A Beautiful Bubble

Parque de El Retiro, sometimes referred to as “the lungs of Madrid”, is a beautiful and huge park on the edge of Central Madrid.  A boating lake, many majestic fountains, statues, manicured gardens, tree-lined avenues, and at least two beautiful buildings hosting art exhibits are some of the features I saw today.  Maria, Bianca and I strolled into and through the park before sitting on the grass in the shade to watch the world go by.  As we did so, the topic of my middle name came up.  Again.  The other day, booking the bus to Madrid, I had to supply some passport details.  There was a sudden rush of hysteria as the girls started laughing, repeating a strange word, “Ha-theen-ta” and crying with laughter.  My middle name is Jacinta.  Pronounced in my world as Ja-sin-ta.  Not this Ha-theen-ta word with an H that you almost have to spit out from the back of your throat.  How on earth did an anglo-Australian get a name like this, they asked in between guffaws.  I guess my mother liked it?  I must ask her!

Since then, not only have I been dubbed Ha-theen-ta, but I have been given a theme song, La Jacinta Mucho Mas (The Jacinta Is The Best).  Somewhere in Spain were two rival villages, located up and downhill from each other.  The uphill village, Villatripas, decided to build a beautiful statue in a fountain in the village square.  When the downhill village, Villa de Arriba, saw this beautiful fountain, they needed to outdo their neighbours.  Some poor girl named Jacinta, known for her beauty, was chosen for the job, had her clothes ripped off her, and was placed in the village fountain.  A competition was held and both villages agreed that “La Jacinta Mucho Mas”!  I can’t tell you how many conversations we’ve had about this hilarious song.  The band who sang it are called La Mandragora, a group of four guys.  One of them went to school with Maria’s father, who saw his former classmate in the street oneday years later and called out to him.  The singer did not recognise her father, who introduced himself, and was told “No!  You cannot be!  He was a very beautiful boy!”. I had a stomach ache from laughing so much.

After a busy day of city strolling, shopping, visiting the Bedouin tent exhibit in Palacio Cristal (the Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro) and a sculpture exhibit a short walk away at the equally beautiful Velazquez Palace, dinner was in yet another beautiful al fresco dining area of restaurants lining a central park.  As we sat sipping our sangrias and eating our tapas, a number of different people approached our table.  The first was a young guy selling socks.  He spoke at length to the girls who listened politely before declining a sale.  As he walked away they translated that he has to sell socks because he lost his job three years ago and he has children to feed.  We called him back and I purchased a pair of socks for Maria’s father.  The next person to approach was an elderly man wheeling a cabin-sized bag and holding a book.  He is a poet who has already sold 3,000 copies of his book and wanted to recite some poetry to us in the hope that we might purchase the book.  Again we declined and he wheeled his case to the next table.  The third and final guy was probably in his late 50s or early 60s and he leaned in to us, speaking at some length during which I heard “medico” and “caro”.  Maria finally agreed to give him some small change.  He walked on to the next table, who “shooed” him away.  His story was that he has been begging for five years and last week was diagnosed with brain cancer.  He has the option of having an operation but he decided that he doesn’t want to have his head cut open and he therefore only has a short time to live.  Who knows if it is true, but either way it is a sad and undignified situation.  When I presented the socks to Maria’s father tonight, as she explained how they came about, her mother suggested that Spain is filled with people like this now, as the economy is suffering so much.

The Spanish health system has been the first to face cuts and privatisation under the current government, who probably lost power in yesterday’s election results.  Second to face cuts has been the education system.  Homelessness and unemployment have risen and many families are struggling to survive.  The national unemployment rate sits at around 23%.  Yesterday’s national election highlight was the landslide victory in Barcelona of a relatively new party which developed out of left-wing activism (indignado) fighting against home evictions and promising to distribute the city’s wealth.

