#TBT Coping with Summer Heat in the 1960s

If you consider summer a tad too warm in the UK, spare a thought for those who spend this time of year in Washington, DC.  The suburbs are tolerable but the city is hot and humid, as I well know from the years my mother and I lived there in a cramped apartment in Foggy Bottom.

Nobody much considered the environment in the Sixties, and most buildings were fiercely air conditioned at the time. The outside, of course, is not, until evening sets in and the scent of honeysuckle fills the air.

It was just as the Lovin’ Spoonful described in their 1966 hit Summer in the City.

The mercury regularly hit the mid to high 90s, or about 34⁰-37⁰ C. I took my driving test one August around midday in a VW Bug aka Beetle (no air con). The Dept of Motor Vehicles takes your photo for the licence just after you pass, and for the next five years my sweaty physiog was a glamorous reminder of the occasion.

FreeImages.com/Jeramey Jannene

The Potomac may look inviting, but it’s polluted. If you wanted to cool down, you had to head to a pool. One of our favourites was the public pool on Volta Place, Georgetown, which is still open. The queues were often long, but entry was free though I think the rudimentary lockers required a dime. There wasn’t much there about from the pool and concrete all around. I remember a couple of Egyptians who loudly admired my 14-year old derrière, until my mother yelled at them in fluent Arabic.

Rock Creek Park runs across the NW segment of DC. It now has a lot more organized leisure facilities than it did back then, when it was little more than a haven of shade. My best memory of the park was a summer day camp run by the recreation department. It was free for city kids and my mother wangled three consecutive placements for me, so I spent six happy weeks identifying leaves, creating shoe racks out of fallen branches, and singing the campfire classic We Ain’t Got the Money for the Mortgage on the Farm.  Inexplicably, we also put on a nativity play. Yes, in August. It was as hot as hell wearing the Virgin Mary’s cloak.

I don’t plan to go back to DC just yet, but I will be visiting my US family as usual later this summer.

Meanwhile I’d love to hear your summer memories and great suggestions for keeping cool.

***

You may also enjoy The March on Washington.

 

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#TBT Alexandria, 1956

I’ve blogged before about Suez, because it’s when my mother wrote her first book. This week, Nadia, a character from my next novel, gives her own take on 1956.

It began on July 26, when I was ten and a half years old, or, as I preferred to say, nearly eleven. The whole affair was about a canal and a dam.

Here’s the crucial thing: President Gamal Abdel Nasser was most interested in canals and dams.

Nasser was a very big man, with a strong jaw and huge teeth that he displayed whenever he smiled. That night in 1956 was the anniversary of the revolution, so the president celebrated by giving a long speech, right here in Alexandria, in Mansheya Square, where there’s a massive statue of Mohammed Ali Pasha, wearing a turban and brandishing his sword, sitting atop his horse.

As usual when anything interesting happened, I had been sent to bed instead of being allowed to stay up. My parents told me about the speech the next day, which is hardly the same thing. I relished the idea of Nasser brandishing his words like a sword, and I was especially sorry to miss the firemen dispersing the crowds. FreeImages.com/AntonioJimenezAlonsoAlthough I had no real opinions on politics, I liked listening to the president on the radio. Unlike a lot of important men who like to make themselves sound clever by speaking in a formal version of Arabic, Nasser spoke a colloquial language that every Egyptian could understand, even a child of nearly eleven. That, I thought, was much cleverer.

The day after that big speech, my sister Simone and I sat in the upstairs living room right by the air conditioning, which was on at full blast as it was sweltering. Father and Mother explained to us that the Suez Canal was now going to belong to Egypt instead of France or Britain. As a result, it would raise lots of money for Egypt, and would pay to build a High Dam at Aswan.

Mother actually put down her embroidery during this conversation, so it must have been significant. Quite how significant, I did not wholly grasp. The main thing was that the Suez Canal had been nationalized. That was a good thing, wasn’t it? Unless you happened to be British or French, like some of my friends from school.

In October, a few countries turned out not to be so happy about Egypt having the Suez Canal. Our parents did not explain that very clearly. Meanwhile, our nanny Rashida lit more candles than ever to the Virgin Mary and to St Anthony.

Even when she wasn’t praying, Rashida went about muttering to herself. I thought I heard her say that things had been much better under King Farouk, but, when I asked her to repeat herself, she flatly refused.

It got a lot clearer when France, Britain, and Israel all ganged together to declare war on Egypt. Every night there were air-raid sirens and anti-aircraft guns. Victor, my pain of a cousin, kept going on about it. With our schools shut, he was unfortunately at our house more often than ever. According to him, the guns were as close as Smouha, barely a few kilometres from us. I pretended to be unconcerned.

