Friday, August 31, 2007

Museum Guards

For those who've never wandered inside the Museum Building in Trinity College, Dublin, here's a glimpse of one of the guardians inside the door:

Megalocerus Giganteus (aka the Giant Irish Deer) was the largest deer that ever lived - about seven feet high at the shoulder, then add on head, neck and ginormous antlers. They roamed through the Irish forests about eleven thousand years ago.

There's a Mrs Megalocerus too, who stands opposite him -- she's the same except for the antlers.

Now, I'm not a huge Natural History Museum/displays-of-dead-animals/recreations-of-scenes-with-taxidermied-corpses type of person. That said, I adore these skeletons. I drop in to see them whenever I can :)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Turbulent Thursday

There have been very loud hammering noises going on since early this morning.

Somewhere above me, a super-extended bathroom is being chipped away...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

My bathroom ceiling

This story begins two years ago when the apartment above mine got a new bathroom. The walls that adjoin these apartments are 6 inches thick - each apt gets 3 inches for their wiring, pipes etc. But the folk upstairs coveted those three inches, and wanted them for their new bathroom. So they took down their wall, shoved everything on to their neighbour's side, tiled up against his wall, and luxuriated in their extended bathing space. Naughty.

Earlier this year, their neighbour gutted his place and moved all the rooms around. When his electrician was rewiring, he broke through the three inches, and discovered he'd broken through grout. And he could see through to a bathroom on the other side... Well they couldn't complete their building work; there was danger of flooding/electrocution and lots of arguments, which were still ongoing when I left for Ireland.

So I came back, and had a shower, as you do. And then I looked up - there were long water stains across the whole ceiling, bits of plaster were falling out at the corners, and there were knobbly bits on the ceiling.

At first I thought the plaster was swelling with the water. Then I thought of fungus, of how in House MD when someone's critically ill, they always go and check their home for spores...

And the following morning, all was revealed:

And what's more, if my bathroom's affected, so is German Porn Man's. We're all waiting for him to notice...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


In a post last year I mentioned the Cable TV company's innovative method of dealing with bad debt. Truly bizarre, and surely against some EU law or other...

So, the house bills arrived. The Cable bill came late (again), and was already past due on arrival. You can't pay overdue bills in a local post office (well, you can if you fill out extra forms and pay extra charges) - so thousands of people go to the main Cable office instead. I wanted to ask about the bad debt, and Landlady - well, she wanted to have a stand-up row with someone about the bad debt - so off we went.

First we stopped off to pay electricity. As I'm paying, Landlady starts speaking loudly to the two people working in the office, gesturing at me. She's telling the story of me having to pay someone else's bad debt. The man serving me responds - he had the same problem: they tried to get him to pay 1k of someone else's debt. He got a lawyer. Never paid a penny.

Landlady is furious by the time we get to the Cable Folk. She explains the situation, and the woman behind the counter argues, smiling all the time. Landlady becomes very angry indeed. She turns as she's complaining, involving the people queueing behind us. A man steps forward - he has the same problem - 400 euros of debt. He doesn't even have cable, so he's not sure why he's paying.

I wonder if Landlady has any of her dog's valium on her. The arguments continue. Landlady threatens to go the tv, to the radio. The counter lady checks things up, consults some paperwork, goes upstairs, checks my ID. Yes, she finally admits, the people paid their debt in full.

In February.

Anyhoo, on to chicken-pictures! Here's the little minx who steals into Maggie's garden in Devon each morning. She pecks around the lawn nonchalantly, takes a furtive look around to see if she's being tailed, then ducks in to the border to lay her egg...

Maggie has two cats - who do absolutely nothing to help.

Monday, August 27, 2007


Hi all! I'm mentally getting closer to Madeira...

Well it's been a week of stunning weather. Today's cloudy and non-boiling - I might actually get out for a jog (have substituted swimming on the hot days).

I am immersed in Cured with Death, but only recently - I spent most of last week writing two short stories, which was great fun, but unplanned...

Website update: there's footage of me reading at the Irish Writers' Centre up now.

