Thursday, 27 April 2017

If This is a Man

One of the pieces of information we discovered during our trip to Trieste last month was that M's uncle Joachim was sent to Auschwitz on the same transport as the Italian author Primo Levi, who chronicled his experiences in detail in If This is a Man, deservedly considered one of the most important, if not the most important pieces of literature about the Holocaust. Like Primo Levi, Joachim was one of the very few survivors from that transport, and they were both among those in Auschwitz until the bitter end when it was liberated by the Russian army in January 1945. I have just read If This is a Man because it felt important to me to understand what Joachim experienced. This is the review I posted on Goodreads:
I read this book on two levels. Firstly as Primo Levi's extraordinary account, written with piercing clarity, of the year he spent in the squalor, deprivation and horror that was the slave labour camp of Buna-Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III. Secondly on a personal level as an account of the experiences of my husband's uncle, Joachim, who was sent from the Fossoli camp in Italy to Monowitz in the same transport as Levi, and was one of the tiny handful of survivors from that transport. Again like Levi, it appears he was one of the prisoners who stayed at Monowitz to the bitter end; presumably he was also one of the inmates of the infirmary who were left to their own ten days of Hell but were spared the death march on which all the healthy prisoners were dispatched ahead of the arrival of the Russian army. While every prisoner would have experienced the horrors of the camp in their own way and (for the fortunate few) must have found their own individual means to survive, the realities of arrival, of day-to-day life, and of the dreadful last few days after the Germans left were the same for all. The indignities, the starvation, the cold, the near presence of death, would have been the same for Joachim as they were for Levi. Tragically although he survived Auschwitz, Joachim never recovered his health and died in 1947 aged just 38. Distance and sickness meant he never saw his family again. Primo Levi wanted the world to hear his story; in telling it he has allowed me to hear Joachim's, so long after it took place, and in hearing it to honour his memory.
Since finishing the book at the weekend it has been much on my mind. I notice how often I complain that I am "hungry', then acknowledge to myself just how far away I am from the experience of real hunger, which for Primo Levi and the other inmates of Monowitz was extreme and sustained for the entire year they were in the camp. I have also been wondering how Joachim managed to survive. From Levi's telling, the survivors pretty much without exception found some way to "organise" some kind of advantage that left them a bit less cold, hungry and friendless than the majority. Levi's survival was in part due to the generosity of an Italian civilian working at the Buna factory who gave him extra soup, and his background as a chemist which earned him an indoor job in a laboratory during the winter of 1944/5. My guess is that Joachim was in some way able to benefit from his linguistic skills as a native German speaker; the inability to understand German seems to have been a positive disadvantage, and there would surely have been ways he could have capitalised on his knowledge of the official language of the camp.

I find reading about the Holocaust a hard thing - how could it not be? - but while this book was difficult it was also the work of a magnificent writer, a necessary and cathartic exposition of a terrible and utterly unnecessary evil. It is the most important book I have read in a long time.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

100 Essentials #1 Crockery

This 100 essentials thing has definitely got me thinking about what I both want and need in terms of possessions. I am slowly working through Francine Jay's list of 35 kitchen items and deciding what would make my list. I am not going to post about everything on the list, but thought it might be helpful to think out loud about some of the more important items.

The first two of Francine Jay's essentials are a plate and a bowl. I am cheating - no, not cheating! My list, my rules! - and treating basic crockery as a single item. For me this means a dining plate, a side plate, and a bowl. I can see that a single plate could work if it was the right size. However, we recently replaced some old and chipped crockery with a set that I love, but the large plates are too large to work for everything, and the side plates too small, so one of each it is.

I love the shape of these, square but curvy, and the simplicity of the white. They are stoneware and feel solid without being over chunky. They are part of Marks and Spencer's Andante range, but looking on their website just now it seems they may have been discontinued. 

So, if it was just me, and down to essentials, this set of two plates and a bowl would do beautifully. 

But ... we have far more crockery than just one of these place settings each. How to distinguish what are sensible extras and what are excess?

To start with, we have eight place settings. Extra, but not excess. We usually cook a roast dinner on Sundays and although most weeks someone will be missing it is not uncommon for us to end up with eight - five of us, two daughter's boyfriends, and my brother. So at this stage of our lives, being able to cater for eight is sensible.

