Life, an unpredicted journey between struggle and prosperity
Autopilot. Have you ever experienced that feeling of being on autopilot? Or more specifically, do you know the feeling of having been on autopilot? Have you ever arrived somewhere, in your car or on foot, a journey you have done a thousand times, and stood there at your destination, thinking; I have absolutely no memory of getting here? Did the car drive itself? Was I sleepwalking? The moment you become aware of your surroundings, it feels as if you’ve been jolted awake, as if you’re suddenly catching up with the real world, coming crashing back into real time, after a brief spell in another dimension. The point is, when you’re on autopilot you’re not conscious of what’s happening, but as soon as you come out of it, you realize you must have followed your usual routine without noticing it because you have, actually, ended up where you were supposed to be.
This is exactly how I felt as I “woke up” to find myself sitting in my car, parked in a layby off the main highway between Paphos and Limassol, on the south coast of Cyprus. How did I get here? I asked myself. It was where I was meant to be, where I came every morning at the time, after the school run and before I went to work, but that day I simply didn’t remember anything leading up to that moment.
I searched my memory. Had I completed my usual morning routine? Had I definitely taken the children to school that morning or had I forgotten and left them at home? I couldn’t even remember having seen them. What were they wearing? What had we talked about? I felt as if I had just been a million miles away from my own being, and yet here I was, sitting exactly where I always sat at this exact time every morning, in my car, parked up along the coastal road, level with Petra tou Romiou (a rock stack, also known as “Aphrodite’s Rock” or “Rock of Aphrodite”), about to go for my morning swim. This was part of my daily routine; a simple ritual that was keeping me attached to my sanity by the thinnest thread, as I struggled through the hardest years of my life.
Every morning I would take my two youngest children, Adonis Jr. and Cleopatra, to their new secondary school in Limassol, which was a 40-minute drive from our house. On the way back, I would stop off at this stunning spot to regain my senses and re-energize myself before going to work. I would park the car, cross the road, step over the low barrier and climb down the rocks to the pebbly beach. I would leave my clothes on a rock and go for a brief swim in the sea, which was always calm at this time in the morning; the tide didn’t wake up and gather any real strength until after 9 a.m.
On this particular morning, I took extra care as I climbed down the rocks; I felt a little shaky after my autopilot experience. It hadn’t surprised me; it wasn’t the first time I had experienced the sensation of virtually losing consciousness whilst going through the motions of my usual routine. My mind was completely and constantly preoccupied with fear at that time; I was almost buckling under the stress, so it was no wonder why I blanked out sometimes. I was scared out of my mind about what the future held for my family; it seemed as though a number of people were determined to destroy us and I didn’t know how to fight them off. At this point, I believed there was really no one I could turn to for help. I was living moment to moment, focusing on each new task as it came up, just trying to survive, clinging on to my daily routine. I had been operating like this for a few years by this point and, although I was terrified of admitting it, I knew I was close to breaking point. What I had just experienced had really frightened me. I’ve had these “autopilot” experiences a few times before, but never for as long as this one. I literally had no memory of the whole morning. The last thing I could remember was some point the previous evening. I was desperate; I was at rock bottom.
As I stripped off my dress and walked out into the shallow waters in my bathing suit, I thought about the first time I ever heard the term “autopilot.”
In August 1973, when I was 21 and living in Paris, I did a three-month English language course in London. On the way there, I had taken a boat across the channel, however, my biggest dream was to take a flight back from London to Paris. After studying hard during the daytime and working long hours as a janitor in Saint Mary’s Hospital in Paddington during the nighttime, sweeping floors and preparing breakfast for the following morning, I had managed to save up enough money to take a flight back to Paris. It was to be my first ever experience in an airplane.
With no idea what to expect, I took a bus to Heathrow Airport and checked my suitcase in at the Air France desk. My boarding card showed that I was in the seat 10A, which I assumed, correctly, was a window seat. I was filled with excitement as I waited to board the airplane; I had heard so much about this glamorous form of travel and could hardly believe it was my turn to experience it.