Snaps of Bordeaux (from top left):
> the Saint-Michel bell-tower, locally called "The Arrow". 114 metres high
> cloister we passed somewhere along the way
> the wine we didn't buy. That's right, 1350 euros
> purdy stained-glass colours in the Saint-Michel church
> sea horsies
> the sea horsies' cool flipper-hooves
> little bit of the Monument aux Girondins
> purdy latch (in a vineyard where the wine was gakky)
> new oak barrels. Man, they smelled good!

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Today is Departure day at Plum Village. I’m leaving shortly after breakfast; I’m one of the first to go. I take a final look around the Lower Hamlet. Someone said that a day here feels like two days – they’re so rich, so filled (and you get up at 5.30am). It feels longer than a week, longer than a fortnight.

My biggest surprise was the people. I thought they'd be super-people - the most advanced, enlightened folk around. But they were as flawed and as remarkable as everyone else on the planet. People skipped queues, elbowed in front to catch a glimpse of Thay, talked loudly through films - even stole meditation mats! The environment here supports you in handling difficulty, which is great, but you also experience people at their best – generous and kind and thoughtful. It's like the Gardener - outside I'd have only ever heard her complain and get angry; in here I get to know her as a person. And she amazes me.

It was a privilege to see Thay and his community in practice, to see his teachings brought to life. Sometimes people harden with age, becoming more adamant in their beliefs. Thay’s the opposite. He says to wear his teachings like a loose-fitting robe. Don’t cling to anything, he says, don't get caught up in words - the point is where the teachings take you, not how you get there.

I nip down to the meditation hall one last time, then take my luggage outside. The nuns will drop me over to station. All of the Potwashers appear to say goodbye. As a group, we’ve got along extraordinarily well – it’s an unusual, precious dynamic. We share bountiful, long-lasting hugs. This kind of group doesn’t happen often.

I return to Bordeaux, meet up with Sara. In the afternoon we’re walking around the town when church bells ring out in the distance. I stop automatically, and then laugh. And we walk across the sunshiney square, and I’m smiling. I hope this lasts.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Plum Friday

It was Q&A with Thay this morning, in English. We go to the meditation hall straight from potwashing. The hall quickly fills to capacity - all of the hamlets are here. Thay arrives and sits down. A fellow potwasher leans over, “See the flowers?”

There’s an arrangement before Thay’s chair. It’s ours, from last night. It’s been upgraded from tin can to proper vase, but it’s ours. I am thrilled.

The first part of the morning is all about the kids.

Now, at times this week they've driven us crazy. The teenagers often ignore 'noble silence', and they chat noisily in the bathroom, putting on make-up and straightening their hair - while the rest of us are getting ready for bed. I’ve had no contact with them, and I wonder: did any of the teachings sink in? Was their sole purpose to help us practice patience? At times, the younger children have run riot as well, unsupervised by parents. And they've been asking for money: my first day I met boys at a table by the bamboo grove - selling rocks. To help the hungry children, they say. I’m fresh from Dublin, hyper-suspicious. I give them money, but figure I’ve been scammed.

First the kids come up to Thay. They’ve raised 701 euros this week - for the Hungry Children's Charity, in Vietnam. They had a sale of work – things they’d made and painted and drawn - and they sold those rocks all week long…
The teenagers follow: they’ve raised nearly 1500 euros from a sponsored 26-km walk. They perform for Thay - an original composition. I recognise it from the Peace Festival. It’s funny and fast, and the teachings of the week are all squodged into it. Thay is so pleased, he asks them to sing it again.

Both groups blew me away. I was suffering from a wrong perception, as Thay would say.

Then the questions started. The youngest went first:
> You do so much - how do you not get tired?
> How did it feel to not be allowed to go home?
> Why can’t the Dalai Lama go home, like you did?
> Why do monks not make children?

The adult questions were as eclectic:
> I work with people who hate homosexuals, who think violence against them is a good thing. How can I help to change their perception?
> If we have past lives, why can't we remember them?
> If I just had 5 minutes to speak with you, I feel I would be a better person. How do I leave Plum Village without feeling that I’ve missed out.