According to my friends, corruption is rife in Spain with many politicians under investigation or in jail.  Most recently one very high level politician who at one stage headed the International Monetary Fund, was arrested for corruption involving billions of dollars which must have involved many of his political colleagues, all of whom are now denying any knowledge of anything he said or did.  He is unique in the prosecution system, which seems to focus almost entirely on lower level players, as the higher levels appear to be protected.  My friends say that “when we were in Cambodia, we recognised a lot of the corruption because it is just like our country”. Yesterday’s election saw a major swing away from the ruling right wing party, many of whom apparently have historical connections to General Franco.  Opposition parties will likely be able to form a coalition, removing power from the main two parties, both of whom seem to be steeped in corruption and cronyism.

We discussed the difference between struggles in Spain where malnutrition and death caused by poverty are highly unlikely, and Cambodia where such extreme existence is common.  One of the biggest lessons Cambodia taught me was that people actually die from poverty.  Preventable conditions and diseases are exacerbated by excessive deprivation such that acute-on-chronic suffering results in premature and en-masse death.  I used the example of the two children whose mother is dying of AIDS because she has to live where she can find employment, earning $1 per day.  This is enough to feed herself, but escaping the stigma and fear she faces in other communities, she is in a remote place where she cannot easily access her HIV medication.  She will die soon, thanks to this poverty cycle she cannot escape.

Contrary to the poverty cycle, we live in a bubble where we can – and easily do – visit disregard on the suffering of others.  It is so easy from a comfortable and entitled life, to consider “the poor” as irrelevant, insincere, their-own-fault, someone else’s responsibility or various other judgements which remove us from our responsibilities towards the impoverished.  In fact, as the most privileged, we are also the most responsible, for working towards improving the world’s condition.  Not only do we carry this responsibility, we also must embrace the happiness that we have spades of due to our privilege.  No amount of suffering I have ever faced, comes even close to the suffering I have witnessed in the poor world.  While I have every right to complain and feel the full sphere of human emotion, I also need to always keep a perspective on my First World Problems.  They exist in a very beautiful bubble.

Sunday Morning in Madrid

A massive thank you to all my family, friends and work colleagues, who took time out of their busy schedules to take the time, to wish me a Happy Birthday. I’ve had a gorgeous day. A special shout out to Gerard who gave me an eclectic and thoughtful gift. Chocolates, bees wax candles, packets of chilli seaweed chips (I’m a bit addicted to these atm and if you haven’t tried them you simply must! Money towards our flights to go hiking in NZ, and last but not ever so in the least two goats for a destitute family in Mozambique. This last gift brought me to tears. Let’s face it I won the world’s lotto being born in Australia and really need for nothing when it comes down to it. I feel immense gratitude for what I have in my life and that includes you all. I love you, you make my world an amazing place x

Written by a friend in Alice Springs last week
Shared here because I think it is a really special message

Yesterday we traveled by bus from Leon to Madrid.  My time in Leon was really special.  Bianca belongs to a long-time Leon family who live in the city centre.  Her parents have an apartment a stone’s throw from the magnificent Gothic/Renaissance cathedral, built between the 1200s and 1500s on the site of ancient Roman baths.  We attended an organ concert in the cathedral on Thursday night.  Despite growing up attending Catholic church and being familiar with organ music, I had no idea that an organ could sound as this one did.  It was like listening to a whole orchestra, with many instruments playing at the same time, yet one 23yo man was playing one single instrument which resonated to the heavens inside the soaring apses which are lined with original stained glass windows.

Earlier that day we also visited the Basilica de San Isidoro, another impressive religious monument a short walk from the Cathedral, dating back to the 10th century.  Here we saw various ancient artefacts in the Museo including a chalice purported to be The Holy Grail, although Maria announced “but we know this is not the Holy Grail, but it does originate from those times”.  Sitting inside a glass cabinet in a dark room, lit to highlight it’s jewelled features, she pointed to the grail’s base and said “this is made from the … how do you say … the fangs of the elephant?”.  Maria corrected her with “ivory” while I almost fell over laughing.  Apparently in Spanish, elephant tusks are called fangs, an excellent example of the differences in perception that language creates!  This basilica also houses a catacomb with concrete tombs where kings are buried and artwork on the walls which has given the room the name “Spain’s Cistine Chapel”.  The Spanish harvesting calendar painted in one archway depicts the different activities typical for each month of the year, including a pig slaughter in November, showing that Bianca’s family have a strong connection to ancient Spanish culture.

