Sunday, 28 April 2013

Birthday Reflections

Everyone knows that getting old sucks. At least that’s what you think when you’re young. However, when you get to middle-age - when the “c-word” changes from the word that rhymes with hunt to the word that rhymes with answer - you realise that you want to become that cheerful frail old lady that you see walking very slowly down the road pulling her shopping trolley or the old man with the flat cap sitting at the bus stop. The alternative is just not that appealing. The “I hope I die before I get old” attitude is a young person’s lie. And while it is tolerated with a knowing smile by us old(er) people, the holding of such a belief is a sure sign of a not-fully-formed mind.

And getting old isn't all bad. Ok, you might forget what things are called, what you were saying mid-sentence or that the phone that you've been looking for the last five minutes is actually in your hand, but if you’re lucky you might finally be making a decent wage, have started to take yourself less seriously and have acquired a modicum of wisdom.

When I turned 36, my husband forgot my birthday.* I’m not going to lie – it felt like the end of the world and our marriage. His subsequent attempts to buy me presents (camping gear – hah!) and a lemon tree (which I purposely neglected for several years before it finally gave up the ghost) only made matters worse. Looking back on it now I realise that I was the perpetrator of my own misery that day, which my mother went to great pains to explain to me at the time. Did I listen? I never did before and I wasn't going to start then. Well, eventually I did figure it out, but I would have been a lot happier if I’d been quicker on the uptake.

A marital milestone occurred when we went our first family holiday with only one nearly grown-up child. Camping in Cornwall for ten days sounded like a perfect way to test the impending dynamics of our shrinking family unit while Alex was in California with cousins. Realising the long-term impact of the following days, John and I made a pact not to bicker - for the entire trip. Now, those of you that have ever camped know that setting up a tent is pretty much the only time that you are 100% guaranteed to fall out with someone. (For a hilarious book about family camping, read The Tent, the Bucket and Me). Well, John and I set up our enormous over-sized tent on a blustery, damp day on the The Lizard with nary a cross word. I’m not saying that a miracle happened on that trip, but it was pretty close.

Anna and John on the South West Coast Path in 2010.

Fast forward a couple of years and I can say with complete certainty, that if we hadn't progressed past the Bickerson stage, we’d never been able to pull off our move to Fiji. First, there’s no way Anna would have come. Second, third and fourth, there were about a thousand times during the process of the move and settling in period that either of us could have said “sod this for a game of soldiers” or worse. And finally, if we’d expended precious energy on brooding, reviling and recriminating, we would have been very lonely indeed.

A wonderful Cornish holiday...

I’m not saying that we always get along. When we arrived in Melbourne recently for John’s gallbladder operation, we’d been travelling for about ten hours. Opening the hotel room door, we agreed that we’d arrived just in the nick of time because we’d begun to grate on each other’s nerves. The difference is that I didn’t demand to know why I was irritating him and vice versa.  That’s because we’re finally old enough to know better.

On the day of John’s surgery, I turned 49. I recognised the birthday card he pulled out of the nightstand - he’d obviously purchased in the Ian Potter Gallery gift shop when I went to the toilet the day before. (As a good friend pointed out, it’s better than getting a card from the toilet while I was in the gift shop.) Inside he’d written “Happy Birthday, Beautiful Wife”. Honestly, could there be a better gift than that?

John’s hospital roommate was a talkative elderly gentleman called Derrick. Derrick was in Exeter during WWII. He briefly recounted the bombing raids by the Germans, saying finally, “And in the mornings we woke up and said ‘good morning’ and we meant it”.

Eventually the “c-word” will start to mean care home and an adventure will be travelling down to the bottom of the garden and back. Until then and beyond, I plan to greet each morning with a grateful hello and I’m going to mean it too.

*In fairness, John has asked me to state that once when he presented me with a gift of beautiful earrings on our anniversary, I argued the toss with him that he’d got the dates wrong. He hadn't.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Life, Applied in a Slapdash Fashion

When visitors arrive, Fiji shines. For the last two-plus weeks our son, Alex, has been visiting from snowy Sheffield in the UK during his Easter break. While the allure of rainy Suva wears off pretty quickly (visiting the university bookstore is on the guide book’s top ten things to do in Suva), the rest of the island, Viti Levu, makes up for it.

One of John’s New Zealand-based colleagues said that his family views the time that they lived in Fiji as time spent in a parallel universe. If you make the effort, you can regularly do things which most people only dream about doing or only do once in a lifetime. Diving with sharks? Just down the road out of Pacific Harbor. Seeing spinner dolphin? Just up the road at Moon Reef. Stay in an oceanside hotel room, with your own steps down to the beach? Not a problem – and you’ll get a local rate to boot.