> What is the nature of dreaming?
> Is there a conflict between Christianity and Buddhism?
> My friend’s daughter has committed suicide. She was 35 years old. She’s left a small son. What can I say to her? How can I help?

A woman comes and sits in the question-chair. She’s clearly petrified.
> What advice would you give to a mother whose child has not met his father because he is at war?
She’s American, and heavily pregnant. The room holds its breath.

Thay pauses before each answer. For some he takes ten or twenty seconds before speaking. And then he speaks carefully, thoughtfully, compassionately.

And he gives us enough to think about for a lifetime.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Plum Thursday

This morning some of the Sisters shared – they spoke about their practice, their difficulties, their successes. The Abbess is Dutch-Irish – she talks about her (Irish) mother’s affinity with the sea, how during storms her mum would gather the children together, and they would pray for those out at sea. She feels she still draws on her mother's strength.

The sister in charge of the garden speaks about her work this year. Her New Year’s resolution was to complain less - she hadn’t realised until recently that she complains all the time. In January she started a list of everything she complains about. She’s still writing. Thay had a meditation to help, but she wasn’t getting anywhere with it. And one day in a magazine she saw the words “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”. She cut out the quote, and has it up on her shelf in her room. And it's helping.

She talks about the shelf – how she has it organised neatly. You can see the pleasure she takes in things being orderly. Her garden tools are the same: for years, each day after use she oils them and replaces them in her shed. But other people come in, people who don’t return things to their rightful place… when she leads the Gardening Family out to work, half of the tools are missing. She feels very angry, and she can’t even walk away to calm herself because her Family is waiting for guidance.

She’s been working on the anger this year. Now she always has a Plan B or Plan C for the Gardening Family – she has other things they can do without the missing tools. And she breathes as she gardens. And that's helping too.

I adore her. I feel I’ve met her a hundred times: the person in the office who reddens with anger because no-one’s reordered paperclips, or someone’s swapped meetings without updating the Big Central Chart, or left their dirty coffee cup in the sink - again. I adore her, and through her I adore all these people.

At dinner we’re planning the events of the next two days. All the hamlets are descending on us tomorrow, and there’ll be a formal lunch. One of our leaders asks for volunteers to pick flowers. My hand shoots up. I am super-keen. “I need you to wash pots, Orlaith”, a friend explains patiently.

It turns out the flowers are for tonight, there’ll be a ceremony right after potwashing. My hand slinks back down. It makes no odds – there are already two volunteers from the lunchtime shift. The leader thinks carefully, then says, “I would like you to pick flowers Orlaith. I will wash pots in your place”.

I am mortified. I mumble thanks but really, I’ll wash the pots. “I would like you to pick flowers. Would you like to pick flowers?” she asks. I hold up my palms, like the Egyptian weighing of souls –scrub pots? – pick flowers? – which to choose…

And off we go, to pick flowers. I’m pretty racked with guilt. And I’m feeling the pressure, because if someone’s scrubbing pots to let me do this, then that flower arrangement had better be something. We cover Lower Hamlet, loading up on wildflowers, adding some blossoms from the garden (I’ve borrowed the Gardener’s secateurs, and am paranoid in case I forget to return them). We pick ripening blackberries and plums and I lean, teetering, over the lotus pond to reach a couple of the big round leaves.

We run out of time. Other potwashers come and help us tidy up, get pebbles to hold the flowers in the tin can (a great trick). I look at the final arrangement; if I only had more time, I think...

The rest of the Family join us. And they love it, genuinely – they marvel over it and make a big fuss. At the ceremony, we talk about our experiences here. One person opens her arms, encompassing the flower arrangement. “This really sums up the week.”

And so this blog is humbly dedicated to Cecilia, the lady who washed pots so that I could pick flowers. Thank you.

Plum Tales will be now interrupted...

..for a brief announcement:

Regular service will resume shortly.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Lazy Day

All families were invited to bring something to the Peace Festival last night – a poem or a song or I dunno… piece of interpretative dance. En route, I wondered how many would be taking part. Would they be any good? Would it be like sitting through a very long school concert?

