 165 centimeters – around 5 feet 6 – is considered the upper limit for feminine height, you can’t help but feel your tallness as a mark of your identity. I knew she must struggle to find trousers that went down to her ankles, skirts that covered her knees. I knew that with her long legs, wearing panty hose was not a comfortable option. I never got up the courage to ask her where she found her clothes, but I came close.

I happen to be the product of a short mother and a very tall father. My father was 6 feet 4 inches, and my mother was 5 feet 2. Though she was short, my mother had a certain physical grace that my father, the classic klutz, lacked entirely. My mother stood tall and proud; my father slumped and ducked his head, as though ashamed. So I did not grow up thinking that tallness was an advantage – quite the contrary. In college, my roommate was 4 feet 11 inches and unhappy about it. She refused to accept that I could justifiably be envious of her petite stature, but I was. I longed to be slight and compact. To be dainty and light-footed and short.

Watching this tall woman now, I was filled with sympathy -- but even more with admiration. She did not slump; she stood tall. She was taking pains with her appearance, and she liked what she saw. My daughter is tall too—taller than I am now—and she’s still growing. I want her to be like this, not slumping and skulking about, apologizing to the world for the extra space she’s taking up.

The woman snapped her make-up bag shut. She ran her long fingers through her hair and shook it out, tilting her head from side to side. “Kakko ii ne,” my daughter whispered in Japanese — She looks good. I nodded in agreement: she did.

And do you know what the best part about her was? She was wearing high heels. Not just wimpy little heels, but proper, three-inch ones -- the kind I would never go near. We watched as she click-clicked her way to the door, all willowy, graceful style.

We’d have liked to give her a high five, but neither of us could reach.