Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Travel Broadens the Mind

The other day George at 20011 wrote about the various media through which the Washington storm could be viewed. Although the pictures on the television screen were great, he said, the rain looked even better from his porch.

This reference to seeing things actually or seeing them through a TV screen reminded me of a story a Dutch friend told me years ago about arriving at the start of a three-year posting in a country very unlike her own.

The house she and her family were allotted was right beside a beach, which seemed terrific, until she entered the play room one afternoon to find her three children all lined up, gazing out the window, agog. What they were looking at, she realised, was an execution by firing squad, which was taking place on the sand below.

In panic - and completely uncharacteristically  - she hustled the children away from the window towards the huge television that was supplied as part of the furnishings in the house. 'Come on, darlings, come and watch television,' she yelled, trying to sound enthusiastic rather than hysterical. The children, almost more shocked by their mother urging them to watch television than they had been by the sights on the beach, swiftly assembled in front of the big screen.

Sadly, my friend,who was usually inept with technology, managed, for once, to master the row of buttons on the remote control and persuade the television to turn on.  She almost immediately wished she'd been less competent:  live pictures of the execution going on out there on the beach behind them emerged onto the screen in lurid colour and greater detail than anything available through the window. She scurried through the channels, hoping for something more wholesome, but there they were, the same ghastly images, on every single one.

Not all the people I've met in foreign service shared my friend's horrified attitude to the sight of firing squads, however. When a new administrative officer arrived at the god forsaken place we were stationed many years ago, direct from a posting in Saudi Arabia, we asked him round for a meal. During the course of the evening, he revealed that his apartment in Saudi had had a balcony that looked directly over the nation's principal execution ground and that he had found this a great social advantage. He'd deliberately organised lunch parties, he explained, around the schedule of executions that went on down below.

According to him, these occasions were extremely popular. 'If you timed it right', he told us, 'you could take your drinks out and watch 'the action', and then, when it was all over, you could come in and sit down to a lovely lunch.' We nodded mutely, neither of us able to think of a sensible response to this, 'After all', he continued, 'it's not often you get the opportunity to see someone die.'

A few weeks later, when the same man offered to drive my husband to the airport, as he was going to pick someone or something up from there at around the same time my husband had to catch a flight to the provinces, it was impossible to think of a civil excuse. The road to the airport was a busy one and driving in that country was always dangerous. The whole way there, my husband told me later, all he kept thinking was 'What if an accident happens and I am injured? Will Ron call an ambulance or simply stand watching as I lie beside this dusty foreign road, bleeding and moaning? Will he view it as simply one more of those very rare opportunities to see someone gasp their last?'