Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Threat Level "Critical"

I wrote most of this while taking a train in Paris, the same day that the Parson's Green explosion happened.

Stylistically, it's written as a stream of consciousness, and in present tense - a little different perhaps to what you are used to reading here, but bear with me...


I'm on the train to meet friends arriving at Charles de Gaul. It's been a depressing news day. Well, most days are - between earthquakes, hurricanes and nuclear missile launches. But today's news, in addition to being depressing, feels like a starkly relevant news day. Relevant in that there was a bomb on the London tube this morning. Relevant in that this morning there was a knife attack on a soldier in Chatelet train station in Paris. Relevant in that I'm on a train from Chatelet to the airport.

I look around and imagine that the tube in London might have looked much like this - different languages, different accents maybe, but in a big cosmopolitan city such as these two - maybe not. In this carriage packed full of faceless strangers, I remind myself that everyone here is an individual, someone with a story, a life, in the same way those people in Parson Green were. In fact, it's hard to think about it when I apply it to the millions affected by the other news stories this week, those in far-off places like Myanmar and Syria affected by violence dished out by other humans and those in the Carribean Region and Central America suffering from nature's violence. All strangers - all humans.

If a bomb went off right now in our carriage what fabric of humanity would be torn? And if I had to make a run for it or was injured which of these people would cease to be strangers?

Who would help me?

Fear licks through me, pushed away by that ever-comforting "It will never happen to me." But it has happened to someone - lots of someones. This fear is what the bad guys want us to feel.

I scan the carriage to read the faces around me and let my imagine roll, concocting stories and scenarios:

That really tall guy, head and shoulders above everyone else has a birds-eye view of the carriage. Would he see an "incident" first? 

Not the man opposite me whose pale skin is tinged with mauve beneath his eyes and almost indigo where his nose scoops out the skin from between his eye sockets. I fasten my gaze on his hands, nicely shaped with man-appropriate manicured nails. He wears a ring - like a college ring you see guys in the movies wearing. It's silver with a big blue stone - maybe a sapphire. I'm a bit mesmerized by it.

I'm too uneasy to look at the guy right beside me in case he catches my eye. That would be embarrassing. I can smell his body odor - sweaty and a bit fusty, but I've smelt worse on the metro. I let my mind skip over it as my nose grows blind.

The tall man speaks kindly (I see it in his eyes) to a very small woman in her late twenties standing next to him. The height difference is comical, the top of her head level with his armpit. She engages another young woman, sitting down in front of her, in the conversation. Evidently, the two are friends, but have they just met the tall guy?

Sapphire ring guy dons sunglasses. Has he read my mind about how I view his tired his eyes? I now notice that the pinkie nail on his left hand, the one not wearing the ring, is stained browny-orange - iodine perhaps? Maybe he is in the medical profession. It explains the exhaustion slung across his face. Despite his fatigue then he'd be a good help, I reckon if the bad thing that is never going to happen happens.

Three stops on and it's clear most of us are here for the long haul, airport or the suburbs. It's like two extremes...the suburbs, humdrum, mundane, dreary...the airport, exciting, ripe with adventure.

People are relaxing now. Armpit-height girl is singing. She laughs with her friend. They get off at the next stop as does the tall guy. So they were friends all along, or else he's really spontaneous!

A little girl and a man, her dad I guess, get on and she sits diagonally opposite me. She's about 7 and dead cute with black braids that jut out at angles not long enough yet to all hang the same direction. Her pale pink sweater with a heart outlined in pink sequins suits her skin, the color of a roasted coffee bean. She glows. Her eyes twinkle as she takes in her surroundings making tentative eye contact with me. I smile. She seems to think about returning it then turns away. She sucks her thumb and twiddles with a braid with her other hand, her wee arms cross in front of her like a protective cage.

Sapphire-ring man gets off.

Pink-sweater girl slides into his seat and her dad sits beside her. Her reward is a cuddle then she goes back to thumb sucking and twiddling while he takes out his phone and dives in.

The carriage empties as we click through the suburbs. When pink-sweater girl and her Dad leave, I almost miss them.

I'm still sitting beside the same guy who's been here since Chatelet, but I still don't want to look at him, be caught studying him. He sets his puma bag on the seat across from us. It's shabby and mended with red thread, the perfect bag for a bomb. Or is it? Perhaps this is a much-loved bag, hence the mend. Maybe he does not want to blow it up. Maybe like my red rucksack, he's had many happy adventures with it. He takes it with him, thank God.

Now a guy with a yellow card walks through the carriage and places the card on the seat beside me. In French, it tells me he's poor, hungry, down on his luck, he wants money... I'm guessing. I don't read it. I'm pretty sure it's not something like Saturday's lotto numbers or which shares to buy on the stock market. He swings back to collect it. I feel ashamed of myself for not helping him, not even acknowledging him. I don't have any cash and even if I did... maybe, maybe not. He picks the card up and moves on.

