Breathing Lessons

I really was an interesting child.

I thought I’d close one eye and see everybody cut in half. I used to have nightmares about it. People’s insides spilling through the wound, half the heart still beating, spurting blood everywhere. I’d spend hours thinking about pirates and eye patches – poor people, having to witness their loved ones butchered day in and day out – and I’d close my eyes tight, pressing both lids with my fingertips just in case. I was a frightful child. Darkness, gipsies, death in my sleep. Pools. Vacuum cleaners. Carnivorous plants. I had more fears than I could count and I could count forever. It was the first thing they’d taught me, counting my breaths.

I was two when I had my first asthma attack.

I don’t remember it, but they’ve told me the story so many times, that in the end I’ve built myself a disturbingly intricate memory of it, complete with bright colours and sound effects and lodged deep in my brain even now, when you’d think I’ve got a million other painful, embarrassing things to involuntarily remember and feel depressed about. Instead, my tangled synapses choose to torment me with this invented recollection of the first time I almost died, and endless armies of spidery Organic Chemistry formulas. Fun and games.

My first real asthma memory dates from a couple of years afterwards. I was sleeping alone in the little bedroom I’d later share with my sister, and the sound of my breathing woke me up. They’d left a door open in my chest, I thought, unable to find another explanation for the screeching. It must have been the doctor Mother had taken me to see the day before. A bad man. He hadn’t even blown on the stethoscope before pressing it against my ribs. It made me shiver and cry and Mother gave me one of her frowny you-need-to-be-a-big-girl looks and everything was quiet again. Except for the sound of air forcing its way into my lungs. I must have been four.

I was born in 1984 in what was then Communist Romania, in a family of medics. My mother was frail and her doctor opted for C-Section. When they’d finished with me, they couldn’t wake her up from the anaesthesia. My dad, a doctor himself, stood by in terror as the operating team tried to slap Mother out of her coma. He had to run to a nearby pharmacy to get the vial of adrenalin that would later bring her back among the living. The hospital didn’t have any in stock. The lack of stock was, I’d later find out, a defining quality of the time.

Mother recovered. She lived to tell the story of how she’d heard the noise of the doctors slapping her face, but didn’t feel any of it. It may well be an invented memory, like my first asthma one.

I was a sickly child. Sick wasn’t something you wanted to be in those times. People were queueing in endless queues for most of their waking hours. Oranges, flour, salami. You’d hear a rumour that they were delivering something to your local grocery shop and you’d drop what you were doing and run for it, ready for a several hours long queueing session, not even knowing what you’d be queuing for, not even caring, anything was good as long as you’d have something to put on the table in the evening.

There was no queueing for asthma medicine. There wasn’t any. No promises of secret deliveries to your neighbourhood pharmacy either. No salvation in sight. In Romania, it was better not to have asthma if you could help it.

My parents tried everything and when everything failed, they made friends with people who had friends who knew people who could get us some medicine from Germany. Mother used to tell me this story again and again when my attacks got bad. There was hope, she said, just hold on, and don’t mention it to anybody. Germany. It was dangerous even saying it in those days, but I used to whisper it to myself in the dark, in between counting my gasps for breath. One…  Two… Three… Germany. Our little secret.

No magic German made salvation ever came.

Dad would torment me with horrible, bad tasting concoctions he’d picked up from his Grandma. She’d passed away long before I was born, but I was sure she’d been a very cruel lady. Only that would explain the vile smell and taste of these make-believe cures, most of which contained some form of grated horseradish. Mother was gentler. She heated rough salt in a frying pan, poured it into a sock or a tied up handkerchief, and put it on my chest. It was almost too hot to bear, and smelled like roasted sunflower seeds.

I don’t remember if any of this helped. Mainly I just remember fighting for breath. Coughing myself to tears. Not being allowed to go out and play in the snow. I remember watching cartoons with the TV muted, Mother dozing on the sofa after yet another sleepless night of attacks. I hadn’t realised I was coughing, but then she suddenly rolled in her sleep and yelled at me to stop it already, so I must have been. Coughing. Always coughing. Stupid Germany.