The view from the front door of the bure at Wananavu.

The problem is real life gets in the way of doing all of this fun stuff. Anna has homework. John has to go to work. I am mysteriously busy without being in paid employment. Weeks fly by and, before you know it, you’ve lived in Fiji for over seven months, acquired three cats and have been completely deskilled by your housekeeper. So for maximum enjoyment, you either have to get out more or have visitors to force your hand.

In a move that completely confused the cats, Alex’s arrived just after John was admitted to the hospital. They gave Alex a wide berth, occasionally venturing forth to give him a good sniff before retreating a safe distance to observe the younger, fitter version of John. John’s discharge from hospital coincided with the kids starting a three day dive course. Besides a big bloody blow-out of cartilage, blood and snot after the first dive and some trouble with clearing their ears, they enjoyed themselves.

Anna’s school broke up on the Thursday, so first thing Good Friday morning, we headed northeast up towards Rakiraki to go to Wananavu Beach Resort. When we arrived, the sea between Wananavu and the nearby island of Nananu-i-Ra was smooth as glass, so we kayaked across. Stopping at the reef to have a quick snorkel, I spotted a medium sized spider on the side of Anna and Alex’s kayak. My attempt to knock it off by splashing water on it did not work and it ran back into the kayak where Anna was sat. Have I mentioned that Anna does not like spiders? Well, I nearly drowned sucking up water through my snorkel laughing at Anna’s reaction before I realised that her running up and down an unstable kayak over a sharp reef was pretty dangerous. Eventually, John managed to get the spider to jump onto our kayak, which was a fairly unsatisfactory outcome for everyone bar the spider.

Good snorkeling off Nananu-i-Ra.

As John was still a bit weak and I am a weakling, we turned back before we made it all of the way across while the children persevered. Our kayak back was dream-like. The sky was a monotonous grey and because the water surface was like a millpond, it was difficult to tell where the sky ended and the sea began. If we stopped to drift, we could hear schools of fish splashing around on the surface. I was very keen to see some dolphin, so we paddled from fish-splash to fish-splash hoping to see what was causing the fish to jump. When John started to slap his paddle slightly erratically onto the surface of the water, I asked him what he was doing. He said that he was feigning the sounds of an injured fish to attract sharks. Honestly, who would be crazy enough to go out in a small kayak in the middle of the Pacific with a marine biologist?

John's pre-op fat-free diet is making him grumpy.
Alex started referring to Anna as his adopted Spanish sister because of her tan.

The next day we had a pretty rubbish dive with Ra Divers. The weather wasn't great, the swell and current were quite difficult to cope with and the visibility was terrible. Also, despite being a fairly relaxed diver, I felt like I’d swallowed a swarm of bees diving with the children. As Alex said, the anxiety portion of your brain must hypertrophy when you give birth. I’m not sure that it ever returns to a normal size afterwards.

Fortunately, the next day was absolutely gorgeous, so we kayaked back out past Nananu-i-Ra and did some amazing snorkeling  We were out for hours and I felt like my exhausted arms might drop off by the time we got back. Our kayaking marathon revealed several issues regarding applying sunscreen. First, if you have hairy legs, spray sunscreen doesn't really work very well. Second, if you apply sunscreen in a slapdash fashion, your failed, non-systematic efforts will be revealed to all in bright red streaks. And finally, even if your children laugh at your silly hat, you can be smug when you’re the only one that returns without a pink nose.

Silly hat? I laugh at your sunburned nose!

We had a couple of day in Suva doing laundry and waiting for Alex’s sunburn to calm down before Anna, Alex and I headed over to Denarau Island which is near the airport. Denarau is like a Disneyfied version of Fiji - serried rows of resorts, golf courses and housing developments bake in the tropical sun. It wouldn't be my first choice for a place to stay, but the high Western standards for cleanliness and service and the big hotel feel make it an easy place to relax. We stayed at the Radisson which was just fine.

The kids parasailed and jet-skied while I enjoyed people watching and lying by the pool. Alex’s last night in Fiji was made special by a spectacular sunset and a wonderful dinner at the Steakhouse at the Westin. The steaks were delicious and the traditional farewell serenade by the waiting staff to Alex was really moving (or it could have been the wine).

Looks like a brochure shot, but it's just an ordinary day on Denarau...

We were really sad to see Alex off first thing the next morning. However, in all of the years that I've been saying goodbye to people, I've learned that the easiest way to make saying goodbye less painful is to already have the next trip booked. We’re going to see Alex in California in June, so it was sort of “see you later” rather than a tearful farewell, for which I am truly grateful.