In 20 seats there's only three of us now and one stop left. No point anyone blowing up the train now...casualty count would be too low. If I were a terrorist, I wouldn't bother, then again I would hate to live in a world where I was a terrorist, you know, with my evil mind. Though it comes in handy when I'm putting together plots for books!


As I leave the train, I realize I'm not scared, nor ever was, really. I was curious. My mind pondered the "what ifs" but my heart rate stayed steady and my mind rational. I didn't really suspect anyone, nor blame anyone, nor hate anyone.

Many have been injured today and many more have justifiably been frightened today. [Referring to the day of the Parsons Green bomb -by the time I get this published it will be in the past.] I hope for the speedy recovery of those hurt one way or another. But I don't have to be scared, not at this moment in time or space. There is no point in being scared. I refuse to let the rot spread - that rot of fear, hatred and violence that was planted on a train in London.

I threatened to get scared, in fact when I stared at the mended puma bag it was threat level "critical" but fear didn't get me. I pulled out of that skid safely and now I feel victorious.

We all have our stories - let's write them without prejudice, hatred or fear. Let's show our humanness.

Byddi Lee

 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

"The end is where we start from..."

We knew that life in Paris would bring challenges. Weighing them against the fabulousness of living here resulted in an overall positive and life-enriching experience. I love Paris. I've loved living here - still love wandering the streets and gazing at the beautiful buildings. It's an amazing city. But I want to hold onto that amazement, so it's a good time to leave. Paris is not going anywhere and I can always come back for a visit. I feel like the person who is breaking up with another and saying that I still want to be friends!


We approached life in Paris with a huge dollop of humor - sometimes it's the only way to push through the infuriating bureaucracy, the randomness of the French opening hours and the crazy people you often meet on the streets. (Though I've earned that title on occasion myself!) We still laugh when we have to put our conversation on hold as a siren in the street below our apartment drowns us out with its wail.

We got used to a lot of what Paris threw at us - the traffic noise, the night-time party revellers and even the 6am street cleaning trucks that move slowly and noisily beneath the bedroom windows. My French has even improved such that my "Bonjour" is often answered now in French. I've stopped noticing the beggars so much. Have I become inured to them or had they, like the rest of the Paris locals, left for the summer months? However, my heart still breaks for the homeless as they try to find comfort wherever they can.
Homeless people sleeping in the Metro

I want to move on with fondness still in my heart for this city and for this apartment with its beautiful parquet floor and ornate cornices; with those windows that open onto the balcony from which I often observe the world below go about their business; with my desk by those windows giving me the quintessential Paris writers perch.


All year, I've gazed at the cafe below our window, thinking, "I should go there with my laptop and drink coffee and write." Yet, I only went there a handful of times and never with my laptop, only with other people - visitors from out of town. Because the truth of the matter is, I don't like to sit alone in a cafe no matter how writerly I may look with my laptop. I need people - lots of people - in my life. I'm a social animal, and I'm Irish, so the best place for me is a place like Armagh where everyone knows everyone and social interaction does not involve military precision.


So we're going before the little irritations of Paris become whopping pearls of annoyance - like, why are there always so many escalators broken in the Metro? Why is the parcel delivery still such a mystery?  And why don't French shops use AC? Why must the bottle bank below our bedroom window be emptied at 7am on a Saturday, a mere half-hour after the drunks have finished serenading us? And then there's the signage that stops three turns short of its destination...

Before these and many other annoyances take a firm hold, I want us to move on, move home! I want my family to drop in on me and I on them. I want to spend lazy weekends hanging out with friends. I want green fields. I want damp autumn winds blowing in my hair; a surprise snowy day in winter; the excitement of that first snowdrop in spring; birdsong insomnia in the summer;  cosy points of Guinness by the fire - possible all year long in Ireland. I want to feel excited again about a sunny day and to drop everything to take full advantage of it. But most of all - I want the craic!


We're lucky that my husband can work from home. So we decided to forgo the extortionate Paris rents and go home when the 1-year lease is up on the apartment. I'll miss the cheap cheese, caviar and wine and the architecture and the "mood" of Paris...


But I'll happily exchange it for delicious cider, artisan gins, Guinness, Tayto crisps, potato-bread, black pudding - Armagh is now being dubbed as "the food heartland" and there is a lot of culture that I'd never before appreciated. And let's not forget our own stunning architecture.


For a long time now I have yearned to gaze over the mists that lie in the hollows of the fields on our soft Irish days. It took me a decade and a couple of trips around the world to realize that there is one fair county in Ireland - I'm fortunate to call it home and even more lucky to be able to answer its call to come home.