Every bedtime, Mother told Simone and me that things would turn out all right. We had blackout paper on all the windows now. It was all going to be fine, Mother said. 

It did however change things for many of my friends, and for my teddy bears, at least one of whom was British.

You may also like How My Mother Wrote Her First Book

What Nobody Told Me about Having Children

Even before I had children, I considered myself clued up. I’d looked after plenty of kids as a family doctor, though my education actually began in my teen years. As a fifteen-year old, I used to baby-sit a feisty brood of five living round the corner from me. Four of the children moved so fast that I could barely tell them apart, let alone stop them wrecking their home. The baby, less mobile, needed constant nappy changes, which was a challenge as he was in a ‘frog plaster’ for developmental dysplasia of the hip

The scales fell from my eyes, however, when my own kids arrived. Here’s what I learned from having my three sons.

1 Everyone has an opinion on raising children, especially those who never had any. The fewer children someone has, the more insistently they share their wisdom. Experienced parents rarely dish out advice because they know that not all kids are the same.

2 Yep, all children are different. Before you ask:  yes, even identical twins. My own twin boys had different personalities from day one. After all, why should they be exactly alike? The environment begins in the womb, and there are always differences in the closeness to the mother’s heartbeat, to her dominant hand, even in the amount of blood flow from the placenta, to name just a few factors.

alarm clock

3 Babies need a lot less sleep than their parents. They don’t have to go to work. They can just loll about all day looking cute and innocent, and save their strength for another fun night ahead. Had I fully appreciated this, I might have stayed on maternity leave longer rather than dragging my befuddled brain (plus a breast pump) to work.

4 The best toys engage the child’s ingenuity, not the toy designer’s.  That’s why empty boxes, old saucepans, wrapping paper, and key rings make great playthings. By the way, if you’re still looking for your keys, try checking inside your boots, behind the radiator, in the toilet, and out through the cat-flap. Or keep a spare set somewhere.

key ring

5 The longer you take to prepare a meal, the less likely your child is to eat it. Strangely, letting a child make his own sandwich does not put him off wolfing it down, even if it contains the most outlandish food combo and looks nothing like a sandwich.

6 Shopping and mayhem go hand in hand. Before supermarkets provided trolleys for more than one child, I’d have to push one trolley and pull another one. This was the moment when I’d be accosted by a patient who wanted to chat over the baked goods about her test results, or even show me her painful knee. On the plus side, my kids rarely had tantrums while out shopping. Instead, they amused themselves by pulling toothbrushes off the shelves and stuffing them down the front of their dungarees.

twins at the soft drinks dispenser

7 Children have an infinite capacity for embarrassing their parents. At a neighbour’s house one morning, I was offered coffee, only for one of my sons to pipe up, “Mummy likes gin and tonic.”  Another memorable event was a job interview, the kind where you’re invited to bring your entire family (GP interviews can be like that). One of my little lads promptly removed his shoes and socks, gleefully shouting “Sock, sock!” The snag was that, at the time, he pronounced every S as an F.

8 Being a doctor helps you cope with children’s illnesses, but doesn’t make you superhuman. One of the low points was the Christmas when both twins, aged eight weeks, had bronchiolitis. Their older brother didn’t get much attention that year.  Another low was a convulsion which landed one of the boys in hospital at the age of eighteen months. The little lad was fine in the end, but my husband drove into a bollard on our way to A & E.  

9 The biggest lesson? You have to put your child first, before yourself, before anyone else. But that’s perfectly OK, because, until your own baby come along, you have no idea how intensely you can love a little person.

FreeImages.com/Helmut Gevert

If you’d like to help a new parent cope when their child is seriously ill, please take a look at Lucy Air Ambulance for Children’s Mum Matters campaign. This great initiative comes just in time for Mother’s Day.

You can find out more about Lucy Air Ambulance for Children right here

Mum Matters logo

#TBT Being Eligible: the Marriage Market back in the Old Days

Many readers have enjoyed my mother’s writing, especially about the bygone world of cosmopolitan Alexandria. Today I bring you another extract. As ever, Jacqueline uses humour to write about serious topics. This time, it’s about  finding a husband. 

Pastroudis

In backward areas like Europe and the United States, where they don’t understand the first thing about women – or the Middle East or anything else – when a girl finishes school or college, she looks around for a job, starts agitating for equal pay with men, and then proceeds to make a thorough nuisance of herself.

But in the East, where men are men, and not mice, and they know how to treat women, men don’t stand for this sort of nonsense. As a matter of fact, they don’t often stand for a woman at all. It is she who stands up for the man, if she knows what’s good for her. The only man who would make a woman walk in front of him would be walking in a minefield.

