house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Destination L

Bored while something's cooking. Tum-dee-dum. The TV comes on and moments later I am watching young, loud people with fake tans in their choreographed pursuit of, what else? Love.

Now, even I have come to realise that numerous TV channels offer their formats of flirting shows. Take me out. Dine with me. Sex pod. Love Island. And I read on the bus that even Big Brother has gotten quite raunchy recently. These are all TV programmes in which young people - candidates, I'd like to call them - put themselves through mortifying tests in front of the nation; they ask and answer questions, expose their bodies and their past, bat their lashes, cook fancy meals, dance, kiss and touch total strangers and generally pretend to be someone cooler than, alas, they are. Someone worthy of affection or worthy, at least, of a mini-break in the tropical sun.

I won't go into motives or consequences, nor the cringe-fest that is de rigueur. But here is the snippet I catch on TV, while in my kitchen a handful of lentils are unsure about the miracle of soup.

This is a show where a young man is presented to 30 (yes, thirty) young women and, a few minutes later, we have a couple going on a dream date. The man, you may think, has all the choice... Not so. He can be rejected by the girls at any stage in the game: they don't like how he looks? Beep: red light, they withdraw from this round (i.e. this man).  He doesn't say what they like to hear? Beep, he is struck off. His talents not impressive enough? You get the idea.

Now, as my lentils labour in the pot, the candidate is introduced: a tall, good-looking man, with dreadlocks, lovely eyes, bright smile. He's wearing a vest and large Thai fisherman's trousers. At least ten girls dismiss him on account of that. He talks a bit about his dreadlocks. Beep-beep-beep.

Then he says - and here I abandon my lentils completely - that he works for Greenpeace and environmental causes. This triggers a red-light carnival - only two women, out of thirty, are left in the game, then only one. Why, the presenter asks the twenty-nine who opted out, why did you reject him? I turn the sound up and the soup down.

Because I'm really curious now: why would environmental activism be such a turn off for modern humans? 'You are one of those people I avoid like the plague on my way to work...' says one girl and that, despite not answering my question, turns out to be the most coherent answer on the show. Not hard, when the others are: 'Because I use hair spray' and 'because I work with lots of paper...'

The one girl that is left in the running declares - with a giggle - that she wasn't attracted by the guy or his environmental causes, but felt that they had a connection: she had also done some 'fundraising' in the past. In effect, he had not been chosen because he tied himself to coal trains or hung from the roof of the parliament with this dreadlocks and green flag flapping in hurricane-sized gusts of wind. No. He had been chosen because she had mistakenly pictured him shaking a can in the main street, to cover Greenpeace's admin costs.

Note to self (and to my 27 readers): television feeds fears (and probably melts ice caps too). There is a special, unseen kind of narrowness, a paralysis spreading through our veins, and wider still, across the land. Its one symptom: instead of fighting, fighting it, we sit and watch. The more we watch the less we see. The less we look around. So really, when it comes to watching, faced with a choice, it's better, ultimately, to watch your lentils boil than any kind of reality on TV.

As for our love candidates, and the title of this blog: forget 'destination Love' and start looking instead for destination Louispharailda (minor planet no. 3211) because Earth will be no better than my soup by the time we're done with it. 

Monday, 13 June 2016


Friday: a blur.

Saturday, first thought of the day: 'Where am I?' Because I'm not in my bed.

Now, I would be both scandalised and flattered if your pulse jumped a (tiny) notch when you read the sentence 'I'm not in my bed', now stop it. I'm not in my bed because my bed has no mattress. My mattress has been dragged into the living room and four teenage girls are sleeping on it like cannelloni in a tray. Sleepover in progress.

Four teenage girls sleeping late on Saturday morning equals uninterrupted, unparalleled bliss: coffee, sunshine, books, news, imaginary news (in the invented land of Vora), some scribbling, more coffee.

 Once we are all up, the day becomes a blur.

Liberating thought of the day: Brexit is irrelevant here. Scotland is not leaving the European Union. With or without England, Scotland is staying in Europe.