" We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time" 

- T.S. Eliot

It feels like another new beginning, as exciting as any we've undertaken abroad, but without the homesickness and heartache of missing loved ones. All things considered - I simply can't wait to go home, back to the start of something wonderful.

Byddi Lee

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Rodin and Other Museums

One is never short on museums to visit in Paris. So far, I've been to The Louvre (3 times), the d'Orsay (3 times), Museum L'Orangerie, and now the Rodin.

View of Sacre Couer from the d'Orsay

Each time, I make sure to suss out the "must see" pieces which, for the most part, leave me cold. For example, in The Louvre, the Mona Lisa was a real disappointment. I much preferred the huge painting opposite - The Wedding at Cana.

A small portion of the Wedding at Cana

Again, in the d'Orsay, while I kind of liked some of the impressionists, my favourite being Sisley and not so much the hugely popular Van Gough, it was the realism paintings that really captured me. Just look at the expression on this woman's face as she is being tied to the stake accused of witchcraft. The whole scene is so sinister, conjuring up a story in itself. Wouldn't that be an interesting exercise - flash fiction based on art?

L'Auto Da-Fe

Perhaps, I'm just trying to swim against the tide of public opinion, or maybe I'm just not susceptible to marketing, refusing to like a painting of a pot of wonkily drawn sunflowers just because I'm told I should.

I did like the famous statues in the Rodin though. Maybe I just like sculpture more, I don't know enough about art to be sure. But I do know when my heart goes "ahhh" or a piece of art makes me happy/sad/scared/curious, or makes me appreciate the work that went into it - and sometimes all of the above!

Take The Thinker - I couldn't quite get away from the idea that he would look the same sitting on a toilet - The Stinker perhaps?


And really, what is it about these artists and nudity? This sculpture is poised with a really unfortunate aspect if you want a nice shot of the mansion! Quite the view.

This guy's pretty cool. Sometimes I prefer not to read the blurb about the sculpture and make up my own story. Here's one of a grandfather saying, "I don't care how much she begs, I'm never baby sitting this wee shit again! He's only gone and ripped my best toga off me!" I call it Grumpy Daycare.


This guy is distressed.  His story is definitely a tragedy. His expression was so desolate it made me feel quite sad too.


However, I think she still saw the funny side and laughed her head off!


Seriously though, this is Gates of Hell.

Up close, it is the stuff of nightmares... be careful how long you linger here...


This is The Burgers of Calais. Apparently, they were fighting with the English (seriously, like, the English are the worst neighbours, right?)


And The Kiss, well there's a mystery. I saw this lovely bronze one...


But it wasn't until I got home and was going through the photos, that it occurred to me that not only was there no photos of the white marble version of The Kiss but that I couldn't actually recall having seen it if it was even there. Sometimes galleries burrow stuff like this. Apparently, when the Tate had it they kept it near the loos! But if I did see it, I was obviously underwhelmed by it.

However, there were plenty of pieces that made me go, "Wow!"

I loved the expression on this guys face.


And this a much more dramatic kiss. With it being small enough to fit on a table top, does it qualify as a "wee kiss"?


There was something so tender about these Lover's Hands. I could totally live with this on my mantlepiece.

I loved this one called Adam and Eve and could imagine God fashioning them from the earth like the artist had hewn them from the marble, their forms slowly emerging...


Same with this guy peeking out from the cold stone.


This was my absolute favourite - I'll take two please. (I can use them as book ends - beautiful and practical!)


Outside the Rodin, the golden crown of Les Invalides beacons.



We were too late in the day to gain admittance - maybe another time.


Byddi Lee

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Is it Apocalypse Now?

As I watched the news reports about the floods in Mumbai and Texas this week, my over-riding emotion was anger.

Thirty years ago, I began my degree in  Environmental Biology at Queen's University in Belfast.

Thirty years ago scientists were predicting that an increase in green house gases such as carbon dioxide and methane would lead to an average global temperature rise. They dubbed the phenomena "Global warming" which in hindsight was a mistake because... well scientists are not necessarily politicians. They work with the facts and disregard the "spin." As snow storms became more erratic and increasingly severe in places, the term "global warming" by people who didn't understand or who couldn't face the facts. Let's agree that the term "Global warming" is misleading to the non-scientific population - we'll call it "climate change."

I remember preparing a presentation for my studies back in the 1980's. I practised my speech in front of my parents, giving projected outcomes of the effect of a rise in greenhouse gases upon the planet in the years to come (the years which have now arrived.)

