Maltese Seasonal Spring Food!

Finally, spring is here! Looking at the calendar, the start of spring is widely acknowledged to be on the 20th/21st of March, that is, that time when light and darkness, the length of the day and night, are of equal measure. After that day, we start to realize that sunset is taking place earlier, and sunrise starts to be further off as well. During this time, the weather slowly starts to get warmer, the grass looks a little bit greener, and a large number of fruits and vegetables come in season.

Unfortunately, it is also a time when allergies seem to get stronger. Our bodies contain toxins, regardless of how healthy we are. This is why spring is also the time to flush out these toxins and one natural way to do this is by eating a lot of those greens which are in season, in order to cleanse our digestive system.

Broad beans, also known as fava beans, butter beans, or ‘ful’ in Maltese, contain an amazing amount of nutrients. In addition to a lot of fibre, they also contain Vitamin K, zinc, copper, iron, magnesium and the energy-providing Vitamin B. Ful also contain folate, which participates in building cells and metabolising amino acids. It is essential for growth (therefore needful for children and young people, not to mention pregnant women), cell regeneration, and the production of healthy red blood cells. Added either as a side-dish or mixed into an entrée, they definitely add a boost, not only to your energy levels, but also to your taste. 

Broad beans are the main ingredient in a popular Maltese spring dish – this is Pea and Broad bean soup, that is, ‘soppa tal-ful’ in Maltese, which is generally prepared with oats, vegetable stock, onions, peas, broad beans, milk, mint, parsley, and other herbs.

Artichokes (qaqoċċ in Maltese) are another spring vegetable. These are very beneficial as they can help in lowering blood sugar and blood pressure levels, and prevent inflammation. In particular, artichokes are enemies to ‘bad’ cholesterol and heart diseases, in that they not only reduce lipoproteins (which carry cholesterol in the blood stream), but also increase bile production in the liver, which in turn gets rid of cholesterol in the body. Artichokes also bolster the immune system, as well as being a rich source of fibre, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, calcium, potassium, zinc, magnesium, and other beneficial minerals. Since they have the highest antioxidant levels out of all vegetables, they are also a primary means of defence against the effects of free radicals that can lead to a number of dangerous conditions, such as the creation of cancerous masses.

Filled artichokes, or ‘qaqoċċ mimli’ in Maltese, is a tasty Maltese recipe popular in spring, which consists of filling the leafy artichokes with a mix of tasty ingredients. The ones most commonly used include Maltese crumbled loaf, anchovies, tuna, garlic, capers, olives, and parsley.

For those who are not much into vegetables, strawberries might prove a tastier alternative. In addition to antioxidants, strawberries are rich in Vitamin C, folate, potassium, manganese, dietary fibre, and a number of other important nutrients. This heart-shaped fruit is also good for the skin, since its acidic nature causes it to remove excess sebum, that is, excess oil on the skin. Strawberry juice is also very effective in lightening skin blemishes and acne scars, and it can also be used in face masks to nourish and revitalize the skin. There are only 49 calories in one cup of strawberries, making strawberries a tasty and healthy way to lose weight, The health benefits of the strawberry also include improved eye care, proper brain function, relief from high blood pressure, arthritis, gout, and various cardiovascular diseases.

Generally, I prefer to eat fresh strawberries with milk or cream, however there are also those who eat them dipped in wine, not to mention children, who seem to prefer the old-fashioned strawberry and almond tart. In the end, of course, it is only a matter of personal taste. Strawberries, for me, carry the taste of spring. Chilled and with no extra ingredients or embellishments, they are the perfect snack.

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2018 Wrap-up!

I must admit, this year has been a real roller-coaster, with dizzy ups and crushing downs.

Cramming it all into a blogpost is impossible to say the least, so I won’t even try. Many things are personal too, meaning that I do not feel that a public blogpost is the place to share them.

What I have just realized, is that although it was a very tough year, I am infinitely grateful for it.

First of all because getting through all that, has left me a stronger and more resolute person than I was before. I know who I am, I know what I want, and I also know what is worth spending time on in this short and evanescent life, and what is not.

Secondly, I am grateful for my soulmate, who has stood by me, helped me, and showed me his love and devotion through thick and thin. Especially since, he himself, like me, was going through (and still is) a number of health issues as well, so we both helped each other and continue to do so. This, of course, could not but deepen and strengthen our relationship even more.

