Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Stuart

This (via Jennifer Daniel) made me laugh.  Then it made me sad.  And then I got cranky and hungry.

One sandwich and a small piece of cake later, I'm back at the computer.  Now, where was I? Aaah, that's right - I wanted to tell you about my cat.  

People are universally unkind about Stuart the Cat.  Despite the triumphant claim in the weekend paper that "Curvy is back", I've yet to notice a shift in society's attitudes.  Well, mostly.  People are happy to accept the ample bosom of Scarlett Johansson, and the good-natured muffin-top of John Goodman, but they still feel free to be extremely impolite towards cats who are perhaps a little more bootylicious than the ideal feline form.

Not that Stuart is huge - he has a lot of hair, and his bones are extremely robust for a domestic cat.  Also, he has a curvature of the spine that makes his belly brush against the ground.  And it's not that he can't lick his bottom, he just chooses not to.  And frankly, who'd blame him?

So, this is a cat I saw in Damascus:

This cat clearly has an eating disorder.  I bet he's on the Atkins diet - I was eating a pastry when I came across him, and he looked at me with disdain, and then licked his boy-bits, just to show me he could.  Just look at the smug bastard.

Whereas this is what Stuart looks like (I've included an arrow, because he can be quite hard to spot when he's hiding in the grass):

Stuart eats carbs.  And he's very happy.  And he's got a very healthy body image.  And they reckon now that BMI isn't such a good measure of obesity, so we think he's just fine.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Eggplant Geddes

This is the sum total of our garden's autumn bounty.  I know what you're thinking - "Boy, Lissy has grown ENORMOUS hands since I last saw her!"  Sadly no.  Rather than exceptionally useful large hands, I have grown two very small and exceptionally useless eggplants.

Here is the more photogenic one, Anne Geddes style, with one of its less challenged cousins from the supermarket.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Damascus Gig Guide

Let's face it.  Even when I'm at home it's easy to think of better things to do with my evenings than go to lectures.  So on holiday (even if it is a working holiday), you'd think I'd have to be dragged away from my bowl of pistachios, wailing and clawing at the eyes of my assailant before I'd consider doing anything educational.

That was before I read the Damascus Gig Guide.

Unfortunately we came across this little gem on our last day in Syria, so didn't actually get to attend any of the listed events, but here is the cream of May's offerings, starting with "Lectures and Workshops."

Scientific offerings included the intriguing "Stem cells, the smell of life and its essence."  Or perhaps "The cupping and the science" might have answered a few of those niggling questions that have been troubling me.  For those more interested in the history of science, there was "Science in the contemporary ago", and "The beginning of space ago."  Or for the dentists, "Treatment of the tooth pegs in processor core."

Had I the time, I could have learned quite a lot from the sociology workshops.  All men should attend "Husband's mastery and its influence on marital harmony."  Or if you're more interested in issues of social justice, one group was addressing that age-old problem: "Workshop about illiteracy and its influence on the life of blind women."  My favorite though was the all-encompassing "Workshop for the teachers of puppet theatre and workers with two hands."  For those less fortunate people without two hands, there was the rather broad "Conference for disabled people."

The literary workshop "Creativity is not inherited or acquired" left me intrigued about what the third option might be.  Perhaps that could be answered by the presenter of "My carrier as an independent literary publisher."

Of course, there were also less intellectual entertainments on offer in the form of films and opera.  Who could forget the "Scientific fiction film 'The War of the Worlds'"?  Or, "The Second Space Odessa"?  If you're not a huge science fiction fan, perhaps the "Tragically comedy film Doshka" might appeal.  For the Shakespeare buffs there was, of course, "The twelfth night," followed by his most famous work "Big clamor of nothing."

There were even some options for the kids.  If they've already seen "Play al Ninja Tortoises", perhaps you might like to take them along to "The second celebration of Orphan Day."  I guess the first celebration just didn't celebrate being an orphan hard enough.