Every Oriental, even an idiot, knows instinctively what a woman should and should not do, and she should not do anything but wait on him. He knows that Western women are too free, and that freedom for women is very bad indeed for men. The only career a woman should have is looking after her husband. Sometimes, if she’s lucky, he may call in up to three more women to help her do this, so that she won’t get tired.

Instead of going down on bended knee and being grateful that we lived in the East, where they are so considerate towards women, my friends and I had visions of launching ourselves into the world on our own feet and having careers.

It was the fault of the British. With our heads pumped full of the English Girls’ College’s nonsense about women getting jobs, we Alexandrian girls had overlooked the fact that we had a special mission in life. One that was the most hazardous, most exciting of all callings. It was known as Being Eligible, and what you had to do was sit back with some nice bit of embroidery and catch a husband.

Petit point

After a varying amount of needlework, the good obedient girls who did as their parents bade them were rewarded by finding husbands who provided large houses, children, and security.  Some of these girls were very happy, especially if during a man shortage they had caught someone else’s husband.

Others were whisked out of school before the end of term, when they had barely started on their embroidery, to marry someone they hadn’t so much as set eyes on. Perhaps it was just as well. Anyway, they had the whole of their lives to get a good look at him. Sometimes, the bridegroom was a little older than the bride – twenty-odd years or more. Sometimes, instead of twice her age, he was twice her size, and sometimes, unfortunately, he was both.

You may also enjoy: How my Mother Wrote Her First Book

Meeting in the Park

Here’s one of my mother’s pieces of flash fiction, first published by the American International Women’s Club in Geneva. I hope you enjoy it as much as others have.

Day after day, he came to the park and sat on the bench beside her, sometimes a little too close, but she pretended not to notice. After a while, she’d get up and move away. She wasn’t about to get involved, not after Ambrose. It was too painful.

She loved being out of doors, and she was lucky to live across the street from the park, where she could sit under a tree, in dappled shade, reading or writing another one of her short stories.

Her thoughts were adrift in the old Alexandria of her youth, so she wouldn’t hear him approach, but, when she turned her head, he’d be there. A little scruffy, a little thin, but proud nonetheless.

“FreeImages.com/Harry M

He sat very still, gazing straight ahead, though he often fixed her with his eyes, which is what got to her in the end.

“Look here,” she said to him one perfect spring day when the crocuses were out and she could stand it no longer. “You need a good meal.”

He sneezed.

“You’re not well.” She hesitated. “You can stay with me, if you wish.” She rose and stood looking at him for a moment, then gathered him in her arms. “You purr even louder than Ambrose.”

Does anyone else here write flash fiction? I’d love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, these posts may raise a smile:

How My Mother Wrote Her First Book

No Mother is Perfect

#TBT; Dating, 1940s Style

 

How My Mother Wrote Her First Book

In her own words, this is how my mother came to write her first book.

Il a nationalisé le canal!” my father said again with disbelief. “Nasser read the decree right here in Alexandria, this evening. He told the USA to choke to death on its fury!”

We were staying with my parents in Alexandria, and, as it turned out, I was only allowed out of the house at certain hours of the day. It was a sort of house arrest (résidence forcée).

There was nothing much to do in autumn 1956. It was October, a lovely month in Egypt, when summer’s heat and humidity are over, and it is pleasant to be out of doors.

One morning, I sat down under the mimosa tree, with the sound of white doves cooing in the dovecote, and began to write my first book, Cocktails and Camels. I never thought of any other title.

Apart from school essays and letters, I had never written anything before. I wrote in pencil, painstakingly, while my young daughter Carol picked daisies on the lawn. As I searched for the right words, they popped up like magic. I was elated. 

Writing my first book had nothing to do with my wanting to be ‘a writer’. It just happened because the circumstances and my state of mind were attuned. Although the country was at war, Gamal Abdel Nasser was on a nationalization spree, and the future looked uncertain, I felt peaceful and content. Maybe that is what writing does for you.

The writing did not always come easily. Every line was written and rewritten a dozen times or more. I did not mind. Every time I corrected a sentence, I could see it getting better. Writing was a challenge, and I enjoyed it. I’d walk around the garden, mulling things over. Sometimes I’d laugh aloud at what I’d written.

“I’m going to write a book too!” Carol piped up.

Friends came to visit and have tea. I told them I was writing a book, and that it would be called Cocktails and Camels.

“You are writing a book?” Then, in French, “Mais pourquoi? Why don’t you learn to play bridge?”

Je déteste le bridge!” We always spoke like that in Alexandria, switching from one language to another all the time. Anyone who did not was not a true Alexandrian.

Annoyed that I always refused to play bridge, they were soon asking if I was planning to mention them in my book.