Many other features exist inside both the Cathedral and Basilica and we also visited El Palacio de los Guzmanes (the palace of the Goodman family), which dates from the 1600s and sits in a plaza next to one of Antoni Gaudi’s masterpieces, Casa Botines, which is now some sort of office building.  This is one of only a handful of works Gaudi created outside of his home province of Catalonia.

As a local, Bianca knows a lot about all of these places.  Leaving El Palacio de los Guzmanes, where a guide told us that one of the Guzmans who was a bishop as well as belonging to this powerful family, had removed a part of the ancient Roman wall (which still encircles much of the city centre), to build his palace, she walked us to a nearby building.  Here, another powerful family built a tall tower, higher than the Guzman Palace, in protest at the destruction of the city wall.

Our days in Leon were filled with historical and architectural awe.  Bianca also knew the best tapas bars to visit and we had a very culinary time, sharing our custom between many bars and testing lots of local specialties.  But the best time of all was being a part of the Leon community.  Our Friday was spent on the fourth floor terrace of Bianca’s old school friend, watching over the rooftops of Leon including a spire belonging to Leon’s oldest church, upon which a stork and her baby were nested.  We popped into a bar one lunchtime to meet an aunt and uncle with their friends; bumped into one cousin in the street; visited another in the old Bishop’s Palace where she works.  On Friday a cousin’s graduation saw the extended family meet in a restaurant, where Maria and I joined Bianca, her parents, an aunt, uncle and two cousins with their partners, for a meal which started at 10pm and finished at 1am Saturday morning.  Local specialities were served, wine flowed, and animated Spanish conversation surrounded me.  The family greeted me with kisses and English phrases before asking if I speak Spanish and informing me apologetically that they don’t speak English.  At the table instructions placed me between Maria and Bianca so that they could translate for me and I felt like a long lost member of the family.  At 1am we were ready to head home while her parents, aunt and uncle strode off towards a bar to have a drink!

Spanish time is something I could definitely get used to.  Everything happens late, from sleeping in to the last evening meal.  Arriving in Madrid yesterday after a 3.5 hour bus trip on a luxury coach for €15, we walked to Maria’s home along the tree lined streets and boulevards of the city centre.  They live in a 4 bed, 2 bath apartment which must be twice the size of my house, on the first floor of the building.  The third floor is occupied by an uncle and his family and the sixth floor of the same building by an aunt.  Maria grew up here and I am sleeping in her childhood bedroom.  Upon arrival her mother, father and aunt were discussing plans for the christening today of the family’s latest baby.  We joined them for a few hours before, around 9pm, heading out into the streets to have a drink at a bar in a nearby plaza.  We returned home at 10pm for dinner of empanada, tortilla, jamon, bread, gorgonzola, pate and wine!  We sat at a round table and had a very animated meal.  Maria looked at me earnestly and announced “Did you know that our President doesn’t even speak English?!”.  I returned a look of confusion as to why this mattered and she said “Come on!  English!  He has to represent us in Europe, at the European Union and he doesn’t even speak English!  He should at least speak English and French, no?  Even to get a job working in a shop they want you to speak English!”.  Her Spanish outrage was both amusing and educational!

Today Maria and her family are attending a christening.  Bianca, who was at university in Madrid and has lived here for over ten years, will (once more) play tour guide with me.

La Buena Vida

It’s proving hard to find inspiration for my blog right now.  But lots of interesting things are happening so I’ll try and do a travel blog just to keep the page alive.  I’m not especially inspired so be warned :).

I’m writing this from Leon in north-west Spain, where I’m spending time with “the Spaniards” who I befriended in Cambodia.  My first trip to Spain was in 1993, to the Costa Blanca as a poor student nurse.  But I fell in love with the country on my second trip in 2002.  At that time I was working 12 hour shifts at a London hospital.  With an Australian friend doing similar shifts at a nearby hospital, we clustered our shifts together, so that most months we had at least ten days off which we used to travel, mostly on the European continent.  After one visit to Barcelona, I needed to return and did so at least twice, including a three week trip through Spain.  Perhaps the thing I loved most at that time was the “town square culture”.  Every town has a Plaza Mayor (main square) with buildings encircling it on four sides, outdoor cafes lining the inner edges of the square, often a fountain or other feature in the centre, park benches and other attractions drawing people in.  Both young and old congregate in these squares to socialise and there is a very relaxed and festive ambience.  Returning 12 years later, this is still the most appealing aspect of Spanish culture that I’ve seen so far.  The Plaza Mayor is also not the only square in town – walking through Leon the other day, visiting some favourite bars for sangria and tapas, we seemed to find a square around every other corner.