The Constellation of Stars Meditation Hall was beautifully decorated. The children kicked off the performances, and the other families followed. The teenagers introduced each act with a peace-quote, dressed up as Jim Morrison or Ghandi or John Lennon or the Virgin Mary (who looked to be having twins).

Despite misgivings, The Potwashers had put together a quick song. Very quick. We brought our cooking pots and utensils from the kitchen. We wore aprons and massive yellow rubber gloves. We sang with gusto. And we killed it! We did our exit-conga through the crowd to rapturous applause (okay, there’s no actual applause in the Hall, instead people raise their arms and wiggle their hands. There was much wiggling. People wiggled with gusto). “Next year, I want to be a Potwasher!!”, one man says.

The festival ended with a procession. We leave the Hall to put on our shoes. Outside are hundreds of origami flower night-light holders. Through random shoe placement, I end up at the front – walking with the children and the abbess. We process in silence to the bell tower, and we set down the first lights. I turn to look back – a line of hundreds of people is approaching us.

A nun begins to sing the evening chant. The children crowd together beneath the bell, waiting for its next booming vibration.

When the ceremony has ended, I walk to the edge of Plum Village with a fellow Potwasher. We watch in silence as an enormous harvest moon rises over the vineyards. Then we bow to each other and say goodnight.

Today is Lazy Day - no scheduled activities. After breakfast I watched a great documentary about Thay’s return to Vietnam this Spring. The media-controlled government didn’t advertise the trip, but word spread - crowds of 5,000-10,000 people came out to meet him wherever he went. Thay travelled the country for 11 weeks, held 50 major ceremonies and a zillion retreats. Did I mention he was 81 years old?

Lazy Day is also No-Car day for Plum Village. Everyone’s doing their own thing across the hamlet. As for me, I’m off to play in the sunflowers…

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Plum Tuesday

I thought a lot about fame this morning. Celebrity status is strange thing. For spiritual leaders, it must be even stranger.

The dawn meditation session was brilliant, and a scrummy breakfast followed. Then we travelled to New Hamlet, where we met up people from the other three hamlets. Thay gave a phenomenal talk, and off we went for some walking meditation.

The children of Plum Village always walk beside Thay, followed by some of the monks and nuns. We started moving through lines of vines stretching up a hillside. Some people trot quickly past me -- trying to catch up with Thay, I guess, to get a glimpse of him.

When he reaches the top of the hill, Thay sits down under a plum tree and looks down onto the Bordeaux landscape, meditating. We all sit too, but we’re not watching what he’s watching. We’re not meditating at all. We’re watching him. And we're taking pictures: with phones, cameras, dvd camcorders...

He glances around at us, gives a little laugh. I realise how stupid it is to sit watching someone else meditate. I turn to the landscape and relax. Some others do the same. Thay takes a little bell and rings it, and gradually the people settle down, looking over occasionally in case they’re missing something - in case he’s started glowing, or juggling or something. The woman in front of me doesn’t sit down at all. She stays up on her knees, gazing intently at Thay the entire time.

After 10 or 15 minutes we’re on the move again. Two children take Thay’s hands, the rest move around him, and we walk back to New Hamlet. He walks up the steps of the belltower and turns to the long line of people. We wait. He bows deeply to us. We bow to him. We wait. He pauses for a moment, then gives a little wave. I imagine subtitles for him: Seriously folks - we are done here. Please disperse. No-one moves. He smiles again, then turns and walks away from us.

“Did you see?” says a voice to my right, “He came around the tree the other way -- I got really close!!”

Of the visitors, the children are the ones who treat Thay normally - they’re not in awe of him, and they’re not nervous around him. He’s like a favourite teacher, but they’re still kids: they get bored and a bit restless. And they’re always happy to run off and play in the sunshine.

We're having a Festival for Peace tonight - part of it is to mark the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings (their anniversaries are on 6th and 9th August). Each of the hamlets are having their own festival, so Thay won't be joining us. Which bizarrely, will mean that we're more mindful.

