Flâneur-ing in Paris


I’ve been busy recently: That mad rush in the lead up to an extended period away from home when there’s so much to be done. Still, these days with the kids that much older, I’m inclined to optimistically believe that even once the holidays have begun, I should still be able to put the hours in on the Making Art front. Especially with three out of four now away.

Cue hollow laugh. What on earth would make me think their absence would free up my time?

Prodigal Daughter (aka Eldest Daughter) has just started a month of work experience in Paris to get her French up to speed before starting university in October. Middle Daughter decided it would be fun to accompany her for a week, and practice her own French for a few days.

The pre-departure activities were neither straightforward nor cheap. Prodigal Daughter seemed to have spent her entire gap year dressed in tee shirts and pajamas, and dressing up meant putting on a clean sweatshirt. Not a good look for a Parisian office situation. A few manic trips into town were required to remedy the problem.

Naturally my taxi driver duties called for me to drive to the airport at midday thereby ensuring the planned working day in the studio was completely scuppered.

There’s no such thing as a free drop off at Leeds Bradford Airport these days, but at least the £2 for 30 mins parking charge allowed me to watch the performance of the bag allowance shuffle as Prodigal Daughter was forced to extract four heavy tomes from her suitcase to carry onboard as permissible hand baggage allowance. Middle Daughter couldn’t quite grasp the logic of this (who can?) but her pleas for common sense were ignored by the Girl on the Desk leaving Prodigal to balance the books for the next hour.

Then they were gone.

Until the texts, phone calls and emails began arriving.

Whilst Prodigal was getting to grips with French formules de politesse, Middle Daughter was experiencing the delights of antique bookshops, reading Voltaire in the gardens of the Palais Royal and oh yes, getting pick pocketed.

Lucky me, having to battle the impenetrable security barriers of her happy-to-help bank, and getting cut off only twice after I’d got through the interminable options and mindless waiting music.

Lucky her, that they only got her purse.

Maybe I should have gone with after all.

Challenging Cultural Assumptions


For some time now I’ve been part of a locally based group engaged in promoting dialogue and understanding between Muslims and Jews in Leeds.

It’s been a heartwarming and hugely positive and enjoyable experience. We’ve reached the point where we can tell jokes and laugh at our quirks (and have found that all religious jokes are essentially the same) but more importantly we now feel we know each other well enough to start to examine deeply held and long standing perceptions of the “other”.

I suppose it’s in the nature of such a gathering that the people participating are inherently liberal, open-minded, tolerant of difference and willing to try and understand puzzling aspects of another culture.

But in a group meeting the other day I pondered aloud to what extent I unconsciously make unfounded assumptions and hold distorted perceptions? Or, to use a more loaded word, to what extent might I still hold prejudices?

Interestingly I was not alone in wondering this, and someone else bravely raised the question of just how easy is it to listen and absorb and then act on information or alternative views to actually change a core belief?

We all like to think we are capable of changing, but recognizing these core beliefs is not necessarily easy.

So I was heartened today to have one long held but hitherto unconscious (or at least deeply buried) cultural assumption challenged in the course of my morning dog walk in the park.

Early morning dog walkers, joggers and walkers in general have a different social code to the rest of society during the rest of the day. Early morning dog walkers, joggers and walkers greet each other with a resoundingly energetic and enthusiastic “Good morning!”

It’s like being on the continent, greeting total strangers in this way. And it’s a nice start to the day, saying hello to the rest of the world. Just as I expect things might have been in the Olden Days when Life was Hard but People were Happy and Contented.

But this morning I was faced with sudden indecision as a fully hijab-veiled lady approached from the opposite direction. In the flashing seconds as we neared each other, I was embarrassed to not know what to do. I didn’t want to offend by not saying anything, but I didn’t want to offend by looking her squarely in the eye. I actually hadn’t a clue what might be culturally acceptable. And I was suddenly horribly and uncomfortably aware that I was assuming that ladies wearing a full hijab did not want to be looked at or noticed by outsiders.

My dilemma was resolved in the most delightful way possible. As our paths crossed, the lady called out to me cheerfully in the manner of a regular park stroller “Good morning!” And I was only too happy and eager to return the greeting.

And a second uncomfortable assumption had foundered. The belief, odd as it may sound, that a lady veiled with only her eyes showing would not want to say good morning to me.

How silly that I should have assumed any such thing.

How differently I will approach my next encounter with a heavily veiled woman.

Joyful Dialogue


Seeing children come together to create art is always a joy. Seeing children from across two cultures come together to share cultural understanding in the creation of art is even better. Last weekend, I was privileged to experience the latter in the course of running a workshop as part of the Headingley Literature Festival 2012.

Children aged 12-17 from a local mosque and a local synagogue spent two hours learning the practice of calligraphy, but more importantly, the connections and similarities between the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets and were encouraged to explore and experiment with writing out letters from both alphabets.