Thirdly – after facing chronic pain, the inability to walk, and also acute episodes of depression and anxiety, I am more aware of what people with unavoidable conditions have to suffer… at least in part. I am also more appreciative and grateful for life in general. For being able to enjoy it. And for now being able to experience each and every moment free of pain. To be fair, I still have relapses, my muscles are not healthy yet and I cannot do certain physical activities, however this should be temporary and even if it was not, compared to my past problems, it is a breath of fresh air for sure.

And last, but not the least, through illness, pain, financial issues, and material tribulations, I am very happy to say that this year I still managed to visit a total of six different countries! Travel is one of my passions, and being able to take a break and explore some of the most beautiful places in Europe sure kept me going throughout it all! During 2018, I traveled to Tuscany, France, Sicily, Ireland (these last two are two of my favorite places to visit and in fact I already have been there multiple times), the Czech Republic and Germany. There are big plans fermenting for 2019 too!

To conclude, life is not perfect, I am not perfect, and the world is not perfect, BUT prioritizing what is really important for us and appreciating every single thing we take for granted, is more important than we give credit for. I look forward to 2019 being a better year, mostly because I know that I will be facing it as a better and stronger person with clear goals, firm priorities and a bright smile 🙂

The Realities of Chronic Back-pain

I realize it’s going to be a bad day as soon as I wake up and try to get out of bed in the morning. A lacerating band of pain envelops my lower back as I make the movement one usually associates with getting up – bending at the waist and lifting the body’s upper trunk. I can’t do it. I have to roll on my right side, the less painful side, in order to get to the edge of the bed, and helped by the pull of gravity, slowly crawl upright.

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Then comes the next ‘step’, I push my legs off the bed, reach a sitting position at the edge of it, put my legs on the floor, and wince and groan until I’m standing upright.

It is 5.45am. I have 30 minutes to take off my clothes, shower, put on my make up, and walk down to my boyfriend’s car, in order for him to give me a lift to work.

I know I won’t be showering today. Each gesture which normally takes one second to make, will, today, take at least a minute. Preparing myself and arriving in time will be just impossible.

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I skip my shower, and start dressing slowly. The clothes I am going to wear today are already hung on the outside of the wardrobe. All I have to do is walk up to them. Slowly.

After shuffling with my back bent forwards, since I cannot stand upright anymore, I realize I am limping. It’s the pinched nerve in my leg acting up again. Figures.

I take down my clothes and realize that I can’t bend my leg to put on my skirt, so I sit down slowly on the bed again and jiggle it around until it’s around my hips. It would have been easier had I worn a dress, but I didn’t know the pain would be so bad yesterday, when I chose which clothes to wear. Walking back to the wardrobe, opening it, and taking down a dress, is too much of a hassle and would take even more time. I can hear my boyfriend finishing his breakfast, and I know he’ll shower and be ready in 5 minutes, so I know I won’t make it.

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Obviously, I have no time for breakfast. Then again, to be fair, I never do. Work starts at 6.45am and there’s only so much I can manage before that.

Done with my clothes, I shuffle to my dressing table, bend forwards slowly and painfully, open the first drawer, and reach for my eyeliner and mascara. Obviously, they have rolled at the back of the drawer again. And I can’t reach any further. Because it hurts. Fortunately I live with my boyfriend whose help is invaluable in these kinds of crises.

While he showers and changes, I manage to put on some make-up. Now all that’s left is to walk down four flights of stairs towards the door, walk to the car, and bend down to get in and sit down.

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It is 6.15am. And I am already trembling with exhaustion.

P.S That was some hours ago. I feel even worse now. I had no painkillers in my handbag at work, so one of my colleagues very nicely offered to go and buy some for me at the pharmacy across the street, since I couldn’t even walk that far…

Yes today is a bad day. Not all days are this bad. One can, at least, hold on to that.

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Getting rid of the Garbage

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that one of the great joys of coming back home after visiting another country is taking a look through the photos and videos one has taken, and marveling again at the places one has been to. I usually do this bit by bit as I slowly upload my photos on social media, while savoring each memory of those times for as long as I can (or at least, before the next trip abroad comes along!)