And that's a shame.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Plum Monday

We handled this morning's dharma talk better. Sitting outside in the fresh air helped (the hall is packed out), but we've caught up on sleep, and we're getting used to sitting, observing 'noble silence' at certain times, pausing when the bell rings. In fact, we pause whenever we hear a clangy sound - sometimes it's just someone dropping a big ladle. Then we giggle.

Thay's talk is brilliant: he moves effortlessly from buddhist tales to Jean Paul Sartre to neuroscience. "Can you believe he's 81?", someone murmurs.

Afterwards, they have Q&A in Vietnamese. There are a bunch of difficulties for our English translator (equipment acting up, remembering to speak in English and not French or Vietnamese). When it's over, I watch him stand up with relief - I am the only one in the English section - everyone else has left during the session. "That was the worst job ever", says the Vietnamese monk. We laugh.

The day is really enjoyable. Walking meditation feels easier. The fear of hunger has lifted. In the afternoon, we walk around the vineyards and orchards, and even fit in a nap (or two). In the meditation hall we do an exercise called 'total relaxation'. Pretty much everyone falls asleep.

Stalls of Vietnamese treaty things appear at random intervals: spring rolls and dumplings and pastries shaped like lotus flowers. The Potwashers are getting on brilliantly. After dinner we wash our own plates, then take care of the giant pots. I'm stacking the last of the plates in the dining hall. "The plates will be taken to be sanitized", someone tells me."In the dishwasher."

There's a dishwasher???

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Plum Sunday

We’re supposed to wake at 5.30am. In Full Moon, someone’s alarm goes off an hour early – "So sorry", she whispers, "I am in the Breakfast Family".

I dress and go outside into the darkness. Someone is singing. By moonlight, I follow the sound – it’s coming from the belltower. A nun is standing by the enormous bell, singing and ringing in the first glimpses of light. I stay with her until she finishes. Then we make our way to the meditation hall, lit by candles. A voice murmurs in the darkness. I sit and follow her voice. When the session is over, I open my eyes and see that dawn has arrived.

Last night we joined our ‘families’ – I’m in the Fragrant Breath Family. It’s also known as the Pot Washers. Being assigned to the gardening/flower-picking family would have been my first preference, but I was just glad I wasn’t on Toilet duty. The Pot Washers is a catch-all group of about 20 people. We’re mostly American, English, French, Scottish, Swedish and Irish (5 people!) – we live in Prague, Laos, New York, Cambridge, Madeira…

Everyone in Plum Village washes up after themselves, but we’ll take care of the big pots. I’m on the breakfast/dinner shift, which means I get the whole afternoon to myself. Naptime.

After breakfast we go to Upper Hamlet, to hear Thay speak. Having read his books for years, it's a thrill to see him in real life. The children sit closest to him. He talks about monsters – the real monsters, like despair and anger. Every day, 35 children in France die because of these monsters. He talks about grief and love and suicide and impermanence. After an hour, he lets the children go outside and play in the sunshine. He is a wonderful speaker, and his talk is funny, insightful, thought-provoking. But we’re new to this. We’re exhausted; we’ve been a day without coffee or alcohol - headaches abound. He runs over time. We’re fading fast. Across the room, heads droop and jerk awake. His talk lasts nearly three hours.

The schedule is tweaked to catch up: we’ll do walking meditation to a nearby temple and have a picnic there. Walking meditation is slow. Really slow. About the speed of shopper’s shuffle, that most exhausting of paces. And we’re all starving now.

Last night the bookstore opened up after dinner. I noticed a crowd milling around, imagined everyone eager to buy Thay’s teachings, posters, bookmarks.
It turns out the bookshop sells Magnum ice creams.

I walk along, worrying about food. The bookshop also sells chocolate biscuits. Maybe I’ll get some, to have something nibble-able in silent emergencies.

We get to the temple and have our picnic. Back in the Lower Hamlet, I sleep all afternoon. When I wander outside, it's dinner time.