“Of course.” How could I not include them? They were such characters. But I would do it with humour, and make up names to disguise their identities.

“Will you say that I am the best dressed woman in Alexandria?” asked Yvette who wore a different outfit every day. We laughed.

“You’ll have to be patient and wait until the book is published.”

My father, who for more than thirty years had been the respected President of La Bourse de Contrats en Egypte, had published an excellent and much acclaimed book on the Bourse. I thought he would be pleased to hear that I too wanted to write a book.

One evening, with Carol asleep in her cot, I told my parents that I was working on a light-hearted autobiography called Cocktails and Camels. Their reaction was not what I had expected.

Quoi?” Father cried. “Un livre? Des cocktails?”

“Quelle idée! Nous finirons en prison!” Mother said. “Why can’t you be like everyone else, comme tout le monde?”

“I’ll take a pen name,” I cried, annoyed. “And all the names of the people will be changed. It won’t be published in Egypt, anyway.”

There had been censorship in Egypt for years, and one was careful what one wrote in letters and newspapers, let alone books. Sometimes, foreign magazines were sold with articles missing, cut out by the censors. To be on the safe side, I changed not only the names of friends and relatives, but, to be sure no one recognized the family, I wrote that I had two sisters instead of a sister and a brother. My brother Théo was never mentioned in Cocktails and Camels. As for a pen name, I would be Jacqueline Carol, using my own first name and my daughter’s first name as a surname.

“You can’t afford to publish a book,” Father then said.

“I am not planning to pay for its publication! The publisher will pay me.”

Mother’s blue eyes looked infinitely sad. “Please be careful, chérie. Nice girls don’t write books.”

“Who cares about nice girls?” I howled as I stormed out of the room.

Cocktails and Camels was published in New York in 1960. Now sadly out of print, it portrays Egypt in an earlier time – الزمن الجميل – and is still one of the funniest books I have ever read. Not that I’m at all biased.

Carol

 

Are Other People’s Kids Your Problem?

Near me in the café, a little boy of about three sits in a push-chair while his mother fiddles with her iPhone. He’s wide awake, he’s quiet, yet there’s a dummy parked in his mouth. The boy asks for something, removing the plastic thing from his mouth to speak. When the brief conversation is over, Mother puts the dummy back.

FreeImages.com/T. Rolf

I feel like telling her that a dummy is a pacifier, and, as such, is only for pacifying babies.  This boy isn’t a baby, nor does he need pacifying. But I’m not sure she’d appreciate a lecture on dummies and speech development, especially now that she’s returned to her phone.

Besides, it’s not my child. It’s not my business.

In the supermarket a little later, I’m distracted by yelling from the next aisle. A woman is dragging her child by the arm, calling him, among other colourful things, a proper little stinker. I hadn’t actually noticed a pong from the child (but then we are at the cheese counter). Several shoppers stop, visibly shocked. Whether it’s the woman’s rough handling, or the fact that she’s hurling abuse at her child in Waitrose, of all places, I’m not sure. But neither I nor anyone else has words with her.

After all, not our child. Not our business.

FreeImages.com/Gokhan Okur

It must have looked pretty bad on the day, many years ago, that I smacked my twins outside the school gates. I say ‘gates’, but that school had no gates, simply a path that led to a busy street. I didn’t just tap each of my sons on the bottom – I actually slipped one of my shoes off to do it. The reason? Aged four, they’d run out into the road in front of a passing taxi which, fortunately, screeched to a halt. I figured a sharp shock would be a better deterrent than the standard telling off.

But the shoe and I didn’t look good, I admit, especially as none of the other parents had seen the incident. The mothers glared. Some tutted or shook their heads, probably wondering how a family doctor (who also writes extensively on child-rearing) could possibly behave in this way. Yet not one of them opened their mouths. Perhaps they feared that, for two pins, I’d have smacked them with my shoe too. Or maybe they just reasoned those weren’t their children, and it wasn’t their business.

Just the other day on London transport, a woman with long flowing locks boarded the train, two schoolboys in tow. It was about 4 pm and, after a day at school, the boys still looked clean and tidy in their uniforms. Yet the mother, when she wasn’t preening and flicking her hair, was shouting at one of the boys. “You’re disgusting,” she howled as he flinched. “Really disgusting.”

Whatever it was that he had done, it was surely his behaviour that was despicable, not the boy himself.  But I said nothing. Eventually it was their stop, and the woman, still tossing her hair about dramatically, dragged them off as she continued to berate the one who was allegedly so disgusting.

What would you have done?

***

For those of you outside the UK, Waitrose is the most genteel of supermarkets. There are things you can expect to hear there, and things you really don’t.