Mia Xara 1 September 2009

The year my father died my cat TK died first. Tutankhamen was a king of cats. He started out as a nervous black Oriental kitten that shied from noise and people and ended up as one of the main characters at Sunday Lunches. He owned the house, hunted the suburb and when he died, I received cards of sympathy and gifts that emphasized the effect his life had on many people.

I really missed TK when he was gone. I was heart-broken. And inside I knew his death was a reflection of something much bigger. When my father died later in the year I knew then what TK’s death forebode. My heart was already broken and was turned to stone.

Between the deaths I went Greece with my father. As he walked through the village and Tripoli  he greeted all and sundry with a hearty “Mia Xara” . The Greek equivalent of “ciao”, I knew then that I would get two cats and call them Mia and Xara. I just couldn’t think of who they would be or where they would come from.

Over the year of TK’s illness I confided in some of my patients. Roy and Carol touched a cord within me. Roy has diabetes, and had to be transferred to St Augustines Hospital one day when I was on call and Kingsway was full. He had fractured his tibia and was treated by a colleague. Roy always confides in me, “not that I want to bad mouth another doctor”, but my colleague did not give him full attention or care and sympathy. He went on to develop a non-union of the tibia which I decided to treat with a Physiostim ( an electromagnetic device that stimulates bone healing) and a cast and eventually it healed. We had regular monthly visits over 18 months, and they talked about their cats, Russian Blues, and slowly started a marketing campaign to win me over. They brought little pictures, told me of their habits (head butting is a classic) and then invited me to see some of their kittens. I visited their little house full of cats with big hearts, but really did not have the heart to want new kittens. I was worried about the two old cats I had, Stormy and Servie, at home, about being responsible for the new ones, about all sorts of things. And would any cat measure up to TK?

Eventually after a few visits and meeting the sire and mother Russian Blues I chose two that I could take at the end of December, when I would have some time to be at home, and after Christmas at Mbona.

Just after paying for Xara and acknowledging Mia as a gift from Carol in thanks for my treating Roy, we went to Johannesburg for George Bizos’ 80th birthday celebration, where my father was the master of ceremonies. He had the time of his life, but definitely was tired. I remember at the end when 2 young girls sang traditional Greek songs he glowed from within he was so happy. Maybe it was something else…

Early the next morning he died.  I hadn’t told him about Mia Xara; how it reminded me of him in Greece, and how happy a greeting it was. Directly translated “Mia means “one” and “Xara” means happiness. Mia Xara.

They were named Mia Grisha and Xara Shura, as they had to have Russian names for their legacy. Grisha means ‘watchful” and Shura “defender of man” in Russian. They were brothers and are the closest of friends.

They spent their days in my study. Mom was with us for that week and spent time with them. They were soft and cuddly, and so playful and confident. In the beginning they slept on the bookshelves and nothing was safe. Books and ornaments went flying at night, waking us. Covers were torn off as if they were the skin on the carcass of a dead animal. Page corners were eaten.

Always near each other, on the lookout and more often than not ambushing each other, they had arrived at their home forever . Mia watches out for Xara, and Xara defends all of us from being too serious. He is a complete hedonist, happy to stretch out on a bed, couch table or anywhere. Ecstatic in the morning when he gets his fix of catnip. Bounding up onto the bed to get a hug and scratch. Purring in contentment. Mia is lively. He eats more but is thinner, his taught muscles rippling under his blue fur.

Russian Blues are not blue, but  silver grey, with a double layer of shorthair. Never tell an owner that they are grey! They may be Royal cats from Archangel in Russia, with lines unchanged since the made their way to England before the turn of the last century.

They love company; often I look up from where I am sitting, working or eating, and find them under my chair, or on the couch nearby or the chair next door. Sprawled out elegantly.

More than the technicalities, they are a legacy of a home of cats, filled with memories.

Mia Xara as kittens on the shelf

Gl’Uomini Degli Dei – The People of the Gods 4 July 2011

Last year we did an amazing walk above the Amalfi coast, Il Sentiero Degli Dei, “The Path of the Gods”. This ancient path was used by shepherds and traders from a mountain top village called Agerola (where, you ask?) to Positano (everybody knows where), a picturesque seaside village on the Amalfi coast and setting of the beautiful film, “Il Postino” , about a postman in love who is counselled by the greatest love poet , Pablo Neruda. The walk ends with two thousand steps descending into the village.

The views along the way are breathtaking, as your eye corners cliffs and swoops down like an eagle to the bay five hundred meters away and seven hundred meters down.  Along the slopes are olive groves, vineyards, vegetable patches and patios that absorb the light showered down by the gods. The path is marked by some CAI (Club Alpino Italiano or the Alpine Club of Italy) Rosso Bianco markers. CAI members express their individuality by making new, and I am sure they think better, paths with some other combination of Bianco Rosso.  You can easily lose your way at some intersections, so you have to pay attention to commune signs and old hand carved signs in wood, hung framing the island of Capri in the haze.

Everyone knows about the Amalfi coast. Everyone knows of the jewels that sparkle in the stunning vistas. But the real treasure is hidden. Walk through the arches into the main piazza of Amalfi. There is a church to your right with high steps and the large tourist outdoor cafes. I was there last year and my eye caught a young Italian beauty dancing through the crowds holding a tray of three espresso cups. I rushed to follow her under an old arcade and walked into Titziano’s pasticerie. Last year his sister was helping out as his wife had just delivered twins a few days earlier. He baptised us as travellers, not tourists, a badge we proudly wear. His miniature tarts and sweets exploded with flavours as big as mountains in your mouth. His coffee made with old plunge pressure espresso machines announced that this was historic for its difference.

Look skywards from Amalfi after a ride by tragetto (ferry) from Positano and you catch a glimpse of San Lazzaro and the edge of an old Saracen fortress. San Lazzaro is a frazione of the rough diamond of Agerola. Although it is only 5km away as the eagles swoop, they town lies 25km away by hairpin bends and narrow tar road. Last year we arrived in the pouring rain and eventually made our way to Da Ginanino’s, a restaurant just down the road where we stayed at Il Principe, a refurbished floor of rooms in an old apartment block. Named after Toto, a famous Italian comedian with a long nose and longer list of comedies, including one called “Il Principe”. At Da Gianino we met Salvatore, the son of famous Gianino, the chef who has appeared on RAI (Italian TV) cooking shows. He has designed his own special pasta, a rotella. The rotella arrived, a Swiss roll of double pasta with mozzarella and bathed in a chunky vegetable broth .Last year Salvatore would not accept a tip, and gave us a whole lot of local cheeses, including fior di late from his brothers cheese farm, and this year he just served us a meal we did not order and then the next night took us out to a slow food restaurant in Sorrento where he learned to make pizza.  And drove us back home.  And delivered even more cheese to Il Principe the next morning while we slept and he started his cheese delivery rounds along the coast on a Wednesday. A package of biscotti, bagels, cheese and his own aromatic and not too sweet limoncelo from trees in his own garden. His wife Monica popped in and out of our lives in Agerola, bubbling with joy and passion, adding colour and laugher to a memorable visit to the Amalfi coast.

As you enter Sorrento there is a viewing pint over the Gulf of Naples. We watched a stunning sunset and focussed on the padlocks fixed to the railing engraved with the names of couples, engaged, married or in love. Sometimes all three. I felt like leaving one there, from us to them. Instead I wrote this to let you know about these incredible people and this amazing place.

The Power of Love: Padlocks on the Bay of Naples