I took my seat and found myself sitting beside a French businessman; who was busy writing in his notebook. He must have so much experience with air travel, I thought to myself, to be so comfortable and relaxed that he can turn his attention to something else. By contrast, I couldn’t possibly think of or do anything but focus on the new sights and sounds around me. I hadn’t slept much the night before; I had been too excited to sleep. I was going to be the first member of my family to experience air travel; I couldn’t wait!
I watched the stewardesses showing people to their seats and putting bags in the overhead compartments, thinking to myself, how on earth can this machine get into the air with so many people and bags inside it, it must weigh thousands of kilos, how can it possibly leave the ground? I looked out of the window at the huge wings and engines. My stomach was in a tight knot; I was suddenly extremely nervous.
As I turned to look around the cabin again, I noticed a stewardess opening the cockpit door. I sat up in my seat to get a good look at what was beyond the door and saw two men. Assuming these were the pilots, in my ignorance I wondered why it took two men to fly an airplane when it only took one person to drive a car. Another stewardess was now walking down the aisle offering drinks and newspapers. I didn’t take anything offered to me for fear I would have to pay for them. I had saved up and spent every spare penny I had to buy this airplane ticket, so I had nothing left for any unnecessary purchases.
I watched anxiously as another stewardess closed the doors and started explaining all the safety instructions to the passengers, pointing out the emergency exits. This was a little alarming. I had never seen a safety demonstration on a boat or a bus! Perhaps flying is not so safe after all, I thought to myself; maybe I should have taken the boat back instead. I began to have second thoughts about my decision, but it was a little too late to change my mind, as the airplane was already pushing back from the gate. We began traveling slowly towards the runway, and I watched out of the window as we passed many stationary airplanes that were still being loaded up with their cargo. Finally, we made a wide turn and accelerated so quickly that I was forced back into my seat abruptly. We raced down the runway, traveling faster and faster, until I felt the airplane was about to take-off. I felt a heavy pressure on my chest that pinned me back in my seat. The airplane’s nose tilted more steeply, and with another sudden jolt, I realised that we had left the ground. I watched out of the window as the land fell away and the objects on it grew smaller and smaller; it was terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time.
After a few more minutes, I felt and heard a tremendous crunch coming from below. Petrified, I looked down and gasped, thinking something must have gone wrong. I was convinced we were going to have to turn back and land. My neighbouring seatmate must have noticed my distress and he leaned over to assure me that everything was fine. He explained that it was just the landing gear being pulled up and stowed away inside the belly of the airplane.
When I told him that I was experiencing flying for the first time, he started to explain in more detail how the airplane worked. He also told me that the refreshments and newspapers were complimentary, so when the stewardess next came around, I accepted a coffee. My new friend took it upon himself to ask the stewardess if it would be possible for me to go and see the cockpit. She said she would take me as soon as she had finished serving drinks.
I had never felt so excited in my life as I followed the stewardess through that tiny door into what looked like a scene from a science fiction movie. I found myself in an alien world full of flashing lights, instruments, dials and levers. I looked past the cockpit panel and through the big, sloping windows at the endless expanse of azure blue sky all around us.
The pilot and co-pilot greeted me with charming smiles and started to explain how the airplane worked. After a minute or so, I interrupted them to confess my growing concern that they were not holding any of the controls. This was when they explained the concept of the autopilot to me. Even though these pilots assured me that an airplane could stay up in the air and on course because of a computerised navigation system program, still for many years it seemed such an implausible concept to me.
Finally, on the island of Cyprus, more than 30 years later, I understood what it meant to be on “autopilot.” Autopilot, I discovered, is when your body goes through a preprogrammed routine while your conscious mind is somewhere else entirely.
