take one woman with low self esteem, but quite good hair
add one moronic illness
stir in some medication which causes hair to fall out
mix it all up and this is what you get...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Generation gap 

"I'm glad to be home," I sigh in Big's direction, as I sit down on the welcomingly cool, tiled floor to sort the recycling whilst he checks his email. It's not often I say that of our house in Somerset which is currently our home in the literal sense, though I've struggled to think of it as "home".

I felt that relief yesterday, where normally I would feel regret at the end of time spent away with friends and family. Many times I have returned sullen, sometimes even to the point of tears, the end of a period of time spent away heralding the return of drudgery, tail-chasing, routine.

You see, there was a sting in the tail of our week in Kendal. A sting in the shape of Big's aunt, our hostess for the week. I have spent time with her before, but this has been limited to a couple of days here or there. I have noted Big's lack of patience with her before and put that down to surliness. A woman of quirks, in small doses she could be described as eccentric: at worst, irritating; at times, extremely interesting; at best, especially in a double act with Big's mother, highly entertaining. But after a week, Big and I were at the end of our respective tethers. Having lost all patience with her, we also began to lose patience with each other, snapping and sniping uncharacteristically as if the poison from her sting had infiltrated us too.

For a woman who worked for the Diplomatic Service, she is by far the least diplomatic or tactful person I have ever encountered.

For a woman who has travelled the world extensively, she is one of the most narrow-minded people I have ever met.

It's hard to know where to start with examples of what drove us slowly, but surely, up the nearest dry-stone wall, but I shall attempt to do so, if only to get it off my chest. Belt up in the back, it's quite a journey.

We were informed early on in our stay by Her Poisonousness that people in the North are much friendlier than people in the South. It should come as no surprise to learn that she, of course, is a lady of Northern descent and she is fully aware that I am a lady of the South (and dreaded London, no less). She also claimed that the youths we saw hanging around the park in Kendal, intimidating passers-by were not, in fact, doing anything of the sort because Kendal was "not that sort of town". She spent the rest of the week attempting to prove these points by barking random comments to innocent passers-by, including some of the youthful variety, only to be met with bewildered (or even frightened) glares and a variety of adolescent non-verbal communication techniques, none of which could have been described as friendly.

I remained unconvinced and maintained my view that generalising about swathes of people based purely on geography was probably not a tenable position. Much better to treat people as individuals, or is that me being all tolerant, bless me...

Invariably, when visiting the aunt, the subject of the Pressure Cooker arises. Firstly, she must ascertain if Big still has the Pressure Cooker she gave him umpteen years ago. The response is always in the negative and her reaction is always one of astonishment. Secondly, she will attempt to convince us that the overcooked ratatouille and the undercooked potatoes we have for dinner should serve as some kind of advertisement for the use of the Pressure Cooker. Despite my protestations that really, I can manage to cook perfectly well without one and that the kinds of things I cook would probably not be suited to this method of cooking anyway, she insists on showing me just how easy it is to use. She finishes by telling me that, if nothing else, it is ideal for making jam. I remain unconvinced and hope she won't notice the rejected potato at the side of my plate. The threat of the inevitable gift of a Pressure Cooker is yet another reason for Big and me not to get married.

Another habit she has is to assume that everybody in the world knows her entire life history. When asking a question to which I simply cannot be expected to know the answer – a question about her family, for example – I am met with a response delivered with such exasperation as to suggest that I must be a complete ignoramus to have had to ask.

A further assumption she makes is that her way is "the only way". Anything which dares to deviate from this is to be ridiculed; out loud and preferably in public. She will not hesitate to cackle heartily in your face (usually ending with a delightful-to-behold hacking, phlegmy cough) or give a wide-eyed look of astonishment if you mention such a thing.

"You mean, you don't get a newspaper?"
"You watch Big Brother?" (this was a particular source of phlegmy cackling and one which she chose to share with whomever would care to listen)
"You worked as a secretary after graduating from university?" (the word "secretary" was spat out, as if a particularly bitter taste had been encountered)
"You don't get your milk from the milkman?"

Now, had I been of a similar ilk, I could have taken her up on the following points in a similarly astounded tone:

"You mean, you don't have a shower?"
"You don't have a washing machine? Or, should I say, you do have a washing machine in the corner of your kitchen which has been there for twenty years but never plumbed in, let alone used?"
"You have carpet in your bathroom?"
"You have carpet in your kitchen?"
"You truly believe that a 20 year old, left hand drive, large and cumbersome 4x4 is more suitable a vehicle for you than, say, a small, economical hatchback?"

But you know me better than that, readers.

One day, she kindly drove us up to Hadrian's Wall. We were happy to leave her to decide on the route she would be most comfortable in taking, since she was doing the driving. However, despite our complete disinterest, she continually sought to justify going on the A6 rather than the M6, claiming that the M6 would be choc-a-bloc. So insistent was she that this was the right decision, that I couldn't resist casually glancing over to the M6 a number of times, which was visible for most of the journey, the roads being parallel. The motorway was clear. As we flailed around Penrith's one-way system, one wrong turn after another, tempers flaring, I took a deep breath and kept quiet in the back, although the phrase "If you'd gone on the motorway..." did begin to formulate on a couple of occasions.

Due to the risk of repetitive strain injury, I should probably refrain from providing further detailed examples of what we experienced, but I have so many more. The "rules" about the gas kettle and the reason why it is preferable to an electric one, the snipey little remarks about what time we got up in the morning (WE'RE ON HOLIDAY!!!!), the barging into the bedroom unannounced when one of us is virtually naked but, on another occasion, not going into the same (empty) room "because the door was closed and I thought you were getting ready". Neither of us were in the room, we had both been downstairs for some considerable time - I had shut the door behind me, unaware of the unwritten rule about closed doors meaning potential nakedness beyond. She didn't bother knocking or calling.

I am not sure how she became this way. I suspect, however, that living alone for most of her adult life with no compromise may have just set her ways into harsh, inflexible stone. It is a shame. She has led a very interesting life and has fascinating stories to tell. In some ways she has a lot to offer. But her ability to turn two otherwise laid back, mild-mannered, open-minded, tolerant people into crispened, spiky hotheads is, I'm afraid, staggering.

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