During the last 5 years I have been to Sicily 4 or 5 times, and this Mediterranean island, which is the closest one to the Maltese archipelago, never ceases to amaze me. I admit, part of the fascination is the fact that it is so much like my own Malta… and yet, so different too. In fact I previously wrote an article about it, which mainly focused on the historical ties between the two islands, and which one can read here. However with the positive, unfortunately, one also has to face the negative aspects of each country, and while Malta and Sicily have a lot of amazing things in common, such as their heritage, architecture, art, food, etc, they also have one other thing in common which they could well do without.

I am talking about garbage.

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Every country, indeed every place where there is human habitation, generates an amount of garbage. That is normal. The responsible and acceptable thing to do of course, is to take care of this waste and recycle it, or at least dispose of it in some constructive way which does not damage the environment or ourselves.

Unfortunately, that much appreciated lassaize-faire attitude which both the Maltese and the Sicilians have in common, is, I think, the issue from which the waste-related problem stems. The so-called ‘u ijwa‘ (an expression basically meaning ‘I don’t give a damn’) attitude is why people simply don’t care enough to pick up their trash and take it with them whenever they are in the countryside for a picnic for example, or at the beach for a swim. What’s worse, larger junk and discarded appliances, such as BBQs, mattresses, fridges, etc, which in Malta is even picked up free of charge by local councils once or twice a week from the front of one’s own household, is, for some incomprehensible reason, left outside to rust and deteriorate, besmirching our natural habitat, instead.

And this is what I found in Sicily, and as I was looking at which photos to upload in my online album, the issue became even more evident. There were photos in my camera which I discarded, simply because the trash overwhelmed the beauty and nature around it. Why are humans so destructive? No other mammal or indeed, no other animal, is such a parasite on nature as humanity. And that is surely nothing to be proud of. 

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The worse is that these photos are just a pale reflection of what I saw – and here I mean both the beauty of Sicily, and the corrosive trash left lying around it. The only thing I can do, is hope that this ‘u ijwa‘ attitude is slowly eroded out of the population, either through education, or through the consequences of learning that living in one’s own filth, is of detriment both to the mind and the body, and is one of the unhealthiest things one can do. Sounds like common sense doesn’t it? So, how come we have this issue?

Herbs for Cooking and Healing – Rosemary!

Would Maltese food taste as good, if we didn’t add herbs to it? Many Maltese recipes would lose their special taste if we left out certain key herbs and spices. Rosemary (klin in Maltese), a herb which is native to our shores, is one of these. Being indigenous and pertaining to the mint family, this herb tends to grow on rocky outcrops and valley sides. Its habitat and also growth is similar to that of wild thyme, and these plants are often found growing side by side on our cliffs. It does not need a lot of water and grows well even when left to fend for itself.

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Rosemary is a very useful herb. Often called names such as ‘Dew of the Sea’, or ‘Old Man’, it was mostly well-known in folk medicine for boosting memory and improving one’s mood. A study conducted in 2016 by Northumbria University aimed at proving how the scent of rosemary oil could titillate cognitive emotions and researchers in fact found that a percentage of the test subjects exposed to the aroma of rosemary oil could in fact, perform better in feats of memory. It is no wonder that in ancient Greece, students would wear rosemary garlands during their exams!

This perennial evergreen plant has needle-like leaves and small purple, white or blue flowers. Apart from being used as a fragrant essential oil, it is also frequently burnt as an incense and used in cleaning and beauty products. Extracts from its flowers and leaves are also used to treat a variety of disorders, since it contains antibacterial and antioxidant rosmarinic acid. Its oil extracts also contain anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and antiseptic properties. Rosemary contains a significant amounts of Vitamin A, which is mostly renowned for providing vision protection, healthy skin and mucus membranes, as well as containing Vitamin C, which synthesizes collagen, the protein required for optimal blood vessels, organs, skin, and bones. It also contains manganese, iron, potassium, fibre and copper, among other beneficial properties.