I meet a fellow Potwasher and we join the queue, scrutinising the pots and baking trays - checking how much work lies ahead of us. Dinner is eaten in family groups – the Potwashers eat by the Lotus Pond. As we head down, I realise I'm humming Amy Winehouse "They tried to make me go to Rehab but I said no, no, no...". It's been stuck in my head for a day now. We're just tucking in when a third arrives. "No eating yet," she explains with kindness. "We wait until the whole family is here." The two of us nod. We swallow self-consciously.

Later that evening, we meet for a family discussion about Thay’s talk this morning. I’m interested to see how it will work – he hit all the main pressure points: love, parents, death, children, infidelity, paralysing sorrow.

People speak slowly and thoughtfully about the subjects. They share eloquently, profoundly. I feel privileged. It’s an extraordinary evening.

I came here thinking that the week would revolve around Thay – that he would be the person I learned from. I am very surprised, and very pleased.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Plum Tales

Alright, let's presume that I spend the next week engrossed in revising Cured with Death. Every day, that's what I'll be doing. Okay, I may do a teeny bit of snorkelling, but apart from that, it's editing all the way. Which makes this an ideal time to share my week at Plum Village.

The Saturday

The train from Bordeaux is packed - with Plum Village folk, as it turns out. We're an eclectic bunch, coming from all over the world. For many (like me) it's their first visit; others look like old-timers. The man sitting opposite me was referred by his yoga instructor. Another is coming because he read an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh in National Geographic. Someone else was at the Neuroscience Retreat held in Plum Village last year. That's right, neuroscience.

I've been wanting to come here for years. Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick Nought Han - but he's called Thay, mostly pronounced Thai) is like the Dalai Lama of Vietnamese Buddhism. During the Vietnam War he travelled to America to raise awareness about the devastation being caused. Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. When the war was ended and Thay tried to go home, the government refused him entry. It was 39 years before he was allowed to set foot inside Vietnam.

In exile, he set up a monastic community east of Bordeaux, called Plum Village. There Thay spends his days writing and offering teachings on peace activism, mindful living and buddhism. He's also a poet. And a Zen Master. And he likes to garden as well.

Saturday is arrival/departure day. There are about 1300 people checking in and out across four hamlets. The nuns in my hamlet look entirely unphased.

I’ll be staying in the Full Moon room, sharing with four other people. Over my bed hangs a piece of calligraphy: The ceaseless sweep of time is forever renewing the face of eternity. I don’t know what it means, but it’s beautifully drawn, and I smile when I see it.

Orientation isn’t until 8pm. I wander outside into the sunshine. By my house, two people stand opposite each other, holding long Little John poles. They raise them, sweeping to the side and gracefully stretch alongside them. Tents are set up in the fields around - families with children of all ages are playing games, reading, sunbathing, napping.

Several hundred people are dotted across the hamlet. Some are dressed like children’s TV presenters. Others are wearing what they imagined people on Buddhists retreats wear (Birkenstocks, long Indian skirts, cut-off tops, hand-dyed pashminas). But most people just look normal. Everyone's chatting, laughing, recounting. It’s more animated than I expected. Not monastic at all.

I wander over to a lotus pond and walk along the edge of a large plum orchard – I don’t want to stray too far. I’m starving. Fear of missing lunch is strong in me.

A bell rings, and people move slowly towards a building. I follow, trying not to look desperate. Inside the Dining Hall, we queue up before an array of delicious-smelling Vietnamese dishes. I’m doling out noodles when a clock chimes, and everyone freezes. I halt in mid-noodle-scoop. I remember one of Thay’s books: it talks about how the sound of a bell calls us back to the present moment. It's an opportunity to breathe, to realise that you're alive. But my brain doesn't do that. Instead an image of my sister pops into my head. She's driving me to the airport. She's singing with gusto a 'musical statues' song by Jo Jo the Clown: “Wiggle… wiggle… statues!”

I make a mental note to lynch her when next we meet.