After spending time here as a tourist, it’s very different to experience it as a guest of locals, especially with people I feel such a connection with after our time in Cambodia together.  The only person missing is Kim who was with me when we met the Spaniards.  She is in America, living in post-Ebola isolation having just completed time with MSF in Liberia.

After the fabulous time with Kate and her family in the Dordogne area of France, I traveled south to Toulouse by train last week, to visit a French friend, MSFer and Phter Koma fellow Director.  Sipping wine on her terrace on our first evening was followed by foie gras and pasta in a gourmet restaurant.  The next day was spent cycling around Toulouse city, something I never would have been brave enough to do, in a beautiful and ancient city I likely would never have visited, without her.  Day 2 together was spent with another friend who I met briefly in Cambodia, at a town called Albi, about an hour from Toulouse city.  My cousin emailed me from Australia to say that she has wanted to visit Toulouse since seeing the movie Moulin Rouge, “because Toulouse was the short guy’s name”.  Albi was the birthplace of artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, aka “the short guy”.  It is a picturesque medi-evil town with ancient winding alleyways, a huge Gothic/Rococo cathedral and an old castle which now houses the Toulouse-Lautrec museum, dedicated to the life and art of the-short-guy.

My Toulouse friend has done a number of missions with MSF including a year in Cambodia some years ago when she was instrumental alongside some Khmer colleagues, in establishing Phter Koma Childrens Home.  We Skyped with the children together on Friday morning, greeted by 15 children shouting “Helllloooo” at us, followed by a chorus of “IIII’mmm fiiiine, and youuuuuu”!  Water shortages continue to blight Kampong Cham where the well supply ran out unexpectedly and town supply has been connected to the Mekong, so that people are showering in muddy river water which many are also forced to drink.

From the basics of life in the water-deprived heat at Phter Koma, our final couple of days were spent with friends at a most amazing mountain hideaway in the Pyrenees near the beautiful alpine spa town of Bagneres de Bigorre.  I got to glimpse French life with a bunch of weekending French people in a beautifully designed and constructed architect’s home, under the watchful eye of the snow-topped Pic du Midi just across a few hillsides from us.  Mountain goats with cowbells around their necks rang in constant unison from the fields below as we sipped Pomerol wine which our host seemed to have an endless supply of.  We three women sat at the wooden table spanning the length of the massive kitchen and seating up to 16, as the three men chopped garlic and peppers, prepared soup, vegetables, lamb chops and entrees.  Conversation was dominated by wine, cheese, bread, cooking techniques, French lamb vs NZ lamb and various other culinary subjects I had never considered to be discussion-worthy before.

From Toulouse I traveled by connecting trains via Narbonne and Barcelona, to Leon, arriving at 0500am to the welcome sight of Maria and Bianca (not their real names) walking towards me on the platform.  Leon is Bianca’s home town.  Maria is from Madrid and we’re spending a few days at her parents’ place there before I return to the UK next week for Hannah’s wedding.  My Spanish is better now, at least partly due to my time in Cambodia with translators and teaching English, which made me think about language more than I ever had.  Maria and Bianca are very encouraging and I’m sent to pay the bill or converse with people, practising my lines before making my approach!  We are having lots of conversations about language in general as well as helping each other out, although their English is highly advanced against my basic Spanish.  Maria is very creative.  She says things like “Italian and Spanish are so similar that if you don’t know a word, you can guess it and you will probably be correct”!  It seems to me as though people who grow up exposed to other languages develop “freestyle” skills.

