Some years ago I spent the best part of a year in northern Nigeria, in Hausaland. Land of mud palaces, bitter poverty, fleeting moments of political power and the ever-ready muezzin with his call to prayer.
My stay spanned Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and prayer, roughly equivalent to the Christian Lent. Ramadan was an experience. The year I was there it coincided with the hottest part of the year just before the rainy season began, and with certain political moves by the IMF that had ordinary Nigerians queueing for days (I kid not) for petrol.
It was brutal.
We woke before daybreak to eat a meal that had been prepared the night before and drink as much water as we could before our bodies screamed enough. Then, feeling like tanked-up camels, we would go back to bed for another few hours as the first call to prayer of the day sounded and the shutters went down on food, drink, smoking and all other bodily pleasures.
As the Koran commands, we were all sitting in our places in the evening when the muezzin called his last round of the day and as soon as prayer was finished, we broke our fast first with dates and then with a slow, full meal of unbearably hot meat stew and pounded yam. I came quickly to adore dates.
As non-Muslims, we were not required to fast, but any bending of the fasting laws we were asked to keep to ourselves. I opted to drink water during the day and would creep to the kitchen for a sly glass every so often - most often at prayer times, when everyone else was otherwise occupied. I didn't eat, but I smoked throughout.
My then-husband, though, had a worse time. I don't think he'd mind my saying that he was fairly addicted to alcohol. He found Muslim Nigeria hard enough, having to slope around in dark corners in search of a discrete beer, but at Ramadan, even the ultra-dangerous backstreet bars were closed and he went almost insane. His art, for artist he was and is, went into a manic multicolour phase to prove it.
Why am I telling you all this? Partly because it's good to reminisce. Nigeria was tough, but a very important life-experience. Partly because today is the start of Lent (if you live in Ambrosian Carmine), and I've decided I can't live without chocolate - my usual Lenten fast - and I'm going to quit alcohol instead.
I've chosen alcohol because it should be possible for me to go the whole 40 days. Easier than chocolate anyway. And a million times easier than tea, to which I am totally and unashamedly addicted.
I'm not a big drinker. In fact, anything beyond a couple of glasses of Burgundy or Barbera in any 24-hour period makes me so physically sick I've come to believe I may be allergic to alcohol. I quit drinking spirits the day I found I was pregnant with AJ and I never went back, not even when tempted with a peaty Island Malt proferred by one of London's most celebrated whisky connosseurs. I was married for seven years to someone who preferred the bottle to his wife. Happily, he went on the wagon the day I left him and has never gone back. But the experience has left me with an extreme abhorrence of drunkenness - even the 'happy drunk' variety - which means I haven't stepped into a pub in what seems like decades.
But I do enjoy a quality wine that ages nicely and doesn't give me a headache, and I'm prepared to drive all the way to Burgundy and back a couple of times a year in search of a predictably good drinking experience. Or Sizzano, or Asti. And, more to the point if you live in Carmine, I'm prepared to heft a couple of cases onto my back for the long walk up. So perhaps I will miss my mealtime tipple and my weekend aperitif after all.
If my Lent resolution is anything like my New Year's Resolution - yes, it's now March 1st and I still haven't finished January's Nobel book, let alone February's - I won't get much further than Tuesday. But we'll see how we go. And I'm going to bore you every day with a bulletin to let you know how I'm doing - perhaps shame at failing will keep me on track.
So what have you given up for Lent?
Copyright © Louise Bostock 2007, 2008, 2009. All rights reserved. Please ask first.