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It is worthwhile to note that when dried, rosemary is more concentrated. Fresh rosemary on the other hand, can be used to make flavored olive oil, as well as for a number of tasty recipes. A good idea would be to mix fresh rosemary with softened butter or Greek yoghurt to create a delicious sandwich spread. Some well-known traditional Maltese recipes which use rosemary as one of the main ingredients include rabbit in gravy with rosemary and bay leaves, lamb stew, lamb rack with rosemary sauce, and poultry marinated in rosemary and olive oil. Another succulent dish consists of fresh lampuki, or any other kind of fish, baked after being marinated in lemon juice and rosemary.

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Rosemary, both fresh and dried, can be bought from any farmer, spice shop, or apothecary in Malta and Gozo, however if you prefer to grow your own, rosemary plant care is pretty easy. It is better to start the new plant off from another plant’s cutting, rather than the seeds. Rosemary needs well-drained, sandy soil and at least six to eight daily hours of sunlight. Rosemary plants prefer to be dry, so be careful not to water them too much.

This article was written by me and originally published on http://livinginmalta.com/miscellaneuos/maltese-herbs-rosemary/

Herbs for Healing – Thyme

This winter’s spate of people suffering from the flu has definitely led to a surge in the purchasing of antibiotics. Primarily used to combat viruses and infections, antibiotics come in all shapes and sizes, but are generally prescribed by a doctor and bought at a pharmacy or hospital in the form of pills or pastilles.

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The use of antibiotics revolutionarized medicine in the 20th century, however what did people do before these started to be discovered and used? Before the onset of modern medicine, there were other, more natural means of affecting cures. In fact, many people still prefer to use these natural cures even today. I am of course talking about the beneficial and medicinal use of natural herbs and spices. These plants, which may have so many uses, both culinary and medicinal, are found in the wilderness and are, therefore, unlike modern medicine, free or very cheap to purchase from your local apothecary or health store.

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One of the most common local herbs which can be found around the Maltese countryside is Mediterranean thyme (Sagħtar). Being an indigenous plant, that is a plant which originates from the Maltese islands, not one which was imported. Thyme is generally to be found in rocky arid places, such as the garigue and the tops of valleys. Being a perennial evergreen herb, it can be found growing throughout the four seasons.

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Thyme has been historically used for a number of purposes throughout ancient times. The Egyptians used the oil extracted from this plant for embalming, the Greeks used it in incense form to lighten the spirits, and the Romans used it to purify their rooms and linens. Christians in the middle ages often burned thyme leaves during funerals and memorials.

Thyme can be used both fresh and dried. In Arab countries, it is very popular in culinary dishes, as well as to brew hot invigorating teas, since thyme retains its original flavor when dried better than many other herbs.

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Scientifically speaking, thyme is a natural antiseptic, since it contains ‘thymol’, which, when prepared as an essential oil contains a range of compounds normally used in mouthwashes and disinfectants. In fact, thyme was generally used to medicate bandages, before the modernisation of medicine. A tisane or tea brewed from thyme can be a gentle remedy for coughs, colds, arthritis and upset stomachs. It is a natural diuretic and appetite stimulant. Due to its antibacterial properties, it can also be used to help treat acne and fungal infections.

Thyme also contains Vitamin A and Vitamin C and can also help to boost one’s immunity system. A 2014 pharmaceutical study on thyme put forth an explanation of how this herb lowered blood pressure, and reduced the heart rate. Its fragrant perfume can also be beneficial in boosting one’s spirits, as well as refreshing the air – in fact thyme is used in a number of disinfectants, hand sanitizers, and washes. My favorite way of consuming thyme however, is by garnishing a nice plate of pasta with it, or using it when preparing fish or poultry in order to maximize its taste.

 

This article was written by me and published on the online magazine Living In Malta. To access the original article, please go here.

Daily Rant – Keyboard Warriors

The internet brought about a real revolution, and not just when it comes to communication and the media, but when it comes to the development of what I call ‘keyboard warriors’. These wannabe ‘rebels for any cause’ hide behind a screen and usually either use a false photo or/and a false name, waiting for the least excuse or imagined provocation to launch out into an all-out war or criticism, be it against a government, a company, an individual, a public person, or anything else under the sun.

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Of course, I’m betting in real life, these persons would probably be totally different. Not just your average Joe, but your average PASSIVE Joe, hiding snide thoughts and repressed emotions behind a veneer of passive-aggressive behavior interspersed with moments of acute low self-esteem. 