I’d just had another attack in the first days of December 1989. Dad had taken time off from work, which he never did, and industrial quantities of horseradish mush were spooned into my mouth after every meal for a couple of weeks. The day the revolution began, my sister and I were visiting neighbours. Dad had run to the shops and Mother was working. Turmoil erupted in the street and we all went out into the front yard to see what was going on. No one cared that it was cold and I wasn’t wearing my jacket. Dad came running through the gate and locked it behind him. Revolution, he said, and I wanted to ask what it meant, but everybody was dead silent. A short while later, Mother arrived. She tried the gate open, but someone had misplaced the key and she had to climb onto the railing and let herself drop into Dad’s arms. The commotion was still in full swing outside the gate and I thought, if Mother could do it, and in her impossible looking heels, then they could easily jump over the fence at any time too. They sounded mad and strong.

The aftermath of the revolution brings back memories of burnt presidential portraits littering the streets. Flags with round holes cut in the middle, where the coat of arms had been. And the unexpected end of my asthma episodes.

Once Communism fell, our German connection sent us the miraculous asthma cure. I didn’t get to take it, there’d been months without an attack and Mother stored the wondrous parcel in one of her drawers my sister and I weren’t tall enough to reach, where I wouldn’t be surprised if it was still gathering dust to this day. I never needed it. My body, no doubt inspired by the events of ’89, rebelled against the asthma and broke free.

For more than twenty years, I didn’t count my breaths once. I almost forgot how to do it, I certainly wanted to forget.

But these days my asthma is coming back. It’s not been as bad, yet there’s no mistaking it for something else, a friendlier cold or an allergy I could easily push towards the back of my mind. I might have been only a child on our first encounter, but I know my enemy. It’s true, I don’t need dangerous connections to get medication these days. Nothing is as complicated and frightening as it used to be, and I’m full of hope. But sometimes I’m scared, really scared, grownup scared, and I wish I could just close my eyes, press my eye lids tight with my fingers, and feel safe.

Top of the Pile #10: Istanbul

Orhan Pamuk is no stranger to me.

Our relationship started with a Romanian translation of Snow I’d found in my favorite bookshop in Cluj (Doesn’t sound familiar? It’s in Romania).

I couldn’t say I liked Snow.

In my case it was one of those books that engulf you (It almost made me miss a train!), you finish it in one go, don’t really know what to say about it straight away, but you find yourself thinking about it afterwards again and again. I remember parts of it perfectly even now, the beautiful descriptions of that strange wintery town and its people, even the cover of the book is fresh in my mind, the toned down snowy landscape and the bloody red accents of the title. I guess you could say it’s really made its mark in my reading history.

It’s no surprise then that my relationship with Pamuk continued, and throughout the years, I’ve added My Name Is Red, The New Life, and The Black Book to my read book pile.

As for Istanbul, my mother was reading it when I visited for Christmas, and said she really really liked it. But I didn’t get my copy from her, nor did I buy it for myself on my Romanian book shopping spree; instead I found it by accident in a used book shop during our weekend away.

It’s bound to be a great read for several reasons. First, it’s a Pamuk book (I seem to have a problem with not setting infinitely high expectations from authors whose writing I’ve enjoyed once or twice before). Then, it’s autobiographical, a first for me and Pamuk (although I guess all literature is indeed somewhat autobiographical, but Istanbul seems to be so on a stronger note). And of course, it’s about Istanbul, a place I’ve been dreaming of visiting ever since I can remember, and I’m secretly hoping this will be the push I need to finally pack up and go.

I’ve only read ten pages on my way to the office this morning, but I’m already enjoying the familiar writing style and I only wish I had the time to finish it in one sitting, as I did Snow. But my grownup life rarely allows me such indulgences. I will keep you posted though, I’m sure I won’t be able to help myself and I’ll be done with it before the end of the week. Social life is overrated anyway.