It was with a heavy heart that I had to settle for the in-flight films on the way home.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Minty Brush with Fame

I'm home at last.  Return flight was considerably less comfortable than the one over.  Squeezed into the central section of row 37 and surrounded by infants, I sat in my non-massaging seat, and ate non grass-fed animals with a bendy plastic knife.  With enormous ankles and a plastic cup of orange juice (reconstituted), my eyes welled at the memories of how I used to travel. With two out of three flights delayed, it was 27.5 hours from hotel to home.  And now I can't sleep.

Nonetheless, it's wonderful to be home, and able to blog with impunity.  Many thanks to my friend, that fearless defender of free speech nerdonsafari for making sure the world got to hear about Syria's toilets and falafels.

So.  The last week in Syria was lovely, and a much-needed rest after four weeks in the village.

The first few days were spent in Aleppo, mostly eating, but also sleeping, thinking about eating, and drinking.  It was the last of these activities that found us at the Aleppo citadel on our last day in the city.  Two friends and I were sitting at a cafe enjoying a "lemon with mint."  This sensibly-named treat is made with lemon and mint - a wonderfully lurid green drink that is intensely lemony and tart, but with a minty sweetness.

Anyway, were sitting there in silence slurping our drinks and enjoying the serenity.  After nearly five weeks we had nothing polite to say to each other, and we knew that the first person to speak would have the mint between their teeth pointed out by the other two.

So as we were sitting there, we noticed a bit of a crowd starting to build up.  One of my friends broke the silence to remind us of DFAT's travel advice:

 You should avoid all large gatherings and demonstrations as they may turn violent.

“You have mint between your teeth,” I replied.  My other friend made the discreet “scratchy scratchy” motion on her front teeth with her index finger.

Suddenly there was a commotion along the road beside our cafe.  Some police cars passed, then a series of Mercedes with darkened windows, then a bewildered local in a battered old truck full of tomatoes, then more Mercedes and police.  Towards the back of the convoy a heavier looking Mercedes with even darker windows drove past slowly enough that a dozen black-suited bodyguards were able to run alongside without breaking a sweat and upsetting their intense coolness.

We were curious, but not as curious as we were thirsty, so we maintained one eye on proceedings, and one on our lovely lemon with mint.  By now the cafe was flanked with police (of both the secret and blindingly obvious kinds) who were forming a barricade between the growing crowd and the path to the citadel.  It was an impenetrable barrier that was breached only by the confused tomato seller in his vintage Hyundai.

After a couple of minutes I started to grow anxious - my drink was nearly finished, and all the waiters were distracted by the spectacle.  I looked at my friends and could see rising panic in their eyes too.

Suddenly, to our right, the crowd erupted.  Fists were punched in the air, and a loud rhythmic chant was taken up by the swelling crowd of young men.  I have no idea what they were saying, but I didn’t pick up the word “benadora”, so they obviously weren’t saluting the tomato seller.  I considered standing up to see what was going on, but it was a very hot day, and I still had some lemon and mint left, and I was quite tired from walking around shopping all morning, so it was an easy choice to remain seated.

As the chanting and air-punching reached fever-pitch, we could finally see a line of suits ascending the ramp to the citadel.  One of the men was flanked with the bodyguards (who, despite their running, had neither a hair nor wiggly ear-wire out of place).  Through the crowd I caught a glimpse of a profile that was familiar from posters, car-stickers and key-rings throughout the country.  Yup, it was the president.  Now we finally stood up.  This was more exciting than the time I saw Billy Connolly in the Bourke Street Mall.

Halfway up the ramp the president turned and waved at us.  (Actually, it may have been at the crowd, rather than specifically at the three of us.)  We waved back, and he turned and disappeared with his entourage into the citadel.  The crowd dispersed as quickly as it had formed, and the waiters got back to the important business of dispensing lemon with mint.

No strife at all.  So much for travel advice.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Last Picture Show

It's finally over. The last week was frantic, but ended well. Ate up as much as we could from the fridge, and M worked very hard to deep-fry an eclectic range of leftover oddities. The week started with a promise of Lebanese tonic from Homs, but the promisee did not deliver. It left us thirsty and angry, with vestiges of malaise, itchiness, delusions of grandeur, cramps and bad feelings towards Homs and all who dwell within. Many uncharitable thoughts clouded the nightly gin and lemonade sessions.