People start moving again and I pile my plate high - for fear that dinner is really ‘supper’, which barely counts as food. I try to chew my food 40 times. That’s what Thay does. After 9 chews my mouth is empty. I take a bigger mouthful to see if that lasts longer. 12 chews. By the end of the meal I make it to 30.

I find a schedule for the week ahead. Thay will give 3 talks, 2 of them in English (the community speaks French, English and Vietnamese). On Tuesday we’ll have the Festival of Peace. The schedule mentions ‘Dinner with family’. I ponder this, then see a note for the ‘Pot Washing-Up Family’.

At dinner (which is full-sized), two French ladies sit with me. I asked if they’d had a nice day. They shrug, “Okay. We’re waiting for tomorrow”.

Bear in mind: this place is all about living in the present moment. Spending a day here waiting for tomorrow… well it’s kind of missing the point.

Friday, August 17, 2007

A lifetime of moments

"You get what anyone gets - you get a lifetime."

So this all started with a birthday present - an iPod. The (Neil Gaiman) quote was what Sean & Shona had engraved on it. I was blown away by the quote (as Shona said - they could have just written it on a post-it for my birthday and I'd have been as happy). Anyhoo, it was mentioned often during the week, and played on my mind.

Then off I went to Plum Village, the monastic community led by Thich Nhat Hanh. His big teaching is about living 'mindfully' in the present moment; being aware of what you're doing, or at the very least noticing that you're alive and breathing. I bought a piece of calligraphy by him, which is simple in that profound way of Zen folk (and vice versa).

"This is it."

The present moment is what you get. This moment is all you have, and this is the only place where you can touch joy. So enjoy.

I love the telescoping symmetry of that week.

** Photos especially for Maggie, who asked :)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

You say carottes, I say cenouras...

I think my brain's foreign language section can only give easy access to one language at a time. My first few days in France I kept starting sentences in Portuguese, and here I'm doing the reverse. Today I stared at the salad counter in the local take-away, totally unable to remember the Portuguese for carrots.

Luckily, going to the framing shop (I had bought a piece of calligraphy at Plum Village) does not require much eloquence; basic pointing skills are all you need. The nice Framing Shop Lady consulted a zillion price lists, but this time I wasn't worried. She totted it up, then gave me a 15% reduction for no particular reason (unless I'm now a regular customer since I shopped there - you know - that one time). She phoned me a couple of hours later to let me know it was ready. When I went to pay, I was charged even less...

It's been a quiet, settling-back-down-to-work kind of day. Weather is lovely - just the type of evening for a big bowl of home-made salsa and a V&T. I am soooo easily pleased.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Talk about smooth landings

Landing in Madeira is a little tricky, and can be a good laugh.

Sometimes planes fly past the airport so that everyone gets to view the little runway balancing on the coast edge. It appears smaller than other runways, and it ends in the sea - there's no buffer zone here. Once the passengers have reached the optimum level of anxiety and anticipation, the plane swings round at a 60-degree angle and heads in.

Last night the flight was packed with first-time holiday folk. The kids screamed like they were on a rollercoaster. When we touched down (safely) everyone whooped and cheered, drowning out the "please keep your safety belts on" announcement. The passengers were still wired when they arrived in passport control.

Landlady and Landlord met me at the airport, and we babbled away for the journey, catching up on news. (By the way, she says 'hi' to... well, everyone). Back in the apartment I looked around. Something wasn't quite right...

It was clean.

Spanky clean.

Now, I'd left it in a reasonable state, but it had that just-cleaned look about it. The bathroom gleamed, the whole place was dust-free and lemony fresh. Yes, Landlady had been cleaning. Broom and swiffer were reorganised, the kitchen scrubbies and cloths neatly folded, she had even plumped up the pillows on my bed...

I know there may be folk out there who would see this as an infringement. Not me, no sireee. I say: God bless her obsessive-compulsive disorder!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

On the road again...

Bags are packed, yet again. This time my luggage is bigger - BA replaced my teeny case with one that's all grown up. One of the physical laws of the universe is that luggage contents will expand to barely fit inside any receptacle. I'm just sure of it.