*

Super duper competitive V. almost killed me on the badminton court yesterday, so by the time we got back home at about 10 PM, I was focusing every speck of energy I had left into breathing in and out somewhat regularly, and wouldn’t have imagined I’d manage to end the night binge reading the rest of The Lowland. But I checked my Kindle and it said I only had an 10% of it to go, so I crashed into bed and spent about an hour trying my best to hold the kindle up, though I wasn’t feeling my arms at all.

The Lowland was a nice read, but I must say I had slightly higher hopes to begin with. (Again the intangible expectations problem.) I don’t know, it just felt a little rushed at times, I somehow felt like I didn’t get to know some characters properly, and I don’t know if I’ll be thinking about the story again. I mean, it wasn’t bad, and it’s definitely not put me off of Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing from now on, but it hasn’t left much of a mark, I guess.

Weekend Away

V. and I book a weekend away for our anniversary every year. Nothing too crazy, usually just a nice hotel not far from London, where we can spend some time away from our laptops, seeing the sights and enjoying fancy food we normally don’t get to try, boiled eggs and toast being the only culinary delights I pretend to be an expert at.

And though we try to leave the country for more exotic destinations for our longer summer and winter holidays, it’s always these short, always rainy anniversary weekend trips we seem to look forward to the most.

A couple of years back we went to Bournemouth, and stayed at a fancy hotel by the beach where we were pretty much the only guests, it being February and absolutely freezing. All over the resort, Chinese New Year decorations were still hanging from treetops and lamp posts, swaying above the deserted streets. We walked the beaches, took silly photos of each other on the pier, gawked in disbelief at the packs of surfers hitting the winter waves, and stuffed ourselves on three course seafood extravaganzas. Then last year, V. went behind my back and booked the honeymoon suite at Brighton’s Pelirocco, a tiny hotel famous for its (sexy) themed rooms. Ours had a round bed, mirrors on the ceiling, a jacuzzi, a !!! Stripping ! Pole ! In ! The ! Middle ! Of ! The ! Bedroom !!!, and really nice staff who’d surely witnessed lots of super duper interesting things throughout the years. Fun and games.

This year, clearly older and less adventurous than in our mirrors on the ceiling days, we settled for a more moderately exciting anniversary location, and picked the Donnington Hotel & Spa in Newbury. The plan was to walk around the countryside, maybe visit some of the National Trust houses in the area, and eat like savages.

On our way there on Friday, we stopped by Basildon Park & House, a National Trust property we’d read about online. It was sunny for once, though still freezing cold by my Romanian standards, so we walked around the parkland, me screeching with excitement every time we came across a patch of snowdrops or a suspiciously friendly pheasant. The Basildon Mansion is a beautifully restored 18th century home open to the public, so we strolled through the rooms for a while, admiring the intricate arhitecture and the furniture and art collection. The Downton Abbey 2013 Christmas Special was filmed here, and there’s a behind the scene exhibition including filming trivia, set photos, and some of the actresses’ dresses. I know very little about the series, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the tour, taking hundreds of badly lighted photos in the process. The main Downton Abbey filming location, Highclere Castle, is not far from here and it looks stunning in online photos, but it only opens for visitors in April, so we didn’t go.

On our way out of Basildon, I stopped by their gardener’s shed, where they had a 1£ second hand paperback sale. As expected, I couldn’t help myself and got a copy of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, so V. spent the rest of our drive to the hotel mumbling about how my forever increasing and highly unstable by now book mountain will surely be the end of us. Death by paperback avalanche!

The Donnington is a lovely hotel surrounded by green fields on the outskirts of Newbury. It’s got a golf course and an apparently constantly overbooked spa-gym-pool health center. We’d taken advantage of a Groupon offer and booked an executive room with dinner on the first night and a bottle of wine on departure. The room was pretty much the size of our London flat, which is always a nice surprise, and was facing an endless grassy field. I was cold, of course, and as much as we both tried we couldn’t shut one of the windows, so V. went to reception to mention it. Minutes later, a not particularly muscular looking gentleman came and shut the window for us in half a second, much to V.’s surprise and my very vocal amusement.