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We used to call them internet trolls, but the difference between internet trolls and ‘keyboard warriors’ is that trolls are just there to have a laugh at someone’s expense while fermenting pointless argument and hatred, while keyboard warriors actually BELIEVE they are in the right about something, that everyone else is against them, and that they are smarter than anyone else who doesn’t have the same thoughts. They NEED to believe this, because it is the only thing which makes them ‘special’ in their own eyes, and elevates them from the mass of humanity they encounter everyday.. on the internet of course.

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Most KB are usually either boisterous ‘friendly’ people one finds squawking every morning in the kitchenette at the office, making more and more noise in order to be the center of attention, or else the bespectacled fuming guy in the corner, smirking crustily at everyone else while not saying one thing. So, either one extreme or the other. The opposite of a balanced healthy individual. 

After all, no balanced healthy individual would think riling and haranguing strangers each day was something to be proud of right?

Or he might just be a religious fanatic looking forward towards the end of the world and seeing it everywhere too. Forgot that one lol.

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Herbs – Fennel

If you love Maltese food, you’ve surely already sampled the famous ‘patata l-forn’, that is, Maltese baked potatoes. This dish, served as an accompaniment to a number of meat recipes, such as Maltese rabbit or baked poultry, has one particular ingredient without which it wouldn’t really have that wonderful taste we all know and love. That ingredient is fennel (bużbież).

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Fennel is an indigenous herb from the carrot family, which is very common in the Maltese islands. It flowers between the months of May and October and featured so much in the lives of the Mediterranean people, that they even used it in their legends and myths. It was for example, thanks to a stalk of fennel that, according to Greek mythology, the hero Prometheus was victorious in stealing a bit of fire from Mount Olympus and the Greek gods. The ancient Romans used fennel as an eye-wash to treat visual problems, as well as a mouth wash to sweeten the breath, while Russian folk healers used fennel to treat colic.

Fennel, which is most abundant during spring and summer in Malta, sports pretty yellow flowers and is a resplendent plant which can reach up to three meters in height. Both the leaves and the seeds of the plant can be used to garnish or flavor meat, fish or cheese, however the traditional tasty touch which is given to certain particular recipes, such as Maltese roast potatoes or pork, can only be derived from the seeds.

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Fennel is even used in certain cocktails or alcoholic drinks. It is, for example, one of the main ingredients in the fermentation of the notorious 19th century green Absinthe.

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Fennel seeds can act as a laxative and so aid digestion, as well as prevent flatulence and treat constipation. This herb contains iron and histidine, an amino acid which can be helpful in the treatment of anemia. Since fennel also contains high contents of fibre, it can also be helpful in maintaining optimal levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream. Fennel is also rich in potassium, which is vital for a number of important body processes and functions, such as reducing blood pressure, as well as increasing electrical conduction throughout the body, leading to an increase in brain function and cognitive abilities.

Maltese Herbs: Fennel

According to a number of health and medical sources, fennel can also be used to treat hormonal related issues, such as the female menstrual cycle, which can be a sensitive and painful time. Since fennel is anti-spasmodic, it can be a remedy for uterine cramps. It can also regulate out of control menstrual cycles since it contains an essential hormonal substance called ‘emmenagogue’, which stimulates the blood flow in the pelvic area and uterus, and can therefore aid in re-starting irregular period flows.

Preparations made from fennel seeds are also known to be used in cleansing milks to treat oily skin as well as eczema. Leaves can be used fresh, or prepared in an infusion with oil or vinegar. The seeds may also be ground and drunk with boiling water, as well as chewed as a good breath freshener.

This article was written by me and published on LivingInMalta. To access the original version directly, please go here.

Re-reading Narnia – Misogynistic but Pleasant

It’s 2018 and I’m sick in bed. For a change. 2017 was characterized with health problems and currently, 2018 doesn’t look to be much different. On the bright side, this gives me more time to read (and watch K-dramas).

Being in the mood for Xmassy children’s books to end the year, at the end of 2017 I started re-reading the Narnia books. I hadn’t read them in years and having purchased a second hand quasi-new copy at a very good price, thought this the perfect opportunity to do so.