There was something magical about hearing young Muslims discussing their favourite Hebrew letter, and seeing young Jewish kids producing beautiful patterns composed of Arabic letters. And best of all was watching it happen as they sat comfortably and happily and enthusiastically in tight circles on the floor scribbling and playing together.

Baby steps towards mutual understanding perhaps, but vitally important nonetheless.


Prospects for Peace?


I attended a fascinating talk last night about prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

It was elivered by Shaul Arieli , an impressive speaker popularly recognised as having an encyclopaedic knowledge through personal experience of the history of the conflict and the political processes, and his hugely informative website backs this up. His talk however was both heartening and dispiriting in equal measure.

Heartening to hear that there is potentially a real prospect of agreement on such fundamental issues as security, territory, refugee return, etc. But profoundly depressing in other ways to hear that the current Israeli administration is simply disinterested in a permanent solution.

Still, it’s important for me to hear positive aspects about the peace process. Not enough media attention is ever given to the plethora of grassroots initiatives promoting dialogue, cooperation, mutual understanding and common purpose.

And a quick Google search reveals the existence of a huge number of such organizations and groups both in the Middle East and across the globe.

A majority of the populations on both sides want peace.

How sad that it doesn’t it happen.

Language and Life


One of the first real bouts of jealousy I ever felt was when I was just seven years old.

I went to a tiny village school in the middle of nowhere, with maybe 50 pupils. Teaching was excellent but facilities and breadth of formal subject learning opportunities were limited. We weren’t aware of this, because informal learning opportunities abounded daily. The first blackberries? Everybody out to go gathering blackberries to take back to the cook for blackberry pie that lunchtime. The first snowfall? Everybody out to learn how to make an igloo.

But one day my younger sister aged 5 came home and announced she was learning French with a new teacher. I was consumed by bitter envy. Despite the isolation of the school, I had broad geographic horizons and was desperate to travel Abroad and hear Foreign Languages.

From that day on, I grilled my sister daily and insisted she passed on every scrap of her new found knowledge. Le moulin. Le chatêau. I remember all too clearly those were the first words she taught me. But I never forgave the school for allowing the infants to have a go at French, when I, desperate to learn, had to be content that term with building a papier mâché caveman cave (with tissue paper bulb-lit campfire as I recall).

Until age 11, my only sources of language instruction thereafter were the Chalet School books by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. Not great for accent or pronunciation purposes though, as I found out when I tried to use my vocabulary resources at senior school.

Once I’d started with proper language lessons though, I was desperate for opportunities to practice. We had an ancient transistor radio at home with a nasty brown plastic cover. I discovered that switching the dial to long wave allowed me to trawl the continental airwaves and hear snatches of Real French and Real German being spoken by natives. But even if my language skills had been up to the task, I could never hear anything for long enough to make any sense of it as the reception foundered and faded every few minutes.

It’s all so different today. With the Internet, the world has instant access to all sorts of language learning and practice. Foreign films are readily available, and foreign language papers and books available with next day delivery.

And I get my daily fix now from TuneIn radio; an amazing app which allows me access to all my favourite foreign stations and much more besides. My kids (who have it’s true inherited the foreign language passion) just do not appreciate how lucky they are. But I certainly do.

Cultural Crossing-Points


I have spent a seriously enjoyable five days in Eilat. I never got to see the coach station (the prime point of immediate adverse first impression for most) and due to a nasty virulent record-breaking sore throat, never made it hiking into the hills. I walked the length of the naval base and dockyards but never managed to stroll the suburban hinterland.

I’m pleased about this. It gives me a good excuse to come back another time in the middle of the winter and experience the joy of a January swim in the sea.

But what I’ve most enjoyed about my Eilat experience is its position as a point of cultural and geographic intersection. Given my constant wifi access issues, I haven’t been able to google the Spice Route or other ancient trading routes, but I’ve no doubt for centuries this area has been an important staging post for traders and travellers.

These days of course it’s more a destination than a halfway house. The resorts on the Red Sea are all popular holiday destinations for visitors worldwide, and Eilat is no exception.

We were, for example, intrigued by the numbers of Russian non-Jewish visitors. Until we remembered the number of Russian-origin Israelis means there’s a great Russian infrastructure here, so no language problems to worry about.

Yesterday, we went to the Marine Observatory just down the coast. Yet again I was forcibly struck – and heartened – by the multicultural mix of visitors to this tourist hotspot. In the space of a few minutes, I observed Africans in traditional dress, religiously observant Jews and Arab Israelis all mingling happily with the usual Western hotchpotch of sightseers in pursuit of holiday pleasures.

Of course, I don’t know how all these visitors feel, and maybe it’s presumptuous and a touch patronising of me to assume everyone feels comfortable and is having a great time.

But they certainly all looked as though they were having a ball.

And in Israel and in the broader context of the Middle East, that’s rather a nice souvenir to leave with.