We strolled around the hotel grounds for a while before dinner. It was slowly getting dark, a bunch of wild rabbits were running around the golf course and everything was so peaceful it felt like it wasn’t really happening to us. After dinner, an exquisite three-courses-and-the-best-wine-I’ve-ever-had affair, we hit the gym just before closing. I wasn’t in a particularly gym friendly mood, but I guess V. felt like he needed to redeem himself after the I’m-so-masculine-I-can’t-shut-a-window episode, so he spent close to an hour attempting to intimidate me into lifting some dubious looking weights. Why I have to suffer whenever his masculinity is threatened by a middle aged skinny man I’ll never know.

On Saturday we headed for The Vyne, another mansion belonging to the National Trust. The weather was splendid and the place was packed with rubber welly wearing visitors strolling around the gardens and into the forest, picnicking and feeding the swans. We walked and walked, then visited the mansion, another beautifully preserved Victorian home with no Downton Abbey references this time. We spent a fair amount of time in their second hand bookshop, where I got Istanbul ( Orhan Pamuk ) and Saturday ( Ian McEwan ), and V., surprise surprise!!!, got 6 ( SIX!!! ) books. I am delighted to admit, humanity, that my book madness seems to have rubbed onto my until not long ago very reluctant book reading/collecting partner. I consider my mission on this planet complete and am expecting my super duper reward any day now. And to celebrate this miraculous development, the moment we got back to London on Sunday I donated a tiny shelf exclusively to his growing collection: a total of 9 ( Nine, can you believe it? That’s almost like, well, ten! ) books including a muscle encyclopedia, a Driving for Idiots guide, and other super duper manly stuff.

We spent the rest of the day in Newbury, walking around the market, taking photos and shopping (I bought a pair of shoes, oh happy day!, while V. got enough chocolate to last us at least a couple of years from now). We had dinner in a lovely pub by the river, the waters so high after the recent floods they almost reached the window sill, and ended the evening with The Lego Movie at the local cinema. It was V.’s movie choice and I wasn’t too crazy about the idea, but he’d been so well behaved getting all those books for himself earlier, not to mention that I was still high on shoe shopping euphoria, that I couldn’t say no. On retrospect, I probably should have given it more thought, as now he’s driving me crazy singing the everything is awesome song all day long, and every time I tell him to shut it he changes the lines to everything is awesome EXCEPT YOU! We’ll see how awesome everything is when I mistakenly put half a dozen of my red socks into the washer with his precious whites. Just saying.

We got back to London on Sunday afternoon, just in time for the weather to turn grey again (just for the day, thank God, today is splendidly sunny again), and celebrated our return by ordering more pizza than I care to remember (we’ve got enough leftovers to feed a small family for the rest of the week) and watching a couple of South Park episodes. I’m back to work now and to what looks like spring. We’ve got badminton and tech conferences in the coming evenings but my zombie laptop has been fixed for the millionth time and will be arriving today, so hopefully I’ll be able to post here a bit more often.

Until then, wishing you lots of sun and super duper awesome things!

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Top of the Pile #9: The Lowland

V. got me this one as part of a surprise Amazon gift a couple of weeks back and of course it quickly jumped to the top of my reading pile. I’m no stranger to Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing, having read both Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake. And while I very much enjoyed the latter, Interpreter of Maladies happens to be my favorite short stories collection ever. To think I got it for what would be half a pound, on a book sale day in Romania!

I have high expectations of The Lowland, of course. I’ll be reading part of it during our anniversary trip this weekend, and as it always happens with me and books read on the road, I’ll forever associate it with this trip and this time of our life together. So it’d better be good!

