Five wonderful ways that Sylvia Hermann changed my life

5x5 This Sunday, October 16, would have been Sylvia Hermann’s 42nd birthday. It’s an important date for me, but it’s hard to know what to do with it other than just bemoaning the fact that she’s gone. That doesn’t seem enough for someone who had such a presence.

Wonder Wednesday is normally where I write about space, technology or amazing places around the world. Sylvia wasn’t an activist or a campaigner, but she had a unique way of engaging with the world, and today I want to write about some of the changes Sylvia brought to my life, and that I’d like to influence the way I look at the world. Of course, it’s a very personal list (and there are some things I’m keeping back for the rest of the week).

1 Generosity No-one would ever describe Sylvia as a soft-touch, and she was rarely taken in by beggars or con-artists, but she was unfailingly generous to family, friends and strangers. She hated splitting a bill, and she loaned money to both family and friends — she didn’t often give it away, and she didn’t charge interest, but she usually expected it back when they were able to pay. Even after she died, I discovered she’d helped out some unexpected people this way. Perhaps it was only Sylvi’s easy-going but firm manner that allowed her to do this, but I guess it allowed her to help people without anyone feeling a burden of obligation.

And when she did help a hungry young woman in Peckham, she memorably frog-marched her, under protest, to a fast food outlet of her choice, rather than just handing over cash.

Some places are worth going back to

2 Never go back Sylvi loved to travel, and when we first started going out she was already set for a road trip across the USA with her lovely friend, Murray. Yet no matter how much she liked a place, it was very rare that she’d return — there was simply too much else to see in the world. Aside from cities like New York where you can spend a lifetime, the only thing that would take her back was to see friends or to travel with them. And I had to agree: neither of us could understand people who go on holiday to the same place, year after year.

So we went to New York twice, to Paris three times, and to Rome twice (it helps that Alessandra lives there). Let’s face it, you wouldn’t go to Cardiff at least once a year unless you had good reason ;)

Excuse me, I’m having a moment (Michael Stern/Flickr)

3 Rare steak To my shame, I didn’t know how to cook a steak before I met Sylvia. I grilled it until it was blackening on the outside and a bloodless grey in the middle. On our first date, we visited a small restaurant in Cardiff and she convinced me to try a rare steak. I can still remember the tender juiciness of the meat and the incredible, rich taste of just-cooked beef. It’s still one of my favourite tastes. And what she could do with a steak was so tasty it can’t have been legal. I’m salivating just thinking of it. Thank you, Sylvi.

4 Wonderful cooking I’m a pedestrian cook. I’ve got my favourites and I’ll always try a new recipe, but I know my limits, and please don’t ask me to make a roux. On the other hand, Sylvia could walk into a kitchen, complain about the meagre selection of herbs and spices, poke her head into the fridge or freezer and whip up almost anything using her imagination and experience.

It helps that she was always willing to make one more trip to the supermarket to get it just right, she knew how to taste as she went along, she had an instinct for timing and and understanding of flavours that were rarely off. She even enjoyed cooking for one when I was away or she was travelling on business. I didn’t enjoy that, even before she was gone, but sometimes I try for her sake.

Monkeys, travelling, F1. It’s pretty much the full set of Sylvi. Just need a beer and food (Japanese GP 2012, Molly, Purple, Green and Monty, if you’re asking)

5 Monkeys This may come as a surprise, but the monkeys began with Sylvi. Green and Purple Monkeys were an early birthday present from her to me inspired by I know not what. They were followed at another birthday by Monty and Molly, Magnus arrived on a Valentine’s Day trip to Iceland, and I introduced Punkee Monkey and Jack. Others arrived as blow-ins, foundlings and gifts from friends and family until suddenly there was a troupe of monkeys and other animals inhabiting our house, each of them special in their own way.

Jack was Sylvi’s monkey, he even went with her to Dubai for work, and when she was gone, I don’t if I was hugging him or he was hugging me. He always smiles, of course, but now it seems much more wistful.

The monkeys make any place feel much more like home, and their legacy is that I’ve started thinking and learning about primates, both in terms of conservation and the science of sentience. It’s likely that whatever I do next will be influenced by those ideas.