Happy hour: flamenco show at Alba Flamenca (my dance school!) Beautiful dancers and musicians perform with exuberant joy to a public of about 23 people (it's a very small room). I'm not even going to talk about the rhythms and the passion, and the sensual grace of the dancers - those arched backs, the strength, the infernal steps. It seems for a moment too exotic and otherworldly for the austere audience, well-meaning though they may be, clutching their riojas, overwhelmed.

The funny thing is I used to look at such dancers and think Oh yeah, flamenco, prance about, arms gracefully arched, flowers, optional castanets, easy peasy. So, despite my own regrettable two-left-feet status, I blithely enrolled in flamenco classes. A few months later I know, blister by blister, how hard each step is and don't even get me started about the arms. So to me, tonight's flamenco show is a bit like the clouds parting and the peak of K2 glinting in the far distance. That's how much ground I'd need to cover, the precise difference between my stamping and flapping and these dancers' ease and perfection. The only thing we have in common is the standard flamenco shoe and the fact that our ancestors shouted olé or something similar (the Romanian aoleu comes to mind) - at angry livestock.

Sunday: what, it's gone? 

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Secret Garden

I have a new office.

I found it in a tourist brochure - it's a small public garden, in the centre of Edinburgh. And, because I am researching the city (things to see, things to do); and because I have to write a poem - a ghazal no less - for a character in a story; and because it's sunny and I have no inspiration and no coffee in the house: I go scouting in the Old Town.

I find the garden. I sit down with my notebook to apply myself to the verse of an imaginary man I don't know very well because I've just invented him.

In the meantime, it turns out lots of people have read the same brochure. The little garden is positively teeming. Some visitors are quiet and walk around as if there wasn't a pebble path under their feet, but a frozen lake very late in spring.

Others are loud and the loud things they say are not wise at all, or lyrical, or even necessary. They appear to be in love with their own voice. As a result they can't hear the secret garden. I can't hear my poet's ghazal. I wince, along with any passing ghost of the Old Town, and the advance midge brigade.

Nine French teenagers gallop in. They scream. They sit on the cobbles, as if terribly exhausted. They hang from the branches of trees. The tree nearest to my bench provides optimal branch height and thickness:  boys with muscular legs - in the way sausages can be defined as muscular - try to impress the girls with their acrobatics. Mostly, these acrobatics consist of hanging from a branch while talking nonsense very loudly.

In their turn, the girls try to impress by how cool they can remain and, when forced to speak, how long they can roll their arrrs while sending the resulting rattle exclusively through their nostrils.

I am there long enough to formulate a rule: Scottish visitors are the quietest. In contrast, the English and Europeans so loud that you'd think they are sending vocal distress calls home. By this rule, Americans should be the loudest. But no: they surprise by being the quietest of the lot. A couple of them are sitting on a nearby bench, talking in whispers and sign language. Either they know they have no chance to reach Texas on the strength of their larynx alone; or they're hiding their American-ness on account of Donald Trump.

There is a mediaeval fair in the Borders today, but I can't go. I think about it for a while. In mediaeval terms, this garden could be the cloisters of a very strict monastery, judging by the neat geometry and scrupulous care. They would have locked wives in here, to weave and chant away their hours.

At this point, the ghazal appears out of nowhere. It charges from head to hand to notebook. paying no attention to me along the way. I have a suspicion it is using me.  I wish they all did.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Choose a Rainbow

Walking up Arthur's Seat today, I spot the red bus. A double-decker, old style - with those fancy spiral stairs, dark wood and polished brass.

Now, what is this beauty doing parked on the one-way road around the hills? As I amble up towards it, the reason becomes evident - a fuzzy-white meringue tottering down the hill. On satin shoes.

A bride. Flanked, not surprisingly, by a stick figure in a tuxedo. The happy couple appear to be taking a stroll up Arthur's Seat, while the bus lingers at the curb, filled with relatives and guests.

Eventually, the newlyweds run out of reasons to gambol in the grass and rejoin the wedding party. With a fashionable purr the red bus rolls down the hill carrying all the fine people to their champagne and sausage rolls. Carrying the new husband and wife to a lifetime - or a few years - in each other's company.

When I finally reach and re-trace their romantic promenade it seems hard to believe that they were here at all - except for a white rose bud in the grass.