Once I was waist-deep in the water, I started to swim. After a couple of minutes, I turned over and floated on my back for a moment, looking up at that same azure blue sky I had marveled at through the cockpit windows of that airplane. I thought about the incredible beauty of the natural world and felt what a privilege it was to be present in it. My thoughts kept returning to that first ever flight I took from London to Paris. That safety demonstration had alarmed me at the time, but since then, with all the flights I had taken due to my career in the travel industry, I had seen the same demonstration hundreds of times. I know it so well that I barely pay any attention to it these days. I thought of the countless times I had seen cabin crew pointing out those emergency exits. Where were my emergency exits now? Why doesn’t life have an oxygen mask that drops down when you’re gasping for breath? Put your own mask on first and then attend to the children, they tell you. You can’t save the children if you are suffocating yourself, they tell you. What was I doing? Was I saving myself first? Or was I drowning?
I remained perfectly still, floating on my back, slowly drifting out to the sea. Suddenly, I wished I could keep on drifting. I wanted to float all the way out, away from everything, where no one could find me. But I knew I had to go back.
I turned my body upright and started to tread water. I looked back at the shore, and at the beautiful rock formation, Aphrodite’s Rock, that meant so much to me. I looked at Cyprus, thinking about everything that had brought me here. Then, impulsively, I inhaled deeply, held my breath, closed my eyes and ducked my head down so that my whole body was submerged in the sea. I immediately felt safe, immersed in the magical Mediterranean Sea. I curled myself up into a ball and for a moment wished, with all my heart, that I could stay in that peaceful place forever, not breathing, not hearing, not looking, not doing anything, just floating in a fetal position—weightless, suspended in the cool water. I felt such relief I actually wondered how I was going to find the strength to raise my head above the water again.
Save yourself first, I remembered…, so you can save the children.
Austria. I was born in May 1952 in Austria, the middle child of three; my brother was born two years before me, and my sister two years after me. We lived in the upper regions of the Tyrolean Mountains, above the village of Kirchdorf, which is not too far from the town of Kitzbühel, in the lower part of Tyrol. The area is famous for its extraordinary panoramic views of the year-round snow-capped peaks of the Kitzbühel Alps.
When I was a young child, aside from our weekly obligatory church visit to Sunday mass in the village, we rarely left the beautiful, natural countryside that surrounded our house. We lived in the heart of the rural Austrian countryside, where farmers grazed their cattle during the summer months. We lived in a traditional wooden Tyrolean house, much like a Swiss chalet, surrounded by the steep mountain pastures. The ground floor was built from handmade bricks and the first floor was made entirely of wood. Large verandas, over which the wooden roof extended, encircled the first floor of the house.
After mass on Sunday, we would do our weekly shopping at the nearby grocers, which sold just about everything you could think of. The same shop served as the village bank, the post office and the petrol station; it really was a one-stop shop!
My parents were farmers and honey producers. Their honey was considered to be of the highest quality in the area; it was derived from the pine trees and the myriad of different flowers that grow at 1,500 meters above sea level.
My paternal grandmother lived with us. She had survived two World Wars raising three children on her own and had once been a cook for the royal family of Habsburg. Her husband died in the First World War and two of her children had been killed in the Second World War; my father was her last remaining immediate family member. While my parents were out all-day farming and collecting honey, my grandmother would take care of us, cooking and caring for us.
During the summer months, we collected many different medicinal herbs, which we dried under the rafters of our large wooden roof. My mother had a profound and extensive knowledge of medicinal herbs and would process them into many different ointments, oils, creams, syrups and soaps. Her natural products were in great demand throughout Tyrol. She was also a trained midwife and was occasionally called to assist in a birth high up in the mountainous regions, where it would be difficult to get hold of a doctor at short notice.
I don’t remember a doctor ever coming to our house. Both my mother and grandmother were highly skilled in the use of herbal medicine, and I’m grateful that they passed on much of their knowledge to me; I’ve put many of their practices to good use on my own family. My mother was a passionate healer and we had all heard the story of how she cured my father’s severe rheumatism.
My father returned from the Second World War, after having spent time as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union, suffering from rheumatism. As the years wore on, it steadily worsened and by the time he was only 36, he could only walk with the assistance of two sticks. Finally, my mother vowed to cure him. She gently massaged his back and legs with her homemade ointments before making him sit in front of an infrared lamp. She continued this treatment for months, and gradually my father’s health improved to the point where he only needed one stick to walk with. My mother continued her treatment and eventually my father was able to walk unassisted and was completely free of pain. He always credited his recovery to the love and care of my mother, “my beloved wife” as he used to call her. It was actually my mother’s unconditional love that eventually healed him. They were truly devoted to each other until the very last moments of their lives.
