Monday, 20 February 2012

Yoga - yea or nay?

I’ve been having an inner debate about the topic of yoga again the past few weeks. Unfortunately, we have not reached any conclusions yet.

There is a distinct possibility I might actually like doing it. I’m all for things like breathing techniques and meditation for one. Quite a fan of Eastern philosophy too (including some of the sexier bits of Taoism). Did Qigong for a while and loved it - once I got over the feeling of looking like a demented crane. And yet, whenever yoga is suggested to me, my mouth appears to be going into grimace mode.

It might be that I’m still failing to grasp the real benefits of bending my body into pretzel shapes with funny names. The whole idea after all, I believe, is to come to a deep state of relaxation and inner tranquility. Now for some reason I don’t associate body contortionism with inner peace. I just don’t think I’d be feeling very serene trying to do the Nearly Dead Crab. I’m sure it’s me. Just haven’t heard the right arguments yet – but am quite willing to be convinced. No really.

One of my dearest friends happens to be quite a fan. Her attempts to enthuse me would probably be a lot more effective if she wouldn’t complain of aches and pains for days after a session. I did try to get her to tell me exactly what the attraction is. Apart from the instructor who is apparently very cute and does not wear one of those outfits that show a man’s package all too clearly (talk about inner peace).

She told me that she can feel incredibly frustrated and sore, attempting to get her body to assume the desired awkward pose. And once she’s there, she ends up thinking she may never be able to uncoil herself without causing irreparable damage. Ah, but then! When she's at the end of a session and knows it's all over for another week and she's allowed to lie flat on her back for 15 minutes, listening to some sweet meditative tones, she can feel so very very content.

Hmm. Even as I type that I can feel my left eyebrow arching. Doesn't it all sound suspiciously like 'Why do you keep hitting yourself on the head with a hammer?' 'Because it feels so darn good when I stop!'. Yes. I’m SO going to be lectured about this. And for mentioning the instructor’s package obviously. I'll let you know once she gets a hold of it (for the record, I'd like white peonies at my funeral - I know they're out of season but if you'd truly love me you'd get them for me anyway).

Admittedly, I do have this silly mental image of myself doing yoga. Just not in some gym smelling of old shoes. In my fantasy yoga session I’m in the open air, on a plateau by an oriental style temple. I rather fancy a Balinese one. I’m wearing white cotton clothing (looking deceptively simple yet elegant) and have a fragrant melati flower stuck over one of my ears. A soft breeze gently ruffles my hair (not too much – said flower needs to stay put), carrying with it the scent of blossoms and the ocean. And all the while I’m bending my body into all sorts of positions with an easy, effortless grace.

Bit of a pity there's this little nagging voice inside my head that says that the whole point of yoga is probably to obtain that kind of tranquility even when life does not provide a Balinese temple and a gentle sea breeze. Maybe I should try to overcome years of extreme body consciousness and the fear of feeling awkward and clumsy and just give it a go. I'm the one who's always telling people 'you won't know until you try' after all (never realised quite how annoying that is).

I think I secretly want to be convinced yoga would be great for me.

Thoughts anyone?

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The low rumble of trains

The place was still bare apart from the new bedroom furniture and the freshly laundered towels in the bathroom. It felt zen and minimalist and brimming with new opportunities. The rest of my things would only be moved in later that week. But even though the old bed was still there, I didn’t want to spend the night at the other house anymore. A typical case of Chapter Closed. Possibly even padlocked. I was perfectly content sleeping under a throw on the plump new mattress, stretching and snuggling like my inner cat. Just lying there in the comforting dark, enjoying the feel of my new home, with its different smells and different sounds. A new leaf. Every now and then I could hear a faint low rumble, like distant thunder, that added to my contentment. It was confirmed. I had actually moved. 

I live near my town’s main train station. It’s a new, up-market area, with a fresh and modern look and feel. Very nice to live in if I say so myself. Still, every time I tell people from around here where I'm at, their initial enthusiastic reaction is mostly followed by something along the lines of ‘shame it’s so close to the railroad tracks though’.Yes. Quite annoying. Especially when you haven't even started to properly gush about your new place. Plus there's the fact I do really disagree with them. To me, the railroad bit is actually more of an added bonus. 