On top of the eight place settings, we have another complete set of crockery. M is Jewish and has always kept dual sets, one for meat meals and one for milk. Although in most respects he is far from keeping fully kosher and does in practice often end up mixing meat and milk, he still feels strongly that he wants to maintain the dual crockery. Our "milk" set is from the well known Portmeirion botanic garden range. There are half a dozen dining plates, and anything from two to four medium sized plates, side plates, cereal bowls, and pasta bowls. On top of this are serving bowls, tea cups and saucers, milk jug, tea pot, sugar bowl, toast rack, and probably more that I have forgotten. Some of this should definitely count as essentials or extras, needed for our particular circumstances, but somewhere along the line it is straying into excess. But where? That rarely used tea set? 

And it doesn't stop there. We have a ton of IKEA plastic plates, bowls and cups, essential while we had young children, but with our youngest now almost eleven most (if not all) of these are now excess. Then there is a nice set of Beatrix Potter themed china given to one of our now adult daughters as a child, plus two or three more decorative plates that I can't quite bring myself to part with. Maybe I should keep the Beatrix Potter set and let go of the rest? 

So the bottom line in our crockery cupboard(s) seems to be:
Essentials: Dinner plate, side plate and bowl for each member of the family (dual sets)
Reasonable extras: Dinner plates, side plates and bowls for guests (8 place settings in total); Beatrix Potter child's set for sentimental value; a couple of plastic plates, bowls and cups for cooking purposes (I often use them to rest utensils on, or for mixing small amounts of dressings, for example)
Excess: Most of the plastic plates, bowls and cups; pretty but unused plates. If I am honest, also the Portmeirion tea service, but I can't quite bring myself to bite the bullet on that one yet. The excess would have been worse, but I did have a clear out quite recently and only kept what I thought I needed!

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

Before our recent visit to the city of Trieste I borrowed Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris from the library, meaning to give myself some feel for the place before we went. Time ran away with me and I didn't manage to read much before our trip. A few days ago I picked up the book again and fell in love with both her writing and Trieste itself. The deep understanding she brought to her account of a city she had known and loved for over fifty years gave perspective to the glimpses that I had seen in our short visit and left me determined to go back and get to know it better.

While we were in Trieste I knew I liked the place. Although it doesn't have the Renaissance beauty of many Italian cities, there was something about it that I couldn't quite put my finger on, something attractive. I put it down to Trieste being a sea city - always a good thing for me - and the sense of it being slightly different to the rest of Italy. Trieste is in the far north east, round the coast from Venice and only a few miles from the Slovenian and Croatian borders. Although its population has always been largely Italian, and for most of the past century Trieste has been part of the Italian state, its glory days came in the nineteenth century when it was the chief port of the Austrian Empire. As a result the style of much of the city's architecture is more central European than Italian. Trieste was incorporated into Italy after the First World War, came briefly under direct Nazi rule as part of the Austrian province of the Reich, and was a stateless buffer zone city between Italy and Yugoslavia under Allied Control for several years after World War Two, before being returned to Italy in 1954. During the twentieth century the city was popular with writers. James Joyce wrote some of his greatest works while living in Trieste, and it boasts a number of well-known Italian authors including Italo Svevo and Umberto Saba. Another point in the Trieste's favour is that it is the centre of the Italian coffee trade!

Jan Morris also credits the city's present self as being the result of its unusual history but I think her conclusion nails what is special about Trieste; it is an extraordinarily nice city:

"The elusive flavour that I enjoy here is really only the flavour of true civility, evolved through long trial and error. I have tried to get the hang of many cities, during a lifetime writing about them, and I have reached the conclusion that a peculiar history and a precarious geographical situation have made Trieste as near to a decent city as you can find, at the start of the twenty-first century. Honesty is still the norm here, manners are generally courteous, bigotries are usually held in check, people are generally good to each other, at least on the surface. Joyce said he had never met such kindness as he did in Trieste. Mahler just thought its people 'terribly nice'."

And yes, even in two days this was our experience. Everyone we spoke to was pleasant, friendly and helpful. One evening we ate in a restaurant where the owner saw us poring over the menu - usually I can manage to decipher Italian menus but the Slovene / Croatian influence had me beat - came out and translated the entire thing for us. It transpired that he was an enthusiastic Anglophile, a Manchester City supporter and with a passion for 1960s English music. The welcome could not have been warmer and when we left after our meal there was much handshaking. When we visited the Jewish Cemetery an Italian gentlemen (we later discovered he works in the synagogue office) who was guiding two French tourists there saw us struggling with the geography of the cemetery and helped us to locate M's uncle's grave. At the Jewish museum, the curator went above and beyond in finding confirmation that M's uncle had indeed been in Auschwitz and been liberated, having burial records checked for us, giving us leads to follow up, and filling in information about Trieste during the war. She could not have been more helpful, and again the help came with genuine warmth.