Petra: a Pareidolia Paradise

I have wanted to visit Petra in Jordan for years, and with a spare day in Eilat, it was too good an opportunity to miss. And having spent the last few days sighing in delight at the spectacle of the Jordanian mountains in all lights and atmospheres, I was particularly thrilled and inspired in equal measure by the prospect of the four hour journey there from Eilat/Aqaba, reliving Lawrence of Arabia‘s mad dash in the reverse direction.

So at 07.30 yesterday, we were ready and waiting for our transport to the border crossing from Israel into Jordan, passports to hand and clutching the Lonely Planet guide.

Peace between Israel and Jordan has clearly been of reasonably mutual economic benefit to both sides if the daily numbers of those making the crossing are anything to go by. A rather puzzlesome “border tax” is payable to the Israelis, and odd little bits of cash seemed to be called for here and there as part of the package price. Still, it was worth it, not least for a good opportunity yet again to observe cultural exchange and difference.

From the flat expressions and serious demeanour of our Israeli frontier minders, I half expected to see a Disneyland Space Mountain-style sign at the last minute saying we didn’t have to make the ride across.

We were given dire warnings about buying drinks in Jordan without prior agreement on price; the possibility of women being sold; and the state of Jordanian bathrooms.

“Eez ze Meedle East” our Russian Israeli minder droned dolefully.

Our entry into Jordan was then considerably delayed as everyone made a rush for last minute use of Israeli bathroom facilities.

It was but the start of a day of complete paranoia about bathroom facilities. Once over the border, our Jordanian guide kept giving us details of the itinerary with estimated bathroom stops and dire warnings about lack of facilities anywhere in between, with the result that everyone made use of every opportunity en route and thus we became expert on bathroom culture and discovered that Jordanian bathrooms were in fact no worse and no better than Israeli ones.

Nor were we troubled by white slave traders, and no one in our group was ripped off for a coffee. The Jordanians were hospitable and friendly; the Jordanian mountains were as magnificent close up as from a distance; and Petra was quite stunning.


Apart from the more famous and iconic sights, I was equally transfixed and intrigued by the infinite pareidolia
possibilities of the worn sandstone rock faces surrounding us. It added a disconcerting and faintly terrifying element to our (continuing film theme day)Indiana Jones expedition.

A few examples are here.


Eilat? What’s Not To Like?


Drawing People

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of days drawing incessantly. After a year or so of surreptitious photography of strangers, I’ve rediscovered the joys of surreptitious drawing. It’s reminding me that people are people and whilst we’re all different, we’re all the same.

This is important to remember when spending time in the Middle East.








A New Take on Alternative Tourism


As regular readers will know, I have a fascination with the daily trivia and minutiae of suburbia which has lead me down all sorts of paths and odd destinations over the years.

But taking a proper holiday in anonymous suburbia without even the excuse of visiting distant relatives takes it all to a whole new level of psychogeographer’s delight. Best of all, I didn’t have to persuade anyone to organise it. Himself has done a superb job of beaming us into this little town of families, shops, recreation grounds and tree-lined boulevards but not a single restaurant, independent cafe or cinema screen. Forget Alternative Tourism off the beaten track in third world countries: Suburban Alternative Tourism has all the feeling of being somewhere “different” and “undiscovered” without the backpacks and earth closets.

As we wandered the mall this morning and wondered at the disproportionate number of hairdressers, the existence of a knitting wool shop (scarce enough in England these days) and the idea of going for a night out at the local burger eatery, we reflected that our holiday destination was the Israeli equivalent of, say, a week in Milton Keynes. But fascinating nonetheless.

I wrote yesterday of the importance of challenging assumptions and preconceived ideas. And despite being in this settlement less than 48 hours, I am already forced to question a lot of assumptions I hold as an outsider.

One of the biggest puzzles has been the sight of such a mix of people and cultures. If I had started off expecting to see mostly rabidly extremist, prejudiced and narrow-minded religious zealots (and my language alone there demonstrates the strength of my own convictions on the whole issue of West Bank settlements), I was taken aback to see such a mix of apparently Ordinary People. In the absence of serious religious-political conviction, what might lead them here?

I reflected that as a visual artist, I tend to just observe and not engage enough. Luckily Himself is more than ready to engage, and as soon as he heard locals talking in a language we could converse in, he jumped at the chance to find out more.

And as with so many things in life, economics are at the root of it all for so many. Housing here is relatively cheap and accessible, and for those who just want to be here in Israel to be able to live in a Jewish majority or perhaps just to escape uncomfortable prejudice elsewhere, this place is a great place to end up. Safe and comfortable for families, good schools: for many this is all that matters, and who am I to criticise from the affluent privilege of my life elsewhere?

The French family we spoke to had been here 17 years and loved it. They talked of the large numbers of South Americans, Mexicans, Asians and Africans loving it here just as much.

I think this is set to be a complicated and thought-provoking week for us. Nothing in life is simple. There are many sides to reality. Truth is obscure.

Ultimately we can do no more than listen and try to understand people as fellow human beings, however uncomfortable this may be.

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