Had a gorgeous final evening in London: we had planned on seeing Antony Gormley's Blind Light at the Hayward Gallery, but when we arrived it was sold out. All was not lost, since oodles of his figures are currently standing on the edges of buildings around the South Bank. As Sara said, once you get past the initial thought of 'mass suicide!', they are brilliant.

So we tootled around, browsed the book market, downed a bunch of mojitos, and went to Gaslight in the Old Vic, which was great. (Realised later that the leading lady was one of the Bond girls from Die Another Day - you know the ice-cold blonde who fenced a lot? Anyhoo...)

I can't believe I've been away for six weeks - it's just flown. Thanks to all my hosts - in three countries - for the fantastic times.

Time to go home now.

Monday, August 13, 2007

My kinda town

Another whirlwind weekend!

Our day of Laydeedom was scrummy, and featured shopping in fancy shops (which one of us adores) and long coffee stops (which the other one adores). My sister seemed to know more about new product ranges than the designer consultants in Harvey Nicks or the Prada ladies in Harrods - some of the stuff she was looking for hadn't been released in London yet. It was the designer equivalent of "Computah says no..."

We ended up going to a musical: Chicago, which was great fun (although it meant spending ages trying to remember songs by Blue, since one of the guys is in it at the moment). I was probably the only person for whom the ending was a surprise - I had turned off the DVD 20 minutes before the end, not caring if they all hanged. The stage production was soooo much better.

I went out for a jog this morning - my first one in weeks. The body remembers the basics, despite having a supersized tummy to drag around.

And now to put on some coffee, curl up on an enormous sofa and read Sandman comics over breakfast.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

City life

Aaah, Saturday morning in London.

Curled up with coffee, patio doors open to the sunshiney garden. A bushy-tailed squirrel is approaching the lounge (bearing a Spring bulb that he's cleverly dug up - adorable). My lovely hostess had a fox walk into the lounge one evening - how cool is that!

Anyhoo, today's road trip takes me all the way from Clapham to Covent Garden. My sister is flying in from Dublin for a day of Lay-dee-hood/evening at the theatre. Off to check in to our hotel now.

Yep. It's a hard life and no mistake.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Devon days

I'm back in my pre-Prawn Pathia spot, and it feels like a week since I've been here. The train passed a llama farm this morning - settled in otherwise archetypal devony landscape - which has added to my sense of surrealism.

Devon was wonderful (as usual, photos to follow). Exeter has changed considerably since last year: all the building work I left behind has been transformed into swanky new apartments and restaurants, and the city now has more Starbucks than they know what to do with. I caught up with friends on Wednesday night, which was a blast (I learned a new word: fruitarian - who knew!), then went to stay in a medieval cottage in a teeny village called Kentisbeare. Heavenly!

I spent much of Thursday morning in the garden following the neighbour's rogue chicken: she sneaks in, nonchalantly wanders around the lawn, then ducks into the border to lay an egg in a hidey spot each day (yep, there'll be photos).

Anyhoo, all the travelly things went smoothly - I'm looking forward to spending a few days here (although tomorrow I'm technically 'away', but not far). It's a stunning afternoon, and about time for a sunshiney beer I reckon!

Have a great weekend :)

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Back on the air!

Hey all!!

What an experience! Okay, so Plum Village needs its own special space to be discussed, rather than this hurried scribbling (I've arrived at a friend's house in London). When I'm back in Madeira I'll download photos and sort out a description of the week's zen buddhist retreat, but the short version is:

It was phenomenal. Moving, funny, thought-provoking and surprising. Loved it.

And then I had four days in Bordeaux with my friend (and friend-of-the-blog) Sara. Again, photos to come later; the short version is:

We had a ball. Plenty o'red wine, mojitos, strong coffee, and a year's allowance of goat's cheese and baguettes. Toured vineyards, tasting and buying as we went, and luxuriated in the gorgeous town.

Off to Devon first thing tomorrow, so service may be interrupted again. Back in London on Friday, and -[sound effect: ding-dong] - oops, the Indian take-out has just arrived - my Prawn Pathia awaits. Gotta go!