Back in the 1980's, I stood in our kitchen and tried to fluidly remember the key points without looking at the prompt cards in my hands - some of which I can still remember to this day:

  • Melting ice-caps would contribute to higher oceans posing a flooding danger for low lying coastal regions.
  • Increased global temperatures would lead to more water vapour in the atmosphere creating more violent storms (including snow storms) and hurricanes and in some regions more rainfall and flooding.
  • Higher temperatures would bring drought to other regions prone to low rainfall, devastating arable land and creating more areas of desert.
  • Droughts would give rise to an increase in forest fires.
  • Due to increased heat, infectious disease and vectors which spread disease would increase.
  • Melting ice in Greenland could flood the Atlantic with cold water that could "switch off" the Gulf stream that flows towards Ireland and plunge that region into an ice-age.
My Mum believed me. She's always been an eco warrior and employed environmentally friendly practices even before it was "mainstream," if you could call it that now - reuse, recycle etc.

My Dad, not as scientifically minded as My Mum and me, took it all with a grain of salt believing it would never happen, that humanity would pull some marvellous trick out of a giant hat somewhere and save the day, or that we'd all be long gone before it mattered. On that last point, he was sadly correct as far as he was concerned, but his attitude was my first taste of the "climate denier" - these poor people can't face the truth, they don't want to accept the collective responsibility that we the human race have to take. And yes, we are ALL responsible for this, even the goody-two-shoes non-air-travelling, vegan cyclists who've had their tubes tied so as to not inflict the planet with even more children. Okay, well maybe not them! It's kind of hard to improve upon that.

But the fact remains - the situation I described to my parents thirty odd years ago is now happening in vivid technicolour! Let's see what the climate deniers can deny now...

Glacier Calving in Spitzbergen

Melting Ice Caps - That's happening now. Here's what the World Wildlife Fund says,
"Because of ongoing and potential loss of their sea ice habitat resulting from climate change, polar bears were listed as a threatened species in the US under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008."
That was nine years ago - and it's only getting worse. According to the Washington Post,
"...the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified the rapid decline of sea ice as “the primary threat to polar bears” and said “the single most important achievement for polar bear conservation is decisive action to address Arctic warming” driven by the human emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere."
But it goes far beyond saving polar bears.

Evidence of retreating ice I've seen myself when visiting the Fox Glacier in New Zealand.

Fox Glacier, New Zealand

Then there's the more violent storms and hurricanes. These are happening everywhere, not just in the USA. In Mumbai, there has been a huge loss of life due to the floods there. Even in Ireland recently thunder and lightening storms caused severe flooding across swaths of the country.

Drought, I've experienced living in California, but this isn't the only place that has suffered drought in the last three years - South Africa, Southern Europe, Brazil, Korea. And don't be one of those eejits that say, "Oh but the rain came and the drought is over!"

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that. The rains came, bringing flooding and landslides, and stripping the top layers of soil. Yes, California had a "super bloom" of wildflowers but this pendulum swing is not over yet...

On every continent, there have been massive forest fires.

After the fire, Ebbetts Pass, California


And even though fire is a natural cyclical phenomenon in some places, it's on a scale that is now so huge and out of whack, that entire towns are being consumed when the flames get out of control. Knysna, in South Africa, Provence, France, and even Ireland this summer, all burned, along with the usual Californian and Australian fires.


Disease seemed like a strange one considering how far we've come with disease control, but warmer temperatures allows microorganisms to proliferate. Mosquitoes with disease like malaria and zika flourish in new regions as they warm up. Ebola tends to break out after droughts and downpours and climate change is really giving that old pendulum a push.

The one the terrifies me the most is the the ice sheets melting result in the "switching off" of the Gulf stream. Hurricane Harvey moved really slowly and eventually stalled out over Texas. Some theories suggest that climate change has affected the intensity and flow of the jet streams so that Harvey was not blown through the area faster, its "stickiness" contributing to the high levels of rainfall.

Jet streams, gluf streams - our planet is all interconnected and while 30 years ago we didn't know exactly how global warming would manifest itself or even how to market it with a name that couldn't be disputed, sadly, the scientists back then were pretty on target.

Very few devastating things happen all of a sudden. Even for someone hit by a bus, one can trace back a series of events that led to that moment (e.g. distracted, stepping of the pavement without looking, then BANG!)  More often there's a slow wind up, clues ignored, warnings unheeded then the shit hits the tornado!

Bloomberg "Just to be clear, climate change itself is no longer up for debate—both in the scientific community and among national governments (with few notable exceptions). Understanding it is relatively simple. Global average temperatures are rising. There’s at least 4 percent more water vapor in the air than 70 years ago. Ice sheets are melting. Seas are swelling. These phenomena are the direct effects of warming, and humans are causing it."
As for me, I'm just saying, "Told ya!"

On a "brighter" note, if a couple of the aforementioned "notable exceptions" continue to butt heads and fart about with red buttons, we'll be all up in smoke and global warming won't matter to us!

Byddi Lee