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If you have only watched the Narnia movies, you have missed a lot. In case you did not know this, there are a total of 7 Narnia books (and only 3 movies). Speaking of the movies, the first movie to come out, and the most famous of the Narnia books, is ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. Although most people believe this to be the first book in the Narnia series, it is actually the second, that is, in Narnian chronological order. Let me explain – the American published Narnia books number the series in order of publication. And in that case, yes the ‘Wardrobe’ book would be the first one. C.S Lewis himself however, preferred to look at the books chronologically, meaning that ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ is to be considered the first book, which is how UK publishing houses do it.

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I myself own a UK version of the box series (thank the Goddess), in which the books are numbered chronologically, which is how I prefer to read them. This means that the books should be read like this:

  1. The Magician’s Nephew
  2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Movie No. 1)
  3. Prince Caspian (Movie No. 2)
  4. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Movie No. 3)
  5. The Horse and his Boy
  6. The Silver Chair
  7. The Last Battle

While books 2, 3 and 4, which were made into movies, tackle the adventures of the Pevensie children in Narnia, the other books concern other main characters. The Pevensie children feature in these books sometimes as well, but they mostly do this as Kings and Queens of Narnia and they are not the main characters.

I love the books HOWEVER there are some things which bug the hell out of me. For example, no one can deny that almost every book treats the female gender as though it was made of glass. This mentality is not surprising since the author was writing these books in the 1950s, however reading sentences like ‘it is a sad day when women must go to war’ really irritates me. War is ALWAYS terrible, no matter who actually fights in it. Also, why are the boys always given swords and weapons, while the girls have to make do with bows and small daggers, or even face seriously scary foes with no weapons at all??

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As author Philip Pullman himself writes, these books are ‘monumentally disparaging of girls and women’. And what about the baddies who always seem to be powerful women who have gotten ‘above themselves’ defying the patriarchal institution of Aslan? I am of course talking about the White Witch and the Lady of the Green Kirtle. Prince Caspian’s wife, another powerful woman, is not even given a name in the series! The only ways she is referred to is as someone’s daughter or someone’s wife! Very disturbing to say the least!

That being said, another thing which irritates me is the whole Aslan – Jesus metaphor, but that’s just me and it is mostly portrayed in the last book… at least in my perspective since I tried to ignore it as much as possible till the end, and considered the whole thing as fantasy.

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Apart from that, re-reading the series was a blast, and I also discovered echoes of Neil Gaiman, which leads me to believe that the series must have inspired Gaiman to write and develop certain ideas, such as the star-woman concept in ‘Stardust’ for example.

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Solitude

When you’ve been bedridden for a long time, the sun only a memory, the fresh moving air of the big outside a far-off luxury, your state of mind inevitably changes. You start inventing small everyday rituals and tasks for yourself, not as a way to make time pass, though that’s a part of it, but as a way to keep your mind occupied and your life on a structured path. Being so cut off from everything and everyone also takes its toll. Now, I’m an introvert – I literally hate people, well most of them anyways. However this still gets to me. Ever since I’ve been in here, I started to loose time. To forget things said and done. I would think I’d told someone about a hospital appointment, when in reality I would have done nothing of the sort, and the conversation would have taken place only in my head. Similarly, I would forget physiotherapy appointments, thinking I’d changed dates.

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When you loose your notion of time, something transcendental takes place. It’s like you’re in a world of your own, with its own rules of time and space. Your bedroom becomes the universe, and anything extraneous is only a passing shadow. The mirror of a dream which was real, once upon a time, long long ago.

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Perceiving that one day, perhaps, all this will end and I will once again be part of the world outside is a far off glimmer. I know I am supposed to hope it will happen soon, but I cannot see it. I cannot imagine walking in the street, catching the bus, being in a roomful of people, many of them whom I’ve never ever met before. Strangers. I cannot fathom not feeling the humid warm recycled air of my house. Not being able to rest in bed whenever I feel pain, or tired, or just too depressed to even face the light coming from the balcony. 

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Falling into the soft embrace of tears each time any little inconsequential thing takes place, each time sadness disturbs the placid waters of my day to day life – I am not fit for normal human company. Will I ever be again? Will I ever go back to what I was? And even if I heal physically, will I be able to interact with strangers in a foreign environment, or worse with people who think they ‘know me’? 

Do I really want to?

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