Bianca’s old family home is a very Hispanic and rural establishment.  Heavy wooden farmhouse doors open onto an outdoor courtyard which is entirely enclosed by the house and property walls, providing a private central garden, much like the house in the photograph below.  Old converted stables which once accommodated horses, donkeys, pigs and chickens are now a part of the house.  Bianca, in her early 30s, lived a very rural childhood here.  She tells some interesting tales of various family ceremonies, including the killing of a pig twice per year, taking place in the courtyard.  Until recently the village water supply came from a well at the end of the main street which has since been covered by a traffic roundabout.  She tells some funny Vicar of Dibley-style stories about church, choir, congregation and priest, the local bar, the mayor and other village characters.

Spanish courtyard and house as seen from the street

Spanish courtyard and house as seen from the street

Today we visited the town of Astorga, about an hour from Leon, and a nearby medi-evil village.  We arrived just as siesta time was beginning so we found a restaurant for lunch.  A common Spanish meal is “Cocido” (“Kor-thee-do”), which is served as three courses – soup, chick peas (surprisingly, these are critiqued the way the French critique cheese!) and meat.  The Leon area is home of the Maragato people, who were once skilled tax collectors for the King.  As busy traders and travellers, they were often in a hurry so they would eat their meal backwards to ensure the most nutritious intake first.  It is now tradition in this area when eating Cocido, to start with the meat course, followed by the chick pea dish, and finally soup.  Along with wine and bread, and followed by custard and a coffee liquor, we spent two hours in a busy and charming restaurant, being served by a lone jovial elderly waiter who kept the whole restaurant served efficiently while befriending his customers with light hearted banter.

Today’s other lesson introduced me to El Camino Santiago, a hiking pilgrimage which I’d never heard of before.  Santiago is a town in Galicia, near the north west coast of Spain where the remains of the Apostle Saint James, Patron Saint of Spain, are said to be buried in the cathedral.  Pilgrims have been walking to Santiago for centuries and today it is a popular hike for tourists who are named Pilgrims regardless of their reason for walking the various trails which lead to Santiago from within and outside of Spain.  We passed many pilgrims on our drive today as part of the route follows the national road between Leon and Astorga.  Many were also in the town with us, eating at the restaurant, sitting in the Plaza Mayor, visiting Antoni Gaudi’s En Palacio Episcopal and the majestic cathedral built between the 16th and 18th centuries.  I now understand what the man meant  yesterday who asked me as I sat in the Post Office beside him “do you work to Santiago?”.

Two pilgrims and a local in Astorga today, along El Camino Santiago

Two pilgrims and a local in Astorga today, along El Camino Santiago

Soon enough my time in Spain comes to a rapid end, for now at least.  A wedding, possible trip to Paris to see a Khmer colleague attending the MSF Annual General Meeting, various commitments in London which include lunch with my now-adult god daughter and her family (her mother and I worked together 25 years ago) and another lunch with my boss from the same workplace when I was a secretary at Price Waterhouse on #1 London Bridge.  In mid June one of the New York Karens is coming to Provence and I am joining her for a week.  Around these scattered commitments I’m unsure what I’ll be doing but time is running out very fast and there are not enough days left to do everything I want.  I haven’t even mentioned my time in the public gallery of a court at The Old Bailey hearing part of a murder trial; visiting a stately home in Kent with friends; seeing the newly-returned Miss Saigon at London’s Prince Edward Theatre; hanging in London with an old nursing friend who traveled up from Brighton for the day; the pubs and cinema and galleries and museums.  It’s worrisome to think about how “work” will ever enter my reality again?  I have another six months before worrying about that minor interference.

Foie Gras and Truffle

Charlie Pickering presented a very funny satire about Australian foreign aid on The Weekly last week (ABC (Australia) television), which has been doing the rounds on Facebook.  On average, a group of polled Australians believe that 16% of our gross national income is spent on foreign aid.  These same people, probably influenced by the political spin that has been dominating our news in recent months, want us to cut this aid to around 12%. In actual fact, the proportion of money we spend on foreign aid equates to 0.22% of our national income!  Charlie’s take on this was hilarious – you can see him here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVG6otoVMFk

When I think of the lifestyle disparities in our world, this is an incredibly measley offering to the poor world from our robust, healthy country, and further proves just how disconnected we seem to be from global realities.