So, as promised, I have some photos for you this week. There's no narrative thread - these are simply things that have amused, shocked, terrified, or simply held my interest long enough to justify a photo over the past five weeks.

The first is our favoured brand of toilet paper:

This toilet paper is described on the side as "soft and tender". Not qualities usually associated with the Syrian Bear. Alarmingly, it also has "dewy" listed amongst its features. Again, neither bear-like, nor particularly desirable in toilet paper. Still, the bear looks gentle enough. He's clearly about to head into the woods.

Seen in Aleppo. Unlikely that these adhesive cups would offer the support demanded by today's active woman. Even Bimbos need to reduce bounce. As an aside, many men here quite like boobs. Was walking in Aleppo the other day and a man stared at my breasts and proclaimed "It is beautiful". Why, thank you, I thought, and it was only later I took offence. It is beautiful?????? Which one? What's wrong with the other one?

This one was clearly designed for archaeologists.

One Tuesday night as dusk descended the sky turned an intense orange. Bugger, I thought, 'tis the Apocalypse. I looked out of the compound gate. Pestilence, yup. Plague...hmmm...if a severe rash counts, yup. Horsemen....looking....looking....nope, just two goats, an angry-looking cow and a child with a burning stick. Unless this was all that could be mustered during the global economic crisis, I think we're off the hook.

These adorable kitties were playing around in a bakery in Aleppo. This might explain why some of our bread is hairy, and why none of it has mice in it.

Some people, well, maybe just The Fella, think that the only thing archaeologists do is paint numbers on buildings, pots and dead things. I have worked very hard to disavow him of this notion, so it's really unhelpful when one of my colleagues leaves stuff like this lying around.

This is from the greatest falafel shop in the world. I want to dive into this vat of bubbling joy and make like a Hungry, Hungry Hippo. More than once I have been held back by friends.

This is presumably smaller than colon for adults.

This is the light switch above the sink in our compound. When brushing one's teeth there are two possible outcomes: minty freshness, or instant death. It's best to wait until you're wide awake lest you touch the live wire.

This is the magnificent toilet. No comment needed. Just bathe in its glory.

I'll end with a genuinely pretty photo. These poppies spring up everywhere by the sides of the road in Syria. They are fragile and an incredible intense colour. The white bit in the background is a plastic bag. Welcome in Syria.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Sleepless in Syria

My room-mate and I have been having trouble sleeping. This is partly due to the fact that we go to bed at 8:30 on a full stomach, in an insect-infested room. However, there are other, worse, impediments to a good night’s rest. The worst of these is the call to prayer. Now, the call to prayer can be a beautiful and genuinely moving experience. On top of the Aleppo citadel at dusk, with the heat of the day dissolving into a gentle breeze, and the sussuration of the city awaking from its siesta, it’s truly magnificent. A lone voice of plaintive beauty rises from far in the distance, then others join in from scattered minarets, until it reaches a glorious crescendo of a hundred harmonised voices. It is as though the city itself is singing.

In the village it is not like this.

Clearly the local muezzins are drawn from those that couldn’t cut it in the big smoke. During the day they are variable, ranging from loud and slightly off-key, to mumbly and keen to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. One favorite is the old man who taps three times on the microphone to make sure it's on, clears his throat, then embarks on his delightful song. The real talent, though, is saved for the middle of the night.

Imagine Jimmy Barnes. Now remove any sense of melody, and imagine he's both deaf and trying to make himself heard over a mitre saw that is cutting through a car. And the car is full of cats. And the cats aren't happy. Now take this voice and put it in an angry twelve year-old.