I love trains. I love train travel. As a child, it felt adventurous to board a train, not really knowing where it would take me and what I would get to see on the way. I thought it was wonderful to watch the world roll by while I could just sit back and relax, take in the scenery or day dream to the rocking motion. Or, being a child after all, run through the carriage trying to look at an intriguing site for longer. Often my parents would point something out to us and tell us the story behind it. And those tales of drowned princes, great battles and secret trysts all stuck.

More often though, I would make up my own. Is it me, or does the rythm of a train put you in a more relaxed state of mind, in which you are more open to thoughts and ideas that come to you naturally? I'm sure J.K. Rowling would agree. Wasn't Harry Potter born while she was travelling on a train? Oh wait. It may have been standing still at the time - there goes that theory! I still suspect she may have a bit of 'a thing' for trains though - having created the fabulous Hogwarts Express. A steam train to take children to wizard school. Stroke of sheer bloody brilliance.

And speaking of steam trains - as you would expect from a real train aficionado, nothing could ever beat travelling by that most glorious of industrial inventions. These days it's a rare thing, but whenever I'm at a train station and get a sudden whiff of a unique, sooty smell, I crane my neck and start looking around frantically - where is it, where is it??

An other author felt the same way, many years ago:

And how I love trains, anyway! Snuffing up the sulphurous smell ecstatically - so different from the faint, aloof, distantly oily smell of a boat, which always depresses my spirits with its prophecy of nauseous days to come. But a train - a big snorting, hurrying, companionable train, with its big puffing engine, sending up clouds of steam, and seeming to say impatiently: 'I've got to be off, I've got to be off, I've got to be off!' - is a friend! It shares your mood, for you, too, are saying: 'I'm going to be off, I'm going, I'm going, I'm going...'

She got it! This was Dame Agatha Christie of course.

I've got a number of steam train trips on my wish list. Abroad that is. There's nothing wrong with the Dutch landscape, but it does tend to give you the 'more of same' feeling at one point. Flat. Green. Neat rows of trees. Neat canals. Cows. All very organised and orderly. Well, the cows not so much perhaps.

No, I've got my heart set on more spectacular scenery. I would for instance love to take a trip on one of the Great Little Trains of Wales. Or go for a rather more posh experience on the Royal Scotsman. I admit I would really enjoy dressing up and then boarding a train to the haunting notes of a bagpipe. And then start on 'a journey that takes you straight to the heart of the Highlands, through landscapes of towering, pine-clad mountains reflected in mirror-still lochs'. To visit places like Achnasheen, Kyle of Lacholsh, Kingussie, to name but a few. Those types of names are enough to make a romantic linguist like myself quiver with delight.

But, of course, there's one trip that must still be the Holy Grail of train lovers. You know the one I mean.

A lot has been said and written about the Orient Express. The name immediately summons up a feeling of romance, adventure, but also intrigue, suspense and of course... murder. It would be hard to find a person who doesn't know Agatha Christie's famous novel - or at least one of its film adaptations. I always wondered though what Christie herself felt about travelling on the Orient Express. Yeah alright, I did already have a hunch.

Many, many years ago, when going to the Riviera or to Paris, I used to be fascinated by the sight of the Orient Express at Calais and longed to be travelling by it. Now it has become an old familiar friend, but the thrill of it has never quite died down. I am going by it! I am in it! I am actually in the blue coach, with the simple legend outside: CALAIS - ISTANBUL. 

I felt so connected to her when I read that. And how wonderful that she, no matter how famous she had become or how many times she had made the trip, still kept that child-like ability to feel wonder and amazement about it.

I've now been living in my apartment for the better part of a year. And I still enjoy my occasional background rumble. Although I have to admit that once you're out on the terrace, it stops being in the background and becomes rather more audible. So when my dear friend Naeem came to visit a while back and got ready to indulge in his guilty pleasure (the apartment is a smoke-free zone), I felt it only fair to warn him he would be exposed to a bit of noise from the trains once he'd step outside. 

I needn't have worried. His eyes sparkled as he started on an enthusiastic tale about how it only added to the atmosphere of the neighbourhood. And how trains mean adventure and excitement.

Thank heaven. Another one who gets it.

Text in italics is taken from 'Come, tell me how you live', Agatha Christie's account of how she and her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan fared on digs in the Orient. It is a little gem of a book that I can't recommend enough - starting with the most fabulous humorous poem of her own making 'A-sitting on a tell'.  

Photos are stock photos from, except the last one, that I can't seem to find the original source for. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

My week so far

I used stronger language than that when the umpteenth machine died on me. And it's not that time of the month. In case you were wondering.