While the summer months were truly idyllic in our region, the long, harsh winters were always a struggle. Our house was often completely covered in snow for weeks on end. Sometimes the snow came right up to the first floor so we could only get in and out of the house via the veranda! My siblings and I spent the long and dark winter days playing with our self-made wooden toys, or we watched our grandmother cook and bake.
My grandmother made the most delicious meals I have ever tasted and she could bake wonderful cakes out of the simplest ingredients. I vividly remember her cake-making ritual. She would hold a large wooden bowl between her knees, into which she would put flour, sugar and some homemade butter. She would start mixing all the ingredients together, and as she stirred, she would literally talk to the cake.
“Oh, are you ready for an egg now?” she would ask it. “And how about a pinch of salt now…, and would you like some milk? How about some nuts?” She would get to the end and suddenly remembered that she had some chocolate in the cupboard, so she had thrown that in at the last minute. She would simply add whatever came to her mind. There was no recipe and no two cakes ever looked or tasted the same. With a big smile on her face, she would then say; “Now, children, today we have a special cake…” with such pride. All my grandmother’s cakes were baked—with love and patience—in an old handmade Tyrolean ceramic wood-fired oven. In my whole life, I have honestly never tasted cakes as good as my grandmother’s.
I was tremendously excited when the time came for me to start school; I was seven years old—the typical age when Austrian children start school. My brother had been going to school for two whole years before I started, and I couldn’t wait for the day when I would be able to go with him. He personally walked me into my classroom on my first day of primary school.
During the winter months, our walk to and from school was rather challenging. We often found ourselves walking through snow that came up to our knees, and with our heavy schoolbags on our shoulders making us sink through the thick snow. Going downhill wasn’t so bad, we could put our skis on and travel the three kilometers without too much trouble, but there were no lifts in those days so going back up the hill was a real battle. Some days it was dark before we reached our house because those three kilometers had taken us more than two hours to travel, so our parents would come outside and shine a huge storm torch in our direction, guiding us into the house, like airplanes being brought in to park!
Although I had entered my first school year with huge enthusiasm, it actually turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. No one had noticed, or if they had, they hadn’t pointed out to me, that I was completely left-handed. Not only that, but when I started to write, I wrote my letters back-to-front so that the words could only be identified by holding a mirror up to them and reading their reflection.
I was in a class of around 30 pupils and our teacher was an elderly lady with a closed heart. She had probably been teaching for more than 40 years. She was a heavy-handed and demanding teacher who used a cane to strike pupils who did not follow her exact instructions. I did not like her at all. She hardly paid me any attention during my first few months in school except to scrawl across all my homework; “Failed, do it again!” This caused me great distress because I couldn’t understand what was wrong; she never explained my mistakes to me. I ended up being so traumatised by the experience of being scolded in class that I temporarily went completely deaf. My mother took me to a doctor who said there was no physical reason for my hearing loss, so it must have been a psychosomatic response.
In those days, children were forbidden from using their left hand to write with. We were forced to use our right hand, which was extremely difficult for me. One day, the teacher stood behind me while we were copying some words down from the blackboard, as per her instructions. After the class, she called me up to her desk and told me I had to bring my parents to see her, because my work was substandard. I was distraught and ashamed. As soon as I was alone I started crying. I cried all the way home, confessing to my brother what had happened. I was worried about my parents’ reaction, but my mother could not have been more supportive. She said; “Don’t worry, my dear child, you are a highly intelligent girl and your talents will make you famous one day.” When I had been made to feel so stupid by my teacher, these words were a great comfort to me. My mother’s words became indelibly etched on my heart and whenever I have failed at something in life, they have lifted me up, and given me hope and strength to carry on. I know I can never give up, no matter how many times I fail, because I’m always reminded of my mother’s faith in me; indeed, her own tenacity inspired me.
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