Bill Gates outlined briefly in a QandA program a couple of years ago, the benefits of foreign aid, which include saving children’s lives, providing reproductive health tools to women which allows them to have fewer children, and improving seeds so that farmers can grow enough food for their families and children.  He describes these impacts as “phenomenal”.  He is a huge proponent of evidence based philanthropy and the fact that, contrary to the popularly held belief otherwise, incredible improvements can be and have been made in the poor world.  He suggests that because these programs are far away, they appear irrelevant to us personally, when in fact they are highly relevant.

Gates says that if we could “come and visit” (the poor world), it would make a difference (to our disconnection).  That has been my experience in both Australian indigenous comunities and the poor world.  It’s easy to have opinions on something from afar, but getting to know the people in a place puts a very different perspective on those opinions.  Seeing starvation in your own street, in people you know and care about, is a much more powerful experience than anything the media can show  you.  Knowing people and hearing their personal experience always provides you with the human side of something which is only ever a remote perception via any media.  I’m staying in France with frends at the moment, one of whom visited me in Cambodia last year.  She feels as affected as I, by the suffering we witnessed together in Cambodia.  Even then, I realise that I am an outside observer in Central Australia, East Timor, Cambodia and anywhere else I happen to find myself in my privileged existence.

Right now, kicking myself to confirm it’s for real, I find myself in continental Europe!  Kate, who I was at nursing school in England with 25 years ago, met me in her Audi TT at Folkestone where we boarded the Eurotunnel Shuttle which transports vehicles under the English Channel to Calais.  From Calais we drove to the outskirts of Paris where a ring road took us around the city’s perimeter, spotting Sacre Coueur Cathedral briefly, to the motorway leading south to the Dordogne in France’s south-west.  We drove for over eight hours through the length of France.  When I wrote about going under the English Channel to the children at Phter Koma they suggested that I must have “seen a lot of fish and marine life”.  I had to provide a visual of the tunnel, to explain to them that we were under the sea, not inside it!

The Dordogne is a rural area of rolling meadows with wildflowers, wheatfields, grapevine-smothered medi-evil ruins, pig farms, hillside chateaux bearing down on valley floor forests and rivers.  Kate’s family home is in a medi-evil village with a stream flowing at the end of the long, wildflower-strewn garden with free range chooks wandering amidst the pet cats and dog.  We have cooked our own meals each evening after days of sightseeing through ancient walled villages, churches, chateaux and market places, serving ourselves in the formal dining room of this wooden floored, shutter-windowed, very French house.  Every evening as we sip champagne in the garden at dusk, the neighbour over the road leans out of her window, waving with both hands and calling out French greetings to us before closing her wooden shutters for the night.  “Bonjour Madame” has replaced “Tuk tuk Madame” in my daily experience.  I haven’t been here long enough to get a good feel for French culture but greeting people in shops and waiting rooms is the norm, so that when we walk into a shop we say “bonjour” to staff and customers alike.  Contrary to legend, the French are very understanding of language inabilities.  After practising sentences repeatedly before getting it monumentally wrong when I finally brave it with a local, all I have encountered are friendly smiles, laughs and incomprehensible comments of obvious amusement!

Family who have spent the past ten years sailing the Mediterranean have been visiting at the same time as us.  Theirs is such a different lifestyle to mine and such a different experience of the Mediterranean to others who use it as their escape route from conflict and misery, risking their lives on overcrowded and poorly maintained boats.  As I travel in Europe I feel acutely aware of my proximity to these simultaneous experiences of struggle and suffering in this disparate world of all-and-nothing.  Everyday I am in awe of my position on the “all” side of this birth lottery, which has become such a strong motivation in my life as I come to the realisation that the only way it can really bring me happiness, is to use it in an active way for the benefit of others as much as myself.

Shop window advertising foie gras, Thiviers, Dordogne

Shop window advertising foie gras, Thiviers, Dordogne

Goodbye, Prague

Thank you, Prague!