Jan Morris calls Trieste the "Capital of Nowhere", representative of all people of "humour and understanding" from wherever they may come:

"There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones. They come in all colours. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor. They may be patriots, but they are never chauvinists. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you know you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste."

I would like to think that I may be a member of this nation of nowhere and as such can claim a little part of Trieste for my own.

Monday, 10 April 2017

100 Essentials

I can't claim to be a minimalist but I like reading about minimalism. It inspires me to get more serious about decluttering, though that mostly translates into doing a modest amount of decluttering rather than none at all. For my latest bit of inspiration I have been reading 100 Essentials by Francine Jay, in which she lists one hundred items which she considers to be her basic essentials - if she owned only these things she would have everything she needed in order to function well. She divides them into three categories: a simple kitchen (35 items), a capsule wardrobe (35 items), and a minimalist home (30 items).

I thought this book would be an interesting read, but in the same way that I might read about trekking in the Amazon or flying to the moon - fascinating to see through someone else's eyes, but not something I could ever personally aspire to achieve. In fact, thanks to her gentle approach I found it much more accessible and relatable than I expected. She does not advocate only owning 100 items; some of the "items" are multiples, so flatware (knife / fork / spoon) is counted as one, as is underwear. She also only looks at her own property as an individual - other family members obviously have their own stuff.

The 100 items are a base, literally "the essentials", to which it is fine to add considered extras. For example, although she only counts a single bath towel, if you often have visitors staying then spare towels would be sensible extras. The aim is not to stray into excess; if you never have more than two visitors staying at once then four spare bath towels would be excess. She defines extras as "an expansion that can wax and wane as you see fit". They may be items relevant to a particular living situation, such as garden tools or a snow shovel, or items that are not strictly necessary but which add significant value to your life, such as books, materials for hobbies, or sports equipment. Anything beyond this, the nondescript and rarely used (or unused) stuff is excess.

The concept of 100 essentials really appeals to my list-loving nature and I think I would find it genuinely useful to come up with a list of my own. When decluttering I have difficulty working out what is important and useful, and what is just "stuff". I read Marie Kondo's Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and was all enthused, but it took only a couple of attempts to realise that the KonMari method is not for me. I was overwhelmed and no joy was sparked. I am hopeful that I would do much better tackling it from the other direction; with a checklist of what I actually need (and value) I would be able to look at the stuff and divide it into essentials, extras and excess. As Francine Jay puts it, "100 Essentials gives us a powerful lens with which to evaluate the material world". I can see in theory that it would. Putting it into practice will be a challenge, but I think it is worth a try.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Back Again!

October? I haven't been here since October? I knew it was a while, but not that long! We have done quite a bit more travelling since then. In February we went to Edinburgh with our 10 year old, did a whistle stop tour of the city and visited yet another zoo. Edinburgh Zoo had been on her wishlist for some time as it is the only zoo in the UK which has giant pandas. The female panda Tian Tian was in her private den, but the male Yang Guang was just finishing a snack. He took one look at us, decided we were boring and went to sleep.

Over the last two weeks I have been on two contrasting journeys. First to Northern Italy, taking DH on a surprise trip to celebrate his 60th birthday. His uncle and grandmother spent time in the city of Trieste during the Second World War, before - or so we assumed - being sent to Auschwitz. His uncle survived and returned to Trieste, dying there in 1947; his grandmother did not. I knew he had always wanted to visit his uncle's grave, so this was an emotional and memorable journey as well as a celebration. We were also able to find out more specific information, filling some gaps but also leaving questions.

This week I took my 18 and 10 year old daughters to Disneyland Paris, which could hardly be a more different type of holiday.  DH and I took our two eldest daughters when they were young, and he has no desire to go back - he just finds it exhausting and it is really not his cup of tea, so he opted out of this trip as he did when we went two years ago. This time round our timid small daughter had become much braver and we were able to go on a lot more of the rides. Much to our surprise she has even decided that rollercoasters are fun, so long as they are not too fast and scary. She had a lot more stamina too, and my Watch told me that over the five days we were there we walked over 40 miles.

Not much has changed in the last six months. My 18 year old is still loving life at university and finding it hard to believe that she is nearly through her first year. My adult daughter is busy adulting - I am still shocked that I have a 22 year old. The littlest one is still little in size but noticeably maturing in other ways, become more independent and capable. DH and I are enjoying our semi-retired lifestyle, working part time and trying to get out and about as much as possible, whether that is local walks or trips further afield. All in all, life is good and there are many blessings to count.