*

Life After Life was absolutely beautiful. I hadn’t read any of Atkinson’s writing before, and I had my silly misconceptions about the book based on the design of the cover (crazy, I know!) and the few insubstantial reviews I’d read online, but guess what, it was spectacular in many many ways. Originally I’d thought that this telling and retelling of the same story, slightly altered each time, would turn out quite, well, boring. When in fact, I found it very original and satisfying to unravel. I can’t think of anything I didn’t like about Life After Life. Some less than perfect details might come to me at some point later on, but for now I’m still drunk on WWII London atmosphere and beautiful beautiful writing.

Every Day is Cake Day

One of the perks of sharing an open plan office with 80 strangers and their annoying iPhone ringtones, is the fact that pretty much every other day, one of them gets married, has a baby or yet another “late thirties” birthday.

Now, I’ve been other places before this, you know. People there were growing old and having babies too. We got them donuts or little supermarket cakes and cheeky cards everybody signed in a million different shades of ink. “Have a good one”, “50 is the new 15”, “XOXO”, nothing crazy. Then we sang our embarrassing Happy Birthdays, poked a little fun at them soon to become pensioners, and life was back to normal in a matter of minutes. I was able to handle that pretty well, my social inadequacy considered.

But oh, how things have changed. Office celebrations are a whole different story in my current workplace. They’re like the Olympic opening ceremonies, like the crowning of a new royal. People expect the extraordinary. Chocolate fountains. Fireworks. Miley Cyrus in tight pleather daisy dukes.

Of course, everybody must attend to the wonderful preparations. The birthday boy/gal is obviously aware of what’s coming, but plays along for some reason, allowing themselves to be dragged into suspicious, several hours long meetings, while the rest of us proceed to taking our event planning roles very seriously. Mountains of plates and glasses are brought out of the cupboards we’d stacked them into just a day before, in the aftermath of another celebration. Bottles of wine are set to rest at room temperature. Bags of Doritos the size of toddlers are opened, their cheesy flavored contents distributed into a dozen porcelain bowls. Custom made birthday cakes are ordered and delivered. Yes, cakes. Plural. Every other day.

These joyous occasions are known among us as the “cake and stares”. The reason for that is that people generally gather around the mountain of goodies, start wildly munching on industrial quantities of cake and crisps and, their mouths stuffed with the delicious bounty, they’re unable to say a word. So, for minutes on end all you can hear is the satisfied chewing of a couple dozens party food enthusiasts. No Happy birthday, no Holy cow, this is some scrumptious grub, nothing but people staring satisfied into each other’s eyes as they chew away. It’s marvelous.

Now, I’ve got a problem. I don’t like cake. I know, I know, you can’t possibly believe that a cake hater actually lives and breathes in nowadays world, but what can I say, I must be the among the few remaining members of a dying species. I don’t have a sweet tooth, never had. I sometimes feel like having a bite of chocolate, or a spoonful of ice cream, but one bite or spoonful later and I’m done for the month. I do like Doritos, so much so that I’d fill my bathtub with them cheese dust oozing triangles of ecstasy and would just lie in there forever, crunching myself into a cheese flavored overdose.

So my cake intolerance and Doritos addiction considered, I try to keep myself away from the “cake and stares” celebrations. I’ll sign the birthday card, I’ll help with the preparations, I’ll even have a glass of wine (or two). Still, I’m seen as a traitor. It’s disrespectful towards the birthday boy/gal if I don’t join the munching. Not to mention that I’m also too skinny, therefore I need to help myself to a couple of brick sized slices of chocolate injected cake, and pronto, or I’ll surely succumb to inanition before long. Standing there all slim and superior, no sticky crumbles around my mouth, is seen as a form of defiance and will not be tolerated forever. I need to show a little respect and start chewing.

I push my luck every day, and every day I’m afraid they’ll have had enough with my smug attitude and will end up forcefully feeding me a briefcase sized cake. A particular scene from Roald Dahl’s Matilda comes to mind. Have you read that? If so, you’ll understand the constant terror I live in.

I need to run now, the wife of this guy I’ve never spoken to just had a baby. There’s sugar in the air.