The fairytales of my childhood must surely have all originated in Prague.  Here I found castles, bridges, legends, cathedrals, majestic gardens, narrow streets, kings, maidens, famous literature, synagogues, broad boulevards, murder, romance, towers, art history, archways over cobblestoned alleyways, medi evil city walls, Jewish pogroms and heretics burned at the stake.  From Medi-evil intrigue to present day high street retail, there is literally nothing missing from this tiny, charming, stylish city.  Not to mention the beef goulash and apple strudel!  My days here have been spent wandering aimlessly, joining guided tours of historical areas, gaping skyward at spires and statues, hearing the Prague Musical Orchestra perform Vivaldi, Bach and Pachelbel in beautiful Municipal House, visiting cathedrals, synagogues and museums, getting lost in the maize of cobblestoned alleys of Old Town, climbing the hills and wandering the gardens of the Castle, and eating / drinking at establishments which have existed since the 1200s.

My hosts were particularly vague on communication when I booked in with them.  The night before my early morning departure they informed me that they would be absent for the first four days of my stay and a family member would meet me at the apartment to let me in.  The fifth floor apartment in this sprawling 100 year old building seems like it could be from the set of Roman Polanski’s World War 2 film The Pianist.  Adrien Brody plays a pianist in this autobiographical story of a well known Jewish-Polish musician who manages to survive life in Warsaw during Nazi occupation by a combination of good luck and good friends.

During my four days alone here, I wondered where the secret button might be that would open one of the ceiling-to-floor bookshelves and reveal the secret room where Jews hid during Nazi occupation of Prague.  Chandeliers hang from high white ceilings, white washed wooden panelled doors lead from one room to the next, each with at least two doorways interconnecting every room in the apartment.  Furniture straight out of 1940s, large sprawling rooms and wooden floors, all above a cobblestoned maize of streets below the narrow balconies looking out towards the Vltava River.  On Monday it didn’t stop raining so I didn’t leave the apartment, soaking in this romantic atmosphere.  I even watched The Pianist, to compare their period movie set with my own.  Very similar indeed!

When the owners arrived home two nights ago I found out why they had been so vague with me.  They are well known media identities.  Not that I’d ever heard of or seen either of them before, but I am not well versed in the Czech Jet Set.  An agent sent them to London for a movie premiere, hence their unexpected absence.  They are both young enough to be my children and they both seem very down to earth despite the chiselled good looks and youthful confidence, such that I haven’t felt at all intimidated or out of place with them.  Her father is a musician and another guest in the past few days is a family friend whose father played in a band with the Beatles.  Funny that one of the Spanish friends I met in Cambodia and am joining in Spain in a few weeks’ time is also “local-famous”.  Again, I’d never heard of / seen my friend when I met her in Mondulkiri with Kim a year ago.  But in Spain she apparently has a hard time walking down the street.  It should be interesting hanging with her in Spain, after our time in Cambodia where she was completely anonymous (which is why she chose to live there for almost two years).

Returning to London tomorrow for a few days, my old nursing student friend and I are then meeting up on the south coast to drive to France.  Her mother, who I’ve also known for >25 years and have traveled with a number of times including to New York as well as Cambodia, now lives in Dordogne.  After five days in Dordogne I will travel overland to Toulouse to join my fellow Phter Koma Board Director at her home for a few days.  Then I travel to Spain to join the Spanish friends I met during a holiday in Cambodia last year with fellow-MSFer, Kim.

A road trip to Europe!  When Kate suggested this to me last week, while I sat in my 1940s-style Prague apartment, I literally kicked myself multiple times to check I wasn’t dreaming!  Such exotic experiences belong to other people, not to me!  The way that one trip has slotted in to the next, time-wise, is uncanny.  Serendipity definitely happens in life at times.

On the same day that I was kicking myself over this exciting turn of events, I heard from my doctor friend in Cambodia.  He had an exciting day too – on the very same day two different people had given him a book to read, the first in English and the second in French.  He could hardly believe his good fortune.  His words on this were “One day, two present.  All the present are the reading book.  Unbelievable!”.  How different our versions of serendipity are.  Good fortune has played a very strong role in my life to date, beginning with where I happened to have been born.  After surviving Pol Pot’s terror and now living in a country where good fortune is only possible to those with connections within a corrupt system, his luck seems to have far more substance to it than mine, despite the apparent lower earthly value.