The call starts with a blood-curdling scream. This sets off the village dogs, so the rest of the caterwauling is accompanied by terrified and pleading howling. Of course, it is difficult to hear this because the two of us are laughing so hard. When it's all over, and the last of the tears have been wiped from our eyes, we're wide awake. And need to pee. But like all adults that are otherwise intelligent and rational during the day, we think that if we lie very quietly and position ourselves very carefully the need will pass. And we lie awake like this until dawn.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


At times I’ll concede I’m prone to waffle. Never one to favour conciseness over an indolent array of apposite (or indeed, inapposite) adjectival meanderings, at times I find myself gorging on the fudgy goodness of excess verbiage rather than simply getting to the point. But being in Syria has taught me two things. The first is ALWAYS roll up your trouser legs before using a squat toilet. And the second is that sometimes quite complex communications can be distilled into a few well-chosen words. M employs a charming brevity of speech that can speak volumes in one short utterance. When I compare what he says to how I would have said it, it’s clear I waste a lot of breath. For example:

“Is look in lemon.” This means “Would you please taste this soup and tell me if I need to add any more lemon?”

Or, somewhat boldly, “Is in red?” This perplexing question translates to “Are you currently experiencing your ladytimes, or is there another reason you are sobbing and eating a biscuit?”

M taught us all something through the week when, clutching a bunch of rocket, announced “Is good in sleep men.” This apparently translates to “Rocket has a range of benefits to the reproductive health of males.” Who would’ve thunk?

He very nearly lost me when he approached my work table and said “Blotos.” Blank stare from me. Again, “Blotos.” Nope, sorry. Employing the time-honoured method of clarifying things to people who don’t speak your language, he leaned closer and raised his voice “BLOOOOWTOSSSSSS.” Ahhh, of course he meant “Would you please enable bluetooth on your mobile so I might share with you some amusing animations?”

I have learned that it's quite effective to employ the same techniques in Arabic. For example, when it was time for M to go the the airport (or "Airrot", as the sign says) to pick up someone, I said to him "Lazim alahn beit tiara". Which literally means "Must now aeroplane house".

Is small word good.

Silver Linings

Much to the Fella’s amusement I have two books by the Dalai Lama. I’ve read one of them, and meant to read the second, but got distracted by the latest Harry Potter. So, I’m not enlightened as such, but I picked up a few hints from the first one that are helping me to keep sane over here. The greatest of these lessons is to try and see the good in people and situations. Now, people I’m not so good at, but I’ve tried hard to see the upside of all the little things that might otherwise reduce me to a dribbling mess. So here’s my attempt to see the silver linings to the clouds of this week:

Problem 1: The shower is situated directly above the toilet, which is a hole in the ground surrounded by extremely slippery tiles. It’s not a good idea to venture in without thongs. Or to drop the soap.
Upside: It’s OK to pee in the shower.

Problem 2: The dig team commits sartorial crimes against humanity. One day this week I wear grey tracksuit pants, purple socks with red Birkenstocks, and a t-shirt that says “It’s chic to be Greek”, with a torn man’s shirt over the top. There’s no full-length mirror here, but I can see in a small one that my head looks like Russell Brand’s. Including the beard.
Upside: I’m still the best-dressed person on the team.

Problem 3: Every meal includes something deep-fried.
Upside: Every meal includes something deep-fried!

Problem 4: There’s no TV.
Upside: Ummmm….bad example. There’s no upside to this.

Problem 5: We suffer a wide range of afflictions, including bloating, cramps, strange rashes, itchy bites, hurty bites, unsightly bites, sore eyes, rampaging free radicals, cracked skin, psychosis, restless legs, Giardia, hangovers, ennui, Tourette’s Syndrome, lethargy, scurvy and toothache.
Upside: We’re quite safe from Swine Flu.

Problem 6: My watch broke and the very white watch-shaped bit of my arm is now sunburned.
Upside: Can make a good case to the Fella for a new watch when I get home.

Problem 7: Every time someone in the village turns on a pump the power fluctuates wildy, lights flash, and it’s like trying to work in the world’s crappiest disco, and then two flies will try and make icky fly love on my drawing and I’ll knock over my water bottle trying to shoo them away and then when I’ve cleaned up and got settled I’ll find that one of the flies has done a poo right on the bit I’m working on.
Upside: Nobody can make me watch Four Corners here.

I feel much better now.

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