The British - I think in wonder - and their red public accessories. Red buses, post boxes, telephone boxes, Royal Mail trucks... when I was 21, I spotted one of these parked on a side street in Northern Romania. I vaguely knew the driver (I've been with him for 25 years now), and here was the dilemma: he was unknown, yet unforgettable: should I walk on? Should I stop and say hello?

As I walk up Arthur's Seat today - with a white rose inside a glove - I realise that was the moment when I chose my rainbow.

Edinburgh, 22 May 2016

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Flying Backwards

Was it 1997? February for sure, a day that looked, felt and probably tasted too, of lead.  We trudged on, taking turns to push the pram through sticky-brown slush. We were lost in a park in Northern Bosnia, Tuzla to be precise - where you lived with your fiancee, where I was visiting from Sarajevo. I didn't know you very well. 

We didn't need to be in that abject park at all, we could have stayed at home and cooked bean stew and watched Pingu. But we went anyway, out of a misplaced sense of duty - to take the kid out, to have some exercise, get to know each other better, find the old zoo, make a memory. 

The pram got stuck in a gummy puddle and we sank to our ankles in mud, trying to get it going again. In the end, we lifted it out, carried it to a frosty bank. The kid sat like an emperor in his gilded litter, waving to a dog. Not just a dog, a huge dog, brown and shabby, half-asleep in a cage. 

Cage? Did this mean we'd found the zoo? Not that we dwelled too much on this detail, because the pushchair was still stuck. We prodded and puzzled, found something wedged around a wheel. It looked like a thick elastic band the colour of old chocolate. You pulled at it with all your might while I pulled the pram the other way. I pictured you flying backwards, if the gooey rope snapped. I never thought once that I - and the the pram - would be flying backwards too.

In the same instant, we realised that the snag in the wheel was an old pair of tights and the dog in the cage was a bear.  Your voice petered out. My face felt numb. We walked in silence through the icy sludge, to another wasteland in the distance - the same mud, a few rusty swings, some weeds that will endure, I swear, through blizzard or apocalypse.

Freed from the pushchair, the kid flew to the swing. Squeeeak - it swung twice, sluggish, and the kid was bored. He tottered to a slide - a toddler's slide, you remember, no taller than the bear. The kid climbed fast and stopped on the thin platform at the top. We chatted and waited for him to sit, slide down, repeat. 

Two things happened instead. You vanished from my side. And the kid fell. 

No. Neither of these statements is correct (nor is the picture).  The kid didn't just fall - he raised his arms and dived backwards, straight as a plank.  And you didn't just vanish - you sensed what the kid was about to do, and sprinted to the slide, to catch him. No one could have got there in time. He fell on his back - splat! - in the thick mud. I, the mother, hadn't even moved an inch. You got to his side and raised your face to me, stricken. My mouth was hanging open, one irrelevant word frozen half-in, half-out, half-said. 

In the dreadful silence, we both heard the kid chuckle. He was ecstatic, this was the Life! He got up and planted a muddy paw on your face, before trying to replay his new trick - climb the seven steps, stand with his arms to the side, fly backwards, splat. 

To this day I wonder how you got there so quickly. How you didn't even know us very well and still you sprung to save us; how you've been there to catch us ever since. Now it's my turn to fly backwards: to recapture this memory we made and send it to you - almost twenty years later, but with the same wonder and gratitude. Happy birthday, Alina. 

Thursday, 21 April 2016


Why is it that every time I walk across the Meadows and it's sunny I think 'fine, I'll write a blog per week, a Vora scene - two to two thousand words - per day, as well as a letter by hand to someone I love. Also, I will walk up Arthur's Seat and eat less of everything, but more turmeric because it's really good for you. And berries, for no reason. I will not lose my focus, not this time, but I will lose 200 to 400 grams per day. Then we're set for the summer.'

And on and on. These thoughts are something like a major midge attack. But only when the sun shines. In the rain, all I've got is a neat needlework of steps and silence.

Please blame this blog to springtime in the Meadows. The people I pass are far, far worse than me: they speak aloud, into the air. They wear very thin, very tiny summer clothes - which is how come I eventually notice the spaghetti flowing out of their ears. Ah. At last I understand: they're speaking into invisible phones. This opens up another possibility: that I too stick a cable into my ears and dictate - dictate! - this and many other blogs and stories, instead of sitting here trying to remember everything, while already drunk with sunshine.

Buds, is that what you call them? Ear buds? Buds are in fact everywhere, and a curious smell of new green. A young woman in a jean jacket (finally, someone wearing sleeves!) appears to have forgotten her skirt. Below the denim there is a hint of underwear and nothing else - over a blinding, long expanse of thigh. She walks unperturbed - or faking nonchalance. Everyone does, in fact, no one says hey look, here's the empress without a dress.

I don't either. Not just because I am a mouse or a philosopher (who can say my own trousers are actually there?) but because I am busy making up stories about her naked lower half. How she has just escaped from a serial killer in a basement. How the moment her legs are touched-by-textile, they explode / grow purple pustules / start a third world war of zombie proportions / go to sleep.

These scenarios - and the midge-thoughts thankfully - are batted away by a beautiful busker with white socks and a top knot. 'Fare Thee Well', he croons in a charming Irish accent, and then the song about Vincent. I know because I sit down to listen, look for coins and also take some notes for later, for now, for this blog.

Expression, that's the thing, see? Everyone in Meadows is expressing something - kids tearing across the grass to the inevitable stumble-and-slam; nannies going 'now, now Nigel, it's OK, you're fine, which you know they've said a million times already, today';  the guy who's doing hand stands, the Irish busker, the guitar nuts three benches down; the girl with half-clothes, the jugglers and the rugby players, the office workers with the cappuccino cups. All with their midge-thoughts, spaghetti phones, computers, tablets and, in my case, a tattered notebook, a pen, and a storm inside my head. One pound donated for two songs, I move on, wondering where I've last seen real turmeric, and how my tongue will turn bright orange when I find turmeric again.

Phew. At least I wrote this down.

P.S. There may be another blog next week, if it stays sunny. And who knows, maybe that one will actually go somewhere... 

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Growing Up with Snow

I wish I had grown up with the Aurora. To be one of those annoying people who glance out of the window - dazzling curtains of green, blue and white flaring across the night sky - and go 'mnnah', then back to watch two fat, tattooed women fight it out, on a TV chat show.

It snowed in Edinburgh last night. We squeezed ourselves into snow boots, hats and mittens; walked out, stiff and ponderous, like stepping out of the space capsule onto the third moon of Aakshi. I looked up, just for the feel of snowflakes melting on my lips; just to be blinded by white flurries, in the dark.

We jumped up and down because that's what you do, in first-snow. We regarded our footprints, and immediately tried to make them more fancy. Then we walked back inside and I heard myself:  mnnaah, you call this 'snow'? I turned into that annoying person whose stories start with 'where I come from', and never end.

We used to get really snowed in, where I come from - give it one blizzard, just one day and night, and snow was up to the lintel, we had to tunnel out of houses and carve a path to the woodshed. I remember dazzling mornings, trudging to school behind lines of strangers in heavy coats and Russian hare hats.  Left and right, walls of snow. A staggering silence made my temples thrum.  Some days I walked with a faint clink and crackle - but only after my fringe froze. 'So this is what ants are about...' I thought, lumbering on, while toes and fingers turned to ice.

I went to a girls' school that was now accepting boys. Very few such aliens had in fact enrolled, but they all waited with snowballs at the gate; their noses were dark-purple, their faces glistened with that purposeful glee of petty evil; nothing scared me more, not even Santa Claus. These urchins shrugged off alarming stages of frostbite to give each girl a personalised, commensurate reception: beauties and nerds fared worst.

We reached the classrooms with snow up our nostrils, icicles woven in our braids. We would then spend the day hunched at our desks, thawing very slowly, still in our coats and gloves. They never had enough logs to heat the school. Our breath hung in the air, between Latin conjugations, like the ghosts of Roman cohorts keeping watch over the grammar of their long-vanquished colony.

One day I shall see the Aurora but for now I remain